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Come Together
The art of the mashup, or, Hey! You got chocolate (Genius) in my peanut butter (Wolf)

By John Brodeur

You’re getting into the jam. It’s a song you’ve known for what seems like forever; that drumbeat makes you nod your head every time, and the guitars sound so sweet. And you know every word, so you can’t wait to sing along. Here it comes . . . wait, something sounds wrong here—it’s a completely different song! But it sounded so familiar. Can’t believe your ears?

Welcome to the world of mashups. Also known as bootlegs or bastard pop, mashups are a relatively recent musical development, a very literal form of pastiche, if you will. Not specifically “remixes,” mashups, when executed well, function as reinventions of the original source materials. While found sounds and samples have been all over the place for years now—Negativland and the Evolution Control Committee have been flying their bastardizations of popular music in the face of legality for more than a decade now, and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique has achieved near-legendary status as a copyright-infringing monsterpiece—the advent of cheap and easy-to-use audio-editing software has made it so practically anyone can borrow and manipulate their favorite songs and sounds.

The most common means to a mash is to couple a capella rap tracks with a looped instrumental pop song, which is effective, sure, but kind of lazy. These tend to serve simply as remixes, but some do bring a new, often humorous, edge to a familiar song. Cases in point: Akira Kawahara’s “Brown-Toothed Girl,” which pits Obie Trice’s hilarious “Gotta Have Teeth” against Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” and a gut-buster that mashes 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” with “Yakety Sax” (better known as the theme from The Benny Hill Show).

DJ Danger Mouse—aka Brian Burton—recently brought a great deal of national attention to the budding genre (if it can be called that) with his release The Grey Album. The self-released album combined the rap tracks from Jay-Z’s supposed swan song, The Black Album, with some pretty classic music, boasting that “every kick, snare, and chord is taken from the Beatles White Album and is in their original recording somewhere.” It’s a groundbreaking piece of work, in which Mouse slices and dices those oh-so-familiar tunes into something completely original, although not completely unrecognizable—he intentionally left some large chunks in there so people would “know what [he] worked with,” according to an MTV interview. While Burton is no stranger to the mash, as his 2003 Ghetto Pop Life (a collaboration with partner Jemini) nailed together elements of ’60s and ’70s soul tracks with latter-day hiphop to glorious effect, his experiments on Grey are head-spinners, forcing you to completely reconsider what you thought you knew about the music.

EMI records, which owns the Beatles recorded catalog, issued a cease-and-desist order within hours of the album’s release, demanding that production and distribution stop immediately. While Burton complied, fans and supporters mounted an astounding amount of protest against the actions of EMI—not using pickets and marches, but the Web, of course. On Feb. 24, so-called “Grey Tuesday” went down as more than 30 sites hosted the entire Grey Album as downloadable MP3s, and many of them still have it online. The aftermath has been registering a staggering amount of media attention, which has only helped the cause and upped the demand, making the album one of the biggest word-of-mouth “successes” of the year. Burton has since said that he hopes people will continue to download the album and use this controversy to provoke reform in our country’s outdated copyright law.

The question of whether or not this is a legal form is pretty much a dead one. The answer is, quite plainly, “No, stupid. What were you thinking?” Technically, the appropriation portion of copyright law, which generally encompasses sampling, doesn’t cover the bastardization of an entire recorded music source, especially the frickin’ Beatles—EMI’s lawyers would probably sue the pope if he decided to use “All You Need Is Love” during a sermon. However, Jay Hova (aka Jay-Z) did release an a cappella version of The Black Album, encouraging people to “remix the hell out of it,” so this kind of thing should have been expected. He actually asked for it, and in a sense, so did the Beatles. Hell, they released what was practically a demashing of one of their own records with last fall’s Let It Be . . . Naked (proving that Phil Spector was right all along). Quite recently, the next logical step has been taken with the release of the “Jay-Z Construction Set,” which provides all the necessary tools to make your own remix in a handy, downloadable zip file. (Visit www.jayzconstructionset.com to find out more.)

Mashups really take flight when they look outside of the hiphop idiom. When the vocals from a well-known pop song are attached to a seemingly contrary music track, it can create a whole new reality for both sources. While a fair amount of the stuff out there is hastily made—poor mixes, choppy edits, and a near-total lack of attention to pitch and key are common problems—it’s worth your time to search for the good ones. It takes a certain amount of labor on the part of the DJ to make these mixes work—they usually require some amount of re-editing on the music bed, not to mention speed and pitch adjustments—but in the hands of a detail-oriented mixer, the results can be fascinating.

One of the real pioneers of this style of mashup was Freelance Hellraiser, whose “Stroke of Genie-us” combined the familiar vocal track from Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” with the music bed from the Strokes’ “Hard to Explain,” essentially creating a wholly new (and ultimately more bearable) song. There’s almost a cottage industry within the genre dealing specifically with Xtina—a quick Web perusal turned up at least two more mixes of “Genie,” one using the Strokes’ “Someday” (a match made in cyberheaven?) and the other less-effectively using U2’s “Desire.” And she’s not the only diva to receive such frequent attention: More recently, not-terribly-interesting Ja Rule protégé Ashanti’s vocal tracks have become bunkmates with the music of the Verve, Foo Fighters and Jane’s Addiction, proving that she could have a future fronting a modern-rock band if she could just stop saying “baby” so damn much.

Perhaps the most innovative of the bunch is Mark Vidler’s (Go Home Productions) “Paperback Believer,” which mashes two outright classics—the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” and the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”—into something you simply need to hear to believe. Not to mention the visuals—just imagine if the two groups had gotten together and “jammed” . . . er, maybe that wouldn’t be such a great idea. To further invoke the wrath of the EMI lawyers, check out the Allen Dean Project’s “Crazy Little Fool”—which cleverly pastes an edit of the Fab Four’s “Dear Prudence” and “Fool on the Hill” onto the instrumental track from Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”—or Vidler’s “Karma in the Life,” which may just prove that Radiohead are the new Beatles, or at least that they fit awfully well together. Hell, the Dean Project even made Wings’ “Backseat of My Car” useful by recasting it with the Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” vocal track. (Check out their “Abba and the Bunnymen” mash too, while you’re at it.)

As the genre has expanded, the awareness and community between mashup DJs has become more and more intertwined. Check out www.b00mb0x.org and www.bastardpop.co.uk for downloads and links to an endless amount of similar sites. And why not go ahead and make your own mixes? There are a number of relatively inexpensive software programs, like Acid Pro (or its doppelganger, ProTools) that can turn your home computer into a home studio for under $500. Or, if you want to be sneaky, we’re sure there are some downloadable alternatives out there, but be forewarned: If you sample them, they may sue. Or maybe that’s what you’re looking for.


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