Together with Adam Bell, I’m planning some in-depth writing about the phenomenon of pop musicians (like me) teaching in formal, classically-oriented institutional settings. This post is a loosely organized collection of relevant thoughts.
What even is “pop music?”
As far as the music academy is concerned, all music except classical or folk is “popular.” People who make bluegrass or death metal or underground hip-hop might be surprised to learn that their wildly unpopular music is referred to this way. In the past few decades, jazz has moved out of the “popular” column and into the “art” column. I myself have made a small amount of actual pop music, but for the past few years have mostly been involved in the production of artsy electronica.
How classical musicians learn: an absurd oversimplification
Classical musicians learn The Western Canon by performing and analyzing scores. The defining instrument of this music is the piano. All vocalists and instrumentalists are expected to be able to think in pianistic terms. Students are part of a pyramid-shaped hierarchical structure with long-dead composers at the top, followed by long-dead music theorists, followed by living music theorists and conductors and academics, and so on down to the individual section player. There is a contingent of living composers whose role in the hierarchy is confused at the moment. Most student composers are expected to operate within a tightly bounded tradition, whether that’s common-practice tonality or one of the various schools of modernism. The analysis of large-scale structure happens only at the very advanced level, if ever. Recordings are something of an afterthought.
Maybe, like me, you’re a fan of “Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean featuring Earl Sweatshirt.
Maybe, like me, you were especially delighted by the part at 1:59, when Frank unexpectedly quotes “Real Love” by Mary J. Blige.
A “record label” (really a group of lawyers) called TufAmerica heard that quote too, and now they’re suing Frank Ocean for sampling their property without permission. TufAmerica owns 3.15% of “Real Love.” They acquired this stake by suing Mary J. Blige, whose song samples “Top Billin'” by Audio Two.
There is no single universally agreed-upon definition of music. We know it when we hear it, but what you might hear as music, I might hear as noise. Who’s right? We both are.
The entire high modernist movement of the twentieth century was devoted to finding out just far you can push the limits of the conventional definition of music. John Cage considered all of his work to be music. A normal person would likely consider just about none of it to be music. I consider it some of it to be music, mostly extremely annoying music, and some of it to be clever or not-so-clever conceptual art. There isn’t an ultimate authority we can appeal to who will rule on whose opinion is the “right” one (though my NYU professors would disagree with me there.)
Recently, I was on Connecticut Public Radio’s Colin McEnroe show, talking about the culture and history of the mashup. I gave my usual enthusiastic endorsement of the practice. My friend Jesse Selengut, an ace jazz trumpet player and all-around music master, had some responses.
Frank Ocean is the R&B singer of the moment. Does he merit all they hype? There’s no doubt but that the man can sing. I first heard him in Jay-Z and Kanye West’s tremendous “No Church In The Wild,” which owes a lot of its intensity to Ocean’s vocals. He’s been releasing some good mixtapes too. Some of his sudden fame is also due to his implicit coming-out moment, a remarkable Tumblr post talking openly about his feelings for another man. In a world where Jay-Z’s voicing ambiguous support for gay marriage is headline news, Ocean’s open love letter is bold indeed.
The online Frank Ocean buzz reached such a pitch that I finally took the plunge on his first major-label release, Channel Orange. It’s the first full album of new music I’ve bought since The Archandroid by Janelle Monáe. Does it merit the hype? I don’t know yet. I think so. It’s strange and idiosyncratic. Some of it is boilerplate R&B, some of it is wildly experimental, Most falls somewhere in between. One song that jumps out at me is “Super Rich Kids,” featuring the utterly affectless rapping of Earl Sweatshirt.
On Tuesday, July 17, I appeared on the Colin McEnroe Show on Connecticut Public Radio to talk about my pet topic, remixes and mashups. The great DJ Earworm was on the show too, which I was totally geeked out about. You can stream or download the show here. Or listen to my remix of it:
My friend Jesse had a lot to say about the discussion on the program. Read his response (and my response to his response.)
I recently saw Under African Skies, the documentary about Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it was spellbinding. The music is so beautiful, the politics are so agonizing.
I watched it with my mom and sister, which is appropriate since Graceland was in heavy rotation through my childhood. Mom isn’t a big pop scholar and knew next to nothing about the album beyond the fact that she likes it. My sister had some dim awareness of the politics, but not much more. I’ve studied the music closely but only had a vague grasp of the human story. So the film was quite a revelation for all of us, a whole new dimension to an artifact that’s both utterly familiar and mysterious. I think it hits the art houses in a few weeks. Do not miss it.
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.
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.
The first time I heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was courtesy of Motorcycle Guy, a prominent Brooklyn eccentric who drives around on a tricked-out motorcycle bedecked with lights and equipped with a powerful sound system. I encounter him every so often and he’s always bumping some good funk, soul or R&B. One night, he was playing what I thought was an extreme remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, with the end chant slowed down and pitch-shifted radically. As it turns out, I got the chronology reversed. Here’s Manu Dibango’s song: