There’s been a lot of news in the past week about the legal kerfuffle between the Beastie Boys and a company called GoldieBlox, which markets science/engineering toys aimed at girls (and their parents) seeking something beyond the standard pink princess fare.
Apparently, GoldieBlox has successfully leveraged the “viral” qualities of the net to project their “disruptive” brand, and the latest example does so spectacularly well, via a parody of the Beastie Boys’ well-worn, decades-old, silly misogynist ditty, “Girls.”
In fact, my first encounter with GoldieBlox’s version of “Girls” arrived via word of mouth (i.e., Gchat), just the way viral videos are supposed to. My wife shared the link with me, as we ourselves are constantly struggling with the balance between giving our daughters lots of options for growth and play, on the one hand, and indulging their seemingly irrepressible desire to parade around as princesses on the other. As that type of dad, I couldn’t help but myself be smitten by the ad —
So, I was as surprised as anyone to learn about the legal battle currently underway over this parody of a parody (if, in the initial instance, an ambiguous one). Obviously, GoldieBlox’s “Girls” is derived from the Beasties’ “Girls,” but it’s a complete re-recording, marshaling certain familiar elements — the riff, the refrain, and certain text/melodic lines — not all unlike the ways the Beasties themselves cribbed and borrowed and reassembled their own song out of prior performances.
Redolent of a schlocky musical and cultural past — and perhaps helping to give the song some of its parodic edge — the Beasties’ “Girls” makes audible nods to both the Isley Brothers and Bo Diddley. Beginning around 0:40 in the following video, you’ll hear Diddley play on guitar the very same riff the Boys coax out of their wonky synth:
And this mashup underscores pretty convincingly how much “Girls” is inspired by the Isley’s “Shout,” with parellels in terms of song syntax, repeated refrain, and even a few striking melodic parallels (e.g., “say that you love me‚Ä¶” == “to do the dishes‚Ä¶”):
What should we make of the Beastie Boys taking two songs deeply inspired by African-American religious ritual — the ring-shout in the case of the Isleys, and Diddley’s hand-clapping & foot-stomping “communion service” — in order to make a rearguard, if possibly parodic, song about women? On what grounds should the Beasties be allowed the privilege of doing something so derivative/transformative, while GoldieBlox should not?
For many, it would seem, the crucial point turns not on questions of musical borrowing and re-signification but rather, on the Beastie Boys’ stated wishes to keep their music out of advertisements, as articulated in their open letter —
make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.
This is especially poignant given that Adam Yauch (aka MCA) made this same wish explicit in his will.
But then, GoldieBlox isn’t actually using the Beasties’ music. Or are they? It’s a question — and not an easy one to resolve. (For any of us, or for a judge or jury for that matter.) They’re certainly not using the Beasties’ recording, or even a sample from it. Why should we determine that the Beasties’ should be able to stop others from re-assembling the same pieces that they themselves assembled without licensing/permission in the first place? Should GoldieBlox respect the Beasties’ wishes?
What about, say, James Newton’s wishes? An avant-jazz flutist, Newton famously insisted that the Beasties’ use of a sample of his flute performance on “Choir” for the Beasties’ “Pass the Mic” constituted copyright infringement, but a court ruled that the snippet was too short to constitute a part of his composition, and since the Boys had licensed the recording from Newton’s record label (for a paltry $1000), they were allowed to go ahead and use it despite lacking Newton’s permission.
Generally speaking, as readers of W&W will know, I support that sort of relatively unbridled approach to transformative re-use. Songs are shared things, and if you don’t want someone to play or sing along, hold them close and sing them quietly in the corner. Once something is out in the open, in public, via commercial or even non-commercial circulation, it becomes available for sharing and reinterpretation. Courts and lawyers and some artists like to draw hard and fast lines between folk culture and commercial culture, but these are usually little more than language games having to do with claiming ownership, not stable definitions of cultural domains. (Sometimes, they’re struggles over power and money, which are not to be diminished, though they are hardly at play in this case between some rich musicians and a successful start-up.)
When did “Girls” escape the Beasties’ creative control? Perhaps as soon as it was commercially released and massively distributed. In its own way, the Beastie’s “Girls” was, in the first instance, itself an advertisement — an ad for an album, an ad for concerts, an ad for a sophomoric act that the Beastie Boys took to the world and to the bank.
All that said, it’s still a little odd for the likes of the EFF to step into the fray, and to argue for fair use simply because they agree with Glodieblox’s putative politics. Clearly, commercial instances of parodic fair use have been upheld before — s/o Luther Campbell & Henry Louis Gates — but it’s always a matter of convincing some judge/jury about the lines people want to draw around musical ownership. Toward that end, I think considering the big musical picture here helps.
I mean, just imagine the chilling effect on other renditions of “Girls”! In a world of personal branding, where do we draw the line between commercial and non? Between advertisement and not?
Tell this guy Bro Chuy he’d better not “go viral” —
Or this girl for that matter —
And someone should really warn these squirrels not to attempt to monetize their questionable “parody” —
For my part, as a dad, I’ll be sure to teach my daughters how to reverse engineer our favorite Beastie songs as soon as the girls are ready for some serious digital music trickery.
Remember when I asked — rhetorically and remixically — whether there were limits to your love for Soundcloud? Well, it took a little over two years, but the super smart sample-sniffers over at Audible Magic have apparently finally decided that one of the two mashups I made by way of commentary / limit-testing should be removed for possible copyright infringement. Here’s the notice I received today:
When one clicks through to options, note that there is no recourse for anyone who does not own the copyright or have permission. In other words, there is NO FAIR USE in this world. Soundcloud does not want to be in the business of adjudicating the lines of transformative use; it wants to be in the business of datamining and other forms of monetizing all the activity on the part of users which makes the site what it is: yet another popular privately-owned public space.
I won’t go into all the lurid details yet again. I’ve said enough about Soundcloud’s practices & policies, as have others. But I promised “to keep you posted” on this little experiment, so I had to share this development here.
I can protest all I want. I can include lines like the following in my description: “I contend, especially for the purposes of critical commentary and educational applications, that this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of all materials.” But the bots won’t care, and I doubt the humans will either. Best I can do, if I really care about this audio residing on Soundcloud (which I don’t), is to upload again, perhaps with a little more sonic camouflage.
No need to bother with that. The limit has been reached. That said, I’ll be curious to see when/whether the “content protection system” (a rather Orwellian ring to it, no?) figures out that the removed mashup’s mirror-image twin, the “Feisty version” — the better/weirder, and the more popular of the two, as it happens — is still just sitting there, brazenly violating copyright–
Plus, I’m happy to note that the Blakey version is still available, with helpful visual tracking, c/o Vimeo:
Finally, my commitment to never paying Soundcloud for their “service” remains strong as ever. We’ll see how long my account lasts over there. Considering that I neither hold the copyright nor have permission for ANY of my uploads (which I suspect is the case for the majority of users), despite all of them bearing rather audible marks of my creative labors, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them disappear one by one. Get em while they’re there, and when they’re not, come get them here.
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.)
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, ‚ÄúCome Again‚ÄĚ
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, ‚ÄúGal Yu Mean It‚ÄĚ
1992 — Sublime, “Scarlet Begonias”
1992 — Leila K, “Open Sesame”
1993 — Us3, “I Got It Goin‚Äô 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, ‚ÄúPimps (Freestyling at the Fortune 500 Club)‚ÄĚ
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‚Äô 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, ‚ÄúPerfect Gentlemen Remix‚ÄĚ
2001 — √Ďejo, “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, ‚ÄúNow That You Got It‚ÄĚ
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.
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 —
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.
I’ve got a piece in this week’s Boston Phoenix discussing the spectacular shuttering of Megaupload and the collateral damage produced by an increasingly aggressive copyright regime in tandem with a remarkable nonchalance about preserving the digital libraries we build. Some will recognize this as but the latest instance of platform politricks, just another rug yanked out from under folks tryna dance with each other. (Though it looks like another series of SoundClowns may be on its way!)
Anyway, check it out and tell me what you think. Shouts to Carly Carioli for reaching out about the piece and, along with Sara Rosenbaum, helping to whittle it down into something pretty darn sharp, if I say so.
As for this space, allow me to share a few linked-up grafs below that ended up on the cutting room floor, as well as some germane and entertaining media:
As with its predecessors, the sudden shuttering of Megaupload leaves a whole lot of holes in the e-ther. Among other random disappearances to tick across my timeline: the only copy of a personal video a friend‚Äôs father had recently stored there; and the sole upload of Nehru Jackets, the acclaimed new mixtape from Himanshu Suri of Das Racist (at least until a few hours later, as Suri‚Äôs supporters quickly re-upped the zipfile to similar sites). No doubt thousands of other innocent files were disappeared on January 19, but none are likely to get their day in court.
Of course, it‚Äôs hard to sympathize with anyone who‚Äôs thinking is so clouded that they would entrust their only copy of something to a service that explicitly warned, in both its ToS and FAQ, of the possibility of complete data loss (with no liability on their part). And it‚Äôs even harder to sympathize with Kim Dotcom, the cartoonish founder of Megaupload. So apparently full of money, food, and hubris is Dotcom that Hollywood could hardly hope to cast a better villain. Indeed, few embody the foreign rogue in the crosshairs of SOPA and PIPA as well as Dotcom with his extravagant nose-thumbing at the MPAA and RIAA ‚Äď never mind prior convictions for computer fraud, insider trading, and embezzlement.
But if Dotcom comes across as an odious parasite, it‚Äôs telling that many seem to prefer him as their middleman over more established gatekeepers. In the weeks before it was shut down, Megaupload had been getting under the skin of the recording industry not simply because of piracy; rather, the site was becoming a special thorn in the side because some of the industry‚Äôs marquee artists were publicly endorsing it. A promotional song and video (see below) featuring testimonials from the likes of Kanye West, will.i.am, Lil Jon, and Sean Combs began to make the rounds, as did rumors that producer Swizz Beatz had become CEO of the company. In the wake of the raid, Busta Rhymes took to Twitter to defend Swizz Beatz and Megaupload alike, arguing that the site offered a more promising and direct revenue stream to artists than Spotify.
Even if Megaupload was an obvious target, that doesn‚Äôt make it easier to hear the pathetic giant paper-crumpling sound of thousands of non-infringing files disappearing behind a JPG of an eagle carrying a bad pun in its talons. As the chilling effects spread to similar sites, one has to wonder whether Megaupload‚Äôs demise heralds the beginning of the end of yet another functional but far too ad-hoc system for sharing media with each other.
And just in case you can’t appreciate the logo on the right up there, here it is a little more up close, deconstructing its own silly self and making a mockery of our supposedly noble National Bird —
Actually, as the title of my piece implies, the real National Bird looks more like this —
In this week’s Chicago Reader, Miles Raymer offers an informative and interesting account of SoundCloud’s recent policy shifts, as chronicled and critiqued here (and here and here) at W&W. I’m happy to note that I make an appearance in the article, alongside the one and only Catchdubs, providing some familiar points (if you’ve been reading here) in far less concise language than I typically try to use (ah, real time!).
SoundCloud’s decision to use Audible Magic points to a larger question: How big can a music-hosting service get while still supporting DJs and remixers? Is it possible for a site large enough to show up on the radar of the major labels to avoid accepting the majors’ strict-constructionist views of copyright?
“Deejaying is essentially playing other people’s music,” says Catchdubs. “Most people kind of realize that it’s 2011 and we know what the deal is with a DJ mix, especially when you’re not putting it up for sale. You know, I think there is a bit of a disconnect between the socially accepted uses of copyright and sort of what is legally down there on paper and, you know, the decision-making process of major-label legal departments and the RIAA and shit like that.”
SoundCloud is at a crossroads here. Right now its practices appear to defer to rights holders, allowing labels and publishing companies to determine almost unilaterally what counts as infringement‚ÄĒa stance that puts an undue burden on uploaders whose employment of copyrighted material might meet the criteria for fair use. Were SoundCloud to take the nobler and more difficult path, it would devise a policy that could differentiate between DJs and remixers on one hand and pirates on the other. Of course, it’s easier and cheaper for SoundCloud to just keep serving DMCA notices to its most passionate users‚ÄĒthough taking that route could drive off enough of them to make it very expensive indeed.
“If it becomes too annoying,” Marshall says, “people are going to pick up and move to the next thing. That’s what I’ve been observing in all of these things. Either the platform completely disappears, or something easier with less hassle pops up.”
Cherry on top, someone over at the Reader shopped up the SoundCloud logo to make it rain on a DJ — and not in a good way — finally filling a request I made over two months ago!
In related news, I think James Blake might be baiting me. Mr. Next Big Thing recently told Spin that
Remixing is like musical prostitution. I think it’s really cynical and vacuous; I’m batting offers away like flies. It never used to be like that. Ray Charles didn’t need five remixes. The song speaks for itself.
As I’ve pointed out, taking the position of the haughty auteur who loathes remixes is especially ironic given how Blake built his own name by remixing the music of others, from Lil Wayne to D Child to Untold to — if we think of sample-based tracks as remixes of sorts, which they surely are — Brandy, R. Kelly, Kelis, and Aaliyah. All to overwhelming acclaim.
But I guess that act got tired once Blake found his “real” voice. Or once the whole business got sullied by money. There’s a big difference between pimping yourself out and just fucking around. Maybe Blake should take a cue from his legion fans and try just doing it for fun again?
Anyway, I can’t help but pick out another soundbite he offered the magazine–
Once I’ve made my music, where it goes is not my problem.
Following up on recentposts, I decided to do a little looking into how many remixes of James Blake’s “Limit to Your Love” currently reside on SoundCloud. I confess that I stopped after combing through 20 pages of returns for my (somewhat sweeping) search, though SoundCloud indicated that there were another 30 pages or so! With something like 10 tracks per page, that’s a helluva lotta James Blake on SoundCloud (of course, I have no sense of how that compares to other artists — who’s down to crunch some numbers with/for me? I need coders! Holler.)
I’ve decided to be pretty inclusive about sharing some of these with you here. On the one hand, I want to demonstrate a certain stunning diversity and fecundity (which a mere glance at the waveforms suggests). On the other, I want to do a little experiment and see how long these various sample-based tracks remain up on SoundCloud. Check back later to count the tombstones, absent their metadata like so many scratched-out epitaphs.
Of the 25 remixes below, some are far more accomplished or interesting than others; some are radically transformative, others more faithful. Irrespective of questions of quality, there’s an impressive array of stylistic transpositions to behold. From boom-bap hip-hop to glitched-out ambience, hopped-up breakcore to global bass tropicalia, by-the-numbers drum’n’bass to brutalist brostep, Blake’s track — perhaps particularly inviting in its minimalism and spaciousness — clearly serves as fertile ground for a variety of “interlocutors” and co-producers.
I’m not recommending that anyone listen to all these, though there are certainly some gems (especially if you like the song). But I think they make a wonderful illustration of the vibrancy of (unauthorized) activity on SoundCloud, and though such productions may not be so easily quantifiable or directly “monetized,” as they say, I’d contend that they offer quite a measure of the enthusiasm for Blake’s music — and if he / Universal can’t manage to work with that, they’re no doubt missing out.
Without further ado, let’s take it to the “Limit,” one more time…
This isn’t a version, per se, but it’s an interesting thing that came up in my search: answering-machine-inspired audio music-criticism — a different sort of sonic engagement with the song on SoundCloud:
Before I call it a post, permit me two final, germane embeds; rather than remixes of “Limit to Your Love,” they remind us how young Mr.Blake himself made his name by working in (unauthorized) “remix culture”:
To keep the discussion moving (for I really don’t want the iron to cool too much, lest we lose our fire entirely), I want to talk about a couple interesting uploads I came across this week on SoundCloud.
Briefly, let me preface by noting that I’ve found it pretty remarkable throughout SoundCloud’s relatively short existence that I rarely if ever run across an example of flagrantly unauthorized filesharing. Some users occasionally upload other people’s tracks without explicit consent but more typically as a form of decentralized (and courted) promotional activity than in a yes-you-can-find-that-on-YouTube fashion. To me this seemed like evidence of a good faith approach, wherein SoundCloud was taking a gentle, supportive hand to remixed, DJ-mixed, and otherwise recontextualized music (including as part of field recordings) and balancing that strong stance toward fair use by vigorously removing any blatant examples of bald, untransformative filesharing.
Of course, December’s wave of automated take-downs let the air out of any dream of a concerted, coherent, or particularly robust defense of fair use on SoundCloud at the corporate level. Nevertheless, users of SoundCloud continue — both unintentionally and purposefully — to challenge terms of service, copyright law, practices of attribution, and notions of ownership. I’d like to examine here one example from each camp: the accidental and the intentional. (And, given the fraught status of each, we’ll see how long before this blogpost becomes yet another web2.0 graveyard.)
Here’s one that I would characterize as unintentional, though as I’ll explore, the lines get blurry:
Pop archivist and professor Hugo Keesing, building on the work of radio DJ Mark Ford (post-post update: see here for a detailed parsing of the tape’s twists and turns), spliced together the audio “embedded” in the player up there, just below his portrait in triplicate. It’s a piece he named Chartsweep back when in the pre-Napster 90s, an hour-plus collage comprising short, recognizable samples of every #1 hit in the US from 1956 to 1992 (according to Billboard/Whitburn).
Apparently, the montage, which may or may not have been made from reel-to-reel recordings and/or 45s (see some mythology here [and again, here]), circulated informally and anonymously among radio heads for many years before someone finally solved the mystery and tracked down Keesing. [Though to update again, according to this, the piece was “heard in national syndication, annually, by millions and millions of listeners,” so obviously, and interestingly (given this week’s amnesiac reception), it has enjoyed a massive audience in the past.]
Keesing discusses the project, and his background, in this interview with Jon Nelson. Allow me to excerpt a bit to show how the assemblage, which Nelson says he “couldn’t help but think of as art,” emerges both out of Keesing’s capacious love for popular music and his embrace of mashup poetics, if you’ll permit the anachronism, as a form of multimedia pedagogy:
The concept and term “Chartsweep” both originated in the late 60s with a syndicated radio show called “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I listened to it on WOR-FM in New York and recorded portions of it on an old Wollensack reel-to-reel tape recorder. As you know, the ‘sweep presented segments of every Billboard #1 single starting with “Memories Are Made of This” (Jan 1956). I don’t recall where it stopped, but it was around 1968/69. Six years later I began teaching an American Studies course at the University of Maryland called “Popular Music in American Society.” To provide a setting for each class I dusted off the concept, took it back to January 1950, added a number of songs based on Joel Whitburn’s re-definition of #1 songs, and continued where the original had stopped. I added each new #1 until fall, 1991 when I stopped teaching the course. “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” was the 900th. At the start of each class I played a portion of the ‘sweep that corresponded to the years we were covering that night. To accompany the tape I made 35mm slides of either the original sheet music, 45 rpm record sleeve or something similar, so that students could see as well as hear the pop music history. Copies of each night’s tape went to the undergraduate library. I assume that an enterprising student or two made their own copies and it is a copy of a copy of a copy that remains in circulation. That’s the story in a nutshell.
But, of course, the saga continues. In the last week Chartsweep has risen to “viral” prominence after a complicated — and possibly incestuous — round of re-posting and re-blogging and re-posting and re-blogging. Although uploaded to SoundCloud just two days ago, as of this writing, the two parts have cumulatively garnered nearly 150k plays!
Key to this unprecedented explosion of exposure is, of course, the unauthorized uploading of Chartsweep to SoundCloud, the special affordances of which — namely, embeddability and scalability — make it a lot easier for Keesing’s collage to travel and be heard and shared than if it were simply residing as mp3s on a server here or there.
Precisely because Chartsweep has been around for years, enjoying a more modest audience and addressing a narrower public, the piece’s performance on the so-called platforms of web 2.0 could prove instructive as we dispute what constitutes fair use, and what doesn’t, in an age of “automated diminishment.” At the moment, it remains to be seen what — and whether/when — Audible Magic will have to say about all the unauthorized samples it sniffs in this.
The samples are sitting there, clear as day. Here’s part 2, stretching from Men At Work’s “Land Down Under” (itself embroiled in silly copyright wrangling) to the fitting closer, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”:
Now, Chartsweep It may not be the sort of thing you’d like to listen to all the time, and it’s certainly not a replacement for any, never mind all, of the songs it includes. I feel little need to explain why this sort of thing has the right to exist. The answer to that question is audible and obvious. Indeed, just a glance at the reactions Chartsweep elicits, whether at SoundCloud or on blogs, turns up a great variety of ways that such a transparently derivative and transformative work can reveal, uniquely even, all manner of things about pop and charts and us. Among other things it nicely demonstrates, as one commenter notes, “This is so awesome‚Ä¶you can actually hear the British Invasion happening in 1964″ (emphasis mine).
But what about questions of attribution and fair use and ownership not with regard to the maker of the montage but the uploader of the audio? It’s notable that mjs538 provided no information about who put the piece together — or anything else. Indeed, he even gave it a misleading (and erroneous) new title, “Five Seconds Of Every #1 Pop Single.” But despite these possibly suspect procedures, plenty of listeners recognized Chartsweep immediately, and some — like DJ Empirical — felt compelled to leave a comment providing proper attribution. (The confusion here seems to stem from a case of lazy reblogging and meta-data erasure by the very same affective laborer, Matt Stopera, who (re)posted it here — where he oddly indicates that it was “Made by” Ubuweb, who have merely done the simple, if awesome, [& actually, slightly misleading] service of re-archiving the audio and interview — and who also re-blogs stuff like “The 30 Best Pictures Of Asians Wearing Engrish Shirts” — clearly a man of taste and honor.)
Can we imagine a better set of practices for sharing Chartsweep with a new set of publics? I suspect we can. Would as many people have heard it this week if such a system were somehow automated? Doubtful, at least at this point. Does that matter?
These thorny questions echo in the second example I’d like to discuss here…
Earlier this week, Detroit techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson took to his website, Facebook, eager amplifiers like Mad Decent and Resident Advisor, and, yes, SoundCloud, in order to clown a couple Italian producers who centrally employ an obvious sample of Saunderson’s 1987 classic, ‚ÄúThe Sound,‚ÄĚ without giving credit (or publishing for that matter) where due. In response, Saunderson is giving away digital copies of the original track while posting a copy of the offending track to SoundCloud — for free, without Supernova’s permission, and in 82mb wav file splendor (not that it’s such a splendiferous track, a rather wan paint-by-numbers production rightly derided in comments as “beatport minimal” and “ableton techno”).
Here’s the story according to Saunderson (& hear the original here, if you don’t want to download it c/o his righteous largess); note the nuance in Saunderson’s position here — this is hardly copyright extremism:
I recorded ‚ÄúThe Sound‚ÄĚ back in 1987 and released it on my own KMS Records label. It was a massive hit at New York‚Äôs Paradise Garage and in Chicago and of course Detroit. Once it hit the UK it became one of the earliest Detroit anthems right acround Europe, a huge underground record across the globe – a true desert island techno track. It is such a special record to me because it was one of my first really successful productions and I hope that you all will enjoy this free, fresh digital download of my original 1987 version.
The reason I have decided to give this track away for free is because of a situation that recently developed involving the unauthorized sampling of ‚ÄúThe Sound‚ÄĚ by Italian producers Giacomo Godi & Emiliano Nencioni (Supernova) in their release ‚ÄúBeat Me Back‚ÄĚ on Nirvana Recordings. It came to my attention that they are licensing and selling, with considerable success, this track which is nothing more than a continuous loop of the main hook from ‚ÄúThe Sound.‚ÄĚ
For me to hear ‚ÄėSupernova‚Äô taking an extended loop of ‚ÄúThe Sound‚ÄĚ and claiming that this is their own original composition and production is both dishonest and disrespectful. My first thought was that they were perhaps na√Įve, but as they have apparently been recording together since 2002 this seems unlikely. In any event this is completely unacceptable, we cannot continue to let this kind of wholesale rip off go unchallenged and tolerate ‚Äúartists‚ÄĚ who completely sample recordings, add nothing of their own and then release the results as their own work.
I have a huge affection for sampling, it‚Äôs how some of the most inspiring and ground breaking tracks of our times were created. We‚Äôve pretty much all sampled records at some time, and cleared the sample so we can use it on our releases, but it is just not cool to take someone else‚Äôs music, create a big old loop of it and then put your name on it and try to have success entirely off the back of another artist‚Äôs efforts. This really has got to stop. For this reason, I have uploaded the Godi/Nencioni version of ‚ÄúThe Sound‚ÄĚ to Soundcloud so that you all can download this for free if you so wish. These producers and their record label should not be profiting from my back catalogue… this is not their track to sell.
Here it is (and do note the title!), though I recommend clicking over to SoundCloud to check the convo happening there (and over at RA too):
As of this writing Saunderson’s instantiation of “Beat Me Back” at SoundCloud has been listened to over 10k times and downloaded almost 2k times. I can only hope that the original will enjoy a lush new life despite the strange circumstances of its revival. It’s definitely vexing that someone like Saunderson — who can be credibly described as an architect of the very sound, the very aesthetic conventions (never mind specific bassline), that Supernova are working in — might find himself so rudely excluded from deserved techno dividends in the age of Beatport. And I quite support the sort of public gesture he’s making.
I also look forward to hearing, if anything, what happens to something like this on SoundCloud. Will Supernova sue? Will they settle? Will SoundCloud / Audible Magic intervene first? It’s tricky terrain, to be sure. But I suspect there are plenty of “brave” lawyers ready to leap into the breach.
But before this seems like another round of ammunition for the copyright wars, I want to return to the importance of nuance and context when we make efforts to distinguish between fair and unfair uses of musical recordings. While I am sympathetic to Saunderson (and would happily help him make his case), I don’t think it’s so simple as to say that any track built on a loop in this way is necessarily subject to the kinds of ownership claims he’s making. In contrast, I can think of any number of hip-hop tracks that are similarly loop-based and yet still stand as undeniably “original” and perhaps even deserving of commercial (and, of course, non-commercial) lives of their own.
As it happens, this very example offers a fine test case, for Supernova are not the first to build a track around a central sample of “The Sound.” Way back in 1988, just months after “The Sound” started hitting clubs across the burgeoning post-disco diaspora, New York’s Todd Terry enlisted its distinctive bassline for one of his trademark sample-laced burners, “Back to the Beat” —
Listening to the three versions alongside each other, we’re invited to think about whether “Back to the Beat” > “Beat Me Back” — or, more precisely, what makes one loop hackish (and hence disrespectable) and another inspired (and thus tolerated). Note how this commenter on another instantiation attempts to tease out what Terry has borrowed from what he has created:
Of course, the amazingly amazing and idiosyncratic bassline was sampled from Reese & Santonio’s Detroit classic “The Sound” just as the the choirish sound has Kraftwerk circa anno? 1986 and “Electric Cafe” written all over it. However, the heavy rhythm, the eclectic melange of samples from everythere and – yes – the stuttering quality is very characteristic of Todd Terry productions.
I really appreciate the way a sense of community norms — however local or contested they may be — undergirds a comment like this, and it’s that sort of community-wide interpretation and peer-level censure (or approval) that should be at the heart of how we collectively regulate public culture in an age of click-and-drag remediation.
How many times do we need to be SoundClowned before we get wise?
Back in late December, tellingly/suspiciously right in the midst of the holiday vacation lull, SoundCloud started sending out the same sort of automated take-down notices to its users that YouTube has been using for years. Mix-style DJs and remix producers found certain of their uploads suddenly removed from circulation. According to an innocuously named audio detection algorithm, the tracks in question were allegedly guilty of infringing copyrights in their unauthorized uses of particular recordings. (Let’s not get distracted, I suppose, by the already stretchy notion that any of these things are substitutable “copies.”)
As Larisa “Ripley” Mann noted in the immediate aftermath, it seemed especially ironic that a site that so clearly courted users from across various DJ/remix communities — and, in turn, benefited immensely from said users’ (promotional) use of the service — would turn around and attack one of its core constituencies.
It’s ironic, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Because SoundCloud, like any other for-profit venture, is first and foremost looking after its bottom-line, of course it doesn’t assume the burden of contesting any of these assertions. Rather, per the DMCA, in order to remain in “safe harbor” territory, it complies with the data-analysis and auto-serves takedown notices. (And to its credit, again following YouTube, the company at least alerts people to the possibilities of submitting a “counter notice.”) This is, of course, reasonable behavior by a commercial company seeking legal cover against a content industry that has been known to drive similar platforms into the ground. But it’s not the sort of stance that is going to make SoundCloud the people’s champion (and ubiquitous audio app) it would like to be.
Despite the bloggy/tweety fallout, however — again, see Ripley’s round-up — SoundCloud has hardly seen its image tarnished in the wider world: last month, just a week or so after the first SoundClownings came to light, it was announced that the company had raised $10M in venture capital, and just yesterday I saw reported that the site has grown by 50% in just the last three months, now exceeding 3 million users. Far as I know, none of the users who allegedly gathered “in 517 cities around the world” for a ‚ÄúGlobal Meetup Day‚ÄĚ earlier this week voiced any sort of discontent.
And so we bear witness again to platform politricks at work — once more with chilling implications for everyday musical practice, global popular culture, “fair use,” and the public domain.
So what are those of us who want a better platform to do?
I’d say there are two main options, which we might think in terms of tactics vs. strategy: 1) continue to support and invest in SoundCloud while pushing for a more robust defense of fair use there; or 2) build something else, something more able to resist the corporate enclosure produced by overzealous, automatic, and often erroneous copyright litigation.
Here, I’m going to propose a little bit of both.
Amidst all the SoundClowning last month screenshots like the one above hardly seemed to present a reasonable set of choices for people who’d like to defend ordinary DJ/remix practice. All the assumptions are clearly running in the wrong direction. (“Recognized as”? “By mistake”? “Explicit permission”?)
Honestly, how is one supposed to respond? And how is one supposed to respond honestly? It’s not that the detection of the Blake track is a “mistake” exactly, but the assertion that the Blake track is tantamount to the whole of the upload is wrong. Moreover, implying that one must have “explicit permission” to use the Blake track presents a false and dangerous picture of the scope of fair use, radically restricting the realm of the legally permissible. Because this is how things are structured — as captured in the form above — there exist few practical alternatives for someone like gregb. He could file a counter notice and fight it, perhaps all the way to a costly and potentially bankrupting trial. (Is this really a practical alternative?) Or he can sit by and watch his mixes disappear one by one. C’est la net.
These issues aside, the screenshot invites us to reflect on how SoundCloud, and mixes like gregb’s, contributed to the rise of James Blake. (Is it just me, or is it extra ironic that Blake’s aesthetic push toward conventionality accompanies a rejection of experimentation at the level of music industry?) Or we might think about how SoundCloud served as a launching pad for someone like Munchi, who really did exploit the site as a kind of launching pad, now garnering thousands of hits on his uploads. I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before astounding efforts like Munchi’s breakout year in 2010 — aided and abetted by a great many samples used without permission — become an impossibility on SoundCloud, as the company is brought to heel under 20th-century copyright law while attempting to host 21st-century audio culture.
Of additional worry, as highlighted in this TechDirt post, is the question of whether we should assent to automated processes adjudicating the various downstream uses that our constitution protects by granting a “limited monopoly” to copyright holders. The author of the post, Mike Masnick, calls this the “Automated Diminishment Of Fair Use,” and I hope that sounds as scary to you as it does to me. Despite that the audio-detection algorithms have already proven error-prone and predictably grabby, we’re letting bots decide what is fair — or more to the point, what is not.
Should we really cede that ground? Is that a good trade-off for the network effects of a massive socially-networked media-sharing site? Plenty seem to think so, and act accordingly, even if their concession is implicit.
Ah, sample-based music in the age of algorithmic detection! Won’t this be fun. We can play it like the 1990s all over again, when torch-bearing “underground” sample-based hip-hop producers like Primo, in the wake of chilling litigation, managed to stay one step ahead of the system, taunting catalog companies with dusty samples that weren’t easily recognizable even by hired-gun sample-sniffing snitches. Here’s an open letter from 1998’s Moment of Truth that still resonates:
In that vein, I present to you a remix (or two) of the very James Blake track responsible for some recent disappearances on SoundCloud, as mashed-up with its source of inspiration, Feist’s original, in a couple different ways. (As it happens, I opened a SoundCloud account two years ago this month, but this is the first time I’m uploading something.)
In a gesture of fairness, if you will, I decided to make two versions of the Blake-Feist mashup, one that keeps intact the cover and bends the original toward it, and another that performs the opposite procedure. I like the idea of “honoring” both versions in this way. (They get to have their integrity and we get to eat them too!) I myself have a preference for slowed-down female voices over sped-up males, but I’ll be curious to hear if anyone prefers the Feisty, chipmunky Blake version.
Without further ago, here are a couple of those trademark orange waveform widgets:
A few technical notes, as always, about what I’ve done here:
1) the two versions are several semitones apart, but more or less the same tempo, so all it took was some pitching up of the Blake to meet the Feist, on the one hand, and some pitching down of the Feist to meet the Blake, on the other
2) as you can see in their Vimeo instantiations (Blakey | Feisty), I have, in each instance, left one of the tracks completely whole while applying as few cuts as possible to the other; this required relatively minimal surgery, as the only real difference, time-wise, was Blake’s inclination to stretch things out, as in the intro
3) the Feist track actually has a long-ish intro that I, following Blake, completely bypass on each mashup; I saw no reason to begin the Feisty version with a Blake-free minute of music, though I did, in a departure from my generally hands-off approach here, suture some of the Feist intro to the long, almost silent section of the Blake version (as you’ll see/hear)
I hope both mashups do the job of drawing the listener into the questions of form, interpretation, and affect raised by these subtly divergent but simultaneously-sounding renditions. Let me be clear: I’m not pretending that these remixes are necessarily aesthetic triumphs; indeed, I think they both get a little muddy half-way through, especially once Blake starts getting freaky with the bass — but that sort of disjuncture is precisely the sort of thing that mashups like these are so good at highlighting. As I’ve argued elsewhere, mashups can offer poignant, useful resources for classroom discussions of form and content, not to mention re-use and fair use, self and other, etc., and it is in the twin spirit of education and critical commentary that I defend these tracks if they happen to be sniffed out by some clumsy algorithmic audio-sleuth.
I’ll be curious to see whether my remixes can weather the sample-sniffing. I’ll be sure to keep you posted. Feel free to join me in a little bit of digital civil disobedience / remixxy fun!
Pro-tip: parodies are almost always a safe bet —
If I still have your attention, please allow me to briefly discuss plan B: i.e., rather than working from within SoundCloud — tactically, if you will — to resist spurious copyright policing, we instead seek a new way forward, a strategy for ensuring a certain sustainability and resilience for collective, interactive musical practice, for our peer-to-peer industry. Given the direction the White House appears to be heading with regard to “IP” and the increasingly pernicious and vicious legal tactics of the content industry, there is a clear and present need for better platforms on which to stage our shared culture.
Decentralization seems key. And it’s telling that much of the discussion in the wake of December’s SoundClownings came around to the obvious limits (despite the advantages) of massive corporate media-sharing sites. Channeling hip-hop in his own way, Timeblind reminded that “only toys buy their paint” and, hence, “pirates need to keep it on the D/L.” I hear him on that, but at the same time, I’m not comfortable ceding the high ground to the vested interests who have decided what is “piracy” and what is not.
what are other ways of having platforms of these kinds, which place their control in the hands of the folks who use them? and, more importantly, perhaps, what are ways of propagandizing these autonomous platforms, and of spreading the analysis that works against the continued use of the current corporate ones?
I’m wondering what it would require, technically, to start building decentralized control of our resources/platforms/online communities. What was the best, more successful aspects of an Imeem or Soundcloud + how can we start assembling + using alternatives?
In the week or two following the SoundClowned episode, a few of us were chatting about the different pieces necessary to the puzzle. Tim “Tones” Jones proposed some ideas over here, and we chatted a bit in the comments, but I’m sorry to say that, once again, the conversation has since tapered off.
I wonder, is it already too late to move from this moment? Has the iron cooled too much? That would be disappointing. As Rozele put it in a follow-up, “before some other corporate pseudo-solution starts lying to our friends,” we really need to answer some concrete questions, e.g.:
how many folks who‚Äôre being evicted from SoundCloud will put up some cash to kick things off? and, more importantly, how many music-makers will commit to making this new space the only place to find their work online (or at least the primary one)?
There are, of course, major tradeoffs between scale and resiliency, and these same questions we’re asking of each other open into broader, current, critical debates about resiliency on the net. In this regard, we might see something like Wikileaks suggest some options for music culture in the embrace of an “alternative control structure.”
The comparison is not so far-fetched. See, for example, a recent piece by Clay Shirky, who trots it out:
Like the music industry, the government is witnessing the million-fold expansion of edge points capable of acting on their own, without needing to ask anyone for help or permission, and, like the music industry, they are looking at various strategies for adding control at intermediary points that were previously left alone, under the old model.
With dovetailing interests like these, maybe Somali pirate servers are our best bet after all.
Seriously, though, who’s gonna step up and build something? Are 4shared or Hulkshare the best we can do for scaling our (free) distro? Are pop-up ads and malware a necessary reality for the sort of peer-level music industry that seeks to evade capture? Do we really want to operate in a world where our own ideals, and values, and best practices must be compromised if we wish to continue making and sharing art on a global scale, in a public way? Must we be forced (back) underground, and coerced back into adopting practices that cut against our ethics, our desires to acknowledge as we build on the work of other musicians and artists and producers?
To return to Ripley (in a great follow-up post), there are deep implications for this sort of retreat-by-design:
Nameless reuse can erase the reality of difference, turning everything into a consumerist fantasy, where you don’t have to deal with the lived realities of different worlds and different lives.
Again, the big question is: will we rise to the occasion, and finally find a way to give the drummers some (and protect their legion interpreters), or will we continue to get clowned, and pawned, and toyed with?
I’m happy to announce that I recently joined the team of associate editors at JPMS, or the Journal for Popular Music Studies, which is the quarterly publishing venue of IASPM-US, or the United States branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music.
Now that I’ve got that mouthful out, let me tell you why this is important to me and worth your interest — that is, if you fancy yourself a scholar or student of popular music.
Depending on one’s language, methods, and audience, there are lots of venues for writing about popular music today, from the classic sites of music journalism (magazines, newspapers), to the world of blogs and tweets and tumbls, and including an increasing number of academic journals. All of those are fine venues, in their own way, and depending on their paywalls (or lack thereof), they all can serve to amplify ideas, share research, and work to reshape the ways we think and talk and write about music.
I’m glad to note that JPMS stands alongside many similar efforts, including Popular Music, Popular Music and Society, and nowadays a host of online and grad student-edited journals. All of these serve as supportive — and increasingly bold and accessible — platforms to stage rigorous peer-reviewed discussions and debates about the significance, meanings, and effects of popular music, very broadly construed.
The “broadly construed” part is crucial, and I know my co-editors are in agreement about the diversity of approaches and topics we’d like to invite. It’s also important to me that the journal be broadly accessible — a public platform of sorts, to be read by people outside of popular music studies per se. Of course, being an academic journal, still embedded in a particular publishing regime, there will be inevitable constraints on our best wishes. But while we realize that an academic journal faces certain problems of access and professional requirements (i.e., getting people tenure in disciplines), we hope to cultivate JPMS as a space from which a broadened and more critical understanding of music writing might be generated.
Here’s a revived description of the journal c/o the new Editors-in-Chief, Gus Stadler and Karen Tongson:
Journal of Popular Music Studies features work on popular music in its historical, cultural, aesthetic, and political registers. Its purview encompasses all genres of music that have been dubbed popular. The journal is also concerned with such issues as popular music‚Äôs intersections with other arts, its relationships with old and new media, and its status as a field of research and critical writing. We welcome and encourage unconventional approaches (i.e. different from the standard scholarly essay) to these areas of inquiry. Each number of JPMS features book reviews, as well as occasional reviews of performances and recordings, and we regularly publish special issues oriented around a particular topic, co-ordinated by a guest editor or editors.
In a meeting of the editorial team earlier this semester, a more detailed picture emerged of the directions we’d like to take the journal. The following points help, I think, to situate JPMS uniquely in the field. In brief, we are in agreement that we’d like JPMS to
1. Provide a hospitable place for scholarship that departs from strictly ‚Äúdiscipline-based‚ÄĚ approaches to popular music.
2. Encourage writerly approaches to popular music. We want to locate and feature the passion in the projects we publish, and to that end, also hope to encourage non-academics, independent scholars, journalists, venerable aficionados, to submit to JPMS. Indeed, the disciplinary intervention of pop music studies comes not only from WHAT we write about, but HOW we write about it.
3. Create a forum for scholars/writers working on pop music that can be idiosyncratic and experimental. Whereas other journals about popular music have established certain identities (as more ‚Äúofficial‚ÄĚ representatives of the field, as cultural studies clearinghouses, as
venerable old organs of the profession), we have the opportunity to make JPMS a place to explore new directions in pop music and scholarship about it.
4. Enjoy an expanded (and redesigned) web presence.
With regard to the last point, I like what Social Text has been doing, for instance, and I think that in general we could grab some pointers from contemporary blog and online magazine layouts. (The current setup is dismal, clinical, and difficult.) The drab physical product could use some retooling too. There’s no reason a journal about pop shouldn’t itself also pop. And there’s no reason JPMS’s archives and current content shouldn’t be easily navigated, accessed, cited, and so forth.
Of course, one reason certain things will be slow to change is that journals like JPMS are rather institutionally entrenched. I confess that working for one of these pay-wall journals is a deeply ambivalent undertaking for me, especially at this stage of my fledgling career. None of us get paid directly for the labor that goes into producing this journal. (Rather, we get paid by universities who expect us to spend some of our time this way.) And yet readers must pay a middleman publisher in order to access the fruits of our labor. Via library subscription packages, the universities that pay our salaries are made to subsidize scholarly production twice over. And don’t get me started on the towering ivory paywall standing between that privileged but pricey university access and the greater public. The OpenAccess movement and ordinary, proactive sharing practices are helping to erode such walls, but there remains a long way to go.
These concerns notwithstanding, I’m still, for the moment, committed to working from the inside to change things for the better, so that’s one reason that I decided to join the team of associate editors this time around. (Frankly, I had been asked in the past and found it rather vexing that I would be working to get other people credentialed when I myself am still struggling to secure stable employment.) So let me finish, finally, with a brief explanation of what I’ll be doing for JPMS, and where YOU might come in. (But first, a quick plug for my fellow associate editors — Anthony Kwame Harrison, David Suisman, Alexandra Vasquez, Eric Weisbard, and Mina Yang — quite a slate of accomplished and promising scholars. It’s an honor to be working alongside them all.)
Essentially, associate editors are responsible for suggesting appropriate peer reviewers for essays that overlap with our areas of expertise, and we’re encouraged to bring to the attention of the Eds-in-Chief any new work, academic essays, or experimental writings that would be appropriate for the journal. I’m also happy to consider experimental non-writings if anyone has ideas along (outside?) those lines.
So if you’ve got something you think would be a good fit with what I’ve described above, get at me, or send to: email@example.com (& see here for author guidelines)
The students in Elizabeth Stark‘s class at Yale this semester, “Intellectual Property in the Digital Age,” have put together a wonderful 24-minute documentary on “borrowing culture in the remix age,” including some really smart, confident, eloquent, and creative people (though I’d have liked to see some browner faces in the mix). Anyway, do check it out; it’s worth it for the mindblowing Eclectic Method intro alone —
[Ok, here’s another oldie-but-goodie from the Riddim Meth0d vaults. Plenty of readers are no doubt familiar with this post/mashup, especially since I’ve revisited the issue. In the time since I wrote it (almost 5 years ago!), I’ve also had the strange fortune of submitting a brief report — about the significance of “Big Pimpin” to Jay’s and Timbo’s respective oeuvres — to the lawyers working for the heirs to Baligh Hamdi’s copyrights. (For the record, while I don’t want to contribute to bad legal precedent, I’m generally ok with taking some of the money that explodes outward as rich people sue rich people, as long as I get to tell the truth as I see/hear it. Also, this likely won’t go to trial.) This example also finds its way into a chapter I’m contributing to a forthcoming book on Pop-Culture Tools for the Music Classroom. Finally, I want to thank the lovely humanitarians at archive.org for preserving the post and — more importantly — the comments on it. I’m happy & relieved to recover the comment thread from the initial RM post, which I will paste in at the bottom of this re-post. It’s hard to lose conversations to the e-ther, even little ones. For the record, this was initially published on 19 September 2005.]
riffing off pace’s east-meets-west blend and continuing my experiments with mashes of musically-related songs, i offer up an orientalist oddity: jay z’s “big pimpin’,” as produced by timbaland, mixed with abdel-halim hafez’s “khosara,” the song that provided timbo with the inspiration for the slinky, flute-propelled loop that undergirds j-hova’s jam.
although there was some controversy about the similarity between “pimpin'” and “khosara” (including talk of a lawsuit), timbaland apparently escaped penalty, at least at present, because in this case he replayed – i.e., re-recorded – the two-bar section (rather than digitally sampling it), and the sense appears to be that the underlying composition was not original and/or substantial enough to be infringed in this case. you will hear in the four-bars that begin my mashup that timbaland’s beat bears a very strong resemblance to the original. [note from 2010: i have since changed my opinion on the question of whether this features a sample or not, based on irrefutable evidence.]
this is not an unambiguous case. because the music in question is a short loop and it is re-recorded rather than sampled, it seems reasonable for timbo to get off the hook. of course, not only is the musical reference a clearly recognizable one, the two-bar phrase in question is an important part of the original, serving as an intro and as a recurring riff (notably, returning after the vocal section). at the same time, the fact that, according to this article, label owner magdi el-amroussi would have denied timbo the ability to use this fragment – “Because he’s changed the composition” – also seems to argue for timbaland’s right to do it. despite that timbo and jay used the flute loop to craft a somewhat crass (if catchy) song about pimpin’, the world would be worse off with such arbitrary, authoritarian restrictions on derivative works, whether the so-called owner of the copyright is disney or a seemingly stodgy label owner.
what i like about this mash, as with the “code of the beats” experiment, is that one gets to hear more of the original, which is great in its own right, and thus one understands the sonic inspiration at work here. at the same time, hearing the source alongside the “derivative” track offers new ways of hearing the originals. in this case, one gets to hear how timbo’s interpretation changes the original: rather than a recurring motif, the flute loop now undergirds the entire composition, moving its emphasis toward rhythmic repetition and bass frequencies. similarly, rather than supporting some southern-fried, slap-a-bitch rap, timbaland’s breezy beat, enhanced by additional winds and strings, instead accompanies the mournful, melismatic singing of abdel-halim hafez, the “king of arabic music.”
although timbo’s beat has always had me open, i gotta admit that jay’s lyrics (and those of his cohorts) tend to put me off. frankly, they make me cringe. as much as i can see the attraction of expanding the pimp-metaphor (as with the hustler, badman, etc.) and of playing the role – at bottom, it is a position of power, par excellence perhaps – i just can’t get with the misogyny when it comes down to it. similar to oliver, i have a hard time recuperating exploitation. so, rather than playing any of the verses, or even the chorus, what i have done here is to “dub in” a few of the phrases in jay’s verse that seemed more “positive” or at least could be interpreted that way. “love ‘em” (without the “leave ‘em”) seems about as good as it gets, though i found some others, too.
after putting the phrases together, i was struck that the line “take ‘em out the hood, keep ‘em lookin’ good” suggests quite another set of meanings when heard in the context of egyptian music: one can either hear jay-z critiquing conservative islam’s call for women to wear veils – recalling vybz kartel’s “you nuh haffi hide your face like bin laden gal” – or one can hear him assailing the american-style torture interrogation techniques so symbolized by hooded abu ghraib prisoners.
and despite its appearance before 9/11, “big pimpin'” does tap into our historical moment nonetheless, sitting alongside a host of other orientalist beats in hip-hop, dancehall, and various electronic genres. the resonance of middle eastern music in the world’s (urban, popular) musics has been building for some time, reflecting centuries of history of interaction, not to mention a contemporary and increasingly visible and audible cultural presence in the US.
even so, representations of middle-easterners and islam in the US (and, say, UK) remain as stereotyped and distorted as the “eastern” musical figures in contemporary popular music. the article in al-ahram notes that the hip-hop press completely conflated various asian/orientalist signifiers when trying to describe the egyptian sound of “big pimpin'”:
The identity of the composer of the song, though, has been lost within the crazy machinations of the hip-hop world. A review of the song on MTV describes it as “Bollywood-wigged NOLA bounce stutter-stepping,” ignoring its Egyptian roots. Another review describes the beat as featuring “Z droppin big willie rhymes over a swaying, South-Seas flavoured groove that’s a happy musical marriage of Brooklyn and Bali.”
so it is also my hope that a mashup of this sort can serve to bring a little more awareness to the actual music whose ghosts and caricatures today haunt mainstream radio and the global underground alike. the hafez original could serve as a window into a wonderful world of truly amazing music, which, really, should only further justify the existence of timbaland’s homage. (let’s face it: they’re not exactly competing in the same market; one’s existence does not diminish the other – on the contrary, they enrich each other’s resonance.)
i recommend tracking down the original recording of “khosara” – never mind various live versions – and giving the song a listen. it certainly holds up on its own. (i’m sayin’, how do you think it came into timbaland’s hands?) in fact, given that the infringement suit seems like a non-issue, and considering that so many of us really dig the same sounds that inspired timbo and jay-z, it would be dandy if hafez found new listeners by virtue of timbo “putting him on.” you can find one version of “khosara” on CD here (and listen to a real-audio file of the whole thing), and you can hear much, much more from him here. enchanting stuff, no doubt. listen to this alongside some um kulthum, and you’ll get a good sense of mid-20th century egyptian popular music.
a word on technique: i have pitched the hafez recording up slightly in order to match the timbo version (since the latter had the more compelling, bumping center, which i would rather not distort). when the hafez makes harmonic changes, however, i shift the timbaland up in pitch to match it (which, yeah, sometimes sounds a little weird – but this is all kind of weird to begin with, no?). i have simply replayed the first vocal section of the hafez after the jay-z-quoting dubby section in order to give the track’s form a kind of roundness. because the hafez original is substantially longer than i imagine most people’s attention spans are, i decided to excise the rest of it. (when i tried out an earlier mix of these at a boston-based college-bar, it was clear that heads were not ready. it nearly caused a riot on dance floor, and not in a good way. but i insisted on making it through at least one round of hafez’s singing before bringing back the jay-z. the manager thought i had lost it. i quit that gig shortly thereafter. when i played the same sequence at beat research, where there also happened to be some egyptians in the house, people went bananas for it.)
one final note: i’ve added some additional, locally-inflected percussion here. having added this mash into my set at the boston bounce party a couple weeks ago, i already had the two tracks arranged with some bounce-y beats underneath (i.e., all the percussion that enters after the first eight bars). i decided to leave the beats in because they give the track some nice extra drive (if obscuring some of the halftime feel of the jay-z) and because i’ve been enjoying this odd beantown groove lately. “big pimpin'” and “khosara,” both with tempos in the mid-130s, were well suited to a boston bounce refix. it’s kind of a funny tempo, i think – unsettling with its constant question, “too fast or too slow?” – but between grime, garage, b-more, techno, soca, electro, and the occasional uptempo hip-hop or dancehall oddity, among others, beats in the 130-140 bpm range seem all the rage of late. at any rate, what’s another node in the network? shit’s messy enough to begin with. i think that’s why it sounds so good.