Scholars, researchers, and journalists have had a tumultuous relationship with Hip-hop in general and the cultural practice of remixing specifically (McLeod, 2002). Some, seemingly refusing to contend with Hip-hop at all, trace the practice back to the collages of the Dadaists, the détournements of the Situationists, or the cut-ups of Burroughs and Gysin. Regardless, there’s no denying that Hip-hop brought sampling, scratching, and manipulating previously recorded sounds to a global audience. Along with allusion, quotation, and interpolation, sampling is now standard among the tools of the modern media maker (McLeod & DiCola, 2011). It’s one more option in what Joanna Demers (2006) calls “transformative appropriation, the act of referring to or quoting old works in order to create a new work” (p. 4).
Even so, some use such appropriation as an opportunity to either critique or dismiss the idea of originality altogether. In 1985, Eleanor Heartney complained that “we have finally reached the stage where the very notion of artistic originality is suspect” (p. 26). Others want to spread the practice out, to see it everywhere. As Simon Reynolds puts it, appropriately citing the worst misuses of the concept yet,
“We use the old to make the new and the new is always old.” Much the same idea crops up in Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, a sort of self-help manual for modern creatives. Kleon moves quickly from “every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas” to insisting that “you are the sum of your influences” and that “you’re a remix of your mom and dad.”
Everything is not a remix, and putting two things together does not a remix make. To say that all such combinations, appropriations, and amalgams are remixes is to lose sight of what makes remix a unique concept of its own. Eduardo Navas remedies this line of thinking with a nuanced, discursive approach to remix culture. In his Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling (Springer, 2012), Navas lays out a systematic way to think about the cultural history and controversial layers of remix, grounded in the “concrete form of sampling,” and focusing on “conceptual strategies used in different forms of art, media, and culture” (p. 6). These include photography, art, and, of course, music. The latter form of remix being rooted in Jamaican dub and defined by three actions: extending, selecting, and reflecting.
Extending the break is the original form of Hip-hop remix, but those roots reach back not only to Jamaica but also to Jazz. When the written melody ended, Jazz players would improvise over the chord changes to keep the dancers moving (Byrne, 2012), just as the original Hip-hop DJs did in the park. Selective remix is just what it sounds like: a new composition created by adding and subtracting elements from the original piece, heightening or downplaying its salient aspects. Reflexive remix extends, adds, and subtracts but also allegorizes the original composition. That is, it is its own thing, but also maintains the original’s “spectacular aura” (Navas, 2012, p.66) and displays “distorted reflections” (Hebdige, 1979, p. 26) of its source material. It is allusive, revealing its sources through a warped, funhouse mirror. In more general terms, Navas contends that remix is the cultural adhesive that holds our current culture together. Remix Theory is as erudite as is is readable and deftly demonstrates how remix applies far outside its origins.
Taking a more specific tack, Mark Katz’s Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ (Oxford University Press, 2012) explores all of the practices of the Hip-hop DJ including remix. With his stethoscope firmly pressed against its chest, Katz listens closely to what Rob Swift calls “the heartbeat of Hip-hop culture.” Groove Music is as definitive a cultural history of sampling, scratching, and remixing you’re likely to find. The art of the DJ proves that it ain’t all final on black vinyl, but Katz has it all down in black and white. From the early 1970s to the early 21st century, it’s all in here. Groove Music along with Joseph Schloss’s Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop (Wesleyan, 2004) and Katz’s previous book, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (University of California Press, 2004), will get you a long way to understanding the cultural production of music in the 21st century.
For the most part, Hip-hop DJs and producers don’t think about remix the way that scholars, researchers, or journalists do. Heartney (1985) continues, “Appropriation is culture with an omnivorous appetite, gobbling up every image that wanders across its path” (p. 28). While any DJ might agree with that, their reasons will vary. Are they always making a statement with their sampling choices? Nah, sometimes certain sounds just sound dope together (for one example, see Schloss, 2004, pp. 147-149). As Steinberg (1978) puts it, “there is as much unpredictable originality in quoting, imitating, transposing, and echoing, as there is in inventing” (p. 25). Indeed, cutting and pasting pieces of the past together can yield work as original as any other act of creation.
But you don’t need me to tell you that.
Byrne, David. (2012). How Music Works. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, p. 21.
Demers, Joanna. (2006). Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Heartney, Eleanor. (1985, March). Appropriation and the Loss of Authenticity. New Art Examiner, 26-30.
Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.
Katz, Mark. (2012). Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press.
McLeod, Kembrew. (2002). The Politics and History of Hip-hop Journalism. In Steve Jones (ed,), Pop Music and the Press. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, pp. 156-167.
McLeod, Kembrew & DiCola, Peter. (2011). Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p. 55.
Navas, Eduardo. (2012). Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling. New York: Springer.
Reynolds, Simon. (2012, October 5). You Are Not a Switch: Recreativity and the Modern Dismissal of Genius. Slate.
Schloss, Joseph G. (2004). Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Steinberg, L. (1978). The Glorious Company (of Horse Thieves). In J. Lipman & R. Marshall (Eds.), Art About Art, (pp. 21-32). New York: Dutton.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).