The Vulgar Voice on the New Black Realist Soundtrack: Sounds of Resistance, Policing and Crime in Spike Lee's Clockers

By Millea, James | The Journal of Hip Hop Studies, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

The Vulgar Voice on the New Black Realist Soundtrack: Sounds of Resistance, Policing and Crime in Spike Lee's Clockers


Millea, James, The Journal of Hip Hop Studies


The medium of film has communicated, shaped, reproduced, and challenged various notions of black subjectivity in twentieth and twenty-first century America since D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation appeared in 1915.

- Guthrie Ramsey, "Muzing New Hoods, Making New Identities" (2002)

KRS-One's 1993 single "Sound of Da Police" is an interesting case study in Hip Hop. In 1988, with the release of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Hip Hop became a vehicle for political discourse and change. These albums saw the music establish a direct and fearless attack on the blatant racial inequalities in the world around it, an attack mounted in specific opposition to the American criminal justice system.1 Across America Hip Hop acts like Ice-T, LL Cool J, Tupac, Main Source, and Brand Nubian dealt with issues of surveillance, police brutality and racial profiling in their music. These acts explored those tropes both in their lyrics and in the musical soundscapes over which they rapped, where sounds of helicopters, police radios, sirens and gunshots accompanied the music's central vocal line. In "Sound of Da Police" those sounds exist as part of the voice in Hip Hop. Here, through his exclamations of "woop woop," KRS-One vocalised the sound effect of police sirens, bringing them to the fore of the music's narrative. In expressing those sounds vocally, KRS-One was not just experiencing them as a passive subject but attempting to confront and control them through his voice. However, as Hip Hop began to encounter new arts and media this language unsettled the frameworks and structures of previously established forms. Nowhere is this disruption more fascinating than in New Black Realism, a collection of African-American commercial independent films in which the aesthetics of Hip Hop culture stand as guiding principles.2 Grounded in the cinéma vérité style of their predecessors, the "Hip Hop musicals" of the 1980s,3 New Black Realism offered a unique and developed moment in contemporary cinema. While these films attempted to explore the "reality" of AfricanAmerican life in the late twentieth-century, through a view of "worlds and milieux where random violence, drugs and general criminal activities pervade[d] every aspect of everyday life," they also engaged with a "strategic employment of a sophisticated 'cine-literacy'," to mimic, reorganise and reshape Hollywood's characters, situations and visual and musical structures in ways which unsettled preconceived conceptions of cinematic realism.4 So, while in mainstream narrative cinema the sounds of police sirens and gunshots usually occupy the peripheral levels of the film soundtrack, where they help simply to qualify the presence of the onscreen cinematic space,5 in New Black Realism these sounds leaked into the central vocal track. They became consequential to the cinematic narrative, announcing and verifying the exchange between the bodies of those that utter them and the environment in which those same bodies exist onscreen.6 The vocalisation of these sounds highlights the invasive role that they play in the mediated expression of Hip Hop culture. In New Black Realist cinema, the vocalising of these otherwise fringe elements of the cinematic soundtrack became a culturally-specific attempt to engage and resist crime and the contemporary American criminal justice system that these sounds represent. With this in mind, as a critical musicological study, this article will focus on the role and purpose of these vocal sounds in the narrative cinematic soundtrack, centering specifically on Spike Lee's 1995 crime drama Clockers, as the supposed final iteration in this collection of cinema.7

This article will analyse how and why these "vulgar" sound effects have become fundamental to the vocal expressions of Hip Hop culture onscreen and explore some of the developed non-linear narratives that these sounds have contributed to in Lee's work. …

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