Wattson Wednesday W(rap) #3
Into the Vault: Dissecting the song AFFIRMATIVE off the December 2020 release DAYWALKERZ PRESENTS: DOC WATTSON LOST TAPES
Does it count as digging in a vault if it’s your most recent official release?
The first full-length solo project of my career dropped in the summer of 2020, and it was a lot of fun to create Bonsai with Ronesh. Putting together a cohesive project is amazing, and really challenging.
Sometimes the project doesn’t pan out, or certain pieces don’t fit, or you can’t figure out a way to turn discrete songs into a narrative. Or worse, you sit on an idea or a topical line just long enough that it sounds tone deaf or irrelevant upon revisit.
For any number of reasons, art has a lot more to do with curating than creating.
That said, rap, uhh, finds a way…
The single is the most obvious avenue (especially with people’s attention spans), but along with singles rappers employ mixtapes to both showcase the diversity of their skills and also to get people hearing their songs that may not fit into any one project.
Mixtapes are their own art, and the LOST TAPES was an amateur but earnest curation effort on my part. There is nothing like the mood set in a good mixtape.
I’m proud of all the tracks on this record, but I get that people are busy. Since this song has gotten less than 50 views on all streaming platforms I wanted to take some time to talk about a song we’re going to go digging all the way back to December 2020 to hear.
Song: Affirmative https://youtu.be/4z7OzToHxxo
Context: My coworker introduced me to her son’s music one day and I was really struck by the kid’s potential. At the time he was just 15-16, but he already had a completely unique sound, employing native samples from the streets of Chicago into soulful jazzy production. His production is sometimes frenetic and angst-filled, sometimes xanned out and disorientingly off-rhythm (but actually not… not REALLY).
When I peeped game on the Avenues beat tapes I went from admirer, to fan, to collaborator. (I’m honored he used the JoeJ drop I recorded for him on his beats, although I think he goes by SAINT CHOPS on the gram). If you click that link above you'll notice that AFFIRMATIVE was written over the beat DAMEN, pretty much entirely as is.
JoeJ unlocked some great energy from my writing. The songs All Over, Affirmative, Shout It, Do That, and Oregano cover a lot of ground musically as well as personally. The project only didn’t solidify into something more official because ultimately I was self-conscious about my engineering ability.
Speaking of imposter syndrome…
I talked a lot about fitting in and my struggles with such on this platform and in my music. This song drives to the core of one of those anxieties: the idea that I am only in a place to right an intergenerational wrong and not because I earned that place.
It’s a frustrating emotion because in general it’s totally irrelevant. We are social animals, and however self-reliant we feel or wish to behave, we have to have a social identity to thrive, and I always worry that my reputation in some small way carries with it some sort of asterisk. I’m pretty sure I earned every achievement but how can I be certain?
The non-rhetorical answer to this question is you can’t be sure ever, you merely have to show effort and competence wherever you are. I try to demonstrate competence in every space I occupy, and this song is a physical demonstration of that idea but also more an exploration of the mood this tension creates.
YES, Yea, I guess, AFFIRMATIVE (I am attempting to encapsulate the emotional dilemma of affirmative action by the use of synonyms. YES is the emotion of a minority candidate learning of their new opportunity. Yeah is the realization that the minority candidate was selected to fill a quota, taking some of the steam out of the excitement. “I guess” is the attitude of decision-makers who either don’t realize the systemic biases they’re perpetuating through their placement decisions or they don’t care.)
Got my seat up at the table
But i’m always second guessin’ if my seat had a label (“quotas” are an unfortunate side effect to many restorative justice programs, and affirmative action leads to the idea that certain minorities are given spaces not because they earned them but because there was a minimum required number of non-white bodies required)
So I speak when I’m able (fortunately I have never been shy, and I leverage access to all spaces I’m in. I very much have the reputation as “question guy” at work. They are usually questions on everyone’s mind.)
Do I question the lesson plan or keep spitting fables? (We all get caught up in selling a bullshit idea here and there. I usually do my best to never follow a plan just because someone says so. That said, once I've learned the reasoning behind a decision I can be your most fervent champion…)
Head peaked at the gable (I’m well educated, which occasionally feels like a liability. I’m employing the imagery of my head hitting the ceiling because it's so big)
Too big for my britches i’m conspicuous i don’t fit (This is a physical observation. Being overweight I have a lot of social anxiety about how I literally ‘fit’ in large crowds of people. It’s impossible to move through the crowds, I always feel uncomfortable. This is also a loose double meaning where I’ve always preferred the idea of being a ‘Big fish in a small pond’ even though there are dramatic limitations to that setup…)
In many packages that’s all size, won’t get
Caught both fists full of small fries broke wrists (The penalty for theft in some cultures involved breaking or mutilating the offender’s hand, but I am implying here you won’t catch me slipping)
Stuntin like a fall guy when the dough hit (a lot of slang/wordplay to unpack here: “Stuntin” can either mean doing physical tricks or creating a flashy scene out in public. This stuntin’ activity is best achieved on payday, ‘when the dough’ hits the bank account.)
Direct to the bank stacking I’m growing sums
Feeling shaky on the pulpit
Hoping that all of the pupils can see what I’m showing ‘em (I REALLY like the double meaning of pupils here as both students and eye parts. Religious profession is limited because it requires faith in what we can’t see, but I’m presenting the idea that today’s public is rejecting information that they can see and that they are being told directly and clearly is important)
Scope wide like I’m blowing up (I was imagining looking at a detonation through binoculars from a distance. ‘Blowing up’ in the music industry = commercial success.)
But the best thrust comes when you focus the aperture (I was visualizing a hose that you stick your thumb over. I’m pretty sure rocket thrusters work in a similar way by controlling the flow of the jet’s combustion… I am definitely not an aeronautic engineer though. The point of this line and the line about scope is about FOCUS. Make sure you know who your audience is and why, and don’t worry about who isn’t into your product/song/ideas. The most powerful people and companies keep things astonishingly simple, and they soar to high heights because they know where to focus their energy)
So that capsule’s still going up (I am getting better at my craft, is the general implication here)
acting like I know what’s up, yeah I’m a rapper sure (Studies show that “fake it til you make it” is a provable strategy that actually builds confidence as well as competence)
YES, Yeah, I guess, AFFIRMATIVE (I also wanted the chorus to sound snarky, but I also wanted it to be very simple, since I spit-hard on the verses.)
Cut the beat and ride the vibe yo
Ain’t no eenie meenie miney
Come and see me when you find me
I’m in the clearing in the high trees
Smiling cat crouching on bad knees
Dragon up in hiding (A crouching tiger/hidden dragon reference, replete with imagery of those high trees the martial artists fought atop. Also crouching with bad knees sucks y’guys.)
Not like Khaleesi in the pyramid (SPOILERS: In Game of Thrones Daenerys aka Khaleesi aka Mother of Dragons (etc) birthed three dragons that she quickly lost control over because, well, they’re enormous mythical beasts. Anyway her solution for not being able to control the dragons was to chain them in a tomb underneath a pyramid. This didn’t set well with the dragons, yet she seemed to suffer no consequence for that specific action…)
I spit a mean game sure but I’m never mean spirited
I know i’ve done it cuz you’re hearing it
I also know i’m done pretending I’m keeping up appearances (It took til I’m 40 but I’ve ALMOST fully embodied the ‘fuck ‘em if they dont’ feel you’ philosophy. ALMOST.)
Hit ‘em with the groove change post up
Watch ‘em move different bodies doin’ what it’s sposed ta
Hit the booth gripping roots pulled up from the long climb
Out of holes kicking moles reaching from the bottom line (This four bar segment loosely described the process of creating Daywalkerz and ‘digging myself out’ of my depression and anxiety. Roots represent both a hand hold as I climb out of a hole as well as a core of who I am. The bottom line is the beginning of the race. Sometimes I feel like I’ve only just begun)
Bottom line, I’m speaking for myself often (Truly the unasked question is always no, your strongest advocate will always be you. Be your own champion and strongest advocate)
also ignoring when my body yells caution (take care of yourself folks!)
Acclimating to the energy expelled plotting (i don’t know about you but promoting and putting myself out there is exhausting. I hate it. But I have to get used to it if I want to do anything in music. So I push forward a little bit each week)
I”m heatin up the oven so i get this bread poppin’ (another money reference, although I still haven’t figured out how to make money off of my art)
Got a let it cool drool while the smells wafting (We all grew up with cartoons hungrily following a seductive steam trail that ends at a fresh baked pie cooling on the windowsill.)
Easier to spread butter when its shelf softened (nothing worse than mangling your bread with cold butter. Also sometimes craft takes patience.)
Oops drop it watch it land butter side down (this was definitely meant to evoke Dr. Seuss’ ‘The Butter Battle Book” except nothing before or after this line was talking about the dangers of arms races or war so… Essentially I'm evoking failure and how it happens to us all and of course if a slice of bread drops it's going to land butter side down.)
Thick Make the floor slick enough to slide round (Fail FORWARD. Adapt, adjust. make it fun!) (Ha, ok the bread/butter references got a little haughty/abstract. But I’m literally talking about creating and enjoying bread and butter which is a saying that refers to your livelihood. AKA I’m trying to find the right job to follow my dreams…)
Hard sell Playing Catch up in Chi-town (Chicago-style hot dogs, and the Chicagoans who swear by them, DO NOT HAVE KETCHUP on them. It’s considered anathema to a few people… I love the double meaning of this, as many hip-hop scenes including Chicago are fragmented and combative and it’s a hard road becoming visible/successful in Chicago)
So i am tryna earn respect when I rhyme now
Am I a nice guy? Do I have a nice sound?
Can you take a minute to subscribe to my soundcloud? (Hey, mans gotta eat lol) YES
Summary Thoughts: Affirmative action has always been a loaded subject for me, but rather than dig in too deep on what affirmative action is, I opted to let the beat and the mood dictate how affirmative action makes me feel. There’s a tense urgency in the song, led by a beat that sounds almost like an alarm at times. I always get hyped up by fast/loud music, so it was awesome putting together a song with all these components.
That said, I understand that it doesn’t specifically take a hard stance on affirmative action. The subject is far too nuanced, but overall I can’t ignore any advantages or opportunities at my disposal, however arbitrarily I obtained these advantages. I don’t like the idea of affirmative action any more than I like the systemic bias inherent in recruiting/admissions/tenant applications… I applaud efforts to be just and fair and equitable even if those ideals are just that: Ideal. We can do better even if we don’t.