April 10th, 2013

Riffs on Riffs on Riffs

If you haven’t heard it yet, I finally cooked down a Zunguzung Mega Mix that features all 50+ instances that have come to my attention since I first started listening for that catchy likkle tune and, with the publication of this piece back in 2007, enlisting others to lend me their ears.

The impetus for finally bringing this together is that my friend and fellow music scribe, Garnette Cadogen, was visiting Yellowman last week and told him about my work. (Garnette reported, much to my delight, that King Yellow was “touched, truly touched” by my work on his legacy.) When he requested a full mix of the “Zigzagging Zunguzung Meme,” I could hardly refuse.

So here it is, for now anyway: 54 strikingly similiar contours! (See full track list below.)

w&w, Zunguzung Mega Mix (9 min, MP3)

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1982 — Yellowman, “Zunguzungunguzunguzeng”
1982 — Yellowman & Fathead, “Physical / Zunguzung (Live at Aces)”
1982 — Sister Nancy, “Coward of the Country”
1984 — Frankie Paul, “Alesha”
1984 — Toyan, “Hot Bubble Gum”
1985 — Little John, “Clarks Booty”
1985 — Super Cat, “Boops”
1986 — Cocoa Tea, “Come Again”
1986 — Cutty Ranks @ StereoMars PNP Rally
1986 — BDP, “The P Is Free”
1987 — BDP, “Remix For P Is Free”
1988 — BDP, “T Cha T Cha”
1988 — Queen Latifah, “Princess of the Posse”
1988 — Masters of Ceremony, “Keep on Moving”
1988 — Sublime, “Roots of Creation”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Nice & Smooth”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Dope on a Rope”
1991 — Leaders of the New School, “Case of the P.T.A.”
1992 — Lecturer, “Gal Yu Mean It”
1992 — Sublime, “Scarlet Begonias”
1992 — Leila K, “Open Sesame”
1993 — Us3, “I Got It Goin’ On”
1993 — K7, “Zunga Zeng”
1993 — KRS-One, “P Is Still Free”
1993 — Jamalski, “African Border”
1993 — Buju Banton, “Big It Up”
1994 — The Coup, “Pimps (Freestyling at the Fortune 500 Club)”
1994 — Ninjaman, “Funeral Again”
1994 — Bounty Killer, “Kill Or Be Killed”
1995 — Buju Banton, “Man a Look Yu”
1995 — Junior M.A.F.I.A. ft. Biggie Smalls, “Player’s Anthem”
1996 — 2pac, “Hit ‘Em Up”
1996 — Captain Barkey, “Go Go Wine”
1996 — Junior Dangerous ft. Lucas, “Comin’ Out To Play”
1997 — Cru, “Pronto”
1998 — Mr. Notty, “Sentencia de Muerte”
1998 — Black Star, “Definition”
1999 — Lil’ Cease ft. Jay-Z, “4 My Niggaz”
2000 — Dead Prez, “It’s Bigger than Hip-Hop”
2000 — Daisy Dee, “Open Sesame”
2000 — Wyclef Jean ft. Xzibit and Yellowman, “Perfect Gentlemen Remix”
2001 — Ñejo, “El Problema Ser Bellaco”
2003 — Joe Budden, “Pump It Up”
2004 — Jin, “Learn Chinese”
2005 — Looptroop, “Chana Masala”
2006 — POD ft. Matisyahu, “Roots in Stereo”
2006 — JD (aka Dready), “UK Zunga Zeng”
2007 — White Rappers, “One Night Stand”
2007 — Gwen Stefani ft. Damian Marley, “Now That You Got It”
2009 — Wax Taylor ft. ASM, “Say Yes”
2010 — Vybz Kartel, “Whine (Wine)”
2011 — Tifa, “Matey Wine”
2011 — Yellowman, “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng (Horsepower Productions Remix / Dub)”
2013 — Benga & Kano, “Forefather”

Notably, with the exception of Nice & Smooth, K7, and Horsepower Productions, all of the echoes of Yellowman’s tune to date have been re-sung rather than sampled. Sometimes a one-off phrase, at other times it structures the chorus. The tune twists and turns in so many ways over the course of 30 years, I find it truly beguiling. I just want to sing it all the time. That’s a good riff for you.

[Update: Only took a day before another version popped up in the comments! Thanks to Noriko Manabe and Marvin Sterling for pointing out that Rankin Taxi's "You Can't See It, and You Can't Smell It Either" -- a 2011 post-Fukushima protest song -- also contains a zunguzung allusion. Guess I'll have to re-mix the mega mix, again, at some point. Nice to have an appearance from beyond the Americas & Europe.]

I can’t leave you with just that, however, as similar threads demand to be looped in.

While I was in Jamaica last month, an item ran in the Gleaner with the sensational title: “Is reggae being stolen? Foreign languages allow for copyright infringement.” The article gave voice to complaints that Spanish-language artists are cheating Jamaicans out of royalties by re-singing and re-titling reggae songs.

Hmmm. Sounds like a familiar story, don’t? You know, the sort of thing that goes like this:

At 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 producer Winston “Niney” Holness had to say:

When we make songs, Spanish people take it and sing it different, and we don’t speak Spanish, so we don’t realise. Because of that, the Spanish artistes don’t pay us royalties and it slips right under our nose. I think the Spanish owe reggae music millions of dollars right now.

Niney may be right. It’s true that this happens all the time. Indeed, the latest example I stumbled across is classic in its overt and simultaneously reverent and irreverent reanimation of a hit reggae song. Still, I wonder whether Ricky Blaze knows about this (or, for that matter, this) and what he’d think —

Niney offers additional barbs about white people owning ska & other perversions of property. He even raises the specter of the entire genre of reggaeton owing a grand debt to Shabba Ranks’s (and hence, Bobby Digital’s / Steely & Clevie’s) “Dem Bow” — though he reduces it to a general rhythmic pattern that is hardly copyrightable. And though I could discuss dembow for days, here I want to flag another specific allegation and its recursive riffs on riffs:

Songs like Murder She Wrote is in Spanish right now and I don’t even think Sly and Robbie know.

Niney’s reference to “Murder She Wrote” is interesting, especially as the first track mentioned in this light. Of course, he’s right, to some extent. But it’s not actually true that “Spanish people” are singing the song so much; more precisely, little loops and bits of the riddim from “Murder She Wrote” have, by this point, been as deeply embedded into the aesthetic code of reggaeton (especially Dominican dembow) as “Dem Bow” itself. (& I will add that I find Niney’s comments on “Dem Bow” quite timely given that I’ve got a piece in a forthcoming Wax Poetics detailing the surprisingly mixed-up and mysterious “origin” of reggaeton’s Dem Bow. Spoiler alert: reggaeton’s favorite loop was not recorded in Jamaica.)

As it happens, not only does “Murder She Wrote” live on in a thousand DJ Scuff mini-mega-mixes, it’s about to get as big a push into the US (& global) mainstream as it has received since the early 90s thanks to none other than French Montana (featuring, natch, Nicki Minaj), who additionally riffs on the vocal melody from Chaka Demus & Pliers’ warhorse:

As odd as I find the juxtaposition of two unrelated early 90s dancehall songs here, and as squirmy as such caricatured takes on dancehall make me, “Freaks” represents an exciting moment for the lil lilting riff that so defines “Murder She Wrote” (also known as the Bam Bam riddim) — a riff which, as I’ve explored in mini-mega-mix form, is itself quite caught up in international networks of creative riffing –

w&w, Bam Bam Big (7 min, MP3)

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I hope French’s folks licensed those samples, though, since his jam is not as likely to fly under the radar as its Puerto Rican cousins. That said, I’d love to see a case like this actually go to court somewhere. (Not really.) It’s more than clear that this stuff goes around and around and around, and hence making claims to ultimate origins (and exclusive exploitation rights) always seems a little suspect. But who knows what a judge or jury might decide.

Along those lines, the last riff on a riff (on a riff?) I want to share here is based around a story BigBlackBarry told me when I was in Kingston last month. Check this set of echoes:

As complicated as this may seem, just because Bo Diddley recorded it “first” (and who knows who he may have been riffing off) didn’t stop Willie Cobb from shaking down Dawn Penn when her rocksteady hit was rejuvenated with a mid90s twist and became a sudden crossover success.

So I’ll leave it here for now: big up the one King Yellowman for recognizing how influence and allusion work, for relentlessly riffing on the sounds around him, and for never suing the many, many souls who did him the same service and extended his echoing chant into a realm of truly remarkable reverberation.

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lucien  |  April 10th, 2013 at 11:11 am

    This is a great piece, and though I feel like we could all play this game all day, I am curious what you think about cases like the oft-maligned Led Zeppelin Blues bites where way more money and fame are involved. Conversational references that are key to pop music creation or rip-off?

  • 2. wayneandwax  |  April 10th, 2013 at 11:15 am

    I think the answer is: both!

  • 3. Lucien  |  April 10th, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    Well put!

  • 4. Noriko Manabe  |  April 10th, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    One more song to add to the Zunguzung list:Rankin Taxi’s antinuclear “You Can’t See It” at around 3:15. http://youtu.be/mF12h19h5uo

    Kudos to Marvin Sterling, who mentioned the possibility to me.

  • 5. wayneandwax  |  April 10th, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    Yep, that’s it all right! About time we get an entry from Japan. Thanks to you and Marvin both for bringing to my attention. Already, an update is in order!

    The funny thing about this one is that I’ve totally watched that video before. I’ve even screened it in class! Still, somehow the allusion eluded me. (Maybe I failed to watch all the way through?)

    The appearance of the zunguzung here would seem to affirm, yet again, how deeply it’s embedded in dancehall’s melodic repertory. It has become no less than a sonic shorthand — one of many, but perhaps one of the more commonplace — for invoking dancehall itself.

  • 6. pace  |  April 11th, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    LOVE! On a quasi-related note, Ninja Tunes just released Ninjajamm, which lets you remix segments of the Ninja Tunes catalog via a handy IPhone ap. The tagline is “The remix of the remix”. http://www.ninjajamm.com/

  • 7. Ben simko  |  April 24th, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    Another zungazung: ol dirty bastard – “last call” (from the Bully soundtrack)

  • 8. AK  |  April 24th, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Excellent work. I remember working at a particular place a few years back and catching the Zunguzung melody in another song. I pointed it out and was crowned the resident reggae head, but I had no idea one could go this deep.

  • 9. wayneandwax  |  April 25th, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Thanks for the tip, Ben, but I confess I don’t hear it. ODB does go “zugazugazugazoo” at around the 0:45 mark, but without any sort of melodic contour to it, I’m not willing to consider this an allusion per se.

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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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