This is the writing of Mike Conway, Producer and Editor of SHOUT Magazine. It is a collection of published and unpublished works. Enjoy.

Çarşamba, Temmuz 12, 2006

Lyrics Born: Fighting Without Martyrs

Story by Mike Conway
Flix by Bayeté Ross-Smith

Lyrics Born is a straight-up dude. When conversating with this acclaimed emcee, what you see in him, you get from him—like a gallon of pure H2O; he carries very few abstractions. Forget for a minute that he’s of the Asian diaspora, which is something the media normally fails to do. Media portrayals of Asians run a thin gamut (more on that later). Regardless, Lyrics is one of the most legit cats I’ve met among all “diaspores.”

Like leaches, characterizations flock toward the slightest blood-drop from the Far East. I even caught myself expounding a geography lesson to Tom Shimura , a.k.a. Lyrics Born, about how Asia is everything east of Turkey, until LB interrupted with, “and damn near all of Daly City.” Like I said, he’s real like that.

Reality is lost many times on an entertainer’s appeal. It slowly separates performers from the general population. We see them first as friends, then as part fetish and part obsession, which are all very distracting reactions to our tastes. With his loungey baritone, LB defuses any misconceptions about his appeal, focusing rather on what is at hand—sight, sound, scents, as well as tastes:

When I look out from the stage onto the audience, I definitely see like a really broad range of people. I see a lot of women, which is not typical of most hip-hop shows [chuckles], a lot of women of color; I see a lot of people of color across the board. You know the more records that sell and the more popular the music gets, I just see that if the area has that kind of diversity, those people are definitely checking us out.

I’ve spoken to Lyrics a couple of times, and I don’t recall his voice ever being hoarse. For such a loquacious rapper, this dude’s got an unfailing vocal capability. Lyrics really started to roll when he and label-mate Lateef dropped their debut LP Latyrx in 1996. Their hit “Say That” is one of the sharpest joints of the ‘90s. I was seriously disillusioned with hip-hop back then, as it seemed the genre traded in its cajones and uhurus for a grip of glossy crap. Latyrx brought me right back with a simple punchline by Lyrics Born: “Suckers steer clear of me like feminists do car shows.”

LB now rocks crowds with wife Joyo Velarde and a live band. He’s rapped with the mac-daddies of all barbershop sextets, Jurassic 5, with Souls of Mischief, KRS ONE and E40. No matter what the configuration, his style always comes through, cordial and fresh. Even so, just like with white emcees, people try to tie him strictly to his ethnicity, and at times he’s tagged as “the Asian rapper.” It’s not so much racist as it is a rarity.

During our interview, he and I inevitably had to talk about the “race card.” To most of the mass media, Asian presence is as scarce as a nice set of gams in Mecca during Ramadan. “I mean I got satellite,” Lyrics adds, “and I can watch that shit for 24 hours, and I bet you I see two or three Asians. And we’re talking 500 channels now man... But we’re here; we’ve been here for a long time.”

Many Pacific-Rim literati concur with Lyrics Born. In her book I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, spoken word performer Margaret Cho says when you actually do see Asians, they’re this small margin of stereotypes: fiery Jet Li ass-kickers, the math wizes, workaholic liquor store heads (a.k.a. crime victims), and lone field reporters narrating over drab, canned footage. Plotlines restrict them to exotic intrigues, like smuggling organs and fading the feds with help from ancient curses. This may be a far different order than sambos, yes. But like any stereotype, these roles place Asian characters just as far from fucking REALITY.

“The industry has a long way to go,” says Lyrics. “We’re gonna have to start our own shit and blow-up independently because no artist-&-repertoire entity is gonna say, ‘we need to go out there and find ourselves some Asian rappers.’”

LB’s already way ahead of them. Formerly Asia Born, he made the switch to “Lyrics” near the same point as his label Quannum changed-over from “Solesides.” LB made the personal transition from a focus on where he was from to an emphasis on where he’s at right now. And though he seems to have lost a little weight, LB is snow-balling a couple sizes above L, fame-wise. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving, persevering cat.

Though his appeal is rife with anomalies, it attests both to the flexibility of his sound and the transcendent honesty of his words. But don’t trip on the appeal. Buy the fucking shit and rock it like it’s hot.

Salı, Ocak 17, 2006

The Age of Divisadero Soul (SHOUT Issue 2)

Divisadero,-SF-1944, originally uploaded by smallaxe.

by Mike Conway

If I could travel anywhere, it would be back in time. I want to go back and see, hear and feel the places and moments we can only study now. Going back in time is not as hard as it seems; many backdrops of the past remain with us. All you have to do is go to those places and imagine the things you know about the past, and you’re there.

I just got back from such a trip, that I took after speaking with Ms. Josephine Robinson. From 1959 to 1977, she and her husband ran a nightclub and restaurant at 543 Divisadero Street in San Francisco. During this period, just four blocks east, the Fillmore Jazz Era was in full swing. Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and countless other gods of jazz played up and down Fillmore. The ‘Moe had a reputation as the Harlem of the West.

But along nearby Divis, a parallel surge of jazz and early soul was blazing. More than just a music scene, Divisadero was its own nation, its own economy, and its own revolution. History has mostly forgotten this street; Ms. Robinson has not.

Though she modestly insists her memory has faded in her old age, she lucidly recalled a lot about her tenure at Club Morocco. Her kind, grandmotherly voice spoke of the many patrons she would occasionally “po’liquor” for. Herb Caen ate there often, and called the Morocco the “Salt ‘n’ Pepper” because it drew both blacks and whites together in their mutual quest for good food, music, and fun. This was at a time when prejudice was the absolute status quo; even in San Francisco, a woman couldn’t serve alcohol in a bar unless she was on the liquor license. Never the less, the Morocco was a place where all kinds of folks could dress up and get some dinner, dance, and catch acts like Ike and Tina, Marvin Gaye, and BB King. Giants’ legendary ballers Willie Mays and McCovey might be eating at the table across from yours.

But the Morocco was much more than a happening joint. It was part of a whole scene. All along Divisadero, you had bars and nightclubs like the Both And, the Bird of Paradise, the Sportsmen’s, and the Half Note. Across the street, at the Harding Theater, Curtis Mayfield played one of his last shows in the city. Up until 1965, folks would dance and parley up and down Divis until 2:00am, then hop over the hill to the ‘Moe and famous places like Bop City, which carried the vibe until the break of dawn.

But more importantly, Club Morocco was one of the many African American-owned businesses. Ms. Robinson recalled that throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s on Divisadero, roughly 75% of all businesses were black owned. It was its own economy of beauty parlors, barber shops, boutiques and, of course, the nightclubs. You could get a haircut, eat a nice meal and dance your ass off to live music, all in a single block.

In 1955, just as the Robinsons were putting together the money that bought 543 Divisadero, the U.S. Supreme Court set the guidelines for desegregation in its Brown II decision. Yet oppression-by-segregation would not just end at the drop of a gavel. Brown II might have been a wonderful development in the Civil Rights Struggle, but it was also wonderfully vague. Blacks might have been free to then find work unimpeded by law, but they had been deprived of such opportunities for centuries. “Sure you can join our union, but—what’s this? No union experience? Sorry.”

That’s where the Robinson family stepped up. To help their community, the Robinsons hired waitresses, bartenders, and busboys—way more of them than they ever needed—so that black folks could get the necessary work hours and go on to get jobs, join unions, gain benefits and live better lives. So when you went to the Morocco, you weren’t just seeing Marvin Gaye or James Brown rock the house, you were seeing a subtle revolution against de jure racism. And with so much wait-staff, the service at Morocco must have been impeccable.

The ‘70s brought the notoriously scandalous “redevelopment” of the Fillmore district. Buildings that housed black families and businesses were being suspiciously condemned for “utility upgrades”; fires would mysteriously destroy others. By 1977, Divisadero was reeling from it all. Businesses folded as pimps and prostitution moved in full time. An ardent Protestant, Ms. Robinson could no longer stomach serving this new clientele. She convinced her husband to sell, just before the avalanche of crack and Reaganomics plowed through.

Tony Bennet is famous for leaving his heart in San Francisco; San Francisco itself often leaves its heart in the past. The forces of change have paved over many subtle charms of this city, leaving us with only the nostalgia for a bygone time. But just the other night, after I spoke with Ms. Robinson, I took a stroll down Divisadero, and imagined myself there, many years before I was born. The streets would’ve bustled with people of all backgrounds, the scents of dinner would be wafting out the Morocco and Curtis Mayfield would be sound-checking at the Harding. Maceo Parker just might drop in later on...

Then, as I steered my mind back to the present, I wondered, “is that type of thing so far off?” Bars and clubs have returned to Divis, why can’t the vibe? Hell, there’s streets like this all over the Bay, why can’t they have it too? We got the music, we just need the venues and events.

Just recently, the former Morocco, now Club Waziema, just got all the necessary permits to do what they always have at that address. Liquor, entertainment, operating ‘til 2:00am: licenses like these eluded the bar for years, until its customers and neighbors began to pressure city and state agencies to cough them up. It’s said over and over that a community working together can make a difference, and it’s true. When a community (hint!) collaborates to promote and support itself, in whatever way, what would it need of any outside help? Would a community then need corporations to create jobs for it? Not really. Would it rely on politicians to slowly dole out rights and privileges to it? Probably not. When we start to provide these things to ourselves, then maybe we could get serious about revolution and independence as a movement.

Çarşamba, Ocak 11, 2006

Azeem: Always Facing East

by Mike Conway
flix by Matthew Reamer

“Writing is what I do no matter what, whether I was broke or not. I would always find a way to express myself,” says Ismail Azeem. Always in search of that “way,” Azeem’s been on a haj, seeking out different poetic locales through the blocks of Oakland and beyond.

Since his 1999 debut EP, Garage Opera, Azeem’s traveled through a lot of studios and stages. Then in ‘01 he completed his second outing, Craft Classic in 2001. This time an LP, Classic carried the work of seven capable, all-Bay producers. An emcee can get lost in the many different cuts of such a production; but Classic shows Azeem taking charge, his presence established in every beat. With tracks like “Duragz” (w/ DJ Spin) and “Rubber Glue” (DJ Zeph) on one end and “God’s Rolex” (Fanatik) on the other, Craft Classic is both hilarious and profound.
After Classic, Azeem was officially a talent to reckon with and the haj was on. Azeem’s talent is apparent. He rarely changes his pitch up to fit a rhyme in; rather he packs his verse into steady, tidy meters. But Azeem says talent alone gets you nowhere. “I can go around the corner right now and grab you ten guys that can all flow and freestyle for an hour. But when it comes time to go to school, work, raise a kid, then focus on your music for two/three hours a night, that’s where they fall short.”
Persistence is one thing, but getting approached by labels for it is better. When Gregory Howe of Wide Hive Records needed the right emcee for his Variable Unit--a loose group of jazz fusion instrumentalists, such as Matt Mongomery, and Kat Ouano and Max MacVeety of the Crown City Rockers--he tapped Azeem and the project culminated in the ingenious LP Mayhem Mystics. On this album, Azeem’s lyricism covers a wider range in both style and substance than on previous efforts.
Even as he was working on the Variable Unit project, Azeem kept on as a solo artist. Within months of the Mayhem Mystics release, Azeem also put out Show Business through Bomb Hip-Hop. Show Business was on the same tip as Garage Opera and Craft Classic, this time with 15 producers and 18 tracks.
For Azeem, taking on multiple collaborations is its own reward. “I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but I don’t know too many emcees that can write a whole album with live jazz musicians and have it sound one way, and then go and have a hip-hop record and have that sound just as authentic.”
And now as we close in on 2006, Azeem’s lyrical haj gets deeper. He’s set to release many more projects, all equally unique. First up will be an LP with DJ Zeph, as Alpha Zeta. After that, he’ll release a grime album with the Switchcraft crew. He’s also collaborating with Reggie Graham, director of the Broadway production “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk” for a musical adaptation of Azeem’s spoken word performance “Rude Boy,” which will run at the Marsh Theater in SF. Throw in some other collaborations with Om Records' artists Colossus and with an mix/mash DJ Child, and you get a good idea about how dedicated this emcees is to his art.
Armed with his craft, Azeem has traveled far and wide. But, he says he couldn’t have moved an inch without striking up a certain chemistry with each of his collaborators. “Music is chemistry,” he says. “You might have good beats, I might have good lyrics, but if our ethers don’t mix properly, it’s gonna come out in the music.”
Life, it is said, is a journey for all of us. Yet if we can’t vibe and meander with others on the way, it’s mostly an aimless wandering that gets us nowhere. For Azeem, it’s a haj with many destinations, each one different from the last and every one slightly closer to Mecca.

Salı, Ocak 10, 2006


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Cuma, Ocak 06, 2006

Story of Dying Things

Watching a Moth Die
I see you old and beaten,
Inside on a cold night
The wings which once you flew
So high in summer
Some thought you to be a butterfly.
But now are torn and rotten
As ugly autumn leaves.

You now bang your head
Against the dull lamp light
Thinking it's the sun, maybe
Hoping I might open a door
So you can fly to flowers once more

But I'd rather sit on my lonely chair
and watch you slowly die

moth, originally uploaded by smallaxe.

I then toook him and put him in my freezer. The next day I reconsidered if he was actually dead.

Is The Moth Dead?
Frozen moth, missing limb.
Wings wiggle in the wind,
Or does he thaw alive?

Hungry human, out of Eden,
Though at times he is naked,
Outside he's clothed in rags,
Strange like dusty scales.

Time has passed. No response.
He frames him in glass for sale
And sells him to pay for lunch.

Çarşamba, Aralık 14, 2005

An Early Assessment of Tooki's Execution

San Quentin, CA: Yes, this was a vigil; it was swept like rain with sadness and anguish. I had to turn my back. I've been near men already dead many times, but I'd never been so knowingly close to a man dying. Tooki was executed behind a wall of thuggery that is miles deep. I saw grown men cry. I saw anger in women's faces that I don't care to see often. That said, I also saw a fucking circus with everything but the corndogs. Bearded-lady newscasters and radio personalities with more makeup than 5 drag queens. I saw them clowns too.

lawyers, originally uploaded by smallaxe.

I was an eyewitness, but also a journalist. Ethics of involvement simply recede at such times when a man is taken out by process. They might as well have hung the man like a witch from a high tree. That was a fact. Going there with a fellow writer, I expected the moment to be sombre. It wasn't. It was jovial on both sides: the Free-ers and the Fry-ers. But a man died that night and I found myself wondering if his spirit missed living yet. Each of us must go through such a longing when we die at first, I suppose.

1201am, originally uploaded by smallaxe.

There were young people everywhere. The young can't help but be a hearty parade in the name of Life. They were there, wide-eyed and raw. A crew of 6 early-twenties kids, going on forty, stormed off accosting every TV camera poor enough to be on.

priestess, originally uploaded by smallaxe.

Still, for those of you that might have found this grotesque affair cute, or saw it as some thing resembling justice, here's a survey I did of the crowd. I asked people their spirituality and then if they would ever justify killing anyone. Here's the data:

ATHEISTS: These insisted "never" generally
BUDDISTS: Most said "Yes. In many lives if necessary."
MUSLIMS: "Whatever Allah requires."
CHRISTIANS: "It's more a question of 'Whom wouldn't I kill?'."
HINDU: "If they rob my store one more time, I will kill all of them."
MISCELLANEOUS: "It definitely seems to be in our nature."

unblinking, originally uploaded by smallaxe.

On that note: know that you are blessed with every night you get away with alive. Some of the Clear Channel news-stooges that went talking smack to OG crips for sound-bytes won't likely be as fortunate, y'all.


valleyofshadow, originally uploaded by smallaxe.

Pazar, Aralık 04, 2005

Through the Carpal Tunnel at SF GAME Convention

Spent a good part of the weekend getting trash talked on, dunked on, butt-stroked and all-around SERVED by adolescent boys at the Game and Music Experience convention (compliments of XLR8R: you guys ROCK!!!). GAME (as it was called) was the first ever of its kind from the gaming industry. This 3-day extravaganza served to show the world how deep this industry is, and boy is it DEEP!

In addition to endless games from all corners of technology: sports, military, fantasy, urban (choose your world, playa)--there was also some fine showcases of the Bay's finest musicians. Lyrics Born, Pidgeon John (he's from Hawthorn in LA it turns out), Colossus, JBoogie, Keak Da Sneak, and most of Hieroglyohics.

The event kicked off to asubduedd handful of industry geeks, hyped-up kids of every age, hyped-up parents, the Army and hacks like myself who kept telling ourselves we were "working." On Friday night, Quannum recording artist Pidgeon John did the call-and-response to me, my wife and like seven other people that were hip. PJ treated us as if we were a crowd of thousands. Good work boyeee!!!

After hours of careful consideration, these are my faves and my dogs from the event:

50 CENT, "BULLETPROOF": Taking the "shot 9 times" lore to a new level, this game is the child of Tony Yayo. Use your knowledge of the rules and regulations of the motherfucking game to propel Fiddy through the dark underworld. Take out suckas with the help of Tony, Llyod Banks and some well-appointed chrome, or "bling." Worth playing to hear the voiceovers alone, the best part of this game was when I ran out of money, guns and, coincidentally, cred. I was forced to roam the streets unarmed, leading 50 through pawn brokers, ho's, and street hustlas who couldn't do no nothin fo' me. 50 was worthless without his flash, so play on playa!

007: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE: DUDE! Go ballistic on the many Bond villains with classic sounding firearms and then bust some skulls open with an up-close-and-personal forward slash from an AK47. Take that Stalin!

CALL OF DUTY 2: Currently the hottest game out there, Call of Duty allows you to give Winston Churchill his finest hour through the sight apertures of the many WWII weapons. Nice innovations include the "Kill Cam" where you see those Nazi bastards actually buck back from the g's of a well-placed head shot. You are there and you are Gerry's problem now!

BEST CONTEXT AWARD: While the premises of some games like Black were lacking, Mark Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure is a sick insight into what an actuall all-out police state in America's cities would be like to fight. You're a graffiti artist named Trane (nice name too) running from militarized, homicidal police mutants and beating-down rival candy-ass writers for turf as you fight to protect the hip-hop family unit. Ecko was on hand, as was Flava Flave and Fear Factor's Joe Rogan, each hawking their swag and plenty of it.

HONORABLE MENTION: Our fighting men and women showed once again why they are America's sweethearts by manning a popular 1st person, non-violent shooter game w/ a simulated M6A1 replica service rifle or M9 Baretta. No recruiters in sight. With this kind of service from our military, think what they could do for a Four Seasons! Impeccable, disciplined service found nowhere else in the world. On second thought, let them keep serving All-Hayta in the iRaq. The pleasure is all theirs. The Army gets a big-ol' "KILL!!!" from this here marine.

YAYS VS NAYS: Big ups to Charlie Tate and Colossus for showing everyone exactly how cool the new instrumental Bay Area strain of Bohemian-Hop is. NAYS: Keak Da Sneak put on a tight show, albeit surprisingly typical. Something is wrong when your entourage is on stage standing around and not cruising the crowd for hotties for the afterparty. Fellas: study how when all 20 of Hieroglyphics take the stage, every swinging dick is working the crowd. It's all love, my brothers.

Joyo Velarde

By Mike Conway

Joyo Velarde could have been anything she wanted. At UC Davis, she pondered being a TV journalist. But after an internship with NBC, she found the corporate culture of television too shallow and fickle. But Joy’s true calling wouldn't find her at college; it had been with her long before.

We enter life with very little, we leave with even less. Though naked, we are born with a certain something to help us along the path bestowed on us. That something is how we communicate destiny to the world; discovering it and using it is our highest purpose.

Joyo Velarde was destined to sing. She has developed her voice since childhood. As a junior in college, Joy was very much in a shell. She was disillusioned with her academic path in journalism, perhaps a little bit shy, and not entirely confident with her singing voice.

At the same time, however, she had a relationship with this guy named Tom Shimura. Captivated by her voice, Tom urged her to make something of it. She took his advice and formally studied singing at Davis and San Jose State. The San Jo’ program eventually landed her a role in a world famous opera, where she performed live, onstage in Rome, Italy as the sultry Gianetta, a supporting role in Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir D’amore (The Elixir of Love).

Now, Joyo Velarde’s voice is heard by millions and it’s clear to her it was all meant to be. “In my growth as a person,” Joy says, “it’s definitely solidified in me that there’s a reason for everything.” Tom became known as Lyrics Born. The relationship they shared was true love and became marriage. And together their talents became a fluid union between a baritone emcee and a soprano songstress.

In 1996, Joyo sang back up to Lyrics Born on the underground hit “Balcony Beach”. The song flows like a scene in an opera. Our hero Lyrics Born lays on the railing of a oceanside balcony, musing on life in general and preparing a soliloquy. But first, Joy croons in from across water; her tone surges in with each wave, like she is the sea herself echoing about how she moves the sand with her tides.

Cut to 2003: LB releases his debut solo effort Later That Day, off Quannum Projects. The album has since exploded beyond expectation, and Joy plays a major role in that success. She sings back-up on several tracks, including “Love Me So Bad” which still rides atop the charts on major radio stations like LIVE 105.

Joy says her vocals have a distinct purpose when backing up Lyrics Born. “When we write together, [we] just try to make sure that both sides are represented, that we both represent the characters that we wanted.” She’s not your typical songstress that unconditionally validates a male emcee. Joy is an independent, balancing perspective; her presence in the mix adds a voice of reason with her own prerogatives while her partner lyrically navigates the tensions and tribulations of a man on a mission.

From a well-studied, classical voice across to the Mary J. Blige school of deep soul, Joy’s signing covers a range the size of Mongolia. It’s no surprise then that some of the tracks from Later on which she appears have emerged from the underground and into the mainstream. In the taxi-flick Collateral, Jamie Fox listens to “Love Me So Bad” in his cab. You can hear Joy along with Constance Lopez in a Diet Coke commercial that plays a couple bars of “Callin Out”.

Some longtime fans are taken aback by this commercial success. After all, Joyo Velarde and her Quannum cronies are some of underground hip-hop’s greatest treasures, and hell-no do we want pop culture hijacking our jewels. Still, Joy aint trippin. The important things in her life—inspirations like family and friends—remain true despite any commercial success. “The fam thing never changes,” she confides, “People hear our songs on commercials and think everything that comes with that is in place as well, but it’s not. If our music can get through to other people, what’s wrong with succeeding at that?” Indeed, people in far-away suburbs are now receiving small doses of high-quality hip-hop, albeit through the medium of slap-happy soda ads.

But Joy and her crew don’t go into recording studios to think up jingles for Coca Cola, but to make music as they always have. “It should always be about doing the next project. I don’t think anyone should get complacent.”

That next project for Ms. Velarde is her very own solo album. “We’ve been chipping away at it for about four to five years,” says Joy. That time-span served as a lesson in patience as she waited until things were just right for the project. “I’m definitely more confident with the way my voice is now,” she says, “I know the kind of instrument I have to offer.” Lyrics Born will produce most of the material (as he did on Later) and manage all the A&R (Artist & Repertoire) aspects.

She classifies her solo effort roughly as a soul record, though not in the traditional sense of the soul genre. Joy modestly asserts that her voice is not a typical instrument of the neo-soul variety; still, the solo focuses on one of soul’s greatest topics: “Love and everything that accompanies love.”

When asked if she has any sad love songs, Joy scrolls through her mental catalog of lyrics and comes upon one song about the father/daughter dynamic. “That’s the blueprint for the relationships you have [with men] for the rest of your life.” Joy explains that when a father is not there substantially or flat-out abandons his daughter, often times a girl grows up thinking “Okay, fuck it. All the men in my life are gonna leave me, so why should I give you my heart?”

Joy is also pondering some political topics as well, but no matter what the topic that she writes and sings about, Joy is somewhat self-effacing about her music. “I don’t believe it’s us making it. I believe it’s God, it’s the universe using us as voices, instruments, emcees, producers, to get some message out there.”

The instrument of Joy is not so much a talent as it is a gift. One gift of the many bestowed uniquely on us all. For Joyo Velarde, it’s not a question of what that gift is, “but the journey of trying to figure out where we can take that gift.”

Joyo’s journey to this point is thus a familiar one. Just when she was disillusioned and uncertain, other people and forces were conspiring to brighten her future. Her future—hell, the future of us all is made in the present; because it is in that moment alone that we all play together as instruments of destiny.

Copyright Down and to the Left

Image by Granger Davis

By Mike Conway

The creative landscape is changing. Technologies like Pro Tools, the iPod, and peer-to-peer networks have become mainstream in the digital age, creating a wild frontier of sorts in music. Rather than struggling to break into radio, musicians can find a mass audience without a major record deal. These technologies are fostering the rise of “semiotic democracy”—where more and more people are no longer passive consumers of mass media, but active participants in creating culture.

The music industry is part of a waning guard, and it fears it will be eclipsed by this new landscape. But the industry refuses to simply take a bow, or even roll with these changes. Instead, it has released the hounds of law onto the backbone of semiotic democracy: the internet.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is currently policing digital networks that distribute copyrighted material for free; and it is dead serious. It went after a deceased woman for downloading songs in her twilight years. The RIAA also has a case before the Supreme Court in an attempt to quash peer-to-peer networks. Just like 9/11 paved the way for the PATRIOT Act to “adjust” civil liberties, the RIAA is enforcing copyright infringement to tame the new creative frontier.

Sadly, one of the heaviest influences on copyright law is the lobbying power of the “creative” industries. William Fisher III is a professor at Harvard Law School and a leading scholar of copyright law. He attributes some of the major changes in copyright to “concentrations of economic power.” The life of a copyright is a classic example. In 1998, the copyright for Mickey Mouse was about to expire, making the Disney icon public property. Dr. Fisher says “Disney would have lost a lot of licensing revenue if Mickey Mouse had fallen into the public domain. [So] Disney and many other organizations prevailed upon Congress to extend copyright” from 50 to 70 years.

The RIAA qualifies copyright in lofty terms. Their website states that “to artists, ‘copyright’ means the chance to hone their craft, experiment, create, and thrive. It is a vital right, and over the centuries artists have fought to preserve that right.” But now, in the 21st century, copyright can also encumber artists in their creative process. Putting together mixtapes or samples continues to be tricky for a number of reasons. Dr. Fisher gives two. He says “sampling is one of those zones where the power of a copyright owner gets in the way of successive layers of creativity.” Secondly, Fisher says, “there doesn’t exist a comprehensive copyright registry; so even if you’re perfectly willing to pay for permission to use other people’s works creatively, you can’t find the owner.” The result, according to Dr. Fisher, is that copyright law “is closing off an entire source of new works [and] depriving people of the creative experience.” So despite what the RIAA says, copyright and creativity have yet to shake hands.

But the current copyright regime fits neatly into their ongoing litigation against certain peer-to-peers. Mitch Bainwol, the RIAA’s chairman and CEO says free peer-to-peers follow a “parasitical business model” that “robs songwriters and recording artists of their livelihoods, stifles the careers of up-and-coming musicians, and threatens the jobs of tens of thousands of less celebrated people in the music industry.” And that argument holds a lot of water with many musicians, who believe that for art to have any continuity, artists should be compensated for their work.

But within the recording industry lie several common practices that are quite anti-artist. Work-for-hire and controlled composition clauses can snatch the cheese right from an artist’s mouth. Plus, the artist and the copyright owner are usually two different entities, and they are often at odds.

Copyright is never as simple as “once you create it, it’s all yours.” In any given recording, there are two copyrights: one for the song as it is composed by the artist(s), and another for the song as it is recorded. Many times, neither copyright is held by the artist, or at best he/she will hold a fraction of one, leaving the artist with little control over their own work. In 1998, Public Enemy posted free MP3s of their forthcoming remix Bring the Noise 2000 on their website. The recording label, PolyGram, had considerable share in the album, enough to sue PE and force them to remove their own songs from their official website. PolyGram’s copyright had been infringed.

In theory, the RIAA is right to stand up for the artist and the “thousands of less celebrated people in the industry.” But its legal crusade is as consoling to artists as a crying crocodile. After all, the recording industry is a business like any other; it will do everything in its power to sustain itself. It’s more likely that the industry’s fight on filesharing is about keeping its monopoly relevant than it is about stopping illegal downloading.

Instead of marching on the halls of high government and patrolling fledgling technologies, the recording industry can ensure its own relevancy by bringing justice into the music business. Espousing contracts that empower artists with more say over their legacies is a start. If the RIAA extols copyright as a guardian of creativity, they should develop an accessible database of copyrights to stimulate new forms of creativity. American culture has always been a product of the people. Now that technology and new media has caught up with the diversity of our voices, the industry should step back and listen.

Police Union Pro-Pot?

In an exclusive interview with SHOUT,
Inspector Delagnes speaks his mind:

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My Interview with Elliot Wilson

Mass props to Mr. Wilson for reaching out to the indy/undy media! Enjoy dominating the market, Elliot, and always keep an ear to the street. Click on image for interview...