January 29th, 2010

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What Happens in Riddim Method Stays in Riddim Method

I’ve written a lot here about the “riddim method,” a cheeky term suggested by my co-author Peter Manuel to describe a well-worn practice (and in the case of our article, a distinctly Jamaican version of it). We jest, but we’re serious. In short, what we try to explain is an approach to musical materials as shared/public/communal resources which people feel a certain license to riff on, reinvent, rearrange, remix — an approach sharpened and modernized in some special ways in the soundsystem<->studio industry-ecology of L20C Kingston, and an approach long gone global via reggae’s own migrations not to mention as absorbed and additionally broadcast by hip-hop, house, jungle, garage, grime, you name it.

But just because people participate in riddim/remix culture doesn’t mean they aren’t quick to turn the screws of copyright when it suits them. As Peter and I note in our article and as Larisa’s thesis will no doubt illuminate in lots of nuanced detail, plenty of reggae artists, musicians, and producers have sued each other over the years over allegedly unauthorized examples of plagiarism or infringement or tiefing.

Take Nando Boom, for instance, one of the Panamanian pioneers of dancehall reggaespañol. My co-editor-y-compi, Raquel, told me many months ago that Sñr Boom was suing Don Omar (as well as Wisin y Yandel and their producers) for the unauthorized use of elements from his “Enfermo de Amor” in their relatively successful single, “MySpace” (a song initially discussed here way back when). So thanks to Raq for putting it on my radar, though I’ve been steadily wondering — even while sitting on a draft of this post — what’s been happening with the suit. In that regard, I gotta thank my tweep Tito for letting me know yesterday that the case was recently settled, at least between Nando Boom and Don Omar.

Indeed, it apparently was announced earlier this month that Sñr Boom was withdrawing “counterfeit charges” against Don Omar and would accept his $100k offer as “bastante” despite having turned up his nose at it for about a year and a half (he initially demanded a sum in the millions and is still waiting on W&Y to “square up”).

When I discussed “MySpace” back in June 2007, what I appreciated about it was the brief moments when Don Omar performs a retro style reggae/ton flow —

We hear a number of signposts of the new reggaeton — state-of-the-art synths, emotive harmonic progression, dembow loops — but we also hear a nostalgia for “old school” stylee in a few retro interludes (e.g., around 1:10, 2:10), complete with throw-back, flip-tongue rapping by Don Omar over a crunchy, skanking, digi-reggae loop (though I can’t quite place it) –

Jace was quick to note that the riddim itself seemed to be a version of “Night Nurse,” and about that he was right. What neither of us caught at the time was that Omar was actually directly alluding to — really, re-performing — a central phrase from Nando Boom’s own version of “Night Nurse” (and it’s worth noting that a good number of Boom’s songs, including his own big hits, have been covers of Jamaican dancehall recordings):

While taking more departures than Arzu’s siempre fiel (save for Spanish) “Amor” — including, of course, the very melody / flow and lyrics that Don Omar recites — Nando Boom’s song is itself quite audibly a version of Gregory Isaac’s rubadub classic, employing the Night Nurse riddim as well as some of Isaac’s vocal melodies (and, yeah, underlying medical conceit). Doing what Omar does in “MySpace” or what Nando does on “Enfermo” — i.e., inserting a musical mnemonic, invoking a familiar phrase — is not merely commonplace but arguably central to the poetics of reggae and its many musical kin. (Can I get a zunguzungung?)

Call it quotation, homage, allusion — we have lots of words for this sort of thing (including, I’m afraid, “interpolation,” which is an attempt to bend language & culture to the demands of commerce & its legal armature). So while there’s no disputing that Don Omar has, in a word, “copied” something from Nando Boom, there’s no way that Sñr Boom himself can avoid the same charge on the very song for which he is claiming ownership. (Or just about any other song in his “catalog,” to risk reifying another recording industry concept.)

Tego Calderon noted the inherent irony of the case a while back:



“Defamation”? Oh man, could the litigiousness get any more specious? (I better watch my mouth though, don’t?)

To his credit, Omar has essentially gone the genteel route, proclaiming himself a “caballero” all along, apologizing throughout, offering praise and respect for Nando, and offering $100k in recompense. Actually, it’s not clear how much they eventually settled for. Nando Boom will only say it’s “bastante”; he won’t specify p/q “hay secuestradores” (kidnappers).

Now, I’m not saying that Sñr Boom didn’t pay some serious dues. I feel too that, in some sense — indeed, in the same sense that applies to the pioneers of hip-hop who never got to profit from its eventual global commercial triumph — dude deserves some “reggaeton money,” if you know what I’m saying. Despite his seminal contributions to the genre, Nando Boom never made the kind of cheese that these guys have. And maybe that’s what Don Omar’s magnanimous settlement is nodding to. Still, I don’t know about shaking down random infringers participants in riddim/remix/REGGAE culture.

Among other things, it just adds to bad precedent — and I don’t mean actual legal precedent, since this never went to court, and I’m not really sure about the wider implications of a Panamanian ruling about reggae copyright infringement (except that it could be bad for a lot of Panamanian reggae artists) — I’m talking about how bad faith behavior can have chilling effects on an immense, international, interlocked system of peer-to-peer cultural norms.

I hope Wisin y Yandel and the producers of the song continue to stand their ground. Or maybe just break dude off with a micro-writing credit or something, if that’s what he’s getting at. That seems fair enough, especially if it can be dialed down to the degree to which his so-called “property” animates the song — good luck trying to calculate that, folks.

I can understand if the bad blood / press might have itself felt like bastante to Omar, but I still can’t believe he didn’t go to court over this. Would it really have cost him $100k in lawyers’ fees? (Did they really make that kinda dough with “MySpace”?) Then again, given that the Panamanian courts had apparently granted Nando Boom’s request to arrest Don Omar and Wisin y Yandel should they ever come to Panama (see last para here), who knows whether he could have beaten the charge. In a US trial, I think he might be able to make a decent argument, despite that I don’t have great faith in this country’s legal system when it comes to policing musical practice. But when the issue becomes a question of national patrimony (even if that so-called patrimony is also Jamaican), tensions can really flare.

As I’ve been noting for a while, this sort of geographical enmity / argument among reggaeton’s “stakeholders” (i.e., would-be stockholders) — in particular between Panama and Puerto Rico — animates a great deal of online discourse about reggaeton, and my chapter in the reggaeton book was an attempt to speak to and sort out the various claims. Ultimately, I try to show the various and distinctive ways that each node in the network — Jamaica, Panama, Puerto Rico, New York — have done their part to shape what we now call reggaeton. Clearly, not enough people have read it ;)

Nearly every blogpost, news article, and vaguely related YouTube video have played host to strongly jingoistic arguments about who is owed what in this case. See, for example, the comments from one particularly UNHINGED fellow on that blogpost about Tego pointing out Boom’s hypocrisy —

TWO DIFFERENT SONGS
P.RICANS KEEP TAKEN OUR MUSIC

CARLITO EL PANAMENO is practically calling for his gente to receive reparations from reggaeton. But shouldn’t that open the floodgates of such claims? Should reggae and hip-hop artists, in turn, shake down their legion interpreters in Panama and Puerto Rico alike? I mean, if that’s the game, better be prepared to play by those rules. If it’s true that, as is alleged, Hector El Father decided to drop a dime on Omar + W&Y, I wonder whether Nando Boom should worry about someone making a call to the Cool Ruler.

13 Comments

  • 1. jose luis mercado  |  January 29th, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Uffff the confrontations about the origins of music genres (or related) in Latin America is very common and there’s lot of stories about it. Even people reading your book don’t understand it and it’s not just in the Caribbean. In South America, there’s a lot of stuff like those. One of my favourite was the debate between Evo Morales (bolivian president) and Michelle Bachelet (president of chile in these days) because of the origin of charango (a kind of andean guitar) then Bono (U2’s vocalist) received one of these instruments when he went in Santiago de Chile. Anyways…

    I always thought that Nando Boom was right but now, I read this I totally change my mind. But also I noticed the song of “My Space” sounds similar to the first seconds to Bunbury’s Si (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkdoPeTxtns). Maybe it was used as a create a arrange. Who knows.

  • 2. Nina  |  February 2nd, 2010 at 1:17 am

    Interesting. That little part makes the song for me. How can one quantify such a thing?Play versions with and without the parts in question and rate them? “Well, when testing it, the version without gets 20% less play, so 20% of My Space’s success is due to my client’s stolen work and he deserves 20% of the proceeds?” Is the My Space song lesser without that part, is that part so essential to the character of the song that it can be said that My Space without it would not be My Space? That the melody that was lifted wasn’t what was essential but the Nando Boomness?

    So its kinda like Nando copying a nice handbag or some loafers he saw in a shop and then adding LV’s all over the place, then W&Y and DO make a bag or loafers with a different design,lifting only the LVs. Nando is saying the song itself is just a generic song, standard garden variety song that once out there is free to be copied, but the extras are what makes i unique?

    So the whole copying of a song or a melody or a riddim, even the lyrics is perfectly ok, common property. But the stealing of the style another artists puts into the interpretation- THAT is what is unique or private? You are free to use the songs, but not the style because THAT is the trademarked portion? So 100 Jamaicans or Panamanians can redo a song, as long as they dont bite the STYLE?
    “Song jacking=ok. Swagger jacking= hell no”.

    I’m askin, because I have no idea how this stuff works. I just wonder if people are just tripping and ignoring their theft of others work while trying to get paid for the theft of theirs, or if there is some essential but small and subtle difference in the manner of creating an acceptable homage/allusion/interpretation that has been overlooked.

  • 3. wayneandwax  |  February 2nd, 2010 at 9:02 am

    I don’t think anyone knows “how this stuff works,” Nina, which is part of the problem. There’s just no easy way to quantify when an allusion/homage/pastiche tips into blatant ripoffery. Generally, when these things are put to the test, it tends to be up to a judge, and I have rarely been pleased by what judges think about these things.

    I do agree that the Nando Boom bit really makes “MySpace” for me. Again, whether that’s worth $100k is another question. I don’t think there’s any question, however, about Nando Boom’s hypocrisy here. If his complaint flies, then he owes a lot of other people a lot of dough.

    Introducing an increasingly litigious/grabby element into riddim culture threatens to undo the entire system. I don’t believe for a minute that people will stop making music in this way — that’s just the way music works, analog or digital. But if this sort of policing were happening in 60s Kingston or 90s San Juan, reggae and reggaeton as we know them — as rich, deeply referential genres — would not exist.

    If this is just about a routine shakedown at the highest industrial level of the system, as I’ve discussed before, maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about rich folks getting sued. But I do think these cases can have a trickle down effect — sometimes a rather chilling one — on grassroots/indie musical practice, which is what makes reggae/ton so lively in the first place.

  • 4. Nina  |  February 2nd, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Ripoffery is like obscenity- you know it when you see it?

    I’m with you- if the artists all participate in this whole musical grab bag then there needs to be some sort of understanding. What that should be is beyond me!

  • 5. Nina  |  February 2nd, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    While on one level, I agree that anyone who decide to dip into what he considers a common pool and scoop out some water, has no right to later demand a portion of the proceeds when his work is put into that same pool and scooped out,I feel their pain.

    And I’m sure greed and hypocrisy play a part, but I think when it FEELS like not mere theft of your work but your identity- that shit is hard to take. Take the music, take the lyrics, take the song BUT DON’T BITE MY STYLE.

    If someone wears a red trench coat and it becomes a trend, if I start wearing mine with a brooch on the left lapel everyday at that point THAT IS MINE. The red coat? Well, I guess after the biting has reached the tipping point I would consider it no longer someone’s personal style, though Im sure the person who first started wearing red ones when everyone wore tan was initially pissed when someone else TOOK HIS SHIT.But once its ganked its ganked.

    I can see how the rational aspects get thrown aside and the emotions take over. When you feel that the part taken wasn’t just your song or music, but your ESSENCE it feels like someone is taking your IDENTITY. They arent profiting from taking your stuff, they are profiting from “being” you.

    So I can understand that there may be a general idea that there is some personal ownership and that overtime,informally and by theft, it becomes common property. Its the transition that seems to be the problem. Because I do believe that its possible that its not as simple as hypocrisy, but of believing that there is a tipping point. And people believe , perhaps naively or selfishly, that the stuff they are taking is now in the Free Zone, but the stuff they made isn’t yet there. I KNOW that I believe it in many cases, that there is some arbitrary line and on one side you’re biting and on the other you aren’t.Its entirely possible for me to both copy others AND demand not to be copied.

    Its like acension to the throne by force. You get the throne by TAKING it, but that doesnt mean when someone tries to take it from you, you don’t fight like hell to keep it. You fight with everything you have. It doesnt mean you were wrong to take it or that you were wrong to fight to keep it from being taken. Those are the rules of the game, you want it you take it. You want to keep it, you don’t let anyone else take it. If they CAN and do take it, then its theirs. But there WILL be war.

    And because of the manner of the transition, theres always going to be that tension and that frantic attempt to both hold onto your stuff as long as possible to keep it yours, AND by others to use it as much as possible to snatch it away and make it FREE.

    And of course those who get ganked are gonna catch a case of the ass but usually they go on and make some new stuff to be theirs, so maybe the conflict helps drive the innovation as they say. It keeps everyone hungry and on their toes.

  • 6. wayneandwax  |  February 2nd, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    But what exactly makes Nando Boom’s style *his*? I mean, he sounds a lot like Shabba Ranks or Super Cat to me, who sounded a lot like deejays before them, who sounded like deejays before them, who sorta sounded like African-American radio disc jockeys, who sounded like…

  • 7. Nina  |  February 2nd, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Trademark. My interpretation- apparently people believe that certain parts of the songs are trademarks, the rest aren’t. The song itself they feel is public domain, their trademark (style,line,verse,swagger) is their own.

    While legally you may not be able to trademark your polka dots, your rapping in an English accent or your distinctive flow on a particular verse they FEEL that you can. You can legitimately take something that is being used already by others but has yet to be declared as anyone’s *trademark* and make it your trademark. You *claim* it as *your* trademark. That’s allowed. That’s HOW you get one. If you weren’t the first to use this feature but you were the first to make THAT it trademark its YOURS not the person who first used it.The way to maintain it as your trademark is to use it and jealously guard it and forbid other usage. Because the accepted way to steal one away is usage,yank it back into general use and the public domain.

    Like I said, I feel the artists are often are mad because their IDENTITY is being jacked. Their style, their swagger, their BRAND. Its PERSONAL,more than just the money or their property.

    I think that they (and me) do use the generally accepted rules of claiming and maintaining a trademark although in these situations it doesn’t formally apply.

    In their world it is accepted practice to ignore copyright. EVERYONE does, it is how it works. Everyone knows this. It is not accepted practice to ignore trademark. That will get you shanked. Everyone knows this.

    So an artist may feel that he is in the right to protest someone stealing part of his song which he stole from another because HE used the portions commonly accepted as ok to resuse. But when he is fighting over someone using HIS stuff, he is fighting over the portion he considers generally accepted as NOT ok to resuse. It SEEMS like there is hypocrisy, but to the person doing and and to many observers it is not because they clearly see that there are 2 different situations and issues, but because they are handled legally the same manner as copyright issues there is no way to differentiate and specify WHY it is ok in one case but not in another.

    Problem is, you can’t trademark your gravelly voice and flow. Legally, no leg to stand on. (Well, I don’t know, didn’t Harley trademark their distinctive noise? And haven’t they successfully sued companies who made new songs for tv commercials but used a singer who aped the style of a famous artist so it seemed as if the artist were in the commercial?)

    I don’t see hypocrisy. The rules of the street say we are allowed to violate copyright but not trademark. We can, in good faith, violate copyright AND simultaneously demand that others not infringe upon our trademarks.

    But the rules of copyright are codified, the rules of trademarking swagger aren’t. So when taking it to court, you have a mess because you are trying to get the law to adhere to the rules of the street AND apply copyright law to what is essentially a trademark issue, and that doesn’t work.

    (When I was a kid in school the teachers settled things like this by saying that the rules would not allow them to punish someone, but if they were the plantiff kid they’d go beat the defendant’s kids ass after school)

    (i use the term trademark loosely here,more as an analogy than a legal term)

  • 8. wayneandwax  |  February 2nd, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    I can see your points, Nina, noting of course — as you do — that you use ‘trademark’ here in a loose sense, since the law of trademarks doesn’t apply to music.

    But my reaction to that is: was Don Omar really swagger jacking? I don’t think that he was trying to fool anyone that his recitation of “Enfermo de Amor” over a retro-reggae/ton loop was his own invention. His homage to Nando Boom may have gone over lots of listeners’ heads (including my own, way back when, though I at least recognized it as a throwback style), but I’m sure plenty more — certainly longtime listeners, not to mention Panameños — knew exactly what he was doing. Just like they understood what Nando Boom was doing when he covered Gregory Isaacs’s song in the first place, while taking some great creative license at the same time.

    Are we going around in circles yet? I kinda feel like we are.

  • 9. Nina  |  February 2nd, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Was he swagger jacking? Good question.

    If you say that to jack the swagger one must have the INTENTION of fooling the audience. I’ll guess that we’d have to know his intention and his expected audience.

    All interesting. All confusing. Glad I’m not a lawyer or responsible for actually sifting through all of this stuff. Fun for blogs but a headache to have to live.

  • 10. Nina  |  February 2nd, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    I sort of like the fact that they are fighting over “my space”.

  • 11. Arroz Con Beans | DonR&hellip  |  February 3rd, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    […] Share Alike, Or What Happens in Riddim Method Stays in Riddim Method […]

  • 12. Listening log « Jon&hellip  |  February 9th, 2010 at 1:31 am

    […] 6:05 Nando Boom, “Enfermo de Amor” and Wisin y Yandel, “Myspace” on Wayne and Wax […]

  • 13. wayneandwax.com » R&hellip  |  April 10th, 2013 at 8:01 am

    […] any rate, given my interest in the contentious and often ironic world of copyright claims in reggae/ton, I couldn’t help but notice the article and some of the complaints therein. Here is what […]

Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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