Hip-hop apologetics is mad 1990-ish to me. And yet, even in 2008, we find that conventional criticisms surrounding sampling law still largely consign hip hop's aural artists to lesser status because their palettes employ repurposed sound. But if someone like DJ Premier isn't an artiste, neither was Romare Bearden. This viewpoint, however, remains rarely articulated.
On Wednesday, Feb. 20, a lucky few will be able to hear such articulations from true hip-hop artists, gleaning firsthand insights into the warp and woof of hip hop's musical tapestry via Duke Performances' Soul Power program. In a program entitled "Hip-Hop Sampling Soul," The Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson will take part in a panel discussion with Triangle hometown hero and fellow producer, 9th Wonder. The panel will be moderated by Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal, himself a highly acclaimed writer and thinker. The event is sold-out, but a subsequent DJ performance at 9 p.m. in the Great Hall in the Nasher Museum of Art is free and open to the public.
I spoke with ?uestlove in advance of his appearance at Duke on a wide range of topics, from politics to the record industry's plight. Here are, if you will, some samples. (Read the full interview.)
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Let's talk a bit about the economics of the music business.
?UESTLOVE: I never saw the old system of selling records as a way to provide any type of survival or career sustenance. And I see it now as simply a way to promote the group. If there's a way to let 3 million people know that a Roots album is coming out on April 29th without going through all of this, I'm all for it. But for now, this is what we have to work with; this system that has robbed, stolen from and used up our artists for the last 100 years.
It's not significantly different from back in the day when folks would go drive a car or truck through the deep South, find some old black musician playing guitar on their porch, pay them a pittance to record the music, then go release it and profit.
One of my favorite prison songs... it's by Alan—what'shisname? [He stops talking, frustrated.] Augh! Why don't I remember this? You'll have to excuse me, man. [He Googles it.] Lomax! Alan Lomax! Yeah, he built his whole empire, going around down South and sliding a few dollars to prison guards to let him record chain gangs. But the music was amazing. They're on iTunes right now. The compilation is called The Land Where Blues Began. There's a song called "Early in the Morning." Dude who actually wrote it was listed as "Prisoner No. 22."
If anything, that song is a precursor to funk music, especially because of the particular way that they had shovels or something—don't know if they were digging graves or ditches or whatever—but they were banging with a heavy emphasis on the two and the four. The beat was kind of an early version of "We Will Rock You." You could easily slide a breakbeat behind that and rock it today, but it was made in the '30s. I doubt that any of the families of the men on those recordings are getting any kind of royalties from this.
So if I find that I'm illegally downloading it off general principle...
[Laughs.] I don't have much emotionally invested in this industry. In fact, I've made my living and my mark from being mostly outside of it, so I'm not particularly saddened now that the empire is crumbling. Well, at least not philosophically. But it does affect us, slightly, and I'll tell you how. You know that The Roots have never really lived off of record sales. Now that [sales continue to drop], other acts are starting to tour more, kind of infringing on this live [hip-hop] show playing field that we've more or less had to ourselves for 16 years. ...
You have to stay hustling. That's why you see me [driving] in a Scion. The thing I want people to know—to get the most out of my interactions with them, and why I'm so open about my business—is that you don't need some kind of hyperbolic, over-inflated existence to survive in hip hop. I mean, a lot of it's a front. And then you have some people who really have this existence, and if it deflates even slightly, they can't deal with it. ...
It's very possible if you're wise with your money to do well. I think it's pretty easy for even an underground emcee to make a living of around $200,000 to 300,000 a year. Even an unsigned rapper, if he's really hustling, can pull down maybe $1,500 a week. If a manager of an establishment can make and survive off of that kind of money, so can you. But if you're making $1,500 per week and you want a Bentley coupe, then that's different. You've got a problem. It says a lot about our perspective when we can view a doctor as a success pulling down around $300,000, but we see the rapper making the same money as a failure. That's why I reveal all of the details of my life on my site (www.okayplayer.com), in interviews, etc. That's what I see as realness. Like with me getting stopped by the cops last week.
While out on the West Coast last week, ?uestlove became so energized by the possibilities of Barack Obama's presidency that he volunteered with the campaign. Rather than doing "celebrity work," he spent two days going door to door through some of the roughest parts of Los Angeles, encouraging folks to vote in the primaries. He's says he's excited, for one, by the Senator's pledge to prohibit racial profiling and encourage state and local law enforcement to do the same. But going door-to-door in L.A. neighborhoods, he says he was often met with the same disaffection and cynicism toward elections that he used to exhibit.
Ironically, a day after his work on the campaign was done, ?uestlove was profiled by LAPD. He was pulled over on his way home from seeing a movie with a lady friend. He detailed the experience on his Web site and MySpace blog, hoping to convey the depth of demoralization he felt, and use his experience as a lesson for those on the fence about voting.