Wednesday, May 27, 2015

TMFW 90 - De La Soul (Take and) Give Away Their Records

De La Soul is a hip hop act that came to prominence in the late '80s.  Their 1989 record 3 Feet High and Rising is widely regarded as a classic. Wikipedia collects the plaudits nicely: it has been called "The Sgt. Pepper of hip hop," was in several top-10 album lists the year it came out, is included in Rolling Stone's "200 Essential Rock Records" and The Source's "100 Best Rap Albums" lists, and was chosen by the Library of Congress for their National Recording Registry.  Pretty much everybody agrees that it is great.

But despite De La Soul's influence and their commercial appeal, you won't find 3 Feet High and Rising (or other early De La Soul records like Stakes Is High or De La Soul Is Dead) on iTunes, or Spotify, or Amazon mp3.  You can't buy them digitally.  This is because the albums are richly layered with samples - from Johnny Cash to Hall and Oates - and the owner of the band's back catalog has apparently decided that it is just too hard to clear all of them for digital sales.

(This is a side note, but it's "too hard" for at least three reasons.  First, while some of the samples were "cleared" back in 1989, the rights probably didn't include digital sales.  Back then, contracts would include rights for records, cassettes, and compact discs.  People weren't thinking about mp3s or commercial internet distribution because they weren't yet invented. So for many of the already cleared tracks, you'd need to go back and renegotiate contracts for additional money.  Second, sample agreements are individually negotiated and depend on lots of factors like the prominence of the song used, the popularity of the band, the financial needs of the rightsholder, etc.  And the deals come in lots of shapes and sizes like flat fee, percentage, or volume-based sliding scale arrangements.  That makes accounting and remitting royalties way hard for acts that have used over 500 different samples.  And third, De La Soul was making albums back when sampling was seen as artistic license rather than legal obligation. It's possible that they don't even know all of the samples that were used. So while it's frustrating that you can't buy mp3s of De La Soul's early stuff, it's hard to get mad at the label for that decision.)

Without the ability to obtain the songs legitimately, people wanting De La Soul's music digitally were left to their own devices: either they would have to rip their own CDs, or more likely they would have to look to the shadier parts of the internet and pirate the records.  And that brings us to today's TMFW.

Last year, De La Soul decided to commemorate the 25th anniversary of 3 Feet High and Rising with a 25-hour-long "giveaway" of the group's early stuff.  For one day, people could download mp3s of the group's back catalog for free.  Fans that did so noticed something funny about the tracks.  Apparently, De La Soul got the mp3s of their records the same way most other people did: they pirated them.  Looking at the metadata for several of the mp3 files, astute downloaders noticed that the piracy fingerprints - e.g., links back to the place where the (illegal) download originated - were still there. 

It's a funny commentary on the modern state of the music business that, to give away their own records, a group had to pirate itself first.


BONUS FACT:  In 1993, De La Soul teamed with TMFW-favorite Teenage Fanclub on "Fallin'," from the Judgment Night soundtrack.  

BONUS FACT 1.5:  Judgment Night was an unremarkable film that starred Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Jeremy Piven as buddies who spend an evening running away from bad guy gang leader Dennis Leary.  It has a not-so-great 31% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and made only $12.5 million at the box office, which put it in 95th place for 1993 (right behind Weekend at Bernie's II and behind classics such as Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday).  

But its soundtrack was something altogether different.  Across 11 songs, the soundtrack teamed up some of the biggest rock and rap acts of the day: Living Colour played with Run DMC, Sonic Youth with Cypress Hill, Mudhoney with Sir Mix-A-Lot, and Dinosaur Jr. with Del tha Funkee Homosapien.  Rock Critic Robert Christgau (seen before in TMFW 27) gave it an A-Minus, and Entertainment Weekly called it "a MUST."  It's definitely not for everyone, but I respect the ambition.

BONUS FACT 1.75:  Dennis Leary was having a moment in 1993.  In addition to starring in Judgment Night, that year also saw the release of his parody song "Asshole."  The song got airplay on MTV (an on my high school carpool's "morning zoo" radio show of choice) and propelled his comedy album No Cure for Cancer to gold status. 

BONUS FACT 1.875:  You may not be surprised to learn that Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday was not, in fact, the final Friday the 13th movie.  Three more have come out since: 2002's Jason X, 2003's Freddy vs. Jason, and 2009's reboot Friday the 13th.  

BONUS FACT 1.9375:  You may also not be surprised to learn that Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday was not even the first "final" movie in that series.  The fourth installment promised to be the "Final Chapter" all the way back in 1984.  8 films (the epilogues or maybe the appendices, I guess) have followed it.

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