The Heart of Whiteness

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Over the course of a long, punchy New Yorker essay, Sasha Frere-Jones asks why popular music—the music he follows, at least—has become so self-segregated. There's some worthy, overdue bashing of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (synthesizer squeaks and echoey feedback… fail to give shape to the formless music), and there's this theory about how anti-sampling lawsuits clipped the rock-rap umbilical cord.

Beginning in the late eighties, there were several high-profile lawsuits involving sampling. In 1991, a U.S. federal court ruled that the rapper Biz Markie's use on his album "I Need a Haircut" of a sample from a song by Gilbert O'Sullivan constituted willful infringement. (The album was withdrawn from stores and rereleased without the offending track.) A similar suit led to a decision by a federal appeals court, in 2004, that the use of even three notes from someone else's work could be a violation of copyright, making it difficult for all but the wealthiest rappers to use samples. For twenty years, beginning in the mid-eighties, with the advent of drum machines that could store brief digital excerpts of records, sampling had encouraged integration. (Think of De La Soul rhyming over an excerpt from the seventies educational cartoon series "Schoolhouse Rock!" or of Jay-Z rapping over a snippet from the Broadway musical "Annie.") In practice, the ruling obliged hip-hop producers to write their own music, which left them with a larger share of royalties. And, as producers became as powerful and as well known as rappers, having a distinctive sound that wasn't associated with another genre or artist became an asset. Rap musicians, lacking incentives to appropriate other sounds, began to stress regional differences instead: in Atlanta, the rugged, spare sound of crunk; in the Bay Area, the whizzing, burping, synthesizer-dominated sound of the hyphy movement.

This seems true: I can think of popular exceptions, but they're usually suburban rappers like Kanye West and P. Diddy throwing a bone to the white boy rock they liked growing up. Sampling is by no means dead, of course, and Frere-Jones doesn't stop theorizing there.

Jesse Walker on mash-up sampling here.

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  1. With the exception of Biz Markie, all of the above referenced rappers are crap.

    Go to a real hip hop show, where the DJ is more the focus than the M.C., and then get back to me about the repetitive, sleep-inducing gibberish of modern rap.

    Try Z Trip & Radar for starters. Or old Jurassic Five.

  2. UGH Is rap still being recorded? I’ve been waiting for that fad to fade for twenty five years. I did like “baby got back”, but that’s it.

  3. Because people won’t listen to anything, unless it comes to them via their approved marketing channels.

    Here is a link to the internet radio station I do:

    http://www.farceswannamo.com:8000/listen.pls

    Discover new bands! Unsegregate your mind!

  4. I agree with a. Also, I like that he included a bit about his own shitty band.

  5. Disclaimer: I rather dislike Sasha Frere-Jones and find him to be a pretentious bore.

    What is with describing/righting off Can with “white bands heavily indebted to black music.” Can are one of the more original and interesting KRAUT-rock bands FFS. Using a few dub rhythms or some blues inspired guitar parts hardly makes them some blues based rock group.

  6. dbcooper

    Much of our music dating through the 20th century was initially inspired by the disenfranchised black people. After it was popularized and demonized, it was seized upon by record companies and bastardized. At this point, a new underground music style would start, and the cycle would continue. Over time, these styles have done some merging. But ultimately, most popular music uses styles developed by the black community, whether recently or otherwise.

    This is, admittedly, a short and rather simplistic explanation.

  7. Everybody knows the best samples to build your music around consist of recordings of your neighbors’ arguments and quotes from forgotten Orientalist philosophers. Just ask Robert Fripp.

  8. difficult for all but the wealthiest rappers to use samples

    Tough. If an “artist” hasn’t the talent or imagination to make his own sounds, he (and we) will be better off if he hones his true vocation: seeing to it that the burgers and fries make it out the window with the correct change.

  9. Sasha Frere-Jones is the Al Sharpton of rock crit.

    ROCKIST!

  10. Sasha Frere-Jones’ opinion of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is highly offensive.

  11. But ultimately, most popular music uses styles developed by the black community, whether recently or otherwise.

    Wotta a buncha shit. You make it sound as if Europeans never had folk music of their own that they brought to North America.

  12. Russ 2000 –
    key word = “popular”

  13. The underground producers still operate under the radar and pretty freely distribute their products. Only when a Danger Mouse has demonstrated some mastery of sampling are they brought up to a label who is willing to pay for the samples. The popular result is that Kanye and Jay-Z can afford to use samples liberally because they have proven their ability to produce profitable music with samples. Lesser producers and rappers do have to muddle without samples, but it can be looked upon as a test of their production skills. Good samples can be equated to high quality studio equipment, where producers have to show what they can do without the fancy equipment before they are afforded the expense of the good stuff. Personally, I’m glad that my favorite songs aren’t butchered by producers who don’t have the requisite skills.

  14. These shitty “indie” bands are representative of what critics are writing about, but they are far from representative of what’s going on in the underground, where bands are coming and going in all directions. Even here in Portland, for every one of these awful pop/indie/slacker bands there are a dozen great, interesting bands that are taking it to the next level. And they have rhythm. It’s just like these critics to lament on the sorry state of music and bands that they made popular the year before with “next big thing” declarations. And since when does popular equal good?

  15. Fuck the new york times when it comes to anything about music. They are usually 5-10 years behind, and still dont get it when they finally catch up. Sampling was dying off stylewise long ago… only Kanye is really still doing big stuff that way. There’s no shortage of good productions out there, and it’s not because of lawsuits. It’s more the influence of DJs who are mixing more 80s stuff into their sets, and the sound is getting more ‘electro’ and synthy.

    This isnt dissimilar to the argument that spicy foods are popular because of old folks ageing tastebuds. 1/20th true… but bullshit on its own

  16. Various comments:

    -The musical miscregation he longs for continued unabated in the 1990s, he just doesn’t like the results, which he dimisses as “several commercial, if generally unappealing, blends of rock and rap”. It has actually been the case that a lot of this kind of approriation meets mixed critical receptions initially and only joins the canon when it is later reappraised (Led Zeppelin provides a fairly striking example of this) and while most of the blends of rock and hip hop have been unappealing, there are a few that have worked out fairly well (Beck and Gorillaz, for example). A great deal of this article can be dismissed as dissonance between the kind of music he actually likes and the kind of music he thinks he likes.

    -I don’t think he really understands Pavement. The obliqueness of their lyrics probably has more to do with Malkmus’s fondness of The Fall than anything else and Wowee Zowee was bookended by albums that don’t clearly fit the trend he postulates.

    -The shift towards noise and submerged vocals and rhythm sections occured several years before where he pegs it and with groups like Sonic Youth and The Jesus and Mary Chain leading it. Psychocandy had been out for a decade by 1995.

    -Rock critics are souless homoculi that derive their sustenance by sucking the fun out of popular music.

  17. GILMORE, that was from the New Yorker, not the New York Times.

    Sasha Frere Jones sounds confused more than anything else. “Indie Rock” as a genre is so broad as it is that any generalization you make about what influences it is drawing from is already doomed to hopless simplicity.

    I saw Arcade Fire at Randalls Island just a couple of weeks ago, and to accuse them of not having rhythm seems bizarre to me. In any case, they shared the bill with LCD Soundsystem, which is pretty much all about rhythm.

    I bet Frere-Jones used to walk uphill both ways and didn’t have to listen to those damn kids making all that noise.

    Furthermore, most of the recent scholarship I’ve read indicates that the heritage of rock music is far more complicated than just “black” music, no matter how much people want to reduce it to a single source. Identity group politics has no place in music.

  18. Jac:

    I agree with your first comment. I suspect that the bland results were more a product of the business model than any inherent flaw in the process of miscegenation.

    I understand Pavement and I think Steven Malkmus is a whiny turd who had something to say when he was young and the early Pavement albums reflect this. He recorded all he had to say, then started making up stupid shit because he’s really not that bright or creative. That’s my opinion.

    Right again about Sonic Youth, etc. I don’t recall ever know a Jesus Lizard lyric, and pretty sure it didn’t matter. Surely that band didn’t lack rhythm.

    The author has a point about musicians being afraid to blend genres. Instead of creating something new and bizarre (and taking the risk that everybody will laugh), many are content to nail a certain genre, or specific blend of two genres. Ween doesn’t even try to mix genres, they just play them sequentially.

  19. She is right about Hotel Yankee Foxtrot. It is a fucking sonic suicide note.

    Brian 24

    Damn straight about rock music just being “black music”. That is just guilty white BS. To call rock music just “black music” is an insult to rock and to black music. If any of the moron who say that crab ever bothered to listen to what “black music” sounded like in the 40s and 50s they would see how different it is from what we call rock. Further, to call “most popular music is just forms of black music” is to completely disregard the contributions of country music. If anything, most of the good popular music of the 20th century came from music sytles developed by hillbillies both black and white. Muddy Waters and Hank Williams were both hillibillies even if they lived in different parts of town growing up.

  20. The amount of music that jackhole hasn’t heard must be enormous.

    And it includes everything he mentions.

  21. Rock’n’roll is music about fucking. And like fucking, rock music is a lot more fun to do than to talk about.

    As far as I can tell as a grumpy old man, indie rock seems to be as much about hairstyles and marketing as it does about music. Sort of like ’80s hair metal for geeks.

  22. Let me just correct some of the egregious errors in this discussion so far:

    1. Sasha Frere-Jones is a he. I know, I know, I find that hard to believe myself, but he’s a dude.

    2. The essay is in the New Yorker, NYT critics can go elsewhere today.

    3. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is still Wilco’s best album.

    4. Shockingly, a response in Slate actually makes what seems to me is a good point – the Uberwhite Indie bands SFJ rails against (Arcade Fire, Decemberists, Wilco, Fiery Furnaces – and you probably could include Magnetic Fields, Radiohead, Elliot Smith, etc.) are almost universally composed of upper class or at least overeducated white kids, speaking to other overeducated white kids. So ignoring the class issue is dishonest. We used to have “college rock” back in the 80s, now we have “grad school” rock. In a real sense these bands are the equivalent of the rhythymless, uberwhite, overintellectual folkies of the 60s. The lyrics, the pose and the message are more important than the actual music. But, as many here have pointed out, there are literally thousands of other bands out there going in other directions, and SFJ doesn’t deal with that either. SFJ’s real battle is clearly with other overeducated rock critics who are championing bands he doesn’t like. (And both Arcade Fire and Decemberists are infinitely more interesting and entertaining than Sasha’s awful band – a point he forgets to mention.)

  23. In a real sense these bands are the equivalent of the rhythymless, uberwhite, overintellectual folkies of the 60s. The lyrics, the pose and the message are more important than the actual music.

    I think that’s a very perceptive comment. Although the indie rock folks haven’t yet reached the Joan Baez/Joni Mitchell level of preciousness. They’re stuck at the Dylan level or maybe the David Crosby level.

  24. So when bands reflect an African-American influence, they’re ripping off poor black artists, but when they don’t, they’re isolating themselves racially?

    Incidentally, Frere-Jones seems to cherry-pick his bands for this article. Last time I checked both Spoon and TV on the Radio fall under the “indie” umbrella, and both have recently released albums with pretty obvious soul influences. I guess the more I think about the article the less I’m sure it really has a point.

  25. 1. Music genres are awfully large and generalizing. Indie Rock means a whole lotta stuff, although, it is mostly as vanya says.

    2. While I have mixed emotions on Arcade Fire (esp. Neon Bible), I like them stylistically and tend to gravitate toward others in the same style.

    3. John –
    Hillbillies aren’t as responsible for modern country music as the blues musicians were. Think about the style, phrasing, subject matter, etc.
    I don’t mean to come across as giving black musicians credit for all musical achievements ever, but just because they weren’t the poster-child for a style doesn’t mean that they weren’t responsible for the style and its popularity in the United States. Elvis may have been white, but even at the time, he was accused of playing black music.

    4. Popular music is meant to have broad appeal, not be musically experimental. In fact, his complaint that popular music doesn’t take enough risk is just a fundamental misunderstanding of the industry. It is impossible to have risky popular music due to the nature of popularity. Risky music is distributed to a small audience because it is unpopular, and therefore unprofitable. And if it were immediately popular and profitable, that would be a good indication that it probably wasn’t risky enough.
    That last part didn’t come out quite how I wanted, but I think I got my point across.

  26. Because people won’t listen to anything, unless it comes to them via their approved marketing channels.

    dave you are still one of the worst fucking musicians i’ve ever heard, and i’ve hung out with nerdcore guys. i find it hard to believe you actually let people listen to what you do without embarassment. maybe they chipped you at birth, or maybe you were just born that way – i don’t know.

    all i do know is jesus fucking christ you fucking suck.

  27. talking about Grad school rock, you have to bring up BAD RELIGION. which still puts on an AWESOME show!

    dhex – because he ate his own placenta.

  28. you fucking suck

    Listen again and you will probably start getting it. Are you sure it is not just my personality you object to?

  29. GAAAAA

    PEEK A BOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    KORN SYRUP BOY, YOU ARE SO YOUNG AND UNWISE IN THE WAYS OF THE WORLD. PUT ON YOUR RUBBER THONG AND SIT ON THE URKOBOLD’S LAP. NO DON’T WORRY. THAT’S ALWAYS STICKING UP LIKE THAT. JUST… JUST SIT. SIT THERE. THERE. SIT. THERE.

  30. Hillbillies aren’t as responsible for modern country music as the blues musicians were. Think about the style, phrasing, subject matter, etc.

    By “modern country music” do you mean Shania Twain et al.? Or simply country music of the mid-20th Century onward. Because if it’s the latter, then you are basically wrong.

    Scottish/Irish folk forms are the structural and primary harmonic basis for almost all American music, including forms we identify today as “black.” The actual black influence takes several forms, especially in rhythm, the incorporation of harmonic ambiguity in the form of the “blue note,” and in certain vocal techniques. But those are additions/modifications to song forms that came over from the UK.

    But really, American music in all forms is such a mishmash of different influences that saying that one group “isn’t as responsible” as another for it is either silly or feebly PC.

  31. The only good thing that came out of reading that essay (btw, aren’t essays supposed to have a thesis?) was that I listened to Jesus, etc. about twenty times today. What a great song.

  32. Kanye may not be from Englewood, but he is a Southsider, as far as I know, not a 708er.

    So, nyah!

    Grad school rock? Y’all get a “hrumph.”
    As I recall, one of the guys in BR never got his bachelors, but told his employers (not the band, his day job!) that he had a grad degree. No one knew the difference.

    Again, nyah!

  33. Ditto what ChrisO just said. Scottish/Irish and West African cultural influences had already been kicking around together in the American south in both “white” and “black” culture for over twice as long as the timeframe (1920s-present) being analyzed, so by the time we’re picking up the story, there’s already been a tremendous amount of time for interplay.

    My totally unsubstantiated hypothesis is that the racial classification of popular music in the 20th century is more of a consequence of recording and broadcast technology. When music was obligately performed live, people would be segregated by race based on the venue it was performed at, so the granularity was too fine and the number of outlets in a market too small to allow different styles to become linked too strongly with different venues. Radio stations and record labels operated in much larger effective markets and enabled stylistic divergence along those lines, but they also conciously included race in defining their target markets, creating the race-genre linkages we see now.

  34. “… but they’re usually suburban rappers like Kanye West and P. Diddy throwing a bone to the white boy rock they liked growing up.”

    How dare you question the street cred of Kanye & P. Diddy? You don’t know what its like to grow up in this world as a black man (with a mother who was a tenured college professor, like Kanye). Black people are intentionally sabotaged by whites all the time; can’t you let us have something? You took our freedom, you’ve taken everything we have, stop trying to steal our music!

  35. I laugh whenever somebody accuses someone else of “stealing” some other culture’s music, as if music itself did not exist before that particular culture started making noise. A culture “owns” music like they own the air. Only a simpleton or a tribal culture attempts to thwart musical experimentation and growth. The most boring, stagnant musical idioms are those that never evolve. We should celebrate cross-cultural experimentation instead of engaging in pointless accusations of “theft.”

  36. Are you sure it is not just my personality you object to?

    yes. i know plenty of dicks who make great music.

    you are not one of them.

  37. ed said: “We should celebrate cross-cultural experimentation instead of engaging in pointless accusations of “theft.””

    All the best acts do. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (UK) was influenced by Kraftwerk (Germany)

    Outkast was influenced by Parliament/Funkadelic, which was influenced by everything.

    The Wu-Tang Clan has been influenced by classical music and old kung-fu films.

    Roxy Music (UK) was influenced by Hollywood glitz and Country/Western (“If There Is Something.”)

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