Is borrowing content necessary for artistic innovation?

In class this past Thursday, we had a very interesting discussion on copyright laws and how they frequently limit creativity rather than encourage it. In our reading of T.L. Taylor’s Whose Game Is This Anyway? we looked at how the community of people who participate in a video game often play just as big of a role in the creation of the game’s culture and identity as the game designers themselves. Through the players’ and fans’ reapproriation of the game’s artifacts into things like fanfiction, they are building this culture. I even have a friend who got fairly well-known by recording vocal covers of popular video game songs.

While the idea of content ownership in gaming is really fascinating, I find myself more interested in how incredibly intrinsic the idea of borrowing and building upon others’ work has been in shaping the course of music history, as this is an area about which I know much more. We talked about music and sampling a bit in class, but I think it’s important to look at again, especially a few of the most seminal examples, as this is generally how entire new genres begin to form.

One of the first and best examples of how this borrowing of previous work has allowed creativity is in the 1979 song “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang.


The song began when someone was playing another 1979 song by the funk & disco band Chic called “Good Times”. One of the members of the Gang began rapping over this bass line, and a hit was born. Not long after, rap and hip hop began to emerge as a dominant force in music, with a huge amount of the beats from this era produced via old vinyl records of funk artists.

Later, in the mid-90s, a lesser-known but similarly seminal work was spawned by producer DJ Shadow that went on to influence the creation new genres and styles. His album, Endtroducing…, is an instrumental hip-hop album created entirely by samples.


This album not only borrowed from its predecessors’ works, but was entirely composed of them. It managed to create something new and inspire more to produce their own sample-based music. Another similarly influential and innovative sample-based work was The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, released in 2000.

Said to contain over 3,500 samples, drawing from 1960s and 70s disco and pop music to just about any other genre, the album built its own narrative while also pushing the limits of what sample-based music can accomplish. They were able to take the works of their predecessors and take sampling in an entirely new direction outside of hip-hop, paving the way for later pop music to dig into its musical ancestry for inspiration. In the past few years especially, we’ve seen a huge number of artists become popular through remixes and mashups who later go on to make their own original pieces. Electronic producer Shlohmo is a good example of this.

So while of course it’s necessary to allow an artist to retain the rights to their own music, it’s important to understand that innovation typically does not and arguably cannot come from nowhere. Artists necessarily do not and cannot work outside of historical context, so in many ways, this borrowing is incredibly important — if not necessary — to the evolution of an art form.

– Logan W

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