Everyone Steals: Why Bootleg Remixes Are Essential to the Culture of Dance Music
Benny Benassi - “Cinema” (Skrillex Remix)
Kid Cudi - “Day ‘N’ Nite” (Crookers Remix),
Blue Foundation - “Eyes On Fire” (Zeds Dead Remix)
What do these three tracks have in common? Well, quite a few things. Each of the tracks are commercial hits with tens of millions of plays on Spotify. They all introduced an entire generation of fans to communities within dance and electronic music. All three tracks also started as bootlegs. The remixers took the original song and transformed it into a new piece of music without permission from the rights holder.
Finally, and most importantly, these three tracks became official remixes because the original artists encouraged the creativity of the remixers, all of whom are now universally revered artists.
Bootlegging, sampling, and reconfiguring an existing piece of music into something else is a ubiquitous tenant within the art form's history.
To engage in this style of production is to engage in a covenant between everyone who deems themselves an artist. An understanding that if one goes about their reconfiguration with respect and authentic creativity, it is the culture’s job to encourage that creativity regardless of the legalities involved in the process.
Before moving forward, it is important to define what a “bootleg” is. Even though the definition is inherently nebulous, for the sake of this piece, the description will follow the one given by the producer, DJ, Fantastic Voyage label boss, and lover of bootlegs, Justin Jay.
“It’s more likely going to be a bootleg if I’m using multiple verses and choruses and the bridge of a song. Doesn’t need to be the whole entire song, but if I’m using large chunks of the vocal and really just want people to enjoy the original song with different production, that’s where it’s probably going to be a bootleg for me,” says Jay over a Zoom interview with Festival Insider.
No one sent Skrillex, Crookers, or Zeds Dead the stems for their respective bootlegs. Instead, they acquired the audio through whatever means were available, ran it through their DAW, and made it into something new and exciting.
When an artist bootlegs something, they naturally pour their admiration for the original into it. This allows an artist’s creativity to truly shine, and in the case of smaller artists, it’s invaluable in raising their profile.
In the endless maw of Soundcloud, it’s far more likely that listeners will click on a bootleg of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” by Brittney Spears over the original. Not because the original lacks quality, but because the listener likely has a preexisting connection to the classic.
Should the listener enjoy the bootleg, the next step would be to listen to the bootlegger’s originals. If that listener is an aficionado, they've discovered a new artist. If that listener is a fellow producer, they can build their network.
This was the hope of a young producer named STYKS, who recently made a bootleg of Space Laces' “Disco Bloodbath.” Where the original is a complextro weapon, the STYKS bootleg is a fiery dubstep version.
“Before I even started producing [“Disco Bloodbath”] was one of the songs that got me into making music,” says STYKS, real name Gabriel Butler, over Zoom from his home in Omaha, Nebraska.
“Disco Bloodbath” has been fully uploaded to YouTube since August of 2011 but landed an official release on the recently shuttered bass music label Never Say Die (NSD) in February of 2022.
Butler made his bootleg of the track over a year before that. Upon hearing about the official release, he tweeted about uploading his version to his Soundcloud page.
“I saw that it was actually getting released so out of excitement I decided to put out the bootleg,” Butler says. “I wasn’t releasing until after [the original] had come out, I just announced that it was a thing I’m doing.”
Despite Butler's arguably small audience—he only had 129 Twitter followers—his announcement popped up on the timeline of an NSD employee who tweeted the following:
“Imagine seeing an artist announce a release, making a bootleg of that release, editing the artwork to use as ur own, announcing it the same week and then dropping on the same day ??? the AUDACITY of this scene sometimes.”
Butler faced immense backlash following the tweet from the employee. Even though the Never Say Die employee didn’t tag Butler in their tweet, the EDM Twitter pests found him and threw so much vitriol his way that he considered quitting music.
What the EDM Twitter pests completely lack (besides any sense of class or respect) is an understanding of the history of bootlegs.
In contrast, artists like Luca Lush, Moore Kismet, and even Space Laces himself came to the defense of Butler. They are all parts of the culture of creative encouragement, and they know that what Butler did is not only a critical and historical part of that culture; it’s not even remotely uncommon.
The history of bootlegging music goes much deeper than dance and electronic. An argument could be made that it touches every genre in history, but based on the definition of a bootleg laid out earlier, it is particularly prevalent in rap via sampling and remixing. After all, bootlegging and sampling are two sides of the same coin.
Many of the most notable hip hop beats at the beginning of the culture were created through sampling. Producers would isolate instrumental sections within existing songs and loop them to create new beats. Even the foundation of turntablism is based on stringing together the instrumental breaks of disco records with two turntables.
The beat for “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang (1979), the first hip hop song in history to ever become a charting success, was a loop of a break-in “Good Times” by Chic.
Sampling has persisted into the modern era as well with immense success. “Old Town Road” from Lil’ Nas X (2019), the longest-leading No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, heavily samples “34 Ghosts IV” by Nine Inch Nails (2008). In this case, an uncleared sample led to an agreement between NIN and Lil Nas X that added the band to the song credits and thus gave them their first-ever Billboard No. 1 single.
“There’s something about sampling that is intangible, a magic to the music you can create by flipping stuff around, there’s emotions in the recordings that you can’t recreate,” says Hooks, a member of Zeds Dead, in answers provided over email.
Hooks, real name Zachary Rapp-Rovan, and his partner in Zeds Dead, DC, real name Dylan Mamid, continue making bootlegs to this day. They are a mainstream headlining act. They certainly don’t need the clout attached to another artist’s work, but they still love the music of others, and they love applying their creativity to it.
Less than two years ago, Zeds Dead released a bootleg of “God Loves Ugly” by Atmosphere. It was a collaboration with fellow dubstep maven Subtronics, and the story of how the bootleg came about is almost too simple to believe.
“That one was just a funny Twitter convo,” says Rapp-Rovan. “[Subtronics] said he loved Atmosphere or something and I said ‘Let’s remix “God Loves Ugly”’. Then Atmosphere tweeted at us to go for it. Bootlegs are still so much fun to make and play out.”
Bootlegs theoretically have no merit as a release. Further, the logistical and legal hurdles one would have to clear to do so legitimately are many. So, they often exist as secret weapons in DJ sets. Something only the artist in question has in their arsenal of music.
On the flip side, because Zeds Dead are a major headlining act, other artists are constantly bootlegging Zeds Dead tracks.
“Pretty much anytime a Zeds Dead track comes out I’ll get five or six different versions within a week,” says Harrison Bennett to Festival Insider via Zoom.
Bennett is on the receiving end of these bootlegs because he is Zed’s Deads Artist Manager at 2plus2 Management and the Label Manager for Zeds Dead’s imprint, Deadbeats.
In both roles, Bennett's job is to ensure that Zeds Dead are making money from their music. This includes surveying the digital landscape for bootlegs and executing copyright law when applicable.
So when Bennett finds a bootleg of a Zeds Dead track or any track on Deadbeats, the decision on how to proceed is based on one idea: respect.
That is the idea that the NSD employee meant to highlight in their tweet. While the tweet was not accurate vis-a-vis how Butler chose to release his bootleg, the main point is valid. Bootlegging is illegal, and rights holders have the upper hand.
“If the bootleg was a simple edit where they added four bars of an intro and four bars of an outro and hosted it for free then we have precautions in place to exact our copyright positions,” Bennett says.
If the bootleg is outright piracy or doesn’t credit the original artist, besides being illegal, it’s hugely disrespectful to the original artist.
The culture of creative encouragement is built on a foundation of respect. No sane artist would encourage someone to steal their work blatantly. They would, however, encourage an artist to pour their heart and soul into a reconfiguration of their music.
“We end up putting a lot of the remixes in our sets. Even if we don’t love the remix it’s still a compliment that someone would do it,” says Rapp-Roven.
It makes sense that Rapp-Roven refers to the bootlegs as “remixes” because Deadbeats has offered numerous bootlegs an official release. This is common among prominent labels, including the renowned bass imprint Circus Records.
“People have genuinely bootlegged our music a lot,” says Andrew Neil, General Manager for Circus Records. “Somebody putting up a bootleg for a free download, that is absolutely fine, and we’ve signed stuff in the past because we’ve seen it working.”
When an artist makes a good bootleg, they take care of all the production, promotion, and uploading of the track while indirectly promoting the label and one of its artists.
All the label has to do at that point is sign the bootleg and give it a release package, and they’ve not only signed a great new remix but also promoted a great new artist and created a new relationship within the industry.
Justin Jay came into a similar situation with a major label because of a bootleg he shared for free on the Fantastic Voyage Soundcloud.
In 2019 Benny Bridges made a bootleg of Whitney Houston’s “Dance With Somebody” (1987) for Fantastic Voyage. Warner Music Group, the original rights holder, ended up signing it via Spinnin’ Records (WMG owns Spinnin’).
“[Spinnin’ Records] thought [the remix] was awesome and they helped us clear the sample. We ended up getting permission from Whitney Houston’s estate, and a bootleg remix turned into an official release,” Jay says.
In reality, no one involved in music for the right reasons wants to stifle anyone’s creativity. On the contrary, when artists create freely and honestly, everyone benefits the newcomers, the headlining acts, and the labels.
So even though this is a post “Blurred Lines” lawsuit industry, where songs can be considered piracy for taking on a similar overall sound, the scene grows when artists decide to rebel against the establishment.
Art is inherently rebellious, and dance music and hip hop are just two of many scenes founded on the idea of disregarding the status quo to create something without permission.
Consider the early hip hop beats like “Rapper’s Delight.” Producers of the time had no other choice than to repurpose the work of another artist to create what they wanted, and what those producers created changed the course of history.
Skrillex may not have been aiming to change the course of history with his bootleg of “Cinema,” (even though he basically did), and Butler wasn’t aiming to change the course of history with his bootleg of “Disco Bloodbath.”
The culture of creative encouragement changes the course of history, and as long as people respect their fellow artists, the culture will continue to foster change for the better.
Editorial note: Butler and the NSD employee have been in contact since the incident and are now on good terms.