Pop Entrainment

As the techniques of Audio Collage slowly migrated from formal conceptual practice to the commercial mainstream, a mood of cautious experimentation gave way to cavalier mispresentation.  But even the most problematic examples of music that caricatures the cultures from which it borrows still inevitably raise useful challenges to ownership, and the paradigms of authorship and individual intent.

Author(s)

 

Entrance

 

By the early 1960’s, the location of what the listening audience perceived to be a musical composition was in the process of migrating, moving from the classical domain of written notation on paper to the carefully engineered audio recording. Tape collages, new compositions created from pre-existing recordings of earlier ones, made this process overt and audible to the listener. A commonly reoccurring concern in many of these early pieces was the juxtaposition of the music of different cultures, an attempt to compose the music of what Marshall McLuhan referred to as the Global Village. The idealized definition of music as a universal language could now be examined and challenged with formal explorations, both in Utopian pieces attempting to synthesize new harmonies between disparate musical disciplines, such as in Stockhausen’s “Hymnen”, Teiji Ito’s “Tenno” or Ruth Anderson’s “DUMP”, and in critical investigations that juxtaposed seemingly similar sounds to underline the wildly different meanings when those sounds were heard in their original contexts, such as Richard Maxfield’s “Bacchanale” and James Tenney’s “Viet-Flakes”. Some of these new harmonies were beautiful, some were violent, and which of these were which depended on the perspective of the listener. But the works of this early period were not easily mistaken for mere entertainment – the pleasures they evoked were often the exact result of the questions they were formally asking about this new village, and what it even meant that this music could now exist. As the influence and the practice of these art music collagists were taken up by others, first by experimental pop musicians, and later by commercial Hip Hop artists, some of those questions were drowned out by other concerns. Questions of authorship, collaboration and exactly what agencies are being expressed in a tradition that were naturally raised by the earliest tape collages often seem to go missing when music settles into the guise of simple entertainment. But we find that those questions are never lost entirely, as they lie too close to the intrinsic nature of the practice itself.

 

Experiment

 

“Sometimes it seems to be better when the musician cannot hear the other one during his recording”, said Holger Czukay about his classic track “Persian Love”. A student of Stockhausen’s and a founder of the legendary experimental German rock group Can, the track is the centerpiece of his 1979 debut solo album “Movies”, and is one of the first pop songs whose lead vocals are sourced entirely from a sampled recording. Built around a shortwave recording taped off from Radio Tehran by the composer which has been painstakingly synchronized to new music written and performed by Czukay, the cascading rhythms of the original Iranian vocalists have gone missing beneath a swaying 2/4 beat. But their melodies still seem to fit perfectly over the slowly modulating chords, creating a truly striking hybrid. After the seamless first impression, the piece reveals itself as having required hours of meticulous listening and editing in order to exist.  The hybrid is also one that could have only been realized through appropriation; the vocalists’ mastery of their own idiom would have almost certainly made it impossible to sing the same lines in accompaniment to the shifting key changes suggested by Czukay’s new chords. In much the same way that sheet music allowed composers to fashion and perform harmonies more complicated than performers could improvise, recordings allow for cross-cultural fusions to become audible. And once made audible, the most promising and relevant of these hybrids can be intuitively learned and evolved by musicians in live practice.

 

David Byrne & Brian Eno’s 1981 album “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts” expanded the concept of Czukay’s track to an entire album of songs whose lead vocals were sampled from talk radio samples and globally sourced field recordings of spiritual and religious ceremonies. The track “Qu’ran”, which sampled Algerian Muslims chanting the Koran, drew the attention of the World Council of Islam in the UK, who sent Byrne & Eno’s label a letter the year after the record’s release to signal that a recitation of their holy book to funk music constituted a religious offense. Byrne & Eno responded by agreeing to remove the track from future European and eventually all editions of the record. For all of the positive connotations that the word ‘Hybridity’ has for artists, in Post-Colonial Studies the word is precisely used to describe the “new transcultural forms [created] within the contact zone produced by colonization”. Or as Byrne later noted, musical fusions often result not from collaborative choice but as the result of “unfortunate circumstances, like slavery or something else.” Though some have decried what they see as a pointless act of self-censorship in an age where the track can easily be found online, the choice to quietly withhold the track without a mention of its existence on the 2006 global reissue of the album provides an interesting example of an attempt to show respect to the sampled culture, long after the initial act of creation.

 

These two albums stand at the mid-point between their early 60’s art music collage predecessors, and the appropriations of Persian, Egyptian and Indian music that would explode into the language of Hip Hop in the late 90’s.

 

Entertainment

 

A host of lawsuits in the late 80’s and early 90’s brought the Golden Age of Hip Hop to an end, the musical development of which had been defined by an increased density and wider range of juxtaposed sample sources, as typified by bands like De La Soul and Public Enemy. Increasingly forced into accountability in the wake of these lawsuits, record labels began the meticulous work of clearing the samples utilized by their artists.  Firms specializing in securing these rights began to flourish, offering specialized relationships within the music industry that helped them broker the best deals between labels. By the mid to late 90’s, the artists working within the intrinsically referential genre of Hip Hop were generating such revenue that it always seemed to be better to be safe than sorry when it came time to license nearly any sound or concept utilized or even remotely referenced in their songs.

 

So it is all the more interesting to observe the utterly cavalier attitude these same labels adopted when their artists began to sample outside of the known products of the Western record industry. Jay-Z’s 1999 track “Big Pimpin’”, produced by Timbaland, is built around a four bar loop of the 1957 song “Khosara”, composed by Baligh Hamdy and made internationally famous by Abdel Halim Hafez, one of Egypt’s most beloved and popular performers. The loop was initially thought to have been rerecorded with modern production values by Timbaland, but was later found to have been directly lifted from a cover version found on Hossam Ramzy’s 1995 CD “The Best of Bellydance from Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey”. On an album whose liner notes are filled with publishing  credits for the samples used on nearly every track, the lack of publishing information for “Big Pimpin’” was striking, especially considering its debt to a song that was instantly recognizable to an audience of millions outside of the United States. Similarly, the publishing for the 2002 track “Addictive”, produced by DJ Quik for the artist Truth Hurts, failed to disclose Bappi Lahiri as the composer of the song “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai”, which provided the 16 bar foundation on which all the additional melodies are based. And audible in nearly every second of the song is the unmistakable voice of the great Bollywood singer Lata Mangeshkar, creating a presence so strong that even listeners unfamiliar with the original song heard the production as a particularly daring act of musical borrowing.

 

Artists have traditionally enjoyed a tiny bit more latitude than journalists when it comes to issues of plagiarism; giving a personal voice to material drawn from a shared heritage often requires the artist to erase the quotes -- effectively to steal, though often with the assumption that the audience will recognize the material as a reference. Commercial artists usually relinquish this freedom, or more to the point, have their people deal with the thornier issues of attribution and licensing. It remains a point of confusion as to why DJ Quik’s label found it unnecessary to secure the rights to a song featuring the voice of one of India’s most beloved and instantly recognizable voices. And while the artistic imperative to freely create variations on the work of others must be evaluated separately from the more mercenary concerns of the businesses that exist to monetize that work, in the cases of “Big Pimpin’” & “Addictive”, the carelessness with licensing is reflected in the carelessness in which the musical samples are presented. The cultural heritages of Egypt and India become exotic settings for lyrics which glorify the pleasures of either being a pimp or belonging to one.

 

Both of these songs have since prompted lawsuits making claims on the order of half a billion dollars. DJ Quik’s assertion that Lahiri & Mangeshkar had been honored by his use of it was rejoined by an attorney representing their studio’s publishing company: “The curses, the sexual suggestions – these are against the Hindu faith. Their religious convictions have not been honored or respected.” In an interview, Lahiri himself went all out and accused those who had sampled him of cultural imperialism. Lahiri, whose songs include so many flagrant & uncredited ‘cover versions’ of Western pop hits that they are the subject of several web sites devoted to connecting the dots, is clearly no stranger to musical borrowing himself. But if a charge of mere plagiarism might have been hypocritical, the charge of imperialism retains a sting.

 

Articles appearing in weeklies, academic journals, and the internet by authors such as Richard Zumhhawala-Cook and Wayne Marshall have already eloquently described the offensive aspects of entitlement and caricature embodied in these appropriations.  One nearly runs the risk of appearing naïve or idealist by arguing in favor of them, by claiming that these are songs that act as works of collage simply by virtue of introducing these intact musical works into the new context of the Western radio airwaves, that music itself always trumps lyrical content, that doors left open to new cultural references not only stay open but invite listeners through them for further experiences. As Tina Chadha quoted DJ Rehka in the Village Voice in 2003, “I see Indian kids in a club who get so excited when these hip-hop songs come on, because for that one moment they feel visible. They don’t see the misrepresentations.” Those misrepresentations are there,

but they are not seen because they carry less of a long term impact than the sound of the music itself which is now an increasingly accepted feature of the American sonic landscape.

 

Eric Sermon’s 2002 song “React” is a perfect illustration of this early awkward stage in Hip Hop’s fascination with non-Western pop music. A song in which the sole purpose of the sample is to support Sermon’s boasts of worldwide fame, the chorus drops an interpolation of the Bollywood song “Chandi Ka Badan” as sung by Meena Kapoor.  Making a point of being confident ignorance of her Hindi lyrics, he responds ‘Whatever she said, then I’m that’. It is perhaps only a beautiful coincidence that the vocal fragment, chosen for its sonic appeal, is actually a perfectly framed sentence: “If a man wants to commit suicide, what is there that you can do?” The degree to which you are indifferent to the range of meaning embodied in the music that you are sampling is literally the degree to which you are only embarrassing yourself. And yet, the result of this chance is a song with multiple authors, an inadvertently profound dialogue that resonates with far greater depth than either the author or the appropriated collaborator could have intended. Historically, collage, as an art form, has a habit of cultivating these exact coincidences and collisions, even now that its practice is largely taken for granted, decades after having been assimilated into the commercial mainstream.

 

References and Notes: 

Caramanica, Jon, "India Irate", ew.com, posted 16 August 2002, http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,335109,00.html

 

 

Chadha, Tina, "Mix This", Village Voice, 1 July 2011, http://www.villagevoice.com/2003-07-01/news/mix-this/

 

Dahlen, Chris, "Interview: David Byrne", pitchfork.com, posted 17 July 2006, http://bushofghosts.wmg.com/news_recent.php?id=

 

Gardner, Eriq, "Jay-Z Loses Round in Legal Fight Over 'Big Pimpin' Sample", hollywoodreporter.com, posted 5 May 2011, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/jay-z-loses-round-legal-185778

 

Marshall, Wayne, "Gyp The System", wayne&wax.com, posted 12 September 2007, http://wayneandwax.com/?p=180

 

Takahasi, Corey, “Musical Masala”, VIBE Magazine, February 2003

 

Zumkhawala-Cook, Richard, “Bollywood Gets Funky: American Hip-Hop, Basement Bhangra, and the Racial Politics of Music”, Global Bollywood, Ed. Gopal & Moorti, University of Minnesota Press, 2008