We live in a culture that assigns great importance (rightly so) to recycling, reusing, and repurposing. The main purpose is to get the most out of our limited resources, to use the entire buffalo. A secondary purpose, which the concept of mash-ups certainly explores, is to not reinvent the wheel. There’s a great quote given by one of the toy designers in “Hacking, Mashing, Gluing: Understanding Opportunistic Design.” He says, “It’s never cheaper to start from scratch to make your own.” First, yeah, there’s no reason to develop the same technology that already exists or to break your back making a lesser version of a product that is commercially available. [Trash for Teaching in LA uses surplus items to teach kids about building and creating. Kids can invent and build with all these random materials that they don’t need to build from scratch.] Second, I think it’s telling and frames the entire argument that he didn’t say “or” as in “It’s never cheaper to start from scratch or make your own.” What he’s saying is that it is so not even remotely cheating, stealing, or anything nefarious by using a preexisting item. “It’s never cheaper to start from scratch to make your own.” You are still creating your own invention, you are still creating something new, even when employing elements of other people’s work.
Art is historically built on appropriation. The litigation surrounding art is a fairly recent development. I can certainly respect the fact that Jay-Z wants what should be coming to him, but let’s go back to early days of hip hop. We wouldn’t have this amazingly innovative and culturally significant art form without sampling, which can perhaps be understood as an early prototype of mashup culture. As long as time remains linear, we are meant to build on the things that come before us. We create new by exploring our history and all that exists around us. Danger Mouse is not criminal. He and Freelance Hellraiser and Norwegian Recycling and Girl Talk and countless others are all out there (or within the privacy of their bedrooms) grasping the best (or worst) of commercially viable music and creating something new, thereby elevating the original pieces and exploring their new poetic and profound qualities.
By grabbing the tailcoats of those who came before and resolutely refusing to let go, we can fly to new heights of creativity and creation.
**Jonathan Lethem has a great piece on art appropriation called “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” if you’re interested.
** Fabulous discussion of sampling and appropriation in David Foster Wallace’s fantastic Signifying Rappers.