I recently took my sons (ages 2 and 5) to see “Yo Gabba Gabba Live” at Radio City Music Hall. For those who are not familiar with “Yo Gabba Gabba,” it is a music show on Nick Jr., the channel for the little brothers and sisters of Nickelodeon’s core audience. The program is hosted by an African-American character called DJ Lance, and it uses dance music (as in DJ-type dance music) to teach the life lessons of preschool (Don’t bite your friends, eat your veggies, etc.) to its viewers. The show is very popular among musicians and other entertainers, and personalities like Jack Black, Moby and the Roots are liable to appear on any given episode. Hip-hop artist Biz Markie is a regular on the program, and he is really the focus of this post.
Biz appeared in the live show as a special guest. He came out on stage and beatboxed several different beats. He then invited children to join him on stage to attempt to perform some of his beats. Now, Biz was never exactly a thug or a gangster in his hey day as a rapper, but it was still striking to see this big black man bouncing little white kids on his knee, teaching them how to beatbox. Along with Ice T’s playing a cop on TV, Ice Cube’s playing a Chevy Chase/Clark Griswold-type role in “Are We There Yet?,” and Snoop Dog’s acceptance by the fraternity/sorority set (see his cameo in “Old School”), Biz Markie’s Nick Jr gig is an example of the continuing mainstreaming of hip-hop. Recall that, almost 20 years ago, Biz and his ilk were branded thieves by Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy in Grand Upright Music Ltd. v. Warner Brothers Records, Inc. (the Gilbert O’Sullivan “Alone Again (Naturally)” case). The judge even referred the matter to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for consideration of criminal prosecution. Biz’s “crime” in that case was sampling, but the involvement of many other rappers in what was considered antisocial or criminal behavior made the music and the culture “other” for many Americans for many years.
Now that hip-hop is mainstream, and its most righteous gangsters play suburban dads in the movies, is there room for the law to revisit its antagonism toward hip-hop culture? Now that Biz Markie can teach preschoolers about the culture on Viacom’s dime, can copyright law rework Judge Duffy’s notion of “stealing” to find a place for the sampling, remixing, and other borrowing that have been fundamental to hip-hop since the beginning? Now that Nick Jr. has caught the Vapors, it’s time for the Copyright Act to do so as well.