Hip-hop top 100

I was asked on Quora to give a list of my favorite hip-hop songs, because what better source is there than a forty-year-old white dad? (I am literally a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar.) I did grow up in New York City in the 80s, and I do love the music. But ultimately, I’m a tourist in this culture. For a more definitive survey, ask Questlove or someone. These are just songs that I like.


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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:

Nas Is Like sample map

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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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Biz Markie gets the copyright smackdown

Biz Markie. Who doesn’t love him? Our broken intellectual property system, that’s who.


Biz belongs to the period in the late eighties and early nineties that many hip-hop heads refer to as the golden age. The tracks of this period were dense with samples and quotes, most of which were used without permission. Biz was no exception.

The golden age came to an end in 1992, when Biz was sued for illegally sampling “Alone Again (Naturally) ” by Gilbert O’Sullivan.

“Alone Again (Naturally)” is a fine song, but it’s not spectacularly original. The chord progressions, melodic motifs and verbal imagery are all popular music boilerplate. The rhyme schemes are mostly cliches like cried/died. Gilbert O’Sullivan was the first person to use this exact combination of standard musical modules, but the modules themselves can be heard in zillions of other songs. I’m giving you all this music criticism because I think it’s ironic that Biz could be sued for stealing from a song that is itself assembled from other pre-existing ideas.

Here’s the song Biz was sued over.

Biz uses a loop of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s piano and a quote from the chorus. He also uses the frequently-sampled beat from “Impeach The President” by The Honeydrippers. Biz’s song follows the time-honored hip-hop strategy of semi-ironically quoting a well-known chorus and writing new verses around it, all over a funkier beat.

Biz’s label, a subsidiary of Warner Bros, attempted to get clearance to use the piano sample from Grand Upright Music, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s publishing company. When Grand Upright denied the request, Biz and his people went ahead and used it anyway. In response, Grand Upright Music filed an injunction. The decision in Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. ruled emphatically in Grand Upright’s favor. The decision was the death knell of sample-intensive hip-hop at the commercial level. Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy began his opinion in the case by quoting the Bible:

“Thou shalt not steal.” has been an admonition followed since the dawn of civilization. Unfortunately, in the modern world of business this admonition is not always followed. Indeed, the defendants in this action for copyright infringement would have this court believe that stealing is rampant in the music business and, for that reason, their conduct here should be excused. The conduct of the defendants herein, however, violates not only the Seventh Commandment, but also the copyright laws of this country… [I]t is clear that the defendants knew that they were violating the plaintiff’s rights as well as the rights of others. Their only aim was to sell thousands upon thousands of records. This callous disregard for the law and for the rights of others requires not only the preliminary injunction sought by the plaintiff but also sterner measures.”

Judge Duffy concluded by referring the matter to the US Attorney, recommending prosecution of Biz et al for criminal copyright infringement.

This ruling makes me sad for several reasons. First of all, Judge Duffy wasn’t in complete possession of the facts. If you choose to define sampling as “stealing,” then stealing was in fact rampant in the music business, and not just among hip-hop artists. Rock and roll was built on uncredited borrowing from blues and R&B musicians. The Beatles used unauthorized samples of copyrighted materials in their artsier tracks like “Revolution 9.” Experiments with tape collage by the classical avant-garde go back to the fifties.

I also take issue with Judge Duffy’s equation of sampling and stealing. There has never been a wholly original piece of music. For that matter, there has never been a completely new idea of any kind that didn’t draw extensively on its intellectual context. Sampling is a novel technological practice, but it’s a seamless extension of the way music has always been made. All creativity consists of recombining and repurposing fragments of existing works into new ones. I would go so far as to say that there is no other kind of artistic practice.

I’m not completely unsympathetic to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s position. I wish that some kind of licensing or profit-sharing agreement could have been reached in this particular case. But where does it end? Would we require Gilbert O’Sullivan to pay every previous user of his harmonic and melodic cliches, and every previous user of the cried/died rhyme? Would there be any kind of art at all if we did?

Meanwhile, I detect more than a tinge of racism in Judge Duffy’s ruling, and in the cultural consensus that produced it. This article from the UCLA/Columbia Copyright Infringement Project is sympathetic to Biz’s legal position, but it slips in some ignorant music criticism:

[A]part from the gibberish chanted over O’Sullivan’s ostinato, there is nothing original in Biz Markie’s song or his recording except his performance of it.

Biz doesn’t enunciate his rhymes very clearly, but there’s a big difference between mumbly delivery of slang and “gibberish.” Maybe the slight wasn’t have a racial motivation, but it’s hard to imagine why else the writer would be so dismissive of the hip-hop art form.

Personally, I value Biz Markie’s music much more highly than Gilbert O’Sullivan’s. I resent the chilling effect that copyright law has on sampling culture, which I regard as the a rich and vibrant method of musical expression. A big part of the pleasure of hip-hop is encountering a familiar sample in a new song. It mixes the warm thrill of recognition with the strangeness of a novel context. Hip-hop has this wonderful ability to make well-worn cliches fresh again.

Even when it’s unauthorized, sampling generally helps the sampled artists more than it harms them in the long run. It keeps the sampled artist culturally relevant to new generations of listeners who otherwise wouldn’t care. I would never have even heard of Gilbert O’Sullivan if Biz hadn’t paid him the compliment of sampling him.

Just for fun, here’s Biz’s best-known song. Like “Alone Again”, the chorus quotes an older song, “You Got What I Need” by Freddie Scott.

Boo copyright. Yay quotation.

Update: Kevin Nottingham posted all the samples from Biz’ I Need A Haircut on his blog. Download and remix to your heart’s content.

Further update: the web site for the documentary Copyright Criminals links to this post.