Since the dawn of the age of music sampling,its become possible for contemporary soul and hip-hop admirers to be introduced to 60’s and 70’s funk era music from America,South America and Africa in particular. This allows those reared solely on hip-hop based music to discover the rich heritage of its musical origins. Because of exposure from family to the actual funk era music during my youth,’I’ll have to exclude myself from that majority of those 25 and under who came to understand the funk era in that fashion. Of course this became a major topic among music copyright lawyers who,similarly to how they dealt with recordable VHS tapes,feared the effect of sampling on the business and industrial side of the music world. And all facets of hip-hop-from De La Soul to Biz Markie,saw themselves on the wrong side of a lawsuit for “unlawful usage” during the late 80’s/early 90’s. This article is not about sampling though. It’s about how the same musical copyright laws have effected every segment of musical creativity in the last two and a half decades in the United States in particular.
What you see about you is the back cover art of Marvin Gaye’s Here,My Dear album. It was recorded in 1977 as part of a divorce agreement between Gaye and his wife Anna Gordy whereby she would receive all of the royalties from the album. As reflected in the artwork,Marvin used the medium of musical lyricism to reflect the conflicting emotions of his divorce and romantic transitions. Fast forward 36 years to this summer when I gleefully purchased the new Robin Thicke album Blurred Lines. The title song of this album became a huge topic of conversation between myself and Henrique because it had this full on funk era blend of percussion and a more humane attitude towards the opposite sex-with Thicke himself “looking for a good girl” both physically and personally. It was definitely a summer jam for the year. I noticed a strong influence from Marvin Gaye’s 1977 dance hit “Got To Give It Up”. But that was part of the appeal of the song. The tradition from blues to jazz to funk of borrowing musical ideas from previous generations has its origins with the African drum-traditions passed down from parents to child about the drumming used to announce planting,the harvest season or what have you. Now it seemed a new,more self centered ethic has come into place to try to topple that Afrocentric aestetic of musical generationalism.
Marvin Gaye III,the son of the slain Motowner claimed that the song “Blurred Lines” contained more than the mere influence of his fathers music. He contends if you listen to the music,the similarities are more than clear. He claims this has caused him and his family much duress because he contends that Thicke was not merely influenced by Marvin Gaye’s hook but stole it. A music attorney named Doug Mark told CBS news last month that he clearly sees the musical similarities between “Got To Give It Up” and “Blurred Lines”. And even agrees that its easy to see how the song may seem to rip Marvin Gaye’s music off to some people. But adds this doesn’t constitute for copyright infringement. As of late October of this year,the Gaye family finally managed to sue Robin Thicke over unlawful copyright infringement over “Blurred Lines”. Personally? This sort of legacious attitude towards music has resulted mainly in a decade or more of often mediocre contemporary R&B/soul. Because the modern day emphasis on musical legality makes it hard for the Afrocentric aural tradition of passing down musical ideas through the generations,many modern artists are having to come up with only original and legally safe music. This not only has the effect of diminishing musical quality,but results in longer times between albums as each song may have to be “fact checked” to see if it doesn’t resemble someone else’s music in any way.
Generationalsim plays another important role in the case of the Gaye/Thicke lawsuit in my opinion. Marvin Gaye III is the adopted son of Marvin Gaye and first wife Anna Gordy. He was born in 1966 and didn’t know about his adoption until just before his fathers death. Not only did he grow up believing Marvin Gaye was his biological father,but at the age of 11 had to be deeply effected by his parents divorce and his fathers burgeoning drug habit. The writer Toure’s I Would Die 4 U,a generationally based book about why Prince became an musical icon of the 1980’s,goes into great detail about how the matter of divorce-both within their families and without,had on many Generation X’ers. The idea of the generally absent father and resulting uncertainty certainly led to the typically sarcastic and cynical attitude of this generation. But also a hostile rejection of their parents and the culture they helped to create. When you add to this the contention that Marvin the III’rds wife was stressed to the point of kidney failure due to the “Blurred Lines” affair,its important to remember his fathers massive debt to the IRS at the time of his death. My personal contention is that Marvin Gaye III is basically a bitter man who felt cheated by his parents relationship ending and is simply lashing out at Robin Thicke. And that this ethic,as it effects a nation of creative musicians,does more damage to the creativity of music than even illegal downloading ever could. But I am going to,as CBS’s news story recently did,present both of the songs in questions here. Musical legality left aside,do you the reader honestly hear what’s tantamount to a musical theft here? Can musical creativity be reduced to mere matters of finance? Do artists only create to be bought and sold like slaves? You be the judge of what’s really on trial.