top of page
IMG_3142 2_edited.jpg

Electronic Music and the Poetry of Mantras

An essay by Joseph Hamilton

“All my friends listen to electronic music, but we don’t sit around and talk about it, we just listen to it” (Aphex Twin)

  • Instagram

Beyoncé’s 2022 album Renaissance was, from start to finish, a celebration and homage to dance and electronic music. The album plays as if flicking through a record collection comprising all the most influential sounds on Beyoncé’s own music. Specifically, it is a tribute to the influence the Black and queer communities have had on dance and electronica, from Chicago house music to the New York queer nightlife scene.

            It was listening to Renaissance that the idea at the heart of this essay came about: the mantra, its occurrence in music (dance and electronic music in particular), the way in which the mantra mingles with found poetry and music sampling, and what the mantra means as a poetic experience.

            I’m That Girl, the opening track of Renaissance, seems the most fitting introduction to this wider conversation. The song features a prominent vocal sample of Tommy Wright III’s 1995 song Still Pimpin featuring Princess Loko and Mac T-Dog. In this case, we have the sampled vocals of a hip-hop song on a soulful dance track. The looped line in question is: “Please, motherfuckers ain’t stopping me” (Knowles). Knowing Beyoncé’s style, this appears as if it could be one of her own lyrics. And yet, as a sample, specifically as a looped sample, the floodgates are opened to explore an entirely different effect.

            The concept of sampling and/or looping vocal snippets is not unique to Beyoncé, nor is it unique to any single genre. Using looped vocals as a textural or melodic focal point in an instrumental is perhaps most often associated with hip-hop. Tricia Rose’s stand on sampling in hip-hop, written on extensively in Black Noise, is summarised by Rodgers in their essay: “Rose grounds hip hop sampling practices in Afrodiasporic expressive traditions” (Rodgers 314). There is an implication of the importance of intertextuality that comes with vocal sampling. Samples, despite being copies of sound, serve the creation of a new or original sound. When reframed, recontextualised, edited, chopped, and synthesised, the sampled sound takes on a whole new existence and begins to serve a collective creative consciousness. In hip-hop, the vocal sample often provides a melodic quality to the new song. Traditionally, 60s and 70s funk and soul music are the endless caverns of material for hip-hop producers. The likes of James Brown and Nina Simone’s vocals were perhaps the most used samples in 90s and 00s rap and hip-hop. The sampling of such classic voices acts as an acknowledgement of how their sounds furthered African American cultural history. Like Beyoncé’s Renaissance, the vocal sample is as much about commemorating the old as it is about reusing material to make something new.


The Loop: Electronic Music


Despite hip-hop’s undeniable role in vocal sampling, it is the loop of the vocal that I am most keenly concerned with and as such electronic music’s later application of vocal loops is prominent. In hip-hop, often the loop of the vocal snippet exists in the background beneath the rapper; the rapper is the focus. There are exceptions to this broad generalisation. The late J Dilla’s 2006 instrumental hip-hop album Donuts is perhaps the best example of where the vocal sample/loop can be the centrepiece in hip-hop. Every song on the album draws upon countless samples to create a collage of sometimes obscure and sometimes intensely nostalgic sounds. The vocals at the heart of these tracks have a lot in common with the qualities of the mantra which I will go on to discuss.

            Electronic music, as broad and arguably useless as that term may be, uses vocal loops in an oftentimes similar, albeit a less culturally inclined and more aesthetically driven, manner to J Dilla. Within the swathes of electronic music committed to wordlessness, to atmosphere and instrumentation, often the only vocals to be found, if any, are looped vocal snippets or samples. It is in electronic music where these vocals come most in line with the mantra. Sometimes the listener cannot make out words in the vocal loops, or perhaps words but no coherent phrases, sometimes even just a faint human quality in the sound because the vocals have been edited to such an extent. But it is in the looping of these sounds, phrases, or lines where I believe the poetry resides, where the vocals are able to take on new meanings with each repetition or loop, enhancing the trance that electronic music endeavours to achieve.

            This phenomenon is as old as electronic music itself. Steve “Silk” Hurley’s 1986 club hit Jack Your Body is one of countless examples from the Chicago house scene. The only vocal in the song is Silk’s own voice; the line “Jack your body” (Hurley) is looped and chopped to form the opening of the track. Jude Rogers even noted in The Guardian how Silk is “stuttering its title like a mantra” (Rogers) in this song. Perhaps this is an understatement. The line is a command, an unnegotiable one too, and the more it is repeated, the more irresistible the trance behind the command becomes. It would be reductive to hear Silk’s vocal loop as being on top of the beat, akin to how a DJ may shout over a song in a club. In this case, Jack your body is an essential part of the poem that is the song. The song doesn’t come with instructions on how to enjoy it, the song is an instruction in itself. Just as Silk commands you to dance, as does the bass, as do the relentless claps and as do arpeggiated synths. A song’s poetic potential is commonly reduced to what is meant by the lyrics as read from a page. In the realm of electronic music, this separation of lyrical content from instrumentation seems all the more absurd, and the dissolution of meaning and intention is perhaps as clear in no other genre.

            Daft Punk’s 1997 song Around The World features only the looped line, in the typical robotic Daft Punk voice: “Around the world…” (“Around The World”). The poetry isn’t in those three words as an isolated phrase. When repeated to the point of mantra, the line begins to take on a whole new form. The line seems almost unfinished either at the start or at the end, initially vapid and cliché but then hypnotic and meditative, as if the song is asking you to consider things bigger than yourself, all the while being sonically set in a whimsical club environment. The phrase around the world is neither positively nor negatively charged, has no subject and no verb. It is as much everyone is dancing all around the world, as it is I can’t comprehend the suffering all around the world. It asks of you nothing in particular and yet anything in particular; the song is poetry without airy lyricality or lofty preaching. It is also not identifiable as a poem on a page, it becomes a poem as the mantra and song play out. As the three simple words become wordless, their inherent meaninglessness is exposed and the freedom of the listener to go where they please is revealed.

            With Around The World, we have a case where the mantra distorts the signified; we recognise the three words as an idea but that idea seems to change, evolve and perhaps devolve to meaningless. Electronic artists also play with the signifier themselves: the words. Through editing, chopping, and rearranging a vocal sample or snippet, the words can become glitchy and hard to make out. The sounds are recognisable, but it is up to the listener to piece together the entire phrase and thus the meaning they take from it. Overmono’s modern classic So U Kno is an example of this. The vocal sample used in the song, when chopped and looped in such a way has an intriguing quality whereby some of the words in the line are clear and others are stuttered and spewed out in a melodic yet difficult-to-grasp way. The lyrics given on many websites to accompany the song have never sat right with me. I am reluctant to put forward what I hear in the lyrics, it seems to me that would try and explain away a fundamental part of this ‘poem’. Part of the hypnotism of this track is the puzzle you first put together, and then the melting away of these words and the meaning attributed to them as the intensity of the instrumental picks up. In a desperate scramble for meaning within this relentless vocal loop, you can’t help but be consumed by the drive and rhythm of the beat. Like Jack Your Body, the vocal loop is just a fragment of the trance.



The Club: Setting


Although the effect of electronic music can be intense, whether it’s pulsating house music or endlessly repetitive techno, the experience of it can be meditative. Electronic music appears to be living proof that meditation is about clearness of mind not quietness of setting. Jai Paul Dudeja notes how “a mantra is a combination of transcendental sounds meant to release the mind from all the anxieties of material life” (Dudeja 21). The emphasis here is on sound, whether that be internally repeated or outwardly spoken sound. Note also how the emphasis is not on words and as such is not about inherent meaning. The sounds or words are less focal points and more anchors. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the sound can take many forms, sometimes the repetition of divine names or phrases, sometimes meaningless sounds, and yet the effect of grounding remains the same.


            The vocal loop as a mantra can have a similar effect, and yet two major differences occur when the mantra is found in electronic and dance music: movement and setting. Firstly, while meditative mantras often suggest stillness, perhaps sitting crossed-legged or lying on one’s back, mantras sometimes found in electronic music are accompanied with rhythm and tempo and thus encourage movement. Moreover, there is a dynamism to the backdrop of the mantra. While a spoken meditative mantra remains the same for the duration of the meditation, a vocal loop is accompanied by crescendos and instrumental variation throughout the course of the song. It is as if the music acts as a further guide to the experience, encouraging the listener toward intense highs and then leading them down towards more peaceful lows.

            Secondly, considering the scene of the club is crucial. Part of the experience of the mantra is the environment in which it is experienced. Historically, and presently, electronic and dance clubs have been safe havens for marginalised people and as such pivotal places for both self-expression and introspection. While the assumption may be that a club is purely social, the trance-like nature of much electronic music in reality encourages an awareness of self through the collective experience of dance.  


            Again, the idea of grounding arises. Now, in the context of the club, the music is the equaliser and unifier, often the ego is grounded within the unity of a group in these environments. The mantra is merely one tool of this meditative grounding, but it is one which brings page poetry, oral poetry, and music into even closer proximity. The mantra is as much the repeated line in poetry as it is the vocal loop or repeated melody or rhythm.



The Page: Mantra and Repetition


Until this point, my discussion of the poetical power of the mantra has remained within the confines of electronic and dance music. However, my interest in the mantra as a basis for introspection invites the question of where the mantra may also be found in poetry, rather than as poetry. Having looked at how the perceived meaning of a vocal loop evolves with repetition, we must look at what is often dubbed ‘repetition’ in page poetry, and where ‘mantra’ may be more fitting.

            On the note of grounding, Terrance Hayes’ collection American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin uses this title for every poem in the collection and as such becomes a mantra that the reader has in mind the whole way through. The line is both a mantra for Hayes himself and for the reader as the poet goes about depicting the seemingly endless oppression they face by living in America as a Black man. The mantra title serves as a transforming litany of the multitude of ways in which Hayes fears for his life and a grounding point for the focus of the collection.

            Within various poetic forms, repetition is a key component. Sylvia Plath’s villanelles, I believe, have the power to transform repetition into mantra. Denouncement Villanelle features the repeated lines “there is nothing more for me to say” and “the telegram says you have gone away” (Plath). With the reoccurrence of each line, the context thickens, and the bleakness of these lines intensifies. The lines do not feel repeated or monotonous because the mantra is not that which is the same, but that which seems the same but in fact changes with every repetition. As what is perhaps a litmus test, I read this poem as just these two lines, repeated four times, and still my perception of the lines changed, and the intensity of the reading remained. This quality that Plath achieves through the mantra occurs to me as one of self-exploration through repetition. The line “there is nothing for me to say” (Plath) sees the narrative voice trying to come to terms with something, and, as a mantra, this introspection is all the more focused and guided. Contemporary poet Justice Ameer also plays with repetition as a form of self-exploration. The poem body without the “d” has echoes of the wordlessness found in electronic music. The way in which Ameer toys with meaning by transposing ‘body’ for ‘boy’ encourages the same consideration and questioning of the signifier as I discussed with Overmono’s So U Kno. The audience must shape the signifier themselves depending on how they read each line. In the case of Ameer’s poem, questioning inherent meaning is at the core of their exploration of gender identity and as such each repetition of “the bo’y” (Ameer) becomes more weighed down with the societal implications of what boy and body mean.

            The contemplative nature of the mantra is one which often gets ignored in the mainstream. Mantra is often embroiled in meditation and spirituality and thus peacefulness becomes the assumed effect. In both electronic music and page poetry the mantra can be more obscure, unsettling, and dark as a means of probing contemplation. The now singer songwriter and electronic producer James Blake has manipulated the use of vocal loops his whole career, often taking quite ominous and disquieting snippets of his own voice or vocal samples from others and weaving them into his instrumentals. His 2010 post-dubstep single CMYK is one of his most popular examples of this. The song samples Kelis’ Caught Out There, with the looped line being “look I found her, red coat, look I found her” (“CMYK”). This cryptic vocal sample combined with the track’s euphoric synth leads, layered textural features and hypnotic drum programming makes for an arrangement that does little in the way of inspiring peace, as a mantra may be expected to do. I get the sense of a hard-to-pin-down epiphany or realisation when listening to this song, especially in a live environment. The vocal loop’s reference to ‘finding’ something or someone assists this feeling of indescribable realisation.

            Page poetry also calls upon the mantra as a method of unsettling the foundation of the poem, rather than as a peaceful meditation. Socialist poet William Morris often called on chants as a type of mantra or command. “Down, down, down, down, down among the dead men let him lie” (Morris 41) is as much a war cry as it is a mantra and yet the urge to contemplate unjustness through Morris’ poetry is a meditation in itself, although not a peaceful one.


The Mantra’s Wordlessness


The mantra, wherever it occurs, does not have to be tame and quiet, nor does it have to be comprehendible and easy to navigate. The mantra can be challenging and loud, demanding, and radical even if it must. The key to the mantra, as I hope its application in electronic music has shown, is meditative at its core, but meditation comes in many different forms. If meditation is contemplative, then the club is a place of meditation, and the page is a practice in meditation.

            Beyoncé’s Renaissance is also as much a homage to the mantra as it is to electronic and dance music. These genres are mantras. There is an intangible effect of repetition that seems to resonate with the human experience which these genres never hide away from. It is a quality and effect that seems inexplicable and why it resonates in people as a trance remains a mystery. The repetition of “yaka, yaka, yaka” (“Break My Soul”) on Beyoncé’s Break My Soul bleeds energy and rhythm; there is a very real addictiveness to the loop of this vocal, to this mantra, but why the loop is so hypnotic is impossible to pin down.

            The mantra remains a transcendental phenomenon, capable of a meditative power and harnessing an intense poetic quality. The paradox of Plath’s repetition of “there is nothing more for me to say” (Plath) is true also for the mantra. Despite not knowing why, we continue to repeat and with each repetition what we are trying to say dissolves and the mantra’s power reveals itself more. There is nothing more for me to say… and yet I keep saying it.

            Returning to Richard James of Aphex Twin, electronic music seems to have come to terms with accepting the wordlessness of the mantra perhaps better than any other modern genre. The best electronic producers, when calling upon vocal loops as another layer to the mantra, do so sparingly. The subtlety of the mantra is a key component of its meditative ability; it cannot be monotonous or tedious, instead, it creeps up on you, as muddled sounds or obscure samples taken out of context. Sometimes, in the case of Aphex Twin, the wordlessness is fully embraced, and the mantra is the instrumentation itself. I have found that the most emotive mantras in music often exist where you didn’t even think there was one.










Ameer, Justice. “body without the “d””, Poetry Foundation, Accessed 10 April 2023.


“Aphex Twin on the nature of electronic music”, Youtube, uploaded by Denis B, Accessed 10 April 2023.


“Around The World (Official Music Video Remastered)”, Youtube, uploaded by Daft Punk, Accessed 13 April 2023.


“BREAK MY SOUL (Official Lyric Video)”, Youtube, uploaded by Beyoncé, Accessed 9 April 2023.


“Caught Out There”, Youtube, uploaded by iamkelis, Accessed 13 April 2023.


“CMYK”, Youtube, uploaded by James Blake, Accessed 12 April 2023.


Curto, Justin. “Voguing Our Way Through Renaissance”, Vulture, Accessed 14 April 2023.


Dudeja, Jai Paul. “Scientific Analysis of Mantra-Based Meditation and Its Beneficial Effects: An Overview”, International Journal of Advanced Scientific Technologies in Engineering and Management Sciences, vol.3, 2017.


Hayes, Terrance. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Penguin Books, 2018.


Hurley, Steve “Silk”, “Jack Your Body (Original Mix) 1986”, Youtube, uploaded by MURKBOY72, Accessed 11 April 2023.


Knowles, Beyonce. “I’M THAT GIRL”, Genius, Accessed 14 April 2023.


Morris, William. Poems of Protest, Redwords, 2013.


Plath, Silvia. “Denouncement Villanelle”, All Poetry, Accessed 9 April 2023.


Rodgers, Tara. “On the Process and Aesthetics of Sampling in Electronic Music Production.” Organised Sound, vol.8, no. 3, 2003.


Rogers, Jude. “How Jack Your Body began house music’s squelching electronic revolution”, The Guardian, Accessed 9 April 2023.


Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Wesleyan University Press, 1994.


“So U Kno”, Youtube, uploaded by Overmono, Accessed 13 April 2023.

Back to BoundBy: Winter '24 (Edition #7)

bottom of page