This Is Ourselves


On Music

Photo: Dave Tompkins

The Trump sign stood offscreen in the scrub, appointed to an unfinished home on Tingler Avenue in Marathon, Florida. No roof, just scudding clouds framed by crossbeams. It was as if the stake had been pounded into the lot before the slab had even been poured. First things first: get it on cheap paperboard. On the beach nearby, four men talked over one another about the electability of real estate. They’re deep in their tans and cups, buzzing about their candidate’s ground game. It was only February but the heat pressed for summer. Down by the water, the landscape itself screamed: faces in the oolitic rock that had been there all along, terrified by history. You didn’t have to look too hard—see one and the others join its hysteria. Their features are produced by erosion and rock-boring sponges, “solution holes” that form eyes and mouths. Inside the mouths, armored chitons read the sky with eyes of stone, their shells composed of hundreds of crystalline aragonite lenses, hundreds of views, each perspective also eroding. In the beach chairs, the conversation grew more animated, accumulating property. The water gurgled. Bubbles popped. You hear what you want to hear, or you try to drown it out with something else.

Two days and several worlds later, I’m in Miami, home of the empty home of Steve Bannon, where he was illegally registered to vote for his future employer. Also home to 2016’s best film Moonlight, which stands for what Trump’s chief counselor wishes to silence. As Samuel R. Delany once wrote, “There are times when all the yellin’ and the hellin’ can’t fill the lack.”

The scream is digitally transferable, from master tapes to a computer in a small studio owned by Andrew “Le Spam” Yeomanson. Recorded in 1993, by Palm Beach County’s Splack Pack, the scream is a stem, a part of a song disbanded into its constituents. Alone, it’s merely trying to tear the room in half. Or maybe it’s just trying to holler at Ozzy (circa “Crazy Train”) and a man from Broward County identified as Sir Knight Slime Nasty. Using indoor voices, this could be a simple “hi.” Then it sits on a thumbtack. Throw in some congas getting their hide tanned and a massive pressure wave of tropically warm feelings. It sounds so good that you almost forget what you’re not hearing: the other stems that made “Scrub Da Ground” a hit in the clubs, where women could reclaim themselves from the title’s kitchen-floor grind, owning dance floor and the song. Recalled one YouTube viewer, “I remember letting it be known this WAS my song. And refused to dance with anyone because I needed this one ALONE.”

Chiton face. Photo: Laura Harmon

Compartmentalized into just scream, congas, and low end, what I heard wasn’t a song (stem, seeds, and all) but a release in itself. Working parts, bodies yet to be commodified. This version only lived in the moment—twenty seconds of reverse engineering played live by Spam sliding faders on the console. It may have been the best thing I heard in 2016. It was certainly the best thing I heard all year while drinking from a coconut that fell from a tree in Spam’s yard while I stared at Man Parrish’s old 808 on the studio rack in front of me. The best thing I heard until Spam played the next thing: an unreleased Debbie Deb–Pretty Tony track, vocoded in 1984. Pretty Tony: first in Miami to have an Atari hooked up in his car, once recorded himself smashing champagne bottles in the studio. Debbie Deb: stood me up at Club Spinnaker in Panama City, Florida, one spring break after I drove ten hours to see her do “When I Hear Music.” Perhaps some kind soul will release this freestyle-electro monster thirty-three years later. (Subject heading: “What the world needs now.”) Freestyle is a dance genre known for living in the moment, falling in love and apart before the next hook. Remixes were often done late night, alone in the studio with a box cutter and recording tape, when the clubs were emptying out.

The next time I visit the studio in North Miami, it’s early December and Trump is president-elect. Solution hole becomes sinkhole, the collapsing world. Since I last saw Spam, he’s been sorting through master tapes from Arthur Baker’s peak of producing and remixing dance music in the early 1980s. After me, he will be visited by Miami funk musician Lang Cook, creator of “Liberty City Jam” (from the 1984 album She’s Hot with 2000 Watts). This is Spam’s job: listening to and digitizing unheard treasure, which also includes baking the tapes at 130 degrees inside a Snackmaster jerky dehydrator. My job, I suppose, is to quietly freak out. This is easy when you’re holding a reel labeled “Smurf Rock,” the first song, to my knowledge, that uses farm and bass in the same thought.

“Smurf Rock” may have been my ride to school in the backseat of Mustang SVO, but the Arthur Baker haul was another story, blowing my wig back further. There’s a demo of Biz Markie beatboxing the “Hey what’s up, brother” part from Harlem Underground Band’s “Smokin’ Cheeba Cheeba,” basically having a conversation with himself between two other people. On beat, no big deal. There’s the Fat Boys’ first demo, where Buffy, the Human Beatbox (nabbed for selling weed to Tubbs in an episode of Miami Vice, d. 1995), is getting clowned by the others for what would become their signature noise (“What the fuck is ‘bbbbllllllllllllllllll’??”). There’s an unreleased electro track called “SOS” that I really want, followed by “No Need for Greed” by FREEEZ. Then a disturbing two minutes of Stevie Nicks trying to punch her way out of an emulator, in a flurry of pitches. Then a bass version of New Order’s “Confusion.” And Blowfly (d. 2016) doing a perversion of “Burn Rubber On Me.” (Oops! Wrong session.) Then another a cappella: some kid rapping about studio techniques (flange overdrive!) and burning drum-machine chips, as if he’d just walked in on all this new technology, including a drum machine that won’t stop playing “til the world is gone.” This warranty is somewhat apocalyptic but still encouraging for all you DMX owners out there. Turns out the kid is Adam Yauch (d. 2012). Then “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Vocals only at first. Add guitar. Fishbowls.

Arthur Baker with his tapes. Photo: Andrew Yeomanson

So many deceased passing through. Separated from their songs—and from how we’ve always known them—their isolated voices added a presence to the room, and thus absence, as if they had been just right there, losses that mark the past like any other year. We go to pieces. The session could only end with Planet Patrol’s “Play at Your Own Risk.” The perils of nostalgia for an era that was often cruel to the marginalized who danced and freaked to this music, the “Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” fully broken down in a present where fifty people are murdered in a club for living in their moment.

For now, these tracks remain in the studio. It was a comfort hearing these alternate realities, returning to the first of times but with certainty. I knew what was going to happen. I knew I would love it, a feeling amplified by the fact that I may not hear it again. And that I couldn’t take it with me. No dubs, no zips, no shares, no clips. No running down the street screaming about Splack stems in rush-hour traffic. No Farm ’n’ Bass. All I could do was entrust it all to memory (and to the lunatics trying to reissue everything, leaving no chiton unturned) and walk out with an empty coconut, the smell of hibiscus in the yard, in a place without season, as if a false sense of timelessness could forestall the future. A bird of paradise bloomed on the stoop, a perennial shouting in bright orange.

Photo: Dave Tompkins

“My Everyday Shit, Every Night Shit”: Songs That Actually Came Out This Year That I Listened to the Most

Frank Ocean, “Nights”

Yves Tumor, “The Feeling When You Walk Away

Karen Gwyer, “You Big

King, “The Right One”

Country Florist, “Vintage Whispers

Steven Julien, “Oshun”

Abra, “Crybaby (Rom’s Duct Dub Breakdown Edit)”

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, “Arthropoda”

Blood Orange, “EVP”/ “Best to You”

Danny Brown, “Hell For It”

Frank Ocean “Pink and White”

Cousin Stizz, “Every Season”

Demdike Stare, “Airborne Latency

Crooked Man, “Coming Up for Air” (album edit)

Nicolas Jaar, “Three Sides of Nazareth”

Jessy Lanza, “Could Be U”/ “I Talk BB” (Morgan Geist Remix)

Mark Pritchard, “Hi Red

DJ Shadow, featuring Nils Frahm, “Bergschrund”

French Montana and Kodak Black, “Lockjaw”

Radiohead, “Ful Stop”

Africaine 808, “Nation

Andre 3000, “Solo (Reprise)”


Record I Sold So I Could Afford Blond on Vinyl Until MF***Kers Jacked the Price Up

Folkways, Speech After Removal of the Larynx


Strings That Got Me Like Family Stand’s “Ghetto Heaven” in a Song Requested by FLOTUS for the White House Farewell Party

Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”


Song I Was Listening to When Attacked by Two Fortunately Nonrabid Dogs Near the Polk County Line

Juan Atkins and Moritz von Oswald Present Borderland, “Zeolites”


Best Xmas-Morning Gift Not Unrelated to the Phantasm Silver-Ball Brain-Driller Ornament I Saw Online

 Run the Jewels 3


Favorite Event That Projected Zoanthid Coral Polyps onto Subwoofers Attached to a German-made Mobile-Sound Panzer

Nik Nowak’s Soundtank vs Bass Mekanik


Best Freestyle Flashback in a Room Where Madonna’s Former Boyfriend Was DJing Inside a Giant Hydraulic Clown Face

Being in the same room/on the same dance floor with remixers Aldo Marin, Carlos Berrios, Jellybean Benitez, Little Louie Vega, and Albert Cabrera and Tony Moran (Latin Rascals).



Moodymann, DJ-Kicks

Michael Klausman, Gown Control V—“Paleolithic sounds, pre-Christian rituals, early pastoral herder’s songs, bone flutes, caverns, ocarinas, three-thousand-year-old Olmec whistles, hymns for ancient Cults and laments for distant Kings.”

12manrambo, Deadicate 1—mix of cassette-only nineties Bay Area rap (aka, what my friend wanted as her birthing sound track)

Kashif tribute mixes by DJ Spinna and Walla P

Best Use of Collective Air Horn

HB2 protests outside (now former!) Governor Pat McCrory’s mansion


Four Things That Came Up in a Phone Conversation with the Pharcyde’s Former Bodyguard on Election Night Just As Broward County Went Blue and I Thought Florida Was, You Know, “in the Bag”

The Batterram Tape

The humming memory of Circuit City shorting out during the Rodney King rebellion

Ava DuVernay’s roots at the Good Life open mics in South Central

The 13th, best documentary of 2016


Favorite Story about the Guy Who Recorded the Psychologically Ultimate Seashore

Mike Powell, “Natural Selection,” Pitchfork


Best Miami Vocoder Jam Played By a Kid on His Bicycle While Passing Under My Hotel Window Near the South Wall of the Alamo

Freestyle, “Don’t Stop the Rock”

Screwed Version of an Older Song That Played in My Head More Than in Headphones, Especially When Making Oatmeal

Dlo, “Classic Man” (Jidenna)


Watch What You Heard

Cheryl Lynn’s “Encore” in the parking lot to Shabazz Palaces’s “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum” with the winding overhead shot to the Overlook Hotel only to end up at the Migos’s camper in the woods somewhere outside Atlanta


A Much-Better-Than-Tango-and-Cash Use of Yaz in an Iranian Horror Film Concerning an Angry Iraqi Missile Djinn and Aerobics Videos

Under the Shadow

A Dope 1983 Horror-Synth Sound Track from a Florida Movie Bo Diddley Was Supposed to Be In

The Enchanted: Phil Sawyer’s (Spencer Davis Group) original synth score for the rarely seen Carter Lord animism horror film shot in the Seminoles’ last stronghold. Nice cut-away owl shots, too.


Rerelease Yourself

Blood Sisters 45, “Ring My Bell”

Boco 45, “Running the Mardi Gras

Karen Marks, “Cold Café” (from the Sky Girl compilation)

Close to the Noise Floor (compilation)


Abandoned Names for My and Jon Kirby’s DJ Night in Asheville, North Carolina, Last July


Splack to the Future

Splack and Field

Jerry Splackhouse


Old Things New to Me That I Loved in 2016

Ray Davies, “I Go To Sleep”

Womack and Womack, “MPB (Folk Version)

South Kak, “Freaky Dreams (Instrumental or Is It?)”

(Have to break format here. Posthumous recording of Roger Troutman freaking the Talkbox, not a sample.)

Science Club, “Dubpression”

Some crazy Waffle House shit Jon Kirby played me


Super Chthonic: Three Things I Listened to That Are Way Older Than Waffle House

Rossby Wormhole (Caribbean)

Baleen Whale (Mariana Trench)

??? (Arctic seafloor)


Because We Had to Work the Thing in Here Somehow

Things caught in the North Atlantic by Murmansk deep-sea fisherman Roman Fedortsov


Which Reminds Me of My Favorite Prince Song

“Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” (original studio version)


And a George Michael Song That Reminds Me of Blood Orange

“Heaven Help Me” (Deon Estus with George Michael, actually)


While We’re At It

George Michael, “Waiting for the Day (Reprise)”


Three Eighties Electro-Funk Song Titles I Made Out of My Friend’s Baby’s Name


“Zekes Come Out At Night”



The Only Two Songs I’ve Ever Karaoke’d in My Life

King Crimson, “In the Court of the Crimson King” (see Children of Men)

David Bowie and Queen, “Under Pressure”: “This is our last dance / This is ourselves” 


Winter Kills

Andy Stott, “Time Away” (2014)

Hermann and Kleine, “Leaving You Behind” (2008)

Ka, “That Cold and Lonely” (2016)


Dave Tompkins is currently writing a natural history of Miami Bass and archeopsychic bottom. His first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, is still out there, in paperback and on 99% Invisible.