A Response to Nicholas Payton, re: Pharrell and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”

Jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton recently posted this tirade, deconstructing some of producer Pharrell‘s comments on the relationship of Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines” to Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up”.

I’m not defending Pharrell or Thicke. Whether or not there is legal grounds for a case of copyright infringement (Thicke openly acknowledges using the Marvin Gaye track as a basis for “Blurred Lines”), Payton’s post is primarily devoted to taking down Pharrell for his lack of music theory know-how. Which may very well be accurate criticism. But Payton pretty much tosses his credibility out the window with this volley:

“Hiphop as a whole is wack [sic]. It’s a parasitic culture that preys on real musicians for its livelihood. I may not know anything about Hiphop, but I don’t have to.”

Not like hip-hop is a major part of Black music. Not like the hip-hop aesthetic for sampling and remixing hasn’t proliferated as the dominant aesthetic for popular music of all types. Payton is a purveyor of “Black music”, in his own words, but writes off the most significant stream in both Black music and popular music of the last 40 years.

Without real artists and musicians like me, you’d have nothing to steal. I know enough about it all to know that.

Now, I can’t say I don’t understand Payton’s gripe with sampling. As an instrumentalist, playing notes with my fingers comes more naturally to me than manipulating pre-existing audio the way that beatmakers and DJs do. When an instrumentalist or vocalist sees a recording artist make a million bucks off a track based around melody that someone else wrote and played, it’s a natural reaction to view it as stealing. In the case of “Blurred Lines”, we’re not even talking about sampling– it’s outright, admitted lifting of certain musical ideas. (“Blurred Lines” is also, to be certain, not a hip-hop track. It’s not even close. But Pharrell is a producer and beatmaker who comes from the hip-hop tradition, hence this discussion of the hip-hop “aesthetic”).

Payton makes it clear that he has no interest in understanding hip-hop on its own terms. But he does acknowledge that:

A lot of our [Black] music has never been written down, it’s an oral and aural tradition passed down generation-to-generation from master to student.

Oral and folk musical traditions are inherently derivative. In fact, I’d argue that all musical traditions are derivative– whether folk, art, or popular music. Artists draw on their influences, and recombine them (hopefully, in novel ways). Beethoven took Schiller’s Ode To Joy and made something even greater. Zeppelin ripped off tons of blues artists and created music that reached a much wider audience.

I am not, repeat, NOT justifying copyright infringement, or stealing musical ideas. If you as an artist are going to say something creatively, you may as well attempt to say something new, and you’re unlikely to garner my respect unless you accomplish it. I’m just saying that the lines between inspiration and derivation are, ahem, blurred, and that Marvin got his ideas from others that came before him, the same way that jazz pioneers borrowed and built on the ideas of their musical forefathers.

Exhibit A: The Lick

The video above, now a common joke among jazz musicians, is actually pretty profound. There are dozens of examples of musicians (unknowingly?) using the exact same melodic fragment. Viewed one way, the ‘originality’ of those jazz artists– allegedly expressing their original improvisations– is no more than a collection of derivative ideas, chewed-up and regurgitated in differing contexts. The same could, potentially, be said for art and literature.

But that’s an overly simplistic view. In fact, watching The Lick, you can hear just how different, and artful (or not) those seven notes can be based on the context in which they are played. I could sort through Nicholas Payton’s (admittedly splendid) playing and identify some of his source material as well. One could call Bird and Miles “parasitic” for lifting Gershwin and Cole Porter’s chord changes, but that would miss the point of jazz music, much the same way Payton misses the point of hip-hop. It’s not your source material that determines the significance of your music– it’s what you say and how you say it.

One other aspect of Payton’s piece strikes me as contradictory. He makes a strong point that music literacy is not critical for musical talent or achievement:

Many of our Kings of Kings could not read music themselves, either because they were blind or just never learned to read. Reading music is certainly helpful, but it isn’t necessary to do so to be a great musician. All that is required is that you have ears.

But Payton proceeds to tear into Pharrell for not knowing his music theory:

One of the world’s most renowned producers can’t tell the different between a minor chord and a Dominant 7th, something that you learn the first week in music theory class.

Mr. Payton, I’ve gotta turn your words right back on you: knowledge of music theory “is certainly helpful, but it isn’t necessary to do so to be a great musician”. I’ll get as geeky as the next jazz-head on chord substitution and modal theory, but do we really think Robert Johnson knew the difference between major and minor? Or gave a shit? He had ears– just as Pharrell does– and whether or not Pharrell knows how to describe music in terms that are generally accepted among the jazz police, he’s made a lot of music that speaks to a lot of people.

It just so happens that “Blurred Lines” is not a track that particularly speaks to me– musically, or through its chauvinism-masquerading-as-liberation. But Payton’s arguments against Pharrell’s talent– and against hip-hop as a medium– just don’t hold water.

    • BCT
    • September 13th, 2013


      • Freespeechtalking
      • September 24th, 2013

      This response clearly demonstrates how tone deaf white people are to black music and what it means to make black music in America, then and now. Clueless!

      • @Freespeechtalking– curious to hear why you think it demonstrates that so I can respond appropriately.

    • Soultrane
    • March 20th, 2015

    No contradiction in what Payton said; he simply made the point that IF you are going to argue that you DIDN’T steal the song based on the sheet music, you should at least understand the sheet music you are asking people to check out.

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