Illegal Music

September feels like harvest time for records. I’ve got here new ones by Peter Wolf, America’s most under-rated rock singer; Steve Earle, which is spiritually kin to The Rising, politically kin to The Coup; Cedell Davis, maybe the best Mississippi hill country blues album I’ve ever heard; stuff by Alvin Youngblood-Hart, Buddy Miller, Bobby Bare Jr., David Baerwald, Gov’t Mule, Todd Thibaud and Jason & the Scorchers whose surfaces I’ve barely scratched; and who knows what I didn’t immediately recognize and slipped into the “it’ll wait” pile.

Yet the new music I most want to listen to came anonymously in the mail, and you’ll probably never be able to hear it at all.

The label on the CD said nothing at all. On the back of the jewel box, it just said “nothing to fear. A rough mix by Steinski. Produced for Solid Steel / BBC London.” A set of tracks with titles like “lolita (burning mix)” and “swan lake (beat poets)” and “the art of getting jumped.” At the bottom the legend: blame steinski for everything.

Steinski. It’d been years since I’d heard anything new by that master of early hip-hop mixology. The best record he and his partner Double D ever made, “The Payoff Mix,” never even got released commercially, because clearing the samples would have been about as easy as rebuilding the Tower of Babel.

“nothing to fear” operates at the same level. Over 59 minutes, it hits you with Ed Sullivan, Dion and the Belmonts, James Brown, fuzz guitar licks, Rocky and Bullwinkle, the Marx Brothers, synth riffs so elusive you can barely remember them, and anonymous singer you know you’ll never forget. Beneath all of it the beat, the beat, the beat, stuttering, stomping, chattering, clattering, scratched and battered back and forth among turntables and samplers and who knows what other technological wonders. Gene Krupa beats. Clyde Stubblefield beats. Afrika Bambaataa beats.

Steinski didn’t make “nothing to fear” to make money; he made it because he’s impelled, every once in a while, to concoct a soundscape that tells you who he is and how he sees the world, and what that has to do with how we dance our dances. He made it to be played on the BBC’s Solid Steel radio show, hosted by Coldcut and DJ Food. On the air, the mix was intertwined with interviews with Steinski and Double D.

How it got pressed in CD form remains somewhat mysterious. Apparently, the bootlegger initially took a master to a U.K. pressing plant, intending to create the Great White Wonder of hip-hop. But the machinery rejected it. Seems there now exists a technology called the “major label waveform CD database,” which is capable of recognizing materials allegedly owned by the record label cartel. I thought this was a hoax, just something added to spice up the story, until I read a story in J@pan Inc Magazine (June 26) about a company called Gracenote, which specializes in “music recognition service,” the software that lets your CD player tell you which artist and track are currently playing. It’s pretty easy to see how the RIAA and its international counterpart, IFPI, could use the same technology to track “bootleggers”–or get pressing plants, which they have been known to raid, to do it for them.

Fortunately, not all pressing plants operate under RIAA scrutiny. Anyway, Steinski’s work should be protected by fair use, because it is fair comment on the cultural artifacts deployed. But the major labels contend that there is no fair use, and get away with charging so much money per sampling that their greed has almost entirely devoured one of the most important aspects of hip-hop artistry.

It’s pretty easy to see who was robbed here: Not the artists who wouldn’t get paid even if the labels did, not the labels, not even Steinski so much as you and everybody else without access to the bootleg. Maybe we should make the destruction of artworks for commercial gain a felony.

DeskScan (what’s playing in my office)

1. Nothing to Fear, Steinski and Mass Media

2. The Rising, Bruce Springsteen (Sony)-Why do you think this essentially apolitical emotional depiction of the aftermath of 9/11 gets attacked every week in the right-wing press? Why are liberal Springsteen authorities afraid to engage its ideas even in rags like The Nation?

3. Jerusalem, Steve Earle (E Squared)-Jumpin’ Jack Flash as political conspiracy.

4. Adult World, Wayne Kramer (MuscleTone)

5. White Lightnin’ Struck the Pine, Cedell Davis (Fast Horse Recordings)-The most rockin’ record Peter Buck ever played on, for sure. Maybe the deepest musical statement of the Mississippi hill country blues aesthetic, too.

6. King Anthology of Risque Blues (King)-Pick hit: “Butcher Pete, Pt. 1” by Roy Brown, especially the part where an imprisoned chops meat with his cellmate. Much dirtier than “Rocket 69” by Todd Rhodes and Connie Allen. Although maybe not Fluffy Hunter, whose “The Walkin’ Blues” rhymes “fuck” like a censored Eminem.

7. Plenty Good Lovin’, Sam Moore (2KSounds/EMI)

8. My Name’s Not Rodriguez, Luis Rodriguez & Seven Rabbit (Dos Manos)

9. Fattening Frogs for Snakes, John Sinclair & His Blues Scholars (Okra-Tone/Rooster Blues)

10. Down in the Alley, Alvin Youngblood-Hart (Memphis International)

11. The Very Best of Freddy King, Vol. 1-3 (Collectables)-Shitty packages but the best collection of the great R&B/bluesman’s King label sides. For me, Freddy’s the most fun of all the Kings, the most like a rock’n’roller.

12. Freedom, The Golden Gate Quartet and Josh White (Bridge Records)-“A Concert in Celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution,” at the Library of Congress in 1940, with tremendous harmony by the Gates, and hilariously profound comments on the blues and “social” songs from poet Sterling A. Brown.

13. It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, Pam Tillis (Epic/Lucky Dog)-That means she gets to sing “Detroit City” and “I Ain’t Never,” as well as another 11 songs by her daddy.

14. Comin’ On Home, Richard “Groove” Holmes (Blue Note)-Soul jazz with powerful avant-garde touches from 1971.

15. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin (ATO)

16. Viva El Mariachi: Nati Cano’s Mariachi Los Camperos (Smithsonian Folkways)

17. American Breakdown, Troy Campbell (M. Ray, )

18. Stax Instrumentals, Booker T. & the MGs/The Mar-Keys (Ace UK)

19. Just One Moment-The Vintage Female Gospel 1945-1949 (P-Vine)-Starring the Georgia Peach (12 tracks), a legendary and rarely heard Golden Age giant, and Kitty Marie, whose “This Train” blows away Rosetta Tharpe’s, if you ask me.

20. Ray Charles Sings for America (Rhino)-O.K., so who’s your favorite Republican singer?

Dave Marsh coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.

He can be reached at: marsh6@optonline.net

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Dave Marsh edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: rockrap@aol.com. Dave blogs at http://davemarsh.us/

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