This album came to me via “free trade,” which is a more apt usage of the term than its common one; that is, I didn’t pay for it—and in lieu of any money spent on my part, I suppose I got this on the condition that I review it.
A regular review, though, will not do.
Had this record come to me in a commercial context, I’d prattle on about the band’s dramatic history and try to impress with esoteric comparisons. Then I’d judge the album’s worth, and you’d know whether you were supposed to like it, right?—but just because some reviewer in nut-hugging jeans (dis)likes a record really shouldn’t matter so much, should it? After all, it’s just one person’s view. Record reviews shouldn’t be another form of sound suppression under the guise of art. That’s why record reviews come out the day of or before a record is in consumer hands.
This review, therefore, should fall within the intellectual bounds of the Commons, requiring a different treatment—one that doesn’t commoditize a cultural creation. I aim to place it in a broader context of the current struggle for human rights throughout the world, and to give a close listen to a sound that denies the auto-tuner, the focus group, and the youth group—the capitalist molds. Upon reflection, the band’s lyrics anticipate the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring, while simultaneously sending “smoke signals” toward a present, awash in the chaos that gave rise to these protests. Belonging to neither state nor market—but to the commons, itself—this music bucks the age-old collusion between the former two, which seems to be the common burr under the 99%’s saddles. With Common goals in mind, then, this review will proceed with a final question on whether this album is Rhizomatic, as Deleuze and Guatarri have coined the term.
Michael Hardt “On the Right to the Common”
In addition to the song, “Smoke Signals,” their funkiest song to date, this so-called review will focus primarily on three songs—to wit:
- Sound Depression
- Test the Champ – The Hardest Game
- Street vs. State – Global Tribal – reconstruction
Before I get going, here’s a brief comment on the music:
If I were reviewing this album in one sentence, I’d say, “Listening to The Rebel Soul Sound System is like listening to a roots-reggae parade going by, with each song, riff, or sample mingling with last’s sonic space.” One sentence can never do justice to a Dingees album, because of the many genres and sub-genres represented: The usual reggae, dub, ska, punk, and hardcore are present, but new influences of Afro-pop, jazz, funk, and dubstep also join this parade, making this the most daring and expansive Dingees album to date. Pegleg attempts more variety vocally than before, and while he sounds less precise, he also sounds more human, vulnerable, and real. Thankfully, another blogger, Will Hodge, has put together a thorough review of the music, and I encourage you to read it. To compensate for this lack of the musical analysis, music links to influences appear between paragraphs. Additional videos will buttress your understanding of the ideas supporting this album. Enjoy these brief interludes at your leisure; hopefully, they will help you pick up what I’m laying down.
The Specials “A Message for You, Rudy”
“Sound Depression” begins the album with a crisp reggae groove beneath an ethereal chant, heavy in reverb and heralding the chaos as if from an urban street: “Sound suppression rules our air today. / Sound oppression rules our airwaves.” It dared me to review this album differently, encapsulating the band’s struggles dealing with a Christian music market that co-opts its own into feigning joy when they ought to mourn the state of things. So the Dingees entreat us, “Tell me: Who is going to govern the state of disarray?” The phrase “state of disarray” has a double meaning: For one, a scene of chaos, but “state” here also refers to a kind of disarray brought about by states, especially toward those that have little in the way of a functioning government. In the U.S., we see a vast, complicated state, swayed by bailed-out bankers and warmongers leading us into battle against abstractions (e.g. terror). The state itself still demands uniformity, but that force in its senility cannot prevent disorder—in fact, it tends to breed it.
David Graeber on Occupy Movement / Police Repression
There where the structures of society ostensibly seek to add order, the clampdown displaces it. It has been pointed that, when states commit violence, it is the norm—the ambient noise of our existence; but when citizens revolt against that violence, it “breaks out,” implying a violent restraint is necessary to contain it. The Dingees are no strangers to this paradox as exemplified in “Chaos Control” (Armageddon Massive 1998).
A taste of this displaced chaos comes during “The Hardest Game” (part two on track two), when band member, Jeff Holmes, reminds us that,
We forget, kids die—
And in a heart of darkness, everybody’s still crying.
We move on, we move on, we move on.
Carry on, carry on, carry on.
Well the planes can’t land, but the bullet are still flying.
Mother, you can open your arms wide, but your baby’s still dying.
It’s the hardest game.
So carry on from Kinshasa to a refugee land,
And go to Rwanda, where you make your final stay.
Carry on, carry on, carry on.
“Rwanda” by Rancid (Self-titled, 2000).
If you’re living under a rock, you may not know that Kinshasa is the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is the most dangerous place to be a woman, a child, or a pygmy. We can access this information. We shouldn’t need the Dingees to sing about it, although it doesn’t hurt. In the lyrics above, Holmes implies a willful forgetting: We don’t forget so much as we ignore these human rights catastrophes, or pretend we can spend our way out of them. We’re too wrapped up in our own first-world problems to deal with the depression that would stem from facing third-world problems. But the Dingees want to take you there, word-playing again: The repetitious “carry on” sounds indistinguishable from “carrion,” which takes the listener to the plight of the refugee, ever in danger of starvation, disease, and death—a vicious sentence that vultures punctuate. And taking us there is the principal problem. It’s all well and good to know about injustice from the web in an abstract way; it’s another to confront it in a sensory way. As cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek, has darkly joked, “It’s one thing to hear about your wife screwing around on you; it’s quite another to walk in on her in the middle of the act.” Likewise, the Dingees are trying to get us to “walk in” on these crimes with all their powers of expression. They succeed.
Slavoj Žižek – Occupy Wall Street and Modern Anti-Capitalism
If Joseph Conrad implicates the “heart of darkness” as the Congo, itself, driving the civilization out of a civilized man (and I’m not sure he does), then the Dingees definitely turn this around. The capital-imperial West drives the civilization out of these places. In the DRC, mining companies find it easier to pay off a few thugs than to give everybody a living wage—which would be incredibly small there. The Dingees get labeled as “anti-establishment,” but this implies they would be against any structure of governance—and I don’t think that’s categorically true. Small scale tribal governance is still an establishment. They’re seeking a new kind of government where the people aren’t misrepresented to the ruling class. After all, in Kinshasa, there is a government, but only nominally. Most would characterize the nation as anarchic, but it is technically a democratic republic just like the U.S.A. There are 24-trillion dollars worth of minerals beneath the D.R.C., but the country can’t seem to rise up on the heap of these resources. Western politicos often style this the “resource curse,” as if the U.S. were stable because of the utter dearth of our resources. Which is of course ridiculous: We have plenty of resources and wealth in our people. But so does the D.R.C. What keeps the U.S. on top is its military, which seems to have a gland problem these days. Nothing has changed from the old days of empire, just the names of things. The stream of tribute issuing from the Congo, either in the form of interest to the World Bank or as the cheap minerals for laptops and smart phones, flows as freely as the blood of their people.
Fela Kuti “Coffin for Head of State”
As a debtor nation, the so-called “anarchist” Congo is beholden to Western free trade agreements (AGOA)—agreements that pretend the U.S. ascended to industrial hegemony via free trade and global cooperation, when it really did so through tariffs and imperialism. A more apt name for the economic structure of the D.R.C., however, is capitalist without the pesky socialist burdens, like Medicare or Social Security. For the majority of citizens in the Congo, their only recourse is to seek the humanitarian shelter of refugee camps, which are often just as dangerous as their homeland. And those very refugee camps add to the debt burden their host countries already bear. The feedback cycle of this problem is not the stuff of Top-40 songs, but the Dingees will proclaim it, at least. We need to dignify these proclamations.
Lee Scratch Perry “Fisherman Dub”
Taking their message to the streets then, the medley, “Street vs. State – Global Tribal – reconstruction,” cuts to the central nerve of this album. The “Street vs. State” section is a dub containing a number of sound clips from protests, while the bassist gets to have a little fun on his fret board. Then the street samples cut, and a motherly voice shouts with urgency, “Don’t listen to what they’re saying. Watch what they do!” Well said, whoever you are.¹ Her admonition introduces the horn riffs of “Global Tribal,” a profound plea for global unity. Pegleg addresses future observers, who will view us as barbarians in a dark age. And rightly so, because all the religious and political problems that seem so important now will become insignificant compared with the crises to come. Pegleg asks, “To the future, is there anybody out there?” reminding us that there may, in fact, not be anyone in the future at all, never mind enlightened historians, chuckling at our stupidity. “While we could be global of one tribe / When we could be one people globally,” we instead erect barriers, establish clubs, and claim that the guest list at heaven’s party contains a string of blandly consistent names. These clubs—those from the Judeo-Christo-Muslim matrix, but also a host of variegated peoples who don’t like each other—do not capture the fullness of the love that Christ himself proclaimed—a love that has “no east nor west, no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free.”
Michael Hardt on The Politics of Love and Evil
Such love has been the study of the thinkers linked in this article. They refer to it as “political” love or agape (ah-gah-PAY), a Greek word meaning “unconditional love,” which the apostle Paul used extensively in his epistles to illustrate how Christ’s love ought to break down barriers between people. This sort of love occupies the Dingees more than, say, erotic love. In “reconstruction,” Pegleg references the breaking down of a famous wall, entreating us to,
Roll with me, baby
We’re gonna dance to the Junglist
The furious deejay, drum and bass music
Run now, my people.
We’re gonna watch all walls dem fall,
When we hit that frequency
They played that day down in Jericho.
It was a breakbeat, a breakbeat
Marcia Aitken (feat. Trinity) “I’m Still in Love”
According to the Bible, the march around Jericho did literally break down its city walls. Now, if you paid attention in Sunday school, you may know that it also kicked off one of the earliest recorded and God-ordained genocides in human history—barrier creation pushed to its logical conclusion. Pegleg, though, re-appropriates the image. That destroying “frequency” might activate us to break down barriers, but the purpose has turned from exclusivity to inclusivity, from violence to peace—a reconstruction of the very notion of destruction. On the Dingees previous album, Pegleg sings, “We don’t want destruction, but we know it comes before creation” (“World’s Last Night” The Crucial Conspiracy). The thought here is very much the same: We have to destroy these structures that keep us arbitrarily separated. Nuclear fallout does not respect borders. Neither does climate change. So why should we? And yet we are stuck in that place Gramsci wrote about, where “The old is dying and the new cannot be born.” But we could break out of this interregnum. We could be “one people globally.” We have the technology and the capacity within ourselves to do so. Soon we will have to be one—or else go extinct, vanishing into the vast universe like smoke in the sky.
Manu Chao “Bongo Bong”
The Dingees remain hopeful, though, and so should you. The song, “Smoke Signals,” is a prayer of petition to God. The music itself communicates as much as the words, so I encourage you to simply listen to it—but the last words of the song are directed toward the Big Man (and she is black): “Be with us always, even until the end of the age, / for these are troubled times.” But just before that, he states what ought to be obvious, “Give me room and I’ll fire up the sun / There’s enough warmth there for everyone to catch a reflection.” Simple wisdom like this should at once humble us and give us great hope. As far as conflicted emotions go, that’s not a bad place to be. Indeed, the Dingees espouse a kind of Christianity that honors singularities—or differences that refuse to stop being different, if you will. That’s comforting too. It may not get them another Christian record deal (or any other, for that matter), but it puts them on the right side of the struggle.
Toots and the Maytals “Reggae Got Soul”
In conclusion, I should point out the prophetic nature of this whole album. Pegleg says that he wrote most of the material right after The Crucial Conspiracy, which was right about the time the U.S. was ramping up its war on terror. Indeed, protest movements had been hard at work at the time, but recent revelations have shown that people like the Dingees aren’t just a bunch of dope-smoking, unrealistic hippies. They predicted these problems but in a way that was as much a narrative of the times then as of now. They understand a great deal more about these disastrous systems than the vulture capitalists of our day, who think the world will keep turning regardless of what we do to it. To illustrate this, you can image-search maps that are supposedly going to be used in the future for oil freighters once the polar ice caps have melted. I suppose in a literal sense, the VCs are quite right: The world will keep turning, but our presence or absence on its surface hardly amounts to a pretext for it to stop.
As mentioned earlier, I wanted to submit the question to you readers as to whether The Rebel Soul Sound System is Rhizomatic. If you’re acquainted with the concept, perhaps you can help me with it. I think it is, but I’m not a specialist in this area of thought (although my landscaping experience has left me well acquainted with the botanical rhizome—myrtle, pachysandra, et al.) The whole album has no privileged entry point, there’s not really a clear delineation of where one song stops and another begins, and it re-appropriates images and influences throughout. There’s a great deal more to talk about than just rhizomes, too, so do host comments on whatever you see fit. This is a new kind of a review—one that is never complete, yet does justice to the intellectual foundations of a cultural creation. That, it seems to me, is what a good review ought to do.
1. I’ve since been told that this motherly voice belongs to Dr. Helen Caldicott, an anti-nuke hero.