In the right corner, weighing in at 192 pounds, ladies and gentlemen, The Aphex Twin! And to my left, the diminutive yet precocious bubble-gum goddess Kylie Minogue! Cue the maniacal wrestling-crowd cheer …
An unlikely match-up? Maybe. Yet this “mash-up” battle has gone from idea to form thanks to lightning-quick laptops and widely available mixing software. A growing audience of eager bootleggers has stepped into the ring to poke fun at the corporate pop machine.
The concept is simple: Flip vocal track X over backing track Y, stir in your own freakish flair, and bake till the tempos match. Or, layer several elements from familiar sources one upon another. The result is mash-up, a genre that delivers on punk’s DIY ideology, flattening the creative curve of accessibility and expression.
Mash-up requires little personal input, which means far too many participants shoving into the ring. But the movement has created some instant underground hits with potentially lasting value. A particular favorite is “Smaxx Laws,” which has Beck rhyming over Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up.” “Magnificent Romeo,” which pits The Clash’s “Magnificent Seven” against Basement Jaxx’s “Romeo,” was a surprise monster hit right across Europe. “Smells Like Booty,” the bastard spawn of Nirvana and Destiny’s Child, shows that the true pleasure of mash-ups can come from recognizing the structural or melodic similarities between two songs seemingly miles apart. The conception is as much a joke, as is, the execution.
The bootleggers’ bible – or rather Holy Grail, as it’s become virtually impossible to find – is Never Mind the Bootlegs, aka Boom Selection Issue 01, a 432-cut MP3 collection of last year’s cut ‘n’ paste highlights once available through UK retailer Rough Trade. Pioneers in the bootie scene include Soulwax, DJ Dsico and Junkie XL, who hit big last summer laying Elvis’s “A Little Less Conversation” over a slick breakbeats. He promptly cashed out large, selling the track to Nike for millions. Comers to watch in’03 are RJD2, Cassette Boy and the Audio Bulleys. You can download some of the latest at www.soulwax.com, www.base58.com, www.gabba.net, and gybo.proboards4.com.
I’ve heard it said that mash-up points the way toward dance music’s future. Don’t know about that, but I’ve been to several events recently that noticeably pitched up when a bootleg throws down. The familiar melody or chorus mixed with often startlingly different percussion invariably excites and delights. Pirate and independent stations (especially in Britain, long a source of edgy, boundary-pushing formats) proffer the labors of web-based novice mixers, to the recording industry’s dismay. The sickening plethora of trashy pop-toppers guarantees an endless supply of source material to feed eager bedroom DJ/deconstructionists.
“Deconstruction”? Yes, even academia is weighing in on mash-up. Siva Vaidhyanthan, an assistant professor of culture and communication at New York University, attributes the phenomenon to “a democratization of creativity and the demystification of the process of authorship and creativity.” Like early hip-hop and its pioneering sampling, mash-up has been criticized as merely stitching together the work of others. As its popularity increases, so will its implications on what constitutes musical creativity. Rather than litigating no-name producers into oblivion, the big labels should be embracing their contributions as a natural progression of digital media. No one can foresee how technology and file sharing will shape pop music’s future, but I’m willing to bet the mashers have a better view than the industry.
Timmy’s Top Five Mash-Ups: (so far…)
The Buzzcocks vs. Madison Avenue / Don’t Call me Boredom
Soft Cell vs. Beyonce Knowles / Tainted Beyonce
Fat Boy Slim vs The Clash / Right about Joe Strummer
Aphex Twin vs. Kylie Minogue / On
The Sex Pistols vs. Madonna / Ray of Gob
You can hear mash-ups on the High-Fidelity broadcast every Friday from 8 to 10 pm on Radio One 91.9 FM. Tim Otis is deconstructing in his bedroom at firstname.lastname@example.org