Are there rules when it comes to edits? Should there be? RA’s Will Lynch explores all sides of a thorny issue that shows no sign of going away.
A few months ago I had lunch with the guys from Soul Clap, Eli Goldstein and Charlie Levine. We met up at their usual Berlin haunt, The Michelberger Hotel, and ate schnitzels and maultaschen while we talked about something central to their craft: edits, and more specifically, unauthorized edits. In terms of producing as well as DJing, edits are a big part of Soul Clap’s sound, and their rerubs of other artists’ songs have earned them both admiration and criticism. For some, tracks like 2010′s “Extravaganza” are a clever reuse of pop culture that make for great moments on the dance floor. For others, they’re unoriginal at best and examples of plagiarism at worst. In one of RA’s more controversial reviews, Jack Haighton gave voice to the second opinion by saying of “Extravaganza,” “Yes, it’s catchy enough. (It should be. It’s taken from a platinum-selling album only five years old.)”
Like many successful DJs, Goldstein and Levine have an interesting way of being both very serious and very laid back. Talking about edits brings out both sides: they take the subject very seriously, though their stance on it could hardly be more laissez-faire. “Where do people get these rules?” says Goldstein. “Part of what makes this music so amazing is that you really can do whatever you want. It doesn’t make sense when someone comes along and says ‘oh, that’s not allowed.’” As they see it, edits have been around since the days of disco, and what they’re doing isn’t anything new––in fact, it’s one of the most essential building blocks of production. “Think of Ice Cube, ‘Jackin for Beats.’ Or Moby, ‘Go,’ one of the biggest rave anthems ever. You know what that samples? The Twin Peaks theme.”
As for the ethical side of things—the problem of benefiting from someone else’s art—they’re not convinced they’re causing any harm. “For me, when you’re doing vinyl-only, it’s a pass,” says Goldstein. “You press 500 copies, you’re going to lose money. The whole reason you do it is because there’s a demand, you want to give people something they want. You don’t do it to help yourself.”
Levine thinks about this one for a minute. “Well, you could definitely say edits helped our success.”
“Yeah, that’s true, but the edits aren’t so different from the rest of what we do––our DJ sets, our original tracks, our mixes, it’s all the same thing.” They also maintain that they would never make a fuss about someone else sampling their work, as long as it sounded good (though they were a little irritated by Joel Alter naming a recent track “Soul Clap”—”Maybe we’ll make a track called ‘Joel Alter.’”).
Soul Clap’s line of thinking is common, and not just within their immediate scene: the free-for-all mentality is shared by countless techno, hip-hop and even pop artists. But that doesn’t mean it’s agreed upon—far from it. Though they’ve been around for nearly 40 years, edits remain one of the slipperiest aspects of electronic music culture. For some artists, they’re a lark, something done just for fun to pass around among friends. For others, they’re a serious form of artistic expression, in the same league as original productions. And for some they’re lazy, not something you should take credit for and possible grounds for a serious lawsuit. One label manager who falls somewhere in the middle put it this way: “I guess it’s kind of like drug dealing. We all know it is a big part of our scene, but only the really stupid drug dealers are going to talk about how they do it publicly, which in effect shows they have nothing else going on for them or nothing else to lose.”
The basic meaning of “edit” is itself a source of disagreement. Originally, the term referred to a song that’s been lightly modified for club use. This is what Tom Moulton had in mind when he cooked up the first dance edits back in the mid-’70s. “I worked at a bar on Fire Island, and I watched people on the dance floor,” he said. “Back then everything was edited for radio play, so the songs would end after three or four minutes and you could see this confusion—people didn’t want to stop dancing to the old song yet.” Moulton became famous for what were known as Tom Moulton Mixes: new versions of pop songs that extended rhythm sections, repeated hooks and tweaked the levels here and there to better suit a big sound system. These relatively minor adjustments made the track infinitely better for clubs, and the words “Tom Moulton Mix” became something DJs looked for in the bins at record stores.
Back then the only way to make an edit was with scissors and reel-to-reel tape, but even in the age of Ableton, many edits follow Tom Moulton’s blueprint. “Sometimes when I hear a track, right away I start thinking about what I’d change,” says Ryan Elliott, the Panorama Bar resident and head of A&R at Spectral. He makes edits all the time, but instead of putting his name on them and selling them, he keeps them for himself and his friends. “[Ryan] or Shaun Reeves will send us these zip files full of edits, everyone loves them,” says Berlin-based DJ Bill Patrick. “Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make the track way better. Mathew Jonson has this track, ‘Cold Blooded,’ it has this amazing bassline that leaves and then doesn’t come back in. I wrote [Matt] and was like ‘I love that track but I want to fucking kill you for not bringing that bassline back in.’” Rather than playing the original and working around this detail, a producer like Elliott or Reeves might fix the bassline and play out their own version instead.
That’s what you could call the classic model of an edit, but these days edits often involve a much greater level of artistic input. The easiest examples of this can be found on W+L Black, Wolf + Lamb’s vinyl-only edits imprint. This is the label that gave us most of Soul Clap’s edits (the ones that have been released, anyway) and a couple dozen more by artists like Hot Natured (Lee Foss and Jamie Jones) and Nicolas Jaar. Though they’re stamped as edits, these tracks usually act more like remixes, albeit ones made without the stems (or separate parts) of the original track. Take the label’s latest release, Jaar’s remix of “Work It” by Missy Elliott. Everything aside from the a cappella is completely different from the original, especially the overall mood, which is eerie and subdued instead of crass like the original. In other words, the way it’s reinterpreted is more artistic than it is utilitarian.
“For me, making an edit is like going on vacation,” says Jaar. “It’s a way of getting out of your head, your usual creative process, and just doing something totally different.”
For other artists, the edit is much closer to the core of their creativity. Eduardo de la Calle is the DJ and producer behind Analog Solutions, a low-profile, vinyl-only techno label that sold nearly 8,000 records in 2011, its first year of operation. His productions are highly original pieces of work—modern, imaginative, stylistically fresh—but also heavily indebted to the past. “The idea was to develop a label to pay tribute to the art of sampling,” he says. “Creatively remodel old gems maybe unknown to the younger generations.” Most or all of Analog Solutions’ records sample classic house or techno artists: Carl Craig, Aaron Carl, Basic Channel. At times the samples are indiscernible, but sometimes they make clear references to older songs—for instance, one uses the inspirational speech from “Transitions” by Underground Resistance. De la Calle goes to pains to make clear his respect for the original artists: in the second pressing of the label’s catalog (the first sold out), there is a large sticker on each sleeve itemizing what’s been sampled, sometimes over an image of de la Calle wearing a Metroplex sweater and a ski mask.
“The idea to put the stickers on the covers is one way to say thanks to the people who really influenced me to do the music that I am doing today,” he says. “But some people get confused and think it’s some strategy to get famous or something.”
De la Calle’s tracks are often confused for edits—Berlin record store Space Hall calls him “Mr Edit”—but that’s not how he sees them: in his mind, all but a few are original productions. His opinions on sampling etiquette are in many ways identical to Soul Clap’s: as far as he’s concerned, sampling is one of the essential building blocks of electronic production, everything is fair game and there’s no hard distinction between original productions, remixes and edits—these are just three different points along the same continuum.
This kind of sampling has earned de la Calle a few detractors—one Berlin record shop stopped stocking Analog Solutions because of it—but he is by no means alone in this approach. Greg Wilson, the English DJ and master of the reel-to-reel edit, says this kind of thing reflects a musical tradition that predates even disco. “It’s the same as it’s always been with music,” he says. “Music of the ’60s was drawing from rhythm & blues and the blues itself, taking guitar licks from old tracks. There’s nothing new in that—it’s something that’s always happened and always will happen.” Colin de la Plante, better known as The Mole, takes this line of thinking beyond music altogether: “Even Nabokov ripped off Lolita,” he says. “There was another book, also about a guy who’s obsessed with this girl name Lolita, same name and everything. Nabokov’s book is way better, but he got all of the basic ideas from someone else.”
Some artists feel that, more than being just permissible, edits do a valuable service to the original. De la Calle says that he “rescues” classics from Chicago and Detroit by making them sound cutting edge again. Soul Clap half-jokingly compare themselves to history teachers, chronicling dance music for a younger generation. “The music ceases to be old,” as Wilson puts it. There’s evidence that many original artists feel this way as well. In 2006, the French DJ Pilooski released an unauthorized edit of Frankie Valli’s ’60s tune “Beggin.” Valli heard the track and liked it. Instead of suing Pilooski, he and his label worked with him to release it officially. The original track had been largely forgotten, but the edit brought it back to life: Pilooski’s version made it into an Adidas commercial, and even spawned a cover version by a Norwegian band called Madcon. Soul Clap went through something similar with their edit of “Bakerman” by Laid Back. After their edit had been out for a while on W+L Black, Laid Back’s management got in touch with them with an offer to clear the samples and release it on their own label, credited as Laid Back vs. Soul Clap.
So what’s wrong with edits then? It depends on who you talk to. Maybe the simplest objection is a legal one: unauthorized edits violate copyrights, and copyrights exist for a reason, namely to make sure artists get the money they deserve. Plenty of artists go through the trouble and expense of clearing their samples, and those who don’t are only making the market more dysfunctional.
“I don’t think it is constructive to do things that are basically illegal,” says the aforementioned label manager, who asked to remain anonymous. “Let’s not beat around the bush—it is effectively stealing. I know people dress it up in polite terms, that it is reinvigorating old music or it is this and that and the other, but the bottom line is that anyone who makes edits and do not pay mechanical property rights to ASCAP or GEMA, and are probably not paying anything to the original artists, are effectively trading off other peoples’ work.”
Another prevalent argument has more to do with artistic merit. When Tom Moulton and his peers made the first edits on reel-to-reel tape, they were, intentionally or not, designing a musical experience that had never existed before. The same could hardly be said for many of today’s edits. “You have this glut of edits which are no longer interested in diving deeper and deeper,” says Finn Johannsen, the DJ, music critic and Hard Wax employee. “Back then, there were no computers, so beatmatching and the convenience aspect was not the point of it. Today, there are a lot of edits floating around where the only purpose is to make DJing easier.” He finds many of the arguments in favor of edits “valid but lazy. You can always say ‘It’s always been this way,’ and of course it was, but to make that your main mission… it’s just a question of what you’re aiming for as an artist.”
There is of course the ethical angle as well. Some would say that an artist who makes an edit takes credit for something that is largely not his or her own. This opinion was at the root of Haighton’s review of Soul Clap’s R&B Edits: is it really enough to tweak a platinum-selling record and put your name on it? It doesn’t help that many edits, not least those in the Wolf + Lamb camp, replace the original artist’s name with that of the editing artist (“Soul Clap – Extravaganza” instead of “Jamie Foxx – Extravaganza (Soul Clap Edit)”). Granted, this is only meant to keep snooping lawyers from stumbling upon an illegal edit through Google, and when the edit is of a widely known pop song, the assumption is that listeners will recognize the original. But is that valid?
“I think it’s just the opposite to be honest,” says our anonymous label manager. “I think that a lot of kids out there don’t have the musical knowledge or depth and background to understand the historical references being made. I know people that have used a Todd Terry drum loop and have gone, “oh no no, that came out of my sampler,” because they don’t know any better. I think ten years ago, if there was a big sample people would know the sample and maybe be more respectful about it. Now I think everything is up for grabs, it’s a free-for-all and nothing is sacred anymore.”
It’s worth noting that a number of artists either didn’t want to be interviewed for this article or agreed to do so only if they could remain anonymous, mostly because they’ve done their share of unauthorized edits and don’t want their name linked to something that is, after all, illegal. Contrary to what many producers think, however slim the chance of repercussion may be, there is reason to be concerned. “I know of people in this business that have used illegal samples and have been sued in the past, and they have lost more than 100% of the record sales…,” says the anonymous label manager. “So look, if you have some young kids and they are telling you some stuff about edits, please just remind them what they are doing might be illegal and they may not know exactly what they are doing, because once it is on the internet that is it, it is published.”
Even if you’re not convinced by the legal risks, some argue that since listeners will associate an edit with the original artist (and perhaps assume it’s their work), that artist should have the opportunity to sign off on it. “People are going to hear your edit, and they’ll hear the original artist, but maybe he or she never would have done it that way,” says Ryan Elliott. “To release your edit of somebody’s track without even showing it to them, I don’t think that’s right. You at least owe them the courtesy of getting to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’”
Meanwhile, there’s a much broader opinion that sweeps all of these discussions aside: in a place as chaotic as today’s music industry, why bother doing things by the books? Most artists have stopped expecting to make money from their records, copyright laws are ill-fitted to the culture and erratically enforced, and nearly everything is on YouTube or illegal download sites anyway. None of this looks set to change anytime soon. In this lawless environment, it can feel a bit quixotic to play by the rules, especially when no one can agree on them.
Greg Wilson describes the same situation in rosier terms. For him, it’s “open season” or “the wild west,” a place that can be very exciting to those who accept it. “We’re in an unprecedented moment,” he says. “Recorded music has been around for about a century, so we have this incredible amount of material to draw from. And then we have this situation where hip-hop, the most successful music form of the late 20th century, is basically about taking two records, extending those records and putting a rap over the top of what was in reality someone else’s music but making a new thing. So for a lot of artists, especially younger people, that’s what they’ve grown up with, that’s all they’ve ever known, so they look at things in those ways. That’s their way of expressing themselves, and it’s the language they use.
“Old fashioned people might find it a bit out of control,” he adds, “but this is where we are. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
Published / Tuesday, 31 January 2012