Distraction Free Reading

Being Heard as Experimental

Hip Hop is a musical genre and cultural movement that has been the birthplace of ingenious creativity and novel methods of music making that incorporate new and old technologies (Driscoll 2009). These technical innovations can be seen in the redeployment (Fouché 2006, p. 642) of the turntable through moving the record backwards and forwards to generate new sonic textures and generate hypnotic repetition through breakbeats. The MIDI Production Center (MPC) by Akai and Roger Linn—a MIDI sequencer,[1] sampler, and drum machine that was initially designed to give musicians and producers an easier way to create more natural sounding drums in their recorded music—was almost immediately taken up by Black Hip Hop producers in the United States and used to sample longer pieces of audio from a variety of sources and then re- sequence them to create new melodies and drum rhythms. However, the histories of marginalized people’s exploration of new sounds and technologies for the sake of creative music making seems to largely diverge from the histories of what is traditionally labeled experimental music within the western musical canon. In this post, I want to explore histories of experimental music and contrast it with histories of Hip Hop to better understand who is allowed to be labeled as experimenting within music and how the answers to these questions exist along particular lines of race, space, and time.

The histories of experimental music must begin first with a definition of experimental music. This is no simple feat, as the definition of experimental music can mean so many things to different people due in part to its decentralized nature (Nyman 1999). The genre is fluctuating and folks who are seen as practitioners of the style have differing examples of what experimental even means (Gottschalk 2016). Gottschalk makes the point that experimental music as a genre is a nebulous and dynamic one, and notes that “My own view of experimental music has grown through what seems like a series of chance encounters, casual mentions, and a gradual connecting of the dots… It still feels like an underground activity, and often people with directly related concerns have never heard of each other” (Gottschalk 2016, p. 6). She frames the social networking done within experimental music as deeply localized and contingent on chance as much as methodical study. Knowing who, what, and why within experimental music can be seen as something you learn through participation. Contributing to the culture by engaging with experimental music is what gives you the networks and knowledge necessary to dive deeper into it. Experimental music isn’t something that you can passively study from the outside. Simply put, you need to be in it to really get it.

A black rectangular object that looks to be about a foot wide or so, with a small screen, buttons, and dials.

A black Akai MPC Live II (Image by Author)

Interestingly enough, some histories of experimental music do make efforts to include early pioneers in Hip Hop. In Electronic and Experimental Music, Thom Holmes includes artist Afrika Bambaataa in the section on experimental turntablism. Bambaataa is a Black producer and artist from New York who was a pioneer in DJing, Hip Hop, and electronic music during the 1970s and 1980s. Holmes notes that “Afrika Bambaataa created a distinct blend of hip-hop, turntablism, and rap music in the 1980s that was a forerunner of electronica and a revival of DJ culture as an art form” (2009, p. 421). There are figures in Hip Hop that are intentionally being brought into the fold of experimental music, and I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. I actually do agree that Afrika Bambaataa was incredibly influential on the techniques used in turntablism and his contributions to Hip Hop culture cannot be understated. Yet Bambaataa was also influential in the realm of sampling and was famous for using the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument (CMI) to develop the first commercial hit American single using samples that were ran through the CMI (Fink 2005, p. 344). Bambaataa’s sampling of Stravinsky and Kraftwerk to make the single “Planet Rock” could be considered a landmark in experimental music much like how it is seen in popular music, but instead this goes unnoticed even by those who seek to give Bambaataa his credit. This blind spot becomes more confusing because Holmes covers other examples of CMI usage in experimental music in the same text. The author seems to be aware of the importance of the CMI in the development of experimental music and makes note of whenever white artists use it. Despite this, he fails to mention how Bambaataa used it to make influential experimental music.

Furthermore, there was plenty of experimentation in Hip Hop that came after Bambaataa’s hit. The introduction of new technologies like the MPC and the Roland TR-808[2] led to a redeployment of these music-making technologies that still resonates within Hip Hop and popular music culture to this day. Thinking about this potential gap reminded me of a quote from Gottschalk on her knowledge and skill sets. She says, “A person’s presence or absence has nearly as much to do with my ability to talk about their work within the structure that has developed as it does with their standing in the field” (2016, p. 7). This quote brought out two important questions: what does experimentation sound like and who can understand particular modes of experimentation?

The first question is a daunting one, and the shortest answer is that it is subjective. As mentioned earlier, the definitions of experimental music are dynamic and nebulous to those who are considered contributors to the culture. However, the more I have explored this question during my own research, the more I see subjectivity as an important aspect worth highlighting. I argue that experimentation has a culturally contextualized sound. One’s ability to hear something and frame it in a particular way is contingent on what is previously been labeled as within a cultural lexicon. The music is not just experimental because it checks off enough boxes within a definition. It is experimental because of who makes it and what the goal is with that piece of music. This is not something that is exclusive to experimental music. Jay Kwellyn, an American rapper, vocalist, and producer from Atlanta, GA and currently based in Richmond, VA, talked extensively about the framing of music as Black through its connection to Black people. In our interview during my field work about Black musicians who use Discord as a platform for community and music-making, she made note that her work is Black not because it fits within a musical styling, but because she herself is Black. She notes, “I just do my shit, and my shit is Black.” The Blackness is not just because she used a particular set of sounds that are associated with Black music, whatever that may mean. It is inherent in her expression because of her being a Black person.

Now to be very clear, identifying as Black and identifying as an experimental musician are two very different things. Someone can shift in and out of identifying as an experimental musician in a way that they cannot do around racial identity, particularly around Blackness in an anti-Black society. Furthermore, there are Black musicians who paved the way for experimental music like American artists George Lewis, Ornette Coleman, and Miles Davis along with those who are currently pushing boundaries in their music like American artists Matana Roberts, Joy Guidry, and Jlin. Rather, I want to explore how self-identification and cultural perception shape the way that art is interpreted. If the definitions of experimental music that are taken the most seriously by experimental musicians are coming from these experimental musicians, then there lies a potential for specific cultural norms to be reproduced by that insular community of musicians. This potential leads me to my second question: who can understand particular modes of experimentation?

This second question of understanding goes back to Gottschalk’s note on presence or absence hinging on her own personal ability to decipher the work. I think that the exclusion of particular artists and techniques from this particular frame of experimental music is rooted in a lack of cultural understanding. Attempts at understanding Black art through a white cultural lens has historically led to a simultaneous misunderstanding of Black art and requests that Black art compromise itself to fit within the normative white framing (Fox 1977). I do not see white experimental music culture as an inherent exception to this norm. Artists like J Dilla, Madlib, and Georgia Anne Muldrow might not be read as experimental within certain circles because the majority of people within the experimental spheres might not be able to accurately assess experimentation within Black music. This is most likely due to the fact that experimental music is an incredibly white space (Eye Candy 2018, Herrington 2020). This white hegemony within experimental music can lead to a subtle but powerful demarcation. If the definitions of experimental music are nebulous and defined by social and cultural norms, and those social and cultural norms align heavily with whiteness, then what is and what is not experimentation will always be judged and defined by its proximity to what is familiar to whiteness.

Put simply, judging Black experimentation by white standards is never going to yield a satisfactory result. There is a cultural disconnect that gets built into the critical analysis of Black experimentation in music. Expecting a hegemonic culture to know how to interpret and understand anything outside of its scope, regardless of how it may or may not fit within that scope according to its own rules, is setting it up for narrow and limited analysis. Instead of attempting to fold Black works into white spaces and hoping that whiteness will eventually make sense of it, I encourage the support of a variety of experimentation done by Black artists, regardless of how well it fits into the historical or contemporary understandings of experimental music. The artists know what they’re doing, and their work will find the right audiences. This encouragement must come with the caveat that it is not guided by the desires of any non-Black benefactors. Supporting growth in these creative and experimental Black spaces while still giving artists autonomy could prove to be an effective method of fostering diverse creative cultures.


[1] MIDI is a file format and technical standard that lets electronic instruments from different manufacturers communicate with each other. A MIDI sequencer is used by artists to record, edit, and play MIDI sequences.

[2] The TR-808 is a drum synthesizer that is known by many for its ability to generate low frequency bass notes that are popular in Hip Hop music.


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Driscoll, Kevin. “Step Your Game Up.” MIT, 2009.

Fink, Robert. “The Story of Orch5, or, the Classical Ghost in the Hip-Hop Machine.” Popular Music 24, no. 3 (October 2005): 339–56. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261143005000553.

Fouché, Rayvon. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud: African Americans, American Artifactual Culture, and Black Vernacular Technological Creativity.” American Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2006): 639–61. https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2006.0059.

Fox, Robert Elliot. “The Logic of the White Castle: Western Critical Standards and the Dilemma of Black Art.” Obsidian (1975-1982) 3, no. 2 (1977): 18–27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44490108.

Gottschalk, Jennie. Experimental Music since 1970. New York ; London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Herrington, Tony. “White out! Tony Herrington Calls Time on the Monoculture That Is the Experimental Sound and Music Industry – The Wire.” The Wire Magazine – Adventures In Modern Music. Accessed May 8, 2024. https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/white-out-tony-herrington.

Holmes, Thom. Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture. 3rd ed., Transf. to digit. pr. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Nyman, Michael. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. 2nd ed. Music in the 20th Century. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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