The air horn is one of the weirder cultural tropes around today. It’s loud, it’s obnoxious – and it’s also ubiquitous, from radio ads to pop songs. It’s clearly out of its original context, but what was it’s original context, anyway?
The answer to that is more clear-cut than you might imagine. But it also points a finger squarely at us cultural consumers and producers – that too much copy-paste could become a literal, repeated warning bell.
Author Jeff Weiss actually wrote a beautiful essay for Red Bull Music Academy back in 2013″
In it, he lays out a solid case for why it’s more or less indisputable that the popularization of the air horn is the work of one man. And that man is Cipha Sounds. Any New York-area resident present there from the late 90s will be unsurprised that he made the air horn a star on Hot 97 at some point around the beginning of the millennium.
A documentary released earlier this year interviewed him about it:
If you watch closely as he demos the effect, you’ll see the giveaway that it was the radio version that broke the air horn into the big time. Primitive radio software used for triggering audio doesn’t layer multiple triggers subtly the way a sampler would. Instead, you get that weird stuttering, false-start effect you know. And the rest is history. (Bizarrely, this also means that producers ever since have actually been going out of their way to ape Hot 97 rather than even use a sampler normally, let alone make the sound of an air horn.)
But it’s worth reading Weiss’ full story, because it connects some other dots – and they say a lot about the evolution of hip hop and music production in general.
Here’s the condensed version. Like hip hop and modern dance music themselves, the air horn made its way over (evidently) from use in Jamaican sound systems, where the actual object must have been a handy noisemaker. New York was the gateway for hip-hop, generally. If you want one guy, look to Clive Campbell, Kool Herc, the Jamaica native. If you want one day (stretching things a bit), try August 11, 1977, West Bronx, and the birthday party for the guy’s sister (now what you doing for your next birthday gig?):
What’s interesting (as far as air horns) is that dancehall clash culture is where the innovation happened – in a hot, competitive party environment. By the 1980s, they’re part of a flurry of really loud sounds, writes Weiss:
At sound system clashes, the air horn stirred call and response chants. Cheap Casios flooded the market and Kingston producers programmed them full of synthesized gunshots, air horns and sirens. One performer, Jackie Lickshot, staked his fame on his ability to mimic gunshots with his voice, making him the dancehall equivalent of “Motor Mouth” from the Police Academy movies.
By the 90s, West Coast producer Ras G is claiming it as a signature – and is quoted in Weiss’ article explaining, “The air horn is just another link between the musical cousins that are reggae and hip-hop.”
But then, isn’t that it – isn’t what makes this link work the fact that the music keeps changing, stays loud and competitive?
Then again, maybe even the overuse of the air horn can become fodder for cultural commentary.
Somehow, it seems air horns found their way into Trump rallies. (Not wanting to delve too deep into the odder portions of the Trumposphere, I … stopped before I worked out exactly where. But somehow, it’s a thing – making an appearance in a rally crowd, then showing up in a series of videos on the debates.)
Now, as a pro-Trump instrument, the air horn would seem an odd choice, given the overwhelmingly white support for the now-President jarring with an instrument with hip hop and Jamaican roots.
But even there, the sound keeps changing roles. Vic Berger, the oddball video editor making parody videos of Trump and other political and social figures, has made the air horn an icon of the President.
For one example among a rabbit hole of a lot examples, you can hear the air horn alongside other radio-style cues. Newsweek has even interviewed Berger; there, he explains the air horn – inspired by Trump supporters – first showed up in Bush/Trump debates.
So where do we go from here, once sounds are canned and easily reproduced?
I guess the question is whether we’re capable of recognizing the copies of copies, and whether we’re competitive enough to try something new. Even something that might seem, at first, loud and obnoxious.
Of course, I’d be happy to throw the air horn off a cliff – and it better not make a Wilhelm Scream on its way down. (Actually, cut that sound effect first. Please. Sorry, LucasFilm.)