As things start opening up during this period I will not be calling post-pandemic because words have meanings and we’re decidedly not post-, I’ve started remembering that London is a place where things are, and this is principally why I decided to up my whole existence from Sheffield and shunt it down here (well, that and a messy attempt at a break up, but let’s focus on the Culture eh). Last weekend I couldn’t sleep, so sat in bed watching the Jackie Chan film Police Story — which rules btw, this chase scene is some real Harold Lloyd/Frank Spencer shit — and then decided the weather was nice enough that I should finally make the trip to Highgate Cemetery.
It’s a nice walk from mine to Highgate, along the Parkland Walk, a former railway line that’s now a lovely overgrown leafy stretch where you can see lots of dogs and comedian Sara Pascoe going for a jog (in my experience, anyway). When I first moved here, I walked a lot. I like to get my bearings of a new place by just ambling about, seeing how things connect, stumbling across welcome surprises like nice cafes and bookshops hidden down sidestreets. Obviously, I’ve done basically none of that for the past year. Remembering this is an activity I very much like to do, and was a cornerstone of my existence before that whole global pandemic thing, has been a welcome respite from rattling around my room and ongoing house dramas!
MF DOOM, one of my favourite rappers, died in October of 2020; it was only made public on New Year’s Eve. I’ve had this article of reminisces from fans, friends and collaborators sat waiting to be read on my Kindle since not longer after, but never got round to reading it for whatever reason. On that aforementioned sleepless night I finally made time for it and was glad I did. This anecdote from Questlove is undoubtedly the highlight of the piece for me, for all kinds of reasons:
“It was the Voodoo record-release party for D’Angelo [in 2000], and Mos Def showed up in his kitted-up, chauffeur-driven van with music blasting. He rolled down the window and said to me, ‘Yo, you gotta get in here.’ I tried to convey to him that Mark Ronson and I were DJ-ing the party, but he was like, ‘No, man. We gotta have a discussion.’ I was preparing myself for some kind of deep talk, but he just started preaching the gospel of DOOM. I’m talking a 40-minute monologue, almost something like a Jehovah’s Witness would preach, trying to convert me to a new religion. He was like, ‘Do you understand the majestic gift that is Operation: Doomsday?’ At the time, I had been listening to it with a different set of ears. [I said] ‘Oh, is that Zev Love X’s project?’
“Before Mos turned me around, my early thoughts of Operation: Doomsday, and skimming through it, were, It’s post Wu-Tang; the loops are sloppy. Anita Baker and J.J. Fad? C’mon now…I can’t spin this in the club. My initial response was more scoff than whoa. Mos was not going to give up. He memorized that whole album like his life depended on it. He memorized it like my life depended on it. He made me listen to ‘Rhymes like Dimes’ three times over. He was determined to convince me that it was the dopest shit out. He kept breaking it down to me until he finally planted the seed in me.”
That whole scene is just highly entertaining. Mos Def with his kitted-out car, preaching the gosepl of DOOM, the phrase “we gotta have a discussion.” Later in the article Questlove does a successful job of conveying one of the lesser-explored appeals of DOOM, a rapper whose apparent qualities are abundant (the Dr Doom mask, the completely unique flow and war chest of references/rhyme schemes unlike anyone else before or since, his equally idiosyncratic samples and producing style, the innumerable psuedonyms and side-projects):
“I did my homework during the next six months and realized that the new persona was DOOM’s way of coping with Subroc’s death. I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history, and [the late producer J] Dilla had already done this with me on Madlib. When I realized that what DOOM was doing was therapy for tragedy — it had been so long since I had seen somebody in hip-hop not using it as a means of escape, or survival, or monetary means to get to the next level.”
What he’s referencing there is DOOM’s previous life, as a sidekick to eighties hip-hop trio 3rd Base and then as a member of KMD, which ended when his cousin and KMD co-conspirator was hit by a car and killed. There was a period where he disappeared from view and, when he returned, he’d abandoned his Zev Love X persona and was hiding behind a mask. In the years following, he’d try on any number of other aliases, including an album as King Ghidorah (the three-headed enemy of Godzilla) and Viktor Vaughan, a riff on the alter-ego of Doctor Doom, each with distinct personalities, back stories, and rap styles. DOOM’s music is rarely, if ever, maudlin, but the angle of retreat and reinvention after tragedy is not one I’d factored into his work before. RIP to the Villain. I loaded Operation Doomsday, Born Like This and Take Me to Your Leader onto my phone for my walk to Highgate and had a bloody good time.
Earlier in April I had one of those instances of internet-born synchronicity where, I suppose, cosmic coincidence, algorithms and my pathetically obvious interests aligned to bring me a succession of stories about people sitting and doing nothing as a sort of performance, but not one with an obvious point. I can’t remember how he floated back into my orbit, but I was previously aware of Tehching Hsieh from an exhibiton at the Tate in Liverpool which included his “One Year Performance 1980-1981”, or “Time Clock Piece.” In it, he shaved his head, dressed solely in a grey boilersuit, and spent an entire year punching a time clock every hour on the hour, and taking a photo of himself. The ensuing “document” of this performance — during which he didn’t really sleep, cos of the whole on-the-hour element — consists of his punchcards, the machine, and both still photos and a six-minute film edited together which shows his hair growth and worryingly wearied, drawn face.
Hsieh did a fair few of these “durational works,” but insisted they were not supposed to be feats of endurance, a sort of modern Houdini/proto-David Blaine. I’m sort of inclined to believe him, because around the same time I remembered about “Time Clock Piece” I happened upon Indonesian YouTuber Muhammad Didit, who racked up over three million hits on a video of him sat still for two hours, and then Benjamin Bennett, who has been livestreaming himself sitting and smiling silently at a camera for hours as a time, every day, for maybe five years at this point?? Apparently Didit’s stunt was satirical, and part of a wider culture of protest/weird stuff on Indonesian YouTube; Bennett’s is a little harder to grasp the intent behind, although it does seem quasi-spiritual. From that linked interview:
“Why did you start doing this?
“I don’t know. It seemed like something that the internet was lacking. It seemed like it needed to be done, and nobody else was going to do it.
“But what do you feel was lacking? What’s the purpose?
“There isn’t really a purpose. My inbox is full of people asking me why I’m doing this, but I don’t think that question is really applicable to this type of activity.
“Are you at all concerned about any lasting effects?
“Somebody told me that people who work in the service industry—who have to smile all the time when they don’t want to—die sooner. But I don’t know if that’s true.”
See? Weird! And then there’s the time The National played the same song for six hours in a gallery. Anyway, the upshot of this is that I’m considering getting my film watching back into gear by livestreaming my face as I sit in front of my TV/laptop/projector. As with this newsletter, I’m hoping it may work as a sort of accountability thing; if people are watching me watch something, maybe I’ll be less inclined to be distracted by my phone, or pause and check something on IMDb, or watch something I’ve seen a million times again instead of being a good film student and broadening my horizons?
Besides Big Daddy Karl, Highgate Cemetery is also the final resting place for Alan Sillitoe, Claudia Jones and Douglas Adams. The latter had a fairly humble headstone, with just his name, dates, and “Writer.” Someone had slapped a 42 sticker on it and left a pot of pens beside it. I read the Hitchhiker’s books in primary school, encouraged by my dad and teacher’s recommendation and a re-run of the BBC TV adaptation. Naturally, most of the satirical intent flew right over a ten-year-old’s head, but I liked the more obvious gags and the idiosyncratic British approach to sci-fi concepts.
Aaron Reed’s wonderful 50 Years of Text Games newsletter reached The Hitchhiker’s Guide this month, and along with being a reminder of how charmingly frustrating that game is (you can play it free and legally on the BBC website!), it had me thinking of Adams’s books in a new light for the first time in twenty years. I’d sort of filed it away as a quaint and formative on my own sense of humour in its playing with language and absurdism, but Reed makes the — in retrospect obvious — case for it as a prescient long-form satire of how computers have made capitalism even more unbearable:
“Ford: What’s happening on this hell ship?
Autopilot: There has been a delay. The passengers are kept in temporary suspended animation for their comfort and convenience. Coffee and biscuits are served every ten years, after which passengers are returned to suspended animation for their comfort and convenience. Departure will take place when flight stores are complete. We apologize for the delay.
Ford: Delay? Have you seen the world outside this ship? It’s a wasteland, a desert. Civilization’s been and gone. It’s over. There are no lemon-soaked paper napkins on the way from anywhere.
Autopilot: The statistical likelihood is that other civilizations will arise. There will one day be lemon-soaked paper napkins. Till then, there will be a short delay. Please return to your seats.
“Corporate-mandated cheerfulness, algorithmically-enabled mutually assured destruction, user interfaces so determined to be friendly they render themselves utterly useless: much of Hitchhiker’s is a prescient and sometimes rather dark prediction of a future that seemed very likely from the dawn of the 1980s, with IBM, the Cold War, and the rise of automated phone lines still dominant forces in the cultural imagination. ‘Dealing with the American Express computer’ to acknowledge a change-of-address form, Adams once complained, ‘has been beyond Kafka’s worst paranoid nightmares.’”
Network Horror, baby!
I expanded my horizons a little with this month’s playlist! A little. A Tribe Called Quest and Bloc Party aren’t exactly new arrivals onto my musical palette. But I’ve also benefitted immensely from tuning into the morning show on London-based station NTS, the “The Do!! You!!! Show” with Charlie Bones, a charmingly ramshackle affair that skips between obscure disco, Afrobeat, old-school hip-hop, and Rod Stewart. I’ve also become obsessed with Jeff Rosenstock, perhaps predictably; “State Line” is very much of the “All My Friends” genre of songs about being on tour and missing yer pals.
And that’s our show! This edition was written under the influence of caffeine, the HUEL meal replacement drink I’m relying on to shift all the quarantine takeaway weight I’ve accumulated over the winter, and this great new weird track from Laura Marling’s electronic side-project Lump. Since we’re already a little ways into May, I can give you a sneak preview of what might appear in next month’s edition of the newsletter: banging on about Australian post-punk wunderkind Genesis Owusu, mushy stuff about it being my birthday and seeing my family for the first time in almost a year, meditations on naps. I’m tired. Take care! Goodbye forever!