We Invented the Remix, Part II

Last time, we looked at hip-hop sampling as a outgrowth of African polyphony, a way of creating something new by placing a different and contrasting line over the original.  But there is more to it than that.  To understand it, we need to travel back to the birth of hip-hop.  A new, young generation gathers at the home of DJ Kool Herc.  They are bored with the campy, overproduced disco music of the immediately preceding generation, but there is something they are attracted to on those overstuffed disco records –the stripped-down, minimalist “breakdown” sections, where the rest of the instruments drop out, and the drums and bass come to the forefront.   So Herc starts playing those breakbeats for them, over and over again, as kids come one by one to the front, and impose their own art over top –the flashy, aggressively athletic dance style that would come to be called “break” dancing, and the epic, improvised, long-form narrative poems called raps.

Narrative poetry is one of humanity’s oldest art forms, and dance as a non-violent way to duel is similarly ancient.  So the new and fresh part of what is happening here is really the arrogation of the break beat, an appropriation Grandmaster Flash will soon elevate into an art and a science, by innovating a way to seamlessly loop a single beat over and over without skips and stutters (or at least, without unintentional ones).

In one way, it’s easy to see why hip-hop became so dominant as the sound of the modern world.  It’s a model for making music of the noise, for translating found sounds into a personal soundtrack, the perfect aesthetic for the sensory overload of the modern age.

But what else can we see happening, if we look beneath the surface, and what are the philosophical implications thereof?  What we see is these young, poor, disenfranchised, American black, Caribbean and Latino youth (1) taking something imposed on them (the disco music), something that, by this point, has been endorsed, enthroned and assimilated into mainstream culture, something created with a lot of resources, something that both takes and makes money; (2) isolating from it what they like and appreciate; (3) adopting it as their own, altering it radically in the process; (4) discarding the rest; and (5) using it to serve their own art, their own aesthetic, their own vision, and their own message.  No wonder this is the sound of the disenfranchised youth all over the world.

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