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A Night at the Hip-Hopera by STEVEN SHAVIRO

Image source: olerkiilerich.dk
Text source The Pinocchio Theory

December 1st, 2004

A Night at the Hip-Hopera, by the Kleptones, is the best mash-up I’ve heard, at least since Strictly Kev’s Raiding the 20th Century. (The Disney Corp. is taking legal action to suppress Hip-Hopera; the Kleptones are no longer allowed to host the mp3s on their own site. But they list other sites that carry the files; these won’t go offline until Disney gets around to contacting each of them individually with cease-and-desist orders. And if these don’t work, Google has a lot of links to it too).

A Night at the Hip-Hopera consists of music by Queen (whose copyright is owned by Disney, hence the cease-and-desist orders), together with vocal tracks taken mostly from various hip hop artists (both current and old skool, ranging from Afrikaa Bambaataa to Vanilla Ice to the Beastie Boys to Grandmaster Flash to Dilated Peoples to Missy Elliott) together with a few non-hip-hop bands (Electric Six, Morris Day), plus a montage of soundbites from (real and fake) news broadcasts, interview tapes, and old low-budget SF movies (not to mention attacks on copyright law and exhortations in favor of piracy/sampling/remaking). (There’s a fairly complete list of sample sources here).

Now, the name of the game in mash-ups of this sort is matching the vocal track with the musical track in some sort of convincing way. One strategy is purely musical/formal; The Freelance Hellraiser’s meld of The Strokes and Christina Aguilera a few years ago is the classic example of a mash-up that produces a hybrid pop song that’s superior to either of the originals. Another strategy is conceptual; thus Danger Mouse’s Grey Album combined Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album to provocative, if not always musically satisfying effect.

The Kleptones, however, take the art of mash-up as provocation to a new level. The album works both musically/formally and abstractly/conceptually, in a way that creates a wonderful cognitive-dissonance confusion. The choice of Queen as musical source is itself inspired, since they are so oddly contradictory: a monster success in their time, they represented the ne plus ultra of bombastic and ponderous arena rock, combining the worst of heavy metal declamation and prog symphonic pretentiousness; except that their pounding unilateral heavyhandedness was also leavened by a ludicrous, campy theatricality, and by a flirtation with disco. The macho implications of the music were constantly being undermined by Freddie Mercury’s performative excesses (even if nobody knew he was gay/bi at the time).

The contradictory strangeness of Queen is brought out and amplified by the way the Kleptones match their music to hip hop vocals. Sometimes the juxtapositions are just really weird (ODB’s “Got Your Money” over “Another One Bites the Dust”); other times they are wonderfully subversive (the quasi-fascist pounding of “We Will Rock You” becomes the backing for a militantly anti-racist rap, apparently by Killa Kela, with whom I am unfamiliar); still other times they suggest parallels and affinities where one would never have suspected them (the anthemic, soaring “Bicycle Race” melds all too perfectly with Eminem’s “Slim Shady” sarcasm: it’s hard to say here which one is a comment on the other).

Beyond these specific examples (and I could comment on the aptness/cleverness/revelatory force of just about every individual track), A Night at the Hip-Hopera as a whole excavates the fault lines that underlie Anglo-American popular music on the deepest levels: black vs. white, gay vs. straight, confrontation vs. entertainment, organic vs. mechanized, populist vs. elitist, artifice vs. sincerity, utopianism vs. cynicism, and so on. The rhythms of Missy Elliott or De La Soul oughtn’t to match with those of Queen, but somehow they do: yet this doesn’t efface the sense we have of totally separate musical universes somehow clashing and (at the same time) existing secretly in parallel.

Queen’s music is pretty white-sounding; by which I mean that it appropriates black musical sources (mostly the blues) but in doing so deprives them of energy, soul, funkiness, and grace, substituting a plodding insistence, a deadening literalism, and an almost unbearable earnestness. Yet this is the normative musical atmosphere we all (white, black, or other) live in, in American imperial culture today; black music (hip hop as much as blues) still today largely exists only to be appropriated, even when it is black artists themselves doing the appropriation (there’s more minstrelsy in hip hop than most of us would like to acknowledge). A Night at the Hip-Hopera somehow dramatizes this situation, with the way the various sources it orchestrates together are contradictorily made to cohabit with one another. At times the cognitive dissonance is too much; at other times, the consonance we are actually hearing override these dissonances. Voices of protest are chained to sounds of conformity (if only by virtue of Queen’s gigantism and lockstep rhythms); or is it that this depressingly massive and normative music is releasing bubbles of perversity and queerness even when we fail to notice? (I don’t think I’d be able to endure listening to an entire album of Queen’s greatest hits; but the Kleptones succeed in releasing the beauty and strangeness of these overly familiar dinosaurs). The album stages a series of anarchic clashes which themselves embody the transformative vitality that “popular culture” continues to offer, even when (at its frequent worst) it is being monopolistically controlled from above, and squeezed as tightly as possible into the straightjacket of the (heavily cross-promoted) commodity form.

I don’t believe in redemption; I’m suspicious of a con whenever it’s offered. But The Kleptones suggest a kind of reaching — precisely because they don’t paper over the contradictions that they are rubbing our ears in, but gleefullly insist on them — that turns even the corniness of Queen into something: not redemptive, quite, but at least possessing a secret reserve of utopian hope, of potentiality — a potentiality that can only be released when creativity is not constrained and chained by copyright, by so-called “intellectual property rights,” by the privatization of culture. So that A Night at the Hip-Hopera ultimately becomes a meta-commentary on its own mutant procedures. In other words, if this album is illegal (as it apparently is), then creativity, innovation, and joy are illegal too.

The final cut of the album is a soundbite collage, to the background accompaniment of Queen’s “Who Wants To Live Forever?” All the quoted comments relate to copyright and free expression, presented in various juxtapositions and with differing levels of irony. The last voice we hear says: “Without free communication, you don’t have a free society. Democracy’s based on it.” (Does anybody know the source of this?). That’s why A Night at the Hip-Hopera is such a brilliant and powerful accomplishment, and that’s why it needs to be disseminated as widely as possible, in deliberate defiance (if need be) of the law.

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