Ceza and Grandmaster Flash in Istanbul

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Hi everyone! On October 22nd, 2016 I and my husband went to a hip hop concert in Istanbul and I wanted to share some of my experience with you.  What originally caught my attention was the name of Grandmaster Flash, a pioneering figure in the emerging hip hop scene in New York around 1980. I wasn’t old enough to see him in action during that period–my first memory of rap music is listening to MC Hammer–so I was excited and honestly quite surprised that he would be coming to Istanbul this fall. His DJ set was part of a Burn Battle School that included a hip hop dancing contest, a rap contest, and a performance by Turkish rapper Ceza (pronounced Je-za with a hard J). I saw Ceza and Grandmaster Flash. What I’m going to describe about Ceza might be old news for Turkish readers and likewise about Grandmaster Flash for some American readers, but I hope that there will still be a few interesting parts for everyone.

While I respect the skill of the musicians, poets, and producers who work on rap albums, I have never listened much to mainstream, American rap music because since my adolescent years sexual, violence and/or misogynist themes in lyrics and videos inevitably left me feeling cold towards most popular rappers. At the same time, I always recognized the great aesthetic and social power of how rap music sounds and feels. Indeed, this power of rap to engender social changes and to bring people together was on display in the early hip hop of people like Grandmaster Flash, and that was one of the reasons why I jumped at the chance to see him.

I’ll start my description of the concert with Ceza, because he was on first and seemed to condition the expectations of the audience for Grandmaster Flash. Here’s a clip of one of the songs he performed, “Holocaust”:

(You can find the song’s official video on YouTube.) Even if you can’t understand what Ceza is saying, you must admit that he’s a virtuosic rapper. I don’t think many American rappers can rap in live performance this quickly and fluently. It takes a certain muscle precision and breath control that I haven’t yet seen in American rappers’ live performances, because they often alter and break up the long, rapid-fire passages on their albums in concerts so that they can properly catch their breath. It’s not my intention to criticize this issue when it occurs. The technical complexity that emerges in the interplay with studio equipment that is foregrounded on modern albums, and the musical technical abilities that stand out in live performance are two different kinds of expertise. What is possible with the multi-tracking and editing of the studio cannot always replicate in a single live concert moment, and it can be interesting to see how clever musicians negotiate that translation of the song text from one form to another. The obstacles can become new creative opportunities. Here, for example, Kendrick Lamar artfully drops syllables he probably couldn’t pronounce in real time in a recent performance of “Alright.”

For Ceza, this performance versus studio sound is not as drastically different, and I think two factors, among others, might be involved.

Factor 1) The Turkish language has a special alignment with rap aesthetics. Turkish is typically spoken in a rapid way. A key to fluid Turkish speech is the pronunciation of long words that compact many grammatical functions at what seems to me as a non-native speaker to be an astonishingly fast speed. Furthermore, its highly consistent grammatical structure gives it a predictability so that it can be spoken very quickly and native speakers can understand it just fine. This structural consistency also translates into many possible rhyme combinations; in Turkish rap songs I know, the same word ending reiterates through several successive words or line endings. In these ways, Turkish is a language that works especially well with the aesthetic value of virtuosic rapping and poetic rhyming that gradually developed in hip hop culture. Like other Turkish rappers, Ceza realizes this possibility in his style and it’s pleasing to witness it unfold right before your eyes and ears. Based on this guest appearance in a comedy show, Ceza seems well-known in Turkey for his rapping talent.

Factor 2) A continued tendency to privilege the live performance in many Turkish music genres. Anyone who knows about music recording history in the U.S. knows that with technological advances like multi-tracking, many American and British rock bands and producers started to treat the recording process as something different from their live shows. Early recordings (like in the 1920s) were a one time take of a live performance, often with only one microphone, that would be immediately pressed onto a record. By the 1960s the album recording process could involve days or even months of editing and adding to the recording of the musicians, shifting the recorded version towards a complex, static text, a polished art object. In my experience, many American listeners have come to view the recorded version of a song as definitive. A lot of people are not even interested in hearing musicians that they love in live concert, and when Americans go to a concert, they often expect a live experience of the recorded object, which often isn’t possible.

A few weeks ago I was discussing music listening modes in Turkey with some Turkish students, and they generally agreed that still today in Turkey, even after recording technology has been around for so long, listeners do not typically take the studio-recorded version of a song as its definitive form. This conversation made me wonder if perhaps Turkish musicians are less interested in the recording process as one of crafting complex audible texts which may not correspond to a possible live version. A musician in my class said that for him, yes, that was the case. Turkish musicians (with the exception of the most commodified pop singers) might instead often keep the situation of the single moment live context in mind even when they are recording a song with the technology that allows them to go far outside of that conceptualization. Thus, what Ceza does impressively on his albums he also can generally do in real time on the stage, or perhaps better stated, what Ceza does in real-time musical performance he tends to replicate in the studio.

My sense from comments of his fans online and their behavior at the concert is that Ceza is respected by a variety of people in Turkey. Along with his virtuosic delivery he brings clever lyrics that are poetic and rhythmically energetic. In Turkey’s touchy political climate, Ceza seems to  occupy a kind of liminal social position in his lyrics, standing outside of all of the groups. Even as he puts himself out there in a rebellious way, he is somehow also concealing himself. It’s interesting to me. (Turkish people, if I am misinterpreting anything here please let me know.) His enthusiastic fans at the concert were mostly young guys who crowded close to the stage, waving one hand in the air in time with the beat and/or rapping along passionately.

They seemed to really appreciate Ceza’s lyrics and to like him as a person (whatever they perceive that to be). Throughout his set people shouted encouraging words to him and they loved to shout his name exuberantly -“Ceza!”- whenever it occurred in the song lyrics. At a variety of types of concerts in Istanbul I have seen people in the audience actively cultivate a warm and hospitable environment towards the performer like this; there is a feeling of closeness to the performers, and audience members connect personally with them through direct, encouraging verbal exchanges. Generally Ceza didn’t directly interact with the audience for extended moments, but there were a few of these, like when he went around the three sides of the stage and asked us in a rhyme how we were.

After Ceza finished and we waited for Grandmaster Flash, the breakdancers took the lull as a chance to work on their moves:

Grandmaster Flash focused on the traditional task of a DJ during his set, trying to get the crowd to dance like crazy. At first there seemed to be three kinds of behavior among the audience: that of the Ceza fans, the hip hop dancers, and then everyone else. The Ceza fans at first did the same thing that they had done when Ceza was performing: standing close to Grandmaster Flash and waving one of their arms in time to the basic beat. But at the beginning of his set Flash was mostly playing mixed cuts of American pop music from the 60s and 70s, relying heavily on classic vinyl record mixing techniques, like he does in this Bronx performance from 7 years ago. It was actually interesting to see how poorly the rap arm wave common today fit these songs that were the basis of the early hip hop sound and the earliest recorded rap tracks. The Ceza fans were trying to respond to a musician they knew to respect as a part of rap history, but they at first didn’t understand some important stylistic differences between today’s rap music and the typical sounds of early hip hop. This lack of understanding was manifested in a mismatch between the dancing movements and the patterns in the musical sound. Gradually, many of them modified their dancing, figuring out that they needed a full-body approach to really engage with the more rhythmically complex instrumental textures of the great classic funk, disco, and soul songs Flash was spinning.

The majority of the crowd seemed unsure what to do when Grandmaster Flash first took the stage. Perhaps the “old” music was a problem for the vast majority of the audience, who were fairly young and maybe had just not heard so much of it. I love funk and soul, having heard it a lot in the U.S., especially at parties, and so I am attuned to the fact that I rarely hear it in Istanbul. When the music I have been waiting to hear comes on, I often notice that the dance floor empties out!

The hip hop dancers were the third audience group to display a certain kind of behavior when Grandmaster Flash started up. At least some of them had come earlier for the Burn Battle School dance competition and then stayed. They “got” what Grandmaster Flash was trying to do the whole time, even at the beginning. These break dancers, who were mostly younger but also counted people over 35 in their numbers, were dressed in comfortable yet funky clothing, in styles reminiscent of what you see in YouTube clips of hip hop dancing back in the day. They were mostly guys but with a few girls who seemed very comfortable despite being in the minority. So long as the dancers knew even a little bit about hip hop history, they could easily connect with the DJ’s performance, which was directed towards inspiring their extroverted dancing. And they got it, and it was so much fun just to watch them dance, sometimes alone, sometimes playing off each other in small groups, sometimes in one of those big circles for all out breakdancing like in the clips above.

I was surprised by how close Grandmaster Flash’s approach to his performance was to early hip hop, when virtuosic dancing was arguably the focus of the whole affair. Ceza offered us the virtuosity that we’ve come to expect from MCs today, after they emerged from the hip hop scene (originally consisting of graffiti artists, break dancers, DJs and MCs/rappers) as the most commercially successful fragment. Flash, on the other hand, turned us from amazed spectators into active and interactive participants. He was giving us the energy and the musical framework for us to create our own spectacle. At first, when the Ceza-ers were still arm waving and many others were hesitantly rocking from side to side, Flash was frequently exhorting us to greater energy with stock phrases like “somebody make some noise” and “put your hands in the air!” In the first several minutes of his set, I wondered how aware he was of what the crowd was doing. He seemed so focus on the mixing he was doing at his computer, mixing board, and turntables. I actually worried that maybe people were becoming bored and would soon begin to trickle out of the arena.

After awhile Grandmaster Flash indicated that there was a technological problem. I’m not sure of exactly what was happening, but from his comments to the sound tech that he called to the stage on his mic, he wasn’t satisfied with the volume of the records he was using in the mix. “It’s a 78,” he said at one point to the sound tech who had come onto the stage, and then complained that it was too quiet.

There was some uneasiness as the adjustments were made, but eventually Flash was satisfied with the sound. He also made a switch to more recent music like Bruno Mars in the middle of the set. The change in repertoire seemed to make a big difference to the crowd, who responded with markedly more animation when they started to recognize the songs and sing along. Perhaps he had planned this progression from earlier to later music, but I doubt it. I think that, being focused as a classic DJ on providing a great mix for dancing, he noticed the lack of enthusiasm in the crowd and tried to solve the problem. I remember hearing “Bittersweet Symphony”, “Jump” by Kriss Kross, “Under Pressure” by Queen, and “When Doves Cry” by Prince. After the crowd began to dance, the atmosphere became positive and festive. We nearly forgot about Grandmaster Flash being there, as he stopped shouting to get us into the sprit and melted into the background behind the dancing flow he was creating. At one point I started to feel pretty tired, but I wanted to keep playing my part in the show. Grandmaster Flash’s set was, in particular, a singular concert experience for me. I am grateful that I got to experience a taste of old school hip hop, brought to life again by one of its celebrated experts.

In formal ways, Ceza and Grandmaster Flash provided contrasting experiences. Ceza, a representative of modern rap, was focused on the verbal mode and provided a solo stage spectacle. We wanted to listen to him, spellbound. But of course many people also danced to the music as a kind of secondary response. Grandmaster Flash was much less focused on verbal modes and more intent on evoking the body to dance, but there was still a virtuosic element in his mixing decisions and his manipulation of the records (scratching). Overtly, what Flash offered might have seemed more social, as the crowd’s dancing became a living message of coming together and his sampling of other artists brought the spirit of a large crowd of other artists onto the stage. Ceza’s emphasis on words spoken by one voice against a stripped down, electronic tracks seems quite different, but his lyrics are often a mix of classic rap individualistic bragging mixed with social critique and calls for people to treat each other conscientiously. Even if you can’t understand the lyrics, from the images in the video for “Suspus” you can get a sense of the socially critically mode of the song. After one of his songs (I think it was “Fark Var”) Ceza gave a brief message where he wished for peace in Turkey and all over the world. During both performances I felt a kind of unity develop in the audience.

In an era when we so often consume music in a distracted, passive way, the positive energy and feeling of well-being that the whole concert left in me was a real blessing.