In Focus: Negativland

Forming in the 1970s, Negativland has been coined as an American ‘experimental music’ band. Perhaps their being defined as ‘experimental’ is the result of Negativland’s appropriation of sounds, images, objects, and texts, and the re-arrangement of this corporately owned media with original materials “…to make them say and suggest things that they never intended to.” Negativland are a significant and influential example of remix culture, but have defined their work as “culture jamming”a social, political and artistic commentary on mass media and mass culture.

u2

In 1991, however, Negativland released a single entitled U2 which sampled U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ (1987) and a recording of American radio-personality Casey Kasem “losing his cool”, for lack of a better description. Island Records and Warner-Chappell Music were granted a temporary restraining order which demanded:

  • Everyone who received a copy of the record – reviewers, record stores, radio stations, etc. – must be notified to return it. If they fail to comply, they may be subject to penalties “which may include imprisonment and fines”. Once returned, the records will be forwarded to Island for destruction.
  • All of SST’s on-hand stock of the record – in vinyl, cassette, and CD – is to be delivered to Island, where it will be destroyed.
  • All mechanical parts used to prepare and manufacture the record are to be delivered to Island, presumably also for destruction. This includes “all tapes, stampers, molds, lacquers and other parts used in the manufacturing” and “all artwork, labels, packaging, promotional, marketing, and advertising or similar material.”
  • Negativland’s copyrights in the recordings themselves are assigned to Island and Warner-Chappell. Negativland no longer own what they have created.
  • Negativland and SST must pay $25,000 and half the wholesale proceeds from the copies of the record that were sold and not returned. Estimated cost to Negativland is $70,000 – more than they have made in their 14 years of existence.

Arguably, this is Negativland’s track U2. I, however, doubt this is the true track as Island Records and Warner-Chappell Music’s demands were severe and ultimately led Negativland to bankruptcy. It is unlikely that YouTube would allow for the track to be played online with copyright law the way that it is.

Since being sued, Negativland has joined the fight to reform copyright legislation in America.

Negativland’s 1995 track Gimme the Mermaid (above) samples the vocals of a music industry lawyer as Disney’s Ariel (The Little Mermaid) to comment on the antagonistic notion of remix culture that anyone can create the ‘culture jamming’ content they do, but the corporations will not allow it, unless it is them doing it themselves.

In Focus: The Jamaican Influence

Jamaican music in the early nineteenth century was categorised as the ‘slave song’ – music about working and being displaced. This African work sound founded the Calypso style which was accompanied by the uptake of western instruments to draw in audiences. The key aspect of which was the series of Jamaican owners of sound systems, sound selectors (our equivalent to a DJ) and DJs (to rap over the tracks) that would provide cheap and easy entertainment of African drum beats and melodies that would travel far for dance parties on the beaches. The influence of which would provide world class changes that would become the basis of contemporary music and effects.

  • Ska (1940s/1950s) : A fast, happy and upbeat movement with a walking bass line, accented jazz rhythms that draws on the influence of Calypso.

  • Rock Steady (1960s) : The beat slowed down as poverty set in, and DJs began to rap over the top of the beat.

  • Reggae (1970s) : The beat slowed down even further.

  • Dance Hall (Late 1970s/1980s) : The Jamaican influence became paired with a disco beat influenced by dub.

Jamaica is a music hub, with a particular sound that evolved, became tighter and more intricate, and did not forget about its past. The techniques to come out of Jamaica that are evident in each of movements (above) – such as reverberation and echo – became effects in audio editing programs and guitar pedals, that were originally the result of rusted and over-repaired sound systems.

Free Culture and Creative Commons

Society is locked into “…a period of intensifying belief in private ownership, to the detriment of the public good” – a time of copyright legislation and the criminalisation of remix culture. Free culture, however, is an ideology and social movement put forward by academic and political activist Lawrence Lessig that promotes the supplement, sharing, modification and remixing of published creative artworks as free content. Lessig’s movement is a belief that culture is inherently free, and not owned or “permission based” as is imposed with the enforcement of copyright laws.

A further movement by Lessig, is Creative Commons, wherein licenses are issued to creators (the process of which is completely free and online) who wish to permit the “sharing” of their work under various conditions. Lessig’s creative commons justifies the ideology of free culture, providing and promoting the means for innovators to distribute their work online and allow it to be appropriated, whilst still retaining an extent of control over their ‘original’ piece. It is the idea that creativity belongs BETWEEN people, rather than being possessed by an individual copyright holder, or society as a whole

In Focus: Video Art

Remixing videos can be done in a multitude of ways, and the aesthetic which is produced is dependent on the individual artist.

Israeli Musician Ophir Kutiel (known as Kutiman) experimented with YouTube videos in his project Thru You to create a raw album of seven tracks that showcase the musical passions of individuals who uploaded their recordings to the site.

Kutiman sourced segments of music from covers, instructional videos, and original music and artistically pieced it together to create a comprehensive track (see Mother of All Funk Chords above). He easily transformed a familiar medium, working with the original loops as they were uploaded, to create an album of easy listening tracks.

Singer/Songwriter Kawehi covers and records a capella style songs by expertly layering her voice from her home.

As with Kutiman, Kawehi utilises the methodology of building music. Both artists, similarly, begin with a beat – a drum loop – that allows for the layering of other sounds, and then for the spoken voice.

Australian producer and remix artist Pogo (Nick Bertke) samples his content and reproduces it with a real and distinct beat behind it.

The example of the video Pogo Does Dexter (above), really makes evident the artist’s style of remix. He breaks up vocal samples so it becomes sound as opposed to spoken words, and layers it with chords and sound effects from (in this case) the television show Dexter to create commercial content that provides for successful promotion. Pogo’s work showcases the narrative being expressed.

Each of the featured artists explored, furthermore, possess some extent of integrity to where their remixes have come from. Kutiman provided credits with links to each YouTube video he sourced, Kawehi acknowledges when her uploads are covers, and Pogo works with the licensees of the content he is using.

Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy – Lawrence Lessig (2008)

From this reading, the comment, or rather, Lessig’s ideology in regards to remix culture, is one that I too have found myself believing:

We need “to craft a copyright system that nurtures the full range of creativity and collaboration the internet enables: one that builds upon the economic and creative opportunity of hybrids [commercial and sharing economies] and remix creativity; one that decriminalises the offence of being a teen” [a part of this generation embodied in technological advances].

To put it simply, the world needs to reform copyright legislation to adapt to and decriminalise the common behaviour of our contemporary society. We need to allow for the incentives copyright provides for creators to produce new works that would otherwise not have been published, whilst encouraging (as technology and the internet do) amateurs and recreational users to create and spread art differently to how it was created and spread beforehand.

D.I.Y: Remixing and Sampling

In my previous posts about remix culture, I have been exploring the implications of using already published artwork to create something new. Now, I have attempted to sample and remix music, sound effects and films to completely understand the process of reusing material.

Utilising Audacity, I attempted to create a sound piece that (in the very least) was bearable to listen with each feature of the track complimenting one another. I began with downloading a synthesised drum and bass guitar loop from Looperman, and repeated it until the duration reached just over the minute mark. I then reduced its tempo by -12% and used the studio fade-out effect to end the track altogether. I then sourced an electric guitar loop that resembled a dance track, and repeated it until it also lasted in duration for just over a minute.

The screenshot (above) illustrates the sound waves of each music loop, sound effect and spoken voice from film that I used to create my track.
The screenshot (above) illustrates the sound waves of each music loop, sound effect and spoken voice from film that I used to create my track.

After sourcing a memorable film quote from Forrest Gump (1994): “My Mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get'”, I used an online converter to change the audio from the webpage into an MP3 file. I initially left the spoken audio as a whole quote early on in the track, but then layered it in sections later on. I then copied the section of: “…you never know what you’re gonna get” and deepened the reverberation of it before giving it an echo and repeating this technique at the very end of the track.

Sampling

The practice of cutting beats and looping them to the duration of a music track has been long established as a case of “pop music always ripping off” its predecessors. Sampling, however, hasn’t prevented music from owning its own identity, whether it be out of simplicity – wherein the track is clever in that it is catchy and of dance quality – or a self-awareness that is found in the aesthetic of the music itself.

Most notably, the drum breaks from James Brown and the JBs’ Funky Drummer (1970) and The Winstons’ Amen Brother (1969) are the most sampled in popular and hip-hop music to date. Whether it becomes apparent to a listener from the beginning, after a few listens, or not at all, the tracks inclusive of: Salt-N-Pepa’s Let the Rhythm Run (1988) and Dr. Dre’s Let Me Ride (1992) feature the drum break from Funky Drummer, whilst Oasis’ D’You Know What I Mean (1997) and N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton (1988) sample Amen Brother.

Perhaps one of the most recent examples of music sampling is found in Yolanda Be Cool & DCUP’s track Sugar Man (2014) which, in almost its entirety, samples Sixto Rodriguez’s 1970 release of Sugar Man. Further, the looped beat or dance track heard as a layer beneath the voice samples Yolanda Be Cool & DCUP’s earlier release We Speak No Americano (2010), which itself features Renato Carsone’s Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Americano (1956).

The familiarity of sampled rhythms or lyrics, paired with an electronica dance or hip-hop beat offers a broad mainstream appeal without detracting from a track’s individual identity.  It is what consumers like to hear, or as The KLF less subtly put it: it is what the consumers want shoved down their throats – they don’t want good or original music. Whether the sampled tracks make for bad music is debatable to a personal preference, but nevertheless, does not make what The KLF have stated any less substantiated.