Music Is Collaborative: Jay-Z To Sugar Hill Gang To Al Jolson And Back Again

from the wonderful dept

Toney Rome contacted us to point our attention to a 14-minute video he put together, showing how music is collaborative. He claims this is episode one, so it'll be interesting to see if there will be more. He noted that he was inspired to put this video together after reading James Boyle's The Public Domain, which he first heard about when we mentioned it on Techdirt. I have to imagine that much of this video was inspired by Chapter 6, which traces a variety of songs related to Kanye West and Ray Charles. Instead of Kanye West, this video starts with Jay-Z:
While a few bits of the video seem extraneous and probably could be done without, what the video does nicely is track how even modern "original" music is very, very collaborative when you start to dig into the details. It talks about Jay-Z's Empire State of Mind, a song that has been redone hundreds of times, and notes how the underlying music loop is from The Moment's song Love on a Two-Way Street -- and how that song was written by Sylvia Robinson and two others (and how it also was covered and sampled a few other times before). Robinson, beyond being a recording artist, started Sugar Hill Records, and went on to put together the Sugar Hill Gang... who put out the first rap single to go gold: Rapper's Delight. That song, of course, was based on an (originally uncleared) sample of the classic disco song Good Times by the band Chic. The video has two clips of one of the songwriters of Good Times. In the first one, he talks about how his music was "sacred" and how annoyed he was to hear it sampled on Rapper's Delight without permission (eventually the two parties settled...). In the second clip, however, the same guy talks about how Good Times was actually pulling from Milton Alger's Happy Days Are Here Again and About a Quarter to Nine by Al Jolson. In other words... that song that was so "sacred" was built off of the works of others.

There's a lot more in the video, including a variety of other interesting tangents, including the fact that one of the lyrics from Rapper's Delight copied a lyric from another rapper so directly that it includes that rapper's name in the lyric. The video concludes with a great line:
Many musicians like to believe that they created their art by themselves, but most likely, it was collaboration.


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  1.  
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    eldavojohn, Apr 19th, 2011 @ 8:50am

    Video Editing

    Whoever did the video "editing" and the cuts between footage needs to realize that sometimes less is more. Kept skipping past parts with terrible effects (seemed like effects just for the sake of effects) and just gave up at around 10:00 when it just cuts into an endless interview with ... LSD?

     

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    Huph, Apr 19th, 2011 @ 9:45am

    In the second clip, however, the same guy talks about how Good Times was actually pulling from Milton Alger's Happy Days Are Here Again and About a Quarter to Nine by Al Jolson. In other words... that song that was so "sacred" was built off of the works of others.

    That's disingenuous and you know it. "Rapper's Delight" was literally built out of "Good Times". And I mean physically; two copies of the record were manipulated in real time to create the underlying beat. (It's called "Turntablism")

    "Good Times" was inspired by the mentioned songs. Physical aspects, literal mechanic reproductions, were not part of the writing process. Even in cases where interpolation occurs, it's still not a mechanic reproduction.

    For the record, "Rapper's Delight" is the superior work. But still, I'm tired of all these wink-y, "we're gonna pull a fast one" arguments that claim that being inspired by something is the same as sampling something. It's just not. I play both sides of the fence, there is a distinct difference between sampling and composing. One's not "better" than the other, and both arts involve a little bit of the other, but we don't need to sit here and make spurious arguments that all music is sample-based by some result-focused logic.

     

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    ltlw0lf (profile), Apr 19th, 2011 @ 10:17am

    Re: Video Editing

    Whoever did the video "editing" and the cuts between footage needs to realize that sometimes less is more.

    It was a little too much. I would have cut out a lot of the transitions, and would have done the video a little different if I was doing it. However, the message was really good and if you ignored the video and just listened to the audio, the message came along fine.

    I didn't realize that Jay-Z did Empire State of Mind and was only aware of Key's version. Then again, I am not into most rap anyway, but I love connections, and wish that there were more of these videos. I'd love to see some music educator come up with a "Music Connections" like Burke's "Connections", where links between classical and modern music is explored (and it doesn't even need to be completely about music...because William Shakespeare is the original rapper.)

    The message that no art is entirely created from a vacuum is a good one, and one I believe. Those who scream "he copied my work" have to realize that they copied it from somewhere else too. New ideas come from old ideas, and anyone who wishes to disagree is welcome to provide me with an example of an entirely new idea that isn't based on stuff that came before.

     

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  4.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Apr 19th, 2011 @ 10:23am

    Re:

    That's disingenuous and you know it.

    I disagree.

    But still, I'm tired of all these wink-y, "we're gonna pull a fast one" arguments that claim that being inspired by something is the same as sampling something

    I didn't claim they were the same. It's disingenuous of you to say I did. What I said -- and I stand by -- is that the works all involve contributions in some form or another from others -- making them collaborative works. That's why the idea that one party created something totally original and that it's "sacred" is silly.

     

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  5.  
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    Robertson, Apr 19th, 2011 @ 10:56am

    Re: Re: Video Editing

    This is all completely original, no samples, stolen choruses or stolen melodies. http://soundcloud.com/ctpmn1 . What may not be original are the ideas, the themes, the chord progressions, the melodies, and the lyrics.
    It is nearly impossible to create something completely new that doesn't build off of something. Culture, religion, music, movies, books, relationships these are all things that shape us and the thing we create. Nothing happens in a vacuum and we all stand on the shoulders of the giants.

     

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    ltlw0lf (profile), Apr 19th, 2011 @ 12:38pm

    Re: Re: Re: Video Editing

    What may not be original are the ideas, the themes, the chord progressions, the melodies, and the lyrics.

    So, it is not entirely original. Sure, the songs/pieces here are what I'd call "original", but they all have their roots from other things the author has experienced which may not be "theirs." I am not saying that this author/musician shouldn't receive just payment for their works, they need to realize that there has to be limits, and calling out the lawyers to sue someone else for "borrowing" upon you work leaves you open to other lawyers suing you for "borrowing" upon someone else's works.

    It is nearly impossible to create something completely new that doesn't build off of something. Culture, religion, music, movies, books, relationships these are all things that shape us and the thing we create. Nothing happens in a vacuum and we all stand on the shoulders of the giants.

    Exactly what I believe and am saying, and what I believe the person who generated this video is saying too. Everything is built off of something else. Claiming it isn't (which I've seen more than a few commenters here say in recent months,) only shows someone's ignorance about how the system works. All too often Copyright Maximalists believe that anything they come up with is sacred and unique...but then they look the fool when someone else comes along and sues them for copying. This is why ideas shouldn't be subject to copyright. And we need to look at the whole work and not just bits of it to determine if infringement occurred. And there has to be a lower limit (a floor) on the number of ideas in a work before it qualifies for copyright. Infringement of a word, phrase, or 6 notes should be impossible to enforce.

     

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  7.  
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    The eejit (profile), Apr 19th, 2011 @ 1:18pm

    Re:

    There are eight base notes. All music is based off of that design. Thereforee, all music is derivative.

    That's as simple as it gets.

     

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  8.  
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    rome (profile), Apr 19th, 2011 @ 1:23pm

    I'm stoked that Mike featured my video here. Thanks a mil! I'm an avid reader although I don't comment much. I've learned a lot here. Reading this blog led me to James Boyle's book "The Public Domain." which inspired this.(You're absolutely right Mike, Chapter 6)

    @eldavojohn, Point taken re: the editing. It's easy to get carried away with Sony Vegas' transition effects. The interview with Nile Rodgers was worth noting, as Mike correctly pointed out, he described his music as sacred when talking about how Rappers Delight sampled it without permission. Later he admits that he took lyrics almost verbatim from Milton Adger's song.

    @Huph, I actually like Good Times better. (: Rapper's Delight also took lyrics from a widely known rapper (at the time) Grandmaster Caz. Copyright failed him in this instance.

    @ltlw0lf, Thanks. I'm going to up my video editing skills for the next one.

    Thanks again Mike!

     

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  9.  
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    ltlw0lf (profile), Apr 19th, 2011 @ 3:59pm

    Re:

    @ltlw0lf, Thanks. I'm going to up my video editing skills for the next one.

    I'd love to see your upcoming videos (and I'd even say that if I didn't agree with your video because it was very informative and well reasoned) -- I think you have a really good argument on collaboration among artists, even when they don't realize they are collaborating with one another. Practice always makes perfect, and part of the hardest part of doing anything creative is the implementation of an idea. Sure, you'll get critics, but you got your message out there. Value constructive criticism and discount everything else.

    I think your video is a good approach, but like eldavojohn and I said, a few less transitions and a little clean-up on the quantity of pictures might help making the video better. It looked like some of the video came from a VCR rip which used Macromedia protection (hence the jumping of the video.) Not sure exactly how to fix this -- there might be some programs out there to dejittter the video (maybe something that takes still shots of the video and realigns them.) Also, some of the video seemed to be out of phase with the audio.

    Overall, though, I thought the video was a good attempt and I could see this as becoming a feature length documentary if you were looking to go that route.

     

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  10.  
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    Billy Wenge-Murphy (profile), Apr 20th, 2011 @ 5:12am

    Are Simpsons references still cool?

    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand star-wipe!

     

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  11.  
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    Brian Schroth (profile), Apr 20th, 2011 @ 8:02am

    Re: Re:

    The 8 note scale you speak of may be the basis for almost all music in mainstream culture today, but it is not the basis for "all music". 440Hz A concert pitch is not the only tuning system in existence. Even in mainstream music this is inaccurate as there are 12 notes, not just 8, and there are many, many different scales besides the major scale- minor, harmonic minor, blues, diatonic, chromatic, whole tone, pentatonic, etc...

     

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  12.  
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    Schmoo, Apr 20th, 2011 @ 9:53am

    "one of the lyrics from Rapper's Delight copied a lyric from another rapper so directly that it includes that rapper's name in the lyric."

    What? Where? I've read the entire 10,000 word essay that is rapper's delight twice and can't see it - unless you're referring to 'grandmaster', in which case it will be you, not me, requiring an eye-rolling or two :)

     

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  13.  
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    Casanova, Apr 21st, 2011 @ 3:43am

    Re:

    The stolen lyric was the name of the original rapper, it's discussed near the end of the video by Grandmaster Caz aka Casanova Fly: "i'm the c-a-s-an-the-o-v-a and the rest is f-l-y".

    I'd heard a bunch of the lyrics were stolen from local rappers but that one is particularly obvious given the namecheck.

     

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