Happy day 4 of Serge Week, celebrating the release of the 87th volume in the 33 1/3 series: Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson. Author Darran Anderson here with his third post.
Initials O.G. – Serge Gainsbourg’s Hip-hop Afterlife
By Darran Anderson
Recently, I wrote a piece for Culture Critic on the legacy of Histoire de Melody Nelson and particularly the records it’s influenced. Rather than write about covers by The Kills or Sambassadeur or how Melody-inspired the new Sébastien Tellier single is or how great the video for Alain Bashung’s version of ‘Variations sur Marilou’ is or even how we should ignore the inevitable Serge covers by actors and dilettantes seeking a short cut to credibility and the myriad unnecessary remixes by dance acts, let’s consider something a bit different and more interesting; namely Gainsbourg’s unlikely role as a forefather of hip-hop.
At first, the idea of hip-hop as Gainsbourg’s bastard offspring might seem a ludicrous one and it is, but there’s also an element of truth to it. Hip-hop has a multitude of precursors and early innovators. The most apparent, naturally, are those groups and artists who came from black American circles like the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron or MCs from the Jamaican and Trinidadian dancehall scenes. The more precedents you look for, the more you’ll find – you can trace the roots back easily to the Harlem Renaissance, the griot oral tradition of West Africa, even back, if you so wish, to Ancient Greece where the tradition of pastoral poetry involved the unlikely incidence of shepherds having free-styling duels with each other (first to stumble, contradict or repeat a statement lost).
There is no single path of influence and experience but many interweaving currents from many sources. And so you get interesting surprises thrown in or rather brought in by those receptive to what was happening elsewhere; Afrika Bambaataa took Kraftwerk to the Bronx (and Outer Space), Grandmaster Flash dropped ‘Apache’ into his mixes, b-boys breakdanced to beats from old Can albums (they still do). We create our precursors to paraphrase Borges. Then the rest of the world took what hybrids they had created and the process continues. As with all great art, you end up with an echo-chamber where influences abound, intersect, recipocrate and work subconciously to an extent it’s often futile to dissect or stake out immovable claims of ownership. Take Eno and Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which was influential on the use of sampling in hip-hop. They had been influenced by the solo work of Can’s Holger Czukay, who in turn had studied under Stockhausen, who had been influenced by the painter Paul Klee, who had been inspired by the light and art of North Africa. That’s one tributary. Another is simply to note that Eno, Byrne and Talking Heads were originally trying to play African polyrhythms and their failure to do so resulted in something accidentally-different enough to appear new. What they had given, they had taken and vice versa. And so it goes, on and on (thankfully). Perhaps Fela Kuti would have claimed there was theft or colonialism involved (compare and contrast his ‘Zombie’ with their ‘Born Under Punches’) but that, in the musical version of dialectical materialism, is how music is pushed forwards, for better or worse. It’s a view substantiated by the fact the first album by Talking Heads’ side project the Tom Tom Club is one of the most sampled by hip-hop artists. You take and you give and the only requisite, aside from paying your dues and having respect for yourself and the source of the influence, is the work being interesting and imaginative enough to offer the listener something that appears new.
“Serge was a thief, in the best possible sense, and, in being so, he was an innovator.”
What in god’s name does this have to do with Serge Gainsbourg then? Well Serge was a thief, in the best possible sense, and, in being so, he was an innovator. You could focus on the superficial ways he pre-empted certain tendencies in hip-hop; his hedonism, apparent misogyny, his courting of controversy and glamour, even his bringing reggae to the public’s attention by proxy but these would involve superficial interpretations of both Gainsbourg and hip-hop. Much more profound are his song-writing methods and achievements. If we take Histoire de Melody Nelson, there’s the spoken word form most obviously but musically there’s a cinematic sense of atmosphere, factional narrative, myth-making, space, building and erasing that you get later, in very different forms of course, in hip-hop records. Even more so are those artists who did as Gainsbourg and Vannier did and layered out the strings, put the bassline prominent as dub and funk had, added depth and atmosphere through reverb and looped and stretched out breakbeats until they became something else; the point where hip-hop becomes trip-hop or dub-step (to use disgraceful but recognisable terms). Here’s a fine example (sampling Gainsbourg’s ‘Cargo Culte’):
Outside Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg was a pioneer of sampling, going back to the 1960s and, to all intents and purposes, before the sampler had been invented. Schooled in classical music, he began to incorporate snippets to raise the ‘minor art’ of pop music to new heights. For ‘Jane B’, he borrowed from Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4. For ‘Lemon Incest’, he used the same composer’s Étude Op. 10, No. 3 in E Major. For ‘Ma Lou Marilou’, he took a section of Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 (‘Appassionata’) by Beethoven. He sampled, as needs must, using orchestras. Here he is doing so from the First Movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (‘New World’) for his climatic chorus to ‘Initial’s B.B.’ –
Gainsbourg even ran into the ownership controversies that would later trouble the likes of De La Soul when he was sued by for pilfering Babatunde Olatunji’s Drums of Passion rather too liberally for his otherwise excellent Percussions album. As connoisseurs of innovative and overlooked music, hip-hop producers have repaid the favour (and theft), with songs that, in engaging with and keeping his music alive, Gainsbourg may have been delighted by. Given the outrage they’ve aroused at times, often from the same people he was outraging and who need outraging, Serge may have even been delighted. The most important reason for assuming he would have approved of this lineage was Gainsbourg’s continual desire to push his music forward and broaden his musical palette. He could have stayed still and rested on his laurels after ‘Je t’aime…’ but even when drink-sodden and increasingly lacking in coherence and to varying degrees of success, he had the commendable audacity to try new things such as electronic music and reggae. He was an artist who would not be told what to do and that, in this day and age, is a rare and precious thing. There remains something to be said for the man or woman who doesn’t give a fuck.
Here are some tracks that show the hip-hop afterlife of S.G. employing respectively the sublime looping strings of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, the triumphant yet lovelorn crescendo to ‘Initial’s B.B.’, the whip-crack beat of ‘Requiem pour un con’ and the nocturnal depths of Histoire de Melody Nelson.
Le roi est mort, vive le roi!
Follow Darran and the book on Twitter: @33_melody