Music: Remix your television set

First there was the Portastudio. Then there was the home sampler. Now, there's VJamm, a box of tricks that allows you to mess with both sound and vision in your own bedsit...
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The Independent Culture
Not all disc jockeys are created equal. Sir Jimmy Savile and the early hip-hop maestro Grand Master Flash are completely different animals. The former played records; the latter played with records - cutting, chopping and scratching them on twin turntables to produce new music from old vinyl. In the right hands a record-player can be a musical instrument, rather than a simple tool.

Consider now the pop music video: its function is to provide visual expression for a song scribbled on the back of a beer mat. The singer/ songwriter and the video producer/ director are separated not only by time, but also by work in different media. Video jockeys (VJs), however, treat audio and visual as one, cutting, chopping and scratching video samples together to produce new music and video from old footage. The song cannot pre-date the video because they are one and the same. Video music is a completely different animal.

Not everyone gets it. The MTV producer/ director James Hyman has showcased much of the cutting-edge work on his show, Party Zone. The genre's true significance is largely lost on his bosses - and most of the twentysomething, trainer-clad MTV staff. It's no surprise. VJs like fast edits, and spinning, twirling, imploding computer graphic indents, too.

"Timber", a video music track produced by the London DJ duo Coldcut, was shortlisted at last year's Edinburgh Television and Film Festival in their top five music videos of the year. It did not star R Kelly, Oasis or Madonna, but buzzing chainsaws, chopping axes, falling trees and wailing Amazon Indians. Like "Timber", Coldcut's "Natural Rhythm" - starring croaking frogs, droning bees, hammering woodpeckers and splashing rain - was also put on heavy rotation on MTV.

That the head of music programming is unaware of the potential of this relatively unexplored genre does not matter, reckons Hyman: "Somewhere out there, there's a 15-year-old kid who is. Someone who's excited enough to go out and do his own tracks. He's going to have a field day," he says.

To that end Coldcut is releasing a video-sequencing computer software program, VJamm. The program allows the user to download video samples and trigger, mix and scratch them at the push of a button. So tomorrow's top-flight VJs can preview the concept first. A demo game version, pre- loaded with samples, is on the Internet and will be given away with Coldcut's remix LP, Let Us Replay.

With the rallying cry "Don't hate the media, be the media" Coldcut hope VJamm will inspire and empower others to pick up the gauntlet. "The time is now and I declare the game open," announces Coldcut's Matt Black. As with acid house, Black hopes that a new generation of bedroom boffins will devour the work of American pioneers such as Steinski, Mass Media and Emergency Broadcast Network (EBN) and make the genre their own, taking it to another level. "No one really invents this kind of shit," he considers; "it materialises out of the air and if you're awake, if you're paying attention, you're ready to play."

The time is right, reckons Black. And perhaps he should know. Inspired by the cut-and-pasters William Burroughs, Double D and Steinski and Grand Master Flash, Coldcut produced the UK's first sample-built record in 1987. "Say Kids What Time Is It?" kicked the floodgates open for MARRS, Bomb The Bass, S-Express and the Beatmasters, providing sound-tracks for the first Summer of Love. Dance music's mutating vice-like grip on British youth culture ever since is a matter of historical record.

Since the New York hip-hop producer Steinski made The Motorcade Sped On - a scratch video using footage of the assassination of John F Kennedy - in 1984, computer technology has made the VJ's job an easier one. The laborious job of splicing tape has gone. Push-button creativity and digital manipulation are now an affordable reality for any mid-range PC owner - VJamm will cost pounds 30.

For more than 10 years Emergency Broadcast Network have produced video music in lieu of a video sampler. Tracks such as "We Will Rock You", a homage to Queen with George Bush on vocals and exploding hydrogen bombs on drums, have influenced clued-up people world-wide; in 1992 U2 invited EBN to join them on the Zooropa tour, as Zoo TV, and remix their Numb video. Like Coldcut, EBN haven't waited for industry to market a video sampler, but have devised their own. The video-sequencing computer program, written by EBX Design, was inspired by EBN: "We've been creating EBN video material for years now, in imitation of a video sampler - working as if we had one. Now we do. That enables us to play audio video from a piano or computer keyboard, allowing us to compose video just like music."

Any aspiring VJ planning to follow in EBN's footsteps should, however, be aware of some stumbling-blocks. Despite Eighties optimism, pop videos are, at best, a marketing tool - at worst a tax write-off. VHS is a cumbersome, outdated format on which the public do not want to own music. With the dvd revolution some years off the VJ will have to break fresh ground on new formats such as CD-Rom, or via the Internet. In the past EBN have resorted to practically giving away their videos on CD-Rom, together with their audio LPs.

The VJ works in a legal minefield, one that makes the music industry furore over sampling/ copying/ stealing look like a teddy bears' picnic. International conglomerates, politicians and, especially, celebrities will send their lawyers to the ends of the earth to protect their image. EBN claim that their work is a parody and therefore protected under the American Constitution. Although they've side-stepped many lawsuits it may only be a matter of time; fellow Americans Negativeland recently lost a big case against Cassey Cassem. With few or no rights under existing UK law, budding British VJs will have to be content with browsing the shelves of Connoisseur Video in search of footage out of copyright.

Then, as if life weren't hard enough, at present the vast majority of the general public don't get it. Two years ago, when Coldcut first took live video music on tour, fans avidly watched them, heads bowed over laptops, rather than the 30-ft video screens. It wasn't until Coldcut erred at a gig in Toulouse, bringing the show to a stuttering halt, that the audience cottoned on - watching them desperately trying to restart the show they finally realised that Coldcut were cutting, chopping and scratching video and music simultaneously. Coldcut now deliberately err during every gig.

Despite its history within club culture one avenue of exploration for aspiring VJs is the art world. In Sweden Lucky People Centre are acclaimed video artists and receive public funding from the Swedish Film Institute. Closer to home, VJs may be surprised by the warm reception they receive. During an interview for Channel 4's Equinox documentary, Rave New World, Matt Black was shooting his mouth about video music, demanding it be recognised as a valid and important form of modern art. Afterwards Coldcut were approached by the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art to do an exhibition. Not to be found wanting they devised an interactive VJ installation, The Generator. It was not only critically acclaimed, but was one of the gallery's most popular exhibits, played with by, among others, the Queen.

A demo version of VJamm is online at www.ninjatune.net. The full program will be at www.ninjatune.net from 26 Jan. Coldcut's remix LP `Let Us Replay', with a demo version of VJamm, is released on Ninja Tune on 1 Feb

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