The ‘Ills’ of borrowing and stealing

23 May

“Good writers borrow; great writers steal” is a paraphrased adage from T.S. Eliot that comes up regularly in conversations about literature and other artistic endeavors. With good reason. With millions of books and albums already released and thousands more saturating the shelves every week, it’s become nearly impossible to be totally original, as there are a limited number of words to be written and notes to be played. At this point, imitation is far more common than innovation.

For my money, the greatest works of contemporary art are the ones that manage to imitate and innovate. The mixtape that’s been on constant repeat on my iTunes for the past week is one that seems rather innovative in the way that it imitates. Detroit MC Elzhi’s Elmatic is probably my favorite rap release of 2011, even though it’s a tribute to a record that came out 17 years ago – Nas’ Illmatic, held up by many critics as the holy grail of hip hop. The concept of a “tribute” album as executed by Elzhi is new to me. Like Illmatic, Elmatic features the same 10 sets of beats, except the backing tracks are performed in a different sequence by a live backing band (Will Sessions), a group with the jazz chops to improvise through different sections of the original songs. The instrumentation is a genius move that makes Elmatic sound far fresher than you would expect.

The other aspect that differentiates the mixtape from its inspiration is that while Elzhi keeps the chorus hooks from Illmatic, his verses on Elmatic are completely different, aside from a few subtle callbacks that remind listeners of the rapper’s fondness for the source material. And while Elzhi might not quite be on the same level as Nas as a lyricist, he comes damn close. Because Elzhi’s rhymes are good enough to be alternate (not meaning lesser) takes from Illmatic, the project pops. It’s like getting a second chance to listen to Illmatic for the first time. Considering it’s available on the internet free of charge, it’s quite the gift for any fan of hip hop.

Elzhi – “The World Is Yours”

Beyond being a fantastic listening experience, Elzhi deserves props for illustrating a new way for artists to repurpose their influences. Because it’s a tribute mixtape, the former member of Slum Village isn’t stealing from his idol, as evidenced by the fact that Illmatic producer Pete Rock offers his effusive praise of the project at the beginning of the final track on Elmatic. But in the spirit of Eliot’s quote, he’s not exactly borrowing. He’s stealing with permission, a paradox if there ever was one.

Artistic plagiarism has always been a literary issue (and not in the sense of teenagers copying term papers from the Internet), one that received some real attention with the 2010 release of David Shields’ Reality Hunger, a book written in the form of fragments, many of which are unattributed quotations from other sources. I haven’t read the book (hopefully this will change soon), but it seems to be in a similar vein as Elmatic, considering there is original material from Shields combined with previously published work.

Even though Reality Hunger created a buzz, writers haven’t been as innovative with the concept of reuse as musicians have. It’s unclear what effect Shields will have on the next literary movement, but perhaps someone will take a page from the artists who have made covers, mash-ups, and tributes commercially viable. Allow me to indulge by sharing a few of my favorites:

“Tyrone” – My Morning Jacket [Erykah Badu cover]

“Killa Bees Live” – The Wudos Band [Wu-Tang Clan / The Budos Band mash-up]

For now, I’ll stick to what I’m best at, making pithy points and posting YouTube videos, and leave the in-depth analysis of the issue to real scholars, like Motherless Brooklyn author and all-around great guy Jonathan Lethem. For the writers who visit this blog, Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence” is a must-read. For those who want more hip hop, I offer you Elzhi’s take on another Illmatic classic that not only pays homage to Nas, but also to The Gap Band in its extended coda.

Elzhi – “Life’s A Bitch”

The Gap Band – “Yearning For Your Love”

Fresh rhymes mixed with a legendary hip hop hook and an R&B nugget from the early 80s. T.S. Eliot would be proud.


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