Hearing nothing told to me: Cities Aviv and Sampling as Secrecy

Posted by Eli Schoop


Sampling makes a temporal game of listening. Whatever one hears in a sample is a reflection of who they are and what they were when they heard it. The distinctive snippet in Dilla’s “The Diff’rence” can just as easily be recognized more readily as Kool & the Gang’s “Fruitman” if there’s a generational gap present. It’s multiplicative when applied to different songs with the same sample. Do you recognize “Huit Octobre 1971” from “One Beer” or “Odd Toddlers”? Sampling is sonder made reality, active memetics strewn across different lives and cultures.

Soon, the music industry will be flooded with AI. Already, Spotify has been pushing its AI-discovery tool to users in a blatant attempt to saturate their ears with their own shitty algo-slop instead of actual human musicians in order to pay less royalties out. Sample hunters have now been using AI to track sources that producers have used, obliterating the mystique that it contains. There is an active technological and economic push to make music worse. So, as they tend to do, artists push back.

MAN PLAYS THE HORN by Cities Aviv opens with an unknown man lamenting how black youth have turned away from jazz and traditional instruments toward rap and its accessible tools, before acknowledging how inevitable this became, as mass culture moved away from jazz en masse and the cost of playing it became prohibitively expensive. Though a treatise on modern-day music, there’s a sense that this is about Cities Aviv himself. A jazzman that just happens to rap. He is merely a conduit for historical preservation.

This all plays a larger part in what sampling compounds itself as in black music. Oftentimes, sampling is a musical choice, an enhancement to a song, a beat or a moment. But for Cities Aviv, and specifically on MAN PLAYS THE HORN and its continuation, "Working Title for the Album Secret Waters", samples provide a context by which black music can be discovered and placed into proper history. So much of black music has been wittingly or unwittingly lost, destroyed, or placed into disrepute. In consecrating very particular samples, Cities Aviv actively works against the invisibility of certain black music.

If this all sounds too abstract, that’s because it is–by design. Part of the appeal is Cities Aviv’s sleight of hand, pulling ears every which direction with playful melodies then immediately hitting you with a scathing bar about his hometown Memphis’ structural failings and denigration of its black people. In its midst, gospel, soul and R&B recordings decorate his track, finding a parallel emotional core within the distorted, looped-out art, scavenging the same sentiments those artists expressed some decades ago.

Porchside vigil / Sam Cooke playing in the distance…

At its most ideal, sampling is democracy. It imagines art as everyone’s, death of the author taken to its natural extreme, spatially separating productions from their original ethos. And Cities Aviv isn’t the only artist commiserating these ideas so deeply. Across the pond, Dean Blunt and Klein embrace black ethnomusicology with aplomb. Blunt is even more inscrutable than Cities Aviv, skewering dominant British culture, whereas Klein almost eschews traditional melodies entirely, forcing listeners to probe inside her sound collages for clues. Roland Barthes would’ve been delighted.

One could call Cities Aviv’s music hypnagogic rap, alongside the estemeed hypnagogic pop that Blunt is known for. But in its hypnagogia he is not simply mining that past out of a nostalgia. Rather it is a reverence for black art that supersedes trite retromania. Revival comes and goes but true archivist work in music is a rare phenomenon. Imagining alternative histories and new futures, there is an optimistic spirit throughout these albums, one that centers blackness in all its multiplicities and ingenuities.

I was tempted to reach out to Cities Aviv for this piece and discuss/dissect his samples, but thought better of it. A sacred tenet of crate digging is never giving up your secrets, and given his eclectic sampling lexicon, I wouldn’t want to pressure him to reveal any of the mystery. Fittingly, his WhoSampled page reveals very few of his sources. For a deeper delve, you’d need a good ear and persistence in order to undercover who the musicians sampled actually are. Of course, that’s all part of the fun.

Eli Schoop is a writer whose work navigates through various cultural intersections in essays on film, music, sports, television, video games/esports, and politics. Read more of their work here. Follow them on twitter @meleeideologue