I’m heading into a particularly busy season. Later this week I will take a quick trip to TN and while I’m there will get some archival work time in. Once I return home, there will be a flurry or writing chez moi; I have four presentations to give in the next six weeks. One of these presentations will take place at Oregon State University as part of a one day Hip-hop Festival and Symposium organized by Dana Reason. Any chance you will be near Corvallis, Oregon on October 17? If so, you should check out the program. (Note that the individual papers are not listed on the general program. I’ll be part of the morning panel. Other scholars presenting that day include Salman Rana, Sean Peterson, S. Alexander Reed, Neil Scobie, Sarah Hentges, and Warrick Moses.)
As a teaser, here’s an abstract of what I will read at OSU:
Canons, Digital Genealogies, and the Legacy of the RZA’s “Motherless Child”–Felicia M. Miyakawa
In March of 2013, music critic Insanul Ahmed positioned Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah’s 1996 song “Motherless Child” at number 48 of the top 50 rap singles of all time. “Motherless Child” was first released as a 12” single on 1 January 1996, appeared on the soundtrack of the April 1996 coming-of-age basketball film Sunset Park, and was later included in October of that year on Ghostface’s debut album Ironman. Ahmed credited the single’s success to the RZA, Wu-Tang’s unofficial leader and primary beat-maker / producer. Characterizing this beat as one of the RZA’s “illest soundscapes,” Ahmed went on to describe the beat as “the perfect backdrop for [Ghostface’s lyrical alibi] Tony Starks’ tale of a corner thug who got caught up in senseless violence.”
The 12” release included a radio-friendly version; the original “dirty” version; and RZA’s instrumental, of particular interest to producers, club DJs, and mixtape DJs who might wish to work with RZA’s “ill soundscape.” RZA’s instrumental, which samples from O.V. Wright’s 1976 recording of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” quickly took on a life of its own, becoming both a favorite instrumental track over which MCs freestyle and a source of inspiration for mix tape producers eager to manipulate a well-respected track. Indeed, the RZA’s revered production has spawned a generation of copycat tracks and freestyle mix-tapes, each of which moves the track another step away from Ghost’s Tony Stark tale, and even further from the original spiritual, which dates back to the late nineteenth century.
This paper tracks the process by which the RZA’s instrumental version of “Motherless Child” became has become a canonic resource, inspiring producer after producer to try his / her hand at setting the track. Indeed, this single recording from 1996 germinated an entire digital genealogy of “Motherless Child” recordings and performances from artists in the United States and around the world. Many producers have sampled Wright’s performance of “Motherless Child” for their new mixes, especially after RZA’s successful production model, as musical examples from prominent mixtape producers such as DJ Kay Slay and DJ Clue as well as less well known producers such as AKAKidBeat, Treezy, Supreme Trackz, the Butcher, Ace the Producer, PJ Alston, and Fonskar Productions (from Sarcelles, France) will illustrate. But RZA did more than inspire other DJs to dig into Wright’s song. His production inspired a generation of MCs to rap to his beat. In so doing, the MCs both pit their skills against RZA’s reputation and actively construct and participate in a distinct musical lineage.