“It’s the public who end up paying the price, putting money and faith behind artists who are liberally taking the ideas of others without acknowledging the sources.” Thomas Cox addresses the issue of plagiarism in dance music.
In April this year, Tresor announced that it would be recalling and deleting all copies of Confucio’s Golden Rule EP. Two tracks on Italian producer Emmanuel Beddewela’s debut release for the iconic German label were acknowledged to display overwhelming similarities to previously released songs. Tresor worked to license those songs and put the profits into the original artists’ hands before deciding to pull the whole thing off the shelves. This seems to be a heavy-handed response, especially in light of the legal side of things already being cleared, but it taps into a very interesting topic to me.
Dance music has long relied on previously released songs, be it in the form of homages, cover versions, samples or edits.
Dance music has long relied on previously released songs, be it in the form of homages, cover versions, samples or edits. To even attempt to catalogue every instance of each of these would be absolutely insane – that’s how pervasive it has been over the past 40 or more years. As the public’s widely varying reactions to this Tresor incident and others have shown, and despite the oft-repeated mantra that there are no rules in making music, there is clearly a line that, once crossed, is offensive to many people who believe that there is an art to making dance music. I want to take some time to explore where that line might lie.
Disco is the first genre closely associated with what has since become known as contemporary dance music culture, so it seems like a good starting place. The assembly line style of disco production was already barely considered to be ‘real music’ by many rock music critics and fans. Cover versions and bootleg mashup records were common fodder for DJs, which probably didn’t help that image, but within dance music culture, there wasn’t much of a second thought given.
Moving into the 80s, when disco music had ‘died’ in the mainstream, DJs like Ron Hardy became known for making tape edits of disco classics, which would be beatmixed into sets from reel-to-reel machines in order to provide fresh sounds for their discerning dancefloors. This of course ended up being one of the founding elements of house music, and a pillar of the genre throughout its entire history.
This level of disingenuousness is pretty offensive to me, yet it runs rampant throughout that scene. Why is this OK?
In the beginning, these edits were typically used only by DJs and were not for sale to the general public. Even when they did finally see vinyl pressings, they were usually labelled under the original artist and title, with little if any reference to the editor. This stands in stark contrast to the current oversaturation of edits, some of which are pressed under a modern artist’s name with no original artist or song title mentioned. This level of disingenuousness is pretty offensive to me, yet it runs rampant throughout the edit scene. Why is this OK? It often seems to be because the groups behind the original songs are old and forgotten, and the modern artist can just get away with it. Still, an edit made by a truly talented editor can be a work of art, and when properly credited can even help to break an obscure older artist’s music into the modern dancefloor conversation. This kind of musical exchange runs the gamut from wonderful when done properly, to almost straight bootlegging when done cynically.
Illegal remixes have been a staple of dance music dating back to the disco era. From mashups done on tape to more modern approaches, with acapellas laid on top of completely new productions, this is one of the least offensive reuses that I can think of. The general idea of using an acapella is to clearly show the audience the musical reference being made. Especially when sold as an illegal remix, I see basically no problem with this. Only when completely uncredited, and doubly so if it is an obscure original that is uncredited, does this move definitively into morally dubious ground. Without relying on dance music journalists and culture to tell you that Blawan’s ‘Getting Me Down’ used a Brandy acapella, would young fans have assumed that it was a completely original production?
House music, along with hip-hop, was also at the forefront of sampling.
House music, along with hip-hop, was also at the forefront of sampling. Big chunks of famous tracks were taken and used in the creation of new songs. The Bucketheads classic ‘The Bomb’ was formed from pieces of the dance classic ‘Street Player’ by Chicago. Sample clearance issues aside, it would be tough for someone to say that ‘The Bomb’ didn’t clearly add something new to the material provided by ‘Street Player’, even though that new bit was more of a reimagining of small parts that many others had heard many times before. Only one person was clever enough to take those parts and make them into a song that was an even bigger hit than the original disco classic.
Moodymann’s early tracks were made in a similar manner to ‘The Bomb’, yet now there seems to be a rash of people either editing Moodymann’s tracks into something that sounds very similar to his hits, or editing the tracks he originally sampled into something that also mimics his by now massively well known catalog. Some might say that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, but to my ears there is a clear line between being the first artist clever enough to repurpose an overlooked piece of a song, and someone who tries a subtle flip on that creative use in order to cash in on a song’s already existing popularity.
Sadly, not all genres lend themselves to truly creative sample flipping.
For me, being creative in using samples is of paramount importance in deciding whether any given sample has been used in an acceptable manner. Sampling music that itself is made from samples is a pretty dubious proposition from the jump, but not a deal breaker in and of itself. Taking samples from outside genres and twisting them into new genres is typically going to yield better results, but not always. Jungle is a genre that was heavily based on samples of samples, yet largely was creative enough in its sampling to not really be offensive. Breakbeats in jungle were taken from everywhere, from original funk records, to sample CDs, to hip-hop tracks that had sampled records and processed them already. Jungle producers would even take breaks from their own contemporaries, with heavy use of Trace’s flip of the Amen break, known as the Tramen, as a good example of how many different ways producers were able to creatively use samples from any source. Of course, there are as many if not more examples of barely flipped samples being used to make hit songs, usually not to the knowledge of the general public.
Sadly, not all genres lend themselves to truly creative sample flipping. EDM seems to be largely created from sample CDs and presets, and the results actually sound exactly like one would expect if this were the case. The famous mix of EDM drops from the Beatport top 100 from a few years back shows the negative side of this type of production.
Is it plagiarism? If so, who is being plagiarised? It’s tough to say for sure, but the end product is pretty dire regardless. A number of big house jams from the past have been based on mostly untouched premade loops from sample CDs or preset loops in production software. While technically this may not be plagiarism, surely there is a reason that the ‘artists’ behind such work keep this information pretty hush hush. It basically confirms all the negative preconceptions of people outside of dance music that it is not ‘real music’.
Appropriation goes beyond just the sounds in dance music. Artists like Detroit Swindle put the name of a city they’re not from in their handle. What would make them want to do this? Clearly there are advantages to being associated with a city like Detroit, Chicago or New York in house and techno music, and those cities see their names appear in track titles and artist names frequently, even when those cities have nothing to do with the music or artist. Some labels also use artwork that is perhaps even a bit too similar to artwork from old record labels. It could be argued that these kinds of things fall under the banner of homage, but to me homage requires something more than just taking a name or look directly from something else without changing much. If the reference isn’t something that a large majority of people will just ‘get’ upon seeing it, or if the reference isn’t explained in interviews or elsewhere, to me that looks like they’re trying to get away with a lie.
This subterfuge is the biggest distinction in what makes use of other music and visual elements illegitimate in my eyes.
This subterfuge is the biggest distinction in what makes use of other music and visual elements illegitimate in my eyes. Outside of the legal issues that exist in sampling or editing music, most of which is not really a huge issue on underground records, that obfuscation of the original source seems to be of one use, and one use only: pulling the wool over the eyes of the public. Music is supposedly a creative pursuit, so why does it seem like so many in dance music put so little creativity into what they do? With the tools available today, as well as the wealth of previously obscure music available on the internet, it is easier than ever for styles of music that already are based in reuse of other music to take from more and more obscure sources and neglect to mention it.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of recourse for the aggrieved parties, as many of the artists and labels who have had their art taken are no longer in existence. Even when they do, there isn’t usually enough money for it to be worth taking legal action. It’s the public who end up paying the price, putting money and faith behind artists who are liberally taking the ideas of others without acknowledging the sources. The best thing we can do is this: when you discover someone taking things in a parasitic manner, talk about it online where everyone can see it. If this is something they are trying to keep secret, share that information and then let’s see what the public thinks about their art.
Thomas Cox has been causing trouble on teh interwebs since 1996 and representing Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since birth. You can find him on Twitter.