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  • Why It Matters that Black Men and Queer Women Invented Digital Remix Culture
  • Abigail De Kosnik (bio)

Black men and queer women invented digital remix culture. In the mid- to late 1980s, Black men developed and popularized digital sampling, a technique of extracting segments from existing recordings and using them to form the musical tracks of hip-hop songs. In the 1990s, queer women founded and populated the first wave of online fan-fiction communities. While many non-Black and nonmale people have made significant contributions to sampling, and nonqueer and nonfemale people have participated heavily in fan production, digital sampling and fan fiction gave rise to the remix culture that has proliferated and thrived on the internet primarily through the creative labor of minority musical and fiction artists.

The first digital sampler was invented in 1969,1 but sampling as a production technique began to reach mass audiences in the second half of the 1980s, when groups such as Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, N.W.A., the Beastie Boys, De La Soul, and [End Page 156] Run-D.M.C. incorporated as many as "20 or 30 clips in each song,"2 with some clips lasting only a few seconds.3 Over the melodies and rhythms constructed from these samples, rappers laid down their rhymes. Sampling introduced the acts of copying, cutting, and mixing to everyday culture, simply by being employed so heavily in the first wave of rap and hip-hop music. The sound of hip-hop consists of sampling plus rapping, and although many cultural critics and fans initially concentrated their attention on the mechanics and impact of MCs rhyming over beats, it was the beats—made of digitally copied and edited samples—that taught millions of people to accept that new, original media texts could result from older texts being chopped up into bits and the bits combined in unexpected ways. Because hip-hop as a genre helped define the cultural zeitgeist of the late 1980s, Black male artists' sampling innovations wove digital remix into popular aesthetic experience. By the time the World Wide Web launched in 1991, hip-hop had already proved that making and sharing remixes were among the most exciting and rich artistic practices that digital media could facilitate. Both official and fan producers issued a plethora of mixes, versions, and edits of films, television series, music recordings, video games, and other media forms that circulated online starting in 1991, but this cycle began with the technological advancements and marketplace triumphs of early hip-hop groups. Margie Borschke argues that "remix" is a term that scholars and journalists took up from the music world and applied very broadly to all digital transformations; she warns that "remix is neither new nor [exclusively] digital."4 Following this line of thinking, I assert that sampling can be viewed as the bridge between the audio remix styles that predated the internet and remix as it is widely understood today—that is, as a term that describes a wide range of cultural genres made with "cut/copy/paste technologies" and shared online.5 Remix culture was not born on the internet and is not restricted to the internet, but remix culture does thrive on the internet, and it does so largely because sampling-based music enjoyed enormous popularity just before the internet became a publicly available resource.

Fan fiction's influence on contemporary digital remix culture may be more disputed, because fan fiction is still widely perceived as subcultural. However, fan fiction should be understood as a mass media format, not a marginal one, given that every month thousands of writers publish tens of thousands of new stories on fanfic sites, where millions of people read and comment on them.6 Fan fiction texts such as E. L. James's Fifty Shades (based on Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels and Summit Entertainment's blockbuster Twilight movie series) and Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments (based on the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling and films by Warner Bros.) have been [End Page 157] issued as best-selling novels and adapted as films and television series. The popularity of these texts suggests that fanfic's...


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