by / November 16th, 2010 /

Archive: Illegal Art

This article originally feature in print in April 2008.

What do 57 year old Jewish advertising consultant Steve Stein and 26 year old former biomedical engineer Greg Gillis have in common? Quite a lot actually. Both men are purveyors of highly contentious music based on samples of other artists’ original works that thus far has avoided the clutches of the copyright controllers. Both have recently released albums with the Illegal Art label; Stein better known as Steinski with What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006, a retrospective of his work made available officially for the first time in June and Gillis under the moniker of Girl Talk has released his mash-up album Feed the Animals to acclaim. State talked to both men and their mysterious label owner about the art of making lawless music.

In 1983, Steve Stein and Douglas Di Franco submitted a five minute mini-mix to a Tommy Boy remix competition under the name of Steinski and Double Dee. The end product took its cue from the track it was supposed to remix, ‘Play That Beat, Mr. DJ’ by G.L.O.B.E and Whiz Kid but after that all bets were off. With sample forays into funk, hip-hop, disco, instructional tapdance records and spoken word from Humphrey Bogart films, the remix was one of a kind at the time. In recognition, the judges, which included hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaata, awarded the duo first prize. What followed was a series of five mixes in total; one tackled James Brown, one Hip-Hop, one Jazz and the final one hip-hop originators The Sugar Hill Gang.

Over the course of the last 25 years, New Yorker Stein has created audio collage works with various themes including the Kennedy assassination, sex and 9/11. His work is revered in the hip-hop community and have been shared through bootlegs and radio recordings. He has inspired many a DJ such as DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist and to a certain extend The Bomb Squad and Kid Koala. Due to the many copyright infringements contained within his works, Steinski has never made a dime but his work afforded him other opportunities -“‘I’ve gotten a fair amount of notoriety that’s led to interesting advertising work, other records – remixes and related projects, lots of DJ gigs in many great places, and meeting and working with quite a few amazing people.”

The pro-sampling Illinois label Illegal Art decided to release the retrospective last month anyway despite the potential legal problems. Even now, in 2008, Stein is still liable for those recordings should the lawyers wish to pursue him. Not that’s he’s worried. “My work has hardly been high-profile enough to warrant anyone jumping up and down, outraged over the ‘illegality’ of it. I work in collage, the same way as (if I can mightily stretch a comparison to include two truly great visual artists) Joseph Cornell and Louise Nevelson. The ‘legality’ issues are secondary, and only enter into the discussion because audio work is infinitely reproducible through digital technology, an idea that threatens cultural control.”

The essence of what Stein is getting at, is the very core of filesharing and digital distribution. The internet empowers society to upload and share work. Most of that work happens to be copyrighted. This is either a very good thing or a very bad thing depending on your interests. A leaked Arcade Fire record which was on your computer in the morning could be on thousands of hard-drives by bedtime. On the flipside, such dissemination of material also empowers individuals to create, to express, to remix and re-contextualise for a large audience. The problem arises when business interests are stirred and copyright is infringed.

Re-using portions of recorded sound for another creative purpose is nothing new of course. Hell, The Beatles did it back in the ’60s. Beastie Boys and The Dust Brothers created the 1989 classic hip-hop record Paul’s Boutique which was infused with 105 samples in total. It was the golden age of sampling, allowed to flourish thanks to corporate ignorance of subcultures. Just look at Drum and Bass and Jungle. Entire underground genres of music based on a famous sample known as the Amen Break from a forgotten funk 1969 B-side ‘Amen Brother’ by The Winstons.

When bureaucratic interests realised what was happening, the clampdown began. In 1991, rapper Biz Markie was sued for using a Gilbert O’ Sullivan sample and was forced to withdraw his album from shelves. That case meant the frequency of sampling by artists was curtailed significantly over the ’90s. It’s important to remember the laws that govern sampling were set in stone before internet usage was widespread. Now in this Web 2.0 internet age, we are faced with endless possibilities to contribute to culture; whether it’s uploading a video, blogging, remixing your favourite artists, fan-made videos and more ad infinitum. But current copyright law values property and protection over creativity. Just ask Greg Gillis.

The Pittsburg native’s latest album as Girl Talk, Feed the Animals is made up of over 300 samples from various popular recording artists none of which were cleared. From Beck to Beyoncé, Rihanna to Roy Orbison, Sinéad O’ Connor to Snoop Dogg; the album is made up entirely of sampled recorded work; with a new sample introduced every 10 to 15 seconds. It is of course, under copyright law, legally dubious but in cultural terms, highly creative. Illegal Art also released Feed the Animals online in a pay what you like system a la Radiohead’s In Rainbows in June. It is Girl Talk’s second release to feature that volume of samples (his first was 2006’s Nightripper) yet so far, no cease and desist letters have been received. Illegal Art label owner Philo T. Farnsworth has a theory – “The number of samples protects us to a degree. If we’ve infringed on an artist’s rights, they can only claim a tiny moment within a fairly large project.”

So far Gillis has received nothing but positivity from artists who he has directly sampled. “Big Boi from OutKast came out to one of my shows in Atlanta,” he tells State. “Sophie B. Hawkin’s manager emailed me recently. I heard Mike Patton say that it was an honour to collaborate with Busta Rhymes on my new album!”

While some would claim Girl Talk’s modus operandi is both illegal and unoriginal, Gillis naturally disagrees. “There are no original ideas in pop music. Everything is built upon previous ideas. ‘Originality’ comes with how well you re-contextualise an old idea. I would like to see sampling treated like any other instrument. It’s possible to make transformative work that does not negatively impact the sampled artists’ potential sales, and I think this should be legal. For any album that samples 300 songs, even if you wanted to pay for the samples, it would be impossible,” he continues. “No one could afford it. It’s clearly a case where the law is holding back a certain form of artistic and musical expression.”

Both Girl Talk and Steinski have the moral backing of Illegal Art and its mysterious owner Philo T. Farnsworth who has plenty of experience releasing illicit albums. In 1998, Illegal Art released Deconstructing Beck, a compilation of tracks which used samples from Beck songs. Farnsworth recieved multiple legal threats from Beck’s lawyers on the grounds of copyright infringement. The case went high-profile for a while but as Farnsworth is a pseudonym designed to obscure his real identity (the real Philo T. Farnsworth was an inventor), the lawyers couldn’t find enough real information on himself or the Illegal Art label to prosecute. One wonders what Beck Hansen thought of all this? ‘We’ve never officially heard, but there were rumors that Beck actually liked the CD,’ Farnsworth tells us.

With these releases from Steinski and Girl Talk bringing a decent amount of exposure and success to Illegal Art, Farnsworth sees those releases as ways of encouraging dialogue on the subject of copyright. “It has given us [Illegal Art] a higher profile, and it has also brought a lot of attention to the debate over whether this music should be allowed to exist or not.” Clearly, Girl Talk’s gruelling touring schedule tells us that it should be. Beyond that, take the case of producer Danger Mouse and his Jay-Z /Beatles bootleg mashup album in 2004. EMI attempted to halt the distribution of the record but it only fueled interest in the release. Nowadays Danger Mouse is a much-lauded producer who, as well as being partly responsible for Gnarls Barkley, has also produced records for Gorillaz, Beck and Martina-Topley Bird. His illegal work has allowed him to produce for some of music’s biggest names, thereby contributing significantly to the popular culture canon.

Artists such as Girl Talk, Steinski, Danger Mouse are finding copyright law too restrictive or unrealistic to apply to their creative urges so they just ignore it. Farnsworth says it’s not just artists who see it that way – “The average person now seems to be in opposition to the perceived laws” and taking the Arcade Fire leak as an example of what happens everyday, one might agree. At the same time, Farnsworth and Gillis are aware of what could happen but would hope that their work would fall under the doctrine of Fair Use should they ever have to defend it in court. “We’d consult with the artist and our legal team to decide how far to take things. We’re prepared to go all the way, if needed,” Farnsworth asserts.

That’s not to say they don’t support the protection of art through copyright but are of the opinion that the the balance has shifted too far from protection to restriction. Stein’s view is that any potential changes have been hindered by ‘large corporations pouring enormous amounts of money into the American legislative system for the past 100 years, warping copyright and patent law beyond recognition and original intent.’ Farnsworth agrees. “Entities that have investments in intellectual property are very concerned in tightly controlling their interests. They go too far, though. They do things that are counter-productive to our culture and to the growth of the very interests that they’re trying to protect.” In the US, lobby groups have convinced congress to pass laws extending copyright for 20 years. Here in the Europe, Ireland’s EU Commissioner Charlie McCreevey has proposed an extension of copyright law for a further 45 years. What Illegal Art and their artists are doing is more akin to a silent protest of the shift in the scales. They each have their own wishes for the future.

Steinski would like to see that law “scaled back toward its original time limits and intent, so it could protect creators for a reasonable amount of time. Then let society – which generously gives exclusive licenses to creators through copyright guarantees – have access to the works for which it has already provided protection.” Farnsworth would like to see copyright law “return to its core purpose of encouraging creation and use rather than imposing endless restrictions”, while Gillis’ view is a little more simplistic – “I just want to be treated like any other band. I just want people to be able to hear my music.” Whatever happens, it seems that the 57 year old Jewish advertising consultant and the 26 year old former biomedical engineer will continue to create and inspire scores of copyright-flouting DJs and musicians for some time.

Illustration by Brenb.

Illegal Art - Bren B