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).


The F*cking Grammys

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.
read more

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.

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.

“Five Useful Articles” covers TufAmerica v. Jay-Z

The email newsletter Five Useful Articles, sent out by the amazing Sarah Jeong & Parker Higgins, has some pithy coverage of the TufAmerica v. WB Music Corp case.

The following is an excerpt from “The Grinch Who Stole ©hristmas: 5 Useful Articles — Vol. 2 Issue 10” December 11, 2014

Run This Takedown

Jay Z has managed to brush off a copyright suit concerning a “loudly shouted, buoyantly exuberant ‘Oh!'” that was sampled 42 times for the song “Run This Town.” (See our previous coverage here). The Oh! was originally from a funk record now owned by TufAmerica, which has made a nice little business out of buying up the rights to old sound recordings and then suing people.
read more

Resources (Learn More)

Below is a list that I’ll be updating with relevant related resources for those people who would like to learn more



The Copyright and Hip Hop Project

Over the past year I’ve been collecting materials, reading, and thinking a lot about the intersection of copyright law and hip hop. Many of the seminal court cases that shape copyright law in music today centered around rap songs. On the flip side, the history of hip hop was forever changed when the art of sampling in music was ruled illegal. The dynamic of this two way exchange involves race, technology, and culture, and is something that is thoroughly under-researched. While some scholarship has been done around the interplay between violent rap lyrics and the law, an ancillary issue that also interests me, the intersection of copyright and hip hop has been largely unexplored, especially considering this area’s impact on the music and video industry as a whole.

With that in mind I am humbly embarking on a research project called The Copyright and Hip Hop Project. This project aims to bring materials from legal scholarship and hip hop history together to form a more comprehensive understanding of how these two areas interact. The initial focus will be on mapping a history of how we have arrived at our current situation, and then will expand to explore potential futures and develop conclusions.

Unlike past reporting on these issues I hope to bring the stories and traditions of hip hop to the forefront to provide better context for legal scholars. I also hope to investigate how other cultural issues surrounding hip hop may have influenced the way copyright cases were viewed and decided.

*I am by no means an expert (yet) on this topic and would love input and feedback from others. Please don’t hesitate to reach me on twitter @lwThinking to educate or correct me.