So you're walking around your favorite hipster record store, and somebody at the counter puts on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Okay, you think, haven't heard this in a while. As that familiar opening riff starts, though, a female voice is whispering something. Is somebody fooling around on the store intercom? By the point in the song where Kurt Cobain should be screaming at the top of his lungs, the only vocal you hear is Destiny's Child chanting "I don't think you're ready for this jelly." You've entered some alternate universe of pop music; at any moment, a goateed Spock is bound to walk around the corner.
Such was my introduction to "mash-up" bootleg culture. I snapped up the record they were playing and got the guy who ordered it to tell me everything he knew. My first impulse was to write the disc up in the Current — but isn't this illegal? Wouldn't any press attention get these pop alchemists shut down? I decided to keep the record to myself.
A month and a half later, I see the term "mash-up" in The New York Times. And hear it on NPR. The silent covenant of the underground clearly has been broken: Time to go public.
Definition of a mash-up: Some pop culture-obsessed kid with more RAM on his computer than dates on his social calendar (who is almost surely an aspiring DJ) downloads MP3s of a few current hits. Using a little software and a lot of imagination, he grafts two or more of them together, making an aural Frankenstein's monster in which the limbs are still identifiable.
This activity has become phenomenally popular in the U.K., and is spreading to these shores via the Internet. London-based Web radio station XFM has a program and message board devoted to bootlegs — called "The Remix," it's located at www.xfm.co.uk. A more Web log-like point of reference can be found at www.boomselection.net, if the address hasn't changed between the time of this writing and the Current's publication date — this is, after all, an illegal sport.
At Boomselection, newbies can keep up to date with recent creations and track down the ones fanatics heard long ago. Be warned: The site is addictive, and downloading these things can take all day. A few examples of what's to be found there:
"A Stroke of Genius" and "Genie's Revenge," two different compositions that graft Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" onto riffs by the Strokes ... "Brainpower" — clearly made by some anti-American son of a bitch (he said facetiously) — which sets some George Bush post-9/11 rhetoric (misunderestimations included) to a techno beat ... Some Fatboy Slim beats propping up a hilarious assemblage of Christopher Walken's greatest quotes, including a guest spot on The Simpsons ... A few dozen takes on Eminem's new "Without Me" single, coupling the alleged homophobe with such paragons of masculinity as Morrissey and Stereolab.
Lots of these creations are thrilling just for their pairing of unlikely artists, or for the way a certain riff complements a familiar beat. Others take on new meanings: an a cappella version of the Beach Boys' gorgeous "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is played over a vaguely ominous cloud of synthesizer chords — injecting a little doubt into the song, in which a boy rhapsodizes about the prospect of marrying his teen sweetheart. "Bring the Muzik" (a product of DJ Lance Lockarm, like the Beach Boys cut) pairs the joyously vacant fluff of M's "Pop Muzik" with "Bring tha Noize," a Public Enemy track that believes, above all things, that pop music is a political force.
Juxtaposing pop creations isn't new, of course. It would take a book to trace the ancestors of the mash-up phenomenon, but one predecessor springs to mind thanks to a recent reissue; John Oswald's Plunderphonics work was recently collected into a nifty two-disc set. The package's copious liner notes go in depth about the philosophy behind Oswald's work, but suffice it to say that he has more in common with the mash-uppers than with the sample-hungry artists who claimed kinship a decade ago. While too many sample-based hits add little or nothing to the songs they're based on, Oswald spent endless hours chopping bits of tape and pasting them together, to create a wholly original structure out of recognizable material. As with the best bootleggers, his work is less about the comfort of a familiar groove than the shock of recognizing the old in something new, or recognizing the new in something old. Tracking Plunderphonics down may be a chore at your local store (try www.negativland.com); there are legal issues involved, after all. But what's fascinating about the record industry is the way a heinous crime becomes a marketing tool overnight. After spending countless dollars on legal fees trying to bust the bootleggers, British labels who've seen mash-ups revive hits that had run their course are now licensing the work. Stateside entities should take note of this in their own crusades against Napster and the like; any trend that's built on nothing more than the love of music ought, in the long run, to be good for the artists who produce it.