The Tape-beatles rip-off all of their material
by Brendan Kelly
The Tape-beatles are into sampling. So what, you might mutter. So is every other pop act on the planet, from M.C. Hammer to Jesus Jones — stealing bits and pieces from other artists’ songs has become the norm in the Top 40.
But there is one big difference in the case of the oddly-named Tape-beatles: The Iowa-based quintet’s music is 100% pre-fabricated samples, and they’re proud to proclaim that none of the sounds on their latest compact disc are original. Every note and word on the 31-track, 45-minute album has been sampled — stolen? — from other sources, except for one word in the last piece, which is actually spoken by two Tape-beatles. Appropriately enough, the word is “tape.”
“We’re just pushing sampling a little further,” says Tape-beatle Paul Neff, in a recent phone interview from his home-base in Iowa City.
“We’re trying to go all the way; to cut out a lot of the hype like the need for somebody crooning sweet vocals and all that stuff. We use sampling as its own medium and let it live up to its own potential as a tool for composers.”
The album — Music with Sound, which is billed as “A Plagiarism® Production” — is an occasionally maddening, occasionally entertaining polemic on the topic of copyright claims, composers’ rights, and the use of culture and music. The Tape-beatles do raise a number of issues that most ordinary pop fans have had to deal with since the sampling trend took over the airwaves. Music with Sound seems like an attempt to argue that sampling is as original — or unoriginal — as most pop songwriting.
“When you sample, you’re acknowledging that the music that you’re sampling is as much yours — because you have heard it and consumed it — as it is the composer’s,” says Neff. “What is not sampled? When do we ever compose anything that is not a digestion or regurgitation of what we’ve learned as musicians? Everything is sampled.”
Obviously a lot of composers don’t share Neff’s views — and they’ve gone to court to protect their rights. Is it really fair that every two-bit rap act gets to rip-off James Brown’s classic funk riffs just because they can’t come up with any of their own ideas?
“I kind of felt bad for James Brown when he was in prison,” admits Neff. “All these guys were making a lot of money off his music and nobody was helping him out until M.C. Hammer did. But most of the stuff that the Tape-beatles use is not out of your high-ground popular culture that’s making money. We’re not sampling a lot of Beatles or James Brown or Led Zeppelin. We use a lot of records that we buy at the Salvation Army for fifty cents and that no one has listened to for 20 years. We’re quite fond of instructional materials. We dig through the hidden dregs of culture and try to rehabilitate it.”
In spite of their Liverpudlian moniker, the Tape-beatles do not plunder the Fab Four’s back catalogue. In fact, there is only one Beatles sample on Music with Sound: They use a chunk of the music from “Eleanor Rigby” on one track. They have yet to hear from Michael Jackson, who owns the rights to the Beatles catalogue.
“That Beatles song worries everyone because it’s one of Michael Jackson’s songs and he’s quite sensitive about that stuff,” says Neff. “But I’m sure he doesn’t even know about it. We’ve sold less than 1,000 copies of our CD.”
Neff and his Tape-beatle colleagues — Linda Morgan Brown, Lloyd Dunn, John Heck, and Ralph Johnson — may be treading thin legal ground, but the Tape-beatles’ radically democratic argument makes quite a bit of sense in an art form — pop music — which is all about creative theft. After all, where would the Rolling Stones or the Beatles be if they didn’t have all that Black American music to borrow from. Rock’n’roll has always been built around the idea of imaginative musical larceny.
“We have music shoved at us all the time by record companies and radio stations,” says Neff. “It’s a one-way street. Here, people are finally able to take that and use it for themselves. If you like something, you can put it in your own composition, and make it a part of what you’re doing, and not just be on the end of someone’s marketing scheme for that music.
“Music is not real estate. Music is a bunch of ideas, and ideas are for everybody to use. Somebody owns the copyright to all the Supremes songs. Millions of kids walk around singing those Supremes songs all the time and they’re very important to them. To talk about owning that is like talking about owning a kind of emotional commitment. It’s not a strong legal argument, but it’s a strong emotional argument.”
Try telling Michael Jackson that.
The Tape-beatles at Foufounes Aug. 17, with opening act Sucking Chest Wound.