PRINT May 1988



KLEPTOMANIA REIGNS ON DANCE FLOORS and record charts; theft is proper, and DJs will confiscate anything not nailed down. Pushing pop pluralism to the limit, the hottest dance tracks consist of irresistible beats laced liberally with hunks of found sound sampled (liberated, appropriated, stolen) from numerous diverse sources. As DJ David Dorrell of the group M/A/R/R/S has ghoulishly declared about sampling, “It’s in the blood. Everywhere!” Music now matches the visual arts as a site for rampant quotation, appropriation, and allegorization.

This shark scene is now, and while it may last no longer than neo-geo, consider two records that recently topped the independent-singles chart in the British rock paper New Musical Express: “Beat Dis” by Bomb the Bass and “Doctorin’ the House” by Coldcut. Following upon and expanding the premises of M/A/R/R/S’ seminal “Pump up the Volume” of a few months earlier, these two discs represent everything new, curious, and litigious about this popular dance music called hiphop, which is to the late ’80s what psychedelia was to the late ’60s and punk was to the late ’70s—that is, a combination of cult ritual and esthetic terrorism.

As with much allegorically motivated collage art, hiphop violates as it reorganizes. Black rappers state the unstatable about sex and money, tapping roots embedded in field hollers, signifyin’ monkeys, and the ghettos of the dispossessed. Like most great dance music, its mythical origin is in the tropics, specifically Jamaica, where competing hyperamplified sound systems would crank out the moment’s most popular records. Above throbbing instrumental tracks, toasters, as the DJs were known, would improvise lyrics, thus lending the aura of a live performance to their mix. When America caught on, its version of toasters called themselves rappers and spewed forth a harder, more aggressive, funk-based beat, a glossolalic barrage of boasts and messages. The DJs’ trick was to cut and scratch the catchiest yet most obscure records available, using two turntables to conjure continuous webs of sound.

A DJ’s success depended on rearranging and altering the creative output of others through an improvisatory reinterpretation of old musical codes. Like painting a mustache on a portrait or erasing a drawing, scratching a record is a violation, plastic surgery, the inf(l)ection by a reader/performer of a concrete text. Not to mention the next DJ over’s intention to make you look like a fool; phallus-waving is part and parcel of almost all man-made music, and hiphop’s no exception.

A problem arose, however, as soon as someone began recording hiphop and releasing it commercially: how much of a song can lawfully be borrowed or stolen from another record—a beat? A note? A phrase? A scream? A solo? A drum break? A chorus? Since its seminal moments, hiphop has continually explored the limits of appropriation, with the unintended result of helping to subsidize lawyerly lifestyles from coast to coast. It’s a matter of turf, and lifting a lick comprises intentions both as noble as homage and as defecatory as a dog at a hydrant. Financial settlements have been made with companies whose artists’ works have been lifted, but so far no clear legal precedent has been established for the uncleared use of a pilfered phrase.

To date, the acknowledged masters of turntable theft have been Grandmaster Flash—“The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” the cornerstone of epic aural bricolage, is still the cutup as far as most are concerned—and Double Dee & Steinski’s underground “Lessons” series. The latter were the first white guys to pick up on hiphop and the first to integrate nonmusical material in their mixes. Their up-front lifts limited the dissemination of their records to club DJs, making them rare and expensive.

The new generation of sound-stealers has a more sophisticated arsenal of electronic gadgetry to facilitate its larcenous pursuits. Inexpensive samplers and drum machines facilitate the sonic research of bedroom beatboys. Two kinds of sampling exist. The first records, then alters a specific tone or beat so that it’s no longer recognizable; the second is purely appropriative and almost a linguistic procedure: samplers remove phrases from a constituted musical language and incorporate them in a language of their own formulation, thus (re)possessing them. Properly placed, a single word can evoke the complete works of Aretha Franklin. Sampling is radical metonymy.

Nineteen-year-old Tim Simenon, the blasting cap behind Bomb the Bass, recorded “Beat Dis” quickly for about a thousand dollars. A half-Chinese, half-Scottish hybrid himself, he has described his record, in New Musical Express, as “basically my Top 20 dance records of ’87 crammed into a six minute song . . . a Steven Spielberg production, just ram-packed.” The mix also includes the Dragnet theme (“the names have been changed to protect the innocent”), James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Hugo Montenegro playing Ennio Morricone’s themes from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the Bar-Kays’ wah-wah guitar riff from “Son of Shaft,” a fruity blues progression played on synthesizer, a Russian voice inviting the listener to play roulette, alarm noises, and a takeoff on BBC-style how-to records (swiped from a previous Coldcut disc).

“Ram-packed”: full, proclaiming plenitude, a plurality of passions. Sampling and stealing have everything to do with nostalgia and salvation. A DJ expresses love for a song by quoting it directly, though obscuring the quotation marks in the beat. As Simenon suggests, “Beat Dis” documents an idealized past spent listening to dance music—something peculiarly Proustian informs the process. Nostalgia is reflected everywhere in hiphop, for example when the Godfather of Soul or George Clinton’s Funkadelic is slipped into the mix.

A similar ironic nostalgia is present in some appropriative art, for example the early David Salle diptychs that juxtaposed cartoon characters to formalist parodies, or Richard Pettibone’s Warhol quotations. But the borrowings in visual art can also have a conceptual solemnity to them that is for the most part absent in the music. Where Sherrie Levine’s rephotographings and reframings of Walker Evans make sober points about originality and authority, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu stick chunks of Whitney Houston into their records not only because they enjoy her music, but also because they want to poke fun at her.

This dissimilarity in mood, though, shouldn’t obscure the similarity of practice, even though the hiphop appropriators usually indulge in more fragmentation of their source material than an artist like Levine or Mike Bidlo. The copying that in Levine’s work has all the force of the broken taboo seems to offer the often-quite-young producers of hiphop an open field or playground for invention and pleasure. Which is not to say that the style hasn’t already produced sophisticated esthetic codes and factions. The most provocative musical samplers, for example, strive to disengage quotations from their sources and frequently change them beyond recognition before repossessing them—sort of like Philip Taaffe’s alterations of Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman. Curtis Kahleel of the group Mantronix, one of the first-and-foremost sampling units, now considers the straightforward lifting of material (which he disparagingly calls “taping”) to be the least interesting facet of the sampling phenomenon.

Tell that to Coldcut, which consists of white Londoners Jonathan More and Matt Black, who essentially omit rap’s messages while intensifying its procedures. They made their mark internationally when they remixed a record called “Paid in Full” by Eric B. and Rakim, an American DJ and rapper. (This was where the line “Pump up the volume” first appeared; since then it’s been directly cited on half a dozen other records, including the one by M/A/R/R/S. Sampling is a highly contagious virus.) “This is a journey into sound,” Coldcut’s reissue begins, “a journey that will bring to you new color, new dimensions, new value.” Rather than coopting black music, Coldcut applies its methods to white culture in a convergence of concerns.

“Sorry, but this just isn’t music,” read the covers of Coldcut’s most recent records (with false apologetics). “Doctorin’ the House” is their most extreme statement to date. Like “Beat Dis,” “Doctorin’ ” also trumpets its thievishness and quotes dozens of musical and nonmusical sources. “Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?,” chants a group of male voices. A woman asks, “How do they do that?” “It’s really quite simple,” a squeaky voice responds cheerily; “You just mangle.”

More than any other dance musicians to date, Coldcut plunders the archives with fierce intensity. It’s a tradeoff: listeners get to enjoy the singing of Yemenite vocalist Ofra Haza, for example, while bearing witness to the murder of the two things most intrinsic to Western pop—instruments and songs. Which works out fine, since the popularity of Coldcut’s records and of hiphop in general signals, in a backhanded fashion, the boredom so much contemporary pop music instills in listeners. On a certain level, of course, every musician/artist/human is sampling itself at any given moment. All of us are involved in a continuous process of (re)interpretation that gives us identity. By cutting up and reassembling the output of anonymous hordes of singers and players, the likes of Coldcut and Bomb the Bass reanimate, reenergize, revive, and provide a new kind of fractured immanence for yesterday’s music (literally, since “Doctorin’ ” even samples “Beat Dis”). Thanks to the DJs, funky, chunky James Brown is experiencing a new peak of popularity.

The pressure that music like this places on concepts such as propriety and authorship has proved, for the time being, of more legal than theoretical import—but that’s rock criticism for you. Nevertheless, such mutant hybrids of styles and signatures are bound to affect how other music is perceived. Whether they lead to an increased appreciation of “pure” expression or toward even more outrageous recombinations remains to be seen. In either case, hiphop provides the perfect metaphor for the current fragmented state of pop music’s audience(s). For right now, the British hiphop scene is a splatter film on the verge of happening over here. In the words of Coldcut’s Black, “It’s like the whole history of recorded sound is waiting for us there to murder.”

Richard Gehr lives in Brooklyn and writes frequently about music and other things.