Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Abhdel Halim

Pimpin' a classic

By Tarek Atia

Front Page

Jay-Z, also known as "Jigga," is widely considered the best rapper in America today. His albums go multi-platinum, making this former drug dealer a millionaire many times over. One of the hits on his current album, Life and Times of S Carter (Jay-Z's real name is Sean Carter), is called Big Pimpin'. And like most rap music, Big Pimpin' features a tirade of machismo fast-talk driven by a hard-hitting, extremely catchy musical sample.

Except in this case, the haunting melody that provides the basis of Big Pimpin's success is clearly taken from Khosara, a song written by composer Baligh Hamdi for Abdel-Halim Hafez.

How did an extremely famous 40-year-old Egyptian tune manage to become the number one hit in America today, without anyone finding out? For a start, because Jay-Z does not credit Baligh Hamdi for his composition. Almost every other song on the CD's liner notes is accompanied by acknowledgments -- "There's Been A Murder contains a sample of Murder, written by Alana Davis, published by EMI/Blackwood. All rights reserved. Used by permission." Except for Big Pimpin'. No credit is given where credit is due.

The issue of credits and sampling is ticklish in the music industry. The entire matter is mired in technicalities such as the number of bars taken from the original, and whether the melody is actually sampled (replayed directly from the original) or merely re-recorded. There are widespread debates about what exactly constitutes a sample, and how much of one warrants getting permission for its use from the original copyright owner. As such, the producers and record companies have become very cautious about what they release.

Careful listening by several experts, DJs and musicians seemed to indicate that the two complete bars taken from Khosara are re-recorded (not sampled) in Big Pimpin', thus probably freeing Jay-Z and the producer from the responsibility of getting permission from the original song's producer and copyright owner, Magdi El-Amroussi, owner of record label Sawt El-Fann. When the song was brought to his attention by Al- Weekly, El-Amroussi said that it was "a crime they should be punished for."


Hamdi (left) and Hafez at work

Even if they had come to him for permission before taping, El-Amroussi says he "would have said no. Because he's changed the composition."

In this case, it would seem that permission may have been required, however, from the Union of Writers and Composers, where the composer's rights revert after a certain number of years of a song's being on the market.

But the catch here is that since the song is re-recorded, permission may only need to be taken if a significant portion of the work, some eight bars or more, is used. Jay-Z only uses two bars, even though he repeats them throughout his whole song.

DJs Hani Wahba and Shadi Fahim agree that with millions of dollars at stake, producers are very careful over copyrights and make sure that they stay within the bounds of the law. But whereas they might have had no legal obligation to credit the composer, the fact that the melody of Big Pimpin' is entirely based on those two bars should have been reason enough to credit Hamdi.

"Questions of what constitutes a song, and who deserves credit for song writing, have never been more complicated," said music critic Rodd McLeod in Salon recently. "There's a lot of money riding on that blurry line." Record producer Al Kooper, quoted in the article, says that stripped down, the rap lyric is the real essence of the song, not the riff or the rhythm." Some see it differently. "If you use it all through the record, it becomes part of the song," a hip-hop producer says in the same article.

Ironically, Jay-Z has had his own troubles with people appropriating his work without his permission. Late last year the singer found out that bootleg copies of Life and Times of S Carter were available on the street for $5 before the original album was released, and allegedly stabbed the man responsible at a party in New York City's Kit Kat Club. Jay-Z denies the stabbing, and will appear in front of a judge on this matter on 7 June. If convicted, Jay-Z faces 15 years in prison.

For using Hamdi's composition, however, Jay-Z will probably go scot free.

The Weekly spoke by phone to a representative of an independent hip-hop record label in New York and asked what a copyright owner's chances in Egypt were of getting credit or compensation for the use of Hamdi's tune on Big Pimpin'. "I don't think it's sampled at all," was their response. "I don't think he'll get anything unless he's got real good proof. I think you're barking up the wrong tree," they added before abruptly hanging up.

Egypt's long-standing membership of the World Intellectual Property Organisation, it seems then, may not have much of an impact in this issue.

Egypt signed the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works in June 1977. The US signed it in March 1989. Article 5 clearly states that "protection in the country of origin is governed by domestic law. However, when the author is not a national of the country of origin of the work for which he is protected under this Convention, he shall enjoy in that country the same rights as national authors."

Egypt is also a signatory of the Convention for the Protection of Producers of Phonograms against Unauthorised Duplication of their Phonograms, which it signed in April 1978. The US signed it in March, 1974.

Intellectual property law is a tricky business indeed, whichever way the copying goes. There are several USAID funded projects helping to ensure that the framework for the protection of copyrights is in place in Egypt, as well as a system to facilitate litigation in case of violations. For trademarks like famous shoe and clothing brands this has had some effect, as it has with pirated audio and video tapes (most of what's sold in stores is now strictly licensed), but rampant copyright infringements continue, most notably on TV, where ads routinely Arabise major American pop hits.

Americanising world music has been a common practice for some time now. The Jay-Z-Abdel-Halim mix comes hot on the heels of a successful collaboration between international superstar Sting and rai star Cheb Mami. Desert Rose rocked clubs and charts around the world, including Egypt, inspiring debates as to whether the song is more Eastern or Western in nature? Did Sting merely use Cheb Mami as flavor, some interesting Oriental background? Where does the success of a song lie?

Baligh Hamdi's nephew and assistant up to the time of his passing, Haitham Hamdi, was quite proud when he found out that the tune for Khosara was used by Jay-Z. "The fact that it was taken abroad means that when you strip the song down to its elements, the strongest part was the melody. I see that it could open doors. If Baligh was alive today, he would be proud. The melody was so intriguing to him, the producer. It's the pulse line of the song. It shows Baligh's influence. His songs are the most copied. It makes me proud. I just wish that the subject of Jay-Z's song might have been a little more decent."

The identity of the composer of the song, though, has been lost within the crazy machinations of the hip-hop world. A review of the song on MTV describes it as "Bollywood-wigged NOLA bounce stutter-stepping," ignoring its Egyptian roots.

Another review describes the beat as featuring "Z droppin big willie rhymes over a swaying, South-Seas flavoured groove that's a happy musical marriage of Brooklyn and Bali."

Even the one reviewer, Blaze magazine's Richard Louissant, with the insight to notice that the song is Middle-Eastern influenced, leaves it at that vague attribution.

Clearly there's tug-of-war at play here. On the one hand, it's a positive sign of the strength of Eastern rhythms, and on the other, it's a clear case of rights being ignored by the appropriating party.

The trouble, of course, is that money is involved, as well as reputation and fame, and a position in the global arena, which add up to the same. The culture of making money pervades the art of hip-hop. Jay-Z and other rappers are always boasting about who sells the most records, making the most money.

In this case, just a week after the album hit the stores, Life and Times of S Carter had sold 462,000 copies, debuting at the top of the Billboard charts. Three weeks later, it had sold 750,000; by now it has probably gone multi-platinum.

Thus, while modern Egyptian singers like Amr Diab, Mohamed Foaud and Hakim strive for inclusion in the ranks of the internationally renowned, mostly by adopting highly-Western influenced styles, a dead Egyptian composer has beat them at the game and surreptitiously reached number one in leaps and bounds by sticking to a traditional Egyptian riff.

Today, as Arab singers desperately try to become the next Cheb Mami, co-opted by someone like Sting and merely used for flavour, Hamdi's work speaks for itself.

Popular young composer Essam Karika, when he heard the song, was optimistic. Karika sees it as a good thing that Americans are now dancing to our music. "This makes it clear," Karika says, "that we have oceans of stuff in our folklore, if we just look for it. Singers and composers should take this as a message: that we should stop copying Western stuff, stealing American and Spanish styles in an attempt to be popular here and abroad. We should understand that if we concentrate on our own music we can become truly international."

Ironically, while Americans are having negative cultural images of Arabs (like the Yemeni-bashing hit film Rules of Engagement) and Ancient Egypt clichés slammed down their throats via shows like last week Fox's Opening of the Golden Mummies, emphasizing the dead aspects of Egyptian culture, living breathing Egyptian music is atop the pop charts without anyone being aware. Americans are dancing to Egyptian grooves, it's just that nobody has told them that they are Egyptian.

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