Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Art Of Sampling Part Two: The Defense

A friend of mine recently sent me an article called "An Open Letter To Pharrell Williams," which is written by Nicholas Payton. Payton plays the trumpet and, at 39, seemed to make a distinct choice by going in to jazz when most musicians, especially from his ethnic and geographic background, were going to hip-hop and electronic music. His words are pretty brutal:

 And to those of you who say I know nothing about Hiphop, if “Blurred Lines” is Hiphop, I don’t want to know anything about it. So let me officially go on record now and say that I hate Hiphop. There are certain artists who claim Hiphop that I dig, but Hiphop as a whole is wack. It’s a parasitic culture that preys on real musicians for its livelihood. I may not know anything about Hiphop, but I don’t have to. Without real artists and musicians like me, you’d have nothing to steal. I know enough about it all to know that. 

 There's alot of hostility towards hip-hop and, as someone who has been involved in and has seen the very, very worst of it up close, I don't really argue with most of that hostility [any more].

In fact, when my friend sent me that quote, the first thing I thought about was the fact that Payton likely models himself after guys like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Right before he died, Miles actually tapped in to the world of hip-hop but Miles was certainly a man of a different era. I couldn't really see Kind of Blue or Bitch's Brew being released now - not because the inspiration isn't there but simply because of how music is distributed. People actually bought records back in the 1960s - like real records. With downloading so abundant (all you need is a laptop to get any music ever made on your computer for free), it's only music fanatics like myself who buy music now. I'm not sure that epic rock albums like Pink Floyd's Animals or Wish You Were Here would be released now either.

However, to defame and take on Pharrell Williams so harshly seems really strange to me. If I recall correctly, Pharrell was more of the crooning side of the Neptunes - it's not really necessary for a crooner to know what a "Dominant 7th" is. Most of the music creation was on the part of Chad Hugo.

As far as crooning goes, Pharrell is at least as talented as all the R&B greats - which is what he was comparing to by alluding to Marvin Gaye. His work with Daft Punk is as stellar in production as any music I have heard in a very long time:

 If stealing from other people's music or borrowing it or whatever term you want to use is a cardinal sin that means rejection from the world of respectable music, then we're going to have to reject alot of music. Michael Jackson was no musical wizard - most of the songs on his most successful album, Thriller, was the work of Seattle's own Quincy Jones. The video for Thriller in fact was ripped pretty directly from an Indian musical that came out only years before:


 (If you look up Golimaar on Google, you'll get a 2010 copyright which is totally wrong. The film was made in the 70s and the video I uploaded post in 2006.) Likewise, Elvis and the Beatles are well known for "stealing" music from black creators. If you ask the average music fan about "Why Don't We Do It In The Road," they will bring up The White Album and not Chuck Berry. It's similar with Eric Clapton and Bob Marley. The Star Wars movies ripped off a whole bunch of movie serials and action movies from the 1930s-1950s. Quentin Tarantino borrowed the ideas of 1970s kung fu films and blaxploitation films to the point of having the stars of those films, like Pam Grier or Gordon Liu, enlisted in his movies.

 The best sampling I have ever heard in music (and Pharrell Williams' group is actually way less guilty of sampling than Kanye West or RZA) has been minute and not used the music sampled as the entire backdrop but instead as an element that carried through all of the music. Since we are talking about Marvin Gaye, a great example of this is the nine minute long "Modern Marvel" song by Mos Def - which drifts from acapella poetry reading style singing by Mos in to an equally long tribute to Marvin Gaye, asking very poignant questions about whether Marvin Gaye would be disappointed or pleased with the modern world.


 The sampling of Marvin in that song is subtle enough that it is really the equivalent of a back-up singer. Technology is such that it's far less expensive to sample something than to employ back-up singers. Mos has performed with live bands and recorded with them - he is not immune to "real" music. You could say that's laziness, sure, but technology does do that. My writing has stayed pretty dense even in a digital world but I often use links whereas, if I had been writing for a magazine twenty years ago, I would have had to include extensive references.

I think that the older music fans who heard the songs originally (like Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?", which Mos Def sampled) should step out of their own zone for a little bit. For someone who is raised with certain songs, it may be disturbing to hear them chopped up by their children or grandchildren but it should surely beat no one hearing the songs ever again.

 Having been born about fifteen years after "What's Going On" came out, I am really not sure that I would have ever listened to the original if I had not first heard Mos Def's take on it - I listened to alot of Marvin afterwards. I would never have thought to listen to Marvin's deeper cuts like "Anger" if Mos Def hadn't been there first. Sampling, in moderation, isn't ripping off but instead may keep the music alive.

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