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Hip Hop Got To Stop 4: Ask For Janice?
Some heads call the late late 80s the "Pre-Clearance" Golden Era of Hip-Hop.There is reason, and why the music of the era sounds fucktonnes better than the hippopplop of today. It's not just because people get older, that was then and this is now. No, this is one of the tragic cases where an art form is permanently retarded by a change in the law, which then means a change in the commercial context (and art does need money to survive) and then finally a shift in the very skills around the work.If you want to see the seeds of the destruction of one of the richest art forms of the 20th Century, go visit the British Museum and step through it in chronological order.Ever wonder why Western visual art goes right off a fucking cliff in The Dark Ages, before a few shamed and bored geniuses in Italy dust off the books left by the Romans, and preserved by the Arabs in the 1300s?The Western Roman Empire had been taken over by tribe after tribe of reeking illiterates who were more interested in trials by fire, rape, looting and using rotten butter as hair gel than doing anything arty. Our reading.Then the Eastern Empire, Byzantium, which had mostly survived and thrived in the centuries after savages pissed out the light of European civilisation in the West, started to lose battles, and territory, badly.Mainly to the rising new Muslim powers who were replacing the tired, plague ridden Persia and Byzantine authorities with something more modern. How could this be when God, Jesus and all the forces of right blessed the Emperor and his Church? These people were filthy heathens. And yet....they also shared the Old bits of the Bible. What was the message He was sending?Pictures were bad.Especially of people. The conquering Arabs had a rich artistic tradition, but took the Third Commandment, the one about not making and worshipping "graven images" very literally to mean "do not make any realistic sculpture or picture of anything at all".The Byzantine world, especially its Churches, were covered in pictures, sculptures and all kinds of art. A militarily successful Emperor, with a name like a comic book hero, Leo III the Isaurian, decided to follow up yet another attempt to force the Jews to stop being Jews, which didn't have the battlefield effect he anticipated, with the wholesale destruction of art.Artists were killed, art was destroyed, everywhere. And this carried on for about four generations. Imagine.Eventually the God Botherers realised that fighting the natural human need to make art that looks sort of like something in nature was a bad move. They got back to their usual business of repression, ignorance, violence and hate mongering - but people had forgotten how to make decent art. This is why suddenly all you get are half dimensional, anatomically bizarre gold leaf covered wood and carvings so crude they would shame a blind drunk wood whittler. The art was dead, the skills were gone.And in the Pre-Clearance Hip Hop era the skills were in high flow.Producers such as the legendary Bomb Squad would build up complex, baroque beat symphonies with hundreds of sampled sounds. Played fast, backwards, on top of each other, split seconds and whole verses. Each sample was just one instrument in an orchestra, one small voice in an infinite choir. Sometimes if it was too blatant, like too many seconds of Led Zeppelin, lawyers would fire off a writ and collect a little cash.Few paid any attention to where these sounds came from, and even fewer at the record labels thought about trying to make money from it. There were just too many samples, many lasting just a millisecond, so artists and labels threw some small change to "clear" use of anything long and obvious, but otherwise just let it all be. If someone heard sounds they owned in someone else's record, they could call in the lawyers. But it was rare, expensive and a bit sad. Sampling was often a grey area, but it sure was not a crime, and was quite different from piracy.It became painfully clear years before that you could not just rip off entire tracks to back a hit just by having a house band re-record it. Grandmaster Melle Mel's massively influential smash, "White Lines (Don't Do It)" was based on the Mafia front label Sugarhill's house band covering the Liquid Liquid classic "Cavern". This was a straight out pirate raid on a little cult band that deserved better, and resulted in a legal bill that buried all involved.Paul's Boutique is the record that revealed the Beastie Boys were far, far more than the one shit wonders that too many assumed. It failed in the shops, with fair weather fans wanting another fists in the air frat party prank and instead getting the real art they didn't want.The full story is best told elsewhere, but today some say the samples used would have cost more than £250k a minute. Contrary to what I believed before, most, but not all samples were "cleared" before the record came out, but for pennies on the dollar as back then it was just a confused Capitol being polite.How wrong they were...
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