Short Notes and Nonsense #3: A Blurred Line — Rap Music’s death knell?

photo from audiokorner —

Early this year, I wrote a column about how the tangible ramifications of Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros. Records, and it’s direct and chilling effect on the sound of hip-hop. In it I wrote:

Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy ruled that the use of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” by Biz Markie was willingly unlawful. “Willingly” remains the critical word, because Duffy hinged the decision on his supposition of purpose in sample use, not whether O’Sullivan actually owned the copyright. The ruling suggested sample use was tantamount to criminal theft, changing (and for some, cementing) the perception of the technique forever.

Where sonically frozen moments in time could be unlocked via SP-1200 or MPC production modules, Duffy essentially halted all near-free use of the material rap was primarily based on. When veteran rap fans claim the genre hasn’t been the same since the “Golden Era,” they’re not being fogies resistant to change. In truth, they’re factually correct… without understanding why.

The decision represented a hard departure for rap, forcing it away from the [wealth] of breakbeats at everyone’s disposal. Where its production previously represented open frontier in which ideas ran as deep as the producer’s collection, the legal shrinking effectively halted it. This quickly turned beat-making into an increasingly narrow and trend-prone process.

Interpolation, the replaying of samples that limits payouts only to songwriters, grew as a less costly method to overcome new legal standards. Dr. Dre used the technique to recapture just enough of the original essence on classic albums The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s 1993 debut, Doggystyle. Yet Dre had been a celebrated producer for nearly a decade already, understanding the nuances of creating hit songs in proper studios and recording budgets.”

My personal belief on this case is that a hateful Duffy saw the process through an abhorrently racial lens, and willfully acted for the publishing companies with coded spite. There were/are many who denigrate rap as nigger noise. To be fair, most of them refrain from using such language, but let’s not bullshit each other — many out-of-touch fogeys and rock centrists feel rap isn’t music. Rather, they envision it a diseased tantrum of sorts, only mindless gunshots and “bitches.”

The ruling forever changed how rap could be created. Again, borrowing myself: “The Bomb Squad created “Don’t Believe the Hype” with multiple samples from seven separate tracks, a financial impossibility today. Any rap record from the start of hip-hop through December 17, 1991, was likely made with tens to hundreds of samples. MCs worked with collages of lost or unrecognized artistry to build ideas through individual song structures and themes.”

Much to the hip-hop haters pleasure, the recent verdict going for the Gaye estate, in the “Blurred Lines” case against Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and rapper T.I. may have further blunted hip-hop, for good.

How you say?

Let’s started from the explicit understanding that nothing is original. The Paleolithic paintings in Lascaux are an imitation of life, a reinterpretation. The second word ever spoken was likely not of response, but of mimicry — “what was that I just heard?” Most of recorded music has borrowed, bent, and added onto and into other types of music.

Hip-hop, on the other hand, was always a literal collage. There was no strum here, a snare there, folding into some “new” track of other unconsciously borrowed material. No, if done correctly, the samples — history itself soulfully reignited — elicit emotional responses, as nostalgic nods to those who came before.

What March’s ruling does is strip historicity away from future music, virtually any nod to anything prior. This will be done very selectively though, if history is any indication. In Rolling Stone: “Most of these cases don’t go to trial,” Eve Wagner, who successfully represented Michael Jackson against copyright-infringement suits in the Nineties. I don’t think it’s going to turn the industry on its head.”

No, not all of the industry — mostly just hip-hop. Unless you have the deep, major-label pockets, this new ruling essentially seals all of the doors around a certain portion of hip-hop’s ethos — making old new again. And not just with sampling or interpolations.

The Gaye estate won a case, by saying the spirit of the song had been violated and that Williams and Thicke had essentially (and illegally) bottled the spirit and nefariously reengineered it for ill gains. It was their Tinker Bell, and there’s alone to profit from. Even if the “Blurred Lines” artists had taken cues from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” though songs are audibly different, it’s not different enough.

It basically announces that Lady Gaga should ostensibly have to stop doing her Madonna impression. That Miguel should stop imitating Prince. All too close. There can be no essence, that could be remotely attached to another track, used without imminent threat of litigation. This particular use of essence is what hip-hop lives in, more so than any other genre.

This means nothing for Kanye West, Jay-Z, or Drake, but for the talented needle mover underneath. This further narrows the scope for 99% of hip-hop artists, rappers and producers, into more a trend-trackable (and measurable) wave-riding. The smaller, creative risk-takers’ lives will be made more difficult. “Making it” will require an assimilation worse than after 1991’s Grand Upright ruling, virtually sucking the remaining unpredictability out of the enterprise.

The Bridgeport and Grand Upright cases were the shackles — this is the severing.

Also troublesome is the lack of recognition. The history of rap music in the mainstream is quickly becoming muddled, left for the relatively few caretakers to carry on an oral history of what was, and why. The irresponsible nature in which rap is considered continues.

Says LA Times’ Randall Roberts in his piece concerning the Blurred Lines trial: “For every visionary are a hundred thieves, and the only difference is one celebrates his theft while the others claim ignorance. What, after all, was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” but a politicized riff on the Sugar Hill Gang’s party anthem “Rapper’s Delight”?”

People read this, and took this at face value. For those who’ve actually listened to the two iconic songs, how can there be anything other than sadness?