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here is a list found between the chapters Failure (My Head Was Full of Misty Fumes of Doubt) and (Zong) Bad Made Measure (McKittrick, 2021: 122-124). The Kick Drum is the Fault is a playlist of songs that many people contributed to building. I selected Nasty Girl by Vanity 6 and Charlie Chaplin’s Premier Plaza Explosion as my contribution to the list. Those two songs were unavailable on Spotify, for a variety of possible reasons—like copyright or licensing—and so they couldn’t make that version of the list. Could be that the analog version of Premier Plaza Explosion never became digital, remaining instead on vinyl, unstreamed.
In 1985, on Christmas Eve, a gas cylinder used to inflate balloons exploded at Premier Plaza on Constant Spring Road in Kingston, Jamaica. The blast levelled market stalls, leaving many very seriously injured, and five people dead. A report in The Daily Gleaner newspaper said that it wasn’t helium used to fill the balloons, but instead it was unstable hydrogen gas produced from the mixture of zinc and hydrochloric acid (Witter, 1985: 1). Another report in The Daily Gleaner on the explosion ended with the phrase “life goes on” (McGowan, 1985: 1).
Premier (Plaza) Explosion, the song, was on one of the many cassette tapes that my cousin would send to me from UWI’s Mona Campus in Jamaica by way of Port of Spain in Trinidad and then on to Toronto where I would then use my cassette deck to dub copies and distribute them to my friends. The song was recorded by Charlie Chaplin, the year after the explosion, under the label Techniques and produced by Winston Riley. Premier (Plaza) Explosion is Charlie Chaplin’s storytelling of disaster and a guidance for one kind of survival. The song also appeared as the first track on the A side of the 1987 LP DJ Explosion Ina De Dancehall. All of the tracks on that compilation, and many of the ones on my cassette tape, were made use of the Things and Time riddim. A riddim that came on the scene in 1970 with The Wailing Souls’ Back Out With It (Your Days Are Numbered) and then later, in 1976 The Wailing Souls recorded the tune Things and Time, solidifying the riddim with its name.
A riddim is referencing, and instrumental experimentation, borrowing and recycling, and improvision. A riddim is citation, and, as Katherine teaches us in Dear Science “citing is not easy. Referencing is hard” (McKittrick, 2021: 17). She teaches us that “referencing in black studies is a lesson in living” (McKittrick, 2021: 26). Katherine also teaches us that “perhaps the function of communication, referencing, citation, is not to master knowing and centralize our knowingness, but to share how we know, and share how we came to know imperfect and sometimes unintelligible but always hopeful and practical ways to live this world as black” (McKittrick, 2021: 17). Taking the riddim as citation and as black methodology, then we should follow what Katherine teaches us when she asks us think about: “what if citations offer advice? What if citations are suggestions for living differently?” (McKittrick, 2021: 19).
A riddim is soundwaves, base, keyboards and kick drums as citation. It is relational. Or, to cite Katherine drawing on Mark Campbell’s study of the remix, it “is reinvented to produce new modes of relationality” (McKittrick, 2021: 169). Each riddim orients me differently to memories of time and space (a childhood bedroom, a car, a school talent show), and technologies (like my father’s vinyl records, or cassettes covered with a piece of tape to make new again; and now YouTube streamed on a laptop), alongside people (some forgotten, or covered over with a piece of tape), but each riddim remains with me in some way. The soundtrack of lessons on what Katherine calls “black livingness” learned along the way.
At different times, cuts and in hundreds of versions, the riddim Things and Time has been used as the instrumental sound that undergirds that of the lyricist, for example: Admiral Tibet’s Leave People Business, General Archie’s Modelling, Supa Cat Cry Fe De Youth, Cutty Ranks’ Gunman Lyrics. The riddim is experimentation, layered adaption and re-creation, but it is the timing of the infrequent beeping sound of the Things and Time riddim in Premier (Plaza) Explosion that has stuck with me still, long after the cassette tape was lost (well, borrowed and never returned). The infrequent beeping sound of the mixing board’s test tone, and the sorrow of catastrophe, and the caution and advice offered by Charlie Chaplin that “you gotta know yourself and be careful when you on the street.”
My original cassette tape was leant to a friend, it circulated, and was never returned to me. Lost, I was told. And in turn, I “lost” her cassette of Prince’s Sign O The Times. I still have it too. And the Kick Drum is the Fault. Question: does anybody know about the quake?
Simone Browne is Associate Professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also Research Director of Critical Surveillance Inquiry (CSI) with Good Systems. She authored Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness.