Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Is Your Book Idea Really That Original?

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Sadly, my personal Gmail inbox gets completely jammed some days. I subscribe to a whack of e-newsletters concerning the digital age, African culture and cutting edge musics. Though I’m still not exactly sure who signed me up for Old Navy, La Senza Girl or Toys R US Canada e-blasts, I’m guessing it probably has something to do with my broader household interests and shared MasterCard purchases (read: tha wifey and seedlings). So I’m reading about some new hip happenings in the world of hip hop culture vis-à-vis hip hop organizer Christie Z Pabon’s fantastic Tools of War grassroots e-newsletter, and I see something that looks and sounds familiar. It’s a promotional blurb about a new book penned by an academic who looks at hip hop culture’s impacts around the globe. As I read on, I notice that the basic premise behind the book reads eerily similar to the focus behind my third book, Hip Hop World, which is used in many classrooms across North America. The other funny thing here is that the blurb is in the same Tools of War e-newsletter that used to promote my similarly themed book two years ago.

While I am certainly not the first scribe to write about hip hop culture’s massive influence on global youth culture in book form — old school British musician and author David Toop has been touching on some of these things dating back to the mid-80s — nor will I be the last, or want to be the last for that matter, I know I am one of the first genuine hip hop insiders to do it in book form for this generation, hence the weird feelings.

When hip hop generationers like myself feel like their ideas have been borrowed, if you were born before 1990, like I was, you might say “did somebody just bite my style?” And biting, or shamelessly copying someone else’s style in hip hop culture is considered sacrilegious. Or it used to be anyway. These days it might actually be encouraged (is it just me or do one-eighth 1/8 of the emcees in America sound either like Weezy, Yeezy, Drizzy or Cudi?). That’s Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Drake and Kid Cudi to the rap uninitiated.)

So I do what any suspecting rap duke, publishing world blogger and book reviewer would do, I hit up the publisher for a press copy of this book to see if the title is a good read firstly, and to see if the roads between my book and this author’s cross. I am not doing this to condemn anything, it’s just as a matter of me doing my job, information gathering and Daltoganda disseminating.

Given that there are so many Big Ideas that Canadians have dreamt up and innovated, but because we aren’t American and have scant to no fellowships, wider music industry supports or research foundations that can or do support any output related to black and/or hip hop culture, many of the ideas either get co-opted by our neighbours stateside or virtually ignored. Way too many examples to list in any one column!

So I received the book, read it over a six-day period, and while the book’s voice sounds like what it is — an academic attempting to appeal to the secular reader, and it is written like a travelogue — any one of my large Toronto readership will feel that Hip Hop World’s energies have been sampled, but with much less bite. And my name does appear in one section of the footnotes, and it attributes one piece of research to me, which means the author clearly read my book, which is a good thing.

I say good on the author for writing this book, only because the hip hop world needs much more research materials, more titles need to be stocked on bookstore shelves, more ebony is needed in them ivory towers. The white house has already been painted black twice, first by George Clinton and now Obama, so anything is possible, right? There should be a bunch of essays, books and film projects created about how hip hop has become a voice of transglobal youth and why hip hop can and should be used as a force to help bring about social change. No complaints from me there.

However, maybe the most exciting thing to emerge for me after reading this book, intellectually speaking, is that age-old debate surrounding “original art.” What does it mean to have an original idea, anyway? Does such a thing exist? Marcus Boon wrote a fantastic book, In Praise of Copying, and its premise is simple, but maybe not so much. Boon argues that copying stuff is part of being human, is widespread and is worthy of celebration, not condemnation.

Certainly in the area of hip hop where I work, the practice of sampling has generally reigned supreme and is largely responsible for introducing newer generations of listeners to important and obscure older works.

You know that catchy song “Otis” by Watch The Throne’s Kanye West and Jay-Z? Of course you do. Well, let’s just say that there really is no song without the late Otis Redding’s vocal sample contribution. I have some Redding records on vinyl, and he really is a true embodiment of the soul that artists like Robin Thicke and Jamie Lidell are both trying so hard to find. Or what about rapper Lil Wayne? That awesome “6 Foot 7 Foot” joint contains a sample that heavily contributes to the songs catchiness — it’s a sped up version of a Harry Belafonte vocal snippet from his anthemic “Day-O.” While you were busy tweeting and prepping for Occupy Toronto (a quite noble cause), I was flipping this “Day-O” vocal sample with my daughter, Shiloh, on my turntables — only because I own that Belafonte gem on vinyl. So I am all for my fellow humanoids re-contextualizing stuff, especially when musicians reformat choons of yesteryear to meet today’s needs.

Where academics are concerned, I view it a bit differently. As a streetwise guy who grew up in a black neighbourhood, I was always amazed at how some academics did such a fantastic job of avoiding any plagiarism tags being thrown their way because they’d concocted this system whereby they are virtually allowed to grab and copy (or “bite”) many heady ideas from different places outside of the academy, use them, endnote or footnote them, give the folks whose works they sampled attribution in the back of the book somewhere and then carve out their space in these halls of learning, while the street corner seers who might’ve originated these ideas remain broke. Maybe this is a debate about intellectual property and who understands it best and can then better manoeuvre “biting” claims. For example, I write about this musician Girl Talk in Hip Hop World, a guy who records digital mash-ups using a Creative Commons license loophole, whereby much of his music is stitched together from other people’s creations, and he’s altogether avoided getting sued like the many hip hop artists who came before him, like De La Soul and Biz Markie.

For the film enthusiasts out there who are still undergoing post TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) withdrawal symptoms, there’s this film Certified Copy, where the protagonist argues that debates around authenticity are irrelevant because most pieces of art we consider to be original are just copies of something else.

All things to ponder before I head out to CMJ (College Music Journal) next week, where I will be hanging out on Canal Street, a block where genuine artefacts are a dirty word. It’s a lovely place where them vendors will boastfully sell you the finest bootleg copies of anything, with no remorse nor regret, at one-third the retail cost. I would never complain about that.


Dalton Higgins is a music programmer, pop culture critic, author, broadcaster and national magazine award-winning journalist. He is Canada’s foremost expert on hip hop culture. In addition to writing numerous articles for Canadian and US print and on-line magazines, he is the author of Hip Hop World (Groundwood Books/House of Anansi) and co-author of Hip Hop (Thomson Nelson) and Much Master T: A VJ’s Journey (ECW Press). As a broadcaster, Dalton has hosted his own TV show and has appeared as a pundit on every major Canadian network. You can visit Dalton at his blog. His most recent book is Fatherhood 4.0: iDad Applications Across Cultures (Insomniac Press).

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