Final Project Sneak Peak

Pecha kucha means “chatter” in Japanese.  It’s also the style of this 20×20 slide presentation.  Listen to me chatter about my classroom StoryCorps curriculum and let me know what you think!

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Hip-Hop and Fair Use

I’d love to tell you all that I listen to books on tape or classical music in my car.  I would. Instead, it’s Cardi B. And before that came Lauren Hill, Daddy Yankee and Freak Nasty. (Okay, that last one was before I could drive, but I do remember hearing it on the school bus.)  I mention these three artists who came before Cardi B specifically because she has sampled all three. In fact, according to whosampled.com, a crowd-sourced sampling database, Cardi B is affiliated with 23 samples and 9 remixes.  It’s causing quite a stir, but remixing is older than recorded music itself.

Before Cardi B, Public Enemy used soundbites from Malcolm X and created a loop from a James Brown sample in their hit, Can’t Truss It (1991) (Nielson, 2013).  This remix illustrates the political value of copying to “signal an alliance with others who share our beliefs” (Hobbs, 2010, p. 42).  However, when sampling is less transformative and more exploitive, the industry fights back.

In 2013 sampling was becoming less popular in hip-hop music according to Erik Nielson’s article in the Atlantic.  Nielson thanks the 1991 U.S. District Court case Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc., which, “ended the days of free-for-all sampling by requiring artists to clear all samples in advance to avoid getting sued”.  

Nielson continues, “Nowadays, samples often speak less to hip-hop history than they do to present-day earnings—they have become so expensive to clear that for someone like Kanye West, they become markers of wealth to flaunt alongside his diamonds and Maybachs.”

As I read this, I wondered: How could interpretations of fair use apply to contemporary artists who wish to honor the work of others and take action as Public Enemy and earlier hip-hop artists did?  The answer is in the power of transformation.

To be honest, copyright has never been clear to me as a teacher or artist, but the idea of copyright law has never intimidated me either.  All this time I thought that I was getting away with something because I wasn’t famous. No one cared. Elvis’s record executives weren’t coming to my shows.  I’m no Cardi B.

I now understand that as an artist, I can claim fair use of copyrighted material.  As Hobbs (2010) does in her text, Copyright Clarity, I turn to Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley.  Hobbs writes of this case, “Essentially, the judge asks: Does the new work merely supersede the objects of the original creation, or instead does it add something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message?” (Hobbs, 2010, p. 46).  Dorling Kindersley was able to demonstrate the former in his work. Because of the transformative nature of DK’s publication, Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip, exorbitant licensing fees for the use of poster art did not apply.  This means that fair use not only applies to educators, but a wide-range of creative types.

Similarly in the research of Aufderheide (2012), documentary film markers came to realize, “new work that uses existing work is also creative and should be valued” and “the law did not merely permit but encourage the re-use of copyrighted work for the creation of new work” (p. 11).

I now would like to plead with my favorite hip-hop artists to ask themselves the questions asked of Dorling Kindersley.  I challenge contemporary artists to seek not only relief but inspiration from the guidance of fair use.

Sure, everything is a remix, but there is still so much creativity to be tapped in the purpose of our remixed creations.