Friday, September 30, 2011

Say what? Sylvia Robinson in perspective

Back in April 2004, I published a fake interview with the band known as the Seldom Scene. The point of the fake interview was to illustrate the possible confusion between Sugar Hill Records and Sugar Hill Records. In the fake interview, I asked a number of questions of these bluegrass recording artists:

Have you ever eaten chicken at the record label?

Did it taste like wood?

Did you ever stay in motels/hotels with Big Bank Hank?

As people of a certain age would know, there is a difference between bluegrass and early rap. One of the Sugar Hill Records (the one NOT associated with Lawrence Welk) had an in-house rap band called the Sugarhill Gang, who made it big with "Rapper's Delight." The record was produced by Sylvia Robinson, who passed away on September 29.

But she was not universally admired:

In addition to being remembered as an artist, songwriter and producer, Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson was an entrepreneur and hustler who ruffled some feathers during her career as a record label executive. Was Sylvia Robinson a crook? If you were an underpaid artist on Sugar Hill Records, you’ll probably feel she had shady business practices.

For example, see item 9 in this list of 10 things about Robinson:

9. Sylvia understood that publishing was where the big, long dollars were in the music business. A shrewd businesswoman whose practices were not always equitable, she earned a reputation for underpaying and micromanaging that, according to Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback, had “Grandmaster Flash split from the rest of his crew over creative differences and lack of payment.”

More of the story can be found at this biography of Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel:

Name of the artist here should actually be "Grandmaster & Melle Mel". This unique wording was the result of an ugly legal suit between Melle Mel (Melvin Glover) and Grandmaster Flash (Joseph Saddler). When Flash was essentially pushed out of his own group - especially in the fact that he was a non-player on the breakthrough Grandmaster Flash & Furious 5 track "The Message" - Melle Mel (with the encouragement of Sugarhill Records label head Sylvia Robinson) decided that he would take Flash's place in the band - and essentially take his name as well. During this time, the definitive singles "The Message II" and "New York, New York" were released under the name of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5, even though Flash had nothing to do with these releases.
The net result of the lawsuit forced Sugar Hill and Melle Mel to cease the theft of Flash's name - which resulted in the White Lines singles all being pressed with the name "Grandmaster & Melle Mel", with Melle Mel's name in larger type than "Grandmaster".

However, Sugar Hill Records can't be blamed - or maybe they can be - for what happened next:

White Lines eventually proved to be Sugar Hill's downfall, as the famous bassline and much of other components of the song were stolen from the sub-underground (but now much more justifiably well known) track "Cavern" by Liquid Liquid, which resulted in another lawsuit - of which Sugarhill would never recover from.

And this happened AFTER the whole "Good Times" thingie.

But on the other hand - there's always an other hand - what would the music of the 1980s and today had been like if Sylvia Robinson had merely retired after Mickey & Sylvia's fame went away? Without the crossover success of "Rapper's Delight," it's quite possible that Run D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys would be completely unknown to us today.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Tracking sounds

One day, I was surprised to hear the Air song "Alpha Beta Gaga" in my house. I was surprised because, although I love the song, I don't actually own it. I was also surprised because it was coming from a room in which my wife was located. (My wife hadn't even heard of Air.)

Turns out that she was watching one of the C.S.I. shows, and "Alpha Beta Gaga" had been incorporated into the show's soundtrack.

Kind of fitting, since Air's original video for the song has a law enforcement theme, sort of.

Television and movie producers all have people who pay attention to the music incorporated into their shows/movies. Their goal, whether recycling an old song or commissioning a new one, is to find music that complements the action on the screen. (In some cases, their goal is to find music that will attract an audience; there are certainly cases in which the soundtrack for a movie is much better than the movie itself.)

But often the use of a song in a television or movie soundtrack will attract people to the song who had never heard it before. A prime example - somehow I went through the entire twentieth century without hearing the Cure song "A Forest." But then one day I was watching something on the Fox Soccer Channel and was intrigued by the music at the tail end of a show. (When you think about it, the guitar-driven choruses in "A Forest" lend themselves well to a TV show about the English Premier League.) Since then, that has become my favorite Cure song (Fascination Street, schmasination street).

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Rocky Mountain red tape

I was trying to find some information on proposals - specifically, the types of business proposals that I write for a living. Instead, I found out about a different type of proposal - a petition to rename a mountain peak after John Denver. It probably isn't a surprise to any of you that the mountain peak happens to be in the state of Colorado. While Denver is sometimes identified with West Virginia and Virginia, he is most associated with the state that he immortalized in "Rocky Mountain High." His contributions extend beyond that; among other things, he donated 1,000 Colorado acres to the Windstar Land Conservancy, according to Mother Nature Network (MNN). MNN also records the effort to name one of two peaks on Mount Sopris after Denver. J.P. McDaniel, who started the petition, believes Denver's environmental work should be praised as well, with the simple act of naming a mountain peak after the singer the perfect gesture. “He won many different awards for his conservation work, his environmental work. I think some people don’t realize this, how active he was with environmental causes,” she told The Daily Sentinel. Only one problem: According to Lou Yost of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, the Wilderness Act of 1964 limits new names to wilderness areas, so as not to detract from the "experience that future generations will have." He said exceptions are generally only made for cases involving educational or safety reasons or "an overriding need." The policy is understandable. In the commercial world, naming rights are sold and re-sold every few years. We don't want to go to a park and see John Denver Peak one year, followed by Bono Peak the next year. But John Denver fans aren't happy. P.S. This post is the first time that I've used the new Blogger interface, and this interface allows me to set a location for each post. Mt. Sopris was the obvious location for this post. I wonder what effect this location designation will have - maybe if I'm lucky, this post will show up on Google Maps...