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To catch a thief 

The cultural politics of Thievery Corporation

You may have seen a television ad about a year ago in which a basketball star hits the court while his ornery coach stays behind in the locker room. Looking cautiously over his shoulder, the coach reaches into the star's locker and tries on the player's chic pleated slacks. "Nice Pants."

The visual tempo of this sans-dialogue montage is driven by Thievery Corporation's "Coming From the Top," a funky looped breakbeat layered with a sleek pastiche of multicultural samples. Slogans, sitars, cotton-twill pants, congas, merchandising -- in 30 seconds, you've been introduced to the complex musical politics of Thievery Corporation, one of the most culturally provocative groups in contemporary music.

The equation goes a little something like this: Washington, D.C., urbanites sample pieces of indigenous music and create hip, lounge-friendly breaks, which themselves are hunted down by trend-savvy marketing teams and used to sell pants. Or cars. Or boxer shorts. The result is a kind of two-tiered commodification of ethnic and urban cultures.

The tricky part is that Thievery Corporation's Eric Hilton and Rob Garza are an extremely talented, inventive duo whose compositional style is motivated more by an appreciation of indigenous musical cultures than a desire to capitalize on them.

"Some people are into blues and don't consider anything blues unless it's a really old guy whose had a lot of hard knocks, and is playing guitar and singing -- and that's it," says Hilton. "That's fine. That's one perspective on things. Rob and I have our own kind of blues -- and it involves pasting and appropriating, and paying homage, and really soaking up the world, and then delivering it back in little musical nuggets that please us."

On one hand, the pair has expanded the cultural horizons of a larger Western audience, introducing Indian ragas and Afro-Brazilian polyrhythms to a previously more homogenous electronic music tradition. Conversely, good intentions or not, they've created a commercially lucrative product by incorporating the music of those cultures to which they pay homage. Complicating the issue even further is the fact that Thievery Corporation is more aware than anyone of the social stakes involved.

"It is something we think about a lot," says Hilton. "It is a slippery slope. I think it has a lot to do with where your heart is, and what your intentions are. Do you really have any interest in that culture, or is this a situation where, 'Oh, that sounds cool. Therefore I sample it'? Does it hit you on an emotional, visceral level that really does something for you? Rob and I have a pretty serious interest in Middle Eastern culture, and we have a lot of Middle Eastern friends. We've been able to appreciate the culture through them."

The irony is that Thievery Corporation itself is the object of an increasingly prevalent brand of cultural appropriation. Commercials, once the place of cheesy jingles and adapted mainstream hits, have become wise to the ways of cool, so-called underground musical aesthetics. High-minded artists who can't get airplay on commercial radio are increasingly finding a home on commercials themselves. Thievery's own Eighteenth Street Lounge record label has created something of a music-licensing cottage industry. ESL label mates Nicola Conte and Ursula 1000 have appeared in ads for Acura and Nissan.

Hilton's frank articulation on the issue is indicative of this evolving attitude toward commercial appropriation.

"When we got into this thing with commercials, we got into it pretty half-heartedly," he says. "Part of us was excited to make some extra income, and the other part was a little afraid of lending our music to endorse certain products. You're an artist; you're trying to make a living; people are downloading shit left and right. At the end of the day, you want to be able to do your music and only your music. The commercials help."

Herein lies a more 21st-century reading of this whole trend: Why not reward creative, non-commercial "little guys" with some of the big advertising dollars that get thrown at the likes of Britney Spears and Garth Brooks? Yet while the Thievery-scored Dockers ads were an exercise in style and taste, a more recent wave of mainstream "street" marketing seems less tactful. Coke's billboards featuring conscious hip-hopper Common feel propped up and contrived, with their pandering "chillin'" tagline.

In the words of Hilton himself, "I kind of feel like anything that needs to be advertised is not worth buying."

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