It’s been one year since Jody Rosen and The New York Times revealed the extent of the damage – and the scope of the cover-up – left in the wake of the 2008 Universal Studios Fire, and whilst hip-hop seemed to escape largely unscathed, the loss runs deeper than just bars.
In the annals of Ancient Greek mythology, the phoenix is as well-known as it is ill-defined. The sophists, historians and grammarians of antiquity went back and forth on their descriptions of the bird, and whilst the plumage, build and halo were all fiercely debated, the phoenix was famed for its one incontrovertible quality: the rebirth it represented. Every half-millenium, the bird would be taken in a flurry of flame, only to rise from the ashes, born again.
It’s easy to see why a legendary bird such as the phoenix would inspire awe: humanity is caught in an ever-ensuing battle with fire, with both The Great Fire of Rome and the 2019–20 Australian bushfires testament to the elements’ omnipresent threat to civilization. Then, as now, fire consumes, never relinquishing that which it swallows, and even as technology evolves, a simple naked flame can bring massive destruction. On June 1, 2008, a hot shingle started a fire at Universal Studios Hollywood, tearing through familiar film locales and lighting up a 22 thousand foot storage warehouse. The inferno burned for 24 hours.
The impact of the blaze was downplayed – “a vault full of video and television images” had taken damage, but “in no case was the destroyed material the only copy of a work,” Universal officials told NYTimes – and, relieved that the cultural heritage was safe, the world moved on. Mentions of a little-known music storeroom within the warehouse were all but ignored, and those that echoed caught a rehearsed response: “we had no loss.” It was a lie.
True to their theatrical leanings, that “script” turned damning condemnation to faint praise in The New York Times, NY Daily News and Los Angeles Times, and as the PR spin cycle subdued the press, UMG themselves were only beginning to understand the full extent of the damage.
It’s a mix of highfalutin arrogance and wishful thinking that saw Universal Music Group launch ‘Project Phoenix,’ a secretive recovery effort, in 2009. It’s not hard to see why they’d try: when a master tape is destroyed, the highest-fidelity recording of that track disappears, the existing copies but pale imitations of the high-fidelity original. If there’s no master tape, there’s no remasters, and the track exists only as a copy of a deeper, more vivid recording. Try though they did, the conclusion could only be sobering – the phoenix is a myth, and fire does not relinquish that which it has taken – and so, knee-deep in burnt out master tapes, Universal chose to obfuscate and conceal. It was only years later, when NYTimes reporter Jody Rosen came across Universal’s documentation, that the true impact of the blaze came to light.
In March 2009, less than a year after the fire, a confidential report claimed the total number of “assets destroyed” was 118,230, though vault worker Randy Aaronson put his own guess “in the 175,000 range.” Another UMG report from that same year suggested “an estimated 500K song titles” had gone up in flames. Project Phoenix lasted for two years, in which time Aaronson estimates UMG “gathered duplicates of perhaps a fifth of the recordings lost in the fire,” leaving a vast majority of the reported losses – master tapes, session recordings and previously unreleased compositions – unaccounted for. Most things, it turns out, don’t rise from the ashes.
The “assets” in question weren’t beholden to any single musical movement or era: in a sense, Building 6197 was something of a secret museum, the reels within an archive of American popular culture stretching back decades. UMG’s properties, burnished by years of acquisitions, counted the catalogues of Chess Records, the ‘50s and ‘60s blues staple, which included classic records from Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters; Decca Records, founded in the mid-’30s, which held masters from Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald; and Impulse!, which pressed records from Ray Charles, John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner. All these artists are named in Universal’s internal memo.
Elsewhere in their keeping was work by Brill Building songwriters such as Doc Pomus, Burt Bacharach and Van McCoy; international music stars Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Yma Sumac; disco hitmakers such as Barry Gibb, George Benson and the Pointer Sisters; and rock artists as varied as Crosby and Nash, Three Dog Night and Extreme. The complete list finds pop stars alongside singer-songwriters, bluesmen alongside New Jack Swingers, and country purveyors alongside stand-up comics. In a list so diverse, it’s no surprise that hip-hop was similarly hurt.
The advent of digital mastering, which came to the fore in the 1990s, somewhat steeled the position of emcees and hip-hop producers, though a swathe were still named in UMG’s sobering tally. Hip-hop acts who saw yet-undetermined losses include 50 Cent, who dropped four LPs on the UMG-owned Interscope; Busta Rhymes, who released 2006’s The Big Bang on Interscope subsidiary Aftermath Entertainment; and Common, whose Like Water For Chocolate and Electric Circus dropped on the now-defunct MCA Records. His three subsequent records – Be, Finding Forever and Universal Mind Control – were handled by UMG subsidiary Geffen. Infinite is the only Eminem record definitively spared, as all his later efforts were issued by Aftermath Entertainment and Shady Records, both boutique labels overseen by UMG asset Interscope.
Three of Eric B. & Rakim’s landmark records – all but Paid In Full – were released through MCA subsidiary Uni Records, placing those masters at risk. Heavy D. & the Boyz saw all their albums issued through Uptown, yet another MCA subsidiary, with the now-defunct label also distributing Heavy’s first two solo efforts. The second album from all-white Public Enemy associates Young Black Teenagers was an MCA effort, and though it may already be lost to time, it seems that the masters of Dead Enz Kidz Doin’ Lifetime Bidz may also be lost to history.
Jurassic Five entrusted all but their debut to Interscope. Mos Def’s albums – Black Star included – have been distributed by various UMG-owned entities, and each of Tupac’s ten records have been handled by Interscope, from 1991’s 2Pacalypse Now to 2006’s Pac’s Life. Interscope handled distribution for Death Row Records between 1995 and 1998, when Suge Knight was convicted of a parole violation, a period that covers releases from Pac, Snoop, and both Tha Dogg Pound and Lady of Rage, neither named in the catalogue of potential losses.
It’s a brief-yet-formidable roster – taken together, an all-time festival lineup – but that lean list of impacted hip-hop artists only speaks to a fraction of the damage that the 2008 fire did to the genre’s rich history. The oft-unsung heroes of hip-hop were hardest hit: the sampled, creatives whose work has since been lifted and recontextualised in both underground anthems and era-distilling hits. These artists are largely black; they mostly deal in fields such as soul, funk and jazz; and their work, having slipped into the past, lingered on the shelves for decades, only to crumble to ash on the very same lot.
These trailblazers are architects of hip-hop’s very sound, from direct samples to interpolations and intangible influence. What is “Paid In Full” without “Ashley’s Roachclip,” or Rakim’s snarl without Coltrane’s cadences – “listening to him play and the different rhythms that he had: I was trying to write my rhymes as if I was a saxophone player,” reflected the God MC in 2009. Dr. Dre could hardly have cut The Chronic without the work of Parliament-Funkadelic – “that was it; this is what I wanted to do,” he recalled thinking when seeing P-Funk live, his first concert experience – and much of the golden era would be materially different without James Brown and his revue. These players are themselves hip-hop legends, their musical contributions essential to many of the genre’s greatest moments.
In some cases, the samples themselves have spotlighted since-maligned artists: take Average White Band, the Scottish funk act listed in Universal’s burn book, who played an essential role in hip-hop’s golden age. The distinctive, sleigh bell introduction of AWB’s “School Boy Crush” anchors both Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” – itself one of Universal’s potential losses – and Nas’ debut single, “Halftime,” not to mention joints from Too Short, Big L and De La Soul. That’s without even considering their other hits, each bringing forth a score of similarly foundational flips from artists such as Gang Starr, Tribe, Jungle Brothers and Beastie Boys.
In other cases, samples are but an element of an already long-lived career, demonstrating an artist’s versatility and musicality by way of a new medium. A good example is Quincy Jones: the composer cut a swathe of significant film scores, and tracks such as “Aftermath” (Pharoahe Monch, Cypress Hill), “Up Against The Wall” (Gang Starr, Ice-T), and Sanford and Son theme “The Streetbeater” (Nice & Smooth, Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince) were, through their ownership of A&M, under Universal’s control. It’s this fact that places much of Quincy’s most sampled work in question: “Summer In The City,” “One Hundred Ways,” “Body Heat” and “Ironside,” all iconic hip-hop arrangements released on Quincy’s studio albums, may too have been lost. His work for Mercury, Chess, Capitol and Barclay – all UMG acquisitions – also fell under their purview, and Quincy’s presence on the list of losses could mean anything from a single damaged master tape to the wholesale destruction of his catalogue.
Legally stifled though contemporary sampling may be, sounds and progressions still cut through history in bold and unpredictable ways, linking far-flung artists and showcasing catalogues long since heralded in the mainstream. Take Common’s breakout hit, “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” an ode to a personified hip-hop; “Time to Chill,” an early example of Will Smith’s clean, palatable rhymes; Diamond D and Ed G. and the Bulldogs, purveyors of underground boom-bap excellence; and “Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been),” a multi-generational link-up that speaks to the genre’s enduring influence: all these records find a common thread in prodigious guitarist George Benson, his own work providing a rich musical foundation.
There’s no shortage of indelible hip-hop fragments in the legends listed in Universal’s list, and even just considering a single flip from each artist paints a vivid picture of hip-hop history: there’s Nat Adderley, Art Blakey, Eddie Bo, Ray Charles, Chubby Checker, Cheech and Chong, The Chi-Lites, Sammy Davis Jr., The Dells, Bo Diddley, Joe Sample, Pharoah Sanders, Steely Dan, Lee Dorsey, Lamont Dozier, The Dramatics, The Fifth Dimension, Freddie Hubbard, Iron Butterfly, Ahmad Jamal, The Impressions, Rufus Thomas, Stanley Turrentine, McCoy Tyner, J.J. Johnson, Chaka Khan, John Klemmer, Patti LaBelle, Ramsey Lewis, Love Unlimited, Les McCann, Jack McDuff, Wes Montgomery, Freda Payne, Sun Ra, War, Muddy Waters, Johnny Watson, Barry White, Bobby Womack and John Williams.
It’s a sobering collection, and it counts only a swathe of those who’ve impacted hip-hop: there are many more who haven’t made the crossover, and more still who are relegated to history, their artistry unaided by fame or acclaim. Rosen described those unsung reels, now existing only as their original retail vinyl presses, as “a shadow canon of 20th-century pop,” listed in discographies but all-but lost to the world.
Beyond Building 6197
The masters of Building 6197 – hundreds-of-thousands of reels, lost in the fire – join the countless other victims of archival negligence, with irreparable losses put down to corporate disinterest, poor conservation, and even a lack of storage space. It’s a fact that Bill Holland explored in a 1997 Billboard piece, exhaustively profiling the sorry state of preservation throughout the industry. He recalled a mild 1972 fire at MGM’s Hollywood facility that saw alternate takes and session recordings burn, a 1976 Atlantic Records blaze that destroyed a trove of unreleased masters and alternate takes, and most shockingly, RCA’s controlled demolition of their New Jersey lot in the early-’60s, flashpoints at the tip of an archival iceberg. For each and every master taken in a spectacular inferno, hundreds have been lost to more insidious forms of degradation and wear.
For what it’s worth, Universal Music Group lambasted the Times’ report as containing “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets,” stopping short of providing any true refutation. It was a thin denial made murkier still by alarmed artists: Questlove suggested that The Roots’ Do You Want More?!!!??! and Illadelph Halflife had been lost in the fire; Beck grappled with his own losses, only to walk them back after assurances from Universal; and UMG themselves admitted to a vague “loss or damage” of masters belonging to 19 artists. That admission, prompted by a class-action lawsuit, came 12 years after the company claimed it “had no loss” – at this rate, an honest and transparent accounting might take decades.
UMG’s head archivist, Pat Kraus, updated the press on their retrieval efforts in March of this year, arguing that the Times had vastly overrepresented the losses. Of the 150,000 assets they’ve reviewed, says Kraus, less than 0.1% of them may have been “original recordings affected by the fire.” His tone is one of calm, acknowledging grief but promising greater care going forward.
It’s not unlike that taken by UMG as a whole, who’ve since renewed their commitment to preservation, pouring money into “investment in storage, preservation and metadata enrichment.” It’s something, sure, but if anything rises from the ashes of the fire, it’s a fierce doubt: should pieces of important cultural history be left in the care of corporations that define them as “assets,” their value and care predicated by financial gain and commercial interests? The ownership of masters – a cause championed by artists like Prince and Jay-Z – is oft-framed as a creative crusade, but seldom are archival interests invoked. What of this history? What of this heritage?
It’s in the silky-smooth funkateers The Brothers Johnson, as essential to Alchemist and DJ Quik as they are to Justice and Black Box; the upbeat soul of Rose Royce, an indispensable favourite of Beastie Boys and Cam’ron; and the florid piano of Ahmad Jamal, a weapon wielded by De La Soul, Jay-Z, Common and Nas. These compositions are commercial in nature, but they’re also so much more. They’re documents of times, places, movements and people; snapshots of leisure and labour; a distillation of anxieties and aspirations. In that same sense, they’re transitional, the shifting tides of trend explaining the here-and-now in an ever-complicating tapestry of influence.
Coltrane pioneered modalism and Rakim redefined rhyming, but the pair share more than just their influence: both artists’ masters have been caught in conflagrations, with Coltrane suffering losses in two separate infernos. In an age where music feels more intangible than ever, archival preservation has taken on a new urgency.
If we don’t make cultural preservation a priority, the musical moments that made hip-hop possible will recede into the haze of history… and one day, that same haze will come for hip-hop itself.