Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Nate Harrison on the Amen Break

I know Pete's already posted on this, but I wanted to second his excitement about Nate Harrison's audio installation (Winter 2004, Quick Time .MOV file) of the "Amen Break." It's really quite an interesting piece on recent music history, specifically on how technology can influence new genres of music. In this case, sampling + turntables = hip-hop. Or in the case of this "break beat," the Amen break + sampling (in the UK) would be seminal in the development of hardcore techno, jungle, and Drum & Bass (also known as D&B).

Harrison talked about the Winstons' "Amen Brother" (1969), and its subsequent sampling by DJs in the United States and Great Britain. Some examples he gave were:
1) the New York Duo "Third Base"
2) NWA "Straight out of Compton"
3) Mantronics "King of the Beats"

On the rights side of Harrison's exposition, he revealed that Richard Spencer, a founding member of the Winstons (and a Ph.D. in political science), holds the copyright for "Amen Brother." Has he asserted his rights? A whole musical subculture has seemed to be built on the virtual abandonment of copyright of one song. Who knows what other sort of art could be developed if copyright holders were more lax?!

Harrison says it best:
Perhaps like many during hip-hop's early years, didn't see or sample-based music as having any potential beyond a limited underground appeal. During the 80s when DJs plundered old jazz and R&B records looking for samples, hip hop in particular and electronic music in general were not the pop phenomena and money makers we know them as today. There seemed to be a brief few sort of glory years back then when the novelty of sampling and the rate at which it was being employed as a new technique grew faster than the rate at which any sort of copyright bureaucracy could maintain the law. Older bits of sampling were appropriated perhaps under the assumption of their being able to be freely used in the spirit of a pledge to new forms. In other words, sampling was not seen as merely rehashing past sounds, but as an attempt to make new more something old--an artistic strategy as time-honored as creative expression itself.

Harrison even brought up a preservation issue. "Dub plates"--instananeous vinyl recordings (acetate test pressings or "one-offs")--were created quickly to be played by DJs. These acoustic recordings would last up to 50 plays, much less than a commercially-pressed disc would take. Hopefully some libraries and archives realize the value of these releases and will begin to acquire and preserve these unique cultural documents.

All in all, not a bad ride for 6 seconds of music.

While I wouldn't call hip-hop (or jungle) a musical genre I enjoy for recreation, it remains a significant cultural force influencing art, media, and culture. One of the projects I wish to pursue in the future is documenting and analyzing NPR's reporting on rap and hip-hop music and how they define these genres through reporting, interviews, and selective music samples.


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