Thursday, February 25, 2010
MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 2 – Flight to Brazil
The words of Jace Clayton, better known as DJ /rupture: “As a process, DJing is inevitable and necessary for our times, an elegant way to deal with data overload. As a performance, it's what the kids are grooving to the world over. As a product, it's largely illegal.”
Well, I’m certainly grooving to Flight to Brazil, and I’m sure it’s illegal. For the second Medicine Show release, (and the first of the mixes that will comprise the even-numbered volumes,) Madlib has compiled a wildly diverse mix of music from Brazil and there’s no indication (and very little chance) that the creators of this music gave permission or received compensation, though at the same time there is little indication here of any plunderphonic-politics. If any such comment exists, it is to be found in Flight to Brazil’s cover art (partially pictured above): It’s a painting of Christian missionaries arriving, presumably, in South America. Anachronistic details are added to the paining; firearms, a Coca-Cola can, pharmaceutical vials. Is someone making a comment about imperialism? Is someone being ironic?
Discussions about music piracy frequently cast narratives in which innocent college kids downloading Grateful Dead bootlegs are pursued by rapacious corporate slime, but there’s another side. Regarding the morally dubious business model of the Sublime Frequencies label, the aforementioned Jace Clayton wrote “It’s a sadly familiar economic model: sell the cultural riches of non-Westerners without their knowledge or permission.” Isn't Madlib essentially doing this with Flight to Brazil? No information about the composers or performers behind this music is included in the liner notes, either because of that white-label attitude that makes DJs feel like part of an exclusive “in-the-know” record club, or (more likely) because by releasing this, Madlib is committing illegal copyright infringement. (This may also explain why the words “Stones Throw Records” are nowhere to be found on the Medicine Show releases, though it is clear that Madlib’s home label is behind them.)
It’s a shame, too, because every song on this mix makes me want to know more. And isn’t that part of the value in such an endeavor? And wouldn’t that information likely lead to increased dividends for these musicians (thus compensating for their lack of, erm, compensation) as listeners who are exposed to their work via this mix begin to seek out more?
Even if they aren’t being paid, these musicians could at least be celebrated as unique artists, but instead, the curator is the star of this show. Apparently, the talent on display is Madlib's talent for finding and buying records. The musicians are just some anonymous Brazilian people who made some tunes that would have languished in total obscurity if not for their hip American savior. Without any information, however, this music is still obscure, still anonymous.
Is this anything more than one music geek showing off his finds to other music geeks, ethics and ownership be dammed? Like most of Madlib’s mixes, it’s hard to see any intention here beyond sharing a bunch of awesome records he found while he was digging for material to sample, but it’s hard to deny the middle finger extended (perhaps unintentionally) by a mix of Brazilian music this diverse. You know those cheesy compilations they sell at Starbucks and in the “World Music” section at Borders, the ones with titles like The Sounds of Brazil? This is not like that. This is the antithesis of the coffee-shop tourism that pretends to squeeze an entire nation’s musical output into one digestible smorgasbord of background sound for Yuppies who want to feel “multi-cultural.” Madlib’s fondness for Brazillian music is well-documented, and the depth of his knowledge (or, at least, the depth of his record collection) is impressive.
Likewise, the role of a curator is a natural compliment to his work as a producer of sample-based hip-hop, and while mash-up artists like Girl Talk have blurred the line between creating something new from other people’s music and simply (or complexly) recontextualizing that music, these roles remain sharply distinct in Madlib’s curatorial work, which also lacks the manifesto politics of, say, DJ Spooky, and is rarely any more conceptual than Flight to Brazil’s geographic theme. He’s also not a very technical DJ. This isn’t Gold Teeth Thief. These songs aren’t mixed in any complex way; they’re simply truncated and cross-faded, linked by a man’s voice announcing flights to and from places in Brazil, as well as a repeating sample of a woman going “Whooooo!” (It’s not as dumb as it sounds.)
Listening to this mix illuminates much of Madlib’s original music, particularly his excursions into fusion as Yesterdays (sic) New Quintet; a familiar piano line pops up at one point, for example, one I am sure is sampled by Madlib on another release (or maybe the song is covered by YNQ), and the feel of these rhythms is certainly captured by many of the compositions on Madlib’s fusion projects. That probably isn’t the point, though. With this mix, it seems Madlib is just sharing (read: selling) some cultural riches he found (read: stole). Here’s an awesome song. Now, here’s another. Of course, I am exactly the sort of person to whom this appeals. Yes, thank you, Madlib, I would love to hear some awesome records you found. And it's impossible to deny that the actual music here is terrific. I just wish I could enjoy this mix without fretting over silly ethical questions.
Two down, ten to go. Next up: The Beat Konducta goes to Africa.