Perfect Sound Forever

JON LEIDECKER/WOBBLY


Introduction and questions by J. Vognsen


We've met a curious group of characters in the news lately: They - and many more - have been accused of "cultural appropriation": stealing or misrepresenting the culture of others.

While none of the examples deal directly with music, the relevance of the discussion to music as an art form is clear. If Justin Bieber should not wear dreadlocks, should he also not play reggae too?

For a general discussion of the topic, two books can be recommended: Susan Scafidi's Who Owns Culture? - Appropriation And Authenticity In American Law (Rutgers University Press, 2005) gives an excellent introduction with many well-chosen examples. James O. Young's Cultural Appropriation and the Arts (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) goes deeper into the ethical issues involved.

Most of the discussion in public has dealt firmly with the cultural mainstream and has often related quite specifically to fashion or other visual expressions. What motivated me to do this interview was an interest in music, especially of the more experimental, explorative kind. I was not looking for an academic discussion in the abstract, but the perspective from a part of the artistic universe that interests me. For that I turned to Jon Leidecker, who answered questions over email August 2017 – June 2018.

Jon Leidecker works as a musician under the name Wobbly, often producing work heavily based on sampling and other collage techniques. He has worked with Matmos, Tania Chen, People Like Us, Lesser, Thomas Dimuzio, Dieter Moebius, Fred Frith and is currently a member of Negativland. Leidecker is also the creator of a highly informative history of appropriative collage in music under the name of Variations, hosted by Radio Web Macba. The programs have served as the basis for classes taught at Mills College and UC Davis. Finally, Leidecker hosts Over The Edge, a weekly three hour program of freeform radio on KPFA FM and made, together with Barbara Golden, the three part series Women In Electronic Music 1938-1982 available from Ubuweb.

For more on Jon Leidecker, go to http://www.detritus.net/wobbly/



PSF: Before we begin, perhaps we should clarify what we are talking about. An often-quoted definition of "cultural appropriation" comes from Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law (Rutgers University Press, 2005). It is taken from an interview with the Jezebel website, where she offered the following: "Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission." Are there any further relevant conceptual distinctions you'd like to make?

JL: Let's add Scafidi's next two sentences from your quote: "This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects." And the rest of the book is given over to the challenges of turning this description into practicable law: for instance, how does a 'culture' give permission? So the term has always involved a study of power, and within the academic field the term usually addresses the harms caused by majority groups monetizing the expressive works emerging from minority cultures. From this starting point, the practice is largely indefensible -- you use other terms to describe the variants, like Cultural Assimilation to describe minority adaptations to a host culture, or Cultural Borrowing and Cultural Exchange to discuss healthy aspects of influence.

Once the conversation travelled online to social media, Cultural Appropriation became a cloudier term meaning many things to many people. New York Times editorials such as 'In Defense of Cultural Appropriation' or 'Three Cheers For Cultural Appropriation' equate the practice with free creativity and intercultural hybridization. The academic response is frequently that the positive 'common sense' cases defended in these articles are instances of Cultural Assimilation or Cultural Borrowing, and try to keep the focus on the real criticisms about power and inequality. But that level of nuance gets tricky once a conversation goes pop. As recently as six years ago, people were confidently describing why cooking doesn't count as an offensive form of Cultural Appropriation; well, it's harder to claim that now. Borrowing reads as appropriation if there are deeper fissures between the two cultures.

There's generational confusion to track as well -- in the '80's and '90's, the word 'appropriation' had positive connotations in the counterculture -- in the context of early Culture Jamming, creative reuse of commercial monoculture was posited as self-defense, the assumption being that the artist was always punching up. The punitive legal actions against De La Soul, Negativland and John Oswald's Plunderphonics album made it clear where the power was that had to be fought, and Culture Jamming as practice led to legal opinions in favor of Fair Use and Open Source, the optimism behind the early years of the Internet. When scripting the Variations podcast in 2008, I used 'Appropriative Collage' throughout as a nonjudgemental, even positive term -- that already dates the work.


PSF: The academic discussion has been ongoing for decades now, but the topic has become much more of a hot button issue in the mainstream culture over the last few years. Could you explain how you became aware of this shift and talk about your experiences teaching classes to university students?

JL: Over the last 15 years I've guest lectured out a bit, squeezing the main themes of Variations into one or two classes. Playing the hallmarks of 20th century collage music in chronological order started out as a way to track the technology behind all popular recorded music -- when people sample familiar recordings, it makes the tools that people use to play and compose music transparent to the listener, and you can hear more clearly into how it's all being made. But as I lined up the pieces, the evolution of intercultural collages really began telling its own story. There was an explosion of world music collages through the 1960's - the previous two decades of ethnomusicological recordings had set the scene for a number of composers to render an audible version of McLuhan's Global Village. In the lecture, I play those art music pieces from the '60's, then thread that through how the subcultures of Hip Hop and Industrial slowly infiltrate the pop mainstream.

I often conclude the lecture in 1992 with the Deep Forest track "Sweet Lullaby," to spin the ending. Up to that point, the music that comes out of sampling seems largely progressive, even revolutionary -- challenging notions of ownership, authorship, the very nature of self-expression. Then suddenly, we have a worldwide easy listening hit from a French duo, setting an acapella recording of a young girl named Afunakwa from the Solomon Islands to downtempo chill room music, ready-made for advertisements. I don't know how many tens of millions it produced from sales and being reused in ad campaigns, and it later came out that the label 'secured' the rights to the original through a verbal agreement for nothing. Stephen Feld's essay "A Sweet Lullaby For World Music" sums up the interactions between the band, the musicologist, the record labels, and the source culture, and after one reads it, you can't help but hear the song as a symbol for all of those relationships; it's anything but easy listening.

Three years ago, I tried an experiment and made the world music collages the central thread of the lecture. I played the '60's art music ethno-collages, played Byrne & Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, summarized Hip Hop without playing any, and then went directly to Deep Forest. While I was trying to be provocative, I can't even describe how unprepared I was for the impact of playing only those pieces in a row. You really need to hear those Hip Hop & John Oswald tracks to get a sense of sampling as a form of creative resistance, otherwise the Deep Forest tracks stops sounding like a cautionary note -- ending on it brought the entire playlist, a lot of my favorite music, into question.

I got a bit of feedback afterwards; some had really fixed on my comments on artistic license and my defense of the right of the artist to create music like this, which they found unacceptable. Others heard my advice that one listen carefully and examine your own relationship to your sources before using them as a warning to stay away from collage practice entirely. So that class was a very interesting failure I'm still following up on; the students are very engaged and I'm learning from them.  


PSF: The people who worry about cultural appropriation often frame their critique as part of a struggle against exploitation, prejudice and imperialism and place themselves on the political left. However, there are elements of the critique - especially the idea of cultural essentialism, of having clear boundaries between cultures, of respecting religious and cultural taboos - which were previously more often associated with the right. How do you see the political aspects of the debate? Where in the political landscape do you place the issues?

JL: I've always identified as left, but suffice to say that many of the key arguments and tactics that superficially typify the positions of 'left' and 'right' have seemingly switched places over the last ten years. When one collages Weathermen media communiques from the '70's together with NRA advertisements or alt-right recruitment YouTubes of the last ten years, there's a shocking amount of continuity. Culture Jamming once seemed to be an intrinsically progressive strategy, and it's been incredibly disorienting to see these tactics being successfully deployed by Fox News and by James O'Keefe, to see echoes of the SubGenius turn up a generation later in declarations of religious meme wars against Normies by the online Kekistanian diaspora. I remember watching Glenn Beck's show in 2009, and just being humbled by how formally entertaining their media collages were -- I knew their editors had to be Negativland fans.

It still defines as Culture Jamming as long as you feel you're taking on power, and the Alt-right argues against Wall Street & corporate control more passionately than any centrist Democrat has for generations -- but once you're in the alt-right chat room, that same critique seamlessly turns to anti-globalist nationalism instead of strength through diversity. So even though there's seemingly an overall uptick in criticism against the practice of cultural collage, it's still coming from two very different places.


PSF: You referenced the lawsuit by Island Records against Negativland following their sampling of U2. In response, Negativland later published Fair Use - The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 (Seeland, 1995), which contains a short manifesto called "Negativland's Tenets of Free Appropriation" (p. 251). It reads in part:

  "There is no demonstrable negative effect on the market value of the original works from which we appropriate, or the cultural status or incomes of the artists who made the original works. Referencing a work in a fragmentary way is at least as likely to have a positive effect on these areas of concern."
  It's a little unclear to me how much of the text deals only and specifically with the works of Negativland and how much of it is making a general point. Still, its view on the cultural status and income of artists seems to contradict directly the two main worries associated with cultural appropriation: that it destroys cultural meaning and integrity, and that it robs creators of potential income. In addition, the text also defends, in the context of copyright, the ability to make artworks that display appropriated bits in an "unflattering" way, or in a way that can cause "embarrassment".  

The text was written before you joined the group, but is still available on the Negativland website. How do you view the quoted part today? And do you think it makes a difference if cultural boundaries of some form are crossed when appropriating material?

JL: That manifesto grew out of their experience of being sued by U2 and Island Records for the creation of a work of parody. The crucial point to be made in the 90's was that these lawsuits were effectively making creative protest illegal (or, at best, unaffordable to independent artists -- as best laid out by Wendy J Gordon in her article 'Fair Use As Market Failure'). It is not unfair to group Negativland's manifesto with a wave of other legal arguments from around that time by people such as Lawrence Lessig; arguing for Fair Use, Open Source, the Digital Commons, the Public Domain. There's not even an attempt for a global perspective as of yet; a lot of assumptions that didn't anticipate major labels being able to monetize collage work.

James Boyle argued for legal strategies that could protect 'traditional knowledge,' awarding rights of control of compensation to communities that shepherded and preserved cultural knowledge, even if its invention had come long ago. Madhavi Sunder's 'The Invention of Cultural Knowledge' and Larisa Mann's 'If It Ain't Broke... Copyright's Fixation Requirement and Cultural Citizenship' already detail the likely abuses that would come from establishing these kinds of legal precedents, and why we'd need to proceed with caution if we tried to solve these problems with process. Art can not be defined as a business; any laws you define to protect the artist are at best a truce.

To answer your last question, it always makes a difference if cultural boundaries are crossed. Music is a way in which we bond and fit in with our environment; it makes decisions as to how we define who is in and who is out of the tribe. Because it brings people together, it's on the collage artist to put some thought into what happens when people are brought together.


PSF: You clearly have reservations about Deep Forest and the "Sweet Lullaby" track, but in "Variations #6" you make an additional point:

  "Do we have the right to take the ritual music of another culture out of context, and use it for our entertainment? Especially at the moment when our culture has almost completed the destruction of theirs? And the answer is, of course, yes – the music will stand as a twisted and beautiful document of the fact that that is exactly what happened."
  Tangentially, in "Variations #7" you say:
  "The degree to which you remain indifferent to the cultural meaning of that which you are sampling is literally the degree to which you risk embarrassing yourself. And at the same time, the resulting song itself often turns out all the more amazing for the collision."
  Could you expand on those views and the reasoning behind them?

JL: I'm on the other side of the looking glass with that Deep Forest track. By that point in the episode, hopefully it's clear that I no longer react to that song as an entertainment. It's a resonant document of the interaction between those two cultures. While it may stay a jingle for most, for others it's a invitation or a map back into the reality -- track down the YouTube 'Where the hell is Afunakwa' for an example of the latter.

When you're incorporating another culture's signs, it's going to mean a lot more than anything you could personally intend. That's the appeal and the risk. The specific piece I'm talking about in that second quote you mention is Erick Sermon's (of EPMD) "React," the chorus of which loops Meena Kapoor singing in Hindi, and Sermon breaks from rapping about partying worldwide to say 'Whatever she said, then I'm that.' Very American, either funny or appalling or both. As it turns out she's repeatedly singing 'If a man wants to commit suicide / so what can you do?' Whether or not Sermon actually knew this (his rap signals that he doesn't care), the extra author instantly elevates this song away from being a simple entertainment. With sampling, the degree to which you don't know about the culture you're borrowing from is the degree to which you're leaving yourself open. Your samples will own you.

This gets at something very tricky when we discuss Cultural Appropriation in the West. The language we use to describe music so frequently is bound up in ownership and possession. Music is anything but an object -- the meaning comes out of the practice, the relationship, in the connection it forms between people and environment. One level we know this, but we've also learned to think of it as a physical, ownable, monetizable thing. That's a Western error - nearly impossible not to internalize that somewhat when living here, I mean I live in an apartment physically surrounded by thousands of LPs and CDs, and sometimes I take out my favorite ones and I hug them. Descriptions of the harm caused by Cultural Appropriation sometimes go through the looking glass and use the same assumptions of 'authorship', and risk getting caught in the same loops of power. Remembering that music is never an object, always practice, and that skipping out on the definitions mandated by power can help us to break out of the loops this argument falls into at times.


PSF: I'm curious about how you relate to the questions around cultural appropriation when you work as an artist. Your album Wild Why (Tigerbeat6, 2002) is an interesting case. It's an elaborate and very dense collage of commercial hip-hop and rap pulled from local radio stations. White people appropriating black culture is often discussed in this debate. Could you speak about your ideas behind the album and whether it was a concern for you that you are white, sampling mainly from black artists? Did that have an effect on how you approached any part of that music or its release? 

JL: It's already an entire generation between 2018 and 2002. I was just re-reading Greg Tate's book on white appropriation of black culture, Everything But The Burden, which helpfully came out the year after Wild Why, and trying what an update would look like -- well, it's Jordan Peele's Get Out.

I was born in 1970; as a teenager into electronic music, Industrial and Hip Hop seemed to cross over frequently. By the late '80's, Public Enemy and Negativland were sharing so much in common in terms of method and often even form -- it was delirious, the distance closed. I can still picture that alternate timeline where the Jungle Brothers got to release Crazy Wisdom Masters and things got weirder instead of going the way of the one-sample-per-song licensing perfected on The Chronic. But I kept listening and by the late 90's, that commercial wave settled in and I noticed how astounding the sound design had become at the same moment I gained access to digital editing. So Wild Why just made itself over a few years.

Ideally someone who hears that record hears someone repaying a debt. But of course, there's a long history in American pop music of the white translations of black innovations finding wider immediate success. Hip Hop was different, we all saw the real authors first, and the white artists always felt like exceptions. There is some critical tension on the record, in that I was still getting used to the very idea of mainstream, corporate Hip Hop -- just like every other lifetime listener. But that's still respect.

My album was part of a continuum of electronic producers responding to that music. Wild Why would have stayed a live piece without the insistence of Kid606, who had his own pathologies with identity driving entire swathes of releases on his label. It was a huge risk for him to put it out at that time -- it still wasn't clear that major labels had backed off from suing independent labels with uncleared samples. Girl Talk had not yet proven that record labels had become too frightened to risk lucrative legal actions against any artist-ideologue who was willing to bring a Fair Use argument to defend themselves in a case; no one knew what precedent that could set. In 2002, the sheer illegality of 'Wild Why' was far edgier than its cultural borrowing. I'd been thinking of doing a 15th anniversary vinyl version, finally with the sample list -- the piece was made to be scratched, and all the original songs have hit the oldies circuit, so it sounds weirder than ever. This wasn't the year for it.


See Part 2 of the Wobbly interview


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