In defence of stealing: if Hannah Wants is guilty, then so are the rest of us

Hannah Wants

The past weekend I’ve seen an outpouring of moral indignation from fans of a genre founded on creative theft. Hannah Wants has stolen Boddika’s ‘Mercy (VIP)’!  I’ve also seen a lot of hate from a scene founded on equality and acceptance of difference; one which, despite its demographic shift in the years since the notion of ‘underground dance music’ came about, still has the pretension to hold itself in exemplary contrast with the misogyny of the big-room ‘bro’ culture it tends to associate with fans DJs like Hannah Wants herself.

Her Wikipedia page has taken a Protean turn over the course of the day, telling us that she is “a British DJ and plagiarist from Birmingham”, “the sole cause of Fabric’s closure”, and that her “notable instruments’ consist of CTRL+C. ‘DJ’ and ‘plagiarist’ seems like an unnecessarily tautological bit of filler. DJing is, by definition, a form of plagiarism, like collage or TS Eliot’s poems. It’s about finding skill and beauty in the way things are re-contextualised against each other. Just like when Duchamp put a urinal in a gallery and called it ‘Fountain’, a track finds new meaning in the context of a mix. And the Fabric accusation is plainly untrue – because Hannah Wants plays below 140, amirite? However, the line about ‘CTRL-C’ (read: ‘sampling’) as a notable instrument raises more interesting questions.

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It’s no secret that since Pierre Schaeffer (above) and the beginnings of the Musique Concrète movement in the 1940s, sampling has played an integral part in the compositional practices of experimental musicians. In the late 70s DJs like Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash (below) pioneered turntable sampling, repeating instrumental breaks from disco records to provide backing tracks for MCs. This move was inherently political. It provided a means for artistic expression to young African Americans in deprived communities, who couldn’t afford ‘legitimate’ (expensive) musical instruments. Of course the backlash from the mostly white, relatively affluent fans of rock and more traditional genres was strong. To them hip-hop wasn’t democratic, it was stealing and therefore less credible, less artistic.

Today stealing has become sampling, it’s become white-washed or universalised. It’s become credible. As with most political art forms subsumed into the establishment, it’s been blunted and de-politicised. What started as an innovation – with poor artists using small sections of wealthier artists’ work to create commercially viable music, that lifted many of them out of genuine poverty – has become free game even for the middle class bedroom producer who wants to release a white label edit of a rare (read: ‘not originally commercially profitable’) afrobeat track he/she has found on Soulseek. The language around it has changed. Stealing has become sampling.

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The question of language is crucial here. Stealing/sampling/appropriation – they all mean the same thing, but the values behind them are vastly different. ‘Sampling’ is generally used in a technical sense, the literal copy-and-paste technique, but I struggle to see any real difference in value between this and using a phrase, a melody, or a rhythm. As a practice this goes back hundreds, maybe thousands of years. If we look closely at the similarities between ‘Found The Ground’ and ‘Mercy (VIP)’, the main points of resemblance are the rhythm and the structure. There are entire genres in the history of music and art based on the use of a specific structure, entire forms of dance music stretching across hundreds of cultures and hundreds of years, based on using a particular rhythm. In fact, we don’t have to look that far to notice the rhythmic similarities between the ‘Mercy (VIP)’ and Kerri Chandler’s 1992 ‘Get Up’. All music is constrained within particular forms and its ability to innovate within those forms is what makes it so vastly exciting.

The argument here might be that the variation in instrumentation, the difference in particulars isn’t enough between the two songs, but this would be a misunderstanding of its purpose. Dance music at its core is functional, and it can be more or less innovative according to taste. In her response to the backlash, Hannah Wants wrote, “I’ve been supporting Mercy (VIP) on radio, in mixtapes and in my DJ sets since its release and I went into the studio to create a piece of music that had a similar impact on the dancefloor.” The accusations thrown around on social media have framed the issue as if the track were intended to be anything other than a functional dancefloor piece, but we’re all well aware of how overplay can detriment the impact of a track, and how an edit or a remix can breath new life into it. Whether we like the new version is not an issue for moral judgment. Countless edits, credited and uncredited, with varying levels of difference to their original tracks are repurposed and sold all the time, so where the line is drawn between what is an acceptable level of difference and what it not, is entirely arbitrary and totally subjective. And so, then, is what counts as stealing.

Stealing is the language of private property, of law, and of morality. While Hannah Wants’ borrowing of rhythm and structure from Boddika’s VIP is a pretty far cry from the original turntablists’ use of disco breaks, the backlash and the accusations of theft are similarly from a majority white, male establishment that somehow still has hang-ups about who can make ‘real’ or ‘legitimate’, or even saleable music. The whole discourse around Hannah Wants, long before ‘Found The Ground’, has been based on questioning her capability to fulfil her job as DJ and producer, and has consistently taken the form of “oh but of course this male producer ghostwrote it for her”, or “I guess she probably uses the sync button”, or “OMG SHE STOLE IT FROM BODDIKA”. When FACT told us in 2014 that ‘Still D.R.E’ was written by Jay-Z, and that most of ODB’s Return To The 36 Chambers was written by RZA and GZA, did anyone stop buying Beats, or did anyone renounce their ODB fandom? Did knowing that Goldie works with a sound engineer stop him from getting that MBE? Sure, there are growing numbers of female and non-binary DJs and producers achieving popularity in the ‘underground’ scene, who play and create the sort of music that we like, but that seems hollow when the response to a woman acting in that role who plays music we don’t like is to question their competence, rather than their subjective taste.

The only argument I find persuasive here stems from the commercial aspect of the music. It seems incredibly unfair for a DJ and producer with a large commercial audience to release a track that will probably end up making more money than the one on which it’s based: a complete reversal of the purpose of sampling in early hip-hop. But to argue this would be inconsistent when we continue to buy edits of rare disco or afrobeat records, and it arises as a moral complication only because we’re in a situation where art is valued against money. The arguments against Hannah Wants in this case, the accusations of theft are a denial of her right to a stake in the market.

Shouts to Ruf Dug and everyone I stole ideas from for this piece.

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