PRINT May 1983


GOD MADE THE FIRST COPY. Man is one of his copies. It is written: God made man in his image and likeness. Creation was copying. But today copying and creation are usually seen as opposites. These words have no meaning on their own. An original implies a copy. a copy implies an original. An original is supposed to be unique. A copy is supposed to be duplication of the original. But when an original is copied it is no longer unique. So coping really depends on a temporal order. The original exists before the copy. Time began with the first copy.

Most of the creation in nature is copying. The reproduction of plants, animals, and even minerals is a copying process; in nature there are no originals. The growth of nature is the copying of copies. But such copies are not identical. They are separate entities and each entity is different, to a greater or lesser degree, from every other entity in the same line of copies. The more complex the entity is, as a rule, the more variations can exist between copy and original, copy and copy.

For God, the original, creation was copying. For man, the copy, creation is originating. Copying has a bad ring to it when it comes to creativity. But someone copying is seen as good for the creative human, too––as in copying nature or in selling a million copies.

There are basically three sorts of copying involved in the arts: mimesis, art copying nature; imitations, art copying other art; and duplication, the identical copying of art. Each form of copying has its good side and its bad side, and questions of good copying versus bad copying can be extremely important and extremely complex. Man was not original in this sin, however, Satan having already made the same mistake. His sin was pride; he wanted to be original, he wanted to be creative.

This apple of creativity is a real can of worms. It has infested every art, every creative endeavor. To get a handle on these terrible issues, music is a good place to begin. It’s the most abstract art, where the lines between original and copy are the most subtle, the most easily transgressed and the most profitable issues of litigation. And since music is the art of the angels it may be the original source of the problems of the copy.


The great blues musician Robert Pete Williams, who created his own unique guitar styles, was questioned about the fact that his style had at times changed considerably. He answered:

The sound of the atmosphere the weather changed my style. But I could hear, since me being an air-music. Well, the atmosphere, when the wind blowing carries music along. I don’t know if it affect you or not, but it’s a sounding there in the air you see? And I don’t know where it comes from––it could come from the airplanes or the moaning of automobiles, but anyhow it leaves an air current in the air, you see. That gets in the wind, makes a sounding, you know? And that sounding works up to be a blues.

A highlight of mimetic music is the opening musical number of Busby Berkeley’s The Gold Diggers of 1935. The film is set at a ritzy summer hotel and it opens with a series of vignettes showing the staff busily performing last minute duties prior to the arrival of the guests, accompanied by appropriately upbeat music. Not only is the tempo busy, but the melody is of the catchy sort that sticks in people’s heads, real “Whistle While You Work” stuff. So we see the staff in series, inspired, presumably, by this tune that is running through their heads in sync, merrily performing their duties to the beat. In each vignette a different set of workers performs a particular task and the sound of each job becomes a percussion solo in the musical accompaniment. Pans are clanked in time and tune by the cooks, black porters dance behind their push brooms which swish with syncopation, and maids and housemen pull covers from easy chairs and sofas with a rhythmic volley of snaps like a snare drum roll.

Music, whether actually audible in the worker’s environment or silently performed in the workers brains can make physical work enjoyable or at least less can be especially soothing to workers engaged in boring, repetitive jobs. Music is often based on repetitions as simple and immutable as those of the assembly line, enriching this repetition with subrhythms, syncopation, and melody, elements that workers can apply to the beat of their task. It can improve the performance of such work by giving the task a steady rhythm.

The songs of America’s black slaves and the immigrant laborers who built the railroads and canals are one of the most Important sources of modern American music. Many of these ancient songs and chants have survived intact, others have been assimilated into later works, and new work songs have been created in this tradition in every period of American history. “John Henry” is still well known, “Sixteen Tons” was a big hit in the ’50s and “Working in a Coal Mine” was a big hit in the’60s; both featured a pick-and-shovel sort of rhythm. The latter song was revived recently by Devo, the main change made being the rhythm which Devo made appropriately mechanical.

Since hard labor is comparatively rare today, a new kind of work song has developed. The recent hit “9 to 5” is a work song for office workers, and much of today’s disco could be considered in the work song tradition. A particularly delightful modern example is “Car Wash” (1976), written by Norman Whitfield and performed for the movie of the same name by Rose Royce. Car wash workers are notoriously rhythmic, and their employers often permit them to blast the soundtrack of their choice because it obviously helps them maintain a high energy level, making work part play.

A factory worker might be subjected to the noise of a drop-forge for eight hours a day, five days a week, or about 36% of his or her conscious life. That noise is deafening loud, its pitch is penetrating, and it is repeated with an inexorably monotonous tempo. A musician might hear this same drop-forge and write a song around it. Taking the exact tempo of the drop-forge for the beat, he might like the powerful clang but change its tuning slightly for a more pleasant effect. Within the intervals of that terribly simple beat sub-beats might be added, syncopated, perhaps to break the monotony and add life. On top of this a very pleasant melody may be added.

When this composition is first heard by the drop-forge worker, relaxing with a Bud after another hellish day, he might feel an unpleasant sensation, not realizing its source as the drop-forge tempo. But hearing the pretty melody he begins to calm down, and after a week of hearing the song over and over on the bar juke box he really likes it. It makes him relax over beers after work, but also he feels a little better at work lately and finds himself singing that song in his head, forgetting the din of the drop-forge.

Today’s pop music, particularly heavy-metal rock, functions in a similar manner, working as a serum against industrial-strength noise. It’s not coincidence that “heavy” music is especially popular in centers of heavy industry and that its audience is primarily the youth of the industrial working class. The intense volume, the distortion, and the exaggeration of this music are quite irritating to listeners from other areas and classes, but to those whose environment is permeated with noise of similar degrees of volume, distortion, and exaggeration, this music may well serve as immunization.

Acid rock was probably a similar means of adjustment, which, by incorporating electronic distortion, feedback, and strange tonal modes in a musical context with organized structures and harmonies, provided its listeners with means to digest or reckon with the strange and powerful noises of the new electronic environment that they had lived with from birth. Previous generations were confronted with this new spectrum of sound as adults, with their consciousnesses already formed.

We have learned that atomic radiation is harmful; we have learned that radiations assumed safe are harmful, such as those of proximate radar devices, television transmitters, and high-voltage electric lines. It may be that that the radio and television signals permeating our atmosphere have some subtle damaging properties. It may be that the vibrations of artificial lights are harmful. It is probable that certain elements of our sonic environment are damaging; it has been established recently that human tolerance for noise is less than was assumed and that excessive noise can produce effects other than hearing loss. Perhaps some new music, such as the hyper electronic blues of Jimi Hendrix, is an attempt at mimetic attunement to the new vibratory environment.

The earliest musicians made sounds like the sound of nature. This mimetic music was a form of sympathetic magic, practiced for two vital reasons. First, by making sounds like the sounds of natural forces, they hoped to communicate with those forces in their own language. By making music sounding like rain they hoped to communicate with the spirit of rain, sometimes to petition, sometimes to command, depending on their theological view of the balance of power. Second, by making sounds like the sounds of natural forces, they hoped to acquire the power of those elemental forces for their own dealings with other people. Music like thunder should make people fearful, music like a gushing brook should attract them. Such music might have begun as attempts at pure imitation, as sound effects more than music. Actual music resulted from attempts to impose a logic on these sounds, or to derive a logic from them.

These same motives and strategies are at work in modern mimetic music, but perhaps with much less consciousness of them on the part of the practitioners. Heavy-metal bands, for instance, must be aware of the fact that their music is mimetic of power technology, invoking it to harness it,to assert control over it rather than be controlled by it. But very few of them are aware of their the rapeutic role as mimetic magictaa, The ultimate statement of the techno-witch doctor is Iggy Pop’s heavy, power-chord classic “Search and Destroy”:

Look out now honey ’cause I’m usin’ technology
There ain’t no time to make no apology
I am the world’s forgotten boy
The one who searches, searches to destroy . . .

Iggy Pop is one of the few sympathetic magicians of technology who actually knows that’s what he is doing. His songs articulate the dilemmas and the ramifications of the vast escalation in sensory input. Most of the makers of heavy music do not articulate the true nature of their work, because they don’t know what it is. They may know that if they strike an chord at sufficient volume their audience will stand up. But they probably feel that this power of control is exercised with the intention of manipulating their audience into having fun, perhaps by “letting loose.” I doubt that many heavy-metal players consider their act a means of evolutionary adaptation to a hostile sensory environment.

These black leather techno-shamans, combining sophisticated technology with a complex of atavistic imagery for a kind of futurist barbarian synthesis, are quite different from their ancient equivalents in their intentions. Early mimetic musicians meant to work magic, with very specific goals, generally goals shared with their tribal audience. Modern rockers may have a somewhat mystical admiration for their success, they may feel that something special enables them to turn on throngs and elicit massive admiration, but I don’t believe that they see their work as actual magic or as a part of a grander design or something much bigger than their group image. In that, I think, they vastly underrate their performances.

The ancient musician, ritually imitating the sounds associated with an elemental deity, believed in the possibility if not the actual achievement of communication with that deity, the source of the sounds they imitated. No doubt there are modern musicians who indulge in a vague mysticism regarding nature, but these musicians—most of them probably mellowed hippies—are vaguely pantheist at most, perhaps talking to their plants now and then but with very little interest in the nonhuman forms of sentence and intelligence, except for trendy dolphins. Most new mimetic music deals with artificial elements in the environment. Those few musicians consciously generating techno-mimetic music do not believe that they are doing so as a means of communication with the source of the sounds they imitate. Musicians don’t put that old railroad rhythm into a number to commune with the great spirit of locomotives. Conscious mimesis today is directed entirely toward the human listener.

This would suggest that one of the primary roles of mimesis has been abandoned. Has it been abandoned, or is it possible that some heavy rockers blast out distorted power chords to influence the Northeast power grid, perhaps attempting to cause a blackout? Does anyone believe that the network, the reactors, or the computers are sentient intelligences? Can a rock ’n’ roll musician believe a machine has intelligence, something he may not believe his audience possesses? Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) correctly suggested that music’s mimetic universality would make it a natural point of departure for communication between alien intelligences, although one might very well question the selections chosen to kick off interstellar dialogue. A little Bach might have made a better first impression.


Obviously musicians are more intimate with electricity than other artists. By playing an electric guitar that transforms their slightest physical movements into thunderous sound propelled by thousands of watts of power, by hearing their voices magnified so that they can drown out the screams of a multitude, by learning to move their guitars in relation to amps, producing titanic waves of feedback that fluctuate with the slightest movement, modern pop musicians achieve identification with electrical power and intimacy with electronic devices. Electric power is like the spark of life. They want to “turn you on,” and “turn on your love light.”

Having grown up on Robby the Robot and the image of the personified machine, having seen endless movies androids and having felt that juice surge from their fingertips, when they’re on the road and watching Six Million Dollar Man in their hotel rooms they must be moved more than you and I would be. They must feel different.

Rock musician are close to mythology; in addition to their “real me” they have semifictional doubles that are bigger than life. Sometimes this mythic double is so captivating its original falls under its spell too, and if the double is too strong or the original too weak, the musician may be permanently possessed by his myth. But the real mythology of the rock ’n’ roll audience and its ritual performers is science fiction. The philosophy of rock ’n’ rollers is learned from Star Wars, Star Trek, E.T. and other fictions whose popularity gives them myth status.

A powerful part of this mythos is the problem of man as a creator, as his creations begin to rival those of God, man creating intelligence in his own image––the robot the supercomputer. Early supercomputer brains and robots depicted them as threats to their creators, techno-Frankensteins. Perhaps their threatening characters resulted from guilt––from fear about infringing upon Gods’ creative turf. But like extraterrestrials,who started out as hostile invaders and wound up as helpers or saviors, the robot and the supercomputer have transition from heavy to hero. Because of their intimacy with electricity and a sophisticated techno-symbiotic relationship with complex electronic tools, from synthesizers to the 24-track recording studio, musicians were among the first artist to have a positive regard for electronic brains and their potential for “living” intelligence. Today the radio is filled with strange voices, half human and half machine––people singing through as a portrayal of dehumanization, man becoming machinelike but others see this as a humanization of technology the machine gaining a soul.


An original musical work means broadly one that is not a copy of another. The notion of originally in music is obviously different from its counterpart in fine art because the object fetish does’t apply. In question of originality two main sets of factors are involved: element of the work that are shared by or held in common with works, and element of the work that are unique to the work. Because music is ephemeral it requires a comparatively great number of preliminary assumptions. It is separated from noise by assumed conventions. General conventions define its genres or styles. Specific conventional aspects of musical works include scales, tempo, rhythms, keys, tones, structural conventions, harmonic conventions, lyrical conventions, and certain melodic conventions. The original aspects of a work are comparatively few, usually consisting of the melody line and lyrics, and the manipulation of conventions.

Where there is no cult of originality the conventions used by artist are much stronger. African tribal musicians do not hesitate to copy extant music; they pride themselves on their perfect renditions of traditional pieces because they recognize the power and perfection of those pieces. To change a piece of music for the sake of change would be vain; it would be a dilution resulting in a loss of strength. Indeed it would seem that in cultures without the cult of originality artists are more integrated with society and their powers within their societies extend beyond those of their Western counterparts.

The Western concept of original music is based on the concept of private property. In certain societies the idea that a sequence of tones could be the exclusive property of an individual is ludicrous, terrible, or sacrilegious. Music may be governed by laws or traditions,but a work invariably belongs to the entire society, or, to no man––to the gods. Often a specific musical work is repeated because it is considered perfect. But in societies where music can be owned by individuals it is often changed for the sake of change. A slight alteration might make a piece original according to copyright regulations, but that seemingly insignificant change may weaken the music. Not only may the altered reproduction be inferior, it may also subvert the original because it vies for its usage in the same context and competes for space in the subvocal melody network of the mass mind.


If a work is unoriginal the legal sense it is a disaster. Artistically unoriginal music may not win raves and earn money, but legally unoriginal music can cause scandal and lose money. In the esthetic realm originality is hard to specify: you know it when you hear it. It is widely assumed that legal originality is determined by much more specific standards. In fact, legal originality is considerably more ephemeral and difficult to ascertain than its critical equivalent.

Like the other arts, music is protected by copyright. Copyright supposedly protects original works of authorship, but the laws of copyright in the United States have left the term “original works of authorship,” and therefore originality, undefined. The courts have effectively defined legal originality; it differs from the esthetic use of the term in that it is not synonymous with novelty. “Originality means only that the work owes its origin to the author, i.e., is independently created, and not copied from other works. Therefore a work is original and may command copyright protection even if it is completely identical with a prior work, provided it was not copied from such prior work but is rather a product of the independent efforts of its author.”2

It is entirely possible for two composers to create very similar, even identical works, each without knowing of the other’s work, and in such a case both would be legally entitled to copyright them. Similarity or identically is required in order to claim copyright infringement. But similarities, however remarkable, or even identically are not proof of infringement. The critical element of proof in such cases is usually a matter of “access,” that the alleged copier heard or was likely to have heard the alleged original.

In many cases of copyright infringement, especially in music the copiers actually believe that they originated the material in question; their copying was subconscious. Such upright composers as Jerome Kern and George Harrison have been found guilty of subconscious plagiarism. In Harrison’s case it was not difficult for the plaint, Bright Music, to establish access. “He’s So Fine” was a big hit that would have been hard for someone of Harrison’s age group to have missed. Jorge Ben sued Rod Stewart over Stewart’s big hit “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” claiming it was linked to his own song “Taj Mahal.” Access was argued by pointing out that Stewart had spent considerable time in Brazil where Ben and the song are very popular. In a settlement out of court, Ben received a payment.

Proof of access becomes more difficult when the work allegedly copied has not been released on recordings or sheet music. Major publishing houses and record companies receive an enormous number of unsolicited demo tapes from writers hoping to sell songs and performers hoping to get a recording contract. It’s not uncommon for the sender of such a tape to hear months later a song resembling his own but uncredited to him that has been published or recorded by a company to which he sent a demo. There have been numerous cases of songs being ripped off this way; there have been many more cases in which the resemblance is imagined or coincidental. But the reception of such a tape can be construed as access, as it was in the recent, widely publicized case brought against the Bee Gees and won by an amateur song writer. (At press, the verdict was being appealed.) As a result of such cases the days of the unsolicited tape are virtually over, the chances of a suit based on coincidence being considerably greater than the chances of finding an unsolicited masterpiece.

The question of how similar a new work can to be another work of obvious accessibility without infringing on copyright is a question that can only be answers by a judge or jury in each particular is a common misconception that there is a formula for making such a judgement that certain number of noted in sequences or a certain number of bars constitute a limit on what may be repeated.

Where excessive similarity is alleged in cases of obvious access the judge or jury determines originally the same way a music critic does––though perhaps more leniently. Hmm. Perhaps this might be developed into a very useful employment for some professionals who are often considered entirely useless.


You bought you a six string Gibson
You bought you a great big amp
You to sing like Muddy Waters
And play like Lightnin’ Sam
But since I blowed my harp
You feelin’ mean and confused
They got you chained to your headphones
You’re just a white boy lost in the blues.

It was strange to see some white city kid who looked like a 19th century buffalo hunter or an 11th century serf playing the music of a 60 year old rural southern black man, but it was something you got used to it in the late 1960s. The hippies didn’t have much culture of their own, so they borrowed it. Hailed as as a musical renaissance, an outpouring of original music, the rock ’n’ roll boom was actually a sort of culture hijacking on a mass scale.

The rock bands considered more original tended to be those who stole or borrowed from, i.e. were “influenced” by the more obscure blues or R&B sources. They seemed original because their sources were not just obscure but powerless. Their musical appropriations were also given a sort of instant originality by the technology they possessed. Take a blues song written in a shack in Alabama in 1953 on a homemade guitar and play it on a $2,000 double-neck, triple-pickup solid body guitar through a phase shifter a flanger and a wah wah pedal into a stack of Marshall amps and say “Like, uh, here’s little tune I wrote in the sauna of my Lear jet. It’s called ‘Hot, High and Scared to Die’ and I’d like to dedicate it to Blind Wille Johnson.” Rip-off, act of love, or both?

Such charges are valid; the defenses are valid. Some of the most important charges have not been made or answered. Take the case of Chuck Berry. Offhand I can think of 21 Chuck Berry songs that have been recorded by very famous, very rich bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Kinks. Most of these remakes were hits. I don’t know anything about Chuck Berry’s publishing setup, but as author he must own at least 50 percent of these songs and so he must have made quite a bit of money from their licensing. But did Berry get what he deserved? The case of Bo Diddley is more striking. Few of his songs have been covered, but how many songs written by other artists have what every rock musician known as “the Bo Diddley beat,” or a Bo Diddley sound to them? And these are just two hundreds of relatively poor artists who more of less created rock ’n’ roll, whose innovations have been used by a legion of hairy white millionaires.

Is this a problem of copyright laws? Is this a problem of the originator’s lawyer making less money than the copier’s lawyer’s clerk’s clerk? Or is it a problem of black and white? I think it is black and white. But not just black skin–white skin, but black and white as in no gray.

Under the present system something is either an original or a copy. Heavy influences don’t count. Although the copyright laws do no set particular standards, some have been established by the courts. These, too, are not specific––but the way the system works, certain musical elements are given much more weight than others in making determinations of originality. Melody is considered the basic arena of originality. This reflects the general state of music: melody is the most variable element and the area of most innovations and disputes. But there are other essential areas in which highly original developments can be made, and in these originality might be considerably more difficult to spot, particularly difficult perhaps for a legal mind, but no less potent.

The hottest beat these days is a very powerful drum sound that originated very in the African kingdom of Burundi. It is probably very ancient and as they say in the public domain. This beat has been picked up by several bands, notably Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow and used in several big hits. It is no doubt what made these songs so popular; but it is undoubtedly something that couldn’t be covered by copyright under the present system. This drumming was first recorded years ago by some French people; a French pianist added an entirely inappropriate though barely noticeable piano track to it and released it as a record. This track was reissued recently, with another overdub version by a modern pop musician, also quite minimal in its additions, on the other side of the record. Neither of the overdubs makes any difference. They are like a mosquito buzzing next to Pavarotti. I really like this record, and one day I inspected the label and found that under the title, as usual, there was a writer credit-some French name. Here is true colossal nerve.

This is not to say that a 4/4 beat should be copyrightable. If copyright were extended too far in its interpretations it would be a disaster for music- But if copyright decisions were not all black and white, yes and no, original and copy, true innovators might profit more and a more communal, perhaps more magical music might result. Perhaps a 0 to 10 system would be ideal, 0 representing total originality (that is, a work consisting entirely of elements that are original and elements in the public domain), and 10 representing a total rip-off. A song found to borrow a copyrighted disco bass line might get a 2 decision, with a 20 percent publishing royalty share awarded to the author of the line. If the song had a bass line very similar to a prominent bass line but outside current copyright coverage (in the way that the bassline of Queen’s hit “Another One Bites the Dust” is in my opinion closely related to that of Chic’s “Good Times”) it might get a 1 share. Using an identical musical track with different lyrics might rate somewhere between a 5 and an 8.

If the author of a copyrighted part used in someone else’s otherwise original composition asserted a claim for his share and won, the borrower would have to pay the cost of the claim to the author and its processing cost to the copyright authority. Those whose authorship claims were not upheld would also pay. If such partial infringements were declared and duly credited by the copier on publication of the partial copy and paid out of subsequent earnings then they would not be considered infringements but licensed partial usages.


Duplication is the reproduction of a work presented as such. There are two sets of judgment of good or bad involved here. On the technical side there is the good copy and the bad copy, which basically comes down to hi-fi and low-fi. High fidelity means a copy that closely resembles the original according to prevailing sensibility, the direct result of the state of technology. Yesterday’s hi-fi is today’s junk.

Then there are the legal angles of duplication. A good copy is a copy made through the proper channels. A bad copy is a copy made outside the proper channels. These fall into two basic categories: the bootleg and the pirate copy. Bootleg copies are original unauthorized recordings. There are many bootleg records on the market, and some have achieved considerable popularity and sales. They may consist of unauthorized recordings of a live concert, the most common variety, or they may be studio recordings made under authorized conditions but copied without proper sanctions and distributed on the black market. (A famous example of the latter were Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes,” which became so popular they were eventually released as a legitimate album.) Pirate records are counterfeits. They usually involve rather high-level white collar crime. The counterfeit is a more or less exact duplicate of a record in legitimate commercial release, identical down to the last detail of the cover and packaging. Several major piracy busts have occurred in recent years, the most famous implicating the Sam Goody record store chain. Record industry research has suggested that one of every ten records sold, and one of every five tapes sold, is a pirate recording.


The “cover” record is a venerable music biz institution. “Covering” a record means remaking it with a different artist. Before the rock ’n’ roll era song writers and performers were two distinct groups with a fairly small degree of overlap. It was common for songs to be recorded by several bands or singers, although most songs usually came to be identified with one performer. In the early days of rock a cover was a fast and furious thing. Usually it involved an unknown group and a superstar. The unknown group, often a black group, would cut a hot song; before it could hit the radio, much less the charts, a sharp manager or record company exec would rush a name singer or band into the studio and record the same song with very little interpretation involved.

Today established artists still do pick up songs from lesser-known artists, but because of the rise of the independent record labels, the phenomenon of instant stardom, and the breakdown of radio apartheid there’s no excuse for a band with talent remaining undiscovered for more than a few weeks. If a big name makes a hit with a lesser name’s song these days, it usually means that the big name performs it better. The writer doesn’t care; royalties are very soothing.

Songs that have already been hits are often recorded again. It’s a general principle that if you’re going to re-do a song you’ve got to interpret it––jazz it up. But there is a significant new trend in this area––remakes that equal or surpass the original hits in popularity with an identical arrangement. Quite a few recent hits have been remakes of ’50s and ’60s hits that differ from the originals mainly in the super hi fi sound quality today’s listeners are addicted to. When Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released by the Beatles in 1967 it was the ultimate in sonic manipulation. The album still sounds good, but it’s no longer exceptional. Sergeant Pepper’s loss of revolutionary impact is due to the fact that it was so widely imitated, and to changes in audio technology. The once mind-blowing collages of Sergeant Pepper were recorded on an 8-track recorder, then the state of the art. Today virtually every commercial release is recorded on a 24-track recorder. Some are made with two 24-tracks in tandem. This allows a vastly increased degree of experimentation. Many alternatives may be retained in recording, and these can be shaped and reworked to an enormous extent after actual recording has been completed. Also the actual duplication of sound on each track is considerably superior to duplications of fifteen, ten, or even five years ago. The fine reproduction now expected by the listener results from noise reduction devices, improved mastering techniques, computerized consoles, exotic vinyls, and digital processing of audio signals.


The introduction of broadcasting and mass copying technologies created a hierarchy of speech range and access. Everyone can rant on the corner to those within ear shot, but only those with power or connections to it can rant to a limitless audience. Suddenly there was speech and there was SPEECH. Those who controlled the means of duplication, broadcasting, and distribution controlled the flow of ideas.

A song, performed by a five-person group and lasting six minutes, may, mixed to perfection, take 20 to 30 hours to record Including the time of a producer and engineer, you could say that copying that six minutes requires 140 to 210 man-hours of work. If that song sells a million copies, and each is played a hundred times at an average of four listeners per time, it will eventually occupy about 5,000 man-years of listening time, not counting airplay. Every time the song is played it escalates. Does this massive expansion of the experience have any side effects, any rigidifying influence, any fallout?

Perhaps rap music, especially the DJs’ manipulation of records, changing these frozen moments and reinvesting them with a spontaneous element, is an exorcism of the demons of repetition and the dark side of massive copying. The reuse of recorded music is defInitely an act of balancing powers. Rap DJs’ manipulations of records give the records’ originators some creative feedback, reviving the dialogue aspect of music. Rap reuse also corrects the balance of power in favor of the audience. Records usually demand a sort of passivity from their audience. DJ manipulation reverts the record to a changeable role.

Rap music, originating outside the music establishment, is a true modern folk art. A grassroots movement, it was created by the people who make up its audience––not by musicians from the urban black community, but by members of the audience. Some of the rap innovators might have become musicians in the conventional sense if they could have afforded it, while others might have exploited other skills.

Hip hop or rap is made by crews consisting of a DJ and one or more MCs. The DJ, using two or more turntables, creates new music by recycling records. DJs usually take the basic groove from one record, extending it to any length by synching a copy of the same record on another turntable and switching the mixer to the second source. Then the DJ may add parts from over records, such as horn lines, a guitar riff, a vocal refrain, or even sound effects or a laugh track.

The MCs perform vocals to this funky collage. In the beginning, raps were usually solos of rhythmic, rhymed speech; when an act had more than one MC they usually took turns. Now groups of MCs often alternate very quickly, each taking a single word in turn, adding up a sentence. Sometimes they will even break down a word into a round of syllables. creating a melodic effect by the varied pitches of their voices.

Like new wave music, rap music grew up outside the music-business establishment, entering the main stream only after it had proved its popularity and profitability on its own labels. But the rise of rap was more remarkable than that of new wave because it exceeded its expectations. Originally intended to entertain neighborhood gatherings, it has reached an international audience. Few if any of the original rappers or DJs could have expected that it would even be recorded, since it used existing records. Like new wave, rap represented a return to local music.

Music reproduction and broadcasting technologies had virtually wiped out most local music scenes and their individual styles. Musicians became separated from society, acquiring an image of superiority, and their sensibilities were no longer reflective of their community’s.

Rap reduces the mystique of the recording artist as a breed apart, as senders who don’t receive. The subject matter is local, the sensibility identical with that of the community where it is created. Rather than causing its audience to envy or idolize its maker, this music enhances the self-esteem of the audience. Instead of bringing Hollywood values, imagery, and lingo to the neighborhood, it transmits the values, imagery, and lingo of the neighborhood to other localities, even Hollywood.

Rap DJs do more than collaging records, assembling parts to create a new whole. They also manipulate these source records, using them to create new sounds or structures. “Scratching” is spinning a record by hand. It might mean repeating a riff over and over. A skilled DJ can skip a record with precision, returning the stylus to the beginning of a riff on the beat again and again. A riff, a repeated signature melodic line, might be repeated three times on a hit record. A rap DJ might repeat that riff nine times. Since the source is very familiar, this extension can create a powerful tension by playing on the expected end of the riff, and therefore also a strong sense of relief when it does end. “Scratching” can also involve a similar repetition of a single beat or group of beats—by moving the record rhythmically back and forth past one beat the spinner can create his own drum solo. And on such a part, or on an extended instrumental part, the DJ can create a new sound by spinning the record at a speed different from normal, altering pitch.

Scratching has many important consequences. When a familiar part of a popular record is scratched the effect is heightened by playing with the listener’s expectations. The listener might not fully realize it, but the DJ is revealing the subliminal assumptions records depend on and proliferate, making them consciously perceptible. “Scratching” snaps the hypnotic spell of the record. Records, like films, television, and other media, depend on the suspension of disbelief. This begins as a willing suspension but it becomes automatic; habit supercedes will. “Scratching” reveals the habitual nature of listening and reinvolves the will. The listener is reminded that the copy is a copy.

When scratching surprises the listeners by playing with their expectations they are confronted with the specifics of these expectations: they begin to realize that listening involves active assumptions and imaginative participation by the listener. The listener is not only made aware that a record is a copy, but is also made aware of the specific means of copying and its characteristics. Spinning by hand shows the direct relation of tempo and pitch in a copy. This is shown when a record is started at the wrong speed, but in scratching, it is also shown that standard speeds are arbitrary conventions, and that, in fact, there is no real time contained in a record, or any real sounds. A record contains only symbols of sounds, and time symbolized by space. These revelations change the audience’s relation to music and copies of music. Reminders that copies are copies help eradicate the vestiges of magic in recording and puts magic back where it belongs, in the music itself.

Glenn O’Brien writes “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat” in Interview magazine and contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Recorded on Iggy Pop’s Raw Power; written by Iggy Pop, New York: Main Man Ltd., 1973

2. Melville B. Nimmer, “The Law of Copyright,” § 2.01 [A] New York: Matthew Bender & Co., Inc., 1981.

3. Recorded on Sonny Terry’s and Brownie McGhee’s “Sonny & Brownie”; written by Michael Franks, Los Angeles: Night Clerk Music/Outburst Music, 1973.