Friday, 31 May 2013

Hip Hop History: Cheap Headphones

I went to a school a long way from home, and I spent well over an hour on a bus every school day.  I read a lot, but of course, I listened to music as much of the time, maybe more.

My headphones never worked, they were always the cheap kind that came free with a cheap walkman.  One time the bus driver pulled over and turned round to ask who had their music up so loud.  Obviously, I didn’t hear him.  Someone tapped me on the shoulder and pointed towards the front of the bus. It was me.  I was listening to The Smiths.  Not just the band The Smiths, but their debut album, which was also called The Smiths (I resisted the urge to use the word “eponymous” there, did you notice?  It wasn’t easy.)  The album is quite tinny and on cheap heaphones you can barely hear the bass.  From the outside of someone else’s cheap headphones, all you can hear is the treble, ie, the cymbals.  I tested it out when I got off the bus, and to be fair, it was very loud and obnoxiously treble-heavy.  Lots of bleed, is the technical term, I think.

Whenever I get new headphones I always try them out by connecting them to all the devices I use them with and turning the volume way up.  I try this with different kinds of music, then just voices, then some kind of TV or film that will have both.
When I make music now, I hate to pan sounds (for the uninitiated, that’s when the sound in question is all through one side) because anyone listening on the kind of shitey head/earphones I’ve always had won’t hear it properly.  The Beatles were particularly bad for this, not that I listened to them much as a youth.

When I was about 17, though, I had a working pair of shitey earphones and me and a friend tried to sing the parts to Simon & Garfunkels’s first album, Wednesday Morning 3AM, which we could work out because it was panned, with Simon in one ear and Garfunkel in the other.  It’s (partly) how I learned about harmony.
It was fascinating.  (Paul Simon’s singing on the album is remarkable.  It’s mostly monotone, everything he does supports Art Garfunkel’s high melody.)

It all seems reminiscent of the origins of Hip Hop, and perhaps explains why I’m so moved by this history.  For a really good explanation, see any of KRS One’s lectures on the subject.  There are plenty on youtube.  My favourite is this one.

Equally, I never had good stereo speakers, just a series of inherited low-quality midi systems.  I was delighted when I got my own first stereo, one that was just mine, even though I only had a few tapes to play on it.  I was never one for collecting records, as much as I loved music, I obsessively listened to the few I had.  I relied heavily on my older brother’s collection.  (All this is discussed in greater detail here, and with a visual presentation here.)

I still have cheap headphones now.  Just last week a surprisingly low-priced pair of Sennheiser cans suddenly went in one ear.  (I got plenty of use out of them, mind.)
About three years ago, I broke three pairs of the Sony monitor kind within a month or so.  (Two I stood on, the other I can’t remember.)

The Flaming Lips’ album Zaireeka was released as four different CDs , intended to be played simultaneously.  I’ve got a kind of grudging respect for that perverse experimenting, but I’ll probably never do anything like that….
When I made my first album, I was always testing it out on my own cheap headphones to make sure the mix worked.  It was great to hear it on the monitors at the studio, or my flatmate’s massive speakers, but I knew what was really important: how does it sound on a five quid pair of earphones?
I always wonder how those who can’t afford good headphones or speakers will hear it.
(This would now be considered a good move commercially, but at the time, this never occurred to me.  I hadn’t really thought about the fact that people listen to music more and more on personal devices, or computers because of the ease of downloading.  I’d always preferred to listen to music on my own, because it was deeply personal and too important to risk other people’s inane chatter over the best bits.)

So, I still buy cheap(ish) headphones, even though I have a professional interest in having good ones, and I do understand that you get what you pay for.

I partly buy cheap(ish) headphones to remember my youth. 
Partly because I want to remember what it’s like to listen to music that is very important on shitey equipment that doesn’t do it justice, and still love it.
Partly because I’ve broken a few by standing on them. 
Partly because I don’t have a lot of money to spend on headphones, or anything else.

And partly because the pioneers of Hip Hop discovered something from nothing, and I want to be like them.

Clayton Blizzard

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