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.

Here’s the real video, which sadly I can’t embed. In its place, enjoy a fan video.

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