Monday, February 13, 2006

It's All Mixed Up

(the complex joy of mashups)

It's fitting that, on the mashtastic album American Edit, Dean Gray (Party Ben and Team 9) chose to include a tribute to the KLF. An unlikely collision of the Glitter Band's "Rock 'n' Roll" with the Doctor Who theme made "Doctorin' The Tardis" a mashup in all but name: it had the power to startle, the merry absurdity, kitsch factor, lawsuits, everything. And it was a hit single! In these ultra-litigious times, when a gratis recording is banned* for infringing the copyright of supposed punks, it's unlikely we'll see "Doctor Who on Holiday" (which, naturally has Green Day thrown in — a mashup of mashups) or American Edit's standout, "Boulevard of Broken Songs", on Top of the Pops. I mean, good luck to Go Home Productions, whose sublime "Rapture Riders" has been sanctioned for release by both Blondie and the Doors, but given the industry's unillustrious history of co-option I think I'd prefer it if mashups remain underground and illegal.

For Mashup is the most optimistic art form of our age; the first hopeful thing to appear in music in a long, turgid while. Simultaneously nostalgic and adventurous, it exposes for ridicule pop's ugly guts while celebrating its gustiness, its jouissance. Who knew that Beyoncé Knowles would make a better Fugazi front person than Ian Mackaye? Or that "I Want to Dance with Somebody" and "Teenage Kicks" were basically the same song? At its most astonishing, Mashup is like reaching into two noxious shitpits and pulling half a shooting star from each. The right combination of the tired, the cheesy, the malfunctioning; the overcooked or half-baked; the overfamiliar or surprising can transcend Pop's predictable patterns, even as it reveals them.

The first bootleg that really caught my ear was a track called "A Stroke of Genie-us": a pure mashup of Christina Aguilera and the Strokes. Like many other startled onlookers, I was fascinated how enjoyable I could find a combination of two artists, neither of whom I like separately. Aguilera's drunken melismas, shorn of accompanying treacle, sat perkily alongside a functional guitar and drumbox chug. What was going on? I dove in: at first the high seas of p2p fuelled my new hunger, but it transpires you can find most mashups on the open web. Just grab Google and go! (There is a great deal of other music just lying around on websites, too. These pages explain how to find it.)

Now a mature area of exploration (you can tell this by the way some one-time fans are sounding its death knell), the mashup naturally takes various forms. If there were a bootleg folksonomy, I would give every tune at least one of these four tags: pure, dance, comedy and rescue.

Pure mashups combine precisely two songs — vocals from one with the music of the other (save for the traditional final reveal of the original vox). Dogmé-style purists insist on no sneaky key- or tempo-changes, but really: who cares, so long as it works? The best I have heard of this type is TimG's "Teenage Kicks with Somebody", which matches Whitney's cadences to the Undertones' absolutely perfectly — she even scats along nicely with the guitar solo — culminating in a neat de-naffification of the cheesy closing chords.

Dance mashups are, at their worst, little more than what jobbing DJs have been doing for years: sliding two or more similar tunes together subtly enough to leave clubbers undisturbed in their footsteps. Personally, I have no need to hear the riff from "Teen Spirit" whirled into another anonymous House track, and this type of mashup usually ends up in my recycle bin.

The comedy mashup is audio satire, and loveable for it. Most good mashups raise a chuckle, but to hear 50 Cent's "In Da Club" set to the Benny Hill theme tune is freedom from ever having to take the overhyped goon seriously again.

Rescue mashups, though, are probably the pinnacle of the Art. As with the Redemptive Cover Version (see: Red House Painters), here the mashup DJ is doing us all a favour, binning Britney's producer (or whoever), and exploring more outré sonic backdrops. Madonna is a major beneficiary from this, particularly her dreadful "Music", which has been rescued more times than Peter Mandelson. "I Hate Music" uses the Hives' ripoff of Blur's ripoff of Pavement to good effect, while "Wild Rock Music" chucks "Born to be Wild" and an Apollo 440 track into the mix so gleefully even I want to dance. (Please don't mention the Abba thing. Can you really mash yourself up? Of course not.)

One of the greatest gifts of this movement is a perspective on where Rap, Rock and R'n'B are at in the Twenty-First Century — their strengths and weaknesses. Take Queens of the Stone Age, for example. Failing to produce a hummable tune hasn't prevented them from becoming the motor force behind many a saccharine warbler, to the improvement of both. And while we may charitably assume Eminem's producers decided to showcase the greatest poet of our age with the dumbest of musical clichés because they felt his rhymes needed no more than the bare minimum to shine, we know there can always be more — as evinced by his numerous rescue mashups, most notably TimG's masterful and moving "Eagles in my Closet". And now we know why the soul divas of today can't cut it like Aretha: it's the horrid fake strings and lite drum samples, stupid. Underpin 'em with a bit of savage rockery and they soar. My decades of Soul-fear are over, thanks to a man with Soundforge on his desktop.

For a long time little more than club-footed leeches, DJs have finally found their purpose. Some folks still appeal for them to spin one track at a time, but if this is sacrilege, why did the Doors stamp so hard on a highly lucrative ad deal, but give GHP the green light to fuck with Morrisson's memory? It's not just the cachet. Something has changed about our perception of the past. An unhealthy reverence has been overturned. I knew this bubble had burst when I first heard Scissor Sisters' cover of "Comfortably Numb" (a song whose original I adored) not with anger, but with a grin on my lips. Missy Elliot working for Joy Division? The Beatles driven to Belinda Carlisle? Kraftwerk digitally blended with Coldplay? "Blame it on the Boogie" clashing with "Should I Stay or Should I Go"? Basement Jaxx sleeping with REM? Portishead manacled on Black Sabbath? You know it makes sense.

It's not the Sixties any more, or even the Eighties. (Someone wake the Kaiser Chiefs, would you?) In the absence of much really forward-looking musician-made music, this truly postmodern form is currently our best chance of breaking from the straightjacket of genre and finding something better in which words, melody and rhythm are imprisoned together on a Celebrity Desert Island, and have to co-operate to escape. Musicians, stop footling in the foothills and find your feet! Pop, tuck your shirt in: your guts are hanging out.

Mashup isn't dead, but it's not the End Of Music either, just one big "Intro Inspection" (look it up), ushering in a new era of better band music. Well I certainly hope so. But even if it isn't, there's no doubt it's the best new fun we've had in a long while.

* Of course, one of the best things about the internet is that — at least until Google fucks it up — there is no "banned".


Anonymous JazZman said...

nice article except for one thing, mashups are musical sham. Give a teenager some cracked software and some shit records and he'll knowck out a mashup in an hour.........Pointless bollocks. There is no musical validity to this dire art, can you make a loop? Check. Can you count in multiples of 4? Check. Can you tell what key a song is in? Err... Exactly.
Half of the 'Mashups' out there are out of key, the vocals clash and the beats glitch.

I'm a professional musician who has played guitar, drums, and bass in Jazz, folk, Rock bands and even live drum and bass acts, but believe me MASHUPS ARE NOT A RESPECATBLE FORM OF MUSIC AND NEVER WILL BE! Its the computer equivalent of a dodgy pub rock covers band.

Thursday, February 16, 2006 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Gingersteve said...

Nice article. Jazzman, you're right about the general quality of 90% of mashups out there, but to use that to trash mashups as a whole is as invalid an argument as trashing dance music because the Vengaboys exist. This article is, very articulately, singing the praises of what mashups can be like when they work well. In key, in time creations are not necessarily good mashups. This article explains better than I can what you are missing.

Thursday, February 16, 2006 1:13:00 PM  
Blogger frenchbloke said...

90%, i'd go for 98%. a good one is a rare thing indeed and even then they sit in either the ' it shouldn't work but it does' camp or the 'why did nobody else think of that' camp. the other 98% however are one of three things. the 'i can do mash ups me' out of key / time and patience camp, the 'hey, i'm trendy using trendy club tunes that everyone will be sick of by, oh, what day is it now?' camp and then there's the ones that work but lack anything creative or interesting.

i'm quite happy to be associated with a genre of music that "ARE NOT A RESPECATBLE FORM OF MUSIC". but i ask, 'what is a respectable form of music?' is it r.e.m? is it the kaiser chiefs? is it u2? is it everything i hate about populist music? "mashups are musical sham" perhaps, but i dare say that three quarters of most music available to purchase anywhere in the world also falls into that category, "sham".

let's not kid ourselves, most music is created, not as a form of artistic expression, but solely as a way to make money. to me, that is the 'sham'.

Thursday, February 16, 2006 1:52:00 PM  
Anonymous jazzman said...

I'm reading this with interest and find this whole thread quite fascinating, it's interesting to see the previous posts who although supporting mashups as a form of music seem to think that 90-98% are duds!

I've heard many mashups Gingersteve and can honestly say I am missing nothing. What pains me most (aside from the fact you need little or no musical knowledge/skill/exxperience to produce these) is that almost every one I have heard always plays it safe with the songs they are mixing. 4/4 beat, bitesize riff and an acapella from somebody who sings or raps in a sound booth to the click of a metronome. Hardly complex stuff.

I guess the reason for this is the majority of mash up producers wouldnt know how to handle anything more complex. 6/8 time anyone? If somebody can point me to a mashup that uses anything remotely musically complex (key changes, off beat, dischordant etc..) I'd love to hear it. Has anyone mashed up Miles Davis, Charlie Parker or any of the other jazz greats? If so, please direct me to it.How about folk mashes? Anyone mixed any of Richard Thompsons clawhammer picking recently? No, I thought not..

As for 'what is a respectable form of music?' the style is insignificant, the idea of mashups is age old (the idea is actually pretty similar to what is known as contrafact in jazz), but in my view to be 'respectable music' you need to have at least a basic musical knowledge, which I've rarely seen displayed within the'mashup genre'.

As for REM, Kaiser Chiefs, U2 etc.. they mmay not be to your liking but at least they know their instruments, know their scales and know songwriting structure, as do Goldie, Roni Size, Pharrell Williams etc... Sadly I've yet to hear a mshup artist who does..

Thursday, February 16, 2006 3:24:00 PM  
Blogger frenchbloke said...

i do accept your standpoint jazzman, however, you seem to be under the impression that ALL people who have created 'mashups', (a term which i despise), are musically illiterate. i can say that is not the case at all.

Admittedly 98% (that figure again) of the perpetrators behind this particular style of music DO play it safe. you can't go wrong with a rap / hip hop vocal over anything in 4/4. (actually, this point was proved wrong a while back by someone ACTUALLY getting a rap out of key with the backing music chosen. it wasn't pretty). things can be done in 8t from source material in 3/4, also things can be transformed from rigid 4/4 to 3/4. these things don't happen very often, but they have done.

with regards to source material for these tracks, that entirely depends on the creators knowledge. some people will not venture out of their safety zone. some cannot venture out of there at all as they just don't know what's out there. but some do.

if no-one else wants to chip in and cite some examples, i'll dig some out the archives later, time permitting.

Thursday, February 16, 2006 5:32:00 PM  
Blogger Mr Fab said...

Anytime someone says "_______ IS NOT A RESPECATBLE FORM OF MUSIC AND NEVER WILL BE!" I'm automatically interested. Of course it's what was said before about every musical revolution going back at to, well, jazz, jazzman! Originally jazz was dismissed as primitive jungle pounding. Then when it bencame "legit" it went off into bebop and THAT was dismissed. And so it goes. The question of what music actually is or how to make it is a fascinating one, and the real creators will be drawn to these nether regions.

Teenagers generally don't make mashups - it's largely the province of adults, probly because it takes a wide knowledge of differant kinds of music to be good at this.

"almost every one I have heard always plays it safe" - exactly what's wrong with jazz now actually. There hasn't been much original jazz since the early '70s madness of Miles, Herbie, free jazz cats like Sun Ra, etc. Jazz has coasted on cliches for decades now. As has rock, and just about every other form of music. So much for originality.

There have indeed been jazz mashups - check Grooveblaster's work for example. DJBC has done a few. Alex C's "Count it Out" marries "Take 5" with Eric Satie - it'll have your head spinning. Vocalists like Nina Simone have also been featured.

There have been quite a lot of country and folk mashups. The "Country Boots" 12" and the work of Faither of E-Jitz and especially Don Amott King of Country is a great place to start - acoustic hillbilly-type stuff vs contemporary hiphop/r'n'b is always good for a hoot.

In fact, just about every kind of music you can think of has been mashup with something - classical, African, rockabilly, showtunes, you name it. But to find them requires diligence - checking mashups site like gybo regularly, weeding through the umteenth million eminem vs techno track to find the gems. You're on your own - there's no record companies, no influential radio djs, no gatekeepers. It's true folk music in that sense - artist to audience, direct, uncut.

I take something back - that there is no real definition of music. There is one: sounds made by people that other people like listening to. That's what mashups are. When you hear good ones, they not only make you want to shake your ass, they shake your assumptions. What more can you ask of art?

Thursday, February 16, 2006 6:12:00 PM  
Blogger eve massacre said...

This is a great article, thanks!

Jazzman, though I like a lot of complex music I would never say that 'good' music has to be complex or technically well-played or based on theoretical knowledge. Simplicity and naivety and sloppiness have often enough in music history proven to reach and touch people and that's the main quality of music in my eyes. The term "professional musician" is more often than not a paradoxon.

Thursday, February 16, 2006 7:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jazzman, I like your comments and see what you're saying, There were a couple of mashups that somebody posted on GYBO last year that featured jazz. One was a great dizzy gillespie song and the other was some jazz instrumental. I cant remember who done them or where to find them but i think they were both by the same guy.

Thursday, February 16, 2006 8:46:00 PM  
Blogger Holestar said...

jazzman-can a bootleg (sorry, i prefer that term to mashup) only be considered worthy if its sources are ‘serious’ music?
i get where you are coming from (the standard of the genre has slipped over the past few years) but there are gems to be found.
frenchbloke has some well executed classics to his name. google is your friend. maybe.

Friday, February 17, 2006 12:37:00 AM  
Blogger Kitty said...

jazzman, you were almost making sense until you wrote that goldie knows his instruments, scales, etc... bwahahahaha... Rob Playford basically made "Timeless" for him... Goldie's ideas, Rob's production, that's whay Saturnzreturn was 50% shite since Rob left halfway through!

6/8 mashups, sure, bring it on. if it's interesting. otherwise, quel pretentiouse! that's prog (well, jazz in your case)'s not rock'n'roll, it sure as shit is not punk rock. (or hip-hop, acid house...) the world is full of technically skilled musicians who nevertheless don't rock.

(I do concede that most mashups - 80%, 90% maybe even 98% don't interest me.)

and I think Miles Davis has been done.

Friday, February 17, 2006 1:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nicely written piece.

A note to all the Doom and Gloomers (Jazzman / Frenchbloke). If you gave 100 kids a guitar, how many do you think would be able to write a classic piece of music?

Why would giving them a piece of music software be any different?

The difference with mash-ups is that the internet has made them all accessible. It's the delivery that's changed, not the quality.


Friday, February 17, 2006 7:12:00 AM  
Blogger The Peer said...

I so agree with what Gingersteve said about a good mashup not necessarily being in time or in tune. I just listened to the Portishead mashup album, Dumb, which in the main is insipid and unispired Hiphop-lite. The problem with it, I realised, and in contrast to Jimmi Jammes' spine-chilling "War Cowboys" (a mashup with Black Sabbath), is reverence - which is anathema to a top, all-dissin' mashup. I had to reach for my copy of Dummy, which has more soundclash-factor than any of the tracks on Dumb.

Jazzman, Punk was not respectable when it first appeared, quite the opposite, but it gave music a much-needed jolt. People said it required no musical talent, too, but I think the truth for both Punk and Mashup is that it requires no musical learning, which I think is what eve massacre was getting at. Nobody teaches you how to do filtering, beat-matching, timeshifting, etc. You just have to dive in and try. Naturally many expriements fail (though I disagree with the consenus about what proportion of mashups succeed; I'd say around half, though I could have just been lucky in what I downloaded). To do mashup, something I've yet to try, I think you need a very good ear, too - which I'm sure you'd agree is a musicianly quality - even if you couldn't say what key a piece is in, or even whether two songs are in the same key. The early Rave scene often had a polytonal vibe, until timeshifting came along and everything sounded much blander and in-tune. Re-keying a track has its place in the history of remixing, and I agree it doesn't always work well to a musician's ear. But I was actually disappointed when I checked out the original of Eminem's "Cleaning Out my Closet", after hearing the Eagles mashup, that it had none of that piece's harmonic colour.

frenchbloke, what you say about the safety zone is spot on. In mainstream music there's pressure to stay inside it, but here people can float at whatever level they choose. The world of music is open to us if we want to hear it. But, yes, most well-known music is in 4/4 so we shouldn't be surprised that that's what gets used. Also, there's the danceability factor.

Mr Fab, thanks for your articulate and insightful post. I'm going to check out some of the artists (yes they are) you mentioned. You're right that this truly is folk music, with no arbiters of taste save ourselves, which is why I said in the article that I hope it stays underground.

And thanks to everyone who took the time to read the piece. I'm glad I've stirred up a debate.

Friday, February 17, 2006 8:37:00 AM  
Anonymous tim (tbc/Instamatic/Radio Clash) said...

Great article, really sums it up for me - the fact that kids can do it is never a criticism - I don't see people going 'oh no not another bunch of white kids guitar band' at the Arctic Monkeys (they might say something else but that's not for here :-P)



There are quite a few 6/8 boots - one of the challenges of the Parkspliced album is that Blur apart from Girls and Boys tends to put weird keys and time sigs in their tunes, so most Blur bootlegs used odd timings - I did a tbc boot using 'Beard' which is a freeform jazz track, and loads of others had the same challenge (please ignore my other boot as it had key issues, Beach Boys use quite odd harmonies, and I didn't have musical training - actually there have been quite a few BB boots too, which musically and timing wise is not your average teenager with a copy of Acid and Tekno Hits 11 - altho give me Shitmat and breakcore anyday however 'unmusical', than a 1,000 worthy Oasis tracks).

I too love Alex C's Count it Out, 5/4 time meets rave and Beyonce, very clever...

Which brings me to another point - musical training - a lot of the best mashup artists have been in bands or seem to have had musical training - GHP for example, Partyben, etc. It certainly helps but the 'punk' part is that sometimes things that musically shouldn't work do - odd key combos/harmonies, starting on the wrong/off beat, weird genre clashes etc.

That can't be taught, to experiment, take risks, to learn about and just mess around with tunes with a fresh ear...

Friday, February 17, 2006 11:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Party Ben said...

Great article, interesting points, totally annoying and idiotic comments. But what else would you expect from a 'jazzman.' For god's sake, this just reminds me of Republican fucks on Fox News going "Liberals, you hate America, why?!" And then the poor liberal shmucks spend the hour trying to defend why they don't actually hate America, even though maybe 90% or 98% of liberals do hate America, or something, blah blah blah. Who lets assholes like Jazzy Jeff frame the debate? And why are any of you even responding to that shit?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006 10:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out DJ Earworm who has a degree in both CS and Music Theory...

Friday, March 03, 2006 4:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Arty Fufkin said...

I was going to say that if 2% of mashups are worth listening to, then the form has a higher success rate than most other types of music.

But since I've started listening to and making mashups, my musical tastes have expanded enormously. I have started seriously wondering if there is any way to judge music as good or bad beyond technical competence. Literally anything can work when it is in the right hands and at the right time.

Music can only ever be a temporal medium, so it is quite amazing when you realize that mashups have the ability to subvert time by bringing different histories and fashions together so convincingly.

Jazzman needs to do some research before making his silly generalizations about mashups. I have a music degree and loads of mashup artists have musical training, but that is not really relevant. At the end of the day, each mashup is proof of its creator's skills, knowledge and imagination.

Saturday, March 11, 2006 2:01:00 AM  

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