Today I was working at my computer and listening to the French hip-hop producer Wax Tailor. The first song to I played was Once Upon A Past, a song which contains samples of a particularly insightful narrative. For those too lazy to follow the link, the song is similar to trip-hop by artists like RJD2 and Blockhead. Like most trip-hop it contains an down-tempo drum beat upon which sampled and manipulated snippets of music and vocals are layered. What distinguishes Once Upon A Past from others in it’s genre is not only the quality and variety of the music, but the embedded commentary on the nature of sampling and the culture of music. I was interested in finding the source of the commentary. I guessed (correctly) that the disembodied voice in the song was not Wax Tailor’s, and I googled the line that I found most singular.
A society free to borrow and build upon the past is culturally richer than a controlled one.
Surprisingly enough (or not) that quote is attributed to one of my favorite public figures, the intellectual property lawyer and Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig. His book “Free Culture” is one of my first recommendations for anyone interested in intellectual property and attempts to control cultural freedom. However, the speaker in the song was not Lessig, but someone else entirely. After a little more digging, I found that the voice was that of artist and writer Nate Harrison and is from his art installation titled “Can I get an Amen?”. The piece, shown below, consists of a record player with Nate illuminating the history of a single six-second clip of a drum-beat known as the Amen break. What I found most interesting is not the history of the clip itself, but the conclusions that Nate Harrison draws from it.
Why do I bring any of this up? What is significant about the Amen Break? I'm talking about it here because I think it's story is a good example illustrating the rise and subsequent problematic of digital sampling in relation to today's increasingly stringent copyright and trademark laws. To trace the history of the Amen Break is to trace the history of a brief period of time when it seemed digital tools offered a potentially unlimited amount of new forms of expression. Where cultural production, at least musically, was full of possibilities by virtue of being able to freely appropriate from the musical past, to make new combinations, and thus new meanings. The story demonstrates that a society, 'free to borrow and build upon the past is culturally richer than a controlled one.'
If that quote sparks your interest I heavily recommend taking the twenty minutes and watching the following video.
I think it’s entirely appropriate that Wax Tailor chose to sample from this video, and I’m quite pleased with the result. Most music that relies heavily on samples embraces remix culture implicitly, by either simply by the fact that it appropriates from past work, or by making purposeful references to our common cultural consciousness (à la Girl Talk). Here in Once Upon A Past we have a direct endorsement of the reuse of our cultural roots. How very apt that the endorsement itself is re-contextualized from another work entirely.