Art upon art is art. Art inside of art is art. There is no right or wrong way to make art and debates about originality, ownership and building art upon existing art, or even placing old art inside of a different art to create new art are almost as old as the concept of art itself. Arguments about creativity, imagination and artistic inspiration go back centuries, as do theories and debates about plagiarism and originality, from the dodgy dealings on the Dutch and Parisian art markets of the 1700s and 1800s or even further back to the copyists of 15th century Florence, to modern day forum spats about sampling in music, remakes of films or similarities in literary endeavours.
In the 19th century, French (though born in Uruguay) poet and writer Comte de Lautréamont produced his two major works, Poésies and Les Chants de Maldoror before dying from a fever during the siege of Paris in 1870. Over 70 years later a scandal ensued when it was revealed that significant chunks of his work were pilfered from other texts and incorporated into his own work, without citation and thus creating a new piece of original art (not everyone saw it that way). Taken from McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath The Street (2011), Lautréamont’s approach is explained both in his own words and with an eye to the future, a future we now inhabit perhaps.
‘Lautréamont expands on his distinctive poetics: “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It closely grasps an author’s sentence, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one. To be well made, a maxim does not call for correction. It calls for development.” It’s a passage often taken as saying something about poetics, less often as saying something about history. Lautréamont corrects, not back to a lost purity or some ideal form, but forward – to a new possibility.’
The debate in 1950s France led to Guy Debord and the Letterist International (soon to become the Situationist International) to defend Lautréamont and credit him with the creation or discovery of a new method, which they called Détournement ‘as in to detour, to hijack, to lead astray, to appropriate’. Whilst not everybody agrees, for me there is a direct link, a lineage from Lautréamont and the debates that surrounded his work to the early use of samples in American hip-hop, which can then be directly linked to crate-digger culture, using and decontextualising beats, samples, jazz grooves, vocal snippets and cultural samples from films or TV and putting them into a new piece of music and effectively creating something new – new art. DJ Shadow, the Mo’ Wax label, Skint records, Andrea Parker, RZA, even Fat Boy Slim – they are part of that lineage, that tradition. And that brings us to THE MIILLION and their album The Beat Up.
The Beat Up is an inventive, noisy and big album, full of big beats and dark energy. There are samples, beastly guitar licks, sometimes funky and bouncy bass lines, sometimes much more sinister grooves. There’s a lot happening on this record and on certain listens I’ve imagined it as something else, as a full orchestra on acid, demented yet just about coherent, going with a certain black flow as the xylophone player downs tools and starts blasting obscure beats and quotes from films out of his smart speaker. The cymbals take a beating, the brass section are brawling and the conductor has picked up an electric guitar and is attempting to lead the band through a combination of psychic connection, religious zeal and sonic instructions created through six strings and numerous effect pedals.
Perhaps I’ve gone too far… Opening track Industry Paint gives a tasty insight into what’s on the menu. Fuzzy guitar, turntablism, big beat, crashing cymbals, eclectic samples from film, radio and hints of soul music and funk. At just over two minutes it’s a short sharp burst of brilliance. Crakked Thousand Ten is carried along by a 90s era New York hip-hop beat, with dark lyrical content riding along it. The vocals are sleazy and a little grungy and though not really of the same style, there’s a touch of Baxter Dury in there, think Cocaine Man. It sounds like a ring walk, with an angry, violent energy that threatens to spiral but never does, held together neatly by the beat and the music. There’s a Kurt Cobain quote tucked away in the middle of the track, a sample of his speech at the 1992 MTV Music Awards – ‘you know, it’s really hard to believe everything you read’, truer now than ever before.
Go Uneasy has a Prodigy feel in its ferocity and drive, whereas the vibe changes completely on Leslie Williams. This is retro turntablism but it is somehow haunted, a lament almost for the sound, the era, for that something that is perhaps missing in today’s digital age. UHA (Youg) is big. Big beat, big distortion, explosions, bass, vocals sitting tantalising just below the mix. This one stomps along, interspersed with spoken samples and deranged guitar licks. It breaks down into old skool turntable funk and break beat and you sense this is a world where THE MIILLION live, this is home and heritage to them, the music they love and are passionate about.
Bad & Wicked opens with a quote ‘There’s no tedious conventional learning by heart, you listen, you understand and in a surprisingly short time you find yourself talking’, which in a strange way spoke to me about my experience reviewing The Beat Up. You listen, you start to get a feel for the music, the complexities, the switches and changes of direction, the breaks, and in a surprisingly short space of time you start to feel it, to understand it and here I am, talking about it. The beat has a slight acid house tone to it, though more subdued, complimented by a guitar or bass (or both?) bubbling away underneath it, though not buried. The lyrics can be hard to make out at times, a spoken hush, ominous snippets of which reveal themselves over multiple listens. Around 2.40 in the guitar erupts briefly, disappears just as quickly and then comes back before the end of the track; a propulsive blues tinged lick, not unlike The Black Keys at their most distorted. Fused is essentially a techno track, seasoned with repetitive vocals and subtle bursts of experimental electro-noise.
Tuff Whistler has a certain simplicity about it, which works perfectly and is utterly compelling. It transports you, takes you to a city at night. This is cruising in your car round town at night music, dope music, the shadowy underbelly of the urban environment music. A sample laden beat with the lyrics rapped/sung above it, lightly clouded in scratchy distortion.
Kix is a perfect way to end the record. You’re going under, consumed in a carnival of sound, beats, samples, indistinct reverb, and nods to various influences. You could listen to this track numerous times and still be discovering a sound, a drum beat, or a little nod to a funkier, more soulful time that you’d missed first time around.
If you enjoy hip-hop, breaks and big beat you’ll love this record. If you’re a music fan open to exploration and creative beat driven music then there is plenty here for you too. The Beat Up is part of a certain tradition, produced with a certain ethos in mind but it doesn’t have to be consumed in that way. Like all art, all music and literature and film, once it is out in the world, the consumer, the audience starts to dictate the meaning and the context. And so that cycle, that debate around ownership of art continues, goes full-circle and can never be resolved through legislation or by men in suits. It is above all of that, beyond it, somewhere in the future. And so THE MIILLION, anonymous as they are, have birthed a child, created a record, moved things forward. They haven’t searched for lost purity or some ideal form; they’ve embraced new possibilities and created new art. And I suspect they’ve had a good time doing it.
THE MIILLION – The Beat Up is out 24th September 2021, a tape cassette release (with download code) via the Industrial Coast label.