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Copyrighting Plagiarism

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Black Book (Anuj Desai)

by Anuj Desai

Thanks to the Tape-beatles, anarchy’s ring has never sounded so familiar. An Iowa-based outfit which considers themselves to be ‘cultural embezzlers’ according to founding member Lloyd Dunn, the Tape-beatles’ albums are produced with tidbits of propaganda injected with an air of ‘War of the Worlds’-type narrative drama. As the most overt expression of their challenge to current copyright legislation, the Tape-beatles create their sound collages with familiar, but illegally co-opted, soundbites.

‘We don’t clear any samples because we don’t believe we should,’ says the bearded, 42-year-old Dunn as he adjusts his horn-rimmed specs. ‘Plagiarism is a creative technique for original works, and sampling—when you can take a piece of a work and respond to it to change its meaning—is a sign of a liberated society.’

With such a credo in mind, the Tape-beatles melody-free offerings pursue the inherent musicality in speech. Hoping to find a pop sensibility within their musique concrète theory, the trio of Dunn (computer consultant by day), John Heck (waiter), and Ralph Johnson (media advisor) created their early sound collages with ‘razor-blade edits’ of familiar television and radio clips. Starting in 1987 with two audio cassette recorders as their only ‘pop instrument,’ the Tape-beatles couldn’t help but better their mixing technique as they churned out follow-ups to their 1,000-copy, word-of-mouth debut. As a result, the outfit had a temporary identity crisis, going so far as to release albums under a different name while emphasizing creative technique at the expense of their political agenda. On the eve of their summer release Good Times, however, the group has chosen to reclaim its original name and, to a lesser extent, its propaganda.

‘The best form of administration to us would be no government at all, but our agenda has gained more focus and reality,’ Dunn, dressed in a Fruit of the Loom T-shirt, Wal-mart khakis, and formerly standard-issue anarchist’s Doc Martens, continues. ‘Take fashion, for instance: Though we are intellectually allergic to such cultural arenas, without the sidekick of fashion in all its forms, the noxious gas of capitalism would surely put us all permanently to sleep.’

But what if they suddenly found themselves as commercially viable as their upper-cased namesakes? ‘We probably want to be more like the Velvet Underground than the Beatles,’ says Dunn. ‘We want to be influential; not sell well.’

Black Book, Summer 1999, p. 29

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