Make the music with your mouth

I’m a longtime closeted beatboxer. I do it while walking around, doing household tasks, in the shower, pretty much anywhere except in front of other people. My wife is remarkably tolerant of it, bless her, and my infant son has no choice but to listen to me do it. I don’t expect to ever beatbox for audiences, but I still  fascinating and delightful. It’s simultaneously modern and ancient — imitating high-tech drum machines, samplers and turntables, using the most ancient musical instrument of them all, the human body.

Again with the virtuoso Korean subway beatboxer

Growing up in New York City, I was exposed to a lot of beatboxing at the background level. The earliest track I can definitely point to as impacting my consciousness was “Make The Music With Your Mouth, Biz” by the great Biz Markie.

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Originality in Digital Music

This post is longer and more formal than usual because it was my term paper for a class in the NYU Music Technology Program.

Questions of authorship, ownership and originality surround all forms of music (and, indeed, all creative undertakings.) Nowhere are these questions more acute or more challenging than in digital music, where it is effortless and commonplace to exactly reproduce sonic elements generated by others. Sometimes this copying is relatively uncontroversial, as when a producer uses royalty-free factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live. Sometimes the copying is legally permissible but artistically dubious, as when one downloads a public-domain Bach or Scott Joplin MIDI file and copies and pastes sections from them into a new composition. Sometimes one may have creative approval but no legal sanction; within the hip-hop community, creative repurposing of copyrighted commercial recordings is a cornerstone of the art form, and the best crate-diggers are revered figures.

Even in purely noncommercial settings untouched by copyright law, issues of authorship and originality continue to vex us. Some electronic musicians feel the need to generate all of their sounds from scratch, out of a sense that using samples is cheating or lazy. Others freely use samples, presets and factory sounds for reasons of expediency, but feel guilt and a weakened sense of authorship. Some electronic musicians view it as a necessity to create their tools from scratch, be they hardware or software. Others feel comfortable using off-the-shelf products but try to avoid common riffs, rhythmic patterns, chord progressions and timbres. Still others gleefully and willfully appropriate and put their “theft” of familiar recordings front and center.

Is a mashup of two pre-existing recordings original? Is a new song based on a sample of an old one original? What about a new song using factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live? Is a DJ set consisting entirely of other people’s recordings original? Can a bright-line standard for originality or authenticity even exist in the digital realm?

I intend to parse out our varied and conflicting notions of originality, ownership and authorship as they pertain to electronic music. I will examine perspectives from musicians and fans, jurists and journalists, copyright holders and copyright violators. In so doing, I will advance the thesis that complete originality is neither possible nor desirable, in digital music or elsewhere, and that the spread of digital copying and manipulation has done us a service by bringing the issue into stark relief.

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Sampling and semiotic democracy

Thomas Wuil Joo. A Contrarian View of Copyright: Hip-Hop, Sampling, and Semiotic Democracy. 44 CONN. L. REV. — (2012)

As both a fan and a producer of sample-based music, I’m naturally sympathetic to Lawrence Lessig and the free-culture movement, a group of legal scholars advocating reforms to copyright law that would make it easier to sample, remix and mash up the works of others. The free-culture adherents believe that copyright law exceeded its original purpose to “foster the Useful Arts and Sciences,” and that now it mostly stifles less-powerful creators while benefiting more-powerful entities. A narrative has emerged in this movement implicating the high-profile sampling lawsuits of the 1990s like Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros. Records and Bridgeport Music Inc. v. Dimension Films in suppressing sample-based hip-hop and related collage-like popular music.

Lessig and company think that sampling and remixing of popular culture can empower us, enabling us to take ownership over the products of the dominant culture industry and enhancing “semiotic democracy.” Copyright law inhibits recoding and is grossly overbalanced in favor of large corporate entities and other powerful actors. In particular, so the narrative goes, marginalized hip-hop artists have suffered under the heavy hand of lawsuits and exorbitant licensing fees.

Is the free-culture movement right?

Thomas Joo challenges the free-culture movement’s assertions both theoretically and empirically. He analyzes the infamous lawsuits and finds only reinforcement of a longstanding status quo. He provides extensive evidence that commercial hip-hop artists of the “golden age” (the 1980s and early 1990s) were perfectly aware of the requirement that they license their samples, and that they were able to produce and profit from their music nonetheless.

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In praise of copying

We conventionally place a high value on originality in music. But it’s been my experience that the desire for originality gets in the way of making music that’s actually good. The closer you are to your influences, the more definite and truthful your work is. The key to quality music is to blend together an interesting set of influences that you understand inside and out.

Music evolves in much the same way life does. DNA gets copied when cells divide and replicate. Music gets copied from mind to mind when people hear it and want to reproduce it. All musical learning begins with imitation of other musicians. I’d go so far as to say that all learning boils down to imitation. Primates and other smarter animals learn by imitation too.

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Nas Is Like

If I had to pick a single track to explain to an alien or time traveler what hip-hop is and why it’s so awesome, I think I’d pick “Nas Is Like.”

Nas has a great flow full of powerful imagery, but what truly sets this track apart for me is DJ Premier’s production. It’s a complex web of samples and scratches that tie together so seamlessly as to be much greater than the sum of their parts. A lot of the samples are from other songs by Nas himself. Here’s a diagram of all the samples, click to see it bigger:

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Impeach The President

Hip-hop sampling has a way of elevating obscure tracks into the cultural pantheon.  “Impeach The President” by the Honey Drippers is a perfect example (the president in question is Nixon.) While the song itself isn’t well-known outside of sample geek circles, I can guarantee you’ve heard its opening few seconds. According to WhoSampled.com, it’s the most-sampled breakbeat in history.

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