box1 header1
What follows is a collection of essays about the biz, articulated through the legal and cultural legacies its inhabitants leave behind. Not "legal writing" or "music writing," per se (nor is this really a "blog"), posts draw from history and art, sociology and psychology, economics and evolution, and discuss music, law, and life writ large. Extensive footnotes at the end of each entry provide sources for assertions made and suggestions for furthering research.

Various people with varied motives, backgrounds, and abilities work together to give us the variety of sounds that shape the way we experience our world. This page is but one approach to understanding that process (and its result).


(If you're interested in contributing, email Loren to learn how.)


blogHeaderLoren Wells
Too Legit to Acquit: Lyrics, Life and Law
Kill a career one day.
Antavio Johnson is in jail. And his mouth is shut. If you knew him, you'd be unsurprised by the former, but baffled by the latter. Because while Antavio's the type of guy you'd expect to find doing time, he isn't wont to be very quiet. For now, at least, he's got no choice.

Several years ago, Antavio Johnson—known street-side by the hip-hop moniker T.O.—released a song entitled "Kill a Cop One Day." Its message is straightforward. Its title provides proper summary.

The sentiment surely isn't novel; Ice T's rap-rock crossover band, Body Count, famously released "Cop Killa" in 1992, much to funders' chagrin. But Antavio went much further. Not just rapping abstractly about killing cops, he rapped definitively about killing specific cops. He named them and included demands: free his friend "Chico," leave him alone. If not, one day…

By an odd twist of statutory fate, Florida had legislation to fit the bill. Convicted of threatening harm against public servants with the intent to influence their official activities, he was handed a two year stint. Though First Amendment scholars barked protestation, the judgment seemed to fit the facts. (If lyrics were protected without exception, conspirators could evade guilt simply by scheming in rhyme.)

Such outcomes should be flattering, really. Rappers tout gangster cred, with the hope they'll be believed. True-to-life hardness is a virtue in the streetwise world of gangsta rap, and Florida police believed Antavio.

His chapter is one-of-a-kind, but part of a larger story, one of artists finding themselves unluckily convincing: too legit to acquit. It's an odd conundrum. Artists carefully construct public personas and seek legitimacy. But in court, sometimes, their only defense is phoniness.

By then, of course, it's usually too late.

You're the one who did it to you.

Unfortunately, the "PCP made me eat her"
defense holds little clout.
In April of 2002, L.A.P.D. officers came upon a man wandering the midday streets. He was naked, covered in blood, and babbling incoherently, with raw meat dangling from his goatee. It was the beginning of the end for a rapper called Big Lurch (née Antron Singleton), and the first step in a self-fulfilling prophecy of biblical irony.

By 8:30 that morning, Antron was already amped on PCP, visiting a female friend, and seeking sexual favors. As you'd guess, things didn't go as planned (certainly not for her).

Though difficult to precisely divine, basic facts are rather clear. Lurch became enraged and stabbed his uncooperative companion. With "angeldust" presumably at the helm, he reached into her freshly lacerated abdomen (possibly while she was still alive), removed a few inner bits, and took a bite or two.

After hastily cleaning the scene, he bolted out the back, and was soon spotted by police.

Amidst an already gruesome trial, Black Market Records released Lurch's debut album, "It's All Bad." His lyrics contained expectable gangland posturing. And much more.

In one surprisingly catchy song, Big Lurch openly endorsed cannibalism. He compared himself to slasher flick villains, vampires, animals, and serial killers, ending verse and chorus with bizarrely appropriate warnings: "If you wake up in a puddle of blood . . . I did it to you." (The latter half supplies the song's title.)

Though not always poetic, Lurch's lyrics are certainly believable—he actually lived them—and YouTubers' comments display an oddly understandable admiration for such legitimacy. "[M]uch respect to mothafuckin Big Lurch," said one, "even if it is some bad unfortunate shit."

At trial, however, believability and respect were the last things he wanted.
Good guys don't wear white.
Big Lurch's YouTube admirers represent us all, to some extent. Something's oddly transfixing about criminality; through adulation we ourselves become "criminals once removed, intimations of crime without the thing itself," in the words of writer John Leland. In fact, long before T.O. and Big Lurch sought stardom through outlawdom, musical fascination with creative goons was long established.

In Georgian England, best-selling popular songs weren't just penned by criminals, but "written by the wretched culprit the night previous to his execution."

American blues artists' sordid lives also met marketplace demand. None illustrate the phenomenon quite like Huddie Ledbetter, known professionally as "Lead Belly."

Huddie's big break came in 1933, during the third of ten years at Angola prison—where he'd earlier gained freedom, well into a thirty-year sentence for murder, by serenading Texan governor Pat Neff—when folklorist/musicologist John Lomax heard in Leadbelly's hardened wail the potential for monetary success. He was right, and a second governor freed the convicted crooner once more.

Spotlighted and unshackled, Huddie himself sought the straight and narrow. But career advisors kept his image illicit, limiting his repertoire to chain-gang melodies, ensuring he donned only prisoners' garb publicly (Huddie preferred dapperness), and even fabricating quotes of crimes past. Noncriminal tendencies worried Lomax, who believed them counter to Lead Belly's "money value." "[H]e will lose his charm," complained Lomax tellingly, and become "ordinary."

Lead Belly's life underlies the unfortunate fates of T.O. and Big Lurch. Because legitimacy sells, it's actively incubated, exaggerated, and fabricated. Artists like Lead Belly—sometimes entire genres—imbue themselves in dastardliness and become slaves to others' expectations. Thus, as Leland observes, they are, in the end, "not in control of their own myth."

But with such impressive profit within reach, losing control mightn't seem that bad.

So the cycle continues, even in the oddest of places.

Dungeons and dragons and murder (oh my).

Paul Stanley is "Starchild,"
Ace Frehley is "Spaceman."
Black Metal musicians look more like
"Guy Fake-Swordfighting on the Quad."
Gloomy Norwegian winters (springs, summers, and falls, too) produce artistic outlandishness and brutish competition for legitimacy that equals, perhaps outdoes, that in the U.S.

But Norwegian bad guys don't rap, sing the blues, or claim street allegiance. They play "extreme metal". And they worship Satan.

Between 1992 and 1996 over fifty of Norway's oldest wooden churches burned (some to the ground). At least three people died violently; two knifed feverishly without provocation. As media inquiries and official investigations revealed, local "Black Metal" artists weren't merely singing satanic praises, they were living them too.

When a Tolkein-toting 21-year-old musician, "Varg" Vikernes (also known as Count Grishnackh), went to prison in 1994 for church arson and murder—after bragging via newspaper and documenting his handiwork (i.e. smoldering church ruins) on album sleeves—public obsession was unavoidable. The bar was set for competitors to play along.

Soon thereafter nearly all "the major Norwegian Black Metal bands were [on] hiatus, their key members facing prison sentences for arson, grave desecration, and murder."

In years to follow, hate peddlers like Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor, and others, segued their onetime miniscule genre into an international mass. Like John Lomax observed with Lead Belly's successes, taboo proclivities can be commercial endeavors to the last.

But when Black Metal antics began resembling "a show [or] a scary bit of theater," wars of words erupted between bands. Accusations of farce met boasts of legitimacy; action was the only proof.

Soon Germans and Swedes produced violence of their own. By 2005, Norway's satanic majesty, Gaahl, allegedly "tortured [one] victim for six hours while collecting his blood into a cup," singing pretty Norwegian lullabies as he worked. Un-coincidentally, Gaahl's band's name, Gorgoroth, literally means "terror."

Like Varg before, he soon faced such sentiments in court.

Thus the question asks itself: to what extent can artists' self-perpetuated myth be used as fodder when, whilst under the heat, they seek it buried once and for all?

See evil, hear evil, but don't speak it.
Antron Singleton was none too happy to hear "I Did It to You" discussed at the bar. But arguing intoxication deprived him of requisite intent, Big Lurch invited prosecutorial retort and lyrical examination. The government's "drug recognition expert" opined that substances were not to blame; Lurch was plainly keen on gore and more before voluntarily downing PCP. And as investigating officers observed, the lyrics sounded like "a blueprint for the crime."

Varg's grandiloquent media blitz also surfaced as evidence at trial. He too contested, asserting he'd lied about razing churches, seeking P.R. for musical products. But impossibly intimate knowledge, like that of decapitated rabbit carcasses found by authorities on church steps (which were never publicized), forced opposite conclusions. In blaming conspiratorial intermeddling by Jews and Freemasons, his credibility wore thinner.

Others have tried keeping hard-earned reputations out of court, and been equally unsuccessful. Several quick examples suffice.

When rapper Project Pat, facing weapons charges, claimed he didn't even like guns, much less own any, inquiry into songs he'd written extolling their many uses and virtues was held fair game. And as a self-described "gangsta rapper," Pat couldn't prevent prosecutors from repeating the phrase themselves, even if it was, perhaps, prejudicial.

Mac the Camouflage Assassin, on trial for murder, argued that government lawyers couldn't use his stage name during opening and closing statements, nor recite lyrics he'd penned, like "murder, murder, kill, kill." But the words weren't offered as "evidence," and, with or without them, held the court, Mac was clearly guilty.

Though facts and rulings vary per situation, they have much in common. Artists clearly define themselves through lyrics, personality, and public posture.

They simultaneously (though unintentionally) define themselves legally, too.

On eating cake and people.
Antavio Johnson's conviction was an oddity.

When "Kill a Cop One Day" reached City Hall and investigators pinpointed its author, Antavio was already in jail, incarcerated for entirely unrelated reasons and facing rather steep punishment. Pleading guilty to corruption of public officials arguably retrieved lesser reprisal than he'd otherwise warranted.

So unlike comrades discussed above, his lyrical claims served him well, earning P.R., demonstrating legitimacy, and getting the better of the bargain in the process. Normally, of course, artists aren't so lucky.

Antavio is an exception to a very simple rule that can be succinctly stated. Fringe musicians choosing to benefit—monetarily and reputationally—from eviler-than-life appearances, can't simply backtrack when convenience calls. "Just kidding" won't suffice in courts of law. Convicted gangsta rappers like Mac and Pat provide examples.

In short, you can't have your bullets and shoot them too.

Artists understandably want it both ways. They desire success and the freedom to enjoy it, to satiate crowds, but to please themselves as well.

In providing access to villainous "otherness," becoming the people we want to be but are afraid to become (to paraphrase Robert Warshow), Big Lurch, Count Grishnackh, Lead Belly and friends, cede their world, and their fate, to us, to consumers. John Leland noted that the outlaw's mystique "owes its currency to the public." Lomax knew it, and fought to keep Lead Belly in line. Gaahl saw it too. "You cannot put down your sword," he said. "Because then you lose."

Juries, it turns out, and judges, are cross-sections of that same public. Those who condone are, on a macro level, the same as those who condemn.

So once Black Metal murderers and gangbanging rappers win us over, convince us of their legitimacy, they've already, in way, presaged their own impending doom.

But that, of course, seems only appropriate.

NOTES AND SOURCES ( click to reveal )
Kill a career one day.
Antavio Johnson's story is widely available online. See, e.g., the Polk County Sheriff department's press release, dated July 30, 2009, available at their website (http://www.polksheriff.org/NewsRoom/News Releases/ Pages/LakelandManSentencedtoTwoYearsStatePrisonforThreateningTwoPoliceOfficers.aspx); the transcript for National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation," discussing the case, hosted by Lynn Neary and featuring First Amendment scholar Anita Allen, which aired August, 20, 2009, available at their website (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111742102); and the Orlando Sentinel's contemporaneous report, posted online August 1, 2009, and still there (http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2009-08-01/news/rapper_1_johnson-rap-song-lyrics).

The legislation, Florida Statutes § 838.021, can be accessed directly at http://www.myfloridahouse.gov/filestores/web/statutes/fs07/ch0838/Section_0838.021.HTM. The relevant portions of the statute, read together, spell out the crime, which reaches anyone who "threatens unlawful harm to any public servant . . . with the intent or purpose . . . [t]o influence the performance of any act or omission . . . within [the public servant's] official discretion . . . or [done] in performance of a public duty." According to the act, the government need not show that the offender's threats related to acts actually "pending" before the public servant, and need not show the requested acts could "properly be brought before him or her." Thus, it seems irrelevant that Antavio's actions were unlikely to reach the public officials referenced in the song.

Comments regarding hip-hop artist's competition for legitimacy are taken from general understandings and awareness of the business, which most of us have. However, sources exist aplenty. See, e.g., DAN CHARNAS's in-depth examination IN THE BIG PAYBACK: THE HISTORY OF THE BUSINESS OF HIP-HOP, 355-532 (2010), spanning two chapters, "Cops & Robbers" and "Keeping it Real"; and, generally, TRICIA ROSE, THE HIP HOP WARS: WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT HIP HOP AND WHY IT MATTERS (2008).

You're the one who did it to you
Big Lurch's lawsuit is People v. Singleton, 2005 WL 699307 (Cal. Ct. App. 2005), which provided all the facts used to tell the story. Its holding is discussed later, in "See evil, hear evil, but don't speak it."

The YouTube comment was left at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSnoPxIHElQ.

Good guys don't wear white.
JOHN LELAND's observations about criminality in commercial music were found in his book, HIP: THE HISTORY (2004), at 227, within a Chapter called "Criminally Hip: Outlaws, Gangsters, Players, and Hustlers," discussing outlaw archetypes in popular culture from Robin Hood, Billy the Kid and Jesse James to William Boroughs, Iceberg Slim, Tupac and Biggie, Johnny Cash and more.

Purchasers' taste for damned prisoners' verses was found in PAUL DU NOYER, IN THE CITY: A CELEBRATION OF LONDON MUSIC 13 (2009). One specific execution in 1707—of a house robber named Jack Hill—was consistently re-hashed over the years in different, similar songs.

Lead Belly's story has been told many different times. Its general gist and most specifics came from GREG MILNER, PERFECTING SOUND FOREVER: AN AURAL HISTORY OF RECORDED MUSIC (2009). Lead belly's early years and first incarceration are discussed around 84-85; John Lomax's discovery at 87-88. However, that he was freed by a second governor came, not from MILNER, but from THE ROLLING STONE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ROCK N' ROLL 553 (eds. Holly George Warren and Patricia Romanowski, 2009). MILNER again provided the facts and quotes for Lomax's tight control of Lead Belly's public persona, at 89. Another great discussion of the Lomax-Lead Belly discussion is in MARYBETH HAMILTON, IN SEARCH OF THE BLUES (2008)

Leland's quote about outlaws not controlling their myths is in LELAND, at 237.

Dungeons and dragons and murder (oh my).
The "fifty churches" figure can be heard in an interesting Norwegian Documentary, SATAN RIDES THE MEDIA, released in the late 1990s in Norway, and available with subtitles freely on Google Video. However, much of the general information can also be found in the subject's recognized treatise, MICHAEL MOYNIHAN AND DIDRIK SODERLAND, LORDS OF CHAOS: THE BLOODY RISE OF THE SATANIC METAL UNDERGROUND (2003). In "Satan Rides the Media," documentarians paid close attention to the facts of Varg's initial contact with the press, and included interviews with the journalist who broke the story, Finn Bjorn Tonder. LORDS OF CHAOS is a little disjointed in its order, but several chapters discuss the events and proceedings themselves at length.

"[M]ajor Norwegian Black Metal bands [were] facing prison sentences": MOYNIHAN AND SODERLAND, at 138.

Though Jorne Thunsberg, the guitar player in Hades said that "Black metal should be more like a show, it should be more frightening, like a scary bit of theater," (in SATAN RIDES THE MEDIA), he still believes Norway "should not be a Christian nation." Thunesberg's approach to the genre as a form of showmanship, not a restatement of reality, curried Varg Vikernes's disfavor; in Varg's initial newspaper interview he offhandedly referred to Thunesberg as a "less intelligent individual." MOYNIHAN AND SODERLAND, at 97. The resulting divide between Norwegian bands is discussed at 136-42.

German "Black Metal" murderers and their band (Absurd), and Swedish church-burners and grave desecrators, among others, are discussed at length in MOYNIHAN AND SODERLAND at, respectively, 270-305 and 305-12. Other countries' involvement follows thereafter. Gaahl's six-hour torture was discussed at several points in VBS.tv's MUSIC WORLD: TRUE NORWEGIAN METAL (2008), available online at http://www.vbs.tv/watch/music-world/true-norwegian-black-metal. Gorgoroth's meaning from the documentary as well.

See evil, hear evil, but don't speak it.
Big Lurch's case, as referenced above, is People v. Singleton, 2005 WL 699307 (Cal. Ct. App. 2005). The precise issues at trial regarding the lyrics were twofold: 1) was the government expert witness's testimony invalid because he relied on Lurch's lyrics in forming his opinion as to Lurch's culpability, and 2) were the lyrics inadmissible hearsay? As to the former, the court held that, because the defense's expert testified that Lurch was unaware of his actions and incapable of forming the requisite intent, the government could present rebuttal evidence. Regarding his opinion about the effects of drugs on Lurch's actions, the court held, inter alia, "an expert is entitled to rely on a defendant's statements as one of the bases for the expert's opinion," even if those statements were inadmissible hearsay. As to the latter point, the court classified the lyrics under the admissions exception to the hearsay rule. Much of this holding seems questionable.

Varg's "grandiloquent media blitz" included a multiple-page story in Kerrang! Magazine, one of the largest-circulation metal publications, and is detailed in MOYNIHAN AND SODERLAND, 96-108. The trial itself is largely discussed at 136-49. The "evidence at trial" included an article from Bergens Tinder, a small Norwegian tabloid, as well as statements he'd made to the media and other Black Metal figures (140). Varg's current interpretation of the set of events is described at 145-49, including his bizarre obsession with Jews and Freemasons. The decapitated rabbit anecdote was told by Finn Tonder, the journalist of the original article, in SATAN RIDES THE MEDIA.

Project Pat's case is U.S. v. Houston, 205 F.Supp.2d 856 (W.D. Tex. 2002), affirmed by 110 Fed. Appx. 536 (6th Cir. 2004).

Mac the Camouflage Assassin's case is Phipps v. Wilkinson, 2008 WL 2233968 (E.D. La. 2008).

Two other relevant cases are Com. v. Ragan, 538 Pa. 2 (Pa. 1994), in which lyrics were used to impeach a local rapper's claims he was just a peaceful artist and student; and State v. Hayward, 963 P.2d 667 (Or. 1998), where evidence of the defendant's obsession with "death metal" music was admitted to prove his motive, since he listened to albums that discussed grotesque murders to prepare himself for committing his own, and audibly made "death metal growls" as he attacked a convenience store clerk with a knife. There are certainly others.

On eating cake and people.
The anecdote that Antavio Johnson actually avoided harsher punishment by pleading guilty to corrupting public servants was provided by Anita Allen on "Talk of the Nation," referenced above.

According to JOHN LELAND, HIP: THE HISTORY, at 236, Robert Warshow originally said: "criminals embody both ‘what we want to be and what we are afraid we might become.'" That outlaw appeal "owes its currency to the public" is in LELAND, at 237. Gaahl's philosophy on why he can't "put down his sword" was provided in TRUE NORWEGIAN METAL.