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Is Copyright a Guardian Angel or a Killer of Creativity? A Conversation with Alfred Steiner

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The Drawing Center in New York recently mounted a show called “Day Job” that neatly upended the timeless lament of every struggling writer, artist and musician – My day job is robbing me of the time to do my REAL work! In a clever, counter-intuitive twist, the curator of the show asked a dozen artists to produce a work that illustrated how their day jobs enrich their art.  There were intriguing contributions from artists who pay the rent by working as a landscape architect, a medical illustrator, a set designer, an art installer, a museum guard.  One work in particular jumped out at me.  It was a collage called “Substantially Similar? (after Koons 2010),” [above] composed of 36 rectangular panels, each contributed by a different artist and then assembled by the artist who conceived the piece, Alfred Steiner.  The result was an instantly recognizable riff on Jeff Koons’s “Popeye” series – an appropriation from an appropriator who has made headlines in several highly publicized copyright cases.  A note beside “Substantially Similar?” left no doubt about its creator’s stance on the passionate arguments for and against copyright laws: “By engaging these issues, the project may also suggest how copyright antagonizes artistic freedom while providing artists no discernible benefit.”


Alfred Steiner is a 37-year-old Ohio native who grew up believing he was going to be an artist, then wound up attending Harvard Law School.  Today he paints, draws and produces conceptual pieces – when he isn’t practicing copyright law for a large Manhattan law firm.  We sat down together at a cafe near his home recently and talked about how copyright law – for better and for worse – affects the books, art, music and journalism of Jonathan Lethem, Jeff Koons, Jay-Z, the New York Times and the Pittsburgh mash-up D.J. Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk.

The Millions: I was wondering how to describe you to our readers.  Is this guy a copyright lawyer who happens to be an artist, or is he an artist who happens to be a copyright lawyer?  Or both?  Or neither?

Alfred Steiner: I spend the majority of my time on the art part.  But the law is an important part of my life, and it’s certainly how I make a living.  But I view the art as what I’m most interested in doing.

TM: So you’re an artist who happens to be a copyright lawyer.

AS: Yeah, if I had to choose.

TM: Let’s start with your piece at the Drawing Center.  Where did the idea come from?

AS: Well, there was a call from the Drawing Center for proposals about how your day job related to your work.  It could be antagonistic, it could be complimentary.  So I was thinking about how my artwork relates to my day job, and how I might raise certain issues related to intellectual-property law and copyright law.

TM: So you commissioned other artists to do pieces of the work?  Tell me about that.

AS: Essentially, I wanted to select a work that fulfilled a number of criteria.  One of which was, when it was broken into many pieces, few if any of the pieces would be recognizable.  And I wanted to pick a work by somebody that would have some significance in terms of contemporary art and copyright, which is why I selected Jeff Koons.  He’s used all sorts of things – Odie from “Garfield,” the Pink Panther – and in this case he was using Popeye.  While I was working on this, I learned that Popeye is no longer under copyright in Europe, but he is the United States for a few more years.  Which is another interesting twist that was serendipitous.

TM: So you got different artists to contribute patches, which you patched together?

AS: Right.  I took an electronic version of the Koons original and divided it up into 36 pieces and sent each artist just one little piece, via e-mail, so they wouldn’t recognize the whole thing.  I gave them instructions on how to create an image based on the image that I’d e-mailed them.  The only other instructions were a very close paraphrase of the 2nd Circuit’s test for copyright infringement – which is, “would a reasonable person regard the two works’ esthetic impact as the same?”

TM: In other words, would a layman recognize these two works as being the same thing?

AS: Right.

TM: So the contributors didn’t know what they were reproducing?

AS: Right.

TM: And the result was a piece that looked vaguely like Koons, but was different.

AS: It had the essence of the original but was clearly a new work.

TM: In your note at the show you mentioned that copyright antagonizes artistic freedom while providing artists no discernible benefit.  Tell me what you mean by that.

AS: Well, the point is that as an artist your livelihood, in general, depends on your sale of unique objects, or small editions of objects.  So copyright is not as important to you as it is to a musical artist…

TM: Or a writer.

AS: Exactly.  Because contemporary artists don’t sell millions of copies.  The fact is in the art world when one artist copies another artist, it only helps the artist being copied because the more people who imitate you or are influenced by you –  the more that happens, the more it shows you’re part of the ongoing story.

TM: Let’s talk about writers.  In his essay in Harper’s, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem wrote that copyright isn’t a right but a “government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results.”  Would you agree with that?

AS: Yes, I would agree with that.  The Constitution allows Congress to protect the works of authors for limited periods of time in order to promote creative work.

TM: But Lethem’s point is that the Founders thought works should be protected a short amount of time, maybe 14 years or so.  Now it’s the lifetime of the author, plus 70 years.  He thinks that’s a terrible idea for writers, and for writing, and for books.  Do you agree?

AS: My sense is that life plus 70 years is too long.  It doesn’t need to be that long to fulfill the purpose.  You could argue that one interesting analog is fashion.  There’s no intellectual-property protection for fashion, but I don’t think anyone would argue that fashion lacks for innovation.  So, do we really need to protect the author for his entire lifetime plus 70 years to encourage innovation?  I don’t think so.

TM: You know, William Gibson has this famous quote – “All information wants to be free.”  It’s a good sound bite, but is it true?

AS: Well, for me there are two strains to that.  One is that information is inherently hard to contain, but people are curious, they want information, they historically have wanted to know the truth, not necessarily with a capital T.  So when you try to control information, you’re running an uphill battle.

TM: Now we’re talking about WikiLeaks.  But getting back to books – information might want to be free, but if you flip that over, don’t people who write books and create works of art have a certain right to be remunerated for their creative effort?

AS: I think there’s a scale.  Let’s say all 50 states had different copyright laws.  You could imagine a state where it was extremely restrictive and you couldn’t copy anything.  What would the products of that state look like compared to a state that was laissez faire and you could do whatever you want?  To me that’s an interesting question: where should the bar be set?  I think you’d have enforcement problems in the very strict state.  And if you had very powerful media players who controlled everything, you wouldn’t have YouTube with the millions of things that are on there, many or most of which are probably infringing someone’s copyright.  You would have fewer viewpoints expressed, and I think that’s detrimental.  The more things that get created, the more viewpoints and opinions will be expressed, and that’s better for a democracy.

TM: You’re talking not just about graphic art, but about writing, music.

AS: I’m talking about all creative endeavors but I was thinking primarily about writing.

TM: Where do you think copyright is going in America right now?   Is it becoming more porous, more loose, more free?  Or is it going in the opposite direction?  I’m thinking about the $125 million Google settlement, paying authors for the right to digitize their books.

AS: The Google settlement is an interesting case because they think if a project is interesting, they’ll go ahead and do it even if there are intellectual-property problems – then deal with those later.  But I think information is becoming much easier to distribute and, as a result of that, copyright laws are tightening in a sense, to try to deal with that ease of distribution and allow creators to recoup the investment they make in producing this stuff.  This becomes even more important when you’re creating, say, an encyclopedia, something that requires the collective effort of lots of people, and a lot of coordination, and a big budget to produce.  Those things will never be produced if somebody can immediately make a million copies and not have to pay whoever produced it.  That applies even more so in the context of film, where you have budgets routinely north of a hundred million dollars.  Who’s going to invest in that if everybody can download a copy with no fear of prosecution?

TM: Did you happen to see that essay I wrote for The Millions about Jonathan Lethem’s Harper’s essay and David Shields’s Reality Hunger and the Jay-Z book?

AS: Yeah, “Jay-Z is not a Proudhon of Hip-Hop.” (laughs)

TM: In that essay, I mentioned the young German writer Helene Hegemann, who copied passages of her novel, Axolotl Roadkill, from other sources – websites, other novels – and a lot of people in Germany said, “That’s okay.  It’s a novel about Berlin club kids, that’s the culture it’s about, and it’s an expression of that culture.”  She was up for a big literary prize and they let her continue to compete for the prize even after the plagiarism became known.  I thought that was a little bit shocking – for people to say that since it’s a novel about people sampling in clubs in Berlin, then the writer has the right to sample from other writers and that’s a legitimate form of artistic expression.  I think that’s stretching it.

AS: I tend to agree with you.  Just because you’re writing about how people are sampling, or taking from other sources, that doesn’t allow you to plagiarize or copy without providing either attribution or some sort of remuneration.  It depends.  If she’s taking a sentence here or there from hundreds of different places, that’s one thing.  The other thing I would say – and this is the tougher question – if she’s copying a couple of pages here or there, in the context of a 400-page novel, that’s not that much.  And if what she has created with this novel is startlingly new or interesting, I think it would be sad to say she can’t distribute this thing that is great and that everybody would benefit from.  One other thing I would mention in that context – have you ever heard of Girl Talk?

TM: Sure, the D.J. from Pittsburgh.

AS: He’ll make songs that are totally based on samples.  One song may have 200 samples, so many that there’s no way you could pay each artist.  He’s very well received critically.  The question is, should it be possible to make that kind of work or not?  I kind of think, yes, it should be possible.

TM: What Girl Talk is doing is very similar, to me, to what William S. Burroughs did – and that’s very different from what Helene Hegemann did.  Burroughs said, “I’m going to take a pair of scissors and cut up hundreds of books and newspapers and magazines, then scramble it around and put it back together to recreate a certain state of mind.”  That was his “cut-up” technique – and that’s very much what Girl Talk is doing.  They both say, “This is our intent and this is our method.”  And it’s transparent.  When someone takes a huge passage from someone else’s book and then says, “That’s what I was trying to do,” I say that’s bullshit.

AS: I tend to agree with you.  If you go to my website and look at my works, when I borrow something it’s obvious, it’s transparent.  I have these drawings that are based on characters from The Simpsons.  They’re not merely copies, but anybody who’s familiar with American pop culture will recognize where they’re from.  I’m not trying to hide it.  Or if I’m basing something on a work by another artist, I’ll say “after Koons.”  Going back to that novelist in Germany, if she’s got footnotes and everything’s attributed to whomever it came from, then I think it’s a lot harder to criticize her for it.

TM: I would go with that, but there were no footnotes.  I’m not against people using other people’s things; I’m against them not admitting that they’re using them and then saying, as Hegemann said, that “there’s no such thing as originality, there’s only authenticity.”

AS: I agree.  I think you and I are on the same page on this.  If you challenge most people about their beliefs on this, I think you’ll get them to agree that there needs to be some way for people to get paid and to have confidence that other people are not going to be out there using their work in a way that harms their financial interest.

TM: To sum up, do you think that protection is going to be around forever?  Let’s face it, the way things are changing right now with the digitization of so much information – entire libraries – it’s an unknown where we’re going.  Where do you think it’s heading?

AS: There’s actually a book by a colleague of mine named Paul Goldstein, and its task is to make that prediction.  I think copyright protection is likely to continue indefinitely, and I think it will become even more important in a world that becomes increasingly intangible, where people’s lives are less about walking down the street getting hit by a rock and more about watching a screen or looking at their Twitter feed.  That stuff is going to become more and more valuable and there’s going to be more and more spent to protect it.  And technology is going to be very important here.  Most consumers are going to be at a point where it’s cheap enough and it just makes life easier to pay the toll that media people put there.

TM: Speaking of tolls, the New York Times just announced that it’s going to start charging for its web content, but it’ll be free for print subscribers.  Do you think people will pay the toll?

AS: In that case, maybe no.  With news, people just want news, and the source doesn’t tend to matter.  People may just go to Google News and get it for free.  With music and literature, the source is much more important.  If you want to read a James Patterson novel, you’re not going to download Moby-Dick just because it’s free.  And there are always going to be people who steal, who don’t mind the possibility that they’re going to get a virus from downloading some file.  I think it’s going to be a race between these pirates and the people trying to control it.

Jay-Z is Not a Proudhon of Hip-Hop

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Everybody loves a train wreck.  This one started when Jonathan Lethem came barreling down the tracks with an essay in Harper’s called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” in which most of the lines were cribbed from other sources and then ingeniously stitched together to argue in favor of appropriation and against the tired old 20th-century notion that an artist owns what he or she makes ­– that dinosaur known as copyright.  Then right behind him on the same tracks came David Shields with last year’s sensational freight train of a book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, an expanded echo of Lethem’s themes made up of a pastiche of Shields’s own words and the words of many other artists.  Among Shields’s words: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.”

Then suddenly – watch out! – along came the little engine that could, Marco Roth chuffing down the tracks in the opposite direction with an essay in the journal n+1 called “Throwback Throwdown,” in which he set out to derail the two speeding locomotives.  He called Shields’s book “an authentic act of copying” that fits snugly into the “pervasive and growing fantasy of the writer as hip-hop DJ.”  Roth added, “To a certain kind of white writer, engaged in the increasingly professionalized and seemingly ‘nice’ work of churning out novels, poems, essays and reviews, the rapper DJ comes to stand for this brazen, unapologetic appropriator, regardless of whether actual rappers think of themselves as heroes of ‘copyleft,’ Proudhonists of the ghetto.”

Once the collision took place, as you can imagine, there was a lot of twisted metal on the tracks.  But before the smoke cleared, an actual rapper, the superstar Jay-Z, plowed into the debris with a book called Decoded that cleverly turned the train wreck upside-down by showing how a master of an art form built on appropriation uses old-school literary techniques and a quaint thing called imagination to write lyrics that bristle with originality and socially potent meaning.  For good measure, Jay-Z tells the story about the time he stabbed a rival for stealing his music.  Train wrecks don’t get any more perfect than this.

Which brings us to the fun part.  Now we get to sift through the wreckage, counting bodies and looking for survivors.

I just found a survivor.  It’s Michel Houellebecq, the baddest bad boy in French lit today.  All this racket about copyright and appropriation (or bricolage, sampling, collage, poaching, rip-off, homage, plagiarism, call it what you will) – it bloodied him a bit but he’s actually in excellent shape.  His latest novel, The Map and the Territory, was an instant smash – until someone pointed out that Houellebecq had lifted several uncredited passages almost verbatim from Wikipedia and other websites, including an entry on how flies have sex.  The bad boy went ballistic when the word “plagiarism” was uttered.  “If those people really think that (this is plagiarism), they haven’t the first notion of what literature is,” he fumed.  “This is part of my method.  This approach, muddling real documents and fiction, has been used by many authors.  I have been influenced especially by Perec and Borges…  I hope that this contributes to the beauty of my books, using this kind of material.”  The novel wound up winning France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt.

Sitting next to Houellebecq, also battered but in remarkably good shape, is a German teenager named Helene Hegemann.  Her novel about Berlin nightclub kids, Axolotl Roadkill, was a best-seller in Germany last year and was nominated for a major prize at the Leipzig Book Fair.  Then word got out that she had lifted passages from several other sources.  After admitting to “thoughtlessness” and “narcissism,” an unrepentant Hegemann told Die Welt newspaper: “But for me personally, it doesn’t matter at all where people get their material.  What matters is what they do with it.  If my novel is interpreted as representing our times, then it has to be recognized that the novel was created in accord with what we saw in the last decade – that is, with the rejection of all those copyright excesses and the embrace of a right to copy and to transform.”  The newsmagazine Der Spiegel agreed, comparing Axolotl Roadkill to Naked Lunch and Manhattan Transfer: “Everything from newspaper articles to ads to all kinds of other texts are embedded in these foundational works of literary modernism.”  In a statement released by her publisher, Hegemann added, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

James Frey is slumped in a seat across the aisle.  He’s not going to make it.  As far as Shields and Lethem are concerned, his fatal mistake was not that he fabricated much of his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces; it was that he went on TV and apologized for it and, to prove his contrition, allowed Oprah to pillory him publicly.  He forgot the First Commandment of the 21st Century: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.”  Frey is toast.

Jay-Z came through without a scratch, of course, which brings us to this train wreck’s central irony.  The makers of popular music have been brazen and fruitful plunderers for many years because, let’s face it, there are only so many ways to arrange a simple melody and only so many ways to say “I love you” or “It’s over” or “You tore my heart out and stomped that sucker flat.”  While blues and jazz artists and practitioners of other more saccharine forms of pop music have been borrowing for years, hip-hop DJs were perhaps the first to revel in their piracy, though they made a point of dressing it up with the lofty word “sampling.”  Being a pirate, an outlaw, a gangsta has always been central to the rapper’s pose.  Jay-Z didn’t need to do a lot of posing, it turns out, because he was an industrious purveyor of cocaine long before he transformed himself into a one-man corporation.

The source of Decoded’s fascination, for me, is not the author’s projects-to-the-penthouse biographical arc, nor his tales of hustling drugs and hobnobbing with Russell Simmons and Bono and starting his own clothing line and helping turn Cristal champagne into a bling brand.  The book’s fascination comes from three very different and very surprising sources.

First, it’s beautifully made – lavish illustrations, clever layouts and ingenious use of fonts, quality paper, plus a Warhol on the cover.  Second, and most importantly, the book allows us to peek into the tent of Jay-Z’s creative process.  He begins with his epiphany, the day he heard a kid named Slate rhyming couplet after couplet before a rapt, clapping audience at the Marcy projects in Brooklyn.  Jay-Z writes that he “felt like a planet pulled into orbit by a star.”  That day he started writing rhymes feverishly in a spiral notebook and poring over the dictionary to expand his vocabulary.  (This brings to mind Lewis Hyde’s contention: “Most artists are converted to art by art itself.”)

Decoded illustrates its author’s creative process by laying out song lyrics on one page, then on the facing page letting Jay-Z deconstruct (decode) the sources and meanings of the lyrics through elaborate footnotes.  It’s a revelation.  On one drug-selling run to New Jersey, for instance, here’s how he describes his crew watching television while they work – Watchin Erik Estrada baggin up at the Ramada.  In the corresponding footnote he writes: “There are a lot of motel references in my songs.  Hotels are where a lot of our work got done, where we bagged our powder.”

There’s a telling reference to the made-up selves of rappers.  The lyric “They’re all actors” is limned like this: “When I say that rappers are actors, I mean it in two ways: first, a lot of them are pretending to be something they’re not outside the booth; second, it also means that those who are being real often use a core reality as a basis for a great fantasy, the way a great method actor like DeNiro does.”

Street slang is dissected.  “Spike Lees” are “the best seats in the house – in this case whether it’s at the arena or in the jet.”  “Sprees” are “custom rims that have internal discs that spin when the car stops, named after Latrell Sprewell…  Fun for kids, but for grown-ups, a sign that you might be trying too hard.”  Sometimes the reader absorbs the method without aid of footnotes, as when the words “breakfast,” “Lexus” and “necklace” cozy up to each other in a single couplet.  Jay-Z freely acknowledges that he plundered his parents’ vinyl record collection, floor-to-ceiling stacks of Motown, pop, R&B, soul and funk, but the act of plundering led to his creative birth, not to mere mimicry.  “We were kids without fathers,” he writes, “so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift.  We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves… Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new.  Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.”

The book’s elaborate footnotes demolish twin misconceptions: that rappers are merely brazen, unapologetic appropriators with nothing original to say; and there’s no longer such a thing as originality, just authenticity.  Jay-Z, for one, does not see himself as a hero of “copyleft” or a Proudhonist of the ghetto.  As he puts it, “I’m not a businessman.  I’m a business, man.”  He’s also a writer in the purest, oldest sense of the word – that is, he’s someone who uses his experiences, his influences and his skill with language to say something original and new.

I agree with what Michiko Kakutani wrote recently in the New York Times: “In the end, Decoded leaves the reader with a keen appreciation of how rap artists have worked myriad variations on a series of familiar themes (hustling, partying and ‘the most familiar subject in the history of rap — why I’m dope’) by putting a street twist on an arsenal of traditional literary devices (hyperbole, double entendres, puns, alliteration and allusions), and how the author himself magically stacks rhymes upon rhymes, mixing and matching metaphors even as he makes unexpected stream-of-consciousness leaps that rework old clichés and play clever aural jokes on the listener (‘ruthless’ and ‘roofless,’ ‘tears’ and ‘tiers,’ ‘sense’ and ‘since’).”

To say that rappers possess originality and that they rely on traditional literary devices is not to say that they don’t – or shouldn’t – borrow from other sources.  And it’s not to say that writers of prose and poetry shouldn’t borrow from other writers of prose and poetry and, for that matter, from rappers and jazz musicians and newspaper reporters and advertising copywriters and absolutely anyone else.  All art comes from art.  To admit this is not to concede that there’s no such thing as originality any more than it’s a license to borrow without attribution and then call it your own.  William S. Burroughs freely admitted that he cut up texts and re-arranged them and inserted the results in his novels.  Michel Houellebecq is free to be influenced by Perec and Borges and Burroughs (and anyone else), but I think he’s making a mistake if he thinks copying from Wikipedia adds to the beauty of his books.  He’s too good a writer to make such a lazy claim.  And while I agree with Helene Hegemann that what matters is not where artists get their materials but what they do with them, I believe all artists need to give up the cheap crutch of claiming that since it’s all been done before, all they can hope to do is rearrange the familiar in some unfamiliar way and then call it “authenticity.”  That trivializes art.  And it’s stupid and wrong.

Back in 1992 Cormac McCarthy told an interviewer: “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books.  The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”  That’s not to say that writers do nothing but steal from other writers; it is, rather, to admit that literature comes to us not through a writer’s unfiltered experience of life, but through that experience as filtered through the things the writer has read, as well as the things the reader has read.

In “The Ecstasy of Influence” Lethem writes, “The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism.  For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.  Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment.  There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands.  By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.”

Of course we all quote.  But if quoting is all we do, then we don’t do very much.  Shields and Lethem seem to acknowledge this without fully admitting it, because they do so much more than merely quote in Reality Hunger and “The Ecstasy of Influence.”  As Roth put it in his essay in n+1: “Art may be theft, as Shields likes to quote Picasso, but it doesn’t follow that theft is art.  Art is not ex-nihilo, but neither is it all ‘ready-mades.'”  Precisely.

Lynne McTaggart, who won a plagiarism lawsuit against Doris Kearns Goodwin, acknowledged in the New York Times in 2002 that all writers are “relentless scavengers.”  Then McTaggart added, “Writers don’t own facts.  Writers don’t own ideas.  All that we own is the way we express our thoughts… But it is important not to excuse the larger sins of appropriation.  In this age of clever electronic tools, writing can easily turn into a process of pressing the cut and paste buttons, or gluing together the work of a team of researchers, rather than the long and lonely slog of placing one word after another in a new and arresting way.”

I think she’s right.  Shouldn’t we expect novelists to do more than cut and paste Wikipedia descriptions of how flies have sex?

The third and final source of Decoded’s appeal is the revealing story Jay-Z tells about what happened the night of December 1, 1999 at New York’s Kit Kat Club.  His album Vol. 3, Life and Times of S. Carter was not due to be released for a month, but bootlegged copies were already selling on the street.  This infuriated Jay-Z.  After all, he’s a business, man.  He believes that he – and he alone – should get paid for the music he makes.  When a rival record producer showed up at the club and admitted that he was behind the bootlegging, Jay-Z stabbed him twice.

This violent outburst left no doubt about Jay-Z’s opinion of people who hijack his material and don’t apologize – and take money out of his pocket while they’re at it. You might argue that bootlegging is more invasive than sampling, and that it goes way beyond the relatively benign forms of plagiarism Lethem and Shields so ingeniously espouse.  In fact, Lethem admits as much in the closing lines of his essay: “Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions.  The name of the game is Give All.  You, reader, are welcome to my stories.  They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you.  If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.”

It’s a seductive bill of goods, but you simply can’t have it both ways.  You can’t say Pay me for what’s rightfully mine and feel free to rob me while you’re at it.  Jay-Z, who understands the workings and the worth of originality, isn’t buying this bill of goods.  Neither is Marco Roth.  Neither am I.

Things Done Changed: Hip Hop and Literature

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When Jay-Z appeared at the New York Public Library on November 15, the host of the event, Paul Holdengräber, introduced the rapper with the kind of fawning adulation and respect that even a rock star intellectual like Christopher Hitchens would have a hard time generating. Jay-Z was there to promote his new book, Decoded, which is both a memoir and a commentary on some of his best known songs. Throughout his promotion schedule, he has said the book’s intent is to make a case for rap lyrics as poetry. Holdengräber, like a hype man at a rap concert, backed up this claim by saying that “Decoded is one of the most extraordinary books that I have read in the last decade. I have to tell you, this is a book of a great – major – poet.” At that moment, thousands of young adults who had spent their teenage years striving to learn the lyrics to the entire Reasonable Doubt LP, instead of writing essays or socializing, must have gone slack as the guilt dropped from their shoulders. So hip hop is okay now? So hip hop is poetry now?

Decoded isn’t alone either. To further ease the entry of rap into the literary sphere comes The Anthology of Rap, a mammoth compendium of lyrics, boldly similar to the poetry anthologies that we are used to, and edited by the scholars Andrew DuBois and Adam Bradley. It is an even more direct attempt to firmly establish rap lyrics as a poetic innovation, and the book is already having an impact among those less inclined towards the music, with Sam Anderson at New York Magazine announcing his semi-conversion to the cause. Rappers, he discovers, are just “enormous language dorks.”

So why does this all make me so uneasy? I love rap, and have loved it for a long time. Sure we have a messy relationship – ferocious arguments, walk outs – but there will always be Illmatic, Liquid Swords and Madvillainy to remind me why the music is so important. Yet the idea of hip hop melding with another of my loves – literature, specifically poetry – feels wrong on a number of levels. Not only wrong, but potentially damaging.

One of the problems inherent in the move to canonise rap lyrics is that it’s plain (to me at least) that rap lyrics just do not work on the page. If I come across a line that resonates on paper it is usually because I am remembering the intensity of the rapper’s delivery and not because the line has any inherent poetic weight. One of my favourite rhymes comes from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part II)”: “Your crew is featherweight / My gunshots’ll make you levitate.”  Written down like that it feels denuded and mildly ridiculous, although the rhyme clicks well enough; but when Prodigy raps the lines they hit me like fists. Another piece of lyrical brilliance comes from The Clipse: “Pyrex stirs turned into Cavalli furs / The full-length cat, when I wave the kitty purrs.” To me this is great, as good as rapping gets, but it’s never going to be on my mind in those more pensive moments. It’s as shallow as a paddling pool, in other words. And why wouldn’t it be? This is popular music, after all.

Adam Bradley’s previous book was Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, a study of rap lyrics and how the best rappers “deserve consideration among the giants of American poetry.” For the most part it is well argued and intelligent. But I can’t be the only one who smirks at phrases like: “Gerard Manley Hopkins has something to teach us about flow,” and “[Edgar Allen] Poe has to be both the rapper and his own beatbox all at once.”  I don’t include these examples simply be to be sarcastic, but because they raise an important point. The juxtaposition of traditional poetry and hip hop is spiky and uncomfortable, to say the least. But crucially, Bradley does not offer us any examples of songs that justify the comparison with Hopkins or Poe, or any other great poet. Armed with a pencil and some optimism, the best I things I could write in the margins of The Anthology of Rap would be words like “nice”, “witty”, “clever” or perhaps a strained “ah, good stuff.” As I’ve shown with the examples above, even at the top end of rap lyricism there is a limit to what you can actually say about it, outside of those marginal words and phrases. True profundity and thematic sophistication in hip hop are so rare as to be accidental.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the acceptance of rap lyrics as poetry is just how easy it has been for scholars to sneak this stuff in. At university I remember reading an essay about Ice Cube’s “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” in a critical theory anthology and I was still laughing a month later, not least because the author got the lyrics of the very first line wrong (did I say laughing? – I was crying.) Of course, being a such a hip hop purist, I discarded the rest of the essay based on that one transcription error, believing the author to be some kind of pseudo-scholar who hadn’t spent enough time with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.

Unfortunately it looks as if The Anthology of Rap has made the same kind of transcription error, not just once, but dozens of times. Paul Devlin at Slate has been following this odd phenomenon, showing us the proliferation of mistakes, questioning contributors and the editors about their methods. The replies from the publishers and the editors have been incredibly limp, and members of the book’s advisory board have expressed anger and bemusement at having not been allowed much input into the transcription process, which could have stopped many of the more obvious errors leaking through.

This is extraordinarily relevant to the question of whether rap lyrics are a literary form to be placed within the American poetic tradition. Of course there have been transcription errors throughout the history of written literature, but not on the scale of this new anthology, where the source material is within easy reach of anyone. The most important point, though, is that the errors are actually not much of a big deal, from a literary point of view. The mistakes in transcription rarely have an effect on the songs themselves, so imprecise are most of the lyrics. Scholars can dispute a single word in Hamlet for centuries, but it’s hard to care whether 50 Cent says “luger trey” or “trey-eight”, “bitch” or “snitch”.

But why should rappers even want their words to be part of the poetic tradition? By introducing the context of American poetry to rap lyrics, Bradley and et al distort our capacity for criticism and appreciation. Are we really going to compare a Lil Wayne song to an Emily Dickinson poem? For what possible benefit? Hip hop plays by its own rules, and has excluded itself from the literary conversation by taking its own form. It also excluded itself from the mainstream musical establishment in a truly subversive and creative way: by pillaging the music of others and being so intent on rhythm over melody. At its best it is an outlaw form there at the fringes of the establishment, where it has its own rules and standards and answers to nobody. As Bradley puts it in Book of Rhymes, “Rap’s most profound achievement is this: it has made something – and something beautiful – out of almost nothing at all.” If this is the case, then why relegate the music to playing catch-up with high poetic art? It can only be stifling to hip hop.

It feels reactionary to compartmentalize art forms, like I’m committing a great crime against post-modernism. I would not want to reduce hip hop or literature by emphasising their limits, but it seems to me that the beginning of creative freedom is recognizing the artistic discipline that one is actually practicing. This does not mean that rap cannot have rushes of poeticism, or that poetry can’t be influenced by the rhythms of rap, but the line between the two forms should not be crossed so readily by critics and commentators. Introducing rap lyrics as great poems may make students feel better about not reading Wallace Stevens, but by ignoring the distinctions between hip hop and literature we do damage to both.

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