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

Well, my proposal for the 33 1/3 series on The KleptonesA Night at the Hip-Hopera did not make it past the first round of cuts. I’m rather disappointed by that, but thankful to Eric Kleptone for his support of the proposal. Here is the chapter by chapter summary from the proposal. My draft introduction follows in the next post. I will eventually post the PDF of the whole thing, in case anyone is interested in the wonkier parts.

 

2. Annotated Chapter Outline

Anticipated date of completion: January – February 2013

Abstract

The Kleptones, comprised solely of DJ Eric Kleptone, released A Night at the Hip-Hopera in November 2004. The album is a series of twenty-three mashups (songs made up of the music from one song remixed with the vocals from another). It is one of the twenty-first century’s most significant musical statements, not only for the nature of its sampling, but for the deep insight it offers into how new technologies, and the cultural shifts to which those technologies lead, impact the contemporary production, distribution, and consumption of music. Hip-Hopera’s samples were all used without permission and the album was given away freely online, entirely outside of commercial distribution streams. As a result, those who aided in that distribution became subject to cease-and-desist notices from Hollywood Records, who objected to both Hip-Hopera’s prolific sampling from Queen’s catalog and the challenge the album presented to older business models.1Hip-Hopera anticipates precisely this response. Such a response, and the philosophies behind it, is a significant part of Hip-Hopera’s story of cultural and musical revolution. This book recounts that story, that of an album that continues the rebellious spirit of our most important popular music.

This book describes Hip-Hopera as a product of, and response to, certain technological, political, and cultural transformations that have rocked the music industry. The album, in its form and themes, is about a world in flux, an account of the redefinition of music in the era of the mp3, Napster, and the iPod. Finally, it tells the story of those in the music industry who fight against this redefinition. I argue that this album cannot be understood as an original product of individual genius. Rather, it must be understood: first, as a node within several overlapping and larger technological, social, and legal networks (the subject of chapter one); and, second, as itself a network that articulates several different but intersecting cultural narratives (the subject of chapter two). Hip-Hopera thus not only participates in new networks, but thematizes how music itself has generally caused and taken part in the deterioration (or even destruction) of older network configurations through which music had been made, sold, and heard for the previous fifty years or so. For the way it blends the mashup form with a story of a shifting cultural landscape, all while being a great pop/rap/rock album, it is among the most important albums of the past decade.

Eric Kleptone has enthusiastically agreed to contribute to this project both by assisting with the marketing of the book (see part five of this proposal) and by sitting for exclusive interviews with me. I will draw upon these interviews mainly in chapter one (see below).

Introduction: Never Trust Originality (4 – 5,000 words; will be expanded from draft included with this proposal; see part 3 of this proposal: Draft Introduction)

The introduction begins with a detailed discussion of one of A Night at the Hip-Hopera’s best moments, in which The Kleptones poke fun at the listener and themselves for associating the bassline to Queen’s “Under Pressure” with Vanilla Ice’s use of that bassline in “Ice Ice Baby.” This joke operates not through any original statement or observation, but rather through the mashing up of cultural referents recognizable to the listener, made strange in their new context. It thus recalls for us several historical moments and musical styles (and arguments about those styles). As such, the joke demonstrates the complex network of influences in which music specifically, and society generally, participates and, finally, the problematic nature of “originality,” a concept that continues to underpin the music industry and its business practices. My discussion of this joke thus serves as a means for me to introduce two of the book’s key themes: first, how the networked culture of the last fifteen to twenty years makes this album possible; and, second, how this album is itself a network of other cultural objects and meanings, recontextualized by the mashup form.

From this opening, I transition to my argument that A Night at the Hip-Hopera, insofar as it exists within networks and participates in the shaping and reshaping of those networks, cannot be understood in terms of originality or individual genius. If we listen to Hip-Hopera according to such traditional notions (maintained even today by a music industry seeking to protect its business model), its significance will be lost on us. Contra the romantic notion of genius, which exists outside of or beyond society, this album celebrates its cultural origins, its musical influences, and the degree to which it cannot exist without its larger context. Its “originality” lies not in how it achieves a purely new statement, but rather in how it re-arranges old fragments (in what thinkers such as Lawrence Lessig call “new from old production”). A Night at the Hip-Hopera reveals the connectedness of what seem to be discrete, even contradictory elements of contemporary culture and music. Any music that claims originality for itself, by hiding its debt to the past or its connections to other parts of culture, is not to be trusted.

Chapter 1: “One more copyright nightmare for the music industry”: The Kleptones and the Network (14 – 15,000 words)

Chapter one’s title comes from one of A Night at the Hip-Hopera’s many samples. As spoken by former CBS news anchor Dan Rather on the nightly news in early 2004, these words indicated that new technologies and cultural norms were again challenging the aging business model of the major labels. As sampled by The Kleptones, they position A Night at the Hip-Hopera itself as a “nightmare for the music industry.” This chapter situates A Night at the Hip-Hopera as a node within several diverse “networks,” in the sense that Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker define the term: complex systems that connect machines, their users, institutions, ideas, and other heterogeneous elements (each of which is a “node”).2 The Internet is a network, itself composed of smaller networks (social media sites, ethernets, peer-to-peer file sharing protocols, the World Wide Web, etc.). Each of these networks includes the machines that make them up as well as the humans who use those machines. A file sharing network integrates protocols (such as Bittorrent), individual computers, cables, files (such as mp3s), and the humans who manage the network and share the music. On Galloway and Thacker’s argument, music itself is a network, one made up of influences, genres, record formats, institutions, artists, concert venues, production equipment, agents, executives, laws, etc. Changes to the configuration of this network (the shift to digital formats, listeners’ newfound abilities to share music online, etc.), coupled to new cultural attitudes about what constitutes property and theft in an era of “free” music, lead to the music industry’s “copyright nightmare” generally and A Night at the Hip-Hopera specifically.

The chapter is divided into three parts. Part one describes Hip-Hopera as a product of new technologies that threaten the music industry by allowing individual musicians to produce and distribute their work (i.e. become part of the network) without the aid of a record label. Such technologies include: the personal computer and software such as ProTools (in terms of production) and the internet and peer-to-peer filesharing networks/protocols (in terms of distribution). This section also discusses how new technologies of consumption, such as digital music players and the mp3, contribute to this context by allowing, even encouraging, people to share music with one another. Part two discusses Hip-Hopera as an act of civil disobedience and cultural hacking that, through its method of production and distribution, engages with the political and corporate responses to these new technologies (such as that of Hollywood Records, described above). Part three investigates what Hip-Hopera, as an instance of civil disobedience/hacking, suggests about twenty-first-century culture. That it exists, and that it was successful, implies a cultural acceptance of its form—if only a somewhat limited one. However, that mainstream commercial acts such as David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, and Radiohead have associated themselves with mashup culture and/or embraced new models of online distribution, implies a mainstreaming of the ideas that Hip-Hopera manifests. In other words, this civil disobedience has “worked.” I return to the issue the mainstreaming of mashups in the conclusion, where I discuss Hip-Hopera as a manifesto for continued cultural change.

In chapter one, I draw upon historical and critical works on technology, law, and music (such as Galloway and Thacker and others I discuss in part four of this proposal), as well as the aforementioned interviews with Eric Kleptone.

Chapter 2: “What’re we gonna do?”: Our Night at the Hip-Hopera (14 – 15,000 words)

This chapter is divided into twenty-three sections that correspond to A Night at the Hip-Hopera’s twenty-three tracks. At the beginning of each section, I list the samples The Kleptones used to create the respective track. These short sections describe individual tracks’ contributions to the narratives and themes of the overall album.

Chapter two recounts the story that isA Night at the Hip-Hopera: an adventure we take as listeners, exploring the world as imagined by The Kleptones, a world we see through the joy of musical rebellion (even if, along the way, we encounter forces that want to spoil our joy). When we spend a night at the opera, we are told a story through music. Our night at this “hip-hopera” is no different. The Kleptones, disguised as Ferris Bueller, are our guide. We ask (by sampling words spoken originally by Ferris’ girlfriend), “What’re we gonna do?” The Kleptones (sampling Ferris), respond: “The question isn’t, what are we going to do? The question is, what aren’t we going to do?” We see several concerts and we go backstage to rock-star parties. We visit a museum and we take a nap. The Kleptones narrate each of these events through a combination of samples. They guide us from place to place as we explore the pressing issues of our culture first discussed in chapter one. The album, I argue, aspires to epic proportions: an articulation of our culture’s values and a model for our behavior in the networked age.

By describing this story, and the manner in which it is constructed out of numerous, disparate samples, chapter two explores the networks that Hip-Hopera creates through its mashing up of Queen music, lyrics from the history of rap, and other cultural texts. With careful attention to how Hip-Hopera produces all of its meanings by creating networks of disparate samples (each of which conjure cultural, historical, and musical references), I discuss, among other things, how it:

  • criticizes hip hop’s homophobia by juxtaposing rap lyrics with Queen music;
  • questions the way in which Queen has become associated with sports and war as a result of the appropriation of the band’s music by masculinist culture;
  • rethinks the intertwined histories of rock and rap by noting how criticisms of rap’s “detrimental” effects on youth were once leveled against rock (which was perceived as less rebellious by the 1980s);
  • and calls attention to how these same arguments have been redeployed in the music industry’s battles against mashup music and remix culture, the new “new thing” that threatens, in the words of one sample, “to crumble the morals of America.”

The Kleptones invoke the spirit of musical rebellion handed down from rock, blues, and jazz and beyond and reconfigures that spirit for a world transformed by network technologies. Even as Hip-Hopera “steals” from the past, revels in its network, it shows that the mashup form continues the traditional task of our most important popular music: that of redefining culture itself.

Conclusion: “Here comes the question” (4 – 5,000 words)

This conclusion, which draws from my essay “Mashing-up the Past, Critiquing the Present, Wrecking the Future: The Kleptones’ A Night at the Hip-Hopera,”3 considers how, as an epic mash-up, A Night at the Hip-Hopera challenges its listeners to examine themselves and their historical moment in the early twenty-first century. Similar to other epics, such as The Odyssey and The Aeneid, Hip-Hopera is more than a story about a culture; it suggests a moral model for the culture out of which it emerges and for which it was “mashed.” However, whereas Homer and Virgil offered authoritative tales of heroic and coherent individuals for their audiences to emulate, Hip-Hopera, by offering its listeners a mashup of cultural bits, offers a practice of networks. Eric Kleptone is not an author, but a DJ. He does not “create” culture: he arranges it, he mixes it, he mashes it. Hip-Hopera thus shows us how to reclaim our culture from those who own it (increasingly, the entertainment industries) and thereby make new things out of a past which ought to belong to everyone. The album’s final track, “Question,” asks whether anything can exist eternally (by sampling from Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever,” a song from the soundtrack to The Highlander, a film about a battle between immortals who wish to rule the world). “Question” fully understands that Hip-Hopera, along with other mashups and new cultural forms, threatens the status quo. To acknowledge this self-awareness, “Question” samples the words of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (spoken by media theorist Marshall McLuhan): “Major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.” Thus the “Question” is answered: no, nothing lasts forever. Progress begets the destruction of the old (here the music business as conceived by the major labels). However, this answer raises a further question, as indicated by samples from The Decline of Western Civilization: namely whether this decadent period of contemporary culture is merely decadent, whether this culture is in a true decline or if new musical forms can reconfigure society into something else, something better. The album seems to imply that, yes, mashups and remixes, rock and rap—in short the newness that popular music creates every decade or so—can in fact point to a new society. Looking beyond the album, however, to the appropriation of the mashup and its uses of new technologies by mainstream acts, I conclude by asking whether the mashup can maintain its radical nature or whether some new form must replace it as the force that “crumbles the morals of America.”

1 Despite these legal problems, the album remains widely available online. It can be downloaded directly from The Kleptones’ website at http://www.kleptones.com/pages/downloads_hiphopera.html.

2 Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007). Although theorists such as Galloway and Thacker inform my understanding of contemporary culture, I plan to keep direct citation of their ideas to a minimum in deference to non-specialist audiences.

3 Benjamin J. Robertson, “Mashing-up the Past, Critiquing the Present, Wrecking the Future: The Kleptones’ A Night at the Hip-Hopera,Hyperrhiz 7 (Spring 2010),http://www.hyperrhiz.net/hyperrhiz07/27-essays/89-mashing-up-the-past

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One Response to “My 33 1/3 proposal for The Kleptones’ A Night at the Hip-Hopera”

  1. […] evening redness « My 33 1/3 proposal for The Kleptones’ A Night at the Hip-Hopera […]

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