While the earliest hip-hop was created by inner-city African Americans “rapping”over instrumental sections of LPs [remember them?] or cassette tapes, during the 1980’s use of such sampling became increasingly sophisticated and dense. This trend reached an apex with two 1989 releases: De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique.
I was in my second year of law school when these records were released and had written glowing reviews of them for a Philadelphia alternative weekly paper then called The Welcomat.
What I liked most about these records was the way that these artists recontexualized old music within new works. By juxtaposing samples or mixing samples within these artists’ original work, the Beastie Boys and De La Soul discovered (or created) hidden or ironic meanings from the sampled artists’ work. The essays I was doing on these rappers (and on other rappers such as Queen Latifah and Public Enemy) caught the attention of The Philadelphia Inquirer, which asked me to work on a long-form profile piece on a rap artist for its Sunday magazine supplement (at the time, the second largest Sunday supplement in the United States). Due to a variety of factors–not enough time; no training in long-form journalism; a desire to focus on law school–I never wrote the piece and have often wondered about the path not taken.
The afternoon of my wedding [December 30, 1989], I was getting a pre-nuptial haircut with my father and was explaining my fascination with the way rappers were utilizing digital sampling. My father suggested I write about it and thus the topic for my required law school thesis germinated as a Eureka moment: “Applying Copyright Law to Digital Sampling in Rap Music.” My conclusion was that much, but not all, of the digital sampling being done by rappers qualified as fair use. The one rapper I noted whose use of digital sampling clearly exceeded fair use, Biz Markie, is the only rapper to later be enjoined from releasing a song due to its violation of copyright law. Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., 780 F.Supp. 182 (S.D.N.Y. 1991).
Meanwhile the Beastie Boys and De La Soul were some of the few rappers to be sued for copyright infringement by the musicians they sampled. Most rappers began obtaining licensing permissions before sampling other works; Biz Markie’s album subsequent to his being hit with an injunction was triumphantly titled All Samples Cleared!.
Given the costs associated with licensing dozens of samples, the sample-dense methods employed by Paul’s Boutique and 3 Feet High and Rising ended. One of the things I greatly enjoy about Kanye West’s new My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is his dense use of sampling. Kanye is one of the few musicians wealthy and powerful enough to procure the licenses necessary for this approach. However musical works that gain some of their frisson through such recontextualization of old material have almost disappeared. Again, a path not taken.
A few years ago, a Pittsburgh DJ, Gregg Michael Gillis, better known by his stage name, Girl Talk, came to my attention. Gillis’ records consist wholly of samples of other records, with upwards of 300 samples going into each of his approximately hour-long releases. His 2008 release, Feed the Animals,
was one of my favorite musical works of the last decade. His recent release All Day is also outstanding. Gillis skirts copyright issues by releasing his works for free online on the Illegal Art website.
To many ears Girl Talk’s music might sound like a K-Tel ad inflated to gargantuan proportions (which has its own charms). However, I enjoy Girl Talk’s work for the same reasons I loved Paul’s Boutique and 3 Feet High and Rising: the myriad tiny thrills of hearing classic rock and hip hop recontextualized and juxtaposed with newer works. To use the example of the first two samples from “Oh No,” the first song on All Day, Ludacris’ “Move Bitch” melts into Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” While Ozzy Ozbourne fears “Generals gathered in their masses/just like witches at black masses” Ludacris suggests he “get outta the way, bitch/get outta the way.” The play-acting anti-militarism of Sabbath is likened to the play-acting violence and misogyny of Ludacris, while the pure-pleasure of these pop hooks seduces the listener into ignoring each song’s actual meanings. I assume Gillis assumes his listeners are aware that Black Sabbath’s hippie-era anti-militarism masked, and was vitiated by, it’s heavy metal womanizing and Spinal Tap inspiring “Satanism.” I further assume that Gillis finds Sabbath’s aggressive, almost militant, pacifism and Ludacris’ play violence equally hokey–and equally funny. Multiply this effect by 300 in one hour and you have All Day. Girl Talk is like listening to my law school thesis come to life.
Girl Talk will be performing January 22nd at the Gaillard Auditorium in Charleston. This will be his first concert in Charleston since I became a fan. Girl Talk’s “concerts”–basically he’s up on stage with a number of turntables and laptops, doing all this mixing in real time–have a reputation as ecstatic raves, as YouTube videos from Lollapalooza and Coachella, demonstrate.
No idea how, or even whether, Girl Talk will attempt to replicate this within the confines of a sit-down performing arts center. I’ve got my tickets just to find out.