An irreverent sample of “Strange Fruit” would signify a takedown of not only a great American jazz standard, but of a crucial civil rights work as well. You can probably tell what’s coming next.
Image from Flickr via rodrigoferrari
By Andrew Ridker
Drunks in Paris slash a four-inch tear in Monet’s The Bridge at Argenteuil, and the French Minister of Culture and Communication calls it an attack on the nation’s collective memory and heritage. The Huffington Post makes a supercut of every time Woody Allen stammers in a film and it becomes a viral hit. The difference, of course—without debating Monet and Allen’s comparative artistic merits—is that our contemporary understanding of digital works (films, mp3s, JPEGs, etc.) is that they belong to the public. We’re entitled to PhotoShop canonical paintings all we want, just as we are allowed to splice braying goats into music videos, but to damage a work of art that exists in a physical space is to attack its integrity. A religious mythology is attached to great works, and so we must not touch them with our oily fingers or soil them with our Doritos-breath. But if your actions happen via MacBook, soil away. It would seem hopeless for an artist working in a digitally-consumable medium—a musician, for instance—to achieve for their work the same sort of sanctity that is bestowed upon paintings and sculpture. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying.
The musical sample and its fraternal twin, the remix, have become ubiquitous in our culture. Once the near-exclusive domain of hip-hop, sampling is accepted as commonplace across nearly every genre. Take, for instance, “Step to My Girl,” the Souls of Mischief demo track that helped the teenage rappers sign with Jive Records in 1993. Break the song down and you find a familiar formula. The drums are pulled from Melvin Bliss’s “Synthetic Substitution,” arguably the most-sampled drum loop in history. There is a DJ-scratched chorus drawing on clips of the little-known rapper YZ (Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl) and oldschool legend KRS-One (Ask yourself homeboy: why is that?) And pulling much of the song’s weight is a saxophone riff, courtesy of Grover Washington, Jr. But Washington’s estate and/or label refused to grant the sampling rights, so “Step to My Girl”—now regarded as one of the group’s finest tracks—remained dormant, passed around through the usual channels, but not officially released until 2003.
The mashup, a genre that once seemed so full of potential, a truly postmodern musical form, was resigned forever to novelty by its own infinitude.
Enter Vampire Weekend. “Step,” the B-side single from this year’s Modern Vampires of the City, opens with Ezra Koenig lightly crooning “Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl.” The song’s chorus (The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out…) are sung roughly to the tune of Washington’s sax. Not quite a sample in the strictest sense, but Tajai of Souls of Mischief was approached for his blessing, which he graciously endowed. And so it goes: a song built on samples, never legally released, is sampled once more to critical and popular acclaim.
Because licensing one’s music for sampling can be a substantial source of income, making it unavailable or prohibitively expensive is simply bad business for artists and their estates. The motivation, then, behind keeping songs from being licensed is not a financial one, but rather has entirely to do with maintaining a song’s integrity. A song that can only (legally) appear in its intended incarnation is a song un-defamed, primed for worship. The entire Beatles catalog, for example, which is owned by a vague combination of Capitol Records, Sony, the surviving Beatles, Michael Jackson’s estate, and Michael Jackson’s debtors, is untouchable from a sampling perspective. In an era of heavy sampling and remixing, the legal barricade surrounding the Beatles’ catalog have imbued in their songs a certain holiness, an untouchability that ensures audiences only access to their music the right way. In 2002, Public Enemy’s “Psycho of Greed” was pulled from their Revolverlution album after Capitol and the Beatles demanded an impossible fee for its “Tomorrow Never Knows” sample. The Wu-Tang Clan came close in 2007, releasing “The Heart Gently Weeps”—an interpolation of the similarly-named Beatles classic—but though Wu-Tang’s version features the same melody (and George Harrison’s son on acoustic guitar), no actual sound from the Beatles’ original recording appears in the 2007 version. It was a noble effort. But interpolating such familiar work comes dangerously close to that substratum of music we call cover songs, or worse—given the contributions of Harrison’s son, Erykah Badu, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante in the song—a celebrity tribute. Not that it’s anything new—interpolations and soundalike tracks have been a feature of hip-hop production since the Sugar Hill Gang. Paradoxically, there is something about actual sound-burgling that lends a hip-hop song authenticity. Still, and for all intents and purposes the Beatles remain untouchable.
Unless, of course, you own a computer. It’s hard to forget the uproar over Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, which was famous as much for its illegality as its content. Danger Mouse ripped up the Beatles and stitched them back together, and despite EMI’s attempts to shut the project down it seemed impossible in 2004 not to own a copy.
West in particular has a fondness for profaning the holy.
Any remaining sense of preserving a song’s ‘integrity’—whether from musicians, purists, or diehard fans of one band or another—was shattered by the mashup craze of the early 2000s. DJs like Girl Talk (Greg Gillis) became international sensations from the public’s apparent demand to hear the history of pop music utterly dismantled and reassembled before them. Nothing was sacred, and lawsuits be damned; Gillis maintains that the samples he works with are covered under the “fair use” doctrine, and his last album Feed the Animals was largely released through an online pay-what-you-want platform as opposed to more conventional distribution channels. Even the artistic integrity of Gillis’s own compositions, built on what seemed like meticulously chosen samples, came undone at his live shows. In order to make his physical presence in the venue relevant, when Gillis performed live he unmade and re-assembled versions of his own tracks. The method to his madness became apparent: stockpile loads of samples, index them by speed and pitch, and stick them together in real time in endless combination. It was impossible to know whether his album tracks or his live ones were meant to be the authoritative versions, and it didn’t seem to matter. But there was only so long that this process of continuous rehashing remained interesting to both artist and audience, and ultimately Gillis’s songs didn’t sound much different than any other DJ’s, just slightly better. Anyone could do it, and that was the problem. The mashup, a genre that once seemed so full of potential, a truly postmodern musical form, was resigned forever to novelty by its own infinitude.
The consequences of this saga are that no song can lay claim to being a holy relic in an artistic sense—not when any thirteen-year-old with Garageband can digitally add fart sounds to a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth. But for artists attempting to release their music legally, cases like Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. have enclosed certain songs in a temple of litigation and fees. This canonization process does protect a degree of integrity, keeping bastardized incarnations of protected works off the radio and record store shelves for the shrinking minority of people who respectively listen to and shop at those dying animals.
Not that you can’t buy indulgences. Just about any song can be sampled for a price, and speculation over what Kanye West must have paid to sample “Try a Little Tenderness” on “Otis” back in 2011 nearly outdid buzz over the song itself. That the chopping up of pop music treasures like “Tenderness” is still a noteworthy event just goes to show that audiences are still a long way from accepting the internet-induced demystification of the digital arts. Sampling the sacrosanct is a common practice, but not with the blasé acceptance one might expect from a culture enamored with auto-tuning just about everything.
“These bitches surroundin’ me,” West warbles, and then, more distantly, we hear Simone’s sampled voice stretch from beyond the grave: “like bodies swinging in the summer breeze.”
West in particular has a fondness for profaning the holy. His sixth studio album, Yeezus, released on June 18th after being leaked past the point of no return, is an all-out assault on the sacred. There is, of course, the obvious literal blasphemy of the album title and songs like “I am A God,” which features, as one reviewer put it, “a one-sided conversation [with Jesus] about [West’s] considerable fortune.” Yeezus also contains reappropriations of religiously mythologized civil rights figures: Your titties, let em out / free at last, / thank god almighty I’m free at last. Not that this is breaking new ground for West, who has been talking to God since “Jesus Walks” and who has an obvious penchant for misquoting black icons (I’m like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary). In order to make Yeezus truly shocking, he needed to launch an assault on sacred music.
If there is any piece of recorded music that can be considered holy in these post-mashup times, it is “Strange Fruit.” Originally composed as a poem by the white, Jewish high school teacher Abel Meeropol, the anti-lynching song—most familiar as recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday—is one of the few examples of twentieth-century protest music that remains a revered artistic work in its own right. An irreverent sample of “Strange Fruit” would signify a takedown of not only a great American jazz standard, but of a crucial civil rights work as well. You can probably tell what’s coming next.
No club banger has ever been so solemn; no solemnity has ever been so club-worthy.
“Blood on the Leaves,” the seventh track on Yeezus, samples Nina Simone’s cover of the song. (Perhaps the Billie Holiday estate refused to grant the sample to the original, though given West’s “considerable fortune,” it seems unlikely that a high licensing fee would deter him.) The result is fascinating. Mashing Simone’s bare vocals and piano with TNGHT’s R U Ready—a song of punching synths and programmed drums that West bought and then scrubbed from the internet earlier this year—West raps about club drugs, sex, and deceit. Nowhere in the song do the original work’s themes— slavery, violence, mourning—peek through. Strangely, West appropriates the original song’s “blood on the leaves” image elsewhere on the album, employing it as a metaphor for the dirtied cash of consumerism. But the song “Blood on the Leaves” itself has nothing to do with consumerism and does not engage with historical metaphors like the album’s single, “New Slaves.” For some reason—perhaps irreverence’s sake—West’s track ignores the sanctity of the very thing it samples. What’s more, it works.
The song opens to Nina’s chilling voice and piano, which begins to loop itself like a record skipping. An 808s and Heartbreak-sounding West croons distantly along, but nothing prepares the listener—save for the expectation of West’s unexpectedness—for the drop, when the song becomes a relentless dancehall assault. No club banger has ever been so solemn; no solemnity has ever been so club-worthy.
And despite its irreverence, something profound occurs during this seemingly arbitrary union of nightlife and the civil rights movement. It’s a brief moment, almost unnoticeable. These bitches surroundin’ me, West warbles, and then, more distantly, we hear Simone’s sampled voice stretch from beyond the grave: like bodies swinging in the summer breeze. The superficiality of the bitches-everywhere trope is paired with an image of lynch-mob victims blowing in the wind. What we’re meant to make of this combination is unclear—does Kanye perceive his harem of admirers as corpses? As victims? Is West himself next?—but no matter the intention, this is the type of ambiguous collaging that challenges and provokes, the type of thing that we call poetry.
Andrew Ridker is a freelance writer and the founding editor of Nat. Brut, a multimedia literary journal. He is currently serving as editorial assistant at Boston Review and attends Washington University in St. Louis.