Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Soundbreaking, Episode 6: “The World Is Yours” (Higher Ground, Show of Force, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the latest episode of Soundbreaking even though I was fundamentally out of sympathy with it because it was all about rap music — or “hip-hop,” to use the euphemism favored by people who actually like it — and in particular the use of “sampling,” or cutting up bits of existing records and using them as the underlying basis for a “new” song. The origins of “sampling” and of rap in general were considerably better told in a 2009 full-length documentary called Copyright Criminals (which I commented on at http://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2009/10/copyright-criminals-changing-imagesitvs.html), of which this Soundbreaking episode, “The World Is Yours” (which, given the “gangsta” content of so much rap, appropriately evokes the endings of such classic gangster movies as 1932’s Scarface and 1949’s White Heat), is sort of a “potted” version except that it touches only briefly on the conflict between the “samplers” and the owners of the copyrights of the original recordings being “sampled.” The defense of “sampling” is basically that artists have always drawn on previously existing artworks for inspiration, whether they were Renaissance sculptors using ancient Greek models, classical composers writing “variations” on other composers’ themes, or modern-day “samplers” appropriating sounds from previously existing records. “Sampling” in the modern sense actually began in 1948, when French composers Pierre Schaefer and Pierre Henry acquired tape recorders and used them to invent a new form of music called musique concrète. Their argument was that all previous music had been “abstract” in the sense that it relied on sounds produced by specially constructed instruments, whereas musique concrète would use as its raw material the sounds of ordinary life, recorded on tape and then cut up, manipulated and edited. (Actually I can think of one modern-style “sample” even earlier than 1948: the third movement of Respighi’s 1924 tone poem Pines of Rome, in which Respighi incorporated a recording of a nightingale’s song to be played during the piece’s performance and accompanied by a soft string backing.) If you want to know what musique concrète sounded like, by far the most readily available example is the Beatles’ “Revolution #9” (actually created by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with minimal, if any, involvement from the other Beatles or nominal producer George Martin). Musique concrète became a sub-genre of electronic music in the 1950’s even though it couldn’t be performed live — at times its practitioners created absurd “concerts” in which they came out on stage, turned on a tape recorder, and then bowed to acknowledge the audience’s applause when the tape played.

“Sampling” entered the world of modern pop (aside from occasional psychedelic experiments in adding natural sounds — like the brief sound clip of President Lyndon Johnson that opens the Electric Flag’s cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” — and “Revolution #9,” a full-out piece of musique concrète that still seems out of place on a Beatles album) in the early 1970’s, when African-Americans in ghetto areas like the South Bronx wanted to make music but couldn’t afford standard instruments, so they took ordinary turntables, connected them to boom boxes and (later) large D.J.-style sound systems, and started playing selected parts of records to create a musical underpinning for spoken-word performances by “M.C.’s” who talked over them. One source of rap and “sampling” that usually goes unacknowledged was the influence from the Caribbean in general and Jamaica in particular; Jamaicans who moved to New York City in the 1970’s brought “sound system” music with them. Many reggae singles had been released with the same song on both sides — the full-out vocal version on one side and on the back, a version with the vocal choruses retained but the verses deleted so what remained was the song’s original instrumental track, over which live sound-system performers could sing or rap their own words. The show names the D.J. and gang member Afrika Bambaataa as one of the originators of rap and claims that in the early days it was the D.J.’s, not the rappers, who were considered the “stars.” Rap originally circulated as live performances and cassette tapes, often duplicated so many times the sounds on them, especially the words, faded to virtual inaudibility. A lot of people in the rap world thought the entire idea of a rap record — a freezing in time and space of a particular performance and its issuance as the definitive version of a song — was a contradiction in terms.

The first rap record was issued by record-company owner Sylvia Robinson, who’d been active in the music world since the 1950’s — she was the “Sylvia” on Mickey and Sylvia’s classic 1956 R&B hit “Love Is Strange,” a song that was a major influence on Buddy Holly and, through him, the Beatles — and in 1979, unable to find an existing rap group who would sign with her, she formed her own, the “Sugarhill Gang,” and had them record “Rapper’s Delight,” a competitive record with three rappers taking turns riffing over a backing track derived from the Chic song “Good Times.” It was an enormous hit and launched rap as a genre with multi-million selling albums like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. It also led the established parts of the music industry to fight back, suing — and winning — copyright infringement cases based on the idea that the heavy use of “sampling” on these records was simply stealing, and the original artists who created the “sampled” music deserved at least to be compensated and at most to have veto power over whether their work could be “sampled” and re-sold at all. As I wrote in my review of Copyright Criminals, “The result is that now the only people who get to sample are highly successful artists who can afford the often stratospheric licensing fees and people still doing it underground, keeping under the radar of the music industry and — this being the 21st century — distributing the work not on homemade mix tapes but on Web sites.” The Soundbreaking episode mentioned Kanye West as one of the few rap artists who can still afford to sample, and credited Beck on his Odelay album with coming up with one solution: having live musicians record tracks that can thereafter be sampled and turned into the kind of loops previous D.J.’s had abstracted from already existing recordings. It also cited Led Zeppelin’s recycling of American blues records as a precedent to establish the artistic legitimacy of sampling — ignoring the fact that Led Zeppelin lost a big copyright-infringement case to blues songwriter Willie Dixon, who proved in court that he had actually written the Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love” and got not only back royalties but a change in credits so that Dixon, not the band members, was listed as composer in later editions of the record.

The show also mentions the seminal importance of James Brown as one of the most “sampled” artists of all time, and briefly mentions his drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, without acknowledging that Stubblefield was screwed over twice — first by James Brown, who worked out his songs with the help of his band members but refused to give them songwriting credits or royalties therefrom; and then by the thousands of rap D.J.’s who “sampled” Stubblefield’s drum licks from Brown’s records. As I wrote in my Copyright Criminals review, I’d probably be more sympathetic to the “samplers” if I didn’t so totally loathe rap as a genre; though it has roots in the declamatory style of African-American preachers its direct antecedent was a Black street game called “the dozens,” in which young Black men would gather on street corners and boast about how great they were and insult the others in the game about how terrible they were. There was a blues song by Speckled Red in the 1920’s called “The Dirty Dozens,” but the first artists to put “the dozens,” or a reasonable facsimile thereof, on record were Bo Diddley and his musical partner, Jerome Green, with “Say Man” in 1959. “Say Man” deserves space on any list of proto-rap records, and its braggadocio has remained central to rap to this day — as I’ve noted in these pages before, it took rock ’n’ roll just 13 years to progress from “Rock Around the Clock” to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while rap is nearly four decades old by now and still remains mired in the cesspool of its original obsessions: how great the singer is, how many men he’s killed, how many women he’s raped, how many kids he’s fathered, how many Queers he’s bashed and how much money and tasteless jewelry (“bling”) he’s acquired. The social conscience of a few early rap records, including Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” seems obsolete and quaint by now!