Friday, March 06, 2009

Fair Use.

Here's an addendum to the previous post.

Tim Jarrett wrote this comment: "A 'who's who' of illegal audio sampling, including a version of Negativland U2 track that replaces the U2 samples with synths and kazoos, is available for download on the Illegal Art page. "

And he's right: that page is terrific, and there is one of the tracks. But then I got to thinking about another track I recalled from the original 1991 EP, so I went digging through my trove of cassettes, until I found one where I had copied things from the WXYC library. (I still have wet dreams about that library. . . .) Anyway, both tracks are called "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and they are distinguished by their parenthetical markers: "(1991 a capella mix)" and "(Special Edit Radio Mix)." The track on the Illegal Art compilation is, as best as I can tell, the actual "(Special Edit Radio Mix)" as it appeared on the original EP. In other words, this track had the synths and kazoo originally. The things coming out of Casey Kasem's mouth rendered this track unplayable on the radio station, though I believe some DJs probably played it late at night. . . .

The other track, the "(1991 a capella mix)," also has Casey Kasem introducing U2 to a wider public: he keeps repeating "The letter U and the numeral 2." And then there is a guy with a dorky voice speaking and playing around with the lyrics to the song, and making them sound completely ridiculous. After a while, the whole thing gets very surreal, and transitions into more samples of Casey Kasem talking about what he can and cannot say on the radio.

That both of these tracks both discuss what can and cannot appear on the radio, and that we were not allowed to play them, and then that the whole EP was recalled were ironies not missed on us at the time.

Then, of course, the lawsuit became the basis of a lot of thinking and writing about sampling, fair use, intellectual property--and these issues are obviously still alive today.

Anyway, it turns out I was wrong when I said you could not hear these things anymore, because Negativland in 2001 released a new (legalized) album that includes both these tracks. Whereas the original EP was called "U2"--which was part of the problem as far as Island Records was concerned--the new one is called "These Guys Are from England and Who Gives a Shit," referring to one of the derisive comments Casey Kasem made about the Irish band now known round the world. And that new album is in surprisingly wide distribution.

So now will you excuse me? I need to go order my copy of the new CD.

Look at this cool thing I found.

A friend of mine, also an academic, and I like to joke about our shared tendency to have difficulty finding a thesis in our scholarship. Many stages of the work, therefore, rather than having a real argument, seem to rest on the claim: "Look at this cool thing I found." Or sometimes, two things.

If you have not already heard of Kutiman and his project Thru You, a remixing of YouTube videos to form a truly mashed-up global musical video extravaganza, go here. If that site is overwhelmed, go here. I know you might already know about this magic, because I do tend to be late to the party, but damn.

Watch them.

Me? I was mesmerized. I had to watch all of them at one sitting. I have long been a fan of remixes and mash-ups, and the way those things let you hear things in new ways. The guys at Negativland are geniuses, and back in the early 1990s they made a record combining samples from U2's The Joshua Tree and "off camera" samples of Casey Kasem into an amazing series of tracks that now you can't hear anymore because Island Records sued their asses and recalled their albums. (I have a couple tracks on a cassette, but I digress.) Then there are the likes of base58, The Evolution Control Committee, Girl Talk, and more--who know how to play with sound and similarities and listener expectations to make things that are fun, insightful, and, in many cases, worth listening to even once the novelty has worn off.

But Kutiman? Wow. He takes it, as my father would say, quoting Emeril, another notch. It's not just that he has taken crazy shit that people have posted on YouTube and combined it into excellent audio/video tracks--that also sound excellent. It's that these mash-ups somehow make you see YouTube itself in a new way.

Take Track 4, "Babylon Band," for instance. It starts out with this probably stoned dude whaling on the drums. In itself, probably the best response that video would hope for is a "Duuuuuuuuude" from someone who came across it, or maybe laughter from friends, or derision from people who think the world is going to hell. But in this track? Suddenly dude's drumline (and his hair) lead us into something more amazing than you would expect to find in your parents' basement. But even with the kid playing amazing riffs on his oud (or whatever that is) and then the darbuka that comes in with much advertisement (not false), this is not exoticized, because we also have a church organist, a horn quartet in a classroom, kids practicing the piano in their living rooms, and the guy stringing out the amazing vocals is in a lawn chair. Or the woman singing on track 5 is sitting on the floor of her living room with her baby in her lap and a playpen in the background. Some of the samples come from instructional videos and e-bay advertisements. People playing drum machines are also holding coffee cups. Musicians in pajamas with couches and dogs! So yeah, these remixes are remarkably global, but also surprisingly local, and that somehow is what makes them so amazing.