Mashups Are for Gum Flavors

It’s been about ten years since the mashup went mainstream as a form of home-music crafting. It’s like a Martha Stewart-designed music-making technique for ‘rainy afternoons’ and ‘keeping the kids occupied’ if the kids are college freshmen taking a break from video games. The essence of a mashup is taking the instrumental of one song and putting the acapella of another overtop of it. Originally this would be done on turntables by a hip performer who can adjust the pitch control to get the tempos to match, but nowadays any Harry Crayon with a computer can beatmatch and quantize to their heart’s content, and “that’s a good thing”. Mmmmmaybe.

The first sound collagists were the makers of film soundtracks. Citizen Kane featured such innovations as the J-cut, where the audio precedes the video in a transition, and the lightning-mix, where one character starts a sentence at the end of a scene, and another finishes it at the beginning of the next.

“Anthem of the Sun”

An early pop commercial record with sound collage on it was the Grateful Dead’s “Anthem of the Sun“. The band overlaid live tapes with studio takes of the same song simultaneously, and claim that there are moments on the record with many complete Grateful Deads playing at once. It makes for a hazy, thick, smoky sound, like a half-forgotten flashback presenting itself in the form of a deja-vu. Not sure if these guys knew what they were doing or not but I’d call it a total success in getting their message across. Crucially, this album has an in-studio Bob Weir singing over a previous, live recording of the Grateful Dead, which is getting close to the classic form of the mashup.

 It’s like a Martha Stewart-designed music-making technique for ‘rainy afternoons’ and ‘keeping the kids occupied’ if the kids are college freshmen taking a break from video games. 

In the years ahead some abysmal failures at ‘artistic’ sound collage came and went, but in 1979 Sugarhill Gang sampled a Chic song and had a number one hit. Thus began a decade of wild sampling which culminated in MC Hammer most cavalierly raping the guts out of a Rick James tune and selling 18 million records. Most 12″ rap singles contain an instrumental version and acapella version of the song, so that a turntablist can scratch and juggle the beats and drop vocal tags anywhere in the mix. This made mashups a regular rap DJ staple, but they were rarely recorded.

Cue Suzanne Vega, a white girl from Spanish Harlem, who boldly opened an amazingly brave mainstream pop record (it featured a hit song about an abused child) with a catchy acapella track, “Tom’s Diner“. British dance music makers DNA (not to be confused with the no-wave band) took “Tom’s Diner”, sampled the vocal tag at the end, and laid it over one of their dance beats, making an extremely catchy downtempo dance hit. It sold millions of copies and remains one of those long-lasting never-gets-old tunes, and the first mainstream mashup with artists using another’s vocals without permission (Vega had other firsts; “Tom’s Diner” was the song used to develop mp3 encoding, and she was the first artist to play a live, scheduled concert in the video game Second Life). Other pop acapella tracks of the time weren’t so mash-upable, and the form quickly moved back to the rap world.

“Tom’s Diner”

Around this time a young rapper by the name of Nasir Jones was rising to fame, and the rap sound was getting more thug and gangster with every hit song. Tupac, Biggie, built on NWA’s work, and there was a new paradigm in mainstream rap. Nas’ vocal style, although lacking the stylish flair of Tupac or big-gut growl of Biggie, had a combination of solid delivery and great lyrics of the Edgar Allen Poe variety. This made Nas acapellas become, over the years, one of the most favoured sources for mashing up.

By the early 2000s, computer music technology was so prevalent, and mp3 downloading so easy, mashups were getting cranked out like christmas wreaths. Many are compiled on blogs or websites like this one. There’s a good lesson in listening back to some of these mixes, and realizing the form rarely works very well.

Nas’ old rival Jay-Z was the source for the most famous mashup of all time, the Grey Album, a mix of his Black Album and The Beatles’ White AlbumBut it’s a mashup using Nas vocals, and the work of beatmaker MF Doom, that is by far the most excellent work in the genre. Nastradoomus is simply made, not the ultra-chopped dogme work of others slicing finished rock albums into a percussion track for vocals to be laid over. The beats were made to be beats, and the vocals are simply tempo-matched and laid over them. Like Tom’s Diner, it’s the simplicity that makes it work so well.

But Nastradoomus has more going for it. Normally in rap the vocals don’t have a melody, so pitch-matching the music isn’t much of a concern. In Nastradoomus the weird harmonies created by the new tonal key centers of the beats against the occasional chorus melody or backup singers makes for some haunting dissonances that work perfectly. I don’t like all of the tunes, but the ones I’ve linked here are masterpieces of the genre (also “Hate Me Now” and “Shoot ‘Em Up”). 

At first glance DJ Shadow’s epic 40-minute set Minute Mix from the Diminishing Returns album is not a true mashup, but it’s a mainstream-quality sound collage with unrelated non-original musics laid over each other which is so good I have to include it. It has a narrative arc and a real Americanness to the story. It transports.

The form’s mainstream presence came and went, and it’s a bit of a relief to me. Most of its recent stars sound like this amazingly pumped up aerobics class where you wind up in tears in the corner because it’s so epic listening to all of these bits of culture and time working together in harmony. It gets saccharine and fatiguing. Really, all we ever needed was Nastradoomus, the best work of a good lyricist and the best work of a good beatmaker. I guess there are probably a few exceptions that stand out for each of us, based on a nostalgia with the source materialA combination of that and being ingenous and good stand-alone music.

But otherwise it’s mostly a musical sight-gag and should be enjoyed sparingly, or broken out on a rainy day when it’s time to teach your lil’ cousin how to make music on a computer, or better yet, turntables.

Jay Z vs. Pavement – 13 – Jackals, Allure – The Lonesome Era


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