At the beginning of 1998, it felt easy to peg Beck as one of the top-tier artists of alt-rock. After he followed up the seemingly out-of-nowhere success of “Loser” with the career-solidifying multi-genre pastiche Odelay in ’96, he had a lot of goodwill to coast off, and spent most of ’97 putting out remixes of some of that album’s enduring later singles (“The New Pollution,” “Jack-Ass,” “Sissyneck”) and a new song (“Deadweight”) that was recorded for and has since left a more lasting impression than the Danny Boyle film A Life Less Ordinary. On top of that, he won Grammy Awards for both Odelay itself (Best Alternative Music Album) and its first single “Where It’s At” (Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, an award previously given to Tom Petty in ’96 and successively to Bob Dylan in ’98). But with a bigger profile comes a bigger target, and the widespread critical and commercial success of Odelay stirred up a familiar annoyance among a particular subset of musicians stuck with one longstanding, nagging question: Just what does it take to get a sample cleared?
That was the question posed by Deconstructing Beck, an independently released compilation put out on Negativland’s Seeland label 20 years ago this week. The project was a joint effort between musical collective Illegal Art and notorious pop-culture saboteurs RTMark — the former a future home to legendary cut-up artist Steinski and mash-up phenomenon Girl Talk. And according to the initial press release, dated February 17, 1998, Deconstructing Beck was intended to “spark dialogue on corporate wrongs” and point out how “[Beck’s] lucrative persona remains just another product that others get rich from, and one that we need to subvert.” The subversion in question, then, was a multilayered effort: Turn the music of an accessible, marketable alt-rock icon into something far more difficult to mainstream, make a political point about who profits from sample clearance issues, and (this was key) piss off the higher-ups at Geffen. The result is one of the weirdest noise albums to ever double as a half-sincere tribute record.
There are a couple actual recognizable names on Deconstructing Beck. Corporal Blossom, whose “Burning Today’s Memory” is a shifting series of mash-up ideas (including an ear-catching layering of the guitar from “Blackhole” over the drum break from “Loser”), had affiliations with the creator-controlled WordSound label and a long history with the Brooklyn-based hip-hop-dub illbient movement.
Meanwhile, the Evolution Control Committee provide the unflatteringly titled “One Beck In The Grave,” which takes pieces of music from his K Records folk classic One Foot In The Grave and gets them nice and drunk (complete with burps); it’s a mildly annoying afterthought next to the ECC’s pioneering mash-ups layering Public Enemy à capellas over Herb Alpert instrumentals or the notorious Dan Rather-skewering AC/DC goof/news-horror roll call “Rocked By Rape.”
But the identities of most artists are kept close to the vest — whoever Mr. Meridies or Jane Dowe are, their litigation-ducking pseudonymous attributions have been rumored to be anyone from Illegal Art’s webmaster Steev Hise (whose “Stuck Together, Falling Apart” is the Beck discography as a box of Legos in a tumble dryer) to Negativland themselves.
It’s a bit more interesting, then, to forego the who’s-who speculation and consider how some of these songs were actually constructed. There are a few songs, like J. Teller’s white-noise-ambient “Fat Zone” and Huk Don Phun’s decaying spasm “Killer Control Enters Blackhole,” where it’s likely even diehard Beck fans would only hear the samples after being told they were there, and then only after a lot of ear-straining. But a few others leave the seams visible in memorable ways. Jane Dowe’s “Puzzels & Pagans” is not just a collage, it’s a random number generator experiment; according to the (scant) online liner notes, it “takes the first 2 minutes and 26 seconds of ‘Jackass’ (from Odelay) and cuts it up into 2500 pieces. These pieces are then reshuffled taking into account probability functions (that change over the length of the track) determining if pieces remain in their original position or if they don’t sound at all.”
And “Doublefolded,” credited to one Hromlegn Kainn, builds off Plunderphonics innovator John Oswald’s experiments in layering sound samples atop each other in a sort of multileveled distortion, then building a halfway-to-drum’n’bass groove beneath it, an army of “Blackhole”s and “Beercan”s jostling for elbow room.
The question does linger just a bit, though: Why Beck? Odelay was just one of the big flashpoints of sample culture at the time, and compared to some of the its notable record-shelf cohorts of the time — like DJ Shadow’s MPC masterclass Endtroducing… and the Fugees’ super-blockbuster The Score, to point out two of them — the idea of an alt-rocker making sample-based music for a major label might have registered a bit more blatantly than someone who came from a more traditional hip-hop background, even if sampling and other copyright issues bedeviled hip-hop since “Rapper’s Delight” pinged Nile Rodgers’ radar back in ’79. On the other hand, Beck also typically kept his samples spare and obscure, even when (or should that be especially when) working with the Dust Brothers. Compared to the Beatles/Led Zeppelin/Pink Floyd/James Brown/all of God’s green Earth blockbuster hits they plundered for Paul’s Boutique in ’89, the crates they dug into for Odelay went a bit deeper. (“Where It’s At,” for the record, is its own singular oddity in that, when else would Lee Dorsey’s deathless break “Get Out Of My Life, Woman” bump up against art-weirdo agitators the Frogs?)
In the end, maybe there was an understated notion on the part of the Illegal Art team that the target of their deconstruction might actually stick up for them in the face of his label’s litigiousness. (After all, the initial press release did state that targeting Beck was unusual for them, since RTMark “usually targets the crassest of mass-produced items,” whereas Beck was a “superb artist.”) The labels and legal teams in question did constantly yank RTMark’s chain when it came to whether or not suits would be filed: Beck’s lawyer kicked things off with an aghast warning to Mark Hosler of Negativland (“bragging about copyright infringement is incredibly stupid”), only for different Geffen reps to alternately plead ignorance and join BMG in threatening cease & desists. But nothing ever really came of it. Hosler’s defense of Deconstructing Beck as a holistic, non-competitive work of music meant to comment on pre-existing art rather than plagiarize it was the kind of justification that only a lawyer could hate.
And as a last resort, it’s easy to think of them appealing to Beck’s own sense of art. As much of a fuss as people have made about his Scientology involvement, one part of Beck’s upbringing that appears to be the most formative was his maternal side of the family’s involvement in pop art: His mother Bibbe Hansen was a teenager in Warhol’s Factory scene who later co-formed the band Black Fag with genderqueer icon Vaginal Davis, and his grandfather Al Hansen was a member of the Fluxus conceptual art movement who hung out with Yoko Ono and John Cage. And after spending most of his dead-broke pre-“Loser” youth honing his weirdness around various Dadaist and anti-folk scenes in the late ’80s and early ’90s from LA to New York, his initial reaction to Deconstructing Beck, if he ever heard it, must have been recognition — not of the sounds themselves, but of the creative impulse to break those sounds apart and ruthlessly manipulate them to make something far stranger. Hell, he’d already heard what Aphex Twin did to “Devil’s Haircut” — what’s another 13 subversions?
So in the end, as confirmed in a couple different documents — including, somehow, a Longmont Potion Castle prank call — Beck’s own reaction to the project’s dicey legality was simple: He just didn’t care. At least, he didn’t care about the legal ramifications. Meanwhile, the next album Beck released after his deconstruction was Mutations — a live-band album which he began recording a month after Deconstructing Beck came out that included approximately zero samples. Beck wanted it released on Bong Load Custom Records, the indie label that broke “Loser,” but DGC put it out themselves. And then both labels sued him for breach of contract. So he sued them back. Whether or not you consider Beck’s music ironic, you have to consider this turn of events to be.
And then there’s another matter of timing. One month after the release of Deconstructing Beck, the fledgling website Salon put out an early, eye-opening article about another, far more meaningful possible copyright nightmare: the concurrent rise of MP3s and filesharing, which writer Andrew Leonard explained with vintage early-web optimism: “The defenders of the intellectual-property status quo fear nothing but trouble — escalating techno-warfare and proliferating piracy. But some musical rebels sense that a cherished dream might be beginning to come true — the dream that the Net can smash through the old-media bottlenecks of mass marketing and distribution and usher in a new age of creative prosperity.” What happened next — Napster, RIAA crackdowns, iTunes, Spotify, Target and Best Buy ceasing CD sales, and so on — are all bigger, more existential changes and crises for the music industry now than a group of guerrilla beat-manipulators with pirated Mac software turning Mellow Gold into mangled wreckage.
And while the points made by Illegal Art and RTMark about the need for a more open and accessible form of sample-based expression still stand, our current moment of pop’s 1% taking the lion’s share of the industry’s money and attention means the millennial generation’s answer to Beck-style indie experimentalists are likely to have a bastard of a time getting adequately paid for their own work, whether they’re making it or hoping to get some royalties from someone else sampling it. Still, the late-’90s worries of copyright laws stifling creativity, while still worth leaving in the back of one’s mind, haven’t come entirely true: Everything from underground hip-hop beats by vets like Madlib to YouTube-uploaded hypnagogic pop and “chill beats” A/V collages have pushed the limits of sampling without fear of repercussion from an increasingly flailing music industry. When deconstruction fails, there’s always attrition.