From Grandmaster Flash to Jaydiohead
In the third chapter of his book The Pirate’s Dilemma, “We Invented the Remix”, Matt Mason brings us through the evolution of the remix and talks about how it has changed our views on copyrighted information and what art and music really are.
Remix culture has its beginning in 1960’s Jamaica. A producer, Arthur “Duke” Reid, was cutting a version of the popular track “on the beach” when he forgot to pan up the vocals. This was the first remix, called dub music. This allowed the MC to make announcements or talk overtop of the popular track during an event. This turned the record player into a musical instrument, allowing the DJ to repurpose a track for his own uses, turning studio engineers into musicians. Listen to Duke Reid’s dub of The techniques Queen Majesty below:
Dub music was changed again with disco in the early 70’s when Tom Moulton took parts of songs that worked on the floor and looped them. This was the beginning of the disco movement and also an important move in remix culture. It called into question what production, authorship and creativity actually meant.
The remix was implanted into our culture again with the evolution of hip-hop. “Duke” (the Jamaican producer that created dub music) inspired a young Jamaican-American Clive Campbell, a.k.a. Kool Herc. He would take the “break beat” of a song and repeat it, making it the focal point of his performance. This evolved with the creation of mixing and scratching by Joseph Saddler a.k.a. Grandmaster Flash, with his remix The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel. This new form of remix, which involved parts of many different songs, challenged the idea of genre, authorship and cultural theft. Listen to The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash and the Wheels of Steel below:
So what about the remix today? Artists like Girl Talk and DJ Danger Mouse are still making and the same questions still remain un-answered. Should the remix, which is essentially taking bits of pre-existing music from different artists, be considered fraud? Should a remix artist be able to benefit monetarily by creating remixes of other’s songs? In his book Remix, Lawrence Lessig says, “writing, in the traditional sense of words placed on paper, is the ultimate form of democratic creativity…meaning that everyone in a society has access” (52). Writing has virtually no barrier to entry. As long as you have some sort of tool to make a mark, and some surface to write on, you can create words. This means that virtually everyone has the ability to create and can be seen as the “golden standard” for creativity, which can be applied to the idea of the remix. Listen to Danger Mouse’s remix of Jay Z’s Black album and the Beatle’s White Album below:
As Lessig says “the act (of remixing existing music) is the same (as writing), only the source is different. And the measures of fairness could also be the same; is it really just a quote? Is it properly attributed?” (53). Just like quoting is an essential part of writing, it is essential to the remix. Taking the ideas of existing music is what the remix is all about, and many artists credit the music they sample. Remix culture takes these riffs from existing music and remix them and make them their own, not copying them exactly. As a result, a vibrant culture of people making their own art by “quoting” other music exists all over the world.
The boundaries to making music, therefore, are next to none either, as with the writing example. For the price of a laptop and Internet, anyone can download music and a program to start remixing. Even if one doesn’t have “musical talent” to play an instrument, they can create their own music on a laptop. With the remix we have achieved virtually the same democratic creativity Lessig talks about. The problem is, in order to remix “legally”, you would have to pay millions of dollars in rights to big record companies. This process is hugely expensive and often takes months or years to achieve.
I’ve just touched on the music remix culture, but remixing exists in all other forms as well and it all achieves this creative democracy that we strive for. In a following post I’ll try to explain the impact remix culture has on activism and social democracy.
The Pirate’s Dilemma has a nifty website here
Remix has a website located here
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