Mashing-up the Past, Critiquing the Present, Wrecking the Future: The Kleptones' A Night at the Hip-Hopera
Benjamin J. Robertson
University of Colorado, Bolder
Citation: Robertson, Benjamin J.. “Mashing-up the Past, Critiquing the Present, Wrecking the Future: The Kleptones' A Night at the Hip-Hopera.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 7, 2010. doi:10.20415/hyp/007.e04
Abstract: This paper describes what I call the practice of the present: the construction of the contemporary as an integral whole, not subject to revision or critique, undertaken by contemporary producers of cultural content in an effort to achieve and maintain immortality. Through a series of lawsuits and other legal maneuverings, the cultural content industries have attempted to stop the cultural practices of those who do not conform to authorized models. Such efforts have been especially strong in response to those productions which involve making new statements out of old content, as with the mashup form, which combines old vocal tracks from one song with old musical tracks from another to make new and often starting statements. The prohibition on critical cultural statements represents an attack on the unforeseen, the new, and as such prevents the future from being anything but a mere extension of the present. The mashup form generally and The Kleptones' mashup album A Night at the Hip-Hopera specifically offer a means of fighting the practice of the present by demonstrating that cultural objects and moments are fundamentally unstable, are always open to editing, remixing, and the new.
"It is the business of the future to be dangerous."
The subject of this essay is a quest for immortality, a refusal to come to grips with the passage of time.
This quest is the current, unspoken undertaking of American producers of cultural content, who have come to understand their position within/as the culture industry as unimpeachable fact. From this fact derives a future that is nothing but the present as practice, in which current models of production and distribution are forcibly maintained for the benefit of an industry that is on the verge of irrelevance. This practice of the present — the construction of the contemporary as an integral whole, not subject to revision or critique — is an extrapolation of sameness, the future as the futuristic. It is part and parcel of a need for safety, and avoids at all costs the unknown of l'avenir, the danger of wreckage that is part and parcel of the new. It serves to ensure that the content producing industries' immortality.
Perhaps since the publication of the FreeNet protocol in July 1999 and certainly since the "threat" manifested by the creation of Napster several months later, producers of cultural content have been fighting a battle for the future of top-down production and distribution of cultural objects such as songs, movies, television programs, books, etc. These objects are defined by the Recoding Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and other such groups as "products" to be sold (or, increasingly, licensed) to consumers who have no rights over them except consumption. Several important moments in this battle are worth highlighting here.
First: The lawsuit against Napster, filed in 1999 and mainly settled in 2001, and similar legal challenges to peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing (such as the Grokster case ) are attempts to maintain control over the archive of cultural objects with regard to distribution.
Second: Lawsuits against individuals who use P2P networks represent attempts to exert control over the archive of cultural objects with regard to consumption.
Third: Cease and desist orders served to artists who mine the archive of cultural objects to remix, mashup, appropriate, or otherwise make use of cultural history for the purpose of engendering new cultural forms, objects, and enunciations, represent attempts to exert control over said archives with regard to production.
As this brief history suggests, when their future is at stake, the response from these would-be immortals has been swift and definitive. However, even as such events as described in my first two examples garner the most attention from major media outlets, perhaps the most problematic aspect of this battle has been over the use of cultural objects from the past. One of the more decisive victories for the content production industry was over sampling, a once widespread and innovative practice in rap and other genres that has taken a significant hit since the heyday of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and The Beastie Boys Paul's Boutique, as the lack of a mechanical license for samples has made their use prohibitively expensive.
The stakes in the battle over sampling and other new-from-old production is clear: if cultural objects are treated as coherent texts, things that cannot be taken apart, studied, and recombined, then those objects will be forever beyond critique. Without such critique, there can only ever be a future that is safe, one that is nothing but an extrapolation of the present.
For the rest of this essay I will focus on a particular form of new-from-old production, the mashup. Mashups are songs and albums most frequently created by mixing the isolated vocal track from one piece of music with loops of the instrumental tracks from a second. Some notable examples of this form include djbc's Wu Orleans and Glassbreaks, Girl Talk's Feed the Animals, and Danger Mouse's The Grey Album. I wish to turn my attention to a single example of the mashup genre, an album that makes both thematic and formal interventions into the discourse and practice of cultural content production: A Night at the Hip-Hopera, a 2004 release from The Kleptones that mixes music by Queen and lyrics from the thirty-year history of rap and hip-hop.
The album begins by stating, "This digital recording is brought to you courtesy of EMI Records, the world's greatest music company," an obvious swipe at the cease-and-desist letters leveled by the content industry against mashup artists such as Danger Mouse as well as a preemptive strike against similar letters The Kleptones expected in the wake of Hip-Hopera. The track, "Precession," will later sample an interview with British band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who are asked if they consider themselves to be musicians. One member responds: "Musicians? Nah! We're the hammer that knocks the nail in." Given the context we must understand this statement to be one about the necessity of "completing" the work of previous artists by making new meaning out of old objects, of taking what were once considered atomistic, integral, coherent texts and breaking them apart, recombining them in new orders and thereby producing new music and meaning. Later in the album (track seven, "Love"), Queen guitarist Brian May appears to endorse The Kleptones' project in all of its ramifications and significance:
I love this, this quest that we're on. It's so different that I think that it might be misunderstood, you know. This is us and our heart and our soul is in there, uh, communicated through the wonderful young artist. So this is Queen at full strength and full power; I'm quite shocked myself. Heh. It's incredible how much people use queen music [...] You've seen a kind of glimpse of the future, which gives some hope.
At every turn The Kleptones make the listener aware of the clash between old and new, of the manner in which old statements, appropriated, reordered, recontextualized, recombined, can make new statements that contradict the intent of the original (or channel the original meanings in new, previously impossible directions). Hip-Hopera makes these new meanings, as stated, on a thematic level by drawing attention to the issues of intellectual property and through its multifaceted portrayal of the conflicts endemic to the history of popular music (the early battle between rock and rap was nothing if not a fight between old and new, between entrenched power and a new power that threatened it). On a formal level, the juxtaposition of musical forms demonstrates that artists disinclined to talk to and learn from one another, artists that are often pitted against one another by a system that seeks to exploit them both (and can do so best by keeping them separate) can find common cause. Moreover, the mashup form deconstructs the notion of musical composition at its most basic level. The question of musical ability, of musical literacy, can no longer be considered strictly from the point of view of formal training in major keys and the sight-reading of notes on a score. Musical fluency will now be considered the ability to understand a musical composition and edit it with the tools of composition at hand, tools that can be self-taught, that do not require indoctrination by and admission into an elite class.
All of these ideas come together in the album's final track, "Question," an evisceration of the mentality that leads to the consideration of cultural objects as property (more specific, as property that is limited to a particular form), a mentality that serves as the foundation for the practices of the present undertaken by content producing industries. The track begins with a sample from then-ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, who states, "Finally this evening, another copyright nightmare for the music industry," and continues with a parody of the statements of copyright ownership and the End User License Agreements that dominate the landscape of information age consumerism. The remainder of the track is composed of a nigh-innumerable number of samples — from The Big Lebowski, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Blade Runner, Fight Club, The Decline of Western Civilization, and elsewhere. These samples are juxtaposed with the music to "Who Wants to Live Forever," a 1986 Queen song written and recorded for the soundtrack to The Highlander, a film that tells the story of a centuries-long battle between immortals (mainly white men, of course), all of whom are fighting to be the last one standing. "Question" lays bare the desire of the music industry to maintain itself forever in its present state, to maintain the business model of top-down production and distribution, of absolute control over its products.
Two samples in particular are of interest here for understanding the theme of the album, and I will deal with them briefly by way of conclusion. The first comes from Hugh Hefner, who states: "What do you get with freedom? Excesses. Exploitation. Of course. And what does one say to that? A small price to pay. If you don't like it, don't listen to it, don't read it, don't watch it. Without free communication, you don't have a free society. Democracy is based on that." In the end, The Kleptones do not make a simple statement about music or musical freedom. They make a case for the necessity of new musical forms as an example of new forms of communication generally by both critiquing those who would forever avoid the new as well as those cultural objects that are too-often considered to be integral, coherent, and whole.
And as much fun as Hip-Hopera is, and as interesting as its various critiques are, nothing in it is so important as the fact that it does critique, that it critiques something, and thereby illustrates the manner in which we can learn from, build upon, and otherwise use the past without being bound by it. It is through such critique that the future, the new, develops. This critique is not so much the foundation of freedom as it is a litmus test. Once we are no longer able to engender such statements, once we accept cultural forms as finished and static objects for passive consumption — in short, once we are only able to think in terms specified by the enforced relationship between dutiful subject and produced object, we will no longer be living in a democracy. At that point it may be too late to change anything.
Hence the urgency of the second sample, which is of Marshall McLuhan quoting Alfred North Whitehead (an example of the sanctioned appropriation made possible when one has the proper credentials and operates in the proper context), the same Whitehead quote that serves as an introduction to The Medium is the Massage : "The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur." The full Whitehead quote, which is from the last paragraph of his 1927 text Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect reads as follows:
It is the first step in sociological wisdom, to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur — like unto an arrow in the hand of a child. The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code; and secondly in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason. Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows. (88)
Major advances, whether in technologies or in cultural forms, wreck society, wreck the future. As such, the first task of a society is to preserve its codes against such destruction if that destruction is not carried out in the name of reason. When it is carried out in the name of reason, the next step is to fearlessly revise the code, which we can here understand to be the cultural objects locked up by the content producing industries' practices of the present. What should be clear is that the problem resides in two interrelated places: between the need to both protect and destroy, on the one hand, and within the rationalism that decides when to take one action or the other.
While I cannot definitively state when destruction is necessary and when protection is needed, we should of course always be wary of any discussion of reason and ask whether the reason being deployed as a yardstick is the one we would choose for ourselves. When reason appears as nothing but a practice of the present, a practice of useless shadows, we must adopt our own, and destroy the codes that serve the previous one. If The Kleptones and other mashup artists are correct, society must undertake such revision/destruction, again and again. Society must by necessity invite destruction, must be fearless in the face of this destruction. Such destruction is not revolution; it is the passage of time.
Digital technologies and mashups must wreck society if there is to be a future that is not a vulgar mirror of the present. The threat of this wreckage is not to those who would have such a future, but to those who are against the destruction such creativity would mean to them. Thus these advances are first legislated, then adjudicated, and finally naturalized in such a manner as to limit their potential for such destruction and simultaneously rob them of their potential. The destruction of a society based on a reason not our own at the hands of The Kleptones and similar artists is preferable to the stagnation content producers have willfully injected in the symbolic code since at least the advent of the printing press. We must remind them that their future is not ours. The right track will be the one we produce.
Kleptones, The. A Night at the Hip-Hopera. 2004.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. New York: Macmillan, 1958. http://www.anthonyflood.com/whiteheadsymbolism.htm
- This line, from Alfred North Whitehead, is quoted by Marshall McLuhan at the end of The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (San Francisco: Hardwired, 1967).
- For a more complete history see Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (New York: Vintage, 2001) and Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lockdown Culture and Control Creativity (New York: Penguin, 2004), http://www.free-culture.cc/freeculture.pdf. For a discussion of these issues in the context of the music industry see The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution by David Kusek and Gerd Leonard (Boston: Berklee P, 2005) and William Fisher's Promises to Keep: Technology, Law, and the Future of Entertainment. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004. http://books.google.com/books?id=JbMsu2YU1PsC&printsec=frontcover.
- A&M Records v. Napster, Inc., 239 F.3d 1004 (9th Cir. 2001). For more on the Napster case, see Douglas, Guy, "Copyright and Peer-To-Peer Music File Sharing: The Napster Case and the Argument Against Legislative Reform" in Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law 11,1 (2004) http://www.murdoch.edu.au/elaw/issues/v11n1/douglas111.html.
- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., 545 U.S. 913 (2005).
- Content producers have increasingly engaged in the criminalization of the actions of their consumers, and filed suit against 261 music fans in September 2003. In "RIAA vs. the People: Four Years Later" http://w2.eff.org/IP/P2P/riaa_at_four.pdf, the Electronic Frontier Foundation estimates that as of late 2007 some 20,000 lawsuits have been filed against individuals for sharing copyrighted content online.
- For more on sampling see Kembrew McLeod's Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity (New York: Doubleday, 2005). http://www.freedomofexpression.us/documents/mcleod-freedomofexpression.pdf.
- While the term "mashup" is most often associated with music, it can equally apply to other cultural practices. Consider, for example, Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism" (Harper's, February 2007), http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081387, which is comprised almost entirely of unattributed citations of other prose, or the "trailers" to such "films" as Shining http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfout_rgPSA or Big http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MVP2_bwApI, which demonstrate the meaning-making possibilities of familiar films by re-imagining them in different genres.
- Waxy.org was one of the first sites to mirror the album upon its release and was served with a cease and desist order by Disney for infringing on the content producer's distribution rights, an order with which waxy.org did not comply. See the text of the order here: http://waxy.org/archive/2004/11/17/disney_s.shtml.
- In many respects (but not all) mashup production bears resemblance to what Jacques Attali calls "composing" in Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 1985).
- Of course, democracy itself and its instantiations should/is also the object of such critical work.
- See note 1, above.