May 29, 2004

After the Mix Tape I Guess Comes The Tears: Mixtapes, Major Labels and the Song Flow

Steven Shaviro has a great take on Ghostface's The Pretty Toney Album.

I do have something of a disagreement, almost a technicality of one. But its a technicality that reveals a lot about the state of music today so I'm going to run with it.

Shaviro puts out a hypothesis on why The Pretty Toney Album has been somewhat poorly received by fans:

Judging from what I've read on fan websites and bulletin boards, the true Ghostface Killah fans don't like this one as much as his earlier solo work, Ironman and Supreme Clientele. This seems to be because, in dropping the "Killah" from his name, Ghostface has changed the ratio between hard-headed thug narratives and squishy love songs, having less of the former and more of the latter.

Now for one I think Shaviro seriously underestimates both how much soul has been in Ghostface since day one, and also what his audience wants. Ghost's two tracks on the first Wu-Tang record (Tearz, and Can it Be That it Was All So Simple Then) where both soul sampled powered and nearly as emotional as any of the new album. Ghost has always been the emotional Wu member, lurking in background while the more upfront styles of Method Man, ODB, Genius and Raekwon led to record deals. And I doubt most of his fans are sitting around waiting for him to make a more gangster record, there are far to many of those around anyway. When people want Ghost they want emotion, they want soul.

The real issue though is in the physical package of a CD, and it illustrates the deep changes the music industry is beginning to undergo. People where disappointed, not that Pretty Toney wasn't as good as his old records, but because it wasn't as good as the new ones that didn't make it. Disappointed that it wasn't as good as his mix tape output. Quite simply the recordings that made the album are not even close to the quality of some of the ones that failed to make the cut, for legal reasons. And in following the track of Ghostface's recorded output we can see specters of the future of music.

In hip hop there are actually two record industries. One is the old school, major labels, and independent labels based on their model. They make money by selling recordings and controlling copyright. The are legal, traditional and grasping at ways to deal with a digital future. Then there is the mix tape industry, illegal, under the counter, occasionally violent and deeply in touch with future. Its a parallel black market economy, routing around the bureaucracy of "capitalist" laws, much the way eastern block black markets routed around the bureaucracy of "communist" laws.

The term "mix tape" is quite misleading. They are all CD's now, and many are not mixed in any sense. Some are compilations, others devoted to one artist. Some pit one artist's output against another, song for song. Others are filled with "freestyles". Some of these freestyles are traditional, songs rhymed off the top the head, one take and roll. Sometimes however a freestyle turns out to be a full song, and more and more frequently the mix CDs are resembling traditional record industry albums. The "freestyles" become songs and the "mixes" become a collection of brand new material.

Artists use mix CDs to build reputations, test out new songs, and increasingly to make money. Traditionally the money goes to the DJ putting together the cd, as well as assorted manufacturers, distributors and perhaps organized crime figures. Its hard to tell in this illegal economy but I suspect mix tape DJs are now paying artists for exclusive tracks and freestyles. Hip hop is a music of exaggeration, but I suspect there is a degree of truth to the stories of artists and DJs going "platinum" in the streets. They might not be making the millions they claim, but selling say 50,000 CDs at $10 a pop is not exactly a way get poor...

One of the most interesting aspects of the mix tape economy is how it deals with copyright. And this is where Ghostface comes back in. On a mix tape, no one gives a damn about copyright or sample clearance. Want to sample the Beatles, go right ahead. If EMI ever finds out about the act they'll have a hard time finding the person to sue, and an even harder time assessing the "damages". Now Ghostface is an artist who shines on top of samples, for reasons Shaviro explores in his piece.

Samples though are expensive. Sometime like in the case of the Beatles, they aren't allowed. No amount of money would allow Ghostface to release "My Guitar" (aka "Beatles") on a major label. And in between his previous album Bulletproof Wallets and this current one Ghostface released dozens of songs. Some ended up on the album. Others don't merit much attention. But a sharp handful are both brilliant and incapable of being released on a major record label. Illegal music.

Shaviro is right that fans are somewhat disappointed, but its not because of the soul content on the record. It's because the legal record, just isn't as good as the illegal one already released. Chain together "The Sun", "The Watch" (both of which got cut from Bulletproof Wallets due to sample clearance issues, and only now getting real circulation), "The Splash", "My Guitar", "Milk Crates", "Burnin'", "The Drummer", "Summertime (remix)" (a remix of Beyonce, never commercially released, but which has been on heavy rotation in hip hop radio for nearly a year), and "Box in Hand" and you have a classic record. If half those songs had made The Pretty Toney Album fans would be in rapture. But they all couldn't make the cut due to various legal reasons. Instead the fans find rapture in mix CDs, and online where the "Wu Tang Corp." quitely releases most Ghostface's semi-legal output.In this situation the album's role suddenly becomes reversed. Instead of representing the cream of an artists output, it becomes the repository of their detritus, a legal document filled with legal music in an illegal world.

With Ghostface we can see glimmers of the legal cd transforming into a vestigial organ. A ritualize release that has little to do with the real flow of music. The tension that once existed with a new release is gone. Once people waited in anticipation to hear what their favorite artists had created. Now the songs filter in through the internet, arriving often with surprise, not anticipation. The songs streaming through the internet, or the black market mix tape network, often fail to reach a proper major label cd, but they don't fail to reach the fans. And with each release the major labels fall behind both in terms of release dates (a major label cd is always stale), and legality. In a move perhaps learned from internet engineers, culture is routing around the obstacles of law.

Posted by William Blaze at May 29, 2004 05:07 PM | TrackBack

Actually, I agree with everything you say here. The suppressed cuts are often among Ghostface's best.
And I didn't mean to imply that the new album is a radical change from anything he did before -- only that the proportions of the different types of songs had perhaps changed.

Posted by: Steve Shaviro on May 29, 2004 08:18 PM

Steve, never meant for this to be a critique of any sort, just a jumping off point. As for the proportions, yeah you are right, I just listened to Ironman again, its far more violent then I remember. Its almost like Ghost is in the closet of sorts. The soul is all over the album, he clearly loves it, but there is a tension in the lyrics, a gangster front that stands taught in opposition to the beats. He only really lets it go on a couple tracks. He sounds far more confident now, he's a soul man, and he doesn't care if the world knows.

Posted by: Abe on May 29, 2004 09:20 PM

Both of your analyses are dead spot on. Nice work. Abe - hot. I've been thinking about techno culture and DJ mixes recently. About how DJ mixes need to arise to the forefront as a way to reroute current downfalls with distribution.. more soon.

Posted by: tobias c. van Veen on May 30, 2004 03:00 PM


Very well done. I had been thinking of a lot of those thoughts, but didn't think to bring them together like that.

Posted by: matt on June 1, 2004 08:45 PM

Great post. I cannot think or say it any better than you have here.

Posted by: Milo on June 1, 2004 09:58 PM

Ditto. Extremely well written no less.

Posted by: Jameel on June 2, 2004 02:01 AM

i`ve never really been a critic but i believe ghostface should appriciate his self more than he is doing right now. where is all that lost soul i used 2 feel.

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