music | features | artist interview
DJ RipleyIn-between Spaces
Jungle, Astor Piazzolla and rethinking legal categories regarding music and copyright. Spannered meets DJ Ripley
By Bruna Rocha
From warehouse parties to gigs on ships, Mashit Records collaborator DJ Ripley has been busily crossing sonic and national borders with her fiery, jungle-charged DJ sets. Yet spinning records is just one of the interests with which Larisa Mann fills her days. Here the researcher, blogger and medical activist talks to Spannered about her influences and current pursuits, and the potential social effects of intellectual property laws.
- Listen to DJ Ripley's mix recorded exclusively for Spannered.
Could you tell us about how you got involved with music?
Well it's a long twisty tale. My father is a poet, composer and a musician and really into jazz. My mom sang a bit, and our house was full of jazz, folk, and modern 12-tone stuff (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern etc) as well as more 60s era things. I started piano lessons at age seven but I didn't really consider myself into music until my mid teens when I was involved in the punk/hardcore scene in Boston in the late 80s, mostly as a fan and dancer. I used to love slamdancing but back then we used to pick each other up if anyone got knocked down... I had also started going out to the only underage (18+) party in the Boston Area, at a goth club called Man Ray where they played industrial and random other stuff – some Chicago house and Belgian (Front 242/Watts Music) type things. That place was great. Meanwhile the hardcore punk scene started getting more violent and macho, right around the time I left for college in 1991.
I went to Oberlin College in Ohio and was into the indie rock scene as well as still following the post-hardcore stuff like Helmet. But I also started going to warehouse parties (we didn't call them raves but I guess that was what they were) in the Cleveland area, and then continued in Boston when I was home for the summer. I got into Riot Grrl as part of a feminist pushback into the punk scene, but got kind of burned out on organising and intra-group politics and not as interested in the actual punk and hardcore music. I first heard jungle at an after-hours party in Boston called The Loft and it was an incredible musical moment. So exciting, so complex, so many elements you could pick out and respond to!
By 1995 I was back in Boston and going out to every jungle night I could, and bigger parties in the North East – at campgrounds, warehouses, factories, school gymnasiums. I joined a band as a keyboard player doing sort of jungle-influenced kinda dreamy stuff. There was also a DJ in the band and I used to borrow his decks and records and play around a bit. By 1996 I bought my own decks and got records mostly off fellow junglists and the sale bin at Breakbeat Science (making pilgrimages to NYC), and Satellite records in Boston (and NY). Initially I bought hardcore/noise as well, but didn't play it out as much since I wanted to connect with dancers first and I couldn't figure out how to do it right away.
The most important thing for me musically in Boston was the Toneburst crew, a loose collective of highly talented and aware people doing multimedia events at all kinds of interesting spaces. It was a great network of people who are all doing amazing things even now – DJ C, DJ Flack, DJ /rupture were nearer to the centre, Keith Fullerton Whitman, DJ Duo (his QE2 radio show in Boston is still going and probably the first place I heard electronic dance music on the radio), Aaron Spectre, other folks were present at various times.
You are undertaking a PhD in legal studies at present. Could you tell us a little about it? Did your musical work inspire your studies?
Jurisprudence and Social Policy = Law & Society. It's a social science degree from a law school. Premise: a gap between law "on the books" and law in action, ie what we do everyday is quite different from the rules about legality in many contexts. The law & society people study the gap, the relationship between those things.
My own work is on the social implications of intellectual property law. It comes from my understanding that the way the law talks about ownership and rights in many contexts is different from how people without power have behaved, and legal and economic justifications for enforcing or correcting ownership rights usually have worked to take power and freedom away from the less powerful.
It is also inspired by all the musical scenes I have been a part of, and all of our unspoken understanding of the gap between the musical practices we value and the way law understands what it is I do, and all of us do. Copyright law's vision (in laws, and in the words of judges) of what creativity is and how it works, for example, is pretty different than what most people do with music and what it means to them. One example: the law mostly gives us rights based on whether we are a maker vs. buyer, or an owner vs. non-owner, but those divisions don't really relate much to how most of us deal with music. That's one of the things I'm most interested in.
I'm also interested in how changing technology changes the way law can be used for or against music users. A lot of the technological changes that people adopt for fun or convenience are also a way to monitor and control behaviour.
Artists are – and constantly have been – outdone when it comes to rights over music they have had a hand in producing. Do you think artists and people involved with music need to be more aware of the machinations of the music industry and legal questions? If so, any suggestions on how this can be brought about?
Yes. Making more art is the first thing.
Although I don't think law is the right way to police these issues, I do think artists should be seriously thinking about ethical issues about consent and participation, and about representation. "Property" or "ownership" are really weak and often destructive ways to think about consent, representation and participation.
As far as suggestions, one would be to hope artists don't assume that law is there to protect your interests, or even if you get access to law (legal 'protection'), that it will. And don't be too narrow about what your interests are!
So, power is often more important than having the law on your side, the law itself doesn't recognise a lot of things we care about, but also, mass participation, publicity, anonymity can all be sources of power.
There are a lot of ways artists can organise themselves, but I would want them first to think seriously about what their rights are – and how much their rights depend on excluding or including different groups of people, especially music users who usually don't get to be called authors.
So I'm not into simply strengthening copyright law, or making sure more artists are protected by it, I'm interested in breaking down the assumptions that artists are competing with each other and with fans who want art for their own purposes. I'm also interested in broadening people's demands. I know music-making is seen as a way out of poverty, or a way to make a living, and I think it can be, but I'm not sure the arts should be required to pay your bills before all else – I wish we had a social system here that made sure you don't starve. If you force copyright law to be the mechanism by which artists live or die, it's not going to be so good at that, it never has been. Larger social change is required.
In your blog you cite various musical influences, such as hardcore band Bad Brains, reggae, dub, dancehall, booty bass, breakcore, dubstep, breaks… Do you see a common thread running through certain genres of music? What is it that attracts you to the music you listen to and play?
I can't define it. I think there's a lot of rawness in my music – an aggressive edge to a lot of the sounds. I don't like a lot of new happy-sounding music; the happy music I do like tends to be low-fi. In beat-oriented music, there are particular syncopations that almost always get me – especially having enough space around the beats, are all really important. Very little four on the floor moves me, unless it's a bit skippy or swung. Most breaks that I hear around the Bay Area (or the genre ‘UK breaks’) really bores me – it's too square and predictable- give me Baltimore club music or Boston bounce or dubstep and grime beats. I guess I could say that plenty of bass is a common thread in the dance stuff.
But I don't know how to generalise what I'm drawn to. I listen to a lot of tangos – Astor Piazzolla, but I only like the solo bandoneon stuff; I like some jazz, but particularly Thelonious Monk solo; I like rocksteady and dub, but can't take too much lovers; I like old gospel like Blind Willie Johnson and the Golden Gate Quartet but don't like slickly produced new gospel. But I love Bay Area hip hop, stuff on Peace Off, Aaron Spectre, a lot of incredible production there. I love Deadbeat and High Tone Soundsystem. I dislike jambands and extended solos, I like some of that heavy, chunky, rhythmic stuff like Helmet, or 90s indie like Big Black, the Jesus LIzard and Slint. I just know when I hear it! Someone will have to tell me what it all has in common besides me.
What makes you blog?
Partly it's an avenue to vent, or explore ideas, since I think as I write. Also as a way to find other people who are interested in these things. Maybe to educate or at least share my ideas that other people might find interesting or helpful. Especially in terms of how many of us are taught to discuss things like music, our vocabulary can be quite limited, and I try to challenge that as much as I can.
You say you are a 'medical activist'. What does this entail?
I'm on hiatus at the moment, but for several years I was a volunteer street medic at protests and demonstrations, taking on the role of being aware of the physical health and safety of people at protests (and coming out of jail after protests). It didn't involve a lot of complicated medical treatment, but it's a different way of being present. I care a lot about people’s right to protest, and about protest movements being long-term and livable. I also think decentralisation of medical knowledge is important. People's bodies and bodily health are often ignored until they hurt/are seen as a problem, but prevention, attention and care can make all of us more effective and connected. Many of this is not high-tech stuff – both in the moment at protests, and over time/across the world, access to healthy food and clean water is vital.
The best medical intervention I ever did at a protest was, together with my team, getting a huge crowd of people running away from an advancing line of cops to walk quickly instead. Nobody fell, nobody was trampled, no sprained ankles, people kept an eye on each other… That and giving out water probably prevented more injuries than all the injuries I have ever helped treat.
Could you elaborate on the work of some of the artists' whose music you've been particularly enjoying of late?
The Bay Area is really spoilt for choice these days: Eustachian (Fathme Records) has the most ridiculous live show. The Stapler is rumbling in the background with some ragga-influenced sounds in a new direction, ready to burst forth. Mochipet and Daly City Records continually throw down a jolly, musically diverse party wherever they show up. Bay Area hip hop is continually amazing – from The Federation to Mistah F.A.B. to E-A-Ski to Nump. Lots of wordplay and odd production tricks and ridiculous samples and references (I only wonder how and when the ladies will make themselves known).
Outside the Bay Area: Disrupt is an artist out of Leipzig, Germany, who makes digital laptop reggae that manages to be soulful but glitchy but essentially in some way reggae. A perfect balance of pretty disparate elements. It's on the Jahtari label, and has a Chiptunes sound but is not at all gimmicky – or the little elements that make you laugh don't trivialize the music.
Cardopusher, out of Venezuela, is one of the breakcore artists I relied on a lot while on tour this summer. Really fast, inventive, funny, music – keeps changing, and doesn't fetishize death.
Baseck out of Los Angeles, CA, USA, is doing some absolutely sick stuff playing music off of tweaked Gameboys. When he keeps his trousers on, it's one of the best shows around, and the music is great too – I want recordings!
Two DJs – Cella and Megabitch. Cella is maybe out of Texas? Can be found online at www.echowreck.net. Two amazing mixes, lots of tension and atmosphere, but reliably bumpin' as well. All the best aspects of what mixes should be – for the head and the body, but more heady than dancefloor.
Megabitch for the dancefloor – part of my local 5lowershop crew, throwing down hilarious combinations of booty breaks, techno, glitchy bounce.
You've played at many different types of parties, in many locations… Which have been the most memorable, and why?
I organised a Street Medic benefit party at 23 Windows Warehouse in Brooklyn, courtesy of Havocsound and Virus/Renegade crew. A few hundred people came; DJ C and DJ Flack and a whole host of other awesome artists donated their time and amazing skills. It was unrelentingly positive and went smoothly, and there were people from the neighbourhood (before it was warehouse-squatted) dancing with people from the squats, a nice mix all round.
On the MS Stubnitz – a giant commercial fishing ship that a crew of artists run, it goes up and down the European coast. I've played a few times, but I think Poland was maybe the best show, although quite weird. The ship is so incredible, and it's so interesting to come in to this tightly organised social group that has to manage this huge responsibility. And then they dock at a city and open the doors and everyone runs around like crazy people on deck and below deck.
I played at the Jardin Moderne in Rennes, France. That audience is consistently the most musically literate in what I do – people always ‘get it’ instantly. And what happened at the end also blew my mind: it was a free party and I knew I wasn't getting paid, but they passed a hat around after the show and people put coins in and I had like 120 euros! I was really touched – it was such a crew of local music peeps and crusty dreadlocked freetekno folk, but I had footed my own travel costs to get there, and they just took care of me. Awesome people.
My last gig in New York, courtesy of Complacent.org (now TheDanger.org): a big spring party with all kinds of techno, Wolf + Lamb, DJ Spinoza, other NY geniuses. By the time I got up there I was itchin to throw down, and people were screaming and falling on the floor by the end of my set. A real connection with the crowd and the right balance of playing stuff that they'd never heard before and then cutting in some E-40 or something familiar in that new context and turning it all upside down.
Listen to DJ Ripley's mix recorded exclusively for Spannered