Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Hip Hop Musical Work: Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, and Authorship

With this recent announcement, P. Diddy morphed back into Puff Daddy, and what better way to celebrate this momentous occasion than reconsidering his role in producing the works of Notorious B.I.G.?  This topic will be the subject of at least two (maybe more) posts, particularly how we view the role of the producer and his relationship with the artist--or perhaps, if these two roles should be separated.  In fact, it is a complex problem that, I think, can be understood in a number of ways.  While this situation is more common to the world of popular music, which depends heavily on collaboration, I would suggest that older notions of the artist and work continue to predominate--and that there may even be parallel situations in classical music that have caused difficulties for scholars and performers alike.

This post will consider the role of the producer more generally and how these roles contribute to the work.  In a future post, I intend to look more closely at specific tracks from Ready to Die and analyze what exactly Puff Daddy does on them--but honestly I have not had the time or energy to do that.  So let's start with producers as a general phenomenon and go from there.  Actually, let's start by making fun of one particular producer, Lil Jon.  I feel pretty confident that readers of this blog are familiar with this video:

(Ed. note: I also feel quite confident that readers of this blog are familiar with this parody of Lil Jon, but it really is super funny when watched immediately following a video with Lil Jon.  I think that the only possible way that this sketch could have been better would be if after receiving his ticket, Lil Jon had yelled, 'LET'S GO.')

The humor here lies in the fact that the only obvious audible contributions by Lil Jon are these little, short phrases that are ultimately throw-aways and seem almost meaningless in comparison to what Usher and Ludacris do (and the pimp cup.  Let's not forget the pimp cup.  If you want your own, they are available on Amazon).  But without Lil Jon, would the title of the song be rendered as yellingly throughout?  Doubtful.

While I kid somewhat, Lil Jon here is more like a rousing DJ, a person who typically yells a variety of lines to the crowd to get everyone pumped.  Lil Jon takes on that role at the end of the video, when he gives out a series of dance steps to perform--this part often gets cut for the radio/club edit of this song.  In essence, then, he is closer to a DJ Kool in his contribution:

Is this great art?  Maybe not.  Does it have a beat and make you want to dance around?  I would submit that indeed, it does.  And that is the purpose here.

But what we are not witness to, in the Lil Jon example, is his actual production of creating beats, mixing the sounds, and putting the whole together.  This is significant, because there is a disconnect between his self-stated contributions (which include on 'Yeah,' 'Okay,' 'Let's Go' and other quick phrases) and what he has actually done for this track.  We hear Usher sing (and in the video, see him dance).  We hear (and see) Luda rap.  We hear Lil Jon yell 'YEAH' and see him walking around with a pimp cup--there are no intense scenes of him in a studio selecting beats, putting them together, and mixing them.  While those who are aware of the intricacies of making this kind of music would undoubtedly appreciate the contributions of Lil Jon within this process, more popularly, he becomes reduced to the parody seen on the Chappelle Show.

There is perhaps no better producer than Puff Daddy in terms of adding 'Yeahs' to a track (there are, in fact, multiple 'Yeahs' by all three artists--Puff Daddy, Biggie, and vocalist Total--in the first 20 seconds of this track):

In this case, Puff Daddy is far less in the DJ Kool mode of rousing the crowd and instead seems to be some kind of Biggie echo to the verse.  However, his contribution was vital for making this track palatable for radio and this was the first hit single from the CD.  This is no mean feat.  Many of the tracks on this album were in no way suitable for radio, in terms of language, subject matter, and even sound.  In fact, it was Puff Daddy who changed 'One More Chance' from a track that verges on X-Rated (and is on the CD) to the remix that most people are familiar with today:

The original track

The remix, aka the one you know

These are, ostensibly, two entirely different songs, and this example may even call into question what constitutes a remix in the first place (there are a few shared lines, but very few).  Here is where the problem comes in, for me.  What are we valuing as Notorious B.I.G.'s contribution here?  Is it the verse?  If so, what does it say that the original verse is almost wholly absent in the remix?  Because surely that must have, to some extent, been the influence of those around him.  And if it is, then that leads to the question of, ultimately, who authored this track.  Maybe the guy who loves yelling 'Whoo' in the background (he also did in 'Juicy') is the real creative force here.

In a piece that reminisced about the creation of this album that appeared in the March 9, 2004 issue of XXL, the various contributors to Ready to Die (and writer Adam Matthews) characterized Puff Daddy's contributions in a number of ways (from this point forward, Puff Daddy is PD and Notorious B.I.G. is NB).  While Matthews credits PD with providing the vision for this production, he also labels PD as perhaps the first 'overbearing executive producer to hip-hop.'  This characterization infers that Biggie's art was compromised by what PD did on the tracks, even though the success of the album was highly dependent on these precise songs.  In his discussion of the track 'One More Chance, producer Digga also remembered PD as apart from the rest of the crew, a person who changed the atmosphere when he entered the studio:

Puff was in my ear every 10 seconds in that session. When me, Big, Cease and Klept and some of the crew was in the studio it was all good. But once Puff came on the scene everything got tight. At the time, Puff was still learning about production and he wanted to show that he knew something about music. He wanted certain arrangements. And I was looking at him like, “What the hell is this guy talking about?” We’d listen to him for half a second, then we’d be like, “Yeah, whatever.”
Digga's anecdote suggests not only that PD was new to the business, but that he was less knowledgeable than those already working on the track.  The commercial success of the remix, however, suggests precisely the opposite.

In his discussion of the track 'Juicy,' which got to #1 on the US charts, producer Jean 'Poke' Oliver gave credit to PD for identifying Mtume's 'Juicy Fruit' as a good sample and seeking to make a more radio-friendly track for the album.  If you are not familiar with the Mtume video, I must insist that you familiarize yourself, because it is something else:

Poke also recalls that NB felt he was working in a style that was not natural to him in creating this track:

Big thought it was a popcorn record. He wanted to make all gangsta records. But Puff knew at the time radio wasn’t into that gangsta rap stuff. Big was like, “Yo, this guy is trying to make me an opera singer.” But Big was going to do everything that Puff asked him. He was at least going to try it. Once it became a hit, he realized: “These are the records I need to make.” When you get into this game you want to be a hardcore rapper, but those records only go so far.
 (Ed. note: an opera singer?  Paging Renee Fleming, again).  Again, this calls into question how we should view this work.  Of course, the lyrics should be credited to NB.  But would this track exist without the influence of PD?  Would NB have achieved the same level of success?

Lord Finesse, who also assisted with the album, suggests that without PD's contributions, there would not have been the same level of artistry:

When I first worked with Big, he was as street as you can get. You couldn’t get any more street than what Big was rapping about and what he was bringing to the table. But him and Puff were both growing at an incredible rate, between Puff being at MCA getting ready to go to Bad Boy, and Biggie just being able to absorb what Puff was sending him like a sponge. Biggie watching and learning Puff was like Payton and Malone, ya know? Puffy dishing it and Biggie capturing and scoring, dunking. That combination was incredible.
Puff was at a point in his career where he was growing at an enormous rate; he had Craig Mack, and he’d just come off Mary and Jodeci. He was ready to show the world. He was able to sculpt Big to not only be an underground artist, but to be well rounded. To not just dunk, but be able to finger-roll, crossover dribble, to be the best player he could be in the game. And Big learned it real, real quick! When Ready To Die was almost done, Big had all the raw street incredible songs, and Puff said, “Okay, you got to do what you wanted with the album. Now let’s do what I want to do with the album.”
Big was like, “Puff said to do this, so I’m going to do it. Puff let me do what I want to do, so I’m going to do what he wants too.” Because of that, putting his ego to the side, like, “I’ma try this,” that gave him the edge. And after that, he tried everything and it all worked! It was crazy.
The basketball simile here that compares Gary Payton and Karl Malone to PD and NB is one of the most generous in this article.  In this sense, PD is working with NB to set him up to score points; they need each other to succeed, and could not replicate the same success on their own.  I like this version much more than the image of the overbearing, inferior producer that is so prevalent in this article--or the 'yeller of phrases,' Lil Jon model.  Lord Finesse's recollection is that it was NB that provided the raw material, but that PD also had a vision for it.  In this version, both are working on the same level and contributing in the same way.  In fact, there is more of a mentor/mentee relationship here, with NB learning from what PD can teach him.

Yet despite all of the collaboration that took place on this album, at the heart of it, NB remains the artist most generally acknowledged.  This suggests that we are still stuck in the idea of authorship/work, and while the audible presence of PD forces us to acknowledge that he is at least somehow involved, it is worth noting just how many other, less acknowledged people worked on this project as well.  This is not to say that NB's contributions are not unique and valuable; the fact that the lyrics for the song 'Things Done Changed' are included in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature confers the idea of authorship upon him in the most traditional sense.  But perhaps things have done changed, at least in the sense of whose artistic product this album truly is.  Without the heavy hand of PD, it is almost impossible to imagine what the ultimate sound would have been.  Of course, this influence will only become more acute with later NB tracks, particularly when only raw materials remained after his death, but that is the subject for another post.

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