My favorite concert of the 1990s was spread around through early file sharing years after the concert occurred. There is a moment where the band gives a shout out to a girl standing next to my friend. Now that Napster is down, those files are impossible to find, but I kept one that has passed from hard drive to smart phone to cloud drives, and I will always be there in the roar.
Looking back on the 1990s, they were a time already looking back. Adolescence itself is a time of sampling adult pastimes and ideas and integrating them into your childhood to make yourself an adult. I turned 20 in 2000, so the 1990s and my adolescence are synonymous. During most of that decade I held little regard for hip-hop, and even when I did acknowledge its importance, I did so with a reserved tone. I still appreciate it more than I love it. Because of hip hop and the internet both, the 1990s were defined by the redefinition of intellectual property as a result of technologies whose full implications we still don’t understand, changing the world before the law or art could catch up.
Though it wasn’t my favorite, hip hop was music; adults insisting otherwise sounded crazy. Of course race was involved in this derision, but something else was at work as well. The 1990s saw the ascendance of sampling from past songs as the best way to get a hit, from Puff Daddy to the Verve; the genre didn’t matter. The future was coming in through the back door. And that concept of sampling is how I conceptualize the 1990s – people sampled from different eras and different cliques and created identities that were at once derivative and inventive. Borrowing and stealing became the best ways to be original; uniqueness where nothing is new comes from reorganization of old pieces into something unrecognizable, something new.
Everything now was once new. I introduced perhaps a hundred people to the web in 1995. The internet of the early nineties was so successful because it applied the model of collage, of hip hop, of borrowing to renew through reorganization. Twenty years ago now, when Netscape was first released, the World Wide Web was little more than images captured without rights with haphazard writings holding it together. Before ecommerce, fan sites, whether educational or pornographic, were the only thing on the internet with appeal beyond academia. People who weren’t impressed hearing sound bites from the Simpsons on demand would perk up when I went to a directory page for Pamela Anderson pages and they saw the listed possibilities.
There were other damaging possibilities. Stealing music through a computer was impossible until Mp3s became available, and difficult until Napster, and time consuming until broadband. All of those events converged at the end of the 1990s. By 1999 I sat in my dorm room sharpening fuzzy memories of concerts by listening to shows I thought were lost in time. The new way of sharing information that mimicked new music’s patchwork glory was about bankrupt a generation of people who wanted to keep stitching that patchwork. That sharing was done in a way that mimicked the music that was being shared. No one cared. There was too much free gold to rush to for many to wonder: did music’s embrace of sampling lead to its own demise?
Twenty years on, I would rather listen to the roar when my favorite band says the name of a girl I know than that band’s best album. How I got there really takes me back.