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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So What

I’ve read that Quincy Jones carries around copies of Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue in his briefcase, and that he hands them out to kids whenever he meets them. Q-Tip compares Kind Of Blue to the Bible — you’re just expected to have a copy around the house. If you’ve never heard jazz before, Kind Of Blue is a great place to start. If you’re an obsessive jazz nerd like me, it never gets old. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, the heart of the album is its first track, “So What.”

Gil Evans wrote the abstract intro section, partially inspired by “Voiles” by Debussy. The tune proper begins at 0:34. If you want to learn how to improvise jazz, you should definitely learn Miles’ solo. A guy named Steve Khan posted this nice transcription of it, but you’re better off figuring it by ear. Learn to sing it first, and then work it out on your instrument. Miles’ solo isn’t too challenging technically, and it can teach you a ton about melody, phrasing and build.

Here’s a live television performance of “So What.”

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Cold Sweat in the Terrordome

The internet is home to a lot of questionably legal breakbeat collections like Drumaddikt and Cyberworm’s Sample Blog. “Cold Sweat” by James Brown is always included in these collections. It’s beloved equally by hip-hop and drum n bass producers. The break is at 4:30.

There’s probably a whole generation of producers who have sliced and diced this beat without having heard the actual song. I’m sure the same is true of “The Funky Drummer” and “Apache.” Beyond the break, “Cold Sweat” is a remarkable piece of music, way out ahead of its time. On James Brown’s album of the same name, it’s sitting alongside jazz standards like “Nature Boy” and some boilerplate blues and R&B. Compared to those more traditional songs, “Cold Sweat” sounds like it belongs in another era entirely. It has a radically simple two-chord structure and an African-influenced intricacy to its rhythmic groove, and it still sounds pretty fresh more than thirty years later.

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Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough

This song represents a lot of firsts for Michael Jackson. It was the first single from Off The Wall, and the first recording MJ made that he had complete creative control over. Many of his hits were written by Quincy Jones or Rod Temperton or the guys from Toto, but Michael wrote this one himself. It was also his first solo song to get a music video.

I’ve loved this song for years while barely being able to make out any of the words. I finally had to look them up on Google. MJ isn’t exactly Cole Porter, but his lyrics have nice body logic, they sound good and are super pleasurable to sing. MJ had the same songwriting strategy as the Beatles: he started with a melody over a rhythmic groove, developed using nonsense syllables. Only later, once the whole song was in place and recorded as a demo, did he find words that fit the metrical scheme.

Verse one:

Lovely is the feeling now
Fever, temperatures rising now
Power (ah power) is the force, the vow
That makes it happen
It asks no questions why
So get closer
To my body now
Just love me
‘Til you don’t know how

The melodic nut meat of this tune is on the words “lovely,” “fever,” “power,” “happen” and so on. The first syllable of these words is sung on D#, the major third in the key of B. The second syllable is on the A below, the flat seventh in B. The interval between these two notes is a tritone. It’s a sound with a richly conflicted emotional resonance. If you’re willing to follow me through a little music theory, it’ll help you understand what makes this song so awesome.

Western music theory is based on the buildup and release of tension. One of the best ways to create tension is with dissonance. The tritone is considered by European tradition to be a very dissonant interval. Every major key has a tritone in it, between the fourth and seventh notes of the scale (fa and ti, for Sound Of Music fans.) If you’re a typical western listener and you hear a tritone, your ear wants it to resolve to a less dissonant interval. You want the fa to resolve down to mi, and the ti to resolve up to do.

African-American music treats the tritone very differently. The blues uses tons of unresolved tritones. In blues, chords with tritones can functionally feel stable and resolved, “dissonant” though they may be. (The music has lots of other intriguing harmonic grittiness, like microtones, and the simultaneous use of minor and major thirds.) The blues passed the unresolved tritone on to its many musical descendants: jazz, rock, funk and so on.

MJ is squarely within his musical tradition to be basing his melody on an unresolved tritone. Still, it’s startling to hear it featured so prominently and starkly in a pop song, on the very first two notes of the vocal melody no less. It gives a jolt of intensity to what might otherwise be a harmless piece of disco fluff.

Music is fundamentally all about math. Most of the musical intervals in the western tuning system are based on simple ratios, the kinds of numbers you can count on your fingers. The interval between A and the next A up is an octave, meaning that the ratio between the two notes’ frequencies is one to two. The interval between A and E is a fifth, a ratio of two to three. The interval between A and C# is a major third, a ratio of four to five. The tritone is different. The interval between A and D# is one to the square root of two. Your ear might not know which specific irrational number it’s hearing, but it knows that something weird and complex is at work, something you can’t count on your fingers.

“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” asserts further non-European quality in its extremely minimalist chord progression. It has just two chords, A major and B7. The A major has B as its bass note, which really makes it more of a B9sus4 chord. The music term for this kind of unvarying chord pattern is a modal groove. In this case the mode is B mixolydian.

Western music is mostly linear. The chord progression tells a story of dissonance leading to consonance, or vice versa. Modal tunes are more Eastern, trance-like and drone-oriented. They’re about creating a cyclical ambiance, a mood rather than a narrative. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” shares its modal quality with my other favorite Michael Jackson original, “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” which he wrote around the same time.

MJ’s chorus adds to the trance-inducing vibe by repeating the same line over and over:

Keep on with the force, don’t stop
Don’t stop ’til you get enough

It’s more of a mantra than a semantic idea. It helps keep the mind clear for the business at hand, the business of getting your groove on from the waist down.

The harmony and lyrics might be static, but there’s a lot of music packed into this track. Ben Wright’s string arrangement chases up and down the chromatic scale, adding another dash of unsettling dissonance. There are multiple layers of bells, handclaps and other percussion, and the bass and guitar mostly function as percussion too. Jerry Hey’s tight horn chart makes the brass into yet another percussion element, rather than a melodic one. Check out the stab at 1:37, the end of the first chorus. Hot!

As with all of MJ’s hits, “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” has been sampled many times. Some highlights, more or less in chronological order:

Purists might find it jarring, but I’m also enjoying this remix with Jay-Z.

The synth solo in this tune is an excellent example of blues tonality.