TRNN journalist and producer Stephen Janis continues his conversation with Jared Ball about the politics and business of the music industry.
JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to I Mix What I Like here at the Real News Network. Again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore, and we’re continuing our conversation with our colleague here, Stephen Janis, the award-winning journalist and author, but talking with him specifically about, as we said in the last segment, the odd nature of his music career. So welcome back, Stephen Janis. STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Thanks for having me. BALL: So another aspect of this that we sort of vibed on and talking about is the politics of the music industry. And we could talk for I think forever about even something you mentioned in the first segment, the payola aspect of it. There’s a lot of gangsterism and history in it. I would encourage, for those who haven’t, they’ve got to read the classic book Hit Men, which is both about the mafia as hit men, but those who create hits. But having your experience as management, you know, one of the arguments that I’ve made over the years is that there is a colonial analogy that can be drawn between the music industry, how it operates, and the relationships to the communities involved. So you have mostly black, in terms of hip-hop and R&B, you have mostly black and poor communities producing all this art. Billions of dollars are made on it internationally. And yet these communities end up with very little as a community. Many of the artists themselves don’t make a lot of money. And beyond the financial part of it, as I’ve tried to argue, is the ability to control what forms of the art become popular. In other words, you can–the industry can manage, as I’ve at least tried to argue, and can determine that a certain sort of politics will be sidelined or marginalized, and another more promoted. – We are organizing to stop racism. You dig it? That’s what we’re going to stop. What’s being done to us. You dig it? Can you dig the white power structure and this racist police force? How they’ve escalated the situation ever area, major metropolis where black people live, all across this country? They’ve doubled, tripled and quadrupled their police force, equipped them with tanks, all kinds–uh-uh. We’ve got to stop it, brother. Let’s get together and unify. BALL: If you’re going to be rhyming about women and money and cars and conspicuous consumption and killing other black people, you’re all good. You start having another kind of politics and the industry can shelve you, either through contract or just not promoting you, or just, you know, or other–. So I’m interested in your perspective on that argument, and if you’ve seen something similar from your experience. JANIS: Right. Well you know, one of the–yes. The industry even in the ’90s was controlled substantially by money payola. You know, all the labels did it. Tens of, hundreds of thousands–. BALL: Pay to play. JANIS: Pay to play. Like, you pay a radio station. You bribe, mostly done with cash. It was a big–. And then there was retail space, which was strictly controlled, and really cordoned off who got any sort of retail–because at that point before the internet, if you didn’t have the space at the end of the endcap in a retail store no one knew your record was out. BALL: With a big poster in the window, or–. JANIS: With a big poster in the window. All those things were machinations of money that were extremely important. The revolutionary tool in that spectrum was the 12” record, which to me epitomized hip-hop because number one, it was a medium that could completely subvert the radio hierarchy. It was amazing, because you could–if you could put out a good 12” and you could get on the mix shows, because the mix shows were a big, big part of sort of transcending and fighting that power. Because DJs would just play what the hell they wanted. Like, I Mix What I Like, well, you should have been a DJ. I mean, if that’s your title. Because that was one way we could break through. Without mix shows, DJs and clubs, and 12”s, I think there’s a lot of hip-hop artists or a lot of hip-hop that never would have gotten out, seen the light of day. BALL: And people also have to remember that radio, including black radio, didn’t want to play a lot of hip-hop. A lot of black radio in particular was saying we want to move away from things that are going to make us look bad. We want–. JANIS: It was a tremendous struggle because like, you’d have a record that was big on the mix show, and you’d be like, why don’t you play it in the regular rotation? Like, you’re only going to be able to play that on the mix show. It’s not really good for our–which would usually be, you know, the sort of saccharine R&B. I’m sorry to call it that, but it was. You know, like–. BALL: And I’m sorry to interrupt again. But you also have to remember that even on MTV, I mean, for a long time there were no black artists. And then finally Michael Jackson, maybe some Prince. But even in those spaces before Yo! MTV Raps, and all that there was very little coverage of black art entirely, but specifically hip-hop. So I mean, yeah. JANIS: And I mean, hip-hop itself was born out of I think partially the fact that, you know, instrumentation, a lot of things were made unavailable in public schools. And then came the art of sampling, which to me was sort of the most revolutionary of all art forms, because it was sort of retaking the music that had been created by the African-American community, and then pretty much corporate had taken over, stolen it away. And said you know, you can’t use it. And then through vinyl people were able to say no, we can re-contextualize this music and use it to create a whole new art form. It’s incredibly revolutionary in the sense–but there was that constant tension where, you know, I think you’re right. They want to control it. The major labels have their priority artists. They want to see MC Hammer, right. He’s perfect. And just watching that whole thing evolve. People might not even remember him. But they put hundreds, I don’t know how much money they put behind him. BALL: A lot of money behind him [inaud.]. JANIS: And then there was like, when the NWA–. BALL: NWA. JANIS: Sorry, I’m like, my journalist–. But I remember, like, the whole controversy. We’d have the records would come in to the distributor where I was working with my label, like, whether or not they’d be able to put them in stores, because there was concern about what they said, police issues and whatever, which seems so interesting now in light of what’s happened historically. So yeah, I mean, the music business in general was constructed around this sort of power at the top that controlled every one of the mechanisms. BALL: I mean, even today, and I would check to update this, but there are three major corporate–three major labels. JANIS: Universal, Warner Bros.–. BALL: Universal, Sony. Well, not Warner Bros. anymore. Universal, Sony, well, Warner Bros., I’m sorry, is the third. But I’m thinking of their parent ownership. And it’s owned by a private equity group. Universal’s run by Vivendi, Sony, that’s by Sony Corporate. JANIS: That’s true. And yeah, and you’re talking about, like, small now, small parts of larger, larger–yeah. BALL: Much larger enterprises. I mean, Vivendi is only 14 percent–I mean, UMG is only 14 percent of Vivendi’s operation. So I mean, it’s–so part of my argument was that there’s a sort of a political goal as well, to say, like, we don’t want people raising questions that might lead to them questioning our existence as major corporations, as an elite class of people. JANIS: And the legal structure of record contracts that were signed in the ’90s and going forward usually would embody–if you signed to a major label, which we did with the DJ Kool stuff, they take your entire career. You know, they go six or seven or five albums out. Your entire career you can go nowhere else unless you come up with some way to break the contract. BALL: And we would hear about people all the time, even going back to Jimi Hendrix, I remember reading he gave–he had to hurry up and create an album. In fact, the Band of Gypsys live album, which is one of my favorites, was something he just did to get out of a Warners contract, I believe. And then many artists even to this day with the 360 deal, they have–really their whole life is signed over to, through contract. JANIS: And to speak to your point, it’s really important, about control. I had kind of developed this way–and I was a producer, I was involved creatively in kind of shaping the live albums. We created this sort of live music feel that had this interaction with the crowd, these sort of records that were kind of, they were kind of wild, because you’d hear the crowd–I got very good at recording crowd. And then when we went to a major label they just didn’t want to deal with that. You know, they wanted something refined. Something that Kool couldn’t really do. And we ended up in a standstill where another album never came out because the major label–and our guy didn’t trust us. Didn’t trust us to really create. Even though we’d proven that we could do this and sell all the records you’d want to sell, right. But there was this constant meddling and we could never really get our momentum back as a production team, you know, all the different people who I remember. Because he really didn’t trust the way we were doing it. It was more raw, you know what I’m saying? BALL: Absolutely. In classes I make a reference to the beginning of the Simpsons cartoon intro, where Lisa Simpson is shown playing her saxophone. But when she goes off the written note and the page, starts freestyling, she gets put out of the classroom. That there is this uncontrollable nature to jazz freestyle that you could see in hip-hop as well, to the uncontrollable nature of not having it recorded for a 3:20 studio recording. But anyway, just very quickly before we wrap this up. I did want you to share a little bit about the point you’ve made earlier about the brilliance in the art of sampling, the impact of the legal structures imposed on hip-hop that have changed the game, that as of now exist today. JANIS: As we said, like we were talking about before, De La Soul’s masterpiece album Three Feet High and Rising would not be possible today, because once artists started using samples, the courts and the music business who were collaborating to create the most ridiculously punitive sort of structure, where if you had a two-second sample of something, two seconds, which should be covered under fair use, you would have to pay any–there was no, they could charge you whatever they want. You know, it was completely freeform. So as sampling in those albums evolved, the sort of corporate structure and legal structure caught up to really tamp down on it. And so you know, by the time Hard Knock Life came out, for example, almost all the song is owned by the original creators. And that’s not, like, the best example. Because that’s really sample-based. But many albums that were really a texture of samples, and really a brilliant recontextualization, just wouldn’t be possible because the had companies, companies started to emerge that just simply fished–. BALL: Right. There’s a difference between even what was done with the Annie song and what was done in creating Three Feet High and Rising, or one of the Public Enemy beats. JANIS: Yeah. It was different types of sampling. BALL: Or certainly DJ Premier, I think was one of the best at sampling. JANIS: Oh, DJ Premier, absolutely. Where you create sort of a texture of sounds from different snippets. Where it’s not so–where you or I probably couldn’t recognize it. BALL: Because I am in agreement, not to contradict myself, with the ruling against Robin Thicke. JANIS: Oh you are, okay. Well, that–but that’s different. That’s songwriting, that’s not sampling. BALL: But my point, well–. JANIS: But I know what you’re saying, yes. BALL: But stealing the whole aesthetic of the Marvin Gaye song and creating, and claiming a new song, is different than taking elements of different songs and creating something entirely brand new.
JANIS: There is–listen, it’s complicated. There are so many different issues. But I think, you know, in this case it was really not, like, protecting copyright. It was more like trying to destroy an art form, in my opinion. That’s what they did. I mean, it literally made it–. Now, of course hip-hop reinvented itself in great ways. But I think that art of sampling should be taken seriously and is really, when you think about it, political. Right? Because that music had been stolen from the community that created it. And so the community came back and said, well, here, we’ve got something else. And then again, so you can see, like the tensions and why the music is so fundamentally important to the community. Because it really is a way of reclaiming the aesthetic ownership of your work. So I’m a huge fan of samplers. And I think it’s a beautiful art form. BALL: Look, man, we’re going to have to do this again. JANIS: Oh yeah, definitely. BALL: I appreciate you taking the time. JANIS: I appreciate it. BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News Network for this edition of I Mix What I Like. And as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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