Draft introduction for 33 1/3 proposal on The Kleptones’ A Night at the Hip-Hopera

Here is the draft intro for my unsuccessful 33 1/3 proposal on The Kleptones’ A Night at the Hip-Hopera. See here for the chapter by chapter summary.

3. Draft Introduction

Introduction: Never Trust Originality

I remember Vanilla Ice all too well. And I remember that I know “Under Pressure” not because I was a Queen fan in the 1980s. Similar to how I first knew “Another One Bites the Dust” as the walkout music for pro wrestler The Junkyard Dog and “We Will Rock You” from every American sporting event ever, I first knew “Under Pressure” because Vanilla Ice sampled its bassline for the hook to “Ice Ice Baby.”

And when I hear Vanilla Ice make a cameo on 2004’s A Night at the Hip-Hopera—in a new mashup of his vocals with that bassline—I realize The Kleptones know all of this, and that they think it’s funny. They’re laughing at me because I didn’t always know where that sample came from, because I owned To the Extreme on cassette, because I still know all the words to its signature track. See what happens when it comes on at a party, and see the shame set in with the hangover. But I also realize that The Kleptones are laughing at themselves. After all, by making the joke they acknowledge that their history with “Ice Ice Baby” and “Under Pressure” is similar to mine, that they make the same association I make whenever I hear that bassline.

But that’s all good fun—a groaning recollection of misspent youth and a nod to the convoluted ways we come to know our cultural past in a highly mediated world. The real joke is not some kid who bought into a one-hit wonder created by radio and MTV saturation, but rather the larger cultural paradigm that feeds his contemporary anxieties about that moment. Whatever my present thoughts on the artistic merits of the sample and the mashup, I wish I knew “Under Pressure” because I knew Queen first. I wish I knew in 1990 that Vanilla Ice was “desecrating” the “original” song. I wish I had never thought, even for a second, that Vanilla Ice’s version was the original. Once I understand, however, why I wish all those things, I realize that The Kleptones’ joke comes not at my expense, or even at Ice’s. Rather it comes at the expense of the concept of originality itself, a concept that underpins my shuddering recollections, a concept wielded by the music industry in the name of protecting past music, and the profit that comes with that music, from those who would appropriate it, sample it, and mash it up.

The Kleptones guide me through a journey over the course of A Night at the Hip-Hopera. They play the Virgil to my Dante, the Mephistopheles to my Faust, the Ferris Bueller to my Cameron Frye. They reveal to me a complex history of popular music, one that we cannot understand through the blunt instrument that “originality” has become: the romantic notion that that which is truly great is also truly new; the idea that an artist, no matter how influenced by the past, escapes that influence to speak in his or her own unique voice; the claim that idea x can be simply traced and attributed to person y. Simply put, “originality” tells us that we can determine where our inherited culture comes from and therefore who owns it.

The Kleptones reject this notion of originality and all that comes with it. They narrate their history of popular music, among other things, entirely through the mashed up samples of our televised, broadcast, recorded, filmed, and videotaped past—a past that belongs to everyone who experienced it, for good or for ill. The mashup, which mixes a vocal track sampled from one song with an instrumental track sampled from another, terrifies a music industry that would tell a story very different than the one The Kleptones tell, one in which music belongs only to the individual or very small group who created it—one in which originality rules. As the album progresses, The Kleptones’ appropriations (or thefts, as the lawyers would tell us) blend with one another into something strangely and wonderfully new—something somehow original. But this origin is different. It does not claim to be the product of any individual genius, but rather that of a network of influences so complex that I cannot hope to trace it. As I hear this origin reveal the music industry’s notion of originality for the sham that it is, I hear something else. I hear the industry demonstrate its inability to cope with a world transformed by the new technologies that afford this new form of originality or with the new cultural attitudes that value it. I hear the industry die like the dinosaur it is.

And only when I understand the nature of this death—the most significant of Hip-Hopera’s several themes—does the joke, in all of its complexity, begin to make sense.

Let’s start at its beginning to see how it works.

As “Sniff,” Hip-Hopera’s twelfth track, begins I (the listener) am invited, by way of a sample from Lil John and the East Side Boys,1 to see what’s happening at “another part of the studio.” Upon my arrival there, by way of a second sample (this one from a tourist advertisement for the Pacific Northwest), someone tells me to “sniff.” A third sample represents that rather loud sniff as I apparently suck something up my nose. Finally, a voice from yet another sample suggests that, if I am having trouble, I need to get in touch with my dealer.

And then “Under Pressure” begins. Instead of Freddie or Bowie, instead of Vanilla Ice even, Belinda Carlisle, slowed down to match the new beat and coming now in a deeper octave, tells me that “heaven is a place on earth.” Well, I am high after all. And then I hear the refrain from “Ice Ice Baby” and heaven turns to hell, the hell of cultural shame. I knew it was coming and I know what comes next: “All right stop! Collaborate and listen!” And what comes next, and next. Again, I still know all the words.

Although many of us who dug To the Extreme were, at the time, too young and too suburban to have ever seen cocaine, The Kleptones tell us that the “chumps” Ice raps about weren’t the only ones “full of eightballs,” that we, as a culture might have been the chumps, that we must have been high. How else can we explain the fact that we drove To the Extreme to number one as the fastest selling rap album of all time? How else to explain that, in the golden age of sampling (what with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back and Paul’s Boutique so recently released), we celebrated the vanilla rhymes and vanilla samples of Vanilla Ice. “Heaven on earth”? Nothing but irony.

(Of course, we may have also been high just a few years earlier when we celebrated the mediocrity of a post-Go-Go’s Carlisle, so she’s one to talk.)

But that’s only the first part of the joke, the friendly part.

That part of the joke, in which The Kleptones poke fun at those who know Vanilla Ice, leads to the second, more trenchant part, the part in which I come to understand that I should never trust originality.

The Kleptones know that when I hear that bassline I am as likely to associate it with “Ice ice baby” as I am with “Mm ba ba de.” Because of Ice’s theft, I’ve lost the “original” association between bassline and band—one that I never actually possessed as it were. However, rather than giving me “back” that origin, this mashup creates for me a new association between Queen and Belinda Carlisle. And then, just as Carlisle fades out and Ice begins, yet another association! Prince Paul cuts Ice off with “Yo! Yo! Excuse me!” from “More Than U Know.” These words might shove Ice out of the studio, but they still don’t get me back to Queen. In fact, they take me further from the original than I have ever been. When I next hear that bassline, what association will I make? What will I start to sing? “Mm ba ba de”? “All right stop! Collaborate and listen!”? “Ooh baby do you know what that’s worth?”? Yo! Yo! Excuse me!”? Can I ever get back to Queen? Can I ever simply hear Queen in a culture that—legally or illegally, expertly or amateurishly—increasingly exists as a mashup of its past?

I can’t. I can’t unhear what I have heard, cannot destroy the network of songs in my head.

Originality is over, if it ever existed at all.

According to the music industry’s concept of originality, inherited from certain accounts of nineteenth century romanticism, the original bassline was newly created by Queen, a product of their genius. After all, that’s their name on Hot Space, the 1982 album on which “Under Pressure” appeared (it had been a single the year before). It turns out, however, that this bassline’s origins are rather complicated. “Under Pressure” was a collaboration between Queen and David Bowie, who are listed as its writers and producers. In the decades since its recording, accounts of who developed the bassline have conflicted with one another. Queen bassist John Deacon once attributed it to Bowie, while guitarist John May and drummer Robert Taylor have attributed it to Deacon. Bowie claims that the riff was in place before he became involved with the song.2 We might identify “Under Pressure” as the musical and cultural debut of this bassline, but prior to that debut its origins are murky at best. Even if I want to ignore Bowie and simply call Queen its author, I have to acknowledge that “Queen” signifies not a single coherent subject, but rather the complex interaction of four individuals. Even that acknowledgement does not account for the engineers, executives, session musicians, and others who contribute to the entity known as “Queen”. Finally, even if I account for all of these people, and no doubt others, I have not yet begun to account for Queen’s influences, the innumerable past musicians, songs, albums, sounds, theories, etc. they have consciously and unconsciously adopted to create “their” sound.

The term “origin,” I come to understand, does not refer to a simple thing, but rather masks a complexity that has no end. And yet, when Queen and Bowie demand and receive payment and writing credits for “Ice Ice Baby,” or when Hollywood Records sends cease and desist records to those who offer A Night at the Hip-Hopera for download, “originality” hides this complexity, this network, in order to maintain “Under Pressure” as an original creation and, therefore, as property.

The Kleptones belong to a generation that no longer trusts originality or values the claims about artistic genius and property that come with it. The “group” has only one member, Eric Kleptone, but maintains a plural name as if to acknowledge that no single person is ever single, that any “one” is in fact “many.” Thus I refer to this “he” as a “they.” The Kleptones, who work exclusively with sampled music “originally” made by others, are nothing but the intersection of countless influences, a network of past sounds remixed in the present. Eric Kleptone is not so much a musician, if by musician I understand “creator of original music,” as he is a DJ: someone through whom music flows, someone who arranges old music into new combinations.

A Night at the Hip-Hopera is the product of a cultural moment in which how we make, share, buy, listen to—in short, how we experience music, has been redefined by the personal computer, the mp3, the Internet, Napster and other peer-to-peer filesharing protocols, the iPod, iTunes, and the amazon.com music store. It was produced, distributed, and consumed entirely outside of those channels sanctioned by the mainstream music industry, a crime for which it will not be forgiven. But it knows it has already won the battle. It knows that the generation to which it was given lives in and is conditioned by this transformed world. In this world, one in which free music seems more a right than a crime, conventional notions of originality have no place.

This is the world of the network.

Come on, let’s see how it works.

Note: I will expand this introduction for book, starting from this point. The expanded introduction will include:

  • further information on The Kleptones (namely on their previous albums, Never Trust Originality and Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots);
  • further discussion of “originality” (specifically insofar as it is a legacy of nineteenth-century romanticism);
  • a brief definition of the term “network” that anticipates my more detailed discussion in chapter one;
  • and a brief summary of chapters one, two, and the conclusion that explains the overall plan of the book.

This writing will expand the introduction from its present ~2100 words to 4 – 5,000 words.

1 See chapter two for complete information on the samples from each track.

2 This information comes from the Wikipedia page for “Under Pressure” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Under_Pressure). As several of the page’s references are obscure (e.g. French and Japanese music magazines from the 1980s), I have not yet been able to find the original sources.

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