Monday, December 29, 2008

Coldcut: Cut n Paste Pirates

So the election is over and the good guys won with The O-bomb taking the office soon. But beforehand Brit electronic musos and political mischiefs Coldcut and the TV Sheriff got together and made this little media mash-up called Revolution 08. It is an update of Coldcut vs TV Sheriff: World of Evil produced for the 2004 US election mentioned in the below interview I had with Coldcut's Matt Black for Empty Magazine.

From: Empty
Matt Black snuggles deep into a beanbag reserved especially for interviews and pulls a doona over his knees to be comfortable for a chat. “It’s a bit cold in Ol’ Blighty” he says. I mention here in Sydney it’s 9pm and I’m sweating my ass off. He suggests we need an “Intercontinental Heat Exchange Mechanism (IHEM)” as if he’s already got the patent for it. See, Black is a man of action, utilising every piece of technology to create his arts. If the technology doesn’t exist, well he’ll create that too. But until he’s sorted the thermodynamics behind the IHEM we’ll sit on opposing ends of the earth coping with our respective situations.
Sound Mirrors, Coldcut’s first album in 10 years, is a cut ‘n’ paste masterpiece that blends hip-hop, breaks, bhangra, jazz and soul seamlessly with guests like John Spencer, Saul Williams and Roots Manuva. At the time of the interview, before it had dropped, file-sharing networks already had postings of the record. But Black, a computer programmer, and his Coldcut cohort and fellow Ninja Tunes record label owner, Jonathon More, an ex-art teacher, have also been pirate radio DJs among other titles of political and public provocation, so are in tune with what is happening. Black says while people are stealing their music, there can be a benefit to the piracy. “I tend to think with a person such as Madonna say, most people in the world have decided she’s rich enough and really, it doesn’t matter if they download her music. I’m not saying that’s right, that’s just what a lot of people think. Now most people in the world probably haven’t heard of Ninja Tunes. So as music gets shared and copied the Ninja Tunes vibe spreads to bunches of people who haven’t heard it yet and I reckon a certain number are going to want to partake in the Ninja thing and support us by buying our music. So from our point of view there are some good sides too. Having said that, labels are going out of business left, right and centre and it’s extremely tough at the moment. Hopefully our fans will buy the proper thing.”
Black and More aren’t the type to sit on their laurels. Pissed at being ripped off by record companies many years ago, they started Ninja Tunes, developing it into one of the finest independents around with hip-hop side-shoot Big Dada; between the two boasting the likes of Mr Scruff, Kid Koala, Roots Manuva and Hexstatic. Now, to deter the downloading public and promote the purchase of their CD they’ve shown ingenuity yet again. “On the new Coldcut website there will be parts only accessible if you’ve got an official CD, [it will] unlock areas and give you registration there. If you haven’t got that then you won’t be able to access the various goodies that we are going to put on the site,” explains Black.
Innovation is the name of the game. A few years ago Coldcut included their patented VJing software, VJamm, as an extra disc to a release. It’s the same software that Black uses on stage for mixing live video footage as More mixes the music. As another bonus for non-downloaders, the new album includes a data partition that will have a demo of “a much more sophisticated and exciting beast”, VJamm 3, the first version available in stores. Black elaborates, “It’s the same program and some of the same clips that we actually use in our live show. I went into the studio with a guy called Jungle Drummer from London Electricity, a leading drum ‘n’ bass outfit and filmed him doing some jungle breakbeats and I’ve cut them up and put them as samples into VJamm.”
Black’s creativity flows into another side project, an art installation engine called Gridio. It’s a VJamm based piece whereby people walking around the room trigger samples and make an audio visual type mix which is then projected around screens and speakers, controlled by the participant’s movement. It’s been featured in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona and in Gratz, Austria, each time loaded with different material.
But is there a level of hypocrisy in Black’s attempt to debunk CD piracy while sitting on the huge catalogue of visual samples he uses in a VJamm performance? “We’re aware we can’t just take “King Of The Swing” from The Jungle Book and stick that on a DVD and sell it otherwise we’d get fucked. For the live show it’s fair use to cut and paste stuff from film and TV in the same way a DJ can mix records together but in terms of putting that on the release, one’s got to be more careful. We did licence visual samples on the track “Timber” from Let Us Play that a lot of people know us for. There is a native woman singing this rather lovely chant and we licensed that from the rights holder. I don’t know if she got any money though. We did a track called “Re:volution” a few years ago, a pretty funky political cut up track to celebrate the election and the excellence of our politicians. There is a great sample of Tony Blair saying ‘The lunatics have taken over the asylum’ which pretty much summed it up really; he gives a good sample, Ol’ Tone. We chopped it up and that was actually shown on MTV and was widely circulated. We kind of feel that politicians, the news and the media, they’re fair use really. We pay those guys’ salaries, and the news is the news – it’s what’s going on around us, it’s not just something owned by Rupert Murdoch.”
Coldcut’s anti-establishment ethos has been there from the beginning, in one form or another. With a patch over one eye and cheeky buccaneer-snarls, they were instrumental in the development of London’s premier pirate radio station, KISS fm with many other well-respected DJs. None more so than Norman Jay MBE, to which, of the heady days of KISS, Norman says “We didn’t play obscene records, strange records [yes], records that nobody else would play. We broke the radio mould in that sense, especially with forward thinking people like Jonathon More and Matt Black.”
Matt continues, “Any of us could have gone to gaol for being on that station and from a DJs’ point of view, worse, had our record collection confiscated. But KISS was very lucky. We never actually had a studio bust. We were technically a bit more sophisticated than some of the other stations and actually had microwave links from the transmitter to the studio, now you can’t trace a link like that very easily. So when the DTI who were the authority used to bust it they’d take the transmitter but they couldn’t bust the studio because they couldn’t find it. That was a piratical trick that sort of saved our bacon. But you can get two or three years for running a pirate station. I kind of feel the authorities felt that KISS was the more professional of the stations. We behaved ourselves and we were providing a type of music people wanted to hear which I think is the reason KISS eventually received their licence. I don’t want to big-up KISS too much because I’m not very keen on the way the station has gone since. But back in the day it was the sound of London. It’s interesting to see that process going on whereby the underground throw out that energy and get that love from the people and the commercial vultures sweep in, transform it and package it into just another flavour of hamburger. And then the underground would have to reinvent itself again.”
So as the underground is minced up, pressed into a patty and served with a double dose of cheese what can we expect from the backburner, on the fringes, bubbling and festering? Black and More moved pretty quickly to the Internet as broadband spread. Aside from their Solid Steel radio show allowing anyone in the world with a modem to listen in, they saw another opportunity – Guerrilla Netcasting as Black calls it. “ is another project that I started up a few years ago with collaborators which has been quite a training school, teaching people how to be their own TV station and do streaming media. Apart from just streaming music and entertaining people, there is also what we call dis-entertainment, which is entertainment with an activist thrust to it.” Not only did they host such varied guests as Radiohead and The Surveillance Camera Players but covered protests and served as a catalyst for free thinking. “When the Reclaim The Streets Mayday protests were kicking off in London we were actually getting footage brought up to the Coldcut studio and streaming out within half an hour of it being filmed so that people around the world could see what was going on there and get an unfiltered, unsanitised report from the frontline, rather than the propaganda version they’d show later in the news.”
More recently Coldcut took on the most powerful idiot in the world, in correlation with the US elections of ’04, collaborating with politically activated cut and paste artists such as Nomig as well as TV Sheriff for the project. “If you have a look on you’ll see this thing called Coldcut vs TV Sheriff: World of Evil and we did that for the American election which was a sort of a remix of the “Re:volution” track. We generally collaborate with people from different countries when we’re going to make a comment like that, to find out how they feel about their own country rather than steaming in and wagging a finger from abroad.” A quality the leaders of the free world could take on board.
And once more their scepticism in the powers that be comes to a front on Sound Mirrors, initiated immediately by the guitar-driven rollicking opener “Everything Is Under Control”. It finds American swamp rocker John Spencer howling the chorus and Mike Ladd’s grimy rap spitting shards of lyrics inspired by American free-thinker and psychedelic guru, Robert Anthony Wilson. “He wrote this book called Everything Is Under Control that is a run down on what goes on behind the scenes; how the banks work, who’s running things, different scandals. He doesn’t say this is the truth, you’ve got to believe it – he just puts out ideas for your consumption. His message is ‘distrust authority and think for yourself.”
Showing no sign of dissonance in music or in life after 20 years, Black and More’s stance reflects that of Robert Anthony Wilson’s message. “They’ve definitely inspired me to the attitude that you can do anything in music,” says George Evelyn of Nightmares On Wax, and owner of Wax On Records. As Coldcut continue to invent more methods to distribute their mayhem these pastiche pirates also inspire through independence and innovation artists like Evelyn for the future.

Coldcut’s Sound Mirrors is out now on Ninja Tunes

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