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Rant #490
(published June 10, 2010)
Put 'em Together And What Have You Got?
by Alan Benard
This rant was originally published on March 13, 2010 as part of the Cuckoo for Copyright Roundtable in Noah Berlatsky's blog at tcj.com, The Hooded Utilitarian. Big thanks to Noah for asking for the Poor Mojo's Almanac(k) stance on musical mash-ups.

Noah kindly asked me to list some of the mash-ups we like to listen to over at Poor Mojo's Almanac(k) and Newswire as part of the copyright roundtable. This isn't meant to be a comprehensive history, nor an exhaustive list, nor anything more than some of the form's developmental high-water marks cribbed from Wikipedia's Bastard Pop article and our personal preferences.

There was a time when mashups and audio art required relatively expensive and rare control rooms, a razor blade to cut recording tape montages together, and multi-track machines to lay them over one another. Frank Zappa borrowed from Edgard Varese's musique concrete. John Oswald examined the power of rock 'n roll and preaching — later he would prove a dab hand at deconstructing a king's pop.

In the digital age, the means of audio production became cheaper and more accessible with each passing year. By the late 1980s, hip-hop artists looped and dropped samples into their tracks with little difficulty, producing masterworks: De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising, Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, and Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. But the constant roar of James Brown's repeated screams came to a halt in a shitstorm of lawyers and bills for sampling rights.

Click to play video: Negativland—U2

Negativland's struggles defending the U2 sound-collage EP from the band U2 itself and its label define the difficult intersection of art and commerce, fair-use and copyright, parody and trademark. Happily, everyone involved eventually got over it.

Turns out that, if you are going to do this thing legit and clear the samples (and make money), you end up with weak raps over one monotonous bit of a song performed by one of music's least-deserving billionaires. Goofy and tame sci-fi football chants also perch atop the charts. The worthwhile and entertaining experiments in laying bits of songs over one another have mostly moved underground.

Here is the promised list of mashups we think you might enjoy.

Now that the form, post-Danger Mouse, has solidified, mashups are mutating. Poor Mojo editor Morgan Johnson asked me to add, and this is apropos the final selection: "Honestly, with the whole remix culture thing, the line between remix and mashup has become terribly thin. Look at the Popular tab on Hype Machine, usually 50% of this most downloaded or listened to songs are remix/mashups."

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