Kenzo Digital/cassettes/impatience etc

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Kenzo Digital (I’m not sure that’s his real name, although I didn’t ask him, so it might be).

He’s an amazing video artist who has been CD on Nike and Brand Jordan at W&K NY.

Here’s the kind of thing he does now:

Amazing, isn’t it?

So we had a coffee (I had tea; I don’t drink coffee) and some interesting things came up:

We both grew up in the era of the cassette, so I lamented the way ‘kids’ these days don’t have the opportunity to really live with an album. Back in the 80s and 90s, if you bought an album you most likely did so on something called an audio cassette, which looked like this:

You couldn’t just go straight to the track you wanted; you had to ‘fast forward’, and guess where the next track would be (annoyingly, different players had different FF speeds, so you had no idea where you were aiming for). This would involve overshooting, rewinding a bit and eventually getting to the right place to hear your song in relatively low quality audio. But on the plus side, most times you couldn’t be bothered to do this, so you had to listen to the whole album and that meant giving more of a chance to those tracks you weren’t immediately that keen on. Many’s the time a track you didn’t like at first would reveal itself to be your favourite, you’d enjoy the album for longer and you would practise the interesting idea of ‘giving things a chance’. No instant gratification, just enforced consideration leading to increased satisfaction and happiness. Yes, there were other annoying things about cassettes, such as the fact that unless an album had two sides of exactly equal length, the tape would spend a while silently running out on one side before the welcome clunking of auto reverse turned it over and started the new side (I remember buying the cassingle of Gett Off by Prince and spending an entire transatlantic flight listening to the so-so extra mixes then FF-ing the tape to reach Gett Off again. Happy days). And the fact that you had to buy the whole thing, instead of individual tracks, meant that artists would often get away with padding out a few good tracks with six mediocre ones that you had to just take a chance on. But overall the listening and buying experience felt deeper because you had a more thorough relationship with the music you bought.

Nowadays of course you can buy track by track, leaving no place for the filler to hide, and you can access those tracks instantly again and again to your heart’s content or arrange them in whatever order you like. This has many advantages, such as being able to listen to OK Computer without Fitter Happier or Electioneering, or listening to In Da Club fourteen times in a row because it’s just so fucking good. But then it also has its disadvantages, which come mainly from the perceived disposability of any tracks you don’t like straight away, or those incredible B-sides that Oasis used to stuff their singles with. Now you are a curator who adapts what the artist has given you to suits your wishes, and although that sounds good on the surface, it creates a very different relationship between you and the makes and sellers of the music. Here’s an example: when Run DMC’s What’s It All About was big at the end of 1990, rumours went around my school about this great rap track that had the hook from Fools Gold, but my ability to hear said track was pretty much non-existent. When I finally got hold of it the feeling was akin to hunting down the holy grail; this was a BIG DEAL. Now you can just find any track on YouTube and listen to it instantly for free, no matter where in the world it’s a hit. Does that make you respect the music more? It can’t do, and if you’re not respecting the music as much, the same goes for the artist and the place you buy the tracks (and that’s leaving aside the whole issue of piracy).

Maybe that’s not a problem, or it’s both good and bad, but it’s a huge change in the way we all consume something that’s a massive part of many of our lives. And it just happened without anyone really knowing it would all be different in a few years’ time. We just took it on and here we are. But then there are many people who are reacting against it, evidenced by the fact that the only music medium which is increasing in popularity is vinyl. Maybe we don’t want all the power. Maybe some of us like deifying the people who bring spine-tingling magic into our lives. I suppose the choice is still there, but if it’s not what the majority does then the effect is diminished.

Kenzo and I then talked about other stuff, but I think I’ll leave the 90s hip-hop chat for another time.