From hip hop to identity appropriation

Disco, hip hop, sampling

By the second half of the century, recording is the major focus of popular music as an industry. Recordings and technology become important areas for appropriation.

Because records are mass-produced, more permanent than live performance, and major sources of wealth that are subject to copyright, legal and ethical questions about appropriation become more central.

Technology and Appropriation

Remix in the strict sense is an appropriative art that relies on technology. Most of the related forms of appropriation also involve recordings and technology:

  • Dub versions (1970s – ) [recording studio]
  • Disco re-edits (1970s – ) [tape recorders]
  • Remixes (1970s – ) [recording studio]
  • Hip hop DJing (1970s – ) [turntables]
  • Sampling and producer music (1980s – ) [samplers, studios, computers]
  • Mashups (1990s – ) [computers]

Disco and hip hop djing

Disco djs developed the method of extending a song by having two turntables with a copy of the same record on each.

When rap began in the 1970s, the most common practice was to accompany the rap with breakbeats. The DJ would have two copies of the same record – one on each turntable .

He would cut back and forth between an instrumental or percussive interlude in the song (the “breakdown”) and the same instrumental passage on the other disc, creating a continuous stream of the same rhythm line for the MC to rap over.

Rapping developed out of a number of traditions, but when it happened in hip hop, it was initially the DJ who would talk, shout, or chant over the music briefly, encouraging people to get up and dance, “get down,” etc. Here’s a rare recording of DJ Hollywood and Lovebug Starski from 1979 that gives you a bit of the feel.

The “crew” was initially the actual friends of the DJ who helped him transport and set up his sound system, and guard it from theft and vandalism. Eventually, members of the crew would sometimes take turns shouting and rhyming over the music.

Kool Herc’s “merry-go-round”

Clive Campbell was a young man in the Bronx whose family had immigrated from Jamaica in the 1960s. The Jamaican DJs often drove around with their “soundsystems” and set them up for live dance happenings. It became a matter of pride to have the biggest, loudest soundsystem, and when Campbell started to DJ at live events in the Bronx he assembled a famously large and loud system. His stage name was DJ Kool Herc.

The disco DJs downtown had started using two turntables. While one song was playing, they would set up the next song on the other turntable, and then as soon as the first song ended the second one could begin, with a minimal break in the music and dancing.

Herc emulated this technique, though he played more hard-edged funky music for his parties. At one point it occurred to him that he could play two songs at the same time on the different turntables, and using a mixer he could mix from one to the other without the first one ending. The songs could even play together for a time, as the instrumental conclusion of one song blended into the instrumental beginning of the next song.

Eventually, Herc figured out that people were happiest dancing to the instrumental parts of the records, and he developed his “Merry-Go-Round” approach, where the instrumental parts of different records could be mixed into each other, repeated, and added to one another to create a continuous dance mix of larger instrumental “breaks” (the breakdowns from records, where the vocals disappeared for a bit and the music became purely instrumental, with the focus on drums and bass.

Disco re-edits and club remix

Meanwhile, downtown the DJs were interested in creating longer versions of their own records, because people enjoyed dancing to the repeated rhythms and motifs. The typical R&B, salsa, or pop song that the DJs were playing lasted only three or four minutes – intended for release on 45 rpm singles, and play on the radio. The DJs started adopting some of the merry-go-round ideas. They would tape record records that were popular and then use simple cassette deck dubbing to create new edits of the songs where instrumental parts (and also vocal sections) might be repeated several times, to turn a three minute song into a 10-minute dance track.

Eventually the idea of the “extended remix” caught on, and record producers themselves created these for the club market in their studios. By the heyday of disco in the mid-1970s, labels were putting out 12-inch singles with 15-minute-long versions of popular disco songs, for club dancing.

Hip Hop DJing

Though hip hop parties went on for hours, hip hop DJs were more interested in fast cutting between different records, or different sections of two copies of the same record. This required much more skill than what the disco DJs were doing at that time, and hip hop DJs turned the turntable into a musical instrument – as hard to play well as any other. They produced entirely new musical experiences from entirely appropriated material – the records they had at their disposal, often “borrowed” from their parents’ R&B and funk record collections.

Appropriation in early hip hop

Early hip hop was an all-night “happening.” DJs would mix records for hours while crowds danced and partied. Sometimes people would breakdance, and as with the DJs there was a lot of talent in this newly invented art form. Eventually, DJs, crew, and finally dedicated MCs would rap over the “breaks” as well.

These art forms emerged organically and among amateurs whose focus was on having a good time and making interesting and spirited music. Hip hop events were collaborative happenings that lasted for hours. Initially hip hop was not commercial in our sense; it was typically practised in recreation centres, outdoors in schoolyards and on the street; it was improvisational and its practitioners had not received formal training. It was done for pleasure.

DJs appropriated (almost exclusively black) records (dance, funk, and r&b), which they mixed together to create extended breakbeat backdrops for b-boys and b-girls to dance to and rappers to rap over. These were “amateur” public performances, for small cover charges, largely unrecorded, in which old and new records (funk, soul, jazz and disco) were used as sources for original musical experiences.

Hip hop DJs had invented a new form of music – one dependent on technology. They played their turntables as instruments, and they composed new music my cutting between and mixing together parts of existing records.

So hip hop was a new form of collaboratively authored “urban folk music.”

Recording hip hop

It is only with recording and sampling that legal (and political or moral) questions of ownership and appropriation become central to hip hop practice.

Punk singer Debbie Harry, aka Blondie, was into the underground hip-hop scene in the late 70s and it was she who invited members of Chic to a Sugarhill Gang event, which is how they knew who the Gang was when members jumped up onstage and started improvising raps over “Good Times” at a Chic concert a few weeks later.

The Sugarhill Gang were so excited by the results that they created a cassette of themselves rapping over the Chic song and circulated it on the street. People really liked it. The song “Rapper’s Delight” was eventually to become the first hip hop single to make it onto the “charts” – sell significant copies.

It was also the first clear example of ownership and copyright issues in hip hop. When Chic heard the cassette they were upset with the Sugarhill Gang for using their music without permission. When the Gang decided to put out a commercial release of their song, rather than pay Chic for the right to use their recording, they instead utilized what may be the first sample replay. In a sample replay, you get other musicians to replay the music you want to use in the same style as the original. Then you only have to purchase the publisher’s rights for the song, not the recording rights.

“Rapper’s Delight” was the first mainstream rap single (1979). It uses an instrumental cover (sample replay) of the Chic song as the accompaniment. This was the first time a band (Chic) demanded remuneration from a hip hop artist for using their music with the artists’ rapping. This video from a dance music show of the day gives you a sense of what rap was like at the time:

“Rapper’s Delight” is a 12” single. It’s about 15 minutes long. It was the bestselling 12” single to that time.

Chuck D, later of Public Enemy, remembers when “Rapper’s Delight” appeared how strange the idea of recording hip hop seemed back then.

“I’m like, record? Fuck, how you gon’ put hip-hop onto a record? ‘Cause it was a whole gig, you know? How you gon’ put three hours on a record?” Chuck says. “Bam! They made ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ And the ironic twist is not how long that record was, but how short it was. I’m thinking, ‘Man, they cut that shit down to fifteen minutes?’ It was a miracle.” (quoted in Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop)

Many hip hop artists at the time were infuriated by “Rapper’s Delight.” Some thought it misrepresented the artistic practice of hip hop, which was not about recording but about live and participatory events, mostly dancing. Others felt their ideas had been ripped off, or as in the case of Grandmaster Caz and others that the Sugarhill Gang had stoen their rhymes. With recording came fame and fortune, and suddenly ownership, originality, and remuneration became central to the art form, whereas in the “Jes’ Grew” urban folk culture of hip hop up until then they had barely been considered.

Hip hop had gone from being a participatory amateur happening to being a product that could monetized. It proved to be lucrative and many more rap singles followed.

Blondie, “Rapture” (1981)

It’s shocking, but the first #1 “rap” single was actually by Blondie!

On the one hand, this is a remarkably late example of a white performer capitalizing on a black invention and selling it to the white majority. On the other hand, it was intended as a tribute and served to legitimize hip hop further with mainstream audiences, and it is pretty impressive in its own way.

  • Earliest white appropriation of hip-hop
  • Very rare early female rapper (not the first)
  • The first #1 single to feature rap
  • The first “rap” video to be broadcast on MTV; one of the first ever (1st day of MTV)
  • Features cameos by rapper and graffiti artist Fab Five Freddy and graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
  • Grandmaster Flash was supposed to appear, but didn’t show for the video shoot.
  • However, he used the song in his famous mix “Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of steel ”

Incidentally, “Rapture” doesn’t use appropriation of other people’s records, sampling, or hip hop djing. They wrote an original tune for the song. You could perhaps say that it was inspired by hip hop, rather than a genuine rap song. However, as I’ve suggested, Blondie was deep into the New York hip hop scene and helped to popularize it.

Sampling (1980s – )

Gradually through the 1980s the live hip hop DJ tends to be replaced by canned backing tracks, usually based on sampled breaks, programmed drum machine beats, and commercially produced loops sold for this purpose. The producer takes the place of the live dj.

If you’re interested in the history of sampling, check out this one hour BBC radio documentary on the Amen break.

In an interview with Kembrew McLeod, Chuck D and Hank Shocklee from Public Enemy are asked about how hip hop was changed by the rise of mandatory licensing of samples.

In the interview, they suggest that the need for sample clearance changed hip hop in two negative ways:

  1. Younger hip hop artists couldn’t afford to make new tracks in the traditional way because of the cost of sample clearance.
  2. Established artists began confining themselves to one or two samples per song, also to avoid costs and the hassle of clearing the samples.

Public Enemy in particular had practiced a sampling technique where tiny fragmentary samples had often been pieced together, creating a song from perhaps dozens of small, often unidentifiable, samples. Now they had to revise their practice.

Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc.

It is often thought that this court case brought an end to the kind of freewheeling sampling that had characterized hip hop in the 80s. Biz Markie wanted to sample Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 1972 soft pop hit “Alone Again (Naturally)” in a jokey rap remake of it, and O’Sullivan refused. Biz Markie went ahead and used it without permission and O’Sullivan’s label sued Markie’s

During the trial, the Warner Brothers lawyers attempted to suggest that using other people’s recordings was integral to hip hop creation (which it was) and the practice was brought to the attention of the public, the record labels, and the lawyers.

When O’Sullivan won, record labels saw it as a cue to start looking for remuneration from anyone sampling their material, and – as Chuck D and Hank Shocklee suggested – this changed how hip hop music tended to be made forever.

O’Sullivan himself was not pursuing Markee for the sake of royalties, however. He was angered that his work had been used without his permission, and indeed in direct contradiction of his wishes that it not be used.

This thus also raises the question of performance abduction, and by extension the even larger issue of identity appropriation.