The Slippery Slope of Musical Appropriation
Steve Miller had a clear-cut legal case when the Geto Boys used his guitar-hook in their raunchy 1990 single "Gangster of Love." The racial implications weren't so simple.
Excerpted from The Geto Boys (Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, 2016), by permission of the author.
Around the end of hip-hop’s Golden Age, when rap music first began to assert itself as a bankable pop phenomenon, a series of copyright infringement lawsuits began to change the way the music was created.
Sampling snippets of other musicians’ recordings had, of course, been central to hip-hop ever since its pioneering DJs used turntables to loop rhythm breaks from soul, disco, and rock records at Bronx street parties in the mid-1970s. This folk approach to musical ownership expanded when rap music was first pressed on to vinyl, as the basic building blocks of early hip-hop records consisted of borrowed music (from the Sugar Hill Gang’s use of Chic’s “Good Times,” to Afrika Bambaataa’s use of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express,” to UTFO’s use of Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat”). The advent of new digital sampling technologies in the mid–late 1980s expanded hip-hop artists’ creative possibilities, and the songs on many of rap’s iconic Golden Age albums — Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique — are built on a rich sonic texture of dozens upon dozens of samples.
As the art of sampling reached new levels of complexity and subtlety, however, the popular success of rap music drew the attention of the music industry’s lawyers. Where previous copyright-infringement lawsuits against rap artists had been piecemeal and situational, heightened success for hip-hop albums meant heightened scrutiny. “Corporations found that hip-hop music was viable,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D noted. “It sold albums, which was the bread and butter of corporations. Since the corporations owned all the sounds, their lawyers began to search out people who illegally infringed upon their records.”
The most publicized sampling-related lawsuits from the early 1990s (over MC Hammer’s use of Rick James’ “Super Freak,” and Vanilla Ice’s use of Queen and Bowie’s “Under Pressure”) entailed the original artists and their record companies angling to win a financial share of singles that had charted in the Billboard Top Ten. But the most telling copyright infringement lawsuit of the era revolved around a song that was not technically a hit -- the Geto Boys’ spectacularly raunchy “Gangster of Love,” which appeared on the group’s self-titled, Rick Rubin-produced 1990 Def American remix album.
Blithely offensive by design, “Gangster of Love” suggested over the course of five verses that women exist primarily to enable demeaning sex acts, using the chilled-out bass-line and drawling white-boy tenor of Steve Miller’s “The Joker” (a radio-friendly stoner-rock assertion of nonthreatening male sexuality) as a farcical counterpart to the Geto Boys’ lyrical lewdness. Not appreciating the ironic juxtaposition, Miller and Capitol Records sued the group and ultimately received $50,000, along with a guarantee that future pressings of The Geto Boys would no longer sample the song.
Given the misogynistic imagery that saturated “Gangster of Love,” it’s easy to understand why Miller would be uncomfortable when he heard his 1973 recording of “The Joker” (its four-bar slide-guitar solo looped fifty-four times in the mix) providing the rhythm and chorus for such an uncouth song. To listen to “Gangster of Love” for the first time was pretty much inseparable from the shock one felt at its vulgarity, and even the favorable media reviews for The Geto Boys in 1990 took specific exception to the song’s lyrics. (“This track spends a solid five minutes viciously denigrating women,” wrote a Rolling Stone critic. “There’s no excuse — literary, comedic or otherwise — for this kind of malice.”) Furthermore, Miller’s decision to sue the Geto Boys could not be chalked up to some racist loathing for hip-hop, since he hadn’t protested when black rap artists like Too $hort, N.W.A, and the Jungle Brothers had sampled his songs around the same time.
Nevertheless, Miller’s move to disallow the use of his song in “Gangster of Love” did carry racial undertones. When the white, Milwaukee-born rocker croons “call me the gangster of love” on “The Joker,” he is actually echoing a line from his 1968 cover of a different “Gangster of Love” arrangement — a blues tune originally recorded in 1957 by a black, Texas-born musician named Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Under American copyright law, a Houston bluesman like Watson couldn’t prevent Miller from recording a cover of his song, yet Miller was perfectly within his rights to restrict a quartet of Houston gangsta rappers from sampling his lyrical allusion to the Watson original.
Moreover, while Steve Miller took issue with the explicit sexual content of the Geto Boys song, Guitar Watson’s original “Gangster of Love” is a euphemistic celebration of similar carnal bravado. The titular character in Watson’s song is a brash outlaw who crows that he is to sex what Jesse James and Billy the Kid were to the Wild West. Watson doesn’t use the word “sex,” of course, but when his narrator kidnaps a beauty queen and gives her “a big steak dinner” that makes her lose interest in her pageant prize, it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what’s really going on. Later in the song, when Watson speaks of the million-dollar bounty placed on his head after rounding up twenty-five or thirty girls and putting them on a freight train (a line Miller sang word-for-word in his 1968 cover), he makes the Geto Boys’ boastful promise “to run a train” on “six different hoes a night” seem tame by comparison.
Much of the rock music popular when Steve Miller was in his songwriting prime was influenced by black blues music, and was thus inventive in its use of sexual metaphor. The term “rock ’n’ roll” had itself come from an African American double entendre for fucking (much like “jazz” was a variant on a word that referred to both spirit and semen) — and one reason why rock was initially controversial was that its popular white artists were known to utilize the same winking lyrical euphemisms as their black forbears. When, in 1958, the teenaged white rocker Janis Martin sang of wanting a cowboy who could cock his pistol and bang-bang-bang, her lyrics were in the spirit of black blues diva Dinah Washington, who in 1948 sang of a dentist whose drill could thrill when it filled her hole. When, in Led Zeppelin’s 1969 “Lemon Song,” Robert Plant moaned “squeeze me baby, till the juice runs down my leg,” he was pretty much plagiarizing a Robert Johnson blues lyric written thirty-two years earlier. (Steve Miller himself had used fruit — “really love your peaches, want to shake your tree” — as a sex metaphor in “The Joker.”)
Boundary-pushing sexual imagery had, in fact, been a feature of American popular music since well before the advent of the blues. In 1909 (the same year US copyright law made it legal for musicians to cover other artists’ songs), an adultery-themed, ragtime-inflected piano ditty called “I Love, I Love, I Love My Wife — But Oh! You Kid!” was the year’s most-talked-about Tin Pan Alley song. Much like sex-themed Geto Boys and 2 Live Crew songs that would create controversy later in the century, “Oh! You Kid” attracted the wrath of the country’s moral guardians, even as it played its sexual brazenness for laughs. “The song was a culture-war flashpoint, the subject of legal imbroglios, and, sometimes, an inciter of violence,” wrote music critic Jody Rosen.
A Missouri farmer who sent a young woman a postcard bearing the legend “I Love My Wife, But Oh You Kid!” was hauled into United States District Court in Jefferson City, threatened with five years’ imprisonment, and given a stiff fine for the crime of “sending improper matter through the mails.” In Los Angeles, a “petite and pretty” woman, Marie Durfee, assaulted a man after he greeted her on the street with the song’s catchphrase. A police court judge sided with Durfee, ruling: “The salutation, ‘Oh, you kid!’ is a disturbance of the peace and is punishable by ninety days’ imprisonment in the city jail.”
Though “Oh! You Kid” conveyed its message through playful suggestion and euphemism, one could, in 1909, go to American honky-tonks and whorehouses that played music as explicitly pornographic as any song that would later appear on The Geto Boys. In his 1938 interview with folklorist Alan Lomax, jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton recalled visiting a Chicago bordello in 1908, where the house musicians played a song called “The Dirty Dozen,” which featured lines like: “Look up bitch, you make me mad / I tell you ’bout the puppies that your sister had / She fucked a hog / She fucked a dog / I know the dirty bitch would fuck a frog.” Morton also mentioned an African American proto-blues song called “Make Me a Pallet On the Floor,” which he says was being performed in New Orleans before he was born (which would date its origins to the mid-late nineteenth century). Morton then sang Lomax a version of the tune, which went on for more than fifteen minutes, and included such lyrics as:
Bitch, you got the best cunt I ever had
Maybe it was that all I got was always bad
I put that bitch right on the stump
I screwed her ’til her pussy stunk
Throw your legs up like a church steeple,
So I can think I’m fuckin’ all the people
Baby, it’s been a pleasure in me fucking you
You the fuckin’est bitch I ever met.
Though Morton asserted that these songs were never performed outside of select honky-tonks and bordellos, the fact that they existed more than a century ago hints at something significant. “Any honest reading of the musical history of black America would yield that the sentiments expressed in hip-hop were not new,” William Jelani Cobb noted in his 2007 book To the Break of Dawn. “They were simply the first generation that could speak them [to a wide audience] without the euphemism of metaphors.” Indeed, what separates songs like the Geto Boys’ “Gangster of Love” from “Make Me a Pallet On the Floor” is not the audacity of its lyrics, but the fact that those lyrics had been written and recorded with a mass market in mind. For most of the twentieth century, the clever use of metaphor had allowed mainstream audiences to enjoy sexually charged pop songs without having to ponder the raw specifics of the sex act itself. In a certain sense, the word “explicit” (as stated on 1990-era album warning labels) means a refusal to hide behind euphemism; in so doing, the Geto Boys were taking what had long existed in black folk-culture and, with a bit of assistance from Rick Rubin, offering it up to white mass-culture consumers.
The final irony of Steve Miller’s lawsuit against the Geto Boys was just how rigid the line between American folk- and mass-culture could be, even at the end of the twentieth century. The Geto Boys had in fact first sampled “The Joker” eighteen months earlier, on a Rap-A-Lot Records indie release entitled Grip It! On That Other Level, which sold half-a-million copies nationwide. Yet, somehow, Steve Miller and Capitol Records hadn’t been aware that the song existed until Rubin’s remixed Def American version began to make headlines after Geffen executives (who were nervous about the album’s over-the-top sexism and violence) balked at distributing it.
In many ways, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. According to a search on ProQuest Central, a library database featuring results from over 16,000 magazines and newspapers, the phrases “Geto Boys” and “Ghetto Boys” appeared in American news-media outlets 192 times the year “Gangster of Love” appeared on the Def American album. Search those same two phrases for the previous year — when Rap-A-Lot first released the song— and a ProQuest database search yields no results at all.
Which is to say: the songs that came to scandalize the American public when marketed to a largely white mass-audience in 1990 hadn’t yielded a single media headline when they had been marketed to a largely black indie-rap audience in 1989.
Excerpted from The Geto Boys (Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, 2016), by Rolf Potts.