Rethinking the Remix

I know it’s hard for you to imagine, but sometimes things over here at The Buffet do not go according to plan. For instance, my mythical interview with my all-time RPG heart throb Robin Laws, the man behind all that is good and right with table top roleplaying games (Can you tell I’m a fan?). I had the heart stopping pleasure of doing a 30 minute phone interview with him. He was absolutely everything I hoped he would be; intelligent, quick witted, and inspiring. At this point you’re probably wondering where you can hear/read this interview. Well, you can’t. In theory it is still locked away in the little device that recorded our interview, but alas it seems to defy transcription. For those of you who feel inclined, you can start a letter writing campaign to my husband to see if you can help him get it into a useable format. For me, the Robin Laws thing is pretty heartbreaking. Even after all this time my gut turns at how utterly unprofessional this is. Laws must have come to the logical conclusion that I am just some crazy hack that just wanted to say I talked to him. Not too far off base.

At least that interview took place. (I swear, I’m not lying!) I don’t have the time to go down the list of the dozens of interviews I’ve attempted that have failed from lack of response from the interviewee. They all started out promising. They all said they would do it. And then, they fall off the face of the earth. Or at least I hope they did because if you can’t find the time to answer 10 softball questions via email, your ass had better be out orbiting the Earth. Out of all the failed interviews I’ve had, after Robin Laws there is only one other that I truly regret not happening.

Last year the folks at Disinformation mailed me a handful of DVDs to review for The Buffet. You actually read, or can now go and read, two of them. However there was one movie, “RiP! A Remix Manifesto” that I found very compelling and a complex mine field to try to explain and discuss, so I approached my contact about interviewing the director Brett Gaylor. My contact at Disinformation told me to go ahead and put together the interview and he would get it taken care of. And then nothing happened. Not only did the interview not happen, but I haven’t received any other promotional items since then. It’s okay, I’m sure if I borrowed my friend’s telescope I would find the guy drifting in space, occasionally bumping into satellites or other missing interviewees.

Without the interview I kind of just gave up on talking about the film. Although I sometimes try to present a neutral outlook on things, I tend to like to know how I feel about something I publish. I like this. This is unfair. I dislike that. The simple fact is, when it comes to the issue of remixing, I am of two minds on the issue.

For those of you who don’t know what a remix is (I’m impressed you found your way to “the internets” and were able to navigate through it’s tubes via “the Google” to find my site), Wikipedia has a pretty concise definition for you. “A remix is an alternative version of a song made from an original version. This term is also used for any alterations of media other than song (film, literature etc.).” And there lies my dilemma.

I worked in music retail for years. Many a time I told a youthful shopper scoffing at paying for a CD how musicians only get around $.05 per album sold. This is why they tour, because unless they want to live on ramen they have to get out there and sell some tickets, and more importantly, some t-shirts. The long and short of it is, what is still considered the industry standard for record labels is a pretty raw deal for the musician, unless they get lucky and blow up. That is changing, but that is a whole different post. I love music. I am passionate about it, and grateful to the folks that make it possible. I buy my album, and my t-shirt when possible.

However, on the flip side, copyrighting has always rubbed me the wrong way. I always like to tell the story of poor, talented, and totally hosed Biz Markie of “Just a Friend” fame. The recording industry used Biz Markie as an example of what happens when you use unlicensed music in your songs. Gilbert O’Sullivan claimed that the Biz’s song “Alone Again” featured an unauthorized sample from his hit “Alone Again (Naturally)”. Biz Markie’s album was pulled, and the fall out greatly hindered his career. By greatly hindered, I mean most of you probably don’t know who Biz Markie is. (In an odd bit of fate, shortly after writing this TMZ actually mentioned Biz Markie!) The ruling of Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc. altered the landscape of hip-hop, finding that all samples must be cleared with the original artist before being used. I understand. I really do. I mean, we all remember that nonsense when Vanilla Ice tried to prove that he didn’t rip off Queen’s “Under Pressure” to make “Ice, Ice Baby”. It was painful. They totally robbed Queen. And yet, I can’t help but feel that those sorts of lawsuits create a climate of fear within artistic communities. Sure, Vanilla Ice verses Queen seems pretty straight forward. But how far does this go? At what point does one song end and another begin.

Let’s take this scene from “Rip!” as an example:

That guy at the end with a computer and a dancing crowd is Girl Talk. Actually, his name is Gregg Gillis, but he performs under the name Girl Talk. Girl Talk is central in “RiP!” and with good reason, Girl Talk’s music is created entirely from other artist’s songs. He is a giant lawsuit waiting to happen. Here’s what Girl Talk does:

The question is, where does Elvis Costello end and Girl Talk begin? Can you tell? (By the way, I love his girlfriend laying in bed trying to sleep. You know she’s all like, Gregg, take your laptop and your friends with the cameras somewhere else now, okay?)

As I said earlier, I love music. As a fun challenge I decided to see how many artists I could recognize that went into constructing Girl Talk’s 14 track, 54 minute, album “Feed the Animals”. (I just want to say that I did not cheat and read liner notes or do internet searches or anything. Anyone that knows me personally will tell you that I do not play around when it comes to music, so as much as it pained me to sort of recognize a song but not know a name to add to the list, I did not falter and cheat. That also means I may have gotten some wrong here, but I feel pretty confident.) Here we go: UGK, Twisted Sister, Sinead O’Connor, The Ting Tings, Butthole Surfers, Michael Sembello, Blackstreet, Kanye West, The Band, Steve Winwood, Ace of Base, Cassidy, Kenny Loggins, Busta Rhymes, The Police, Faith No More, Paula Cole, Jackson 5, Queen, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Grandmaster Flash, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Missy Elliot, Digital Underground, Nu Shooz, Public Enemy, 2 in a Room, what sounds like Boy George singing the Cheap Trick song “I Want You to Want Me”, Jimi Hendrix, that song “New Soul” that was in the MacBook ads, Eminem, LL Cool J, Soul II Soul, Beastie Boys, Pras/ODB/Mya doing “Ghetto Superstar” which is ironic since that song lifts from Dolly Parton and Kenny Roger’s “Islands in the Stream”, Diana Ross, Carpenters, Metallica, Styx, Janet Jackson, Snap, Prince, Ice Cube, Tag Team, The Cardigans, Rick Springfield, Big Country, Afrika Bambaataa, Michael Jackson, Roy Orbison, Salt-n-Pepa, Deee-Lite, Nirvana, The Beach Boys, Rick Astley, Kool Moe Dee, K7, Daft Punk, Lil’ Mama, Tone Loc, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, 2 Live Crew, M.I.A., Cranberries, Quad City DJs, Kelly Clarkson, the bass riff that became the intro to the MTV logo back in the day and it KILLS me not remembering where it came from (Metallica maybe?), Soulja Boy, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Foreigner. GASP!

I can easily say I didn’t get even half of what went into making the album. If Girl Talk wanted to create a legal version of the album, he would need to buy the rights to use every song from the 72 artists listed above as well as the probably 100 others. Girl Talk could bankrupt himself just to make one album, let alone the other three albums he’s done. Not to mention if just one copyright holder refuses to grant permission, the entire album would be flushed.

I know, I can hear you now, “But Rebecca, you just said that he used other artist’s work. You actually listed them!” I know! I KNOW! I hate it. I hate feeling all confused and vexed like this. It’s just, yes, he used music from all 72 of the artists I listed, but you can’t even really tell he did. I mean you can, but you can’t. Here, take a look at this video a YouTuber made for the song “In Step”:

As frustrating as it is, I don’t have any apt conclusion to end this article. I am as true blue of a music supporter as you could hope to find, and yet, for my birthday I asked my husband to get me a few Girl Talk CDs. In my defense, Girl Talk is a giant nerd with a laptop that makes totally hot dance music; I am incapable of resisting something that pushes all the right buttons for me.

Do yourself, and me, a favor. Watch “RiP: A Remix Manifesto” and come back here and share your thoughts with me. I need all the help I can get on this one!