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Amerigo Gazaway: For Love of Hip Hop

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Music has a funny way of imprinting a time period in the listener's head. And maybe that's why we like it. As a work of both art and performance, listening to music becomes more than a passive experience. The audience participates in different, and now evolving ways. Technology has drastically changed the way we enjoy and consume the music we love, as well as changed the way it's produced. This evolution has come at a cost, however, and there are various schools of thought as to who is on the side of good or not. In 1979, The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight", incorporated nearly note for note, Chic's "Good Times", and went on to become an international hit. It was a defining moment in what would come to be known as hip hop. It wasn't however, a new phenomenon.

DJs of those days would play popular records, often-times, the extended 12" mixes, accompanied by an MC, (then also known as "master of ceremony") who would rhyme along to the music with prearranged lines and call-and-response chants. This was a building block of the culture from the days of basement parties in the Bronx. But, alas, the party would eventually have to stop. As the phenomenon turned from a regional happening to a marketable commodity, the publishing companies, and original artists took notice, and wanted due compensation. There is a long list of specific legal cases, many of which were pioneered in the realm of hip hop, that brought us to where we are today: De La Soul, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, Luther Campbell, and just recently, producer, Easy Mo Bee losing a suit regarding a Notorious B.I.G. song using sample from The Impressions, to name but a few. It's likely the trend of pursuing legal claims will continue as more copyright holders discover their songs have been used. Considering the personal relationship listeners have with music, where does this bring the conversation regarding ownership and fair use, and the love of hip hop?

I spoke with DJ/producer, Amerigo Gazaway, late of Gummy Soul Music, about these ideas, as well as his process in creating new works using samples from well known artists. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

I think the idea of a "mashup", the combining of two or more songs together to form a new song, has been around (in a mainstream way) in force for about ten years. Your projects take on two or more artists to create a whole album experience. That's a bigger undertaking. What is your motivation or ambition?

My ultimate motivation with the projects is to create something that sounds authentic and organic enough that it maintains the integrity of the original work. Most people consider the artist and work I re-imagine to be untouchable so I'm driven by the challenge to do the original work justice. That can sometimes involve a lot of re-worked vocals/samples with other outside elements or it can involve just one sample that's been manipulated in a cool and interesting way. It really depends on the tone I'm trying to convey at that particular moment in the album. People tend to think that's what sets me apart from other mashup producers- that I use a lot of samples. But that's not necessarily the case, and sometimes less is more. Not to say there isn't a distinction between what people might typically consider a "mashup" album and the type of conceptual collaborations I create but they're just two different approaches to the art of sampling.

In the so-called "Golden Age" of hip hop, the art of sampling was established, with some artists making their biggest hits by appropriating the works of others. One of the results was the now hyper-vigilance of publishing companies seeking out copyright violators. After years of precedent deciding in favor of the copyright owners, what compels you to do what you do?

Aside from my personal belief that sampling is a legitimate and viable art form (and should be recognized, accepted and treated as such), the support and encouragement I get from the fans is more than enough to compel me to keep creating. I want to help move us towards a more creatively free culture. Not only for me but for all the artists and producers who want to express themselves creatively but are afraid to because of overly restrictive and unconstitutionally long copyright laws. The irony is that DJ/producers are one of the most valuable assets a publishing company or label can have in terms of promotional tools. We're bringing attention to material that more often than not, was released years or decades ago. Why not embrace and leverage what we're doing as opposed to shutting down a free project that's bringing awareness to that material? The good news is that more and more labels, artists, and estates are starting to recognize the potential value in opening up their catalogues for producers like myself to re-imagine. There is still a lot of money to be made from those catalogues, and there are entirely new markets of potential fans/listeners out there waiting to be reached.

I know that you come from a family background steeped in music. Who were your influences coming up?

My mom is from Rio de Janeiro and plays a bit of bossa nova guitar so there was always Brazilian jazz, funk, rock, and bossa nova (Carlos Jobim, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, etc.) playing around the house growing up. And my father is a jazz horn player and composer too, so I'd spend entire summers at his house just going through his huge record collection, discovering everything from Weather Report to Otis Redding. He listened to a lot of world music and more obscure stuff so all of those elements molded the way I approach music today.

Fela Kuti and De La Soul? How does that happen?

It's funny because I had the idea for Fela Soul way before I decided to actually go through with it. I had been a big fan of both artists and thought that bringing them together would be a really dope concept. But then I ended up forgetting about the idea and it didn't re-surface until a couple of years later when I was working on something else. For some reason, I started humming the horns from Fela's "Water No Get Enemy" while listening to De La's "Breakadawn" and the combination of the two ended up being the first track I produced for the project.

Without considering any legal hurdles it would involve, what would be the project you'd most want to work on, and why?

If there weren't any legal hurdles, I'd love to re-release "Bizarre Tribe" but that's a whole other story. When we first got the cease and desist, I had this crazy idea of hiring real musicians to recreate the beats live instead of using the original samples that Tribe had flipped but I ended up not being able to do it. I've wanted to do a project with Digable Planets' first couple of albums for a while too, but can't seem to get my hands on any of their acapellas or multi-tracks. Would love to do something with all the Outkast albums, Stevie Wonder, Rick James, Prince... I could literally go on for days with this one.

Part of the DJ culture has always been the selection and use of "white labels" - records with unmarked labels, to obscure the source information from the eyes and ears of other DJs. In your Yasiin Gaye project, you made use of alternate vocals, b-sides, rehearsals - material the majority of Marvin Gaye or Yasiin Bey listeners had never heard before. You even speak about it some during that project. Can you explain that process a little further?

There's a long research process I go through before starting on the music itself and I can sometimes search for weeks and not find what I need to flush out a full project. With Yasiin Gaye, there were a lot more resources out there so I was able to get my hands on a lot of acapellas and multitrack sessions which allowed me more creative freedom in the studio. Also, the Trouble Man soundtrack reissue has lots of cool outtakes and unreleased material, which I utilized on both sides of the Yasiin Gaye project.

For this album (and a lot of my other projects), I worked closely with The Goodwill Projects to create do-it-yourself acapellas. This process uses phase Inversion to isolate and extract just the vocal track of a particular song. Most of the songs you hear on side two wouldn't have been possible without using that technique. I also like to find and use elements that haven't been used in the same way I'm presenting it. On "There Is a Way", for example, I pulled vocals from a video clip of Mos (Yasiin Bey) spitting a verse from "Auditorium" while he's walking the streets of Tokyo. "Anna's Love Song" is another good one where I took a snippet from an interview Mos did about Marvin Gaye and incorporated that into the hook.

One of the earliest songs to be classified as hip hop was Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force's 1982 rework of the Kraftwerk song "Trans Europe Express". Largely unknown to American listeners, that song and technique helped to lay the foundation for hip hop for years to come - still echoing today. As someone carrying on that tradition, where do you see hip hop, and popular music as a whole going in the next decades?

I'm definitely seeing a return to physical media, particularly with vinyl and even cassette tapes. I get emails every day from people asking if I'll release the projects on vinyl. Music is a very personal thing for people and there's an emotional connection that the listener has with a physical record that can't be replaced with an iTunes or Spotify playlist. Because of social media, I'm also seeing a lot more direct artist-to-fan interaction with fans participation playing a role in the direction of the music itself. I try to encourage my fans to send me samples, stems, ideas etc. to remix or use in future productions because I think that dialogue is important to the process.

Your latest project, The Big Payback, Vol. 3, is an exploration and mashup of James Brown recordings with other hip hop sources. James Brown is, and has been an elemental part of hip hop. Tell me what his music means to you as a DJ and producer.

In my opinion, James Brown paved the way for people like Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force, guys like Busta Rhymes and some of the other artists I sampled on "The Big Payback." I consider artists like James Brown, Fela Kuti, and Lee Scratch Perry to be some of the very first emcees and pioneers of hip-hop culture. These guys were rapping, dj-ing and remixing tracks before we even knew what those words meant.

You've got a pretty lengthy list of releases since you got started in 2011. How have you been so prolific, and what's up next for you?

Firstly, I've been really lucky to have tons of support from my team, my family, my friends, and my fans - without their help, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. I think hip hop truly is a universal language and I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity to share the collective experience of music with so many others around the world. As far as next steps, the logical progression is for me is to start working with more artists, labels and publishers directly. There's an untapped opportunity for labels and remix artists to work to together in a situation where everybody wins. The demand for bootleg vinyl alone is proof that people will pay good money to hear their favorite artists re-worked or remixed. It's important for me to keep getting these projects out there and heard so people will open their eyes to the potential of sample-based music and hip hop. I want to remind people why they fell in love with those classics it in the first place by taking them on a journey that's somewhat familiar yet feels completely new.