Sometimes I’m forced to look into the very heart of my whiteness, and it’s astounding.
It’s like walking down a long, white tunnel inexorably towards a blinding vanilla light. As I get closer I hear echoes of the Hellman’s Mayonnaise jingle and the white granny shouting “Where you at?” from cell phone commercials. Finally I reach the precipice and am forced to stare down into the abysshizzle.
Today I was reading an entry on the “Making Light” blog, which is about 30% sci-fi writers’ lounge, 95% repetition of leftist mantras and liberal outrage. They link to this video of 70s Danish pop star Tommy Seebach’s cover of “Apache.”
That sounds familiar, I thought, and not just because I’d already seen the video several months ago. The hook sounds a lot like “We Run This” by Missy Elliot, another song I got into about eight months after it was already old news. Apparently, it was used in the soundtrack of a movie about white high school gymnasts, and I probably heard it in a commercial.
And that blog post leads to “All Roads Lead to Apache”, a fascinating (seriously!) run-down of the evolutionary chart of the original song and how it stretched from surf music to disco onto the earliest hip hop and then dance, electronic, and back to rap and hip hop. James Burke would be proud.
Turns out Missy Elliot’s version is heavily sampled from the version by The Sugarhill Gang. Which is itself about four levels deep into the cover chain.
So the fact that I’d never heard the Sugarhill Gang’s version of the song before is a good indicator of my whiteness, but it’s also an account of how circuitous a route pop culture takes before it hits any kind of saturation. I’d heard of the band before, and “Rapper’s Delight,” but probably because of a soundtrack or a commercial. Same with Grandmaster Flash and Fab 5 Freddy, who I only know because they’re referenced in “Rapture” by Blondie. Which leads me to conclude: Deborah Harry was a hero to most, but she don’t mean shit to me.
Actually, I see it as a sign of just how extensively hyper-linked we are, and how it’s not a new phenomenon. We like to think that samples and mash-ups and remixes are relatively recent innovations, but people have been making covers and references and allusions and homages and outright intellectual property theft for centuries.
We’ve also been conditioned to think of it in terms of theft and culture rape, usually described as I do above — white people taking black people’s art and robbing it, watering the soul out of it, and making a fortune off it while the real artists toil away in obscurity. There’s plenty of that going on, and there always has been. But in the longer term, and if some measure of creativity is inserted along the way, it’s the way culture works and has always worked.
And we’re at the best point in history to be able to track how these things come about and see every step of the evolution and all the connections between the individual parts. Don’t like a remix? There’s easy access to the original, and to the tracks it samples from, and the track that inspired the original, and the four other covers of that track. Looking up the Ventures’ cover of “Apache” on iTunes, I found a bunch of other songs and artists I’d never heard of before, including some tracks that I’d never realized were themselves covers of earlier songs.
Before stumbling on this article, I’d been getting into a pretty jaded impression of our segment of the Information Age. The “If you like The Pixies, you’ll love Nelly Furtado” “features” on internet recommendation sites never work, because they just keep recommending crap or stuff you’ve already heard. And remixes are hardly ever as good as the original, and blog articles generally repeat the same stuff, are shallow, or just eventually lead to a Wikipedia entry. Occasionally you’ll stumble on some blogger’s all-time favorite obscure band, and you’ll listen and realize that they were obscure for a reason.
Back when I first saw HyperCard and then later, Mosaic, I got the sense that links and aggregating information were a novel concept, even if I couldn’t foresee exactly how they’d be revolutionary. Now, though, I’m back to feeling that there’s a ton of stuff out there left to see. More than even the most dedicated hipster could see in a lifetime.