by Ryan Wasoba
February is Black History Month, the mere existence of which is a reminder that white people have spent a majority of America's existence being total dicks. When it comes to popular music, Caucasians are like a race comprising Winona Ryders who have no problems blatantly stealing. Here are the six worst musical thefts by white people.
Conceptually, there's nothing wrong with white people playing funk. There's something cross-culturally admirable about white kids showing reverence for James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton and the like. The issue is in execution. "White funk" has become an oxymoronic insult that defines the lameness that occurs when slap bass or scratchy guitar chords are abused. This is a slow epidemic, worsened in the early 1990s with the rise of jam bands and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Naturally, there are exceptions; the bookish Talking Heads made genuinely funky records (even before hiring half of Funkadelic as a back-up band), and black people are totally capable of playing white funk. But every time a suburban high schooler in a Pink Floyd shirt steps on a wah pedal and imitates the opening theme to Shaft, Bootsy Collins' platform shoes drop down an inch.
5. Graceland Paul Simon's Graceland is considered a landmark album because it introduced a strand of African pop to the Western world. One could argue that his motivations were noble, that he used his status to bring certain musicians into a limelight that was previously unavailable. At the same time, you could accuse Simon of trotting the globe with a manifest destiny approach to songcraft, pillaging cultures of their music to brand as his own; after Graceland, he scoured Brazil for Rhythm Of The Saints, and there's probably some Indonesian Gamelan Paul Simon record called Java For The Soul that Warner Brothers shelved in the early '90s. The truth is probably somewhere between these extremes, an off-putting album with good intentions. The racial dissonance of Graceland was resurrected a few years back by Vampire Weekend. Ironically, the precedent that justified the Ivy League misfits' bleached Afro-pop was a Paul Simon album named after the estate of one of the worst offenders of cultural thievery.
4. British Blues Cream, Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Bluesbreakers and tons of other British white guys made big bucks in the 1960s by cranking up their amps and playing music written thirty to forty years earlier by African Americans. Their only contribution to the style was using electric guitars and, frankly, not playing as well as the original artists. This is not to dog on these bands or doubt their legitimacy, but their best works were made when they found their own voice rather than amplifying Robert Johnson's. 3. Swing It is often said that jazz is America's first musical invention. For its first few decades, jazz was a cat and mouse game in which black folks created and white people raced to copy. The imitation was far from flattery when big band swing became a national treasure. All white bands dominated radio and had an unfair advantage in the touring circuit, all while playing watered-down versions of the music crafted by their black counterparts. While offensive from a business standpoint, this trend inspired even greater innovation from the underemployed. Duke Ellington wrote chilling arrangements for his band, and racism influenced Charlie Parker's violently squiggly melodies; while any classically trained musician with a decent ear could have heard a swing band and vaguely copied the style, Parker's complicated bebop lines were a safeguard against theft. Former SIUE piano instructor (and multiple RFT Best Jazz Musician nominee) Reggie Thomas once explained the bebop mentality by scatting a particularly jagged Parker solo while playing air saxophone, then saying, "Try and copy that, Whitey."
2. Publishing Rights Thelonious Monk's most famous composition "Round Midnight" has been covered countless times -- I could venture a guess, but since somebody is likely recording a version at this very second, the number would inevitably be off. But the deceased Monk's family will never receive a fair share of the tune's popularity because of the difficulty black musicians faced publishing their work in the white-run music industry. Lyricist Bernie Hanighen (white guy) wrote some crap-ass words to Monk's ballad, and because of his finagling of paperwork, still receives a chunk of the royalties for all sales -- even though most recordings are instrumental. The moral of the story: Screw Bernie Hanighen.
1. Rock & Roll Sun Records owner Sam Phillips is quoted as saying, "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars." He found that man in Elvis Presley, beginning the trend of repackaging and cleaning up black music for a white audience, ripping the originators off stylistically and monetarily for decades to follow. In a word: Shitty. Rock & roll, in the broad sense, encompasses the concepts of this entire list. But it also is a tale of perseverance, of people who fought back against oppression with creativity and forced the world to listen: Blues, ragtime, swing, bebop, rock, r&b, reggae, funk, hip-hop and whatever comes next. This isn't just black history, this is the complicated, triumphant story of American culture.