“While the world is torn apart, creators build it back up with hard work and ideas, beauty and art, invention, reinvention and challenge. We don’t care about your rules or your trends, your ratings or your gossip, your disinformation or your hype. While history gets rewritten, we’re creating a new one.”
So said sonic architect and mastermind Hank Shocklee. Working alone and as a member of the Bomb Squad, he has produced massive albums for some of the most successful artists ever, including Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Bell Biv Devoe, and EPMD, as well as remixing albums for Peter Gabriel, Tricky, and Sinéad O’Connor. Shocklee has been inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, and embodies over 40 years of musical innovation, having pushed forward the disciplines of sampling and multi-layer studio recording. Shocklee and his contemporaries didn’t have the luxury of turnkey solutions: they had to hack, alter, and invent the technology they needed to bring their visions to life.
Just as hip hop transformed music and popular culture, so has the internet transformed the way we listen to music, and how culture propagates. Today’s new hardware would have been sci-fi in the Eighties, and emerging distribution platforms bring your music in the ears of millions with a click. Where does that leave artists, labels, and the audience?
Who Stole the Soul?
When a phenomenon like sampling gets noticed, it changes form, said Shocklee: “When it’s small, it’s dynamic, it’s shifting, it gets a chance to innovate very quickly”—but that changes when it reaches a certain size. Shocklee noted that Ariana Grande had to give up over 95% of the royalties for “7 Rings”, since she sampled Rodgers and Hammerstein. Now, though, younger kids will know “Favorite Things”, which is good for music overall, said Shocklee; but it sucks that it ends up costing Grande so much. Brown paper packages aren’t the only things tied up with strings!
“Inspiration comes from everywhere,” said Shocklee. “Especially artists, we all take music from other places, take certain riffs and turn ‘em around—it all adds inspiration!” Now, though, inspiration has become legally controlled in a way never seen before. Shocklee said that making the seminal Public Enemy record Fear of a Black Planet would have been impossible today, since it had so many samples in it. It would be a non-starter, and we as a culture would have been the poorer for it (as Public Enemy would be after getting that royalty bill!)
Shorter tracks, with more of them per album, is the norm today, noted Shocklee, because artists are getting paid per stream: “Frequency is what you want for streaming.” The art is being driven by the new medium. “Whatever obstacles are in the way, music will always find a way to get around, just like water would.”