On his latest album, Keith “Giant Claw” Rankin sets his hyperactive sights on Internet Age culture.
A collage of sliced-and-diced pop and R&B vocals and electronic productions that draw from hip-hop, club music, ’90s pop and more, Dark Web (out now via Noumenal Loom) is a meditation on the cultural heritage of the generations that have come to age during the Internet Age.
The album has the sound of late night browsing sessions gone wrong, when YouTube clips and Soundcloud links and iTunes tracks melt together in an amalgam of cultural signposts and musical signifiers. With that in mind, we spoke to the Orange Milk / Cream Juice co-founder about his approach to the album, cultural shifts in the Internet Age, and — because it seemed appropriate — PC Music.
How did the idea of trends affect Dark Web?
I always think about the idea of trends, and if you’re in an artist in the culture, you’re buying into the idea of trends automatically, at least for me. That’s what spurs me forward a lot of time, even if it’s on an unconscious level. Everyone is a part of culture, and culture progresses through trends and fashion, through a mass of memes or whatever you want to call them. At the same time, a lot of artists don’t like to talk about that, or acknowledge that maybe we’re not as brilliant or original as we might seem, even though that’s an illusion.
American art in particular is obsessed with the “genius figure,” the rugged individual that doesn’t pay attention to anyone else, isn’t influenced by anything else, and carves their own path that everyone else follows. Art here is very obsessed with that idea. I don’t buy into that. I think that people arrive at different fashions or trends almost collectively; it’s almost out of our hands as individuals if we’re plugged into the culture. The idea that we’re all playing into a bigger cultural stream than our individual instincts is something I became really aware of while doing this record. I wanted to throw myself into more current trends than I had before.
Apart from the album’s musical elements, like R&B vocals and trap drums, there are also nods to early Internet culture. What was your experience with that?
It was kind of a huge deal for me and for people around my age — I’m 30, so I still remember a childhood that was pre-Internet. But then as I got online as an early teenager, my mind switched on, in a way. It’s weird having this recollection of pre-Internet activities but seeing how things were so profoundly affected by having the availability of information. It changed my life, and the lives of most people [laughs], even if they didn’t realize it.
A lot of the trends now are ’90s revival. You could look at it as cyclical; maybe five years ago everything was ’80s obsessed, and before that ’70s obsessed. There is that element to it, but beyond that, music and culture are seeing the effects of a generation that has been interfacing with computers their entire life. There’s a slight shift in consciousness happening when you’ve been interfacing with computers and having instant connections, downloads and access to so much data. That instantaneity gets into your mind and affects how you view all life, not just on the computer: your entire worldview can’t help but be shaped by computer interfacing.
When I was young, I felt a sort of cultural void. I was in a somewhat middle class family in Ohio, and it’s not exactly the most culturally rich place to be. I was way into cartoons and stuff like that, but I just remember feeling a disconnect with reality: the things I was feeling didn’t quite match up with the culture I was inside of or the way school was training us to think. That type of white-washed culture comes from a post-war media-advertising mentality, when advertisers realized that it was more effective to sell a lifestyle instead of a product. At that time, the media and advertisers and whoever began selling a facsimile of what life was, selling people the life they thought they wanted — a weird illusion of an alternative lifestyle that they thought people wanted. It was like this weird layer of reality sitting on top of people’s actual lives.
Over time, that layer of reality has merged with actual life, creating this weird disconnect between how we felt and how we’re living. On top of that, there’s media representation making us feel weird, too. Obviously, when you’re young you don’t register that stuff, but when I was got online and started browsing, searching, and discovering new cultures, basically, it was kind of like a “holy shit” moment: there’s so much culture out there that we weren’t exposed to. That shift into Internet culture was a pretty huge deal.
The generation that bridged the gap and came of age right around the rise of the Internet certainly reflects that in their art.
It’s interesting: I meet people a bit older than us, people that missed that period where the Internet would have informed their world view. They’re on Facebook and Twitter and using email, they’re using social media the same way we are, but they are more discontent. Their minds are unhappy because there’s dissonance: their method of interfacing is not matching with this new digital interfacing. I think it’s because life pre-Internet was based on physical constraints, spatial relationships, how long it took to get places or do things. People’s minds were hardwired to interface in that way; it informed our sense of history, as well, like a linear narrative of history going along the side of the road [laughs].
Then Internet culture comes along, and it eliminates the spatial interfacing of a lot of distance. Everything is so instantaneous, and now people have a temporal relationship to things. We view life in the amount of time it takes for information to come to us, which is usually instantaneous. If we’re used to downloading a track in a few seconds other areas that are time consuming almost seem strange. Do you know that Louis CK bit about people being upset with their phones? I think some older people are on board with that, that younger kids are spoiled brats that expect things instantly. But I think the reality is that they have been interfacing this way since they were born. When they’re in their “natural habitat” in front of a computer, the pace of life is that instant. So when they’re elsewhere, they wonder, why do these other processes take this long?
It’s a subtle shift of consciousness or interfacing. It obviously affects music a lot. I think this Internet generation is predisposed to rapidly cycling through music — just going through Soundcloud, listening to a million things and instantly registering culturally-coded information in each track, comparing it to their internal values, and figuring out if they like it or not in about 2 seconds. The pace of consumption of music is changing to this type of rapid, instantaneous consumption. I don’t think it’s a bad or a good thing, I just see how it’s going. People have this knee-jerk reaction to that type of consumption, saying we have to revert to the ’90s model of buying CDs or listening to full albums on a record player. Culture is just moving forward, that’s just how it is.
There is definitely a deluge of music to consume, and you have to develop a kind of shorthand, like looking at a waveform on Soundcloud and deciding where to listen to decipher it and put it in context. It is tough to get a handle on the stream of information.
That process in itself exposes the lack of true originality existing. If you were to consume all the music being created in America right now, you’d realize that everything is basically the same, or there are segments that exist with massive groups. Overexposure reveals the homogenous nature of culture and music itself. If you go through a million Soundcloud links, you’re going to start to feel that [laughs].
It feels like you really embraced that idea on the album: putting these disparate elements together in a new context.
Embracing that felt really good and was pretty freeing. For instance, I was hearing that trap music hi-hat sound a lot on Soundcloud, and to ignore any hesitation, to adopt sounds and just use them wherever I wanted opened up my musical vocabulary. In the 1800s with classical music, there wasn’t the idea that you had to do your own thing with every composition. Beethoven was obsessed with Haydn, Mozart and everybody. They would just rip-off the person before them, shamelessly. It was just how it went back then. Of course, individual tics come out through that process. When you’re trying to imitate a sound or play into a cultural style, it can loosen you up and make you go to new places that apart from your influences. The album was definitely based on that idea.
It’s almost the opposite of an approach you see often, which throws up walls and limitations within a creative framework.
That’s basically the inverse of what I was talking about: using your limitations to bring out more creativity. I think that’s a valid approach — it’s worked for me before when I was trying to hone in on one style, like the whole ’70s, tape scene synthesizer revival stuff. Just meditating on one cultural strain that almost didn’t get enough time to flourish when it originally popped up. Dark Web was the opposite of that: opening up, picking a variety of influences and making sense of them together.
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There’s almost an alternate reality aspect to that, as if you’re picking up a thread that didn’t develop and continuing it now.
I was thinking about this the other day… There was a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen here, and I wished there had been a 100-year period where the tools that Stanley Kubrick used to make that film had been explored to death, over a longer span of time. But we have maybe a 20-year period where the technology he was using was the popular form, and then it got replaced. In a sense, that’s just because of the rapidness of technological advances. Things are marching forward at such a pace that these little movements that pop get cut off before they have time to stretch their wings.
Synth stuff in the ’70s started as an underground movement and became popular for a few years there before it got replaced by digital technology. I totally think that the tape scene, synth revival of 2010 to 2013 — which is a pretty short time in itself [laughs] — was a necessary re-examination of this period of music that almost got cut off too quickly. I have a feeling that this is a new thing that’s going to happen more and more: these little pockets of culture that get snuffed out too early start to get reexamined.
There are sounds on the album that are evocative of ringtones, and I have seen people writing about rap songs sampling Nextel chirps as leading to a “flip-phone revival;” there’s this demand for instant nostalgia.
That’s all about the instantaneous nature of the Internet: these flashes of data, sparking up and dying is how music and culture are being experienced now. Maybe that’s how we’ll start experiencing things, with these little sparks. They can repeat at different times, but almost no movements are sustained beyond a year or two. It’s getting quicker and quicker. I think that’s a whole new cultural space to be in; I can’t think of another time when cultural progression looked like that. Inevitably, it will change how we live, when we experience information in these quick bursts. I think arguments could be made for it being an awful shift [laughs] but I haven’t really made up my mind yet. It’s a crazy, interesting time to live in, especially as an artist.
Speaking of these quick trends, what do you think of PC Music?
I love that stuff. The PC Music and Internet culture stuff, it’s so packed with layers of reality almost. Even if you pick up on it subconsciously, somehow you know that it’s subversive in some way. It’s appropriating popular culture and pop music, and toeing the line between a faithful recreation of those tropes and being a total critique of it. It doesn’t have to be either way, but all this cultural data is effortlessly jammed-packed in the music. I think the knee-jerk reactions for people who really hate it aren’t used to that much extra-musical information. It’s much easier to hear a four-piece rock back and listen to their composition and song structure and relate to that, but that’s kinda going away. Now it’s about how you play with subtext; I think that stuff’s really interesting.
Dark Web certainly seems to be jam-packed with a lot of cultural data. What is your expectation of what people will get from the album?
I started the record by taking pop and R&B acapellas and cutting them up. My intent with that was to make listeners aware of this cultural dissection process. I cut the vocals up and made them into new melodies, taking less than half of a second, rearranging it, doing that for like 20 instances and creating a new melody. Obviously, that obliterated the original lyrical content of the vocal, and you could kind of register that it was mangled and cut up. Originally, the album was going to be the vocals and spare drum beats behind them.
My intention there was to have the samples function under three layers of reality. The raw musical reality — the melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre — those are the things people are used to picking up on instantly. The second layer would be a cultural or historical time stamp; a lot of the R&B vocals I sampled were clearly from the ’90s, and even with lyrical content removed, you could still place it in history by these tiny affectations in the original vocals. Even if you take a half-a-second clip with these tics, you can immediately place it in time thanks to this extra-musical layer. The third layer was the chopping point, or the alteration point where the sample was manipulated. I tried to make that layer explicit: my creative intention was to make the listener subconsciously realize that the historical sample was being manipulated, that the culture is being used as a new compositional tool. I was hoping you could listen to the album as a musical thing, but also subconsciously pick up this extra-musical concepts.
The “chopped vocal” has been so prevalent in the last few years, but breaking down the vocal further makes the handiwork even more obvious: showing how it works beyond just nostalgia.
When you really start to dissect samples — when you don’t just let a minute sample play — a different kind of compositional style emerges, as if you’re using that layer of culture itself as an instrument. That idea was cool to me. Also, mixing that with original compositional fragments that I did… I’d record something at night, like a melody on a keyboard, and I’d have it mixed in with these samples, and when I’d listen back, I’d ask myself, “was this thing I played a sample? Which was which?” The fact that I was confusing myself was interesting, too.
The line is further blurred between sample and original composition.
The takeaway from that is that the sample doesn’t matter, whether you’re sampling or composing something yourself. The end result is the significant statement. I think that goes against a lot of reactions to sampling itself that I’ve seen in the past few years: “it’s not music, it’s not original because it’s been sampled,” and so on.
For instance, I made a track in line with the vapor-wave movement. It was a Kylie Minogue song that I slowed down, and I use it in my live set. People always come up to me and say, “that last track was amazing, how did you come up with that melody?” And I have to say I didn’t, Kylie Minogue did. Half of the people are really disappointed, like you failed them or like they were tricked: “You made me enjoy this thing, but it wasn’t an authentic experience of your own creativity!” The other half love it and are excited that you’re incorporating an element like that. I enjoy merging extreme samples and extreme composition: to me, that’s an interesting place to make music in.
To be upset because something is not your composition — to only focus on the standards of the last 50 years, of what makes an artist or auteur — is to reject most of musical history.
It’s interesting: why is that now? Why in this brief 50 or 60 year period, suddenly in art the public demands you be a completely original, individual genius figure, as we said earlier. This period of time is almost unique in art, where the artist must be an “authentic” original creator. I’m curious to where that mentality comes from; I guess it comes from a capitalist view that values someone that rises above their origins, climbs the corporate ladder, works the marketplace and becomes a big CEO or something [laughs]… I think that is somehow tied into it.
It is paradoxical: we’re at a point where we have such instant access to so much information and data, so it’s strange to disregard all of the recorded knowledge we have.
I think it’s important to consider that we don’t need to use our memory to retain facts: we use the Internet and computers as an extension of our brains, as an expansion of our storage capacity, in a way. We don’t have to carry around the minutiae when it’s on our phone. Even that process has to open up different areas of our mind in some ways, of what happens when we let go of this burden of minutiae.
We’re figuring out as individuals and as a society how to deal with issues like that, how to deal with future shock.
I think “future shock” is a really good term, because that’s happening all over the place: people finding this disconnect and butting up against this cultural shift, and it is a shock: “Oh shit, my mode of existence, my perception of reality is not the only one that exists.” We as a culture are going to change. If we were to travel a hundred years into the future, we’d be miserable because our whole mindset would be so totally foreign that’d we’d be totally isolated. People are experiencing this in a few years time: segments of their mind are becoming outdated, and it’s very isolating. I’ve felt like this before, and I think everyone I know has, at some point. A good example is our parent’s generation just being frustrated with technology while seeing their grandkids flip through an iPhone. It’s an isolating experience to know that your state of mind has been left behind, and rapidly.