It’s gotten to the point when I hear a new record that I dig — which is rare — my first thought is, “I wonder where they stole this from?” It’s really a shame that it has to be a point of consideration, but given the growing climate of musical plagiarism these days, it’s a valid concern.
What’s Really Going On Here?
As usual, I pissed some folks off with my last two posts about the Robin Thicke sues Marvin Gaye thing. See? Just to see that in print doesn’t feel right in my body. How the hell you gon’ sue an ancestor that you straight-up swaggerjacked? Though T.I. and Pharrell are involved in the claim, I directed most of my criticism towards Thicke because it’s his record and he stands to benefit the most from all of the publicity. It’s already the most listened to song on the radio, ever. Ain’t that somethin’?
A lot of Hiphop heads and DJs found my thoughts on the subject highly offensive. Me using terminology like “sampling” and “interpolation” immediately set them off. But as I’ve found since I’ve been writing heavily the last several years, most people can’t read — and if they can read — they can’t comprehend. As I said, I hate repeating myself, but I find myself having to do so because some people just don’t get it. Rather than throw my hands up in the air or tell them to go fuck themselves, I’ve had to develop the art of learning how to make these virtual encounters a teaching moment. You never know when you can help someone turn the corner of their own understanding.
— Nicholas Payton
First off, I never said that the Thicke song — if we can call it his or a song — was a sample or Hiphop. I said that his rip is where sampling culture goes wrong. And I never called his song an “interpolation,” I said Marvin Gaye’s song was an interpolation of blues, funk, good disco, cha-cha-cha and other Caribbean elements. Let’s be honest: Marvin himself stole music from other people, but I don’t recall him having the hubris to sue someone he knowingly ripped. Now that’s all I care to speak of in this post about Thicke’s wack ass.
I may lose my Hiphop card with the following sentiments, but I don’t really care, this needs to be said. I think it’s time to reassess what sampling and Hiphop is doing to Black culture. And I hope those who need to hear this can approach it from a stance of critical thought and not get their panties all in a bunch whilst reading this.
At the risk of coming off like an old fuddy-duddy, Hiphop is a predatory art form — and over the years — has more and more become a bastion of musical cannibalism. As many people know, Hiphop has roots in DJ culture; taking the best parts of records, making loops, sampling sounds and an MC rockin’ the mic, all in the spirit of keeping people on the dance floor.
Keeper Of The Drums
I’m not anti-sampling, but: If they’d had samplers in Africa back in the day, mothafuckas woulda never learned how to play the drums, then who would you sample?
“Nick, several years ago, I met a young brother, and I asked him, ‘What do you do, son?’ He said, ‘I make beats.’ I said, ‘You make beats, huh?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Naw, son, IIIIIIIII make beats! Can you sit down here (on the drums) and make a beat?’ He said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Alright, then, you don’t make beats, you TAKE beats!’ ”
— Marvin “Smitty” Smith
It’s become a parasitic culture that glorifies picking over others’ remains, indulging in the sonic equivalent of sloppy seconds, and finishing off in a bukkake over the souls of our great ancestors. And if the necrophiliacs can’t find someone dead to fuck over, they will find some young upstart who desperately wants to get in business so bad that he or she is willing to sign away their publishing rights for a chance to be on a hit record. If this young cat reaches a level of fame, he or she typically continues the cycle of abuse, by finding another young upstart to initiate in the business — textbook case of the oppressed becoming the oppressor.
What’s baffling about it is the entitlement that has become pervasive within the Hiphop community. Like if some grave, I mean, crate-digging producer found a dope two-bar section on a relatively unpopular record, samples and/or loops it and it becomes an international success, that producer feels like he or she did you a favor by reinvigorating your has-been, never-been ass. They put you on. Not only do they not owe you money, you owe them, because now a bunch of kids who never cared about your music, may actually give a shit about you.
It’s the dream of many so-called jazz musicians to get on some Pop star’s band for the perceived clout it may bring to their brand. But it’s all fakery. Most of these Pop stars don’t have as much money as they claim and tend to pay low salaries. When you’re making mediocre music, you don’t need to surround yourself with the best musicians. And the stars that are smart enough to get good musicians, usually wind up ripping them off for their talents and claim songs that the band members have written as their own.
Jack The Rapper
It used to be that if you wanted music at your party or event, you had to hire musicians. With the advent of the phonograph player, it became increasingly popular to have a disc jockey instead. Why not? It’s much cheaper than hiring a band. But at what point does our soul suffer by not hearing live music? What are the spiritual ramifications of being in a room with real instruments that move air and possess the propensity to change the molecular structure of a space? How much more intense is the real thing over a recording? They say, “Music soothes the savage beast.” Then I’m curious as to the cumulative effects of what samples do to that beast over time. From my observation, it appears to make people more aggressive.
Of course, we all benefit from the convenience of digital technology, but at what cost to our cosmic consciousness? Genuine human interaction has been replaced by virtual communication. Social networks have usurped social engagement. Some of the most highly celebrated musicians today are praised for their ability to sound like samples. Really? Is that where we are with it?
The Right Way To Steal A Song
“[a]fter one of the shows, one night somewhere, James called me into the dressing room and grunted a bass line of a rhythmic thing (demonstrates), which turned out to be ‘Cold Sweat.’ I was very much influenced by Miles Davis and had been listening to ‘So What’ six or seven years earlier and that crept into the making of ‘Cold Sweat.’ You could call it subliminal, but the horn line is based on Miles Davis’ ‘So What.’ I wrote that on the bus between New York and Cincinnati. The next day we pulled up in front of King Records studio, got off the bus, got in the studio, set up, and I went over the rhythm with the band. By the time we got the groove going, James showed up, added a few touches—changed the guitar part, which made it real funky—had the drummer do something different. He was a genius at it. Between the two of us, we put it together one afternoon. He put the lyrics on it. The band set up in a semicircle in the studio with one microphone. It was recorded live in the studio. One take. It was like a performance. We didn’t do overdubbing. ”
— “Pee Wee” Ellis
Contrary to those who believe that Miles got So What from James Brown, it’s actually the other way around. And Miles and Gil Evans got it from Ahmad Jamal. So What came out in 1959; Cold Sweat was recorded in 1967.
Now you can hear between Ahmad’s New Rhumba and Miles’ So What, that Miles — like Ahmad — uses the bass as the melody and has the chords do a call-and-response juxtaposed against the bass statement. Ahmad plays the chords first, then has the bass answer, but Miles reverses the order and has his chords answer the bass in an “Amen” cadence. And whereas Ahmad has 3 chord stabs, Miles only used two. So, if you’re going to rip someone off, this is the classy way to do it.
It Ain’t Stealin’ If You Really Wrote It
Sometimes similarities between songs are purely coincidental and is not the act of plagiarism. Like the tune Leo: Rosebud written by Hal Galper and recorded by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in 1970 on their album, Love, Sex, and the Zodiac. The main theme of Leo: Rosebud sounds very close to Bob Marley’s and Peter Tosh’s Get Up, Stand Up, which came out in 1973. The thing is, Love, Sex, and the Zodiac wasn’t released until 1974. Could it be that someone heard the other’s song, or that each composer was just hearing a similar melody?
I Hear A “Clique” Every Time
Back in the day, bands — drummers in particular — were imprisoned by having to play with ye olde “click track.” A click track is a device that is used to sound a “click” at however many beats per minute one desires. It’s comparable to what a second hand is on the watch to minutes and it’s used to subdivide and determine fractions of beats or phrases. That dang click track got rid of a lot of drummers who couldn’t play to that synthetic time machine.
To me, time is a fluid concept. It should not be metrically static. Stable, yes, but not static. Our hearts don’t constantly beat at the same rate. Throughout the day, our heart rate fluctuates according to what activities we’re engaged in. Can you imagine how listless life would be if our heart rate or blood pressure stayed exactly the same all the time? Having a margin of mobility in any given circumstance makes an endeavor more adventurous.
“And many recent recordings of pop music demonstrate how music is killed by a metronome for they are as square as a draftsman’s T. For the convenience of recording engineers, each player has to record their part on a separate track while listening to a click track — a metronome — and the clicks are then used to synchronize the tracks while the technicians adjust them to their taste and mix them. I know talented young musicians who can’t do it; we can understand why. Nothing compares with a recording of a live performance in which the players provide each other with the time-framework.[…] if you want to kill a musical performance, give the player a click track!”
— James Beament
So, yes, a drummer who chronically drags or rushes is problematic. But sometimes tempo is supposed to speed up or slow down. This idea that the tempos must be static to make it easier for the DJ to mix records is bass ackwards. Can you imagine if back in the days of the classic Palladium, Eddie Palmieri has his congueros play to a click track?
So whatever session drummers weren’t put out of work from the click track, the drum machine finished the job. And whatever cats weren’t replace by keyboard sequencing, sampling got rid of them. Now keep in mind, I’m not against any of these tools, per se. But when they become substitutes for real craftsmanship, years of practice and apprenticeship, we dilute the art form, and both the music and the listeners suffer.
Band In A Box
By accepting this as the new standard, we’re sending a message to our kids that it’s okay to learn just enough piano to program an electronic keyboard. That’s saying the years Herbie Hancock or Mulgrew Miller put in at the piano becomes an expendable part of our history and it becomes okay to learn enough of their “tricks” to get over on the masses. And if you can’t play it, then just sample it.
There was a time where a piano was a common part of every household. Almost everyone had a relative who played well. Signing your child up for piano lessons were commonplace. It wasn’t about them being a professional musician, but music had a high value in society, and folks understood that being in touch with the arts made for a more compassionate and intelligent human being. Every school had a band or music program. And whether you liked it or not, you grew up listening to what your parents listened to — I’m talking pre-walkman, pre-iPod days.
This is before American Idol, when you used to have to pay dues in someone’s band before you were signed to a record deal. Marvin Gaye sang backup in the Moonglows and was a session drummer for Motown before he embarked on a career as a leader. He worked diligently for 10 years as a solo artist before he reached his magnum opus, What’s Going On. Even that song itself had several incarnations before it realized its “Eureka!” moment.
Without A Song
What happened that everybody out the ‘hood wants to be an MC these days? When did the art of singing a song lose its appeal? All anybody wants to do is kick a verse. Everybody wants to be a producer, a beat maker, or a rapper, and none of that is usually synonymous with making music anymore. What about playing an instrument? Kids today would rather play Guitar Hero than learn to play the guitar.
I saw an interview once with producer James “J Dilla” Yancey speaking of being in the studio with D’Angelo and feeling like he wanted to sample everything he heard. I thought that to be a curious statement. As much respect as I have for Dilla, why not learn to play that way? Then you wouldn’t have to sample it. I get that Hiphop at its origins is a pastiche of preexisting records, but sometimes they sample shit when they don’t need to.
Dilla is the exception though, he gave life to everything he did. He represents the best in Hiphop, but many who have come in his shadow, got the wrong idea of what makes Dilla great. All these Dilla clones, but very few understand his feel.
For example: My favorite jawn on Erykah’s last album was Gone Baby Don’t Be Long.
For the drums and chord pads, a sample from Arrow Through Me by Paul McCartney & Wings was used:
Pretty cool, but I’m sorry, you could save yourself a lot of money coming up with something just as hip and original on your own. A lot of New Yorkers snub New Orleans producer Mannie Fresh ‘n ‘em, but I tell you what, them cats prided themselves on being as sample-free as possible. Keep all that money!
And when artists don’t clear samples, or use breakbeats from a drummer who ad libbed them on the session, the money doesn’t always go to the people it should. It’s heartbreaking to see master musicians die penniless when their works have made millions for others.
Sampling is cool, but when you learn an instrument, you don’t need a sampler.
Life Is A Sample
As humans, we are all analog samplers, and we can use our senses to recall or replicate any mood or vibe our creativity will allow. But if you haven’t done the homework, and your knowledge is limited, you have no choice but to tread on someone else’s output.
The more generations we cultivate with a lack of appreciation for the arts, and don’t take time to instill a sensibility for musical virtuosity, we do damage to our community. We’re creating generations of people who don’t know the power of real music, and as a result:
Mediocrity is the new genius.
So to someone who hasn’t experienced the magic of Got To Give It Up, Blurred Lines may appear to be a cool song. But it pales in comparison to the original. And the fact that most people either don’t know the difference, or may prefer the impostor, is sad.
Please support live music, real musicians, and stop intentionally pirating records and compositions.
— Nicholas Payton aka The Savior of Archaic Pop