Originally published by SF Weekly December 1, 1999
©2000 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.
The sample-minded artists of Detritus.net celebrate the fine art of cultural reappropriation
On Nov. 12 at Art Rattan, an Oakland performance space, a one-man band called Wobbly fidgeted behind a multitrack digital workstation, churning out a sonic stew comprised predominantly of samples culled from local hip-hop station Wild 94.9. He generated a ludicrous chorus of rappers chanting "yo"; throughout the set, hundreds of semirecognizable urban pop shards were juxtaposed, often bizarrely. The performance, titled Wild Why, was both amusingly surreal and jarring, an engaging combination of tongue-in-cheek whimsy, dadaist collage, and social commentary.
The evening's show was billed as "Detritus Night." Detritus.net is a San Francisco-based Web site dedicated to recycled culture and the issues that surround it, with a particular focus on sound, and all the artists who performed reworked pre-existing materials. In addition to Wobbly's hip-hop blenderization, the Jet Black Hair People and Thomas Dimuzio chewed up a lengthy sample shopping list that included a hand-washing instructional film, Cantonese pop, Aldo Nova, and the Ohio Players, while, using only a PowerBook, Carl Stone ground "Barbie Girl" by Swede-popsters Aqua into utter unrecognizability. Detritus.net founder and Webmaster Steev Hise chose, for his part, to recycle his own voice. Proceeds from the show went to the newly established Detritus Copyright Infringement Legal Defense Fund -- at the end of the night, Hise joked that the audience had ponied up maybe two hours' worth of legal fees. It's a start.
Hise runs four servers, including Detritus.net, out of his North Mission flat via a T1 line. The Detritus Web site is a sort of informational clearinghouse of all things appropriative; and most audio on the Web site is copyright-free and available for reuse. Hise provides server space for several recombinant audio artists referred to as "detrivores," including the Evolution Control Committee, the Aggressive School of Cultural Workers, and San Francisco's own Bob Ostertag. As the site puts it, "a detrivore takes pre-existing materials, breaks them down, and uses them as building blocks to form something new." Detritus.net features "banned" audio à la John Oswald's Plunderphonics and Negativland's infamous U2 EP, as well as a sprawling bibliography covering the many facets of appropriation in art.
"Steev's an important focus point for the scene," says Stone. "He's working to bring the scene together, he's publishing articles, putting the issues forward. [He's] kind of a legal service agent, providing the groundwork by putting forward these case studies and legal briefs about sampling and so on."
Hise, who established Detritus.net in 1997, started out playing guitar in punk bands before discovering electronics and tape loops while doing a live radio show at the University of Michigan. Soon after, he began delving into appropriated music, and the people making it. "The people who most inspired me, in terms of contemporary artists, were Negativland, John Oswald, and Tape-Beatles," he says. "Then I started getting into the ideology of it, and realizing that there was an inherent sort of subversiveness to appropriation. Because you're taking something that used to be a part of something else, and putting it in a different context. Just on that simple transformation, it says something different. And since I first realized that, it's gotten a lot more popular, especially as electronica has turned into a big trend. Everybody samples, and so it's no longer just automatically subversive -- it's become more of a technique."
The Bay Area has long been a fertile breeding ground for found-sound experimenters, from stalwarts like Negativland to newer electronic artists like Matmos, Tipsy, and Kit Clayton, not to mention turntablists like the Invisible Skratch Piklz. Several factors probably contribute, from the area's large techie contingent to a long-standing, adventuresome avant-garde art scene and the presence of leading lights like collage filmmaker Craig Baldwin.
Negativland's Peter Conheim, who performs under the moniker the Jet Black Hair People and works with the all-projector orchestra Wet Gate, points to Negativland member Don Joyce's Over the Edge radio program on KPFA as one of the major influences on a generation of Bay Area sound artists. "For almost 20 years we've been able to hear that program making mincemeat of radio as we know it every damn week," he says. "It opened a lot of doors, along with much of Negativland's work on their early LPs, and some of us who listened to it found ourselves working on the show over the years."
He adds: "I do think we're lucky to be in a community which consistently seems to support plundered and recycled sound art and visual art. Over the years, it has seemed to me that this sort of work actually maintains an audience. Of course, a huge problem in the Bay Area is a dearth of venues in which to present this sort of work. The best joints are those operating under the radar of 'legitimacy' in one way or another, and thus they are prone to vanish."
Jon Leidecker, aka Wobbly, estimates he works on Joyce's radio show seven or eight times a year; he's also collaborated with local artists like Big City Orchestra. His current Wild Why project came about in part because his tape player broke, forcing him to listen to the radio. Leidecker soon realized the sound beds of popular hip-hop tracks were ripe fodder for plunder. "By taking the amazing sound worlds they're coming up with in each of these three-minute songs and isolating them, chopping them up, and freeing them from the strict tempo, and also by detourn-ing the lyrical content so that it doesn't make sense anymore, you can hear commercial rap as experimental music a little more readily than you can in its pop shape," he explains.
Though Leidecker hopes to release the Wild Why project on CD soon, and plans to include a credit list of artists sampled, he doesn't intend to pay out any royalties to those same artists. "When we get into money, technically, with over 300 artists on a single recording, who all appear in a matter of seconds on a record that sells maybe one or two thousand copies, there's not going to be any money for them," he says. "There's not going to be any money for me, even."
And Leidecker argues he has the right as an artist to assemble a collage of existing material. "I simply do not buy this shtick about how the artists have the right to maintain total control over the use of their work, " he says. "Once you put your creativity on the table, you'd better be ready for a creative response. And it's only very recently that you've started actually hearing lawyers claim that the artists have the moral right to retain total control over the way that their work is used." Musicians who use scavenged audio are, in fact, waiting for the precedent-setting other shoe to drop: While federal copyright law dictates general guidelines for "fair use," there are no hard-and-fast rules regarding the artistic reuse of existing audio. If anything, the rules are dictated by the market: The more money potentially involved, the more likely it is that somebody will unleash the lawyers.
No doubt Puff Daddy ought to give co-writing credit and substantial sums to the artists he pillages wholesale, but should bedroom desktop computer musicians have to worry about clearing every minuscule snippet in something they just want to post online? (MP3.com has repeatedly asked at least one local artist to remove his compositions because they contained what sounded like samples.) Last year, the Illegal Art label released a CD called Deconstructing Beck, comprised entirely of scrambled Beck recordings; the label received a threatening cease-and-desist letter from Geffen, Beck's label. The label later let the matter drop, reportedly at the request of the sample-happy Beck himself.
Internationally renowned composer Carl Stone, who calls his work "99.99 percent appropriated," says the line between fair use and copyright infringement is "kind of a hard one to draw. First of all, there are two issues: Would you get caught, and if you did get caught, would they have a case? In theory, I could do something that no one could ever recognize what the source is, but it would somehow be infringing, just because of the amount of the material I use. But I'd never get caught. The other scenario is yes, it would be very recognizable, but maybe you could scrape by arguing 'fair use' or some other means.
"Then there's an area where you could get caught and it would be a violation. I guess my stuff has managed to really stay beneath the horizon, to the point where I've never had a problem."
One group that has had problems in the past is Negativland. The pioneering Bay Area sound-collage group recently had to switch pressing plants because their old one, fearing liability, refused to press an Over the Edge CD containing uncleared Pink Floyd and Village People snippets. More famously, in 1991, Negativland released its U2 EP; with a cover featuring a U-2 spy plane and a large U2 logo, the record included farcical renditions of the Irish rock group's song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and a recording of a foulmouthed Casey Kasem bad-mouthing the band. Within days of the record's release, U2's label, Island Records, filed suit against Negativland, alleging trademark and copyright infringement. The subsequent litigious machinations are enough to fill a book, and in fact, Negativland published a tome titled Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, documenting the entire episode. Negativland settled out of court, but had to agree to demolish all available copies of the offending release and pay some $80,000 in legal costs.
Since then, Negativland members have become perpetual advocates of artistic freedom in a world in which, according to member Don Joyce, large music corporations continue to rule like proprietary control freaks. "Negativland's policy has always been to try to expand the narrow legal concept of fair use to generally include the freedom to sample freely, without charge or charges, when the result is new art," says Joyce. "We have chosen to spread this concept by example, since the works themselves are the best way to expose how culturally important the sampling impulse is to modern art. Now the technique is widespread -- yet in all its unauthorized, grass-roots versions it continues to be assumed theft. It's clear that for everyone in power art remains primarily an economic, not a spiritual, activity.
"None of us wants to see our CDs come back as an exact copy from China
for which we're paid nothing," he adds. "That is theft. But using bits
and fragments from old work to create new works is not theft, it's collage,
and collage is the primary, defining aesthetic invention of the whole 20th
century, and will not be denied to artists just because they now want to
practice it in mass-produced music."