A few years ago, after writing pieces on Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, it was suggested by one of my editors that the inimitable Gil-Scott Heron might be worthy of a thousand words. The problem was that I knew little about his work. After seeking some source material and doing a few Google searches, I came to understand a bit about this talented, socially-conscious songwriter and his troubled life. Using a bit-torrent program, I downloaded his discography and got to work trying to come up with an angle to approach this project. As I familiarized myself with Gil-Scott Heron’s music, I came to realize I had actually been introduced to his more well-known songs, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “H2O Gate Blues” nearly twenty-five years ago when they were sampled, respectively, in albums by the seminal hip-hop groups Public Enemy, and Boogie Down Productions. For different reasons, the Gil-Scott Heron article never came to fruition, but the moment of clarity that occurs after figuring out the source of another classic sample is righteous in its own way.
As a young, skateboarding teen growing up in the ‘80’s, I embraced the rebellion that goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of a self seeking both identity and independence. The culturally emerging sounds of hip-hop would soon become the soundtrack to embody most of those years. Between MTV’s daily hip-hop video showcase, Yo!MTV Raps, (BET’s Rap City had its moments as well), and the much-anticipated exchange among friends of dubbed cassette copies by the likes of Eric B. and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie, among others, I was soon hooked on an emerging genre that many record companies at the time took to be a passing fad.
Besides the coolness of being an early and devoted listener during what others have called “hip-hop’s golden age,” of the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, the music of that time had a certain immediacy that made it both cutting-edge and unforgettable. While some were drawn to the showmanship and spectacle hip-hop sometimes embraced, others were mesmerized (to the point of memorization) by the lyrical skills of MC’s like Chuck D, KRS-ONE and Rakim, among others. For me, it was the producers and DJs use of sample-driven music that sucked this listener in for life, and to this day, it still makes me happy to recognize a hip-hop sample’s original song. The first few times I heard Public Enemy’s classic, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, I thought a spaceship had flown into my head as it was so complex, densely layered and unlike anything I’d heard before. Sometimes, I feel like that sense of musical discovery is a lurking compulsion that I’m still after since those fateful times.
Perhaps, as the early listeners of the “golden age of hip-hop” get older, and the once revolutionary sounds of hip-hop grow mainstream, it is the academic’s role to make some sense of the music’s influence in the second decade of the 21st century. In the past twenty-five years, hip-hop culture has been the focus of both social scientists and wary lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, as well as writers, with poets like Terrance Hayes, John Murillo and Patrick Rosal being just a few who embrace its style and themes in their work. While there have been various intellectual angles taken on the impact of this relatively new music on the country, as well as the world, it is the sampling aspect of music in general, hip-hop in particular, that gets dissected and thoroughly argued in a new book, Creative License, released by Duke University Press in 2011 and written by University of Iowa communications professor, Kembrew McLeod, and Northwestern Law School professor, Peter Dicola.
I was aware of the various sampling lawsuits that had befallen some of my favorite groups, most specifically, De La Soul’s legal wrangling with the ‘60’s rock group, The Turtles, after one of their tracks made it into an interlude on De La’s delightful debut, 3 Feet High and Rising. Aside from that, I have been mostly a hip-hop consumer, digging on mix tapes by the gigabyte from obscure turntablists who tended to mash-up old-school breakbeats with more commercial pop songs or classic rock. The idea that legal issues had changed how hip-hop is now being made was brought to my attention a few years ago when the documentary, Copyright Criminals, was shown on PBS’ Independent Lens program.
Copyright Criminals, produced by Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod, is a companion piece and primer to the more in-depth writing found in Creative License. Aside from a balanced discussion of this as a legal issue, both the documentary and book make the case that many classic hip-hop albums released from 1987 to 1993 could not be made in the current, lawsuit-filled sampling climate. And while the documentary is eminently watchable, it is McLeod and DiCola’s use of interviews and speculation, along with a detailed history of sampling and collage art that makes Creative License a work that tries to clarify the progression of this new musical form into understandable terms.
McLeod, an old-school listener himself, and DiCola interviewed many who have been involved with the creative and legal aspects of sampling, from producers and DJs, to musicians whose work has been sampled extensively, as well as lawyers trying to make some sense of the muddy judicial waters of copyright law. Some of the most interesting interviews are with Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production team that put together the group’s most notable work on albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. It is fascinating to hear Chuck D, Hank Shocklee and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler discuss the low-tech ways they distilled hundreds of hours of disparate sounds to create the engaging palette of notes and voices to be found on both of those albums. This holds true as well for the Beastie Boys and their production team of The Dust Brothers as they help the reader make sense of how they were able to brilliantly piece together bits of 125 songs in a time before digital samplers to make their masterpiece, Paul’s Boutique.
The speculation that the authors raise about the incompatibility of making music layered with samples in today’s more litigious age makes for interesting reading as well. With hip-hop now a proven commodity commercially, the sampling of other musicians no longer flies under the radar as easily as it once did when many thought it was little more than a flash in the pan. It also makes sense to long-time listeners of hip-hop why the music seemed to lose some its edgy sound in the early ‘90’s– it would be unprofitable for a record company to pay for hundreds of layered, seconds long samples that made up the music then. In fact, using charts and estimates of today’s sample prices, the authors claim that Fear of a Black Planet would have lost $7 million and Paul’s Boutique nearly $20 million if they were made in 2011’s legal climate. Musically, my world would have certainly been a bit less rich without them.
Creative License really takes off early on when the authors delve into a well-researched history of sampling and collage-based art. McLeod and DiCola point out that collage is a hundred year old technique that was used by artists and writers like Duchamp, Picasso, Joyce and T.S Eliot. In a nod to one of Pittsburgh’s own sons, a thoughtful Paul Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky) explains that, “sampling usually is viewed as a musical thing, … but if you look at the art world, for example, you have Andy Warhol taking photographs and painting them. You have different photographers taking certain scenes and reconstructing them, digitally. It all implies a layer of collage and pulling together bits and pieces.” In fact, one of my favorite works by Warhol is a collage of Jackie O. images that uses press photos from November 22, 1963, both before, and after the assassination of her husband, JFK, to construct a hauntingly beautiful pastiche of a woman dealing with a spectrum of emotion. The book discusses another nod to that fateful day in U.S. history when Steinski, the legendary DJ, applied a similar technique of musical sampling to make the musical collage, “The Motorcade Sped On” in 1983.
It’s interesting to think that with copyright law, as suggested in Creative License, being less than conducive to artists who use collage technique today, that Andy Warhol would have had as much success now.
In the same historical vein, McLeod and DiCola explore a timeline of sound collage, beginning with composers Stefan Wolpe and Darius Milhaud’s experiments with multiple phonographs playing at different speeds in the 1920’s to John Cage’s manipulation of sounds in a piece called “Imaginary Landscape No. 5” in 1952. It was Pierre Schaeffer’s development of musique conćrete in post-WWII Europe, a collage technique that experimented with sound on magnetic tape to make “a concert of noises,” a compositional strategy many musicians were looking for. There were other examples of this technique used in rock ‘n roll “break-in” records that combined skits with popular music. The most well-known use of this avant-garde practice would be from The Beatles’ “Revolution #9,” which found John Lennon and Yoko Ono (an important avant-garde artist at the time) building a song around the symphonic archives of the band’s label, EMI. The timeline includes important DJs like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa as well as the book’s discussion of today’s most-popular sampling artist, Pittsburgh’s own, Girl Talk, who mashes-up hip-hop songs with rock and pop tunes into a music the authors call a “parlor game,” as listeners might try to recognize some of the 300 samples on his album, Feed The Animals.
While the second half of Creative License is as well written and researched as the first, its focus on legal issues and solutions to digital sampling didn’t hold my attention as much as I would have liked. The writers complete their due diligence by exploring these matters fully and the writing remains crisp throughout, but I found myself wanting to listen to the music they were discussing rather than read about legal opinions on the matter.
One argument that I did find intriguing was that early hip-hop’s use of older, mainly African-American artist’s work as samples gave many of these now revered figures new musical life. There is discussion here of George Clinton and P-Funk’s reemergence as important musical groundbreakers after their popularity declined throughout the ‘80’s to the point that their records weren’t available commercially anymore. Also, while James Brown is now highly regarded as an important musical influence, in the mid-‘80’s, his music was thought of as sounding old, as it was the music your folks might’ve listened to. So perhaps sampling is not so much theft, as some would call it, but a way of paying musical tribute and a show of respect for a killer riff or a phat beat, as James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” Clyde Stubblefield has been sampled hundreds of times. Creative License and its authors clearly show that by understanding the historical nature of this issue, the reader can be thankful for the musical journey many of the albums from hip-hop’s “golden age” have given to its listeners, knowing it’s unlikely we’ll hear anything like it soon.
Fred Shaw edits poetry for Shaking Lit, writes emminent poetry and is a frequent contributor to all things Shaking—