The great contemporary songwriter Diane Warren, who’s getting the first Lifetime Achievement Academy Award this winter for songwriting, got in “trouble” yesterday. She wrote on Twitter, “How can there be 24 writers on a song?”
Warren was immediately upbraided by the hip hop community defending Beyonce– whose current album boasts upwards of 15 to 24 listed writers per song. Hip hop producer and songwriter The Dream — who has plenty of hits under his belt — was one who came after her, and Warren backtracked to say she admired and respected Beyonce.
But Warren was right. The reason for the 24 names is because the songs are all “sampled” and “interpolated.” They are pieced together, as I said yesterday, from particle board. They include bits and pieces of existing music, old songs, obscure compositions. Nothing about them is original except for pasting them together like mixed media. How does it get to 24? So-called producers, people who supplied the ingredients, most of whom couldn’t “write” an original song if their lives depended on it.
Race was thrown into this discussion. There was some idea that Black musicians didn’t have access to the same resources as white, so they had to make samples. This is a specious argument, especially in pop music. Most of the great writers have been Black. They wrote all original music. Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Smokey Robinson, Valerie Simpson and Nik Ashford, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, Holland-Dozier-Holland — none of them sampled anything. Let me go on: Stevie Wonder, Al Green & Willie Mitchell, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Sylvia Moy and Teddy Randazzo. And on and on and on…Eugene Record of The Chi Lites, let’s not forget, wrote “Are You My Woman,” the basis of Beyonce and Jay Z‘s biggest hit, “Crazy in Love.”
If these legends hadn’t written the pop music songbook of our lives, there would be no hip hop now. While the genre has soaring moments, it’s also based largely on the work of others. Beyonce’s new album is entirely that. Kanye West‘s albums, and Jay Z‘s, are chockablock with “beats,” melodies, hooks, etc derived from that songbook. Warren is expressing her frustration for all of them. She labors alone in a studio every day for 8 to 12 hours. The result has been a slew of hits and 13 Oscar nominations. She has a hit now with Jon Batiste called “Sweet.” They wrote it. That’s it. No team. Writing is an intimate business. It’s not created like Frankenstein.
This is why, by the way, the Grammys had to institute a new award called Songwriter of the Year. It solves a problem that had to be dealt with. And while sampling has been lucrative for writers whose songs are properly licensed for samples, it’s painful for those who wake up one morning to hear their old work incorporated into a contemporary star’s “new” work. Case in point; Kelis, who was surprised to find her 2003 “Milkshake” hit woven into Beyonce’s new “Energy.” She’s complaining, and rightly so. Her point is, Let’s respect the actual authors of material. After 40 years, it’s time.
By the way, The Dream (Terius Nash)– who is also a “real” writer of songs that he composed without sampling — wisely concluded this conversation with this observation: “It’s about Art, not one artist or writer me or them. With all due respect and love for those who came before and will come after. Im truly Sorry if I disturbed the force today that’s not my purpose. Peace”