They Do The Mash

March 12, 2009

In his story “Burning Chrome,” William Gibson wrote the now-famous aphorism “The street find its own uses for things.” That observation has always been at its most appropriate in music remix culture. DJs discovered an alternate use for the turntable and a whole new type of music was invented. It became possible to build songs out of pieces — “samples” — of other songs. The technique became automated with the advent of the sampler, an instrument that allowed you to store any sound and play it back with a keyboard or percussion pad.

The high water marks for sample-constructed hip-hop are Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique — records that could never be made today due to the crippling expense of licensing all of the source material. (For an interesting perspective on one of the most sampled drum breaks in the history of recorded music, check out Nate Harrison’s Can I Get An Amen?) DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… and The Avalanches’ Since I left You are more recent examples of sample-built tunes.

The next logical step — although it wasn’t obvious at the time — was to construct music videos from other videos, a technique pioneered by Emergency Broadcast Network. Their reworking of a George Bush (#41, not #43) speech into “We Will Rock You” became a huge underground hit in 1991, passed around  via VHS cassette. The video opened U2’s Zoo TV tour, with EBN providing all the stage visuals. Their 1995 album, Telecommunication Breakdown, featured some of their video songs, including “3:7:8”:

(I’m usually very good at playing “name the sample,” but the only thing I can identify in the video is the singing boy. He’s from Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, the movie that answers the previously-unasked question: What does Sir John Gielgud look like naked?)

It’s a remarkable feat considering the primitive state of video editing software at the time, and the difficulty involved in locating the right source material. You can forgive them for having to supplement the music with their own beats and fills. EBN dissolved years ago, but what would they have done with a resource like YouTube?

One answer appeared on the net last week. Ophir Kutiel, an Israeli musician who goes by the handle “Kutiman,” released an entire album of music and videos in which every sound is sampled from YouTube videos.The results are nothing short of brilliant:

The amount of work required to make an entire album of these videos is staggering. The “Credits” video gives you just the briefest glimpse of the level of obsession required to assemble a single song. That feat would be enough even if the songs were only average, but Kutiman composed a set of tracks spanning diverse genres: funk, trip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass, gospel, dub  — and they’re all great.

Diane’s reaction to my showing her these songs was “I’m glad you didn’t have that idea first, you’d never leave your computer.” I’m happy just to sit back and see what use the street makes of it; it has a pretty good track record so far.

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