Wednesday, October 16, 2013

When I Think of Things That Make You Feel That Way

by Dean Dettloff

The hip hop duo Blackalicious is comprised of lyricist Gift of Gab and DJ Chief Xcel. Over the years the two have experimented with the hip hop genre in risky and innovative ways. Through the course of their career, they have managed to internally reconfigure the hip hop genre. Chief Xcel’s classic beats present a kind of honoring of the hip hop tradition, while leaving his own distinctive mark, and Gift of Gab creatively appropriates a number of styles leading to explorations of Sufism, indictments of materialism and sexism, and fearless political claims.

Their song “Make You Feel That Way” is one such example of this internal reconfiguration, and it manages to deconstruct the culture of greed and scarcity found in North America in a way that is neither cynical nor abrasive. In fact, it is precisely because the song strikes a posture of radical positivity and gratitude that its medium performs its message. The song is an indirect therapy, with Blackalicious gently inviting us into an alternative life which, they show, we have already experienced every now and then. Through the use of average, everyday experiences that each of us has in our lives, we are invited to cultivate a particular disposition to life itself.

There are two aspects to this disposition toward life that are presented in the song. One is radical receptivity—several instances of external gifts of providence or the kindness of others function in such a way that disorients our self-centeredness and forces us to acknowledge the feeling of dependence, our interconnected selves, and the surprising emergence of peaceful bliss in unpredictable encounters. The second is a radical subjectivity—we are reconstituted and transformed in light of things that give us this feeling of peace or wholeness, and this grants us the opportunity to create in the world, to intentionally appreciate that which is given to us, and to simply exist. Gift of Gab seems to be stringing a thread through the moments of unexpected bliss and situations which yield a deep joy that sneak up on us, all to establish a kind of continuity which helps us navigate our lives with a deliberate disposition of gratitude.

In order to bring these hidden moments of happenstance to light, the song offers us a series of relatable instances of everyday positivity. We are reminded of feelings of good fortune (“Find a hundred dollar bill wow man that's great”), happy nostalgia (“See a homie you ain't seen since back in the day”), transcendent creativity (“Going in your third eye for the styles you hear”), staying healthy (“Eating right feeling conscious like health is first”), spiritual attunement (“Said a prayer that's sincere and you felt it work”), and more. These reminders work together to articulate a feeling of aesthetic unity, which is almost mystically articulated as that which “makes you feel that way.” What exactly “that way” is remains unexplained, and yet it functions as completely understood—it gets a hold of something common to human experience, and calling attention to it postures us toward a space of thankfulness and peace. Further, Gift of Gab connects this feeling with a feeling of that which is real:

Times I feel I wanna shout, man it's real that way
When I think of things that make you feel that way

This proximity to reality overwhelms our ability to speak at all. All we can do is shout that this is the case. The allusivity of this phrase, “make you feel that way,” is its strength. Is this feeling joy, or is it, as Gift of Gab alludes as the song trails off into laughter, a kind of “joyous feeling?” It seems it is something more—something beyond representation in language. Gift of Gab does not go into a rhyming treatise attempting to articulate precisely what this feeling is, as we might be inclined to do in philosophy or science. He doesn’t have to. He is understood. Saying anything more would alienate the phrase from the song, would cover over its truth, which belongs to everyday, intuitive, lived experience. The present analysis is, in fact, a kind of violence done to the song, which has its depth in its completeness apart from analysis. The only time Gift of Gab offers “reflections” on this feeling, it is offered at the end of the song in the context of a conversation repeating words like “you know,” which are responded to with a simple, sincere “yeah”—the closest we get is “it’s just love, just love.”

Calling our attention to that which “makes you feel that way” subverts the pervasive individualism and greed of North American culture. We acknowledge our common feelings which are given, which arise unexpectedly, sneaking up on us and forcing a smile—indeed, even when Gift of Gab speaks of things that are the result of our own work, this is done to acknowledge the feelings of completion, harmony, and peace that come along with a posture of gratitude, as opposed to the feelings of incompletion, chaos, and competition that come along with a posture of individualism and greed. This is a marked difference, too, from trends in the music industry that revel in the egos of superstars and praise the objectification of the world under the sovereignty of money and power. Gift of Gab invites us to acknowledge that which cannot be bought; working hard is not done in the service of money but simple, wondrous appreciation.

Accenting these gifts of everyday experience, Gift of Gab is indirectly orienting us to a life of thankfulness. Banalities are transformed in the light of gratitude, the force which sacralizes the mundane. In gratitude, everything is worth being thankful for, evidenced in this series of lines:

Summer days more likely that you notice breeze
Winter days more likely that you notice heat
When I'm warm, more likely that you notice me
In the dark it's more likely that you notice light
In the light more likely that you notice night
Hungry, more appreciation for that meal
Dead broke, more appreciation for that scrill
A bad day'll make you really notice ones that's good
And that'll make things a little better understood

Contrary to a mode of being which considers certain situations as impediments to individual progress, in gratitude everything becomes an opportunity for thankfulness and praise. It invites us into a counter-economy which, owing to its receptivity and positivity, does not need to consider itself negatively against anything (as an objectifying worldview does)—its mere existence is enough of an argument. It seeks to live in peaceful and positive relation to the world.

I can say with confidence that when I intentionally cultivate this kind of attitude toward life the world becomes much richer and spills over its blessings on its own accord, gives freely. This is much different than trying to force such blessings to come about through my own effort (which, typically, does not yield blessings at all but only frustration of control, until it is precisely this frustration which pushes me to a limit that empties back out into simple release—into gratitude). In these moments, I feel more connected to the reality of life, and all I feel I can really do is smile, be warm, at most simply shout and express that I feel “that way.”

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, pursuing an MA Philosophy, and is the author of the blog Re(-)petitions.


  1. Great to see the tradition of De La Soul, Digable Planets, and Spearhead continuing strong. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I didn't know you were such a hip hop fan, Ron.

  2. Fantastic Insights Into This Duo. . .Enjoyed

  3. As a long time fan of Blackalicious, I'm really glad (and wildly surprised!) to see them discussed in Ground Motive.

    1. Well, what can we say, Dan? This blog will be as cool or as lame as we choose to make it. And we're serious about encouraging posts from ICS JMs.

    2. I'm sure Ground Motive is just begging for some heartfelt analyses of black metal, Dan...