Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Global Hip-hop

Though it may be locked in a sonic loop back home, global of Hip-hop music keeps on expanding. Just today the New York Times ran an article on Cuban Hip--hop which raised some eyebrows -- including mine -- with its headline claim that Cubans, because they had little "access"to US music, had to "make it up" on their own. Of course, as the article itself makes clear, Cubans have been making antennas out of old coat hangers and tuning in Miami's WEDR since the 1980's; it turns out that the shortage that mattered was a shortage of technical equipment - digital samplers, mixers, even a decent mixing board - and that, once again, it's the 'beautiful limitations' that matter. Cuban crews even gained government support, the vital juice without which no Cuban artist can thrive; there's even a state-sponsored annual Hip-hop festival in Havana.

The globalization of rap music began in fits and starts. They dropped an EP in '92. but was Zimbabwe Legit legit? The London Posse pioneered the way back in 1988, but there weren't many successful UK artists until The Streets and Dizzee Rascal more than a dozen years later (Rascal was only three years old when LP's "How's Life in London" briefly charted). Japan, a reliable funhouse mirror for all things American pop culture, gave us the pioneering "Scha Dara Parr" back in 1988, but again it was several years before anything one could call a J-Rap "scene" emerged, and as usual it was a mad scramble of elements -- including several "burapan" groups who performed in blackface makeup. One might think that African popular music, which had already attained regional and global successes, would be a logical seedbed for Hip-hop, but it wasn't until later in the 1990's that such artists emerged, many of them from Sénégalese communities in France such as MC Solaar and Daara J. Solaar's combination of spahetti western themes and smart, sharp beats -- see "Nouveau Western" for one great example -- gave him an early edge, and he's been one of the few non-US artists to have chart success stateside.

The past decade has seen Hip-hop claim a foothold in some of the seemingly unlikeliest places -- Canada, for instance, which has given us the Rascalz, Kardinal Offishal, and K'naan (as well as Francophone artists such as Dubmatique and Roi Heenok) - and even Greenland's own Nuuk Posse, a band of west Greenland Inuit whose work has attracted the interest of figures such as DJ Spooky, who intermixed their music with a talk by Antonin Artaud on one of his CD's.

Where next? Hopefully, it's impossible to predict. One thing is for certain, though: the next wave of innovation in Hip-hop may very well come from outside North American shores.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sampling and Copyright

The idea of an inherent right of the author of a written work to protect it from unauthorized copying is, in terms of western history, quite recent indeed. The 1709 "Statute of Anne" was the first legal recognition of the rights of an author. It presented itself as "an act for the encouragement of learning," with the implicit argument that allowing authors the exclusive right to publish their work for a limited term would enable them to earn some reward for their labors, while at the same time eventually allowing their work to be used freely. As with earlier systems of intellectual property, such as "Letters Patent," the Act's term was limited -- 14 years, which could be extended for 14 more, after which the rights of the author expired; it was understood then, as it is now, that authors, like inventors, quite frequently drew from the works of those who have come before them, and that preserving such rights indefinitely would stifle creativity. One thing that has certainly changed since 1709 is the term of copyright; US copyright eventually settled on a period twice as long as the Statute of Anne (28 years, renewable for 28 more years); revisions to this law in the past three decades have extended these 56 years to 80, 100, and even as many as 120 years; the last of these, the "Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act," went further and even re-instated copyright in works where it had become extinct, freezing the date at which works could enter the public domain at 1923. Many creative artists feel that this law has exercised a stifling effect upon creativity; many of them joined in support of a legal case, Eldred vs. Ashcroft, that challenged these extensions on the basis of the Constitution's reference to copyright law being for a "limited term." The Supreme Court eventually ruled against Eldred, saying in effect that Congress could establish any length of term they wanted, so long as it was not infinite. Could, is of course, not should.

The result has been, ironically, that in the very age when the ability of writers, artists, and musicians to draw upon, alter, and incorporate what the copyright office calls "previously existing works" is at its technical and aesthetic peak, the legal barriers against doing so have been raised to the harshest and longest in the history of copyright protections. This is offset, to a degree, by two factors: 1) "fair use," a doctrine established in the 1977 revision of the law, whereby a certain limited amount -- say, less than 10% of the original "work" -- may be used so long as it is not employed for profit, is used in an educational context, and/or used spontaneously; and 2) simple lack of enforceability. It's quite impossible to police all the billions of web servers, web pages, and personal computers and devices, to ensure that no copyrighted material has been taken or stored; enforcement, as a result, tends to be spotty if dramatic (as in the case of a woman in the midwest who was assessed a fine of 1.5 million dollars because her son had shared 24 music files on his Napster account).

It needs to be noted that copyright also functions very differently depending on the medium in question.  Music is one of the most complex form: there are at least four layers of copyright in a recorded song: 1) The composition itself, and its embodiment in sheet music; 2) The performance of that composition, including the act of interpretation and any variations on the composition; 3) The physical embodiment, if any, of this performance, known as "mechanical" rights; and 4) The right to transmit the performance. All of these, of course, were once separate domains: the sheet-music industry/print, the recording studio, the record company or "label," and radio stations -- but all are now merged indistinctly into a single, complex activity that can all be achieved on a single device, even a smartphone.

In Hip-hop, nearly all original samples were taken from vinyl, and most consisted of a few measures of the "break beat" -- far less than 10% of the original recording.  And yet, by cutting or looping this beat, it could in fact become the rhythm track for an entire recording.  How then to measure that, in terms of originality? (One recent legal formulation of this question -- "fragmented literal similarity" -- muddies the waters rather than clears them).

As things have turned out, neither of the two most significant cases of copyright litigation involving Hip-hop ended up dealing with this question.  In one case, where Biz Markie's half-singing the chorus from Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" was represented by his lawyers as being part of the natural creative practice of Hip-hop -- an argument which they lost spectacularly, as the recording was quashed, all copies ordered destroyed, and substantial damages awarded.  In the other case, one which reached the Supreme Court, Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew were sued for their parodic Hip-hop version of "Pretty Woman," originally made famous by Roy Orbison.  Their lawyers quite wisely avoided the originality issue altogether, arguing that the 2 Live Crew version was a satire, an argument accepted by the "Supremes" on first amendment grounds.  After all, if we're going to use our free speech to parody or mock others, we'll have to be imitative, won't we?  It's too bad Biz's lawyers didn't make the same argument.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Dirty South

Hip-hop's southern turn may, perhaps, have been partly a marketing ploy, but there's no denying the arrival of a number of talented new artists from this region. After all, why should a form of music originated by African Americans not discover it roots -- and its stems and branches -- in the region of the country where African American culture originated?

Some would see Arrested Development as the first Hip-hop crew from the south to break out, and certainly their debut album 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of... made quite a splash in 1992, but others point out that the AD style was more alterno-rap than southern, and that vocalist Dionne Farris was actually from New Jersey. For me, the real breakthrough came two years later with OutKast's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, especially the track "Crumblin' Erb." Those lazy loping beats, the slight singing quality of the rap vocal, and bell-like synth tones, and sung chorus had me right from the beginning, and though I couldn't put my finger on it on a map, East Point immediately became an important place in my Hip-hop geography.

The other ingredients, though -- the ones that people probably have in mind when they use the phrase "dirty south" -- are a lot rawer and rougher than that polished debut. There's gangsta attitude, heavy heavy bass, the slowed-down crawl of "crunk," and a whole new cast of characters from the Geto Boys to Trick Daddy, the Three 6 Mafia, and of course Ludacris.

I have to confess that none of these later artists has been on heavy rotation in my house, though I followed OutKast for some years, and have all their albums. But maybe I'm missing something -- in fact, I'm sure I am. So post suggestions here, or bring a few links to class to share -- let's see if we can't dig a little deeper into Hip-hop's southern turn.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Early West Coast Hip-hop

If Old School NYC Hip-hop is kind of weird, then the first few years of West Coast rappers in the early 1980's were -- well -- even weirder. With jump suits, diamond earrings, Jheri-curled hair, and robotic dance steps, West Coast crews combined the electro-funk sensibilities of Bambaataa with personalities and stage costumes that looked as though the Village People tour bus had collided with a high school track team. And despite that, they still tried to look mean and impressive, as this early shot of the World Class Wreckin' Cru shows. Of course, West Coasters had one difficulty that crews from the South Bronx or Brooklyn never experienced; the fear that, despite their prodigious originality, they would just be seen as copies or imitations of a seemingly more "authentic" East Coast school.

They needn't have worried. There was no one in NYC to rival characters like the Egyptian Lover, a veteran of Uncle Jamm's Army who made it big with one of his very first singles, 1982's "Egypt Egypt," or "Captain Rapp"who rocked the mic with "Gigolo Rapp," long before he recorded "Bad Times (I Can't Stand It)," widely regarded as the earliest overtly political rap from the "other" coast. Even some artists we've come to know and love, such as Ice T, started out with embarrassing cold-wind sound effects in "The Coldest Rap" before finally breaking out with the gangsta-flavored "6 in the Morning." Latino rappers, this time with a Mexican rather than a Puerto Rican background, made their mark; who can forget Kid Frost, the original "Hispanic Causing Panic," or Mellow Man Ace, the "Brother with Two Tongues"?

Of course, it's the World Class Wreckin' Cru that looms largest, since their members formed the core of N.W.A., and launched the careers of of Dre and Ice Cube. But boy, it's a long long way from "Calling Dr. Dre to Surgery" to "Straight Outta Compton."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sisters in the Name of Rap

The image here is of an old VHS cassette in my collection -- and what strikes me, after blowing the dust off, is how few of these names, after the first three or four, are likely to be remembered today. And to that list, one could add other names: Shazzy, May May Ali, The Cookie Crew, Mercedes Ladies, Sha Rock, Isis, Queen Mother Rage, MC Choice, Antoinette, Monie Love, Heather B, Nikki D, Ms. Melodie, Bo$$, BWP (Bytches wit Problems), and Sister Souljah, whose fifteen minutes of hip-hop fame in 1992 have long since been forgotten, and who has gone on to establish a successful career as a novelist. All in all, my own collection includes 42 solo albums by different women Hip-hop artists, and it's very far from complete.

Point being, that there has never been a shortage of women MC's, just a memory deficit when it comes to recalling them. Many fell victim to poor promotion or the "sophomore curse" in the 1990's; others were lost when labels were sold or went out of business. In many ways, Queen Latifah has been the most successful of them all; in addition to her own five Hip-hop albums, she was for a time the CEO of her own within-the-label label, Flavor Unit Records. More importantly, since then, her career as an actress and singer has brought her sustained success.

In artistic terms, it's true, as with men, that there are a few rappers of questionable talent on the list, but there are also some of the all-time greats. Roxanne Shanté, to my mind, is the greatest female MC of all time, with nonstop deadly rhymes and an attitude that never wavered, she rode the "Roxanne" craze to fame and left at the top of her game with The Bitch is Back in 1992. Close behind would be MC Lyte, whose seven albums from 1988 to 2003 span the period from old-schooly beats to gangsta ruffneck and beyond. Salt 'n' Pepa, along with their DJ Spinderella, made a definite mark upon Hip-hop and the culture at large with tracks ranging from "Tramp" to "Let's Talk About Sex." Special mention goes out to MC Choice, whose takedown of NWA and Too $hort, "The Big Payback," has to be one of the hardest-hitting diss tracks of all time; May May Ali, Muhammed Ali's daughter, who managed a rough-and-tough CD without single cuss word; and Yo Yo, whose distinctive raspy voice blazed along for a few years in the 1990's, giving better than she got on tracks such as Ice Cube's "It's a Man's World" -- amazingly, her very first studio track.

In recent years, some new talent have arisen to command attention around the globe, particularly Lady Sorevereign, who to my mind has few peers. And there are many more in the wings, or waiting: keep your ears out for Ladybug Mecca, Rah Digga, MC Trey, Yo Majesty, Ms. Dynamite, Estelle, Baby Blue ... the list goes on. Any new candidates?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Political Hip-hop

All music has its political element -- it is, after all, comprised of voices from the polis, the community, the world at large. No other artform is so intimately connected to the material world; by its very nature it represents the people. And yet, as KRS-One's interlocutor in "Why" remarks, not everyone sees their character represented; Hip-hop's foundational task has been to change that. In this sense, every rap is political.

But in the heyday from 1987 to 1995, dozens of rappers charged the content of their rhymes with much more explicit political ammunition. Some of these groups have faded from collective memory: who now remembers the Goats, the Poor Righteous Teachers, Channel Live, or Laquan? Others have soldiered on, continuing to find outlets for their message to the present day: Chuck D, Paris (pictured) and The Coup. Perhaps the best known political rapper who is neither forgotten nor fossilized is Common, whom I've admired from back when he called himself Common Sense; although is is the most thoughtful of political rappers, his recent appearance at the White House stirred perhaps predictable right-wing outrage.

We'll have plenty to talk about on Monday -- but until class is in session, here's my personal playlist of the twelve hardest-hitting political rap tracks from this era:

1. Public Enemy, Fight the Power
2. KRS-ONE, Sound of da Police
3. Ice Cube, I Wanna Kill Sam
4. Marxman, Ship Ahoy, feat. Sinead O'Connor
6. Paris, The Devil Made Me Do It (video directed by my friend Robert Caruso).
7. Queen Latifah and Monie Love, Ladies First
8. Roxanne Shanté, Year of the Independent Woman (video is a remix)
10. George Clinton, Paint the White House Black
11. Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hoprisy, Television, Drug of a Nation
What would be your picks?

Monday, July 16, 2012


Graffiti is at once ancient and postmodern, as old as Pompeii and as new as Shepard Fairey's Obey. Its association with the history of Hip-hop is but one aspect of its history, and yet it's a crucial one. Those credited with being the "first" -- Taki 183 and Cornbread (pictured), were at first lonely voices in the wilderness. Taki was a Greek-American bike messenger who threw up his tag to mark the outposts of his daily journeys; Cornbread was just a shy guy who hoped to impress his girlfriend. The ubiquity of their tags was what got people thinking: maybe this was a kind of fame, a kind of immortality. In that sense, its aims and those of the rappers, b-boys, and b-girls was the same, as was its method: to cut, to scratch, to re-arrange the lexicon of the urban landscape.

There were stylistic parallels as well; the early "Wild Style" of lettering coincided with innovations in breakdancing and the era of "parties in the park," and the continuing movement toward cryptic or "hieroglyphic" pieces that defied deciphering was an inspiration for the loosely-allied Hieroglyphics crew. Yet the conjunction of Hip-hop's holy trinity of rapping, writing, and breaking has proved, over time, to be like a conjunction of the planets -- the planets are still out there, but some have grown dimmer, and are no longer in close alignment. KRS-ONE might be the only old-school rapper/writer left, and NYC subway cars are (mostly) plain old metal; breakdancing has mutated into a hundred different forms, but the old school throwdowns are a thing of the past. Graffiti itself, of course, will never die -- but it does come and go, and mutate, and may never be as tightly styled as it was in the late 1970's and '80's.

Still, Providence will always remember the Temple of Junerism -- even if now it costs $200 a night to book a room there.