Mix it all together: The bite-sized magic of mashups

Wednesday, November 7, 2018 - 3:32pm

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I was first introduced to mashups at the ripe age of 13, when I was first getting into music. My sister gave me her iPod and had me listen to a song she downloaded from the internet called “Future Dads (Platinum Edition).” It was from the debut mixtape of L.A.-based trio Super Mash Bros: Fuck Bitches. Get Euros.

When I pressed play, the effortless flow of Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” rang over CkY’s aggressive nu-metal jam “96 Quite Bitter Beings” — a jarring, yet thrilling combination. A mere 40 seconds later, CkY’s track transitioned into the familiar piano riff from Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” with Jay-Z’s raps still banging over the beat. After an interjection of Lil Wayne and Birdman’s “Pop Bottles,” the song shifted into a playful mix of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and a hyperactive, hip-hop alteration of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”

From its mesmerizing blend of genres to its brilliantly random title, “Future Dads (Platinum Edition)” would become the portal into my intense obsession with Super Mash Bros and mashups as a whole. The social hellscape of eighth grade had already instilled within me a hunger to be cool, a need to distinguish my music taste from that of my peers. Listening to mashups and creating my own mashups seemed like the perfect outlet.

Making a mashup seems easy in theory — you take two songs, overlap the vocals from one on top of the instrumental of another, and voila. But don’t let that oversimplified explanation fool you into thinking that a mashup is just some gimmick. Rearranging and splicing together pre-recorded songs requires a varied, comprehensive understanding of pop music and an adept ear for recognizing songs with the same tempo and key. It’s a painstaking process that involves constant tinkering: A song is deconstructed to its bare bones, then reconstructed and reincarnated into a compelling and infectious collage.

While some may consider mashups a new innovation, there’s a rich history behind them that dates back more than 60 years. The earliest appearance of a mashup came in 1956 when musicians Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman assembled snippets of the narration from Orson Welles’s infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast into their song “The Flying Saucer.” Though the term “mashup” had not entered the cultural lexicon then, Buchanan and Goodman named their creation a “break-in” song in reference to the way Welles’s voice broke the standard melody.

Later on in the ’60s and ’70s, counterculture icon Frank Zappa created his own method of mashup music known as xenochrony, a technique that extracts a guitar solo or other musical element from its original context and places it into a completely different song. An example of xenochrony can be heard in the ending of Zappa’s 1968 song “Lonely Little Girl,” which uses the drums, bass, vibraphone and orchestra from his 1966 track “How Could I Be Such A Fool. The result is subtle, but this style of experimentation serves as a precursor to mashups.

As mashups took on a more explicit form in the ’80s, their creative and commercial potential skyrocketed as high as their cultural relevance expanded. In the summer of 1982, Italian DJ Stefano Pulga, guitarist Luciano Ninzatti, keyboardist-programmer Matteo Bonsanto and sound engineer Massimo Noè formed an anonymous band known as Pink Project and released “Disco Project,” a mashup that combined elements of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” with the instrumental of The Alan Parsons Project’s “Mammagamma.” Though the song was a one-hit wonder for Pink Project — they released a handful of other mashups with little success — “Disco Project” helped lay the foundation for what a modern-day mashup could sound like: two seemingly un-pairable songs paired together.   

With the advancement of technology and music software in the late ’90s and early 2000s, mashups became more defined — known then as “bootleg remixes” — and subsequently ignited a subcultural movement. The most notable instance of their impact arrived in 2001 when UK artist Roy Kerr, known by his stage name Freelance Hellraiser, coupled Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” with The Strokes’s “Hard to Explain” into a catchy concoction, cleverly titled “A Stroke of Genie-us.” Both songs are pretty disparate from one another, but somehow, Kerr alchemized the two in such a way that they not only work together, but enhance one another. Oddly enough, Aguilera’s powerful range plays well against Albert Hammond Jr.’s raucous, distorted guitars, reframing the R&B-pop soul of “Genie in a Bottle” as a spectacular and devastating power ballad — it even sounds like it could’ve been a long-lost Kelly Clarkson demo from her 2004 record Breakaway.

Though Kerr’s instantaneous fame was short-lived, the effect of “A Stroke of a Genie-us” legitimized mashups as an influential subgenre during the 2000s, allowing music nerds a chance to flex their creative muscles and push the limits of copyright laws by distributing their creations online for free. Before he became a mega music producer and one half of indie hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley, Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) came into prominence in 2004 with The Grey Album, a landmark mashup record that mixed vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with instrumental pieces from The Beatles’s 1968 LP White Album. Australian electronic collective The Avalanches capitalized on this freedom as well, merging their own ambient live instrumentation with an arsenal of hip hop and psychedelic rock samples (3,500 to be exact) on their 2000 debut Since I Left You. As these albums set the momentum of modern-day mashups, self-made producers like Girl Talk, Super Mash Bros, The Hood Internet and DJ Earworm sprouted onto the Internet, each offering their own distinctive take on mashups.

Girl Talk, the stage name for Pittsburgh-based DJ Gregg Gillis, began his career with an abstract, frenetic glitch-pop sound, manifesting in 2002’s noisy Secret Diary and 2004’s more accessible Unstoppable. Retaining the infectious energy of his earlier efforts, Gillis refined and streamlined his approach on 2006’s critically acclaimed Night Ripper, an astounding display of sonic dexterity that coalesced ’90s pop, raunchy hip hop and alternative rock. Girl Talk only improved from there with 2008’s Feed the Animals and 2010’s All Day, each album playing out like one endless, entertaining game of hopscotch. With his nimble touch and rousing live performances, Gillis built mashups like miniature, non-stop parties featuring artists from every generation and genre, from Kanye West and M.I.A. to Soulja Boy and Aphex TwinT-Pain and Avril Lavigne to Ludacris and Phoenix.

Like Girl Talk, Super Mash Bros embraced the fleeting quality of mashups through their own work. With Fuck Bitches. Get Euros. and its equally electric follow-ups All About The Scrillions and Mile(y) High Club, Super Mash Bros transformed an array of early-2000s pop songs into hard-hitting bangers, chopping them up and perfecting them into danceableclub-ready jams made for high school homecomings and college mixers. Even more prolific are Chicago-based The Hood Internet, who have been churning out mixtape after mixtape of mashups since 2007, and San Francisco-based DJ Earworm, who compiles the top 25 songs of every year into a mashup known as “United State of Pop,” his most notable achievement being 2009’s “Blame It on the Pop.

The mashup scene thrived during this era, though its success would eventually wear off at the turn of the decade. The once-popular Fox musical comedy “Glee” helped bring mainstream appeal to mashups in its season-one episode “Vitamin D,” which includes arguably the best songs from the “Glee” catalog: Finn (Cory Monteith, “Monte Carlo”) leads the guys in a rollicking, energetic fusion of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” and Usher’s “Confessions (Part II),” while Rachel (Lea Michele, “New Year’s Eve”) and the girls combine Beyoncé’s “Halo” and Katrina and the Waves’s “Walking on Sunshine” in a rendition that could only be described as transcendent. But in 2012, “Pitch Perfect” and acapella quintet Pentatonix rode the slowly evaporating wave of the mashup’s popularity to its bitter lull, destabilizing the mashup’s underground, anti-capitalist allure through a series of fun yet fluffy and amateurish commercialized morsels.

While the majority of mashup artists have moved on or receded into virtual obscurity, there are glimmers of hope that mashups could find their way back again into the cultural limelight. The Magic iPod, a mashup generator website, gives audiophiles the ability to mix a mashup of their own choosing based on a selection of the best pop and hip-hop songs from the 2000s. Twitter user Noah Charlick gained brief notoriety for sharing his strangely cohesive mashup of Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle” and A-Ha’s “Take on Me,” and Twitter user oypoolboy provided an even stranger mashup of Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” and Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” Whatever the future may hold for mashups, they remain a testament to the DIY spirit of music-making. The ability to manipulate and edit pre-existing songs into a mosaic of sound not only empowers consumers to become their own producers, but offers a refreshing twist to how we celebrate and appreciate music: You can listen to two or more great songs at once without paying a dime.

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