Sampling, mashups, ripping and remixing — in an age of infinitely accessible and increasingly malleable digital audio, the question of who’s allowed to do what with someone else’s original music is becoming ever more heated. If you use a piece of software such as Traktor to ironically suture “Singing in the Rain” to the riffs of “Enter Sandman,” does this constitute a brand new creation? Or just two well-known tracks playing in sync? Are you a genius or a plagiarist?
Joining the conversation with admirable open-mindedness is Tokyo’s Remix Film Festival, two days of films and panel discussions to be held at Shibuya’s perennial center of artistic activism, Uplink Factory, on June 21-22. The minifest is the brainchild of 5th Element, an ad-hoc group of event organizers interested in the intersection between youth culture and politics.
The three women at the core of 5th Element — Keiko Tanaka, Chieko Tamakawa and Miki Noda — are self-described music buffs who have been doing their own translating and subtitles for the films they are introducing. Tanaka told The Japan Times how “the past year has seen the debate over SOPA and PIPA, these Internet policing laws, and the introduction of penalties in Japan for illegal downloading, so we thought the time was ripe to put these films on people’s radar.”
The film that really galvanized them into action was “Copyright Criminals,” a documentary that traces the legal, ethical and artistic implications of sampling, from Public Enemy through Danger Mouse. With a focus on late-1980s hip-hop and the people it most heavily sampled (P-Funk, and James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield), it’s a really fun film that visually embraces the cut-up culture it’s documenting, while giving a much-needed voice to the artists involved.
Does it suck that it would be impossible to make a record such as the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” today due to the sharky lawyers who milked all they could for the smallest snippets of sound? Yes, but it also sucks that while Stubblefield’s drum grooves have formed the bible for several entire genres of modern music, the man himself has precious little to show for it.
Additional films to be screened include “Good Copy Bad Copy,” a wide-ranging look at copyright issues that takes in rap group NWA, BitTorrent website The Pirate Bay, the Motion Picture Association of America and Brazilian tecno brega remixers; “RIP: A Remix Manifesto,” which champions Girl Talk and his fight for the right to pilfer other artists’ sounds as he wishes (“I owe them a little credit,” he says; no mention of compensation); “Steal This Film,” a “freetard” head-in-the-sand ode to justifying one’s illegal ripping habit; and “Secondhand Sureshots,” an entertaining look at Los Angeles crew Dublab, whose conceptual art involves buying no more than $5-worth of used vinyl, and making a track out of that.
Girl Talk, in “Good Copy Bad Copy,” insists that recycling “is the most efficient way to have artistic growth.” Music critic Simon Reynolds, however, has stated (in his book “Retromania”) that mashups are “pseudo-creativity” and “a barren genre — nothing will come from it.”
The Remix Film Festival has scheduled several discussion panels featuring industry copyright lawyers, pro-file-sharing bloggers, DJs and a lawyer from Creative Conmons, the group trying to promote an idealistic alternative to traditional copyright, a system that has become increasingly rigid thanks to the mega-corporations.
“We’re not saying we’re anti-SOPA or that everything should be free,” says Tanaka. “We’re not doing this to promote any one viewpoint, but just to show there are all these different perspectives.”
Matt Black, who records as Coldcut and runs the label Ninja Tune, is one of the “Copyright Criminals” quoted in that film; I caught up with him and asked how he felt the issues had changed since back in 1987, when he was dropping Ofra Haza on Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” remix.
“Back in the day, the phrase “if there’s a hit, there’s a writ” applied, which meant, yeah, use whatever you like, but if commercial success comes out of it, then commercial terms will be applied, and that includes paying people whose copyrighted material you’ve used. I’ve always thought that was fair.
“The landscape has changed, but mechanisms now exist for sampling and I think it’s a good thing, because it can help everyone. I don’t agree that copyright is dead, that there’s no such thing as copyright. Just because things can be copied freely, it doesn’t mean they should be.”
Remix Film Festival takes place June 21-22 at Uplink Factory in Shibuya, Tokyo. Reservations are recommended due to the small venue size, and may be made online at www.remixfilm.org.