Kodwo Eshun – Sonic fiction: the otherworldly vistas and alien mindscapes conjured by genres like dub reggae, hip hop, techno, and jungle

Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (Quartet Books, 1998)

"This volume is a highly idiosyncratic survey of certain sci-fi and futurist thought strains in black music from New York, Detroit, Jamaica, and especially London, where Eshun was first lured by concussive jungle and drum ’n’ bass beats. Chapters on Miles Davis and P-Funk mastermind George Clinton mingle with discursive studies of Public Enemy, Goldie, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and mysterious rave-era operatives. Eshun writes in a radically futuristic language—with self-devised compound words (thoughtprobes, conceptechnics, rhythmachine) and terms recontextualized from science—that invokes the energy of the music he covers." - Andy Battaglia

"Tired of the same old nonfiction? Sick of sometimey music journalism? Seek out and acquire a copy of Kodwo Eshun’s mind-melting textual tilt-a-whirl, More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. Eshun takes everyone from Sun Ra and John Coltrane to Kool Keith and Grandmaster Flash and sieves them through the theories of everyone from Paul Virilio and Gilles Deleuze to Marshall McLuhan and Manuel De Landa. It’s one part tradition-trouncing polemic, one part trip-hop philosophy, and one part ice-cream headache buzz, so take it slow." —Roy Christopher

"More Brilliant Than The Sun is a survey of the 'black science fiction' tendency in music, from Lee Perry and George Clinton to contemporary sonic wizards like Tricky and Goldie. Although the idea of 'Afro-futurism' has been broached before (most notably by American critics Mark Dery and Greg Tate), Kodwo Eshun's book is the most sustained and penetrating analysis to date of what the author calls 'sonic fiction': the otherworldly vistas and alien mindscapes conjured by genres like dub reggae, hip hop, techno, and jungle.
The book kicks off at blitzkrieg pace and ferocity, with a manifesto that excoriates music journalists and cultural studies academics for being 'future shock absorbers', forever domesticating the strangeness of music. Dance music hacks are rightly ticked off for their abject failure to deal with rhythm, dance music's absolute raison d'etre and primary zone of impact on its listeners. As for the academy, Eshun is particularly scathing about treatments of black pop that analyse it in terms of soul, roots and 'the street'.
Rejecting these notions of raw expression and social realism, Eshun instead celebrates a lineage of black conceptualists, speculators and fabulists. These renegade autodidacts - Sun Ra, Rammellzee, Dr Octagon, Underground Resistance's Mike Banks and Jeff Mills - weave syncretic and idiosyncratic cosmologies using an array of esoteric sources. Eshun tracks this 'MythScience' through lyrics, songs and album titles, cover artwork, and (in Underground Resistance's case) hermetic slogans etched into the run-out vinyl of 12-inch singles.
As well as decoding these encrypted expressions of the Afro-Futurist imagination, Eshun focuses on the materiality of the music - jungle's convoluted breakbeat rhythms, the headwrecking delirium of dub production and 'remixology', the timbral violence of the hip hop DJ's scratching. But Eshun's brand of "sub-bass materialism" has nothing in common with Marxist historical materialism. Instead of causality or continuity, Eshun looks for breaks, those moments when the future seems
to leap out of music; his punning name for the Afro-futurist canon he's erected in More Brilliant is a discontinuum.
It's a provocative stance, for sure, but at times you wonder if the baby hasn't been thrown out with the proverbial bathwater. Jungle, for instance, is probably best understood as a tangle of 'roots and future', to borrow a phrase from drum & bass outfit Phuture Assassins; as a subculture and a sound, it has one foot in the concrete jungles of Kingston, Jamaica, and the other in the data jungles of cyberspace. And is it really true, as Eshun seems to insist, that hip hop or reggae are diminished by attempts to locate them in a social context? 'The streets' may be a journalistic cliche too often marking a condescending attitude towards black creativity, but the phrase also contains a kernel of truth that can't be blithely brushed aside: the material realities of exclusion, disadvantage and exploitation that simultaneously hamper and energise all forms of underclass music, black and white.
Still, as a rhetorical strategy, Eshun's relentlessly future-focussed approach pays huge dividends. Compare More Brilliant Than The Sun with Greil Marcus's overpraised Dylan tome Invisible Republic. Marcus's is a book burdened with history and barely concealed nostalgia, weighed down with ponderous, almost Old Testament imagery of curses, birthrights, debts,reckonings, and so forth. Having gleefully jettisoned the very category of the sociohistorical, Eshun's prose is free to be rapt by the future-now materiality of music as it impacts his "bodymind". The latter is just one example of the author's favorite stylistic strategy: the neologism. Puns, self-coinages and compound terms like "sonomatter", "conceptechnics", "clairaudience" and "auditionary" (the last two refer to seers who work with sound rather than vision) induce a pleasurable disorientation akin to starting a William Gibson novel, where it takes 40 pages before you get any grip on how this strange new world works.
Eshun's stylistic dazzle (every sentence aspires to be a bomb going off in your head) is highly effective in conveying the intensities of music, but it does mean that More Brilliant is best consumed in short spurts and small sips; a little pacing, the odd workaday bridging sentence, wouldn't have hurt. The influence of Marshall McLuhan, Paul Virilio and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari isn't just intellectual but stylistic; like them, Eshun's forte is the aphorism and apercu.
Still, if the absolute measure of any music book is the extent to which it makes you want to hear the records, More Brilliant is a blinding success (literally - sometimes you have to shield your mind's eye from the glare). Eshun's book will get you rushing off to hunt down George Russell's Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature, a 1968 masterpiece of studio-warped 'electric jazz', or Alice Coltrane's controversial tetralogy of albums that orchestrally remixed the music of late husband John. A 219 page elaboration of the enthused entreaty "you've just got to hear this record, you won't believe your ears", More Brilliant Than The Sun is compulsory reading for anyone even remotely interested in music's cutting edges."
"Kodwo Eshun’s first book takes a panoramic sweep through the “black science fiction” tendency in music. Not so much interpreting as recreating in ultra-vivid prose the alien mindscapes conjured by genres like dub reggae, hip hop, techno, and jungle, More Brilliant offers a heroically unorthodox approach to music writing. Eshun rejects the standard academic and journalistic approaches to black pop, specifically the sociohistorical angle that analyses Afro-diasporic music in terms of soul, roots and “the street”. Instead of perpetuating what he sees as the condescending myths of raw ghetto expression triggered by oppression and exclusion, Eshun celebrates the power and penetration of black intellect. He focuses on a lineage of conceptualists and fabulists that includes Sun Ra, Rammellzee, Dr Octagon, and Underground Resistance. Practitioners of what Eshun calls “Mythscience,” these artists weave idiosyncratic cosmologies from an array of arcane sources, scattering clues for the listener in lyrics, song and album titles, cover artwork, and so forth. As well as decoding these encrypted messages, Eshun pays equal attention to the materiality of music - jungle's convoluted breakbeat rhythms, the head-wrecking delirium of dub production, the textural violence of the hip hop DJ's scratching.
Rather than celebrate the grand ongoing tradition of black creativity, Eshun looks instead for breaks: moments when the future seems to leap out of music. He calls his Afro-Futurist canon a discontinuum. It’s a provocative stance, especially when you consider that the discourse of roots and reverence for ancestors has always been integral to black musical culture. Another problem with Eshun’s approach is that in rejecting the social aspect of music, he falls back into a kind of cyberculture era update of auteurism. More Brilliant focuses entirely on the singular genius, figures like Lee Perry, George Clinton, Goldie, rather than the collective processes by which music really evolves and mutates. More Brilliant is asocial in another sense: it is written from inside the head (or “bodymind” as Eshun calls it) of the atomized individual. There’s never any sense of the communality of musical experience - a major failing when you’re writing about dance music and especially black culture with its call-and-response rituals, rewinds, and appeals to the “massive”. In the end, though, these are small quibbles next to the enormous stimulation provided by Eshun’s provocative thesis. Above all, the book triumphs as an intoxicating prose experience. The inventiveness of the language is dizzying, its bombardment of puns, neologisms and compound terms "sonomatter", "conceptechnics", "auditionary" - a visionary who works with sound rather than vision) inducing a pleasurable disorientation to rival the music itself. Ten years on, More Brilliant Than the Sun remains compulsory reading for anyone interested in music’s cutting edges." - Simon Reynolds

"Technology is often seen as having a negative influence on music. Ever since the advent of sound generated by machines rather than traditional instruments, there have been dire predictions about the death of the Song. More Brilliant Than The Sun takes the opposite attitude and celebrates these strange new technologically-based forms of music, examining what they signal for the future.
However, Kodwo Eshun's book is not a straightforward history of the synthesiser, the sampler and the art of scratching. His interest is primarily cerebral, exploring the new conceptual ideas produced by mutant strains of music. Or in the words of The Prodigy, "I'll take your brain to another dimension / Pay close attention"
Eshun argues that mainstream music journalism has simply ignored the future shock of technologically-based music because it doesn't fit into our traditional ideas about music. The sometimes life-changing impact on listeners by artists such as Kraftwerk, Sun Ra and Parliament has been dumbed down rather than discussed.
For example, the palpable desire to become a machine evoked by Kraftwerk, or Sun Ra's and Parliament's claims to be from outer space indicate a movement towards trying to become post-human. Let's face it - these aren't ideas you'll get from an Oasis record.
Similarly, the technology itself also opens up new ideas. The way that the sampler confuses musical history by raiding and redesigning the past to construct the present makes technological music shift away from any idea of history or heritage. It doesn't belong to any culture or race or even any genre in the traditional sense.
While More Brilliant Than the Sun gives rise to some fascinating ideas, it's an ultimately frustrating book. Eshun's prose style drops continuous narrative in favour of brief paragraphs which each focus on a particular idea. This soundbite approach ultimately robs the numerous concepts Eshun discusses of any depth. By trying to avoid the style of traditional music journalism, Eshun actually weakens his own attempts to provide a counter-argument.
This isn't helped by his thesaurus-thumping vocabulary, which does more to obfuscate than elucidate the very ideas he's attempting to bring to light. Equally, Eshun seems to assume a musical breadth of knowledge in his readers on a par with own, with few signposts for those who aren't already familiar with his record collection. There is a companion compilation CD to the book, but music journalism should inspire readers to investigate sounds themselves, not assume they're familiar with them already.
Essentially, Eshun has unearthed a secret history of machines and music which deserves a wider audience. Unfortunately, he has sabotaged his efforts by producing an account of that history which will probably bewilder and ultimately alienate his readers." - Chris Mitchell

Science fiction doesn’t predict the future, it determines it, colonizes it, preprograms it in the image of the present.” – William Gibson
Electric circuitry confers a mythic dimension on our ordinary individual and group actions. Our technology forces us to live mythically.” – Marshall McLuhan
More Brilliant Than The Sun is an interesting, even important book, but Kodwo Eshun either reads too much Deleuze & Guttuari, or smokes too much weed – none of it doing his writing much good. Clay-feet language machinery runs smoothly at times only, doing his nomadic thinking a great disservice. Too many neologisms will fuck up your digestive system.
I applaud Eshun’s attempt to bring new textual styles to the table, but try breaking through to new worlds too quickly, and contact with the Mothership will be lost. Expeditions will get stuck in orbit, in a postmodern loop, isolated from the everyday life of the planet. The text masturbates itself. Author hubris is evident. You need to keep contact with the oceans of ancient times and stay connected to the traditions of the older tribes. At times you get the impression that his cathedrals of poetical fragments, fractals and fractures have been raised only to cover up for lightweight ideas; jewels glimmering falsely, like tinfoil bling much less brilliant than the sun.
Typically, the pieces that works the best are those about music whose thinking and mythological structure is already quite developed: Underground Resistance, Drexciya, Parliament-Funkadelic, Lee Perry. Around them his writing works well, actually.
Music can not avoid telling stories and generating concepts. A seemingly empty genre like minimal techno is about nothingness; about meditation and architecture; like dub it’s about creating space. It is music full of ideas. This is one of the strongest points of Eshun’s book. The thinking is already in the music. It doesn’t need academics. George Clinton invented sampladelia, and he didn’t need Heidegger to do it. When Lee Perry talks about the death of the individual (although in different terms) he didn’t get that concept from reading Foucault. It’s right there in the music.
“The producer is now the modular input, willingly absorbed into McLuhan’s ‘medium which processes its users, who are its content (…) Cyborging, to borrow the words of Norman Mailer, ‘takes the immediate experiences of any man, magnifyies the dynamic of his movements, not specifically but abstractly so that he is seen as a vector in a network of forces.’”
What is the essence of HipHop? Where did its birth take place? Generally one might say: it’s black music, that refers back to the history and culture of black people. Or perhaps: it’s opressed people’s music everywhere, that refers to their specific history in a similar way. That rings true. But Eshun adds a posthuman perspective that says that the human being isn’t the sole source of creativity. Musical equipment – two turntables, the cheap-ass mixer, the time-bending sampler, the drum machine, Roland Space Echo – also have a parental role in the birth of Hip-Hop. Techno music is, of course, even more radical in this sense (think about electro and the 808 or acid house and the 303). On page 102 Eshun writes:
“HipHop updates blaxplotation’s territories; it represents the street. By opting out of this logic of representation, Techno disappears itself from the street, the ghetto and the hood. Drexciya doesn’t represent Detroit the same way Mobb Deep insist they represent Staten Island (sic!).”
Eshun loses me a bit here. Bedroom producers might have made some innovative works in the world of techno music (Drexciya, AFX, etc.), but they would be nothing without the scene, the electro and acid clubs and parties, that is – the streets. That’s what’s given them energy. The streets are essential: it’s where people meet. And as long as we have community, we will have some sort of representation. We can never leave the streets. But we can leave the industry, the inner-city clubs, the traps of fame and professionalism.
“Cybotron’s Techno City, like all these possibility spaces, is Sonic Fiction: electronic fiction, with frequencies fictionalized, synthesized and organized into escape routes (…) Which is why you should always laugh in the face of those producers , djs and journalists who sneer at escapism for its unreality, for its fakeness; all those who strain to keep it real (…) Sonic Fiction strands you in the present with no way of getting back to the 70s. Sonic Fiction is the first stage of a reentry program which grasps this very clearly. Sonic Fictions are part of modern music’s MythSystems. Moving through living space, real-world environments that are already alien. Operating instructions for the escape route from yourself. Overthrow the Internal Empire of your head. Secede from the stupidity of intelligence, the inertia of good taste, the rigor mortis of cool. You’re born into a rigged prison which the jailors term Real Life. Sonic Fiction is the manual for your own offworld break-out, reentry program, for entering Earth’s orbit and touching down on the landing strips of your senses.”
“Electro is an E-Z learn induction into the militarization of pop life, the sensualizing of militarization, the enhanced sensorium of locking into the Futurhythmachine.”
“From arcadegames to the Net to simulation games, civil society is the low end research-and-development unit of the military. Techno has the nomad’s edge over HipHop’s hypervisible trooper forever crucified in the crosshair of the gunsight.”
The urban prairies of a downsized and crime-ridden Detroit gave musical scientists a perfect backdrop for experiments in cold, weightless futurism, in a way similar to how Kraftwerk had laid the foundation for a new consciousness among the generation growing up after the Second World War. A new powerful music was needed to fill the catastrophic vacuum. Detroit answered Kraftwerk’s coldly bitter and beautiful anthem We Are The Robots by saying: “We are the aliens” (work and alienation: two reoccuring themes in electronic music).
The visionary quality of Juan Atkins and UR would not come forth as naturally in New York or Los Angeles. Techno doesn’t abandon the streets, but its mode of representation is different. Instead of fighting over old turfs, techno creates new spaces. While HipHop constantly refers to and rewrites its history, electronic music aims for “an empty future waiting to be populated.”
“UR realised that their was little point in ‘exposing the reality’ of social deprivation and inequality – why bother, when that reality was already depressingly well known? Instead they used fictions to diagram the way in which social reality as it is experienced is a second-order effect of more abstract processes: a war between programmers and fugitives, between overground normality and underground gnosis, between a history given over to atrocity and exploitation and an empty future waiting to be populated.
UR started at the end of the 1980s, at the very moment when the End of History was being proclaimed. They immediately understood that, when the Cold War ended, political struggle would get even colder and cultivated an estranging, alienating distance.”
- (from The Wire, number 285, nov, 2007)
HipHop being born in New York surely has something to do with its intense mix of cultures (and especially a Jamaican influence – that is after all where the battles, the DJ:s, the MC:s and the soundsystems were imported from). A comment on BLUNT RAPPS adds another important social aspect to our story of modern music (by way of a book by Tricia Rose):
“kids of that period and location were geared towards a manufacturing based economy, whereas they found themselves in what is called post industrialized society. So you get Herc being trained as an auto mechanic in vocational school messing around with his father’s system, Flash similarly schooled making his own cross fader, stuff like that. It’s easy to see that hands-on interest in fucking around with (often obsolete) technology linking to futurism and space rap and electro, currents which have apparently stayed in the ether ’til today. Also tempting to link it to PE’s soundscapes as a representation of a political landscape, or NWA’s as a geographical/political one, as in the same refusal to be left for dead in the ass-end of the system”.
This social angle is needed to balance Eshun’s powerful hybrid of musical myths and conceptual hubris. It’s up to us to expand upon these perspectives, and especially in praxis." - brytburken

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