Remix Culture, Revisited

Where do great ideas come from?

Often, the answer is “other great ideas, sort of mashed together.”

The term “remix culture” was coined after the invention of technologies that made hiphop possible: literally sampling pre-existing recordings. Sugarhill Gang’s landmark “Rapper’s Delight” samples the bass riff from Chic’s “Good Times,” a riff which has since been sampled dozens of times, by everyone from Grandmaster Flash to Will Smith to Daft Punk.

Of course, the concept of using someone else’s work to make something new has been around since nearly the dawn of music. In his classic Folk Songs of America, historian Alan Lomax takes a moment to defend “cowboy music” from “book-learned folklorists” who at the time alleged that it didn’t count as a true folk movement, since so many of the songs were reworkings of older ballads.

“To my mind these critics have merely pointed to the fact that the West was a cultural melting pot,” Lomax wrote in 1960. “…That this evocative and self-consistent body of oral literature could have been created in thirty or forty years (for the open range period lasted only from 1865 to 1900) and under constantly changing conditions, is a marvelous example of how quickly a folk culture can grow up when it is needed.”

These days, remixing extends well beyond rewriting a Maine lumberjack anthem to be about herding cattle on the Trail of the Buffalo. “Remix culture” is now perpetuated by open source image manipulation software, along with the widespread availability of sound and video editing. It is easier than ever to take one cultural object and turn it into something else. Essentially, technology has democratized the remix.

As creativity researcher Kirby Ferguson reports, hardcore rock aficionados sometimes dismiss Led Zeppelin as “rip-off artists” because many of their songs contain parts that seem wholesale lifted from old blues standards, like Sam Cooke’s “Bring it On Home.” “Stairway to Heaven” steals its opening licks from the band Spirit and their song “Taurus.” This was pretty common at the time; a lot of rock bands covered other people’s stuff. Ferguson suggests that perhaps Zeppelin’s real sin was not changing the songs enough, and neglecting to credit the original writers.

In fact, Ferguson makes the case that most entertainment is a kind of legal remix. Genres like horror, action, or romantic comedy can only exist because creatives have borrowed from each other to create a commonly understood palette of ingredients, from jump scares to car chases to meet-cutes. This isn’t even getting into the number of films each year that are direct remakes, sequels, or adaptations of pre-existing stories (I’m looking at you, superhero movies).

Ferguson vividly demonstrates how even game-changers like George Lucas weren’t working from scratch. The iconic Star Wars seemed to invent a new genre out of whole cloth, but in fact much of its power comes from the bafflingly wide assortment of older ideas Lucas threw together, from old Flash Gordon flicks to Westerns to Joseph Campbell’s philosophies. In fact, the original trilogy includes many shot-for-shot copies of scenes from other films, including Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies. (Luke’s white tunic in the first Star Wars is familiar to any young martial arts student.)

Recently, Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar for Best Actor in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Much like Star Wars, the film includes some striking visual parallels to another director’s work, namely legendary Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. An intrepid viewer put together a supercut of those moments here. However, unlike perhaps Led Zeppelin, Iñárritu openly admits to Tarkovsky’s influence, among others.

The key to novel recombination is making surprising new connections across a wide variety of disciplines. In Hamilton, composer Lin Manuel-Miranda captures the machismo and illicit danger of eighteenth century dueling with “The Ten Duel Commandments,” an obvious homage to “Ten Crack Commandments” from rapper Biggie Smalls. The juxtaposition is jarring and uncomfortable, and it works.

When viewed through the lens of the remix, it becomes apparent just how much of how lives consist of recombination, from our conversations to the clothes we wear. We are constantly putting a new spin on the same old. That’s not necessarily good or bad—it’s a mixed bag. Which is to say, a sort of remix in its own right.