HAND ON THE TORCH
SYNTHOPHONE RIFFS FOR DEEJAYS, VOLUME 1
Flipping the TV dial last week, I caught the outro to some local late-night program–I can’t remember what it was, maybe a sports talk show or a consumer advice special. The show isn’t important; what struck me was the music they were playing as the credits were rolling: “Cantaloop” by US 3, a jazzy hip-hop groove underpinned by a sampled Herbie Hancock piano line. The appearance of this song in this context–filling a role that historically has been reserved for songs like “Popcorn” by Hot Butter, “Rock and Roll Part 2” by Gary Glitter, and any number of recordings by the Alan Parsons Project–is the culmination of an unlikely pop success story. The song itself shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s listened to radio over the past year; it has become a crossover smash, turning up on a variety of stations in a variety of formats, from jazz to rock to R & B. In the process, “Cantaloop” has far outdistanced the work of other recent jazzy hip-hoppers–most notably Guru, the rapper from GangStarr, who teamed with a variety of jazz musicians on last year’s Jazzmatazz, and Digable Planets, whose hit song “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” was instrumental in establishing the jazz/hip-hop vibe.
But the success of “Cantaloop” has less to do with pop creativity than it does with other things–the evolution of sampling, new developments in copyright law, and the canny manipulation of both by a multinational record company. The song’s strange story begins with the work of a couple of British DJs, Mel Simpson and Geoff Wilkinson, who, like many DJs, recorded their own mixes. For one of these, a song called “The Band Played the Boogie,” the pair sampled that distinctive Hancock piano riff, from the song “Cantaloupe Island,” recorded for the Blue Note label in 1964. They pressed up the single and distributed it through a small underground network of nightclubs and dance-music specialty shops in London. Not long after its release they were contacted by Capitol-EMI, current owner of Blue Note’s copyrights. The company could easily have sued the DJs and put them out of business. Instead, as the story goes, someone in the Capitol hierarchy got the idea that the group would be a good way to promote the further sales of older Blue Note records, especially to a younger generation. In the end the company teamed up with the DJs, signing them to the label and giving them access to the extensive Blue Note catalog, which includes classic recordings by Art Blakey, Donald Byrd, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, and many others.
Sure enough, when US 3’s debut album, Hand on the Torch, was released last year–with the original “The Band Played the Boogie” transformed into “Cantaloop”–it was part of an extensive effort to retool the Blue Note image for a new generation of fans. Using rap as a hook, the album featured samples and lyrical references from Blue Note recordings on every song, a cover that was an homage to the label’s distinctive album designs, and an effusive set of liner notes about Blue Note itself (“the baddest jazz label on the planet”). Even the name of the group (Wilkinson, Simpson, and a shifting third member) was part of the package: Us Three–the proper pronunciation of US 3–was the title of an old Blue Note release by pianist Horace Parlan.
Concurrent with the album’s release, Capitol-EMI began an extensive program of reissues that put special emphasis on funky material, both to facilitate the sampling desires of DJs and to fill in the collections of listeners who liked hip-hop jazz. The program includes full albums by artists such as Grant Green and Lou Donaldson, as well as introductory samplers like the recent Straight No Chaser, a compilation of the “most popular, most sampled songs from the vaults of Blue Note”–including (you guessed it!) Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.”
Yet how much meaning can the distinction “most popular, most sampled” have when applied to a batch of music grouped together for reasons of corporate policy rather than artistic inspiration? And what happens to the once-radical act of copyright liberation when it becomes the industry-sanctioned cornerstone of cross-generational music marketing? Sampling–the digital pilfering of prerecorded material for use as building blocks in new songs–used to be done on the fly; it used to be the only real “gangster” aspect of most hip-hop records. DJs and rappers would plunder the history of recorded music in search of the perfect beat or bass line, which they would then add to a record–copyright-notice free, and free of charge. Now, after a flurry of recent lawsuits–including the criminal trial of rapper Biz Markie for the unauthorized use of a sample from Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)”–sampling has become a legalized entity but a logistical nightmare. Rap groups often have to procure rights for the use of a sample themselves–without any legal help from their record labels–and when the sample appears on a recording, the original artist, song title, and publisher are cited, and paid, in full. If a recording with a sample is a hit, the holder of the sample’s copyright can receive tens of thousands of dollars in royalties. Thus it is no surprise that some companies are screaming “sample us!”
Take the case of a series of recent releases on the Tuff City label–Keyboard Riffs for Deejays, Horn Riffs for Deejays, Synthophone Riffs for Deejays, etc, with multiple volumes out for each instrument–collections of instrumental jazz riffs played and recorded specifically to be sampled by hip-hop DJs. The series features funky-jazz artists like Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Bernard Purdie as well as more “straight” jazz musicians like Dewey Redman and Chico Freeman. All of the albums feature nothing but four-to six-minute segments of solo instrumentals, played in such a way as to make it easy for would-be samplers to isolate and digitize specific moments of performance. In a weird way, these recordings give listeners the rare opportunity to hear a jazz master without the support of a rhythm section.
But they aren’t meant to be listened to or even bought by the average jazz fan. They’re pressed in small quantities and sold to a limited audience of DJs and producers. The real money in the game is intended to be made later, when the records are sampled and income flows into the coffers of Tuff City through either legitimate royalties or copyright lawsuits.
And sue they will. Tuff City owner Aaron Fuchs has already made a point of acquiring–and then suing over–the copyrights of a large number of well-sampled R & B classics (such as “Impeach the President” by the Honeydrippers). The “Riffs for Deejays” series is his way of beating labels like Blue Note at their own game. Instead of spending the time and money to build up a generation of jazzy classics, Fuchs is recording talented artists in cheap, knock-off studio sessions designed to provide him with a batch of easy-to-use, ready-to-sue copyrights.
So as the critics are making a big fuss about “the creative fusion of hip-hop and jazz,” seasoned instrumentalists are being marched into the studio on a musical assembly line and being told to play “funky” (but simply). Meanwhile the TV in the next room blares out the opening notes to a jazzy hip-hop groove as incidental music for a syndicated show. The crossover success of “Cantaloop” suggests that this new jazz tradition has a bright future indeed.