I haven’t posted much lately, and it’s because I’ve been flat out. Part of my ‘flat out’ has been this essay. So enjoy. I did.
Contemporary online remix culture continues the political and aesthetic practices associated with hip-hop. Discuss.
-Samantha van Zweden
The emergence of hip-hop in the late 70’s gave rise to a unique aesthetic and political attitude. While, due to the capitalist hijacking of hip-hop culture, this attitude might now only exist in the underground of hip-hop, contemporary remix practices use and carry on the aesthetics and politics of hip-hop. The history of hip-hop raises questions around originality and copyright, as does online remix culture. Apart from the actual content of both remix and hip-hop works, the ways that the works are made, and the parts of society from which they come show similarities. Both ‘hip-hop’ and ‘remix’ are terms which cover a wide range of practices, so due to word-limit constraints only some of these practices can be focused on here.
The term ‘hip-hop’ does not just refer to a musical style, but also to a dance style, a visual and audio aesthetic, and an attitude toward the world. As is apparent from the many writings on hip-hop, it has an extremely diverse background. Hip-hop music originated (like all new musical forms) out of a cultural melting-pot. It originated in the late 70’s in the poor and migrant communities of America – the most documented formations occurred in New York City, though as Mark Anthony Neal points out (Tate et al, 2006, p40) places all over America organically grew their own versions of hip-hop culture as this melting-pot was different in different areas. The musical side of hip-hop is the next step in the history of African American music – from bebop, to swing, to rhythm and blues, to soul, to funk, and then to hip-hop. While hip-hop music is certainly a product of African American history, it “would not exist if it were not for the polycultural social construct of New York City in the 1970s” (Hoch, 2006, p351).
Hip-hop culture is said to be based around the practices of b-boying, MCing, graffiti writing and deejaying. However, while these practices are in themselves unique to hip-hop, Adam Mansbach asserts that the aesthetics underlying hip-hop are not such “a radical departure from everything that came before them” (2006, 92-3).
Hip-hop music uses the practice of ‘sampling’ to create new musical works. Hip-hop DJs “played with beats and sounds on the turntable to create unique momentary compositions” (Remix Defined). This practice, “turntablism”, makes use of technology which does not immediately present itself as an instrument to be played. While many people say that this originates from the poverty of the social base behind the hip-hop movement, Mansbach says that this is one of the underlying aesthetic elements which hold hip-hop together. He describes this as “intellectual democracy through collage” (2006, p93), while Schloss (2009,p70) calls it “a conscious artistic choice based on a creative use of available materials”. This idea of borrowing whatever is hot at the time can be seen in the 1979 track by Sugar Hill Gang, “Rapper’s Delight”. This song is mixed over the beat and bass line of a track by Chic, called “Good Times”, which was released that same year. This track was later used by Blondie for her song “Rapture” (1981). The Blondie track was then sampled by KRS-ONE, as the central motif of his 1997 track “Step Into a World (Rapture’s Delight)”. All these artists are demonstratinging their right to “intellectual democracy” by using these tracks to create a work of their own, to create their own message.
While sampling applies to the musical side of hip-hop, this “innovation-by-mandate” (Mansbach, 2006 p93) can be seen in b-boying, a dance form which evolved quickly through block parties in poorer neighbourhoods, where dancers invented a movement-lexicon using discarded cardboard and lino to make movement easier, while the lighting for this party came from the nearest street lamps (Hoch, 2006, p353). Throughout hip-hop, then, an underlying aesthetic value of innovation seems to permeate.
Navas (nd, np) points out; “Remix (with a capital “R”) is not only defined by material activities but the political contexts of those activities.”
As mentioned earlier, hip-hop originated from a cultural melting-pot of poverty, repression and immigrant cultural histories. It also arose at the end of the civil rights movement. Nixon was president. Nixon’s state was a repressive state, rather than a responsive one. Civil rights movements made pleas to a responsive state, with the expectation that the state would listen. In Nixon’s state, though, hip-hop emerged with the new understanding of the state as repressive (Tate et al, 2006, p42). Hip-hop was the new way for an unheard and under-represented people to speak out.
Grafitti writing emerged as a way to “lay claim to public property in the face of poverty and powerlessness” (Hoch, 2006, p351). The innovation behind the style of graffiti-writing can be seen in the emergence of characters and new letter forms in what was written.
Hip-hop came from diverse communities, often communities predominantly of African diaspora. Hip-hop provided a way for their voices to be heard. Toward the end of, and after, the civil rights movement, the language around what it meant to be Black was a point of agitated discussion. As one of the most influential people of the formation of hip-hop, James Brown’s track “(Say It Loud) I’m Black And I’m Proud” (1968) acted as a great source of empowerment for Black people all over America, and was an obvious influence on the hip-hop movement’s ambition of having voices heard. Brown’s music has been sampled since in countless hip-hop tracks – one website (Legacy – Most Sampled) claimed 650 samples from only 12 of Brown’s songs, by influential hip-hop artists such as 2 Live Crew, NWA, Afrika Bambaataa, and Run DMC.
This borrowing from other artists is a point of criticism for hip-hop, and another area where hip-hop’s unique political values come into play. Copyright issues have come hand-in-hand with commercial hip-hop since hip-hop records were first printed. Thomas Schumacher gives an overview of some of the famous cases, including the Acuff-Rose case against 2 Live Crew for their satirical use of Roy Orbison’s track “Oh Pretty Woman” in their track, “Pretty Woman”. “Ultimately, copyright law is property law”, says Schumacher (2007, p297). Property law – an area the pioneers of hip-hop felt strongly about. Vijay Prashad sees hip-hop’s use of sampling as empowerment, because producers of hip-hop are “able to hold onto [their] cultural property to a sense greater perhaps than people and their culture production prior to the mid-60’s” (Tate et al, 2006, p41). This suggests that the use of samples is not simply an aesthetic choice, but a political one.
There is a notable difference between hip-hop followers who came of age with Civil Rights movements, and those who have always lived with the product ‘hip-hop’ (with its CDs, mp3s, and merchandise) being shoved at them. The “hip-hop generation” has a unique and nuanced world-view which takes for granted all the diversity that was fought for by hip-hop’s founders, but the focus now for hip-hop is on culture, not politics (Schloss, 2009,pp5-6). Now, this political movement has been taken up by online remix culture.
Greg Tate (Tate et al, 2006, p43) describes hip-hop as a “widespread anybody-can-jump-in” medium – this could equally apply to online remix culture. Online remix culture presents itself as an equal playing field for anyone with access to a computer and the internet; in much the same way that hip-hop was accessible to anyone with access to two turntables and a microphone.
Remix is a self-aware practice; it consciously uses itself as a medium for unheard voices to be made heard. Online remix makes use of found material, and uses the idea of “surf-sample-manipulate” (Amerika, nd, np) to create new artistic works. “Surf-sample-manipulate” is the practice of surfing the internet for audio/visual material, taking a sample of that material, and manipulating it for the artists’ own intentions. It rejects “an exclusive claim on shared culture” which is being pushed by multinational record companies, and intentionally “takes a swipe at copyright law” (Harley, 2006, pp40-43). This act of taking someone else’s creative work and using it in a public-domain kind of way reflects not only the b-boys’ block party use of public space and found materials, but also DJs practice of borrowing breaks.
Hip-hop culture “values a free-ranging, studious, and critical-minded approach to source material” (Mansbach, 2006, p93).The method of “surf-sample-manipulate” values this approach also. This idea embraces the “anybody-can-jump-in” attitude, and mirrors the “innovation-by-mandate” hip-hop aesthetic. Sourcing of material in online remix-culture can occur almost anywhere on the internet. Digitization makes it possible for a remix artist to “surf” and “sample” just about anything. Programs like Vixy and Soundforge also make it possible to “sample” things that have been encoded with the intention of being un-sample-able. An example of this is Negativland’s mash-up “Gimme The Mermaid” (2005), which uses footage from the Disney film “The Little Mermaid”, audio from the same film, various animated illustrations, and an audio recording of an abusive phone call from a music industry lawyer, all mixed over the top of Black Flag’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme”. Negativland have used a wide variety of found materials.
Both hip-hop and contemporary online remix practices are talking to a closed political system. Hip-hop to a “repressive” state who only provides police, and remix to a hyper-capitalist machine which is obsessed with the policing of copyright laws and ownership, not creativity. The previous example of Negativland’s mash-up “Gimme the Mermaid” is a strong example of remix’s “taking a swipe at copyright law”. Not even the lawyer owns his own voice.
Online remix culture’s politics focus on postmodern questions of originality, which emerged from Derrida’s idea of ‘iteration’, and the Barthe’s idea of the anxiety of influence. Both these ideas look at the way that, in postmodern society, it is impossible to create a piece of work which is original. Derrida’s ‘iterability’ is “a condition of the singularity of a thing” (Lucy, 2004, p59). For a thing to be what it is, it must be repeatable. And in the act of repeating it, the thing changes. Niall Lucy uses the example of cups of coffee – every morning he has multiple cups of coffee, each singularly unique. Not because they are special, but because the second coffee is not the first, and so on. Each coffee, though, is an instance of coffee, an example of “coffee”. This idea of “iterability” makes questions of copyright law null and void. How can anyone ‘own’ anything when everything is just an instance of what already exists? This addresses copyright qualms in both hip-hop and remix.
“At the opening of the 80’s, people of colour were mainly relegated to consuming images in which they rarely appeared” (Tate et al, 2006, p33), by the early 90’s, coloured people were at the centre of business, the academy and the media. Remix culture emerges from people who are tired with being fed media and not creating, or having a say, or appearing in it. Remix culture allows feed-back into the media machine – one example of this is Brad Neely’s “Wizard People, Dear Reader”, which is a re-dubbed, unauthorized re-telling of the Harry Potter films. Another is the slew of “Brokeback” mash-ups on YouTube (Brokeback of the Ring, Brokeback Enterprise, The Empire Brokeback, Brokeback to the Future, and so on) which mix various films with soundtracks and footage from Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” to imply a homo-erotic subtext in the mashed film. While the final product of these examples is a humorous, not overtly political, piece of work, the artists behind them are reclaiming the right to create culture in much the same way that hip-hop allowed unheard and underrepresented people to dictate what they wanted culture to be. Much of 2 Live Crew’s parody work, which relied heavily on sampled material, was not overtly political either.
Just as the people that hip-hop represents are problematic to society in terms of copyright law and originality, so too are the people that remix culture represents. While the practices of remix and hip-hop are quite different (“surf-sample-manipulate” vs two turntables and a microphone), they share underlying aesthetic and political motivations. Both remix culture and hip-hop provide a medium for under-represented and unheard voices to speak out. They both provide a way for the consumer to regain control over what is being fed to them. Both remix culture and hip-hop value innovation and careful, thoughtful choices about source material. The aesthetic and political qualities of remix and hip-hop culture reflect one another: what will be interesting as we move into the future, is to see if another style emerges to take over the aesthetic and political practices of these genres.