IASPM-US Interview Series: “Rhymin and Stealin: Musical Borrowing in Hip-Hop,” by Justin Williams

by Mike D'Errico on April 21, 2014

J Playing PianoWilliams Rhymin Stealin

In Rhymin and Stealin: Musical Borrowing in Hip-Hop (University of Michigan Press, 2013), Justin Williams turns his ear to the re-use of pre-existing musical material in hip hop, primarily focusing his attention on rap. Williams theorizes hip hop as a genre that holds borrowing as a core principle, and he explores the way pre-existing music is used to define subgenres, evoke space, lament or celebrate martyrs, and bond artists from one generation to the next in a complex web of influence and lineage. Below, Justin and I delve into the topic of musical borrowing as related to the book and beyond.

Justin D Burton: Hip hop studies is a broadly interdisciplinary field, and I find it helpful to think about how our varying backgrounds inform our work on the genre. Early in the book, you mention that you are a musicologist and that Rhymin and Stealin is a product of your musicological training. How does this shape the book? Or, the same question from a different angle—how do you think the book might have turned out differently if you weren’t approaching the material from a musicological perspective?

Justin Williams: One of the things that draws me back time and time again to hip hop studies is that so many people from diverse disciplines engage with it. Hip hop becomes the common ground and gives me insight into the concerns of other fields. At the same time, it makes me think about what I am doing as a musicologist and why I think that is important. I’m finishing up work on editing a Cambridge Companion to Hip Hop which includes scholars from anthropology, ethnomusicology, music theory, art, music production, linguistics, politics, dance studies, etc. and it really does show how vast the network is.

My background in musicology helps me to a) work with different methods in which to talk about sound and b) acknowledge historical links with other musics which perhaps have been given more scholarly attention in my field. Now this is not to elevate hip hop to some greater, legitimate topic (I hope we don’t need to keep convincing people hip hop deserves scholarly inquiry), but to look at real links between practices in other cultures and eras. If I find a lamenting musical figure in songs that mourn Tupac and Biggie, for example, that cultural code of the descending minor chord progression still holds true for me and others. Or: can the strategic formation of lineage between Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven be compared to Dr. Dre, Eminem and 50 Cent in their own respective worlds? Since the subject of the book is “musical borrowing,” a musicological subfield, it also makes sense to adopt these perspectives in their historical context. Other fields can talk about sound as well as about music history quite competently, but I found that the musical borrowing perspectives had not really been discussed in hip hop studies, so I wanted to try and follow those arguments through, work through them, and provide case studies that would help to demonstrate the varied intertextual practices in hip hop and what they might say about our times.

JDB: This, I think, is a perfect explanation of what interdisciplinarity can do—it not only brings us into others’ fields of study but also helps each of us better understand and explore how our own training informs our work. As for those case studies, I notice that the book can be broken into a couple of sections. The first two chapters after the introduction look back, with you exploring the roots of borrowing in hip hop and then hip hop’s own engagement with jazz. Then the final three chapters trace parallel groups of rappers, focusing on Dre/Eminem/50 Cent alongside Tupac/Biggie. How did you settle on these as your case studies? Obviously, you only have enough space to cover a few examples, so I wonder if there was something particularly representative or evocative about these case studies that drew you to them?

JW: I haven’t really thought about the book like that, but you are right, and that’s really interesting. In a way, I see Chs. 4 and 5 (on Tupac/Biggie and Dre/Eminem/50 Cent) as companions, and Ch. 3 as an exploration of music and geography (of space, the automobile, and place, Los Angeles). I’ve deliberately chosen mainstream examples, and many which represent a mainstream West Coast gangsta ethos. This has worked from a musicological perspective since Dre and others had similar production techniques so it was a way to develop and discuss their “sonic signatures” in a way that had not been done before. I’d extend that further to The Game (whom I am writing an article on as we speak) and Kendrick Lamar though Kendrick turns it on its head, in my opinion. As for jazz rap, I am a jazz musician so I felt comfortable talking about that genre, and it provides a useful case study for talking about genre, semiotics, and the meanings that certain sounds and genres can bring to the table, so to speak. The list of case studies is endless to be honest, so I did have to stop somewhere!

JDB: This is something you cover in the book, but, before moving on, could you say a few words about how “musical borrowing” is not simply “sampling”?

JW: Thanks for this question, as it is an important one. Sampling refers to the specific process of digital sampling—taking a sound in binary form so that it replicates exactly what was originally heard. It was originally a studio technique for replicating sounds (i.e. using horns when a horn section wasn’t available or one couldn’t afford them). The practice was made cheaper and popularized in the mid-80s by samplers like the E-mu SP-12 and hip hop artists who extended DJ practices in more efficient and complex ways (not to say one is better than the other, of course). We now associate samplers with the construction of “beats” or perhaps electronic dance music but one could also sample a voice of a person for a hip hop track.

But what about when Sugar Hill Gang uses a backup band to re-perform Chic’s “Good Times” for “Rapper’s Delight”? That’s not sampling, and it’s not DJing. It’s a disco cover with rap over it, but falls under practices of musical borrowing. So does mentioning classic rap lines in a rapper’s flow. In other words, there are all these non-digital-sampling practices which occur within hip hop that warrant discussion and often derive from the same intertextual impulses as previous African-American art forms but aren’t strictly sampling, and I wanted to give them some attention as well.

I can’t tell you the amount of times when I talked about my book topic, people responded “Oh, so like sampling?” Well, yes, but it’s more than that. Graffiti is all about taking something with one purpose (spray paint) and using it for something else, or breakdancing. Auto-tune is essentially borrowing a technology and using it to different ends.

The reason to focus on “musical borrowing” (a term not everyone embraces) is twofold: one, to align myself with a musicological discipline founded by J. Peter Burkholder which I believe has been neglected in the past two decades (shout out to Phil Ford for first showing me his work); and second, simply to assert that the vast intertextuality in the hip hop world includes not only digital sampling, but is one of many techniques used to reference the past, or to use the past as raw material for the construction of new sounds and identities. I argue this at length in the introduction to my book.

I could have called the book many things and could have used many terms: intertextuality, musical theft, musical promiscuity (as Jason King once suggested to me), quotation, etc. But I felt comfortable with borrowing given that I wanted to align my story with a history of using previous musical materials to new ends.

JDB: Burkholder’s whole goal with that 1995 essay was to open up a field of study focused entirely on musical borrowing as you’ve defined it here. The idea was to cross genre/era/musician in the interest of hearing the way musical borrowing is employed over time and in different places, connecting unlikely analogs in the hopes that—in his case—Renaissance practices could enlighten Ives scholarship. His vision for a field of musical borrowing hasn’t exactly come to fruition. Why do you think that is, and what draws you to it? Burkholder includes hip hop as a part of the field but mostly as a gesture, focusing more explicitly on his area of expertise, Western art music. As a hip hop scholar, can you articulate the value of plugging into a field that studies musical borrowing across such sub-disciplinary divides? How might this intersect with other approaches to musical borrowing, like Joe Schloss’s ethnographic focus, Amanda Sewell’s taxonomic analysis of the Beastie Boys and PE, or Stanyek and Piekut’s notion of intermundane collaborations?

JW: There’s probably a few reasons why Burkholder’s “Musical Borrowing as a Field” has not really been embraced wholeheartedly by music academics at large, or at least not used more. As an article, the taxonomy works really well for Ives, but needs to be tweaked for other repertoire. Additionally, borrowing is problematic as a term because it almost suggests the object being borrowed can be returned. I think many just don’t like the term. And I think there is just a general skepticism in looking at things across time and place. We become specialist in one or two fields for various reasons, not least because of time restraints and job marketability. Philip Tagg looks at pop by often acknowledging the history of musical sounds and gestures, but he is skeptical of musicological terminology and wants us to adopt his terms, terms which some musicologists may not want to adopt.

But in another sense, borrowing has been embraced by many scholars, it is just that those people who are interested in borrowing (whether they call it parody, quotation, homage, allusion, intertextuality, modelling, etc.) don’t really talk to each other very much. Burkholder’s bibliography of borrowing attests to the fact that there are hundreds of people working on this field, they just might not know it, or they might use different terminology. I’m also to blame here, but another reason this hasn’t been pushed forward is because musicology is not terribly collaborative compared to other fields. And even when two or more people collaborate, they may all be “Medievalists” or “jazz scholars” or “pop scholars” etc. etc. How could we get 8-10 musicologists around a table, all trained in completely different subfields and repertoire, to create a working document that addresses musical borrowing as a field from a real variety of disciplines? It would take some determination, but it might be possible. Nor would I want that document to become a ‘my way or the highway’ set of tools, terms, tricks and methods that then dominate the discussion.

David Metzer’s first book is probably the closest I’ve come to seeing a single person looking at a wide variety of eras and genres. I’ve always liked what that book was trying to do, and I hope more things like that come out. My book focused only on hip hop, so in a way it was trying to add hip hop to this discourse of books by Burkholder, (Chris) Reynolds, Metzer, (Honey) Meconi, Stilwell and Powrie (ed) and many others.

In relation to Schloss, Sewell, Stanyek and Piekut, yes, they are all part of this conversation. In a way, Schloss’s Making Beats and its concern with compositional process is more aligned with old school musicology than we’d think at first glance. I hope that doesn’t sound like I am being unfair to Joe, as that book is still the best book on sampling out there (!) But I can see a link between some producers who wish to hide their sample sources by transforming them and Reynolds’ book about how 19th century composers tried to hide their influences to sound original. Sewell is taking it in a really positive direction, to really get into the analytical details of these techniques as well as many of the legal issues. Stanyek and Piekut’s article on the intermundane involves some fascinating comments about dead labor and the studio processes of “Unforgettable” which very much add to my writings on post-mortem sampling in Ch. 4 of the book, and I’m still trying to think through some of the issues they brought to the table with that article.

So yeah, we’re all here doing this work, and I guess the question is: do we try and use the same terminology and try and push things forward, or is it simply a case of having it grow organically through responding to each others’ books and articles? Maybe we need an edited collection on musical borrowing, or on intertextuality, but one which does not feel like a set of discrete articles, but something which has come about through a symposium/workshop, something that feels like a real productive conversation. Maybe this is already happening and I just didn’t get the memo.

JDB: I guess part of the subtext is the question of whether a field needs to define itself as such. Certainly the work is being done, and bibliographies—including Burkholder’s impressive catalog as well as those found in books and articles by scholars working on musical borrowing/intertextuality/sampling—provide connective tissue.

As for the term “borrowing,” you mention here and in the book that one problem the term faces goes something like this: to borrow something implies the ability to return it, and borrowed music can’t be returned. I’ve been having trouble getting with this line of reasoning, though, as I think we often use the term “borrow” to refer to things that can’t be strictly returned. A few weeks ago, my neighbor borrowed sidewalk salt from me during a snow storm. Three days later, he knocked on the door and gave me a new bag of salt. He didn’t bring back the exact salt I gave him—nor would I have wanted him to—but he brought back something very similar to what I gave him. I hope this isn’t reductive, but it seems musical borrowing works in much the same way. Dre borrows through reperformance “Swing low, sweet chariot/Stop and let me ride” and returns to PFunk (and the rest of us) something very much like what he took.

There are a few problems with this analogy, namely that salt has a finite use; once my neighbor drops salt on his sidewalk, those granules are used up. A musical idea can be endlessly recycled without using up the original source, so what Dre returns is a new bag of salt but also the old bag, which remains available to other musicians to “borrow.” What the analogy perhaps highlights, though, is the value of what is returned—Dre has reworked PFunk’s musical material in imaginative new ways and in the process generated more material for others to borrow.

I wonder whether some reluctance about this term is bound up in issues of ownership, copyright, and control. Certainly, Queen and David Bowie weren’t particularly thrilled with the return on “Under Pressure” that Vanilla Ice offered. And famous, rich producers borrow/take from unknown artists without asking or willingly sharing the profits, which crosses some ethical lines most of us would like to preserve. How does a term like “musical borrowing” fit into this complex web of activities, and how do you think cultural practices of capital shape our understanding of both musical borrowing and the terms we use to name it?

JW: I like what you are saying about the value of what is returned after it has been re-worked, and I do think it brings up important issues of ownership. What I perhaps should say is that the music can be returned, but never in its earlier form—it is transformation of the “original” through re-contextualization. Can we really hear The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” the same way post-Puffy?

Musical borrowing, as I see it, is a framework that attempts to start a conversation about the different ways that hip hop music references the past and other things around them. The legality of doing such things, or the value of it (in both senses of the term) was not a huge part of the conversation within the book. This was both in the interest of pushing the “not all borrowing is the same” agenda and that I had other things to say about what such practices tell us about hip hop and the times we are living in.

Of course, the legality of sampling, ownership, value and control tells us things about the times we are living in and influence the musical poetics of the tracks. My mind is certainly starting to think more about labour and practices of production which do use older labour and materials to sell or update products. So I think some of the next work I do will address these issues from the standpoint of labour and ownership.

JDB: Alright, so let’s get back to those other things you had to say about the practices of borrowing in hip hop. I don’t want you to give away an entire chapter of the book, but you explore the intersection of borrowed sounds and their spatiality in relation to Dr. Dre and his focus on car sound systems (and I know you also explore automobility further in the recently published Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies). Could you say a bit about how borrowed sounds can evoke space and also follow up on what you mentioned earlier, that The Game and Kendrick Lamar extend (and in the latter’s case, “turns on its head”) the sonic signature of the West Coast that Dre was so instrumental in helping popularize?

JW: Yes, in the Oxford Handbook (of which you are in as well) I talk about a longer history of car audio and use Dre as a case study. That was a great experience as it helped me to think about music and mobility, which could be considered one arm of mobility studies (and one of the book launches will be at the EMP conference coming up at the end of April). I’d love to write an even longer history of music and automobility someday, but that feels like a life-long project to me and someone may beat me to it!

My chapter on Dr. Dre in the book takes a similar perspective, but emphasises this idea of borrowing and tailoring sounds for certain spaces, in this case, the automobile. But as you say, sounds can signify both space and place, and the whiny “Funky Worm”-esque synth has become representative of the West Coast sound of a certain era, and a signifier of Compton. If you listen to Lamar’s “M.A.A.D. City” (feat. MC Eiht), the track uses that synth style at the end, but I read it completely different in that context given the lyrical content of the song. For Dre, it was about celebrating Compton. For Lamar, it is a leitmotiv which in his context feels very different, certainly not a celebration in the G-Funk sense. It almost makes you feel ashamed for celebrating it in the early 90s. It is actually a very powerful track as I hear it. And with borrowing, so much hinges on a person’s knowledge of the “original” material, so I think if you grew up with G-Funk, or know it well, then that is what makes the Lamar track especially poignant.

JDB: One of Lamar’s gifts seems to be his ability to evoke mixed emotions about hip hop and its tropes in general, and listening through to “M.A.A.D. City,” I can hear how that GFunk sound resonates in new ways. The last chapter of your book covers the idea of lineage and the way rappers/producers use musical borrowing to establish themselves in specific hip hop traditions. This theme runs through the book, really—jazz samples mark off one subset of hip hop while Dre’s synthesizers map the West Coast and Pac/Biggie samples apotheosize these larger-than-life figures from the mid-90s—but the last chapter considers the strategic ways Pac and Biggie samples can be deployed to play up Eminem and 50 Cent as carrying the gangsta rap torch into the 21st century. This brings to mind a couple other examples, one recent and one not, of rappers/producers positioning themselves in Biggie’s wake. Puff Daddy, of course, achieved an impressive level of national notoriety just after B.I.G.’s death, and his use of samples stands out as different from what most of his peers and predecessors were doing—do you see Diddy as a significant game changer when it comes to musical borrowing in hip hop? Just this year, Rick Ross released his Mastermind album, which features the track “Nobody,” whose hook is pulled from Biggie’s “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Kills You.” Jon Caramanica recently reviewed a Ross performance for the New York Times, and ends with some loose thoughts about the way Rick Ross is calling on Biggie at a time when the rapper is shrinking back from his image just a bit—Caramanica describes the album as attempting some introspection as Ross himself appears and sounds smaller than before. Caramanica’s review called to mind your chapter and has me thinking about whether the sampling of Biggie (or Pac or other hip hop icons) can be employed not just to establish careers like Eminem’s and 50’s but also to shift gears, if indeed that’s what Ross is doing. How would Diddy and Ross intersect with your work on lineage and borrowing in hip hop?

JW: Good question. First of all, I picked Eminem and 50 Cent to discuss sampling and lineage because I also had things to say about Eminem’s production, his “sonic signature” which helped in providing a study of hip hop beats which is a big focus of the book. Not only do I want to nuance and widen the discussion on borrowing and intertextuality, but I want to provide case studies in the musical analysis of hip hop. That example worked well and I am now expanding some of those ideas to The Game and Kendrick Lamar. In terms of Rick Ross, I certainly see this both as a “rap cover” as well as using the social capital of B.I.G., and the personal detail that Ross was the target of a drive by shooting in 2013. Diddy is also using Ross as social capital as well, I think, to stay relevant. To answer the question, though, it may be part of a larger “changing gears” as you say in this context, but rappers can often either utilize laments or more introspective tracks as part of their overall output (largely popularized by 2Pac, and extended by Eminem). The fact that Ross is doing this in 2014 demonstrates there is still more to talk about, lots more (and don’t get me started on Yeezus!)

As to Diddy, I think his way of operating did reflect a shift. This is something I want to write more about: producers The Trackmasters and The Hitmen doing production for Diddy and Will Smith and others which were closer to rap covers than pieces transformed through sampling. A song like “Come with Me,” I think, reflects the Clinton-era economic prosperity of the late 1990s, and these covers in a way also update the previous product in a particular way. This is something I’ll talk more about at EMP and hopefully more in print soon.

JDB: The relationship between Diddy and Clinton-era prosperity is an intriguing one—I’ve been talking to my students about him in the context of so-called luxury rap. The Police and Led Zeppelin are the Audemars and Bugatti of the licensing world. You mention The Game and Kendrick Lamar as your current focus of study, and Kanye and Yeezus as fruitful possibilities, too. Were there any studies planned for the book that didn’t make the final cut? And is there anything else you’re working on now?

JW: We had J. Griffith Rollefson give a research seminar in Bristol the other day, and he talked a bit about Watch the Throne (2011) as “luxury rap” (and it’s great to have another hip hop musicologist out in the UK now!). So I think my original list of case studies for the book was extremely long, and I am now wondering if I have that lying around as a document or notes somewhere as it would be interesting to re-visit.  Some of those ideas extended the genre conversation, like the use of Bollywood samples and exoticism (and pop exoticism has been discussed in lots of places like Glenn Pillsbury’s book on Metallica and Tim Taylor’s work), but I didn’t have time to do anything with that. I also was toying with the use of rock and metal in Run D.M.C., but I think Loren (Kajikawa) has done some work on it since. I think I initially had a lot of ideas for case studies, but they haven’t been pursued yet, but may well be extended in future.

Other things I’m working on include a chapter on crowdfunding for the Oxford Handbook to Music and Virtuality (with Ross Wilson), a chapter on Soweto Kinch for an edited collection on Black British Jazz (ed. Tackley, Doffman, Toynbee), and editing the Cambridge Companion to Hip hop which has been a very personal journey for me. First of all, it will be dedicated to the memory of Adam Krims (my former PhD supervisor), such a pioneer, but it also is a testament to my navigation of hip hop studies, which largely thanks to IASPM-US has allowed me to meet all sorts of people interested in hip hop from other disciplines. Case studies also include a lot of hip hop outside the US, and make me realize that we need either a book series on hip hop outside the US, or 50 edited collections on the topic, or both. I think that the Companion will be informative for students, fans, and others, and that’s one purpose, but it is a celebration of one of the most interdisciplinary fields I can think of.  It is turning into an important snapshot of the next generation of hip hop scholarship which is going in amazing directions. After this, my attention moves to co-editing a Companion to the Singer-Songwriter (with Katherine Williams), which surprisingly has little in print beyond biographies and autobiographies (with a few exceptions; we’re presenting a singer-songwriter panel at IASPM-UK in Cork). Lastly, my attention increasingly is moving to the contributions of the UK to hip hop culture, where US influences morph into unique and innovative styles in terms of breakbeat-based dance musics and street art, to name but two things.

JDB: We have a lot to look forward to, then. I’ve been especially excited to see the Companion, and it will be particularly rewarding for the field to have such a hefty contribution in Adam Krims’ memory. Thanks for taking the time to discuss the book for this interview series. 

Justin A. Williams is Lecturer in Music at the University of Bristol. He received his BA in music from Stanford University, master’s degree in music from King’s College London, and a PhD from the University of Nottingham. As a professional trumpet and piano player in California, he ran a successful jazz piano trio and played with the band Bucho! which won a number of Sacramento Area Music Awards and were signed to two record labels. Research interests include: popular music studies (especially hip-hop),musical borrowing, film music, jazz, digital patronage, music and geography, mobility and sound studies, and the analysis of record production. He is currently finishing editing the Cambridge Companion to Hip-hop.

Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University and serves on the IASPM-US Executive Board. His research interests include hip hop studies, posthumanity, and critical race theory. Recent and forthcoming publications can be found in the Journal of Popular Culture 46:3, the Journal of the Society for American Music 7:3, the Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, and Sounding Out! . He is co-editing with Ali Colleen Neff a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Sounding Global Southernness.”

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