Staging Critical History Within the Space of the Beat; or: What Cultural Historians Can Learn From Public Enemy, NTM, MC Solaar & George Clinton


  • Jonathan W Marshall University of Otago



NTM’s ‘That’s My People’ echoes through the Paris metro, whilst director Mark Pellington stages a history of Black resistance across a New York wall. Images of le graff flick over as though on an antique slide projector, while Chuck D reminds us of when ‘Black people died’ and ‘the other man lied’. Hip-hop and related sample-based musics inhabit a world which is deeply historicised—indeed historiographic. What then might we learn from hip-hop, and what kind of historical relations does it make possible? The syncopation of beat stages the gap between now (get up on the down beat) and then (get down on history). Funk as history. MC Solaar’s ‘Nouveau Western’ does not simply comment on the past and Americanism. Rather director Stéphane Sednaoui‎’s fluid, tunnelling montage moves us through space and time faster than a train bearing the latest tag, than the iron horses linking America’s Westside with the East, or even the TGV joining Les Halles to the banlieues. Hip-hop is less a narrative project, than a spatial one. It enables us to rethink history and music as spatial juxtaposition: the aesthetics of the montage. NTM’s bass and Terminator X’s noise bounce off and penetrate concrete, bodies (do you feel it?), history and location. Hip-hop as acoustic dialectics. Expanding on Kodwo Eshun’s model of AfroFuturism, I characterise hip-hop’s spatio-acoustic project as ethnographic Surrealism (James Clifford), in which juxtapositions defy normal narrative time and space, producing new insights and confluences, from the Mothership to Ancient Egypt, from Mississippi to West Germany, from Picasso to the Ivory Coast. In George Clinton’s words, this ‘shines the spotlight on ‘em!’ onto various non-dancing subjects, placing them into a shifting acoustic space wherein all things dance and clash.

Author Biography

Jonathan W Marshall, University of Otago

Dr Jonathan W. Marshall is an interdisciplinary scholar with a background in history. He teaches theatre and performance at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Marshall has published on sound art and aesthetics, contemporary opera, and interdisciplinary art practice in outlets ranging from the “World New Music Magazine” (International Society for Contemporary Music, 2010), to “Sound Scripts” (Australian Music Centre, Tura New Music and the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, 2006-2011), “Australasian Drama Studies” (2001, 2004, 2008), and “TDR: The Drama Review” (MIT, 2013). Marshall’s research also includes work on photography, landscape, Modernist theatre and culture, dance, butoh, art history, and other topics.



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Discography & Liner Notes

Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force. 1982. ‘Planet Rock’. On de Graff et al.

Boogie Down Productions. 1988. By Any Means Necessary. NY: Jive.

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——. 1983. ‘Rockit’. On The Definitive Electro and Hip Hop Collection, various artists, 2004. USA: Universal.

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——. 1991. Apocalypse 91 … The Enemy Strikes Back. NY: Def Jam.

——. 1994. Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age. NY: Def Jam.

Videography & Filmography.

Akomfrah, John, dir., with Kodwo Eshun et al. 1995. The Last Angel of History. London: Black Audio Film Collective.

Lee, Spike, dir. 1989. Do the Right Thing. USA: 40 Acres & a Mule.

Pellington, Mark, dir., with Stephen Kroninger (video montage), & Public Enemy (music). 1992. ‘Shut ‘Em Down!’ Woo Art International. Reproduced on; Accessed March 2015.

Pray, Doug, dir. 2002. Scratch. USA: Firewalk.

Sednaoui,‎ Stéphane, dir., music by MC Solaar, mix/production Hubert Blanc-Francard (Boom Bass). 1994. ‘Nouveau Western’. Paris: Cohiba. Reproduced on; Accessed March 2015.

Stuart, Mel, dir. & producer. 1973. Wattstax. Concert documentary. USA: Stax Records.

Suprême NTM. 1998. ‘That’s My People’. Sony/Epic. Reproduced on Accessed March 2015.


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