Jace Clayton’s book, Uproot, travels across the present musical landscape: from the prevalence of Auto-Tune in Moroccan Berber music to the slow archiving of traditional music on soon-obsolete computers. For the launch of the book, Clayton sat down with the Met’s social media manager, Kimberly Drew, to talk about ideal readers, the realities of the international DJ life, and technology. Their conversation was sandwiched between two DJ sets, one by Sonido Kumbala, a Mexican cumbia sonidera group that called out to listeners on both sides of the border as they played, and another by the Philly duo SCRAAATCH.
Kimberly Drew: So we’ll start with the introductions. My name is Kimberly Drew. I’m @museummammy around the Internet. Full time, I work at the Met, managing the museum’s social media channels, and then the rest of my life I spend on the Internet advocating for artists and creatives of color. I’ve been running a blog on Tumblr called Black Contemporary Art for the past five years, and I’m in the last week of programming at Recess, which is at 41 Grand Street in Tribeca, doing a group project called Black Art Incubator.
Jace Clayton is an artist and writer and musician and DJ and so many things, just a total polymath that I’ve had such tremendous respect for since I found out about his work four years ago. Jace is one of those people who can expand your world. And it’s such an honor to be sitting on this stage with you and discussing your book. Do you want to say more about yourself?
Jace Clayton: You said it all.
KD: In the first chapter of Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture, you explain that the DJ understands rooms as no one else can, how the sound selector is very much someone who is able to read people. I’m wondering, as an author now, what about the climate of the world made you feel like this was a good time to drop a book?
JC: Mmm, yeah. Why now? I think knowing the climate of the room is connected to questions of materiality, of sensual engagement—the hyper-specific, on-the-ground information you get from playing all these shows in different cities, different contexts, and seeing how differently audiences listen and react when the room heats up. Not only did I have this very particular experience, it was spread all over the world, doing shows in almost forty countries. Maybe when people think of “international DJ,” they get some sort of EDM/Vegas dream, but more often than not it’d be like, “Hi, we’re in Bratislava, there are three of us, and we love your music, can you come here? We’ll give you a bed and 500 euros,” and I would always say yes, because I was curious. So the “Why now?” involves me looking back and realizing I experienced this wild shift in how music gets made and moves around, from analog to digital. In the beginning of my career I lugged around tons of records, many pounds of records, and then by the end it’s a laptop, it’s a USB stick. We’ve undergone an enormous dematerialization of music, and with that, access has exploded, via MP3s and networked listening like YouTube . . . All sorts of things swooped in between the late nineties and four or five years ago when I started this book project.
KD: One of the things that stuck out to me in your conclusion—spoiler alert!—was this idea of what the ideal listener looks like . . . In the book, you were talking about how people who are purveyors of sound should be ideal listeners, but is there an ideal reader of the book?
JC: I like the idea of someone coming to Uproot who doesn’t know my work at all. You can pull a book off the shelf and even if it’s written ten, thirty, forty years previous, it can just blow your mind. So weirdly enough, my ideal reader is someone who is not yet born, someone who is like, “Oh, that’s old people’s music, I don’t care about that.” But then they dive into the book and they see that this is a whole window into a world, into a time, into a moment.
KD: That’s a wonderful idea. My next question is: Why the twenty-first century specifically? Throughout Uproot, it seems like you’re engaging with so many cultures, so many time periods. If you’re introducing Berber music, you talk about the history of Berber music and exactly where it’s coming from. You talk a little bit about the shift from vinyl to MP3, but I was hoping you’d go a little deeper on why you used the twenty-first century as your framing device?
JC: Recently someone said to me, “You’re really writing about the present.” In contrast with most music books, which are rear-facing. They’re discussing histories or having canon-building moments like “This is the meaning of this seminal album from the 1980s.” I’m not interested in that top-down review style of thinking about music. I wanted to slow down and focus on this current moment. To respect music’s vitality and unpredictability I had to zoom in on the magic of now. One thing that comes up again and again in the book is that the present is so wide. I’m talking about a lot of musicians who won’t be familiar to people. There’s always a little more going on, even now when you’re supposed to have instant access to everything digitally.
KD: As an artist working within the digital sphere—I’m thinking about your Sufi Plug Ins project—and as a writer trying to record the history of that very technology that you’re working with as an artist . . . it must be difficult to grapple the historical record. How has your relationship with technology evolved and how do feel about what’s going on with technology right now?
JC: My first entry into the world of music making was hearing this lo-fi Japanese noise music. I was immediately struck by the fact that whatever tools they were using were very basic, cheap, democratic in the most essential sense. So that punk idea that you only need the minimum to get started and to get your voice into the world hit me as a teenager. A bit later on, once someone sat me down and showed me how to use DJ gear, I was like, “That’s it?!” It turns out that you can teach someone how to DJ in an hour. It was a relief to realize that DJing doesn’t rely on esoteric technical knowledge; it’s actually about compositional decisions: layering and superimposition and sequencing and all these things. So, initially I was a complete techno-optimist. Then I started making music [laughs]. I was living in Spain, and had begun working with a Moroccan violinist. I started to learn about all these musical structures that had literally no presence within these software platforms I was using. That sent me into a tailspin. Projects like Sufi Plug Ins—it’s a suite of free music-making software based on non-Western ideas of sound that I released—that’s where it came into being.
My relationship with technology, right now it’s at the point where I’m not on the cutting edge; rather, I exist off to the side in this weird way. For example, I don’t write software code, but I try to always know enough about code to understand its possibilities. I have one Apple product in my life, an iPhone, but it’s also kind of senile, so I open an app and it takes thirty seconds. It’s important to me to have that layer of frustration or friction when dealing with any technology.
KD: I think there’s this slower thing that we’re not allowed to do with technology that’s really quite important to me. How can we unpack the technologies we already have? Which is, I think, something you do effectively throughout Uproot. You chart this intensive accelerationism in the music industry, and then you slow it down in these particular moments as you illustrate a chronology. I was wondering if you could talk about your writing process and what that was like for you. But also sonically—what were some of the things you were listening to?
JC: I’m going to start sonically—about halfway through writing Uproot I had this odd revelation, like, I’m thinking about this music that has the expectation of an audience. What about music that doesn’t quite expect an audience? What could that be? So I went down this very strange, very long YouTube rabbit hole, listening to all these amateur recordings that were just a document of a shape-note group singing together or songs at a church picnic or something. It was kind of amazing.
Maybe that speaks to the overall writing process, which involves a fair amount of manic hairpulling and coffee making and pacing and working at a standing desk. In addition to these very odd, almost found recordings, I would also really slow down and listen intensely to whatever I was writing about. There’s a section where I discuss Auto-Tune, and I do a close reading of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” to show how Whitney’s melisma can actually help explain how Auto-Tune is being used in a Moroccan context. So I’m listening to the original over and over again, but I also think, “Let’s hear how song keeps unfolding.” I started with Dolly Parton and then went on to dozens and dozens of Whitney Houston impersonators on American Idol and its international franchises.
The exciting thing about being able to write a book is that the whole time frame changes. You’re dealing with chapters, hundreds of pages. It’s not a blog post, it’s not an essay, there’s a long arc for a reader who might not yet exist. I wrote at least two books’ worth of material, and then edited down. It was incredibly important for me to give my own form to all of this. I’m interested in how music socializes, I’m interested in discussing how music creates meaning, but at the same time, there’s all these other aspects that help contexualize things, from the car-honking language in Cairo, to the scientists who created the MP3 algorithm, to Fugazi’s approach to laundry while on tour. I wanted to bring all those type of details into the book, and have it happen in an organic way. There wasn’t a preexisting form, so I wrote tons, and edited, edited, edited. Which ultimately involves not being precious about your own writing because so much is thrown away in the end.
KD: Yes! In the middle of an editorial process it’s so hard to watch paragraphs go away. You’re like, “That’s a good paragraph! I worked so hard on that, it’s so relatable!”
JC: I basically wrote a novella-length section about the King of Berber Auto-Tune, this fascinating loser figure—then delete. No one is going to read those thirty thousand words.
KD: Maybe that’s a follow-up piece. And so now, on to thinking about the future! What could we do to support the book? I’m obsessed with you. What can we do to make everyone else obsessed with you, too?
JC: I am one of those people who’ll grab you and say, “You need to read this book.” I’m very, very direct about book recommendations. It’s like DJing: You do all this searching, you do all this digging, and once you find a gem, you need to share it. Just let people know about this great thing that might otherwise be overlooked. So I’ve got a book club.
KD: You do?
JC: Yeah, I do! But I can’t assign my own book. That would be weird.
This interview has been condensed and edited.