Den Sorte Skole— “Every sound tells a story, and every voice has an echo.”
Above: Den Sorte Skole’s Simon Dokkedal and Martin Højland in their caravan while on tour last year supporting Trentemøller. Photo: Luci Lux.
On their latest album, Lektion III, Copenhagen-based DJ and production duo Den Sorte Skole (AKA Simon Dokkedal and Martin Højland) deconstructed and reassambled thousands of samples across the genre spectrum in order to create music that questions the notion of authorship and originality. The result is a sonic safari through a veritable jungle of styles and ideas that shot to the top of more than a few year-end best-of lists for 2013. But it also made the ambitious Danes too illegal for labels and distribution alike. Max Dax spoke to the pair, who recently played at our EB Festival in Zagreb, about the philosophical and cross-cultural conundrums that sampling evokes.
Max Dax: You’ve used literally thousands of samples from all possible genres to create Lektion III. Since we have to start somewhere, I’d like to know how you stumbled upon the work of Karen Dalton, whose violin on “Katie Cruel” you used on “Did You Ever.”
Simon Dokkedal: I think Martin read about her and bought the LP a few years ago. But there’s an interesting reason why we were even able to sample the violin: When Karen Dalton recorded the song, it was in fashion to keep the instruments sonically separated.
In a similar act of creative appropriation, Nick Cave also based “When I First Came to Town” on “Katie Cruel.”
Martin Højland: It’s all about appropriation, and “Katie Cruel” is a prime example of what you can do with sampling that modern production can’t. When you listen to her voice on that track in particular, it has this completely unique and authentic feeling about it. Hopelessness and the feeling that the end of the world is near are present in her voice, as well as in the tuning and sound of the violin. It’s so raw and real. When you sample it, you’re importing this feeling of authenticity into the music. You could never recreate that feeling with any violinist from any orchestra. So, samples, for people like Simon and myself, are like voices from a forgotten time. They represent something that has to be kept alive.
In other words, Lektion III is a kind of “protest against forgetting,” as Hans Ulrich Obrist would say?
MH: Yes, you could say so. People tend to define history on the basis of its biggest milestones, the most iconic people and the most dramatic events. But history is richer than that and full of forgotten pearls. When Searching for Sugarman about Sixto Rodriguez came out, everybody was so surprised that such a musician could exist without the world knowing about him. But there are lots of these forgotten people that played an important role in shaping the paradigms and times in which we live. On Lektion III, some of these people get another chance to shine: Exuma, Eden Ahbez and Brigitte Fontaine, people with very open minds, crazy thoughts and rough lives on the edge of society. They did things you couldn’t have and paved the way for all the normalizers that turned their weirdness into something more mainstream.
SD: When we started doing the album, we talked a lot about how we’d like it to sound, and gradually the idea of reviving old voices became more and more central. It became clear to us that we would only sample old and obscure stuff from all around the world rather than newer and known music from the West. And that’s why you’ll find very few samples on the album that are from after 1979, when I was born.
MH: I was born in 1980, so we basically grew up with the music of the nineties.
SD: We wanted to open our ears to stuff we didn’t know. As a band, we started out spinning hip hop in the nineties and understood early on that almost every hip hop track is based on a sample and thus references something older. We wanted to base our album on samples that no one had used before us, but found that this is really hard these days. Most of the North American and Western European stuff has been found and used already. Almost all of the soul and funk records have been mined for usable samples. So we tried to dig deeper and wider. We had to go further back in time and extend our hunting grounds to include the whole world, and especially more unusual genres like early modern classical music, field recordings and Indonesian jazz.
Simon Dokkedal and Martin Højland acquired the albums pictured here through months of research on eBay and Discogs following the disapearance of their favorite blogs and music archives in wake of the dismantling of file hosting site Megaupload.
MH: That’s also why we ended up listening to the entire catalogues of Asmus Tietchens, Conrad Schnitzler and S.P.K. At a certain point in the process, these early experimental electronic musicians came into the picture. That was a real turning point, because they provided us with a really fresh electronic sound that balanced the otherwise dustier atmosphere on Lektion III. Actually, these “early” experimental electronic artists—including people like Igor Wakhévitch—were doing things in the seventies that people are still struggling to emulate today.
I recently spoke to occasional Kraftwerk collaborator Emil Schult about the relevance of the connection between electronic music and Joseph Beuys. Did you know that both Schult and Conrad Schnitzler were students of Beuys and were taught that every artwork has to serve a societal ideal? Schult stressed the fact that in the 20th century, there were only two real innovations that foresaw the universal language of the 21st: the invention of the transistor and electronic music’s use of algorithms on the one hand, and Beuys’ social sculpture anticipating the Internet as a social network on the other. I think this is particularly interesting in the context of this magazine, which is financed by a multi-national telecommunications company and focuses on the rhizomatic aspects of electronic music and human interaction, online and off. I think that you guys operate precisely at this conceptual intersection.
MH: That’s why, for us, listening to echoes of the past doesn’t necessarily mean doing something nostalgic. Today’s world is truly globalized and it’s possible to merge musicians, sounds and styles from everywhere. I think the real question is when this will happen in a non-sampled form. The danger is, of course, that our ethnocentric Western attitude will probably erase these wonderful regional cultures before it can happen.
Did you really travel around the world? Or did you virtually travel on the Internet?
SD: Unfortunately, we didn’t have the money to really travel the world on the scale we would have liked.
MH: But it was very surprising for us to find that vast amount of information online. We found so much inspiration on the countless music blogs like Mutant Sounds, Holy Warbles, Ghostcapital, and MFT3F. There was also a thrilling blog by a Norwegian guy living in Indonesia, who uploaded hundreds and hundreds of Indonesian jazz and folk records and tapes from the ’60s to the ’80s and organized them into a massive archive. He scanned all the liner notes and pictures and every copyright credit. We were in Copenhagen, searching for samples from completely obscure stuff—it was so overwhelming and it could never have happened 15 years ago. We combed through all these blogs and transferred massive amounts of music onto our hard drives. Then we sat for a whole year in our studio listening to two hundred albums a week for seven hours a day and eventually creating our own archive with all the usable samples that we’d find during these listening sessions. Quite boring at times, but I guess we are very geeky by nature and aware that structure and discipline lie at the heart of most good things.
SD: From the beginning, we tagged each and every sample according to style, tonality, speed and its instrumentation. We had folders for easy listening, with psych, noise, jazz, field recordings, folk—you name it. We were shocked how much the music from, say, Ghana differs from Mali. But then you suddenly encounter a rhythmic pattern in Thailand that corresponds with another pattern in Colombia, and with our DJ backgrounds we tried to figure out if they somehow match. We also refused to use the advantages of modern software like Traktor or Ableton. We didn’t pitch any of the samples to make them fit. We insisted on finding matches instead. The whole process was like searching for needles in a haystack. It wasn’t intuitive or funky or anything; it was just plain discipline. No rocking, beer-drinking jam session up in our studio—maybe just a mindexpanding joint once in a while. Of course, every now and then we’d have a session with matching material. But the real magic would appear if, after hours of inconclusively trying to match a sample with something from our archive, something suddenly truly beautiful touched our ears—simply because two musicians from different times and different worlds started to play together.
MH: We had a plan and a vision, but on January 19, 2012, the file sharing host Megaupload was closed down by the FBI, and within a few months, the FBI, Google and some of the other big players shut down the entire infrastructure that these blogs depended on. All the blogs we loved were suddenly cut off from their archival basis. All the links went dead, and all the music disappeared. It was a catastrophe for them. The Norwegian guy in Jakarta had built probably the biggest online archive of Indonesian popular music ever—I think because the Indonesian government doesn’t see the need or doesn’t have the money to take care of running an archive of their own. It’s sad and upsetting to see all this work erased over night by the biggest players in the market in an attempt to protect their own shares.
SD: But thanks to the extensive copyright credits by all the bloggers, we started to purchase the original vinyl records of all the samples we intended to use and replace the MP3’s with better quality recordings. Discogs and eBay were really helpful at this stage, and we spent a lot of money.
MH: We succeeded in getting approximately 70 percent of the source material we had originally collected for Lektion III on vinyl. The missing 30 percent were mostly WAV files created from otherwise impossible-to-find vinyl sent to us upon request from the people who were running the original blogs or from record collectors all over the world. For us it was a really special feeling to witness how all this energy came together in this project.
Did you ever feel like the cyber successors to Alan Lomax?
MH: You know what? We didn’t know about Alan Lomax and his work as an ethnomusicologist when we started working on Lektion III. We didn’t even have a clue who Harry Smith was, who compiled the world-famous Anthology of American Folk Music, until we were researching some unknown folk track.
For a while now, I’ve been dreaming of writing a novel based on the exact experience that you’re describing: you start with Internet research, say, on Alan Lomax and the Delta blues, and then you loose yourself in the labyrinth of information and cross-references and hyperlinks. It’s only a short way from there to, say, Greil Marcus. It was Marcus who coined the term “invisible republic” to describe the importance of weird, old, eerie folk music whose singers and songwriters wrote a kind of counter-history to the official narrative. These people had the task of mapping out another America, the invisible republic that only shows its face through the haunting imagery of the songs they’ve written.
SD: You’ve hit the nail on the head with the connection between Greil Marcus and the old folk tradition. That’s why it was so important for us to release Lektion III with an extensive booklet of liner notes describing not only our ethnological approach, but also carefully listing each and every sample that we’ve used and crediting the artist, year, country, song and the album we found it on. Just putting out the music wasn’t what it was all about. We wanted to give life to the various voices from the past. Sharing information was a big, big part of the project. In that way we were able to honor our sources and hopefully inspire people to dig into these amazing discographies.
MH: And you’re right that we ended up being a kind of successor to Alan Lomax. Technology today made a completely new project possible compared to the limitations Alan Lomax had to deal with. We were able to virtually travel to Honduras, India, Lebanon and Siberia through the blogs and were not limited to the Mississippi Delta. Thanks to the Internet and the effort of all the bloggers, we could sample the sounds of 51 different countries for the same project, and create a “counterhistory to the official narrative,” to put it in your words.
Speaking of technology, you mentioned the FBI shutdown of Megaupload, which was essentially carried out to protect copyright holders—i.e. international corporations who own catalogues of artists’ rights. I think that the whole copyright system should be radically reconsidered and reshuffled as we have such different systems and standards for different entities. Take cooking for example: I understand the current state of cooking as the product of thousands of years of experimenting and refining tradition. So if you want to cook, say, spaghetti Bolognese according to a recipe, you’re not infringing on anyone’s copyright. Of course, this is more comparable to playing a record than sampling it. The latter would be more like the physical reprinting of a copyrighted recipe, for example from star chef Ferran Adrià i Acosta. But you can’t digitalize cooking. It’s still a physical act. In light of current copyright law, you’ve produced a highly illegal album. What’s your take on the issue?
MH: In music, copyright is the domain of lawyers and record companies. But like in cooking, as you say, music has always been about appropriating something, altering it and turning it into something new. Much of African music, for instance, has been about singing songs in a religious context that were written long ago. By singing them in a new century or in a new context, you alter them and you don’t have to ask anybody for permission. That’s how the blues developed, and nobody stopped early rock and roll bands from turning the blues into something “white.” Copyright truly became an issue with the rise of big business in music and entertainment in the ’70s, when their lobbyists started buying up all the rights in order to regulate access. I mean, according to our laws today, Brahms could have been sued for mashing up Beethoven’s ninth in his own first symphony. And genre-defining albums from the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and De La Soul could never have been released today. The old system has worked successfully for hundreds of years. We could even extend this back to Homer and, later on, the Bible.
SD: Actually, the whole concept of oral history is based on the ability to use and write down the words of someone else and turn it into a book. Copyright in music today favors big corporations and successful musicians. You can’t sample Madonna without immediately facing a lawsuit from her lawyers or paying her off with a lot of money. But if you are an African, Belgian, or Chinese producer and doing something interesting, you can be sure that it’s much more difficult to sue the American production company who took your idea and changed it into something new. You’ll starve before you get your day in court. This is, of course, an oversimplification. But the American producer who just sampled an old Turkish record won’t be sued by the family of the copyright owner because they won’t know about it. He didn’t credit the original source and will run off with both the fame and the money.
MH: That’s cultural imperialism in disguise, and that’s exactly the reason why we made an extensive booklet that functions as a guide to Lektion III. Not a single artist is left out, everybody can trace his or her sample. As I said before, we didn’t try to disguise the samples by pitching them up or down or by playing them backwards or by processing them through an effects filter. Yes, we used the violin that can be heard on Karen Dalton’s “Katie Cruel,” but we put it in a completely different context and it now lives again in a new piece of music. And yes, we used Asmus Tietchens’ “Tina, ich liebe Sie!” that was originally released on a cassette compilation called Sex & Bestiality from 1984. In fact, that was one of the few samples we used that was released after 1980. And you can go check out all of Tietchens’ work, because it is brilliant. So now you know.
It’s interesting that you mention Asmus Tietchens. He’s an old friend of mine, and we frequently discuss his work at Electronic Beats. I fondly remember a seemingly endless boat trip with him through the most remote corners of the vast Hamburg harbor. He and his assistant had installed an underwater microphone next to the ship’s propeller and on the deck he’d manipulate the sound and fade other sources into the mix—that is, while everybody else got drunk. I don’t know if they recorded or ever released it, but it was an afternoon to remember.
SD: Every sound tells a story, and every voice has an echo. By providing the booklet we made sure that anyone who wants to dig deeper can easily do so. If someone wants to know more about the foundational loop of “Staklenih”—the Tietchens track used on Lektion III—then they can go for it. I bet that in Denmark next to nobody has ever heard of him.
Coming back to the copyright issue: Even though I think that the system is not fair, you still didn’t clear the rights to any of the samples you’ve used. How do you plan on dealing with that?
SD: Having used thousands of samples in the recording process, we could never get a hold of all the copyright holders and make a separate deal with every single one of them. It’s fifty-one countries and every one of them has different laws.
To me, the album is like a big question mark. You ask the question, but nobody has an answer.
MH: That’s true and a very good description. And this is the political part of our project: to challenge the existing laws and the music business. We actually posed the question directly to the Danish branch of the IFPI, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. We asked them for a collective clearance of all the samples and suggested that we split the royalties with all the respective copyright holders. We waited for three months, and then they said they wouldn’t do it. They essentially pretend to be representing the interests of the authors but somehow always seem to reject solutions that would benefit them. And we got word the day we finished mastering the record—the day before we were supposed to send it to the pressing plant!
Photo: Kristoffer Juel Poulsen
Which reminds me of other inconsistencies of the copyright system. German television directors for instance can use whatever music they want, because they pay a flat fee to the GEMA, the German royalties collecting and broadcast licensing society.
SD: By now the problem has multiplied for us: Because we were not allowed to clear any of the samples we used via the IFPI, we can’t sell our album on iTunes, Boomkat or any other download platform. So we did an illegal pressing of a thousand triple-vinyl copies and self-released it on our website. And we also sell it on tour. We ship it ourselves, we have no distribution, and if you want to get the digital version of Lektion III you can download it for free on our website—including a PDF of the booklet.
MH: I think that the IFPI was afraid to set some kind of legal precedence. By the way, we were invited together to talk about this on Danish national television during the evening news with the IFPI, but they refused to join the discussion, and we were left alone with the news host to explain the issue. Despite this little triumph on prime time, it’s still very complicated for us. We don’t have a label, we are not part of the established music business, and we simply don’t have access to the market. We are living in a virtual parallel reality to the so-called real world that all of us are exposed to on a daily basis. But one thing is for sure: the FBI can take Megaupload offline, but this doesn’t mean that they’re doing the right thing. On the Internet, a new culture of sharing content has already spread. I think the kids of today don’t give a shit about copyright. They simply don’t understand the problem and they speak from a completely different place in history. They grew up with the iPhone and all kinds of copyrighted material just floating around and up for grabs in the social sphere. They can’t understand why the old laws should kill creativity. They can’t understand why they are being criminalized for doing what people have been doing throughout history: taking the things that surround them, altering them, developing them with the technological methods. And the whole copyright issue gets even nastier when you look at vaccines or AIDS medication for instance. Things have to change, and we are proud if Lektion III can play even a microscopic role in this process. ~
This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 37 (1/2014). You can purchase this issue, and back issues, in the EB Shop.
Published November 12, 2014. Words by Max Dax.