hip hop music

May 7, 2006

Bad Boy Presents: Opal Mehta

Although I hear what Jeff Chang is saying, I have trouble feeling sorry for Kaavya Viswanathan. Or that is, I do feel bad for her, but I can't see anything unjust about her current plight. Nik Cohn didn't have to deal with all this, but Nik Cohn also wasn't a teenager with a $500,000 book deal.. if you put yourself out there to reap extraordinary rewards, you better be ready for extraordinary scrutiny.

But one of her schoomates cooked up a novel defense strategy: Kaavya's plagiarism is really in the finest tradition of hip-hop sampling:

Kaavya Viswanathan—Master Sampler?

he amount of regional and national press over what insiders are calling “Opalgate” is bordering on the absurd. Kaavya Viswanathan ’08, author of “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,” borrowed liberally from another author’s work. So what? In the hip-hop world, this goes down all the time. The main question for all the chick-lit fans, and possibly the courts, is whether Viswanathan is a “biter,” or just standing on the shoulders of giants (if it’s fair to put author Megan McCafferty in the company of Hemingway and Proust).

Word on the street is that Kaavya is somewhat of a hip-hop aficionado, so it’s possible she was merely adding her name to a long list of “samplers” in rap history. From its roots in Jamaican reggae and dub, hip-hop has always relied on the creative reuse of prerecorded material. Starting from simple looped beats of disco and funk tracks (think “Rapper’s Delight” and their shameless use of Chic’s “Good Times”), sampling quickly evolved into montage masterworks by artists like EPMD, the Beastie Boys, and De La Soul...

...[But the distinction] between creative reuse in a recognizably new composition, and tired theft, was eventually erased by the courts. The real “zero hour” of sampling occurred in the notorious “three notes” case of 2005, Bridgeport Music Inc. v. Dimension Films, in which the 6th Circuit Court ruled that the use of even three notes of a song constituted illegal sampling. Even the RIAA was opposed to this ruling, and these guys eat aborted fetuses for breakfast.

Looking at it from this perspective, almost every creative work could be found “derivative” by clever lawyers. Didn’t I hear that Franz Ferdinand chord progression somewhere before? I certainly did, and not just because I’m a disillusioned Gang of Four fan. By definition, culture is collaborative. Some of the richest masterpieces of the Western literary canon are thoroughly infused with Biblical and mythological language. If Homer had better legal representation, would James Joyce’s Ulysses have ever been published? Intertextuality isn’t just a word that literature majors throw around at their swank cocktail parties—it’s a fundamental attribute of creative expression.

Even in an age when copyright terms have been extended to absurd lengths in order to keep Mickey Mouse locked up and proprietary, there is a viable movement of people who question the balkanization of artistic expression. Lawrence Lessig and his “Free Culture” peers (including Cory Doctorow, interviewed in the Crimson earlier this year) started Creative Commons, a “some rights reserved” licensing scheme in which artists, not blood-sucking lawyers, can specify the level of control they want over their work.

Last Thursday, the Harvard Free Culture Society celebrated the opening of “Sharing is Daring,” Boston’s first Creative Commons art show. The work wasn’t all derivative itself, but all of it is covered by non-restrictive licenses, allowing for reuse in future works by other artists. Maybe Viswanathan should look into this license for her next novel, to keep future generations of literary borrowers from running into the legal and publicity problems she now faces. Or just pull a Diddy and give Ms. McCafferty a fat stack of Benjamins.

He is wrong, of course, cuz keeping your samples recognizable as found sounds is basically the foundation of the aesthetic. We may not want you to know exactly where they came from, but you're supposed to know they came from somewhere. Also the Grey Album wasn't exactly a mashup, and Rapper's Delight had no sampling on it. But nice try, and interesting take on the general ethics of borrowing.

Posted by jsmooth995 at May 7, 2006 6:12 PM

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