Beck to the future

Defying copyright, purveyors of "recombinant music" use the Net to make new sounds out of old shards.


Milo Miles
April 2, 1998 2:11PM (UTC)

It's hard to hear a truly underground album these days. The quest for the new and the pre-test for the marketable have become so pervasive that if something as potentially influential as, say, the Velvet Underground were to come along now, it would surely be big pop news by the end of next month.

But "Deconstructing Beck," a new CD bubbling up from the Web underground, delivers all the modern thrills of an unknown sound. It consists of 13 tracks made from electronically manipulated, unauthorized samples or just taped snippets of Beck Hansen's music -- and the only way to get it is by sending five bucks to illegalart@detritus.net.

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The same address will also let you download the two most amazing music collages you cannot buy but must possess: John Oswald's "Plunderphonics," a monumental collection of pastiches of pop, classical, jazz and beyond from the Toronto-based pioneer and theorist of recombinant music; and Negativland's "U2," the most notorious celebrity-subversion prank to date in this new field.

The form of the music available from Detritus.net and the mode of its marketing dovetail. Recombinant tunes -- taken from anyone you choose and distributed through the last unregulated channel -- are the only outlaw sound left.

Detritus.net is one project of Steev Hise, sometime student of experimental-music pioneer Morton Subotnick, Web designer, media hound and self-described "computer geek." Besides the essential music downloads, the site includes a spiffy multimedia bibliography and linkhouse (get the lowdown on Chumbawamba's suppressed liner notes), gateways to a sneak peek at several kinds of digitally "Distorted Barbie" (including the original, attacked by Mattel) with a distort-her-yourself kit and the usual communication channels to build a virtual community of art pirates.

Detritus.net is exactly the kind of information wellspring the Internet supports best. The Net is the only way to distribute banned music without incurring shipping and handling costs and setting up a physical plant that can be easily shut down. Forget the legally or illegally downloaded regular recordings music corporations and retailers fret about now; underground albums like "Deconstructing Beck" will be the quintessential Internet sound product.

Hise is gutsy and on-target to set up Detritus.net. But the site's impudent tone of the bad boy who broke the copyright window (as a fighter in the "intellectual property wars") is not the most interesting justification for recombinant art on the Web. The really exciting promise is that the outlaw sound system may reopen the aesthetic territories that hip-hop and sampling originally surveyed -- and extend them in new directions.

Still, the copyright-is-theft crowd does have one salient
point: Copyright restricts artworks most when the material is a corporate
gold mine of some kind -- copyright-holders don't devote the same energy to
protecting the castoffs or detritus left behind the refrigerator of
culture. In other words, copyright-is-theft has more to do with Barbie than
Beck.

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When a copyrighted item is not so much a pseudopopulist property like Barbie, the morality of sampled art is no more easily resolved than the propriety of bootlegs of concerts and unreleased material. Funk overlord George Clinton became so annoyed with rappers' sampling his beat science that he released a series of CDs composed of snippets he invited folks to borrow if they paid him. It did not take off as a solution to sampling. Current rapper-with-the-Midas-tongue Puff Daddy's blatantly unreconstituted samples all over his hit tunes have thrown the piggyback aspect of the practice into high relief -- but all his borrowings were paid for and legit. Should recombinant art belong only to those who can afford to buy nearly any snippet they want, if they don't do anything too scandalous with it?

There is an art to recombinant music that's often neglected in discussions of its trangressions. Negativland's "U2" savages Bono's pomposity in its first section -- but it cuts far deeper in its second half by letting "sewer mouth" Casey Kasem hang himself with his own recklessly taped four-letter words. The band chronicled its troubles and offered some worthy thoughts on the use of copyrighted material in 1995's combined book and CD "Fair Use: the Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2." But brilliantly scampish as Negativland can be, the principals' concern with undermining consumerist culture can only carry the sounds so far. There has been zero legal flurry from cola conglomerates over Negativland's new "Dispepsi" -- at least partly because this time, unlike on "U2," the polemics overwhelm the artistry of the sound mosaic.

Music, of course, may be the last thing on litigants' minds. The legal buzzards at Island Records swooped down on the "U2" EP at least in part because they claimed the cover art -- with the U2 name and a U-2 spy plane far more prominent than the Negativland credit -- might confuse consumers who thought they were buying music by Bono and company. Sometimes it doesn't matter if the recombinant art is not even for sale. One suspects that in the case of Oswald's "Plunderphonics," Michael Jackson was more incensed by the cover art -- his head and the black leather jacket from "Bad" superimposed over a full frontal nude white woman's body -- than he was by the 10,000 sampled Michaels singing "bad-bad-bad" on the track "Dab."

As music, is "Deconstructing Beck" worth half a sawbuck? Oh, hell yes. Is it the life-enhancing sound maelstrom hopeful John Oswald fans dream of? Not even close. Three of the 13 cuts are fabulous toys, to be wound up over and over. Jane Dowe's "Puzzles & Pagans" inverts and knots "Jackass" from "Odelay," highlighting the delightful chiming-guitar sample from Them's "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" (itself a Dylan cover -- piling up layers of re-versions is half the fun here). Dowe's other track, "Bust a Move," takes over Beckian notions of rhythm and words for her own (gently satirical) purposes. Nicely enough, Steev Hise's contribution, "Stuck Together, Falling Apart," shows meticulous attention to, if not total respect for, Beck's ways. If I wanted to show what "Deconstructing Beck" was all about, J Teller's "Fat Zone" and the Evolution Control Committee's "One Beck in the Grave" would be useful additions.

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The rest amounts to filler. Some cuts are distracting enough shards falling through space, but with no discernible relation to the source material. What good is outlaw art if it doesn't matter where it was swiped from? Whether recombiners like it or not, they must have some fruitful relation to the object of their appropriation. They have to obsess on their source material as fervently as Mattel obsesses on Barbie -- but in a different way.

The desirable target of recombinant music is not to pry away the grip of copyright as an end in itself, but to allow any schlub in his basement with the proper equipment to cut, paste and manipulate whatever sounds he needs into his dream. You listen to certain snatches of music so much, you own them with your interpretation, whether you can afford to legally sample them or not. At an earlier stage of technology, the Jamaican reggae industry named this process "version." And of course similar appropriations infused hip-hop from the moment the Sugarhill Gang used Chic's "Good Times" as the foundation of "Rapper's Delight" in 1979. "Version" is potent because the skeleton of the old music is given new flesh, which in turn can be re-stripped by others.

Author Dick Hebdige explained the esthetic rationale of "version" in his 1987 book "Cut 'n' Mix": "In order to e-voke you have to be able to in-voke. And every time the other voice is borrowed in this way, it is turned away slightly from what it was the original author or singer or musician thought they were saying, singing, playing ... It's a democratic principle because it implies that no one has the final say. Everybody has a chance to make a contribution. And no one's version is treated as Holy Writ."

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If private control of art is to be overthrown, it must be done in the name of creativity. Beck and Michael Jackson, and even Casey Kasem's cuss words, belong to the community -- but only to those in the community who have the skills to change them into something rich and strange and new.


Milo Miles

Milo Miles' music commentary can be heard on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." He is a regular contributor to Salon

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