Discover more from Tangent
Dissecting the Dissector
Cole Cuchna’s Craft
***Hello returning friends and welcome new subscribers! 🎉. Thanks for taking this small Internet detour and honoring me with your attention.***
Howdy1 friends! In this edition:
I introduce you to Cole Cuchna’s craft
Share an artist’s portraits from India.
Feature an essay about a writer you should know.
Show you a book that will help you examine your relationship with work.
Let’s dive in!
Dissecting the Dissector
I remember the first time I heard Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.
It was on March 15th, 2015 at 7:30am. I sat down in my beige cubicle with five feet walls, crowned by fluorescent lights to bring daylight where no sun could ever shine.
I had to do some menial tasks in Excel. Steeling myself for the drudgery, I took a sip of my brewed coffee and opened Spotify. “Listen to Kendrick Lamar’s Latest Album2.” I obliged.
I didn’t move an inch for the next 78 minutes. No work got done. When the psychedelic notes of Wesley’s Theory penetrated my conscience, I was covered in goosebumps and possessed by the verses. I don’t remember many moments of sustained, enraptured attention in my life. This is one of them.
That same day a few hundred miles away down in Sacramento, Cole Cuchna was listening to the very same album, while cradling his one day old daughter, Mabel. He described listening to this album while rocking his baby girl as a “transformative experience.”
Kendrick’s album was the catalyst for Cole Cuchna’s podcast, Dissect. He knew this album had galaxies of meaning within every note, chord, bar, and verse. And he decided it was time to take the analysis skills learned through his study of classical music and apply them to contemporary music. A calling to bring two worlds together.
What if you could explore contemporary music deep, but really deep, as if you were trying to get to the center of the earth? In exploring the specific, Cole sought to bring out the universal. To break down an artist’s craft so well that you wouldn’t hear their music the same. An upgrade from black-and-white to 4K resolution, from lo-fi to hi-fi (without the fancy equipment).
Cole has been musically inclined his whole life. At age 17, he sought to pursue the dream of becoming a rockstar, forming a band and enduring years of foregone luxuries and play-wherever-you-can gigs. By age 27, he realized he had a limited knowledge of music due to being self-taught. He decided to enroll into Sacramento State University to study music.
It was here where he discovered classical music. Driven by innate curiosity, he sought to explore the context by which these composers made their music. By understanding time, place, and circumstances, he realized these classical compositions were wells of meaning that demanded a deeper understanding. This is where he learned to dissect music.
Moving forward to 2016, about a year after To Pimp A Butterfly’s release, Cole launched the Dissect podcast3. He would spend an entire season breaking down every song from this album in roughly 30 minute episodes. To get those 30 minute episodes, Cole would spend 1,200 minutes to produce them4. There were 22 episodes in Season 1, totalling over 400 hours of work.
Cole mentioned that he went through with this gargantuan effort to hold himself accountable. There were no dreams of validation or delusions of grandeur. It was him, in a hot garage, in his underwear5, with a $100 microphone, completely nerding out because he knew that he needed to release this into the world for himself. All of this on top of having a 9-5 job and taking care of a baby (I’m exhausted just thinking about it).
Cole pushed through by using the following mantra to fuel his early mornings and late nights:
“The world gives you nothing, until you give it everything.”
Eventually Dissect took off, being picked up by Spotify and allowing Cole to dedicate to the podcast full time and get paid for it. The podcast continues to grow and delight (it is currently in the middle of its season on “lyrical masters”).
Dissection as Craft
What makes this podcast so addictive and a cult favorite among music nerds is Cole’s prodigious ability to take a look at every single element of a song and find the meaning. Every episode, I marvel at his ability to break a verse down to the syllable and show us all the associations and references, or identify samples of some super obscure record that only showed up in the song for two seconds.
If The Avengers needed a superhero with the power to break down music, they would need to call upon Cole, The Ultimate Dissector. Here are a couple examples (out of hundreds) that capture a true savant in his craft.
Analyzing Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’s Mother I Sober (Last Song Standing).
Last year, Cole joined forces with music journalist Charles Holmes to cover Kendrick Lamar’s6 entire discography and crown his best song ever. Near the end of this episode, Cole shared one of the small, but foundational elements that made the song Mother I Sober such a harrowing and dramatic song in this album.
Cole identified that the song’s beginning had what is called an inverted pedal point, which is a sustained note that is constantly played while other notes play around it. The effect of using inverted pedal point is to give a dramatic and somber mood to the song. Cole also identified the use of this technique in the album’s first song, United in Grief, when Kendrick says “I grieve different.” Identifying the use of inverted pedal point, and showing how Kendrick deployed it strategically as a musical motif is the type of thing that most people would miss, but knowing this gives you an insight into Kendrick’s psyche when crafting this album, as well as teaching us how musicians rely on certain techniques to accentuate emotions in music.
Numerology in Pusha T’s Nosetalgia ft. Kendrick Lamar (Dissect MX1E2)
This one is wild. Cole’s ability to dissect everything can push you into 🤯 territory. It’s a similar feeling when you hear a conspiracy theory; you don’t want to believe it, but the way the facts are presented, you get the impression that it could be true.
Cole realized that in Kendrick’s verse, he used three 9s and ten 6s, including the syllables in attention, tension, and extension.
If you multiple 3×9, you get 27. 6×10 gives you 60. You add it all up and you get 87, which is Kendrick’s birth year. Further, if you add 9+10 you get 19, which if you combine with 87, gives you the full year: 1987.
But Cole doesn’t stop there. He goes two levels deeper.
He noticed that if you add up the number of times the numbers 9 and 10 get used, you get 36 (3 joined with 6). One of Kendrick’s verses goes “Daddy one day I’m gonna get you right with 36 zips, 100 grams of cocaine.” 36 zips in street lingo for 36oz, otherwise known as a kilo or “brick” of cocaine.
If you weren’t mind blown by now, Cole then takes it one level further. 36 is also the age of the main rapper in this song, Pusha T. If you look at the album cover it is a bar code with 12 numbers. You add them all up and what do you get? 36. Cole argues that this was deliberately done to imply that the album itself is a “brick” packaged and sold by a “dope rhyme dealer,” which makes sense when you see all the other references in this song to Pusha T’s drug dealing past and the metaphor he employs of “music as a drug” throughout this song.
This episode itself is a masterpiece of Cole’s ability to Dissect songs to a level you never thought was possible. That’s his magic.
Why would somebody go through the effort of breaking down songs to such an atomic degree? At the beginning of Dissect when no one knew this was a thing, what made it worthwhile? Why does any of this matter?
Because Cole believes that it is his calling to show that “craft is responsible for everything beautiful in the world.” As a result, he shines a light on contemporary artists’ craft through his supernatural dissection skills.
In a talk he gave on craft, Cole walked through his initial formula for it:
Idea + Craft = Art
Yet, through the process of building Dissect from nothing to the mega popular podcast it is today, he realized that craft was part of an element bigger than art, but rather our pursuit of meaning, and that what matters more than an idea is to be intentional about your craft. Thus, he updated his formula:
Intent + Craft = Meaning
This is the lesson Cole’s work leaves us. He shows us the importance of beauty to drive meaning. He does so by highlighting contemporary works that are brilliant, and through his own creative process. We can cultivate a more beautiful and meaningful world through craft. This is quite the empowering creative ethos.
This is my aspiration for Tangent as well–to find the beauty in the mundane. What Cole teaches us is that to find this beauty, we must escape the hyper-consumptive cycle of 30 second reels, 280 characters, and 15 second sound bites in favor of truly listening, being present, and engaged with art.
It’s there for us to take all the wonder, purpose, and energy we choose to accept. But we have to choose to be present to feel it.
Just as I felt it that morning when my conscience was mired in delight.
Just as Cole felt that morning when showing baby Mabel her first daylight.
To the same rhymes.
Thank you for reading! Bed, Bath & Beyond went bankrupt, so I know you got room in your email inbox to subscribe.
Media Worth Consuming
Heroes in 100 faces by Ishan Shanavas: This project by Ishan is simply stunning. Over 5 years he collected over 100 portraits and stories from all over India. The photography itself is stunning, and paired with the stories they add a depth that reminds us of our humanity, of the different dimensions we all hold, and the beauty of all human faces.
Get Schooled: The Ultimate Guide to Michael Dean by Garrett Kincaid: In the spirit of dissectors, this piece by Garrett features one of the best dissectors that I know personally, Michael Dean. Michael has been one of my writing teachers and his ability to turn writing into lego blocks to rearrange at will is unparalleled. This post introduces you to his writing and his impact on Garrett.
The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work by Simone Stolzoff: Simone’s book asks us to examine our relationship with work. What struck a nerve with me is how the book is not telling you to work/not work. Instead, it asks you to not run your life on auto-pilot, and to be mindful of tying your entire identity to your job. I’m all for that.
Until next time!
ps. Special thank you to Lavinia Iosub for helping me review this week’s piece.
“Howdy” and “y’all” are the two pieces I retain from the Texas vernacular I learned while living in Austin.
This interview by Kendrick Lamar explains the meaning behind the title “To Pimp A Butterfly”, and why it was changed at the last minute. It also demonstrates what a true artist and deep thinker Kendrick is. This is why Dissect exists.
Talk about compression!
The unseasonably warm Seattle spring nights have also led me to write this essay in my underwear. I guess we are kindred spirits.
I really like Kendrick Lamar. Ok? So those are the examples you are getting. He also did an incredible season on Beyonce’s Lemonade if that’s more your thing.