Yusuf Hassan and Kwamé Sorrell discuss their publishing practice BlackMass Publishing, drawing parallels between J Dilla’s creative process and their own, and the making of their ever-evolving print project tse-tse.
Four Fold is a publication which looks at the work/life balance of BlackMass Publishing. All photos taken by Yusuf Hassan and Kwamé Sorrell.
If jazz is commonly presented as an authentic expression of Black identity, Yusuf Hassan and Kwamé Sorrell have managed to apply this form of language to their publishing practice BlackMass Publishing. Through their work, we witness the sublimation of a popular medium of expression – the zine – and a new approach to exploring its materiality, formatting, and content.
Project BlackMass was a book project initiated in 2019 by Hassan, combining his own work with that of several Black artists, including Arthur Jafa and the poet Ted Joans. As its name suggests, the imprint is an invocation of a multitude of voices and expressions that define Blackness through the printed medium. This in turn led to the creation of the seminal book tse-tse by Hassan in collaboration with Sorrell, who is also an artist. Hassan and Sorrel consider tse-tse to be in constant flux, a never-ending project that evolves with each edition. “During the process of making this document, my music was usually a shuffle of jazz music,” notes Hassan. “That’s how I wanted to approach this book of images; it’s like free jazz through the representation of photographic images as language and sound.” The book features a collection of images that respond to each other, and in an order that changes with each new edition to deliver an ever-changing narrative composition, which aims to capture some sense of the Black zeitgeist. BlackMass Publishing’s books have since been included in the permanent collections of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, and the Thomas J. Watson Library at The MET. While this ensures that its archives are preserved for posterity, BlackMass Publishing seems to exist in a state of perpetual sampling and revision that’s perhaps at odds with collection inclusion. It’s a process that can feel parallel to that of J Dilla, the prolific Detroit producer, whose revered work Donuts was largely created while laid up in a hospital bed in the year prior to his passing. The following discussion brings Hassan and Sorrell together to talk about their practice, the influence of music on their work, and improvisation within print.
Words: Martin Sigler
Images: D’Andre Williams
Kwamé Sorrell: I like the fact that you see J Dilla’s practice and yours as one and the same. For me, the way you make zines is very similar to how he would make beats. He would just constantly be making beats – digging, pulling different information, putting it together, making something new out of it. He would make beats with people, for people. But above all, he lived to make beats, right up until he died.
Yusuf Hassan: J Dilla also worked at a very fast pace. Most of the time, when you pull in references, their message can be lost in the process. When I’m working, I still allow them to maintain their integrity. J Dilla also operated in this way. When he was digging in record stores, finding vinyls, chopping them up, ripping out the interior; the foundation on which that record was created still exists – only under a new lens. And I think that’s a raw, beautiful way to work. It allows for real freedom. Sometimes I think, as artists, it’s extremely difficult to find freedom in your work.
KS: Especially when working with certain mediums, such as a book, which is such a fixed form. I always say that it’s interesting to work in a free way, with a form that’s so fixed.
YH: Also, books have this very beautiful way of operating because they are universal. They hold a certain level of depth. The zine, particularly, is this real universal language that I continue to hold on to because it’s not a very stiff way of working, it’s very approachable and easy to read.
KS: It’s also something you can do on your own. You don’t really need someone to work with. It’s the same with Dilla. Back then, he would make music with people, but also on his own. Music is something you can literally just do in your house by yourself. Constantly, as much as you want, whenever you want.
YH: I like to think about how we work as it being a work in progress, with no real end. That’s how I’ve adapted this idea of the ongoing project, because it never truly ends. There’s always more to be had since, working with this medium, there’s always new information coming in so rapidly. And thinking about the term ‘revision’, for me, I’m not ‘revising’ a work because I feel like something was not done correctly or is not complete. There just may be more information that I want to add to it. It’s actually how we worked with tse-tse, where we kept adding information as we experienced the new things we encountered. That’s what made that exchange so beautiful: we operated on our own terms.
KS: It’s similar to how nowadays, with digital music sharing and peer sharing, you can make an album and then go back and re-upload a new song, edited with new drums, new horns, everything. Related to this idea of revising as you go, with Butch Morris for example, there was no written score. He was simply performing with others and as they were playing, he was able to revise on the spot.
YH: To work with improv is a gift. It’s a language, a way of life. A couple of months ago you said that people have this idea that improv is so spontaneous, to the point that there’s no thought that goes into what’s taking place. That could be true in some ways, but that’s not necessarily how we adapted it to our practice, where there’s also a very direct and intentional message that is being formulated. With this idea of an ongoing project, I am not looking for an end because, even after I’m gone, this language is still going to be continued. We didn’t subtract anything from the work of people we were inspired by. They are representing a foundation on which we just kept continuing to add. Add on to the language, add on to the exchange, add on to what’s taking place. We’re not trying to tear this foundation down. What makes our practice so special is the fact that, through a new language, we’re paying homage to those who came before us.
WIP magazine issue 08 is now available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.