Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Modernism + Hip Hop

Of all the modernist designers, few have had as big an impact on poster design as Josef Mueller-Brockmann. His concert series posters for the Tonhalle orchestra hall in Zurich beginning in the mid 1950's best exemplify this. Their simple yet effective layouts and design are incredibly clear and dynamic. The primary method employed in designing these posters was a reductive one. All formal elementals were reduced down to their simplest terms. This idea of reduction, however, was not at all a new idea. Modernist movements such as De Stijl and Bauhaus had already begun instituting these principles in their work starting in the early half of the 20th century. This can be seen in any of Mondrian's Composition pieces or in Kandinsky's paintings where complex imagery is reduced to abstract forms based in geometry. Rather, it was Mueller-Brockmann's method of instituting these principles in an area with no prior exposure to them that made his posters unique. Almost fifty years later, a rising hip hop producer would use the same methodology and create one of the most respected albums of all time, suggesting that when applied, these principles very well have the potential to make a product better.

Many of the Tonhalle posters embody Mueller-Brockmann's principles in a most engaging and dynamic fashion. Mueller-Brockmann himself was a musician and connoisseur of classical music, and he had been interested in finding a way to portray music in a two dimensional sense for quite some time: an intriguing but very complex idea. With his 1955 poster for a performance of the Coriolan Overture from Beethoven's Fifth, he succeeded immensely in carrying out the aforementioned concept by employing elements to fulfill it in their simplest terms. For example, complex math was involved in determining the stroke (the fibonacci sequence, for example, determined the increasing stroke of the arc lines), location, and deletion of areas in the multiple circles that emanate from a central point (that point is coincidentally where the text is located), thus dynamically calling attention to that central point. However, the viewer would probably never suspect the complexity of all these incorporated aspects due to the formal simplicity in their portrayal. All he might see is several arc lines of varying thickness and some text to promote an event. At the same time though, the viewer would also probably be subconsciously attracted to the poster due to a simplistic dynamism that exists in this specific poster as well as many others. Now, it could be argued that it is in fact the simple portrayal of complex mathematical elements that create this simplistic dynamism, but the same simplistic dynamism exists in works forty years prior to this by artists such as Frantisek Kupka and Robert Delaunay where there are no mathmatical conceptual elements at play. In addition, there are many counter examples to this false notion among other of Mueller-Brockmann's concert posters. For example, his 1957 poster for Armin Schibler has the same simplistic dynamism in its non-objective elements, which are circular patterns whose location and size were determined by concepts derived from his own impressions of a musical scale. Also, the circles in his 1958 poster for a quartet's performance of Stravinsky were employed to the mimic the sequence of the movements with the most resonance.

Now, fast forward to 1993 when New York's Wu-Tang Clan released the groundbreaking hip hop album Enter the Wu-tang Clan: 36 Chambers of Death. The production on the album, done entirely by the RZA, is characterized by the same overarching principle as Mueller-Brockmanns's work: a massive reduction in terms. Most include a minimal piano track, a drum track, a bass track, perhaps a sample track, and vocals, a radical departure from previous popular hip hop song formats which generally showcased more formally fuller sounding beats (De La Soul's Me, Myself, and I). When the album dropped, critics raved about it. No one had heard anything that was so minimal and so dynamic in the hip hop world. The record's immediate impact on hip hop is probably greater than any other single album, as seen in Nas' 1994 Album, Illmatic, which is considered by many to be the best hip hop album ever crafted. Upon its release, it caused a great uproar when Fader Magazine rated the album five out of five mics, a rating that had never been given before, let alone to a debut album. It has been and will continued to be argued that he is the best MC alive right now. That being said, Wu-tang's impact on the album is seen in the production characteristics. Just as in 36 Chambers, the beats in each of the songs are very minimalist and stripped down. For example, the second track, New York State of Mind, is almost a Wu-tang track exactly, except instead of the main keys track being piano, its synth.

While some may argue that the relationship between Mueller Brockmann's posters and Wu-tang is vague at best, I think that it should at least be considered. Some say that RZA had no idea what he was doing in regards to including modernist principles in his work, but whether or not he knowingly or unknowingly applied these principles to hip hop production is irrelevant. The fact that 36 Chambers continues to be classified as one of the most groundbreaking records of all time, and that it features modernist principles is no coincidence. The radical recontextualization of modernism on the album is what made it unique for its genre. Beyond Illmatic, Wu-Tang's influence can be seen throughout hip hop, but more specifically on albums like Slum Villege's Fantastic Vol. 1 from 1996, Gang Starr's Moment of Truth from 1998, or People Under The Stair's album O.S.T. from 2002. Given this idea of a "mash-up" of early 20th century modernist principles in contemporary culture, it is interesting to consider what else these principles could radicalize.

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