Last night was the second in my series of Shoreditch House Events on the subject of 'where good ideas come from'. This one was on combinatorial creativity, remix culture and why creators need to stop beating themselves up over stealing the ideas of others. Apologies are not necessary. As Mark Twain said "All ideas are secondhand".
I mentioned the moment I first heard Grandmaster Flash's 'Adventures on the Wheels of Steel', a memory that will live with me forever. It sounded so fresh, so new and original, like music from another planet. Incredible given that its component parts were old tracks. The secret of the record's impact lay not in the stolen component parts but in the combination with a new way of vocal delivery - in this case cut up vocal samples from Chic and others, the glue that held the track together. This new way of making music was a revelation.
When Einstein said "Imagination is more important the knowledge" the imagination bit he was talking about is the ability to see the connections, it's about pattern recognition and being able to join the dots. It's a great quote but I'm not sure I agree that one is more important that the other. You have to have the parts on the table to be able to come up with interesting ways of putting them together. As Jay Z points out in his brilliant book Decode, those parts were the record collections of hip hop's missing fathers.
"We were kids without fathers…so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves…Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh."
What I really like about about the birth of hip hop is that it arrived with an attitude that was unapologetic about stealing other people's work and creating something new with it. It was almost like hip hop gave artists permission to steal. Once the gates were open remix culture flowed and new heroes were made as a result of appropriating the work of others and combining those elements in fascinating ways. Once the permission was granted creativity flourished.
I wish more would be honest, open and ballsy about their influences. Why hide your sources? Make them visible? Pay tribute to what you've built upon. Or as my maths teacher would say "Show all your working out in the margin so that I can see how you arrived at your answer". Imagine if every film maker produced one of these.
Earlier this week I was working on a project with a group of women who had waited a lifetime for someone to 'give them permission'. Someone to say "It's OK to...". How differently their lives will be as result. It's such a pity that someone didn't give them permission years ago. Sometimes waiting for permission is as pointless as asking turkeys to vote for Christmas - you'll be waiting a long time. When the people in power are protecting the problem that they are the answer to then only you can make the change that you want to see.