The Lost Classic of Hip House Plunderphonia

“All sounds on this recording have been captured by the KLF in the name of mu. We hereby liberate these sounds from all copyright restrictions, without prejudice.”

The statement appears around the center label of The KLF’s very first full-length recording, published under what would be the first of many monikers, The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. John Higgs notes in his book, The KLF: Chas, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds that the name, lifted from The Illuminatus! trilogy represented “the principle of chaos working against the corporate music industry, a guerilla band of musical anarchists who existed to disrupt, confuse and destroy.”

The year was 1987, and Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty were pillaging the music industry with reckless abandon. The album, titled 1987 What The Fuck Is Going On? could never be reissued in today’s world of militant copyright litigation. The record makes liberal use of samples ripped from massive artists who would be untouchable in the 21st century, including Stevie Wonder, The Fall, Beatles, ABBA, The Monkees, The J.B.s, Dave Brubeck, Sex Pistols, Scott Walker, Led Zeppelin and Bo Diddley.

The KLF - Justified Ancients of Mu Mu - 1987 - What the  Fuck is Going On.JPG

You don’t make friends in the music industry by sampling just about the entire refrain of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, and the duo was promptly investigated by the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society, who in August of that year ordered The JAMs to recall and destroy all unsold copies of 1987. In an effort to salvage the project, The JAMs traveled to Sweden with the remaining copies of the album hoping to negotiate with ABBA. Sadly, the band wouldn’t hear of it, and so, quite ceremoniously,  The JAMs burnt the remaining LPs in a pyre in the Swedish countryside, the scene depicted on the front and back covers of their 1988 JAMs farewell, Who Killed the JAMs. The album featured the track, “Burn the Bastards,” a sample-heavy celebration of the fire set to house music.

The KLF - The History of The JAMs (1988) back cover - burning of 1987

1987 stands as a piece of history – a snapshot of a sliver of time when an act of plunderphonia like this was still possible. It embodied the ideas of sampling, hip-hop, and Discordianism and somehow, it all made sense together.

Higgs contextualizes the intent and the perception of this recording: “If and when The JAMs are remembered today, it is for their pioneering role in establishing sampling as a legitimate creative act in modern music. In many ways, that misses what it was they were doing.” While today’s understanding of sampling concerns itself with manipulating and reshaping elements of a recording and repurposing them for something new, The JAMs had something else in mind. “They took things not for how they sounded, but for what they represented,” Higgs explains. “When they took parts of ABBA and The Beatles, it was not because of the quality of the sound, but very specifically because they were records by ABBA and The Beatles.” The act was an exercise in what the Situationists called, détournement, which involves taking the cultural images forced upon us and using them instead for our own ends.

Remix culture really came into its own in the digital age, where the technology to rip and reshape culture became democratized to the point where any 13-year-old can start remixing and mashing copyrighted works. But in 1987, just two years after John Oswald’s Plunderphonics EP was released, and at the dawn of Negativland, this was still new and unplundered territory in the world of music.

And the world is waiting for August 23rd, when The KLF will close their 23-year contractual hiatus, returning to the eternal question asked with their first release.

What the fuck is going on?

C1aJowFWIAE95vH_1483621559_crop_550x802.jpg

Photograph by: The KLF

What will be generation Z’s musical, artistic, and cultural movement/identity?

Generation Z includes children born 1995-2009 (though these dates are not universally accepted as of yet.)  With what movement in art, theater, dance, and music do they identify?  What cultural value set inspires its growth and evolution?  I am speaking of the “Belieber” generation.  (For perspective, Justin Bieber was born in 1994 and released his first album in 2010 at age 16.)

Justin BieberExhibit “A”

With my general understanding of the development of Western and world culture, I have a basic awareness the socio-musical climates which inspired the blues, big band, the birth of jazz, its many changes, the punk scene, art music, the renaissance of classical influence in progressive rock, the musical impact of the 7” single, the LP, the shift to FM radio, and the academic New Music movement in New York in the 1960s.

I understand the blurring and vanishing of the difference between so-called “high” and “low” art as the democratization of recording technology facilitated independent production and a cultural move away from the dependence on record labels and producers to record, market, and distribute one’s work in the digital age.

Why pay Universal for a studio when you've got ProTools at home?ProTools.  Bandcamp.  Social Media.
Who needs a record label?

I have fundamental knowledge of music and the arts up until and including the end of the rock era and the paradigm shift in the way listeners discover and consume music at the end of the 20th century from Napster-forward.  FM and television have plummeted in popularity and neither bares any relevance to the generation who experience music through streaming networks and social media.

The last movements I encountered directly were the  Icelandic-influenced popularization of post-rock and its inspirations lifted from neo-classical sound.  I remember the rise of the indie-rock scene as a cultural reaction to the corporatization of music at the end of the rock era and the dominance of top 40 pop.  Programs like American Idol and the interminable NOW! That’s What I Call Music! series worked to re-enforce the prevailing position of Clear Channel / Warner Music’s stranglehold on the emerging youth culture, effectively raising a generation to consume their product.

 NOW! That's What I Call Bullshit!
And so I posed the question to Quora.com – a forum of user-generated question-and-answer content.

Q: What self-identifying art and music will emerge from a generation raised on a billboard chart of manufactured acts with no concrete musical ability (in the classical sense) and in an era where arts and music funding and education are at an all-time low?

I feared that an entire culture was being bred with no concept of the centuries of great works from which they can build upon, reshape and re-purpose to serve the values and needs of their own generation.  What is next?

Symphonics
The first answer I received was not promising.  In jest, a user offered:

“Hipsters.  Banjos.  Pocket camera art.”

…he left out “selfies.”

But the next answer I received completely shattered my preconceived notion that Gen-Z-ers were nothing more than “Belieber” simpletons.  (And shame on me for oversimplifying the demographic.)

The response was offered by Quora user and future rockstar, Will Tuckwell.  Will studied Music at University of Birmingham and offered a great deal of insight into the promise of his generation.  He said:

Speaking as a musician and a member of ‘Generation Z’ (I was born in 1994), I feel optimistic about the future of the arts. I would disagree that American Idol et al have a stranglehold on youth culture. Young people have more of an opportunity than ever before to access great art of the past. (IMSLP and Naxos Music Library cover the vast majority of classical music scores and recordings, for example.) Generation Z can often instantly find a piece of music on the internet, which their parents, at their age, would have had to visit a library to access. The existence of large companies pushing generic music via mass media is not new to this generation – it has existed in one form or another since the popularisation of recorded music in the early 20th century. While their influence is not trivial, it is very easily avoidable most of the time (at least for me.)

Clear Channel

Here are some of the areas of music and art which I will be interested to see develop in the future:

  • Electronic music software. Digital Audio Workstations which are now commonplace have the ability to emulate the methods of Musique Concrete and Electroacoustic composers, as well as the mixing and production techniques which evolved in recording studios. Also, programs are being developed specifically for the needs of experimental computer musicians, such as Max/MSP, Audiomulch and Supercollider. I would be very interested to see what kind of artistic conventions a generation of creative minds can establish with these new tools.

Pure Data (showing a netpd session)Pure Data (showing a netpd session)

  • Creative pop culture references, in particular sampling. Musical quotations are nothing new, although the invention of the digital sampler (not quite from Generation Z I know, but of increased popularity and accessibility in recent years) allows an artist to quote specific ‘moments’ in order to make a cultural point – for example, a composition which samples not just a guitar note, but a particular note or section of melody which Jimi Hendrix played in his Woodstock performance of Star Spangled Banner, comes loaded with countless cultural connotations in less than a second, in a way which no other form of composition could achieve.

“Dab” from John Oswald’s notorious
Plunderphonics EP  (1988)

And the bizarre fad of Youtube Poop –

  • Increased intercultural reference in the arts in general. Our generation has it easier than ever before to instantly look up information, which allows lyricists to make increasingly sophisticated references.

“If you don’t get it, get a computer and Google it
If you find out all the reasons we the shit,
then you the shit”

Even if arts and music education funding are at an all-time low, access to the internet (and therefore culture) is widespread, development of a craft is mostly a self-led activity, and ideas and inspiration are free. I have no doubts that this generation will create vast amounts of great art.

As you can imagine, this response was entirely unexpected and has really given me hope about the future of the arts and music.

I pressed on, looking for other sources of Gen-Z and Gen-Alpha inspiration.  This lead me to an article on 21st century composers (because apparently, THAT IS A THING.)  A Wikipedia entry for 21st century classical offered a list of composers I could arrange by birth date.  At the end of the list I found a name – Alma Deutscher, who was born in 2005.

2005.

Alma Deutscher
I had to look her up.  Youtube thankfully offered a video of her appearance on Ellen from October of last year.  The eight-year-old has composed operas in her sleep, arisen and written the notation for each instrument entirely from memory.

And here is her own Quartet Movement in A Major, composed in 2012.

Suddenly the future is looking a lot brighter.