The Music, it comes from Cartoon Instruments!

November 10, 2008 at 3:13 pm (Music)

I’ve been thinking about early pre-Disney cartoons (from this essay) and hip hop a lot. While the entire thing is more than worth a read, it is long and, really, only part of it commingles with hip hop, so here’s a paraphrase. When cartoons first appeared, they were revolutionary not just because they depict reality with drawings instead of photographs, but more excitingly because an artist could put whatever action he wanted onto the screen. Felix the cat could take off his leg and turn it into a potato, then feed it to a group of mice that have sprung up in front of him. We glimpsed flexible fantasy, not stilted reality.

So imagination was the boundary, not resources. This really revolutionized how people thought of art and films. I’d recommend, along with Felix the Cat, Winsor McKay’s animation Little Nemo in Slumberland, but almost any produced at the birth of animation are astounding individual, idiosyncratic worlds of art. It took a lot of dedication to make all the cells and then film them that any who actually put their time and effort into it created something with love.

Somewhat tangentially, super hero movies done with live action instead of animation always disappoint me. The Dark Knight had a terrible, plastic Batman, but it had the most cartoony villain film has ever seen with Heath Ledger’s Joker, and his gang was similarly cartoony. (I don’t mean cartoony as an insult, I mean it as an artistic recreation of the world.).

But, anyways, back to animation and their flexibility; this all changed when Disney came along. Disney imposed artistic boundaries on its staff, telling them to draw in all the same style. Although full of wonder and song (Jungle Book songs come especially to mind: they’re so awesome!), they were full of a set reality that their worlds take place in. Bambi’s world isn’t very different than Simbah’s artistically. But people loved them, and very little animation all drawn with one vision (Winsor McKay did every cell by hand, and Alladin has an entire film’s worth of crew). And because movies are so big and demand so much money for one to simply be made, nevertheless distributed and screened, this phase of animation was over.

Thankfully, music has rebuilt the wondrous palace of imagination, with Hip Hop as its carpenter. Acts like The Avalanches with their intense sampledelica, and Danger Mouse with his appropriation of vintage style mixed with modern composition techniques have all firmly uprooted reality from music, and, as with animation, all with wondrous technology, mostly involving samplers. The music of my two examples could never be made acoustic and on a stage with all the original instruments. They rely too much on ambient noise, on a plethora of different instruments from song to song, measure to measure, that the costs for such a show would be astronomical. They have to be sampled, if not outright created electronically.

And this bigness and otherworldliness is part of the fun in listening to them. Everything that happens feels so ridiculous and impossible, but they have both been carefully placed and arranged that they have a distinct identity. They are not chaotic noise but lovely actualizations of authorial intent.

Dance Music houses have already started to encroach on lovely sampledelica, but, for the most part, independent labels not searching for a dollar or the latest Rap/Rock mash-up have given their artists independence, and because music has a much lower entry cost than movies, I feel confident that this music will never go extinct as Felix the Cat now has. Even besides this, one of these types of bands have made it ridiculously famous, paving the way for imitators. I speak, of course, of the Gorillaz.

Like, everything they’ve done feels like it’s catering to me and my eclectic interests in cartooning and music. Feel Good Inc. takes hip hop and diverges with lo-fi indie pop all delivered spectacularly, but it doesn’t just simply stop at making a clichéd loop referencing the style, it actually takes every little thread seriously. They don’t actually sample something its audience has already decided as indie-pop. They give us awesome new things to figure out and tinker with, and then they present their lush, very rich arrangements with all these fancy doo-dads.

Plus, the band members are actually cartoons. It makes sense that they’d create music that cartoon characters would make.

But even when they’re bad, they’re awesome. Off of their debut album, the last song, Left Hand Suzuki Method, takes an etude well known by orchestral students learning their trade, puts a Rick Rubin beat under it and has deep, angry growls every so often. No other band would seriously entertain the idea of a literally 6th grade level orchestral solo done in a hip hop arrangement, and that’s because it’s a bad idea and can never, ever result in a good product, but it’s still okay, because it makes Feel Good Inc.’s possible. It’s just when they (Damon Albarn, I guess I should say) perform their style to excess, it gets really excessive.

I can’t imagine anyone sitting down to listen to Gorillaz aware of all these different styles and not finding their synthesis charming. Everything they’ve done involves a tremendous amount of imagination and playfulness, that their music just feels so cartoony.

***

Also, not tangentially at all, I’m really looking forward to NASA’s forthcoming LP. The first song released for it has Kool Keith and Tom Waits trading verses, which just about sums up Gorillaz’s off-kilter supergroup style. They pull it off with less verve and more repetition, though, so maybe the beauty can never be refound.

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