It wasn't Snoop Dogg's first encounter with the judicial system, but it might have been his most surreal.

On February 2, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge dismissed a suit by a man who left a voice message with Snoop and later found that the rapper used the recording on his 2002 track "Pimp Slapp'd." The caller's message had expressed support for Snoop in his ongoing feud with record mogul Suge Knight, and the man argued that by appropriating the message without permission, Snoop put the caller's life in danger from the notoriously volatile Knight.

The Snoop case reinforced the fact that the use of phone interludes - whether authentic or manufactured - has become one of pop's most tiresome clichés, with Snoop, Alicia Keys, Dwele, Ben Folds, and Mary J. Blige among the most prominent recent perpetrators. Even local hip-hop/R&B group Mojoe, on their otherwise excellent 2003 release, Classic Ghetto Soul, could not resist including a phone message from a friend, informing them of an upcoming Houston gig.

The telephone's history as a musical instrument goes back at least as far as the Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace" (which the former radio DJ performed onstage with a fake phone). It played a pivotal role in the Kinks' 1966 classic "Party Line" (which begins with a ringing phone and the sound of a buttoned-down British gentleman answering) and Blondie's "Hanging On the Telephone" (originally done by the Nerves). It was the central hook in Electric Light Orchestra's 1976 hit "Telephone Line" (with Jeff Lynne's quavery transatlantic voice wimpering: "Hello, how are you?). Phone calls also defined such '80s videos as Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You," Lou Reed's "I Love You, Suzanne" and Bobby Brown's lubricious slow-jam, "Rock Wit'cha."

But it wasn't until the '90s, when even hardcore Luddites succumbed to answering machines and cell phones, that an annoying trend emerged. In 1992, Prince built his androgyny-symbol album around a series of scripted phone dialogues between himself and a fictional reporter named Vanessa Bartholomew, played by actress Kirstie Alley. The audio skits allowed Prince to play out his contempt for the media. When Bartholomew tells Prince that she's taping their conversation, you hear an immediate click. Bartholomew moans: "The son of a bitch hung up." At one point, in response to a question about his age, the Napoleonic funkster dryly says he's 320 years old.

Eventually, they share this quintessentially Prince-ian exchange:

Bartholomew: What do you believe in?

Prince: God.

Bartholomew: Who is your God?

Prince: You.

Bartholomew: Why are you so arrogant?

Recent years have seen the emergence of the phone message as found art. On the 1999 Ben Folds Five CD, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Folds includes a rambling, two-minute message addressed to "Mr. Ben." The caller inquires whether Folds has been "looking after your most valuable possession - your mind." Folds' band underpins the monologue with a smooth, jazzy groove, strangely fitting for a rant that ponders the potential loss of body mass while in space. Ultimately, though, you're left wondering why the track, which the band titled "Your Most Valuable Possession, merited inclusion on the album.

Alicia Keys' single "You Don't Know My Name" has been one of the bright spots on recent contemporary hits radio, but its lush soulfulness is marred by a trite final verse which consists of Keys ringing up her secret greasy-spoon crush (played in the video by rapper Mos Def): "This is the waitress from the coffeehouse on 39th and Lennox. You know the one with the braids?"

At least Keys' phone indulgence fleshed out a song's narrative. A more egregious hookup occurred when Mary J. Blige found it necessary to waste the opening moments of last year's Love & Life with a contrived phone message from the album's producer, P. Diddy, advertising the fact that much music was on the way. Puff and Mary engage in the following scintillating banter:

P. Diddy: Yo, yo, Mary, pick up the phone, girl.

Blige: What's up, Puff?

P. Diddy: Girl, you ready?

Blige: I'm always ready.

Perhaps Puffy thought this magic had to be preserved for the benefit of posterity, but the sneaking suspicion arises that he simply wanted to horn in on Blige's album - the way he always horned in on the Notorious B.I.G.'s videos - and make the case that his collaboration with her constituted a major event.

"This is the moment they all been waiting for," he announces in the intro, leaving us to wonder if "they" are his accountants. •



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