Warning Parental Advisory

In 1985 Tipper Gore (yes, Al Gore’s wife), and three other women, founded the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). This group was the catalyst for the famous “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” stickers that were put on CDs across the United States throughout the 1990s and to this day. Wal-Mart, once America’s largest music retailer in an era before iTunes, would not sell CDs that carried the sticker, adding to the importance and effect of PMRC’s sticker system.

In 2002 VH1 made a dramatized film, “Warning Parental Advisory“, chronicling the creation of the PMRC and their political battle against the music industry. The history is fascinating, and the 1985 five hour Senate hearing that serves as the focal point of the film can be viewed here on c-span.

The history of the PMCR is one that is intertwined with the suppression of hip hop including a seminal copyright lawsuit involving rapper Biz Markie (read more about that connection in my blog post here). I hope to write more about this particular history but for now here are some video highlights from VH1’s “Warning Parental Advisory”…

The above video is of Tipper Gore in 1991. Watch a longer YouTube version of the Vine video above.

The video below is a fictionalized scene involving musician Frank Zappa (check out some awesome historical video of real Zappa debating PMRC supporters).


Save the Youth of America… “Don’t Buy Negro Records”

Saving the children is often cited as a reason for all sorts of censorship in music and culture. The image below illustrates the tenor of the war against black music in 1960. Instead of citing offensive language, or copyright violations, one New Orleans group used outright bigotry to suppress black music. The complaint below reads that “The screaming, idiotic words, and savage music of these records [negro records] are undermining the morals of our white youth in America”. Ironic that New Orleans now prides itself on being the birthday of Jazz, created of course by black musicians.

No Black Music 1960


Sam Smith, Tom Petty, and Copyright Extortion

In 2014 Sam Smith released his worldwide hit “Stay With Me“, which has sold nearly 3.5 million copies to date, and won for song of the year at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards. Nearly nine months after the song’s release Sam Smith gave songwriting credit and 25% of all royalty earnings surrounding the song to Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. But why?

Sam Smith Tom PettyUnder copyright law independent creation of a new work is not infringement, no matter how similar the new work is to a pre-existing original. This means that if I happen to create a song that sounds identical to an existing song, but their similarities are pure coincidence then copyright law has not been violated. In this case Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” sounds similar to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” (1989) though Sam Smith says, “It was a complete accident. I am 22 years old… I’ve never listened to that song.” This seems like a pretty clear case of coincidental likeness, more than it does an illegal act of copying. So why would Sam Smith’s label agree to list Tom Petty as a songwriter of “Stay With Me” and give him potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars? Most likely this was a pure business decision where the costs of paying off Tom Petty are wegihed against the cost of litigation in court. Even if Sam Smith could win the case in front of judge, taking a case like this to trial may cost much more in legal fees and PR energy than it would to simply settle with Tom Petty out of court. Tom Petty has rebutted reports that he is simply shaking down Sam Smith by saying “the word lawsuit was never even said and was never my intention”.

Sadly the situation is so obvious to all partys involved that “the word lawsuit” doesn’t even have to be said.

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The F*cking Grammys

If you know anything about hip hop and the Grammy’s you know that the relationship is not good. Many people believe that the Grammy’s does an especially terrible job representing hip hop. Last year controversy erupted when Macklemore beat Kendrick Lamar for best rap album. I wrote a recap and analysis of white rappers in hip hop that you can read it here. However the bad blood between hip hop and the Grammys goes back much further. Below is a video from Complex magazine breaking down how the Grammy’s treats hip hop.

Grammy Facts

  • -Macklemore has more Grammys than Tupac, The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, DMX, Busta Rhymes, KRS-One, Rick Ross, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Big Pun, Young Jeezy, Ja Rule and Kendrick Lamar combined!
  • -Iggy Azalea has more Grammy nominations in rap categories than MC Lyte, Lil Kim, and Foxy Brown combined!
  • -The Black Eyed Peas have won more rap Grammys than Gang Starr, Geto Boys, N.W.A., and Tribe Called Quest, combined!
  • -Drake has the same number of Grammys as Coolio, and Sir Mix-a-Lot, with 1 Grammy.
  • -A female rapper hasn’t won a rap Grammy in over 10 years. Not since Missy Elliot’s Work It.
  • -Of the last 92 rap related Grammy’s given, 41 of them have gone to either Eminem, Jay-Z, or Kanye West.

Copyright Note

On a copyright note, this year’s Grammys will be the first ever to allow songs that use sampling or interpolations to be nominated in songwriting categories. Previously a song that used sampling as a technique, or didn’t sample but used interpolation instead, was automatically disqualified from categories like Song of the Year. For example in 2011 Jay-Z and Alicia Keyes won Best Rap Song for “Empire State of Mind”. However because “Empire State of Mind” sampled The Moments’ “Love On A Two Way Street” (1968) it was disqualified from being nominated for Song of the Year. Now, more than 40 years after the birth of hip hop, the Grammys will finally allow songs that contain samples to be honored.

macklemore iggy

Talkin’ All That Jazz

In 1988 the rap group Stetsasonic recorded and released “Talkin’ All That Jazz” (video above). The song was a response to criticism that hip hop sampling was lazy and uncreative. I’ve documented the story behind the song below but first let me break down some of the song’s lyrics.


Of course we expect to win.
Any self respecting intellegent person knows that this so called band, Stesaonic, and the rest of this hip hop music is just a passing fad.
Which one, is not create
Two, inspires violence and
Three encouraged thievery in the form of sampling
No further questions please

This intro illustrates the general attitude at the time that hip hop represented a violent and criminal criminal behavior, that it was a lazy non creative practice. It is hard to imagine that mindset today, years after hip hop has achieved global sucess, but in the late 90s this view was quite widespread.
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Charlie Hebdo, Copyright, and Sanctioning Speech

All the recent headline coverage of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack and it’s free speech implications has got me thinking about how speech is regulated both through culture and through law. For example in the United States the government allows neo-Nazi groups to form and advocate their beliefs. Most Americans abhor the messages put out by these neo-Nazi groups, but most Americans also recognize the neo-Nazi’s freedom of speech. As a culture we generally discourage this type of speech by not doing business with these groups and disassociating ourselves from neo-Nazis. While neo-Nazi speech is legal we impose great costs and sanctions on those people that produce the neo-Nazi speech. Though I don’t know much about Charlie Hebdo I do view some of  their cartoons as repugnant and deserving of such social sanctions.

Regardless of the specifics, we allow this type of speech under the law and depend on society to not propagate and encourage hateful messages. We use our public discourse, and developed cultural institutions, to police speech. However there is another kind of speech that is banned outright under the law, illegal speech that the government is very bullish about enforcing. This is speech that infringes on copyrights.

Instead of investing in an practical ethics surrounding the everyday copying, sharing, and remixing of information and art, we give the state the power to ban huge amounts of speech in the form copyright law enforcement. The public is not engaged in an ongoing discussion about what is, or is not, socially acceptable when it comes to remixing and sharing content. Instead the public is subjugated by the threat of corporate lawsuits that dictate which speech will be allowed and which will be banned.

Why do we trust the public to appropriately handled violent and hateful speech but not copyrighted speech? Just some food for thought.

kkkcopyright*I’m aware that there are also restraints on violent speech, and hate speech, but my point is only to draw contrast in the degree to which this speech is left to the “court of public opinion” compared to tightly legislated copyrighted speech.

Shock G Compares Sampling to Photography

Hip hop artist Shock G make an analogy between sampling and taking a picture.

Perhaps it’s a little easier to take a piece of music than it is to learn how to play the guitar or something. True, just like it’s probably easier to snap a picture with that camera [looks at camera] than it is to actually paint a picture. But what the photographer is to the painter is what the modern DJ and computer musician is to the instrumentalist.

-Shock G

*Attribution:McLeod, Kembrew; DiCola, Peter (2011-02-21). Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling (Kindle Locations 1265-1268). Duke University Press

Everything is a Remix: Appropriation in Music

Just as one of my favorite video series says Everything is a Remix. The process of creativity depends upon prior works to build upon. The book “Creative License” notes how elements of music are constantly borrowed, remixed, and built upon.

Musicians do not reinvent the twelve-tone scale used in Western music but rather borrow it from previous generations. Instrumentalists often use major-seventh chords, play in 4/ 4 meter, and perform on instruments with unique timbre like the violin and the piano. No musician living today invented those things. Someone (or some group of people) did once invent chords, meter, and musical instruments, but that was long ago. In the time since, millions of people have used those musical ideas, instruments, and traditions to make their own musical contribution. Music is not unique in this regard; all creativity occurs in this way. Writers, composers, artists, and inventors all make use of ideas— and particular applications of those ideas— that others created before them.

In regards to hip hop, the book also notes how sampling is but one of many ways that musicians borrow from existing music to create new works.

Sampling stands alongside allusion, quotation, and reinterpretation as part of the modern musician’s toolkit for responding to and building upon previous musicians’ work. As a technique, sampling reflects the ingenious innovations of musicians across geography (especially the Black Atlantic) and genres (especially classical, jazz, hip-hop, electronic, and dance).


*Attribution: McLeod, Kembrew; DiCola, Peter (2011-02-21). Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.

Before Iggy Azalea There Was Blondie and Madonna

I recently wrote about white appropriation in hop hop and it’s relation to some recent events involving Macklemore and Iggy Azalea. Today, I came across two interesting video clips involving Blondie and Madonna that continue that conversation.

The first video includes Blondie talking about her song Rapture. In the second video music label executive Seymore Stein talks about how he marketed Madonna as a black woman on her first single “Everybody” (cover art below, listen).

The two videos come from a NOVA/BCC TV documentary series “Rock and Roll: The Perfect Beat”. I won’t go into an extended analysis but these videos at least offer more examples of how white musicians, and music labels, have interacted with black music.

*This post has got me thinking and working on resolving the cognitive dissonance around encouraging the right to freely remix/sample, and discouraging cultural appropriation.

Kid 606 Compares Sampling to Lego

Electronic musician Kid 606 talks about using samples as building blocks for creating music…

It’s like Legos. If someone said, ‘Here’s a bunch of Legos, put them together, ’ you have something to work with— as opposed to, ‘Here’s a bunch of plastic, mold it, and then start building it.

-Kid 606


*Attribution: McLeod, Kembrew; DiCola, Peter (2011-02-21). Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Duke University Press.