Cut-and-paste collaborations have created a beast in music industry
03.05.2008It's a Monday night at the Roxy, a popular music venue in West Hollywood, Calif. As legendary rapper Jay-Z takes the stage, the audience erupts in excitement. It's not his mere presence that thrills them, but the unfamiliar rhythm layered underneath Jay-Z's familiar voice. "Numb," the angst-ridden single by Linkin Park, serves as the musical background for the bravado-filled verses of Jay-Z's hit single "Encore."
To the uninitiated, the collaboration between a rock group and a rap artist must have seemed like a publicity stunt or a surreal dream. It's neither. The July 18 performance, organized and taped for "MTV Ultimate Mash-Ups," marked the arrival of a new genre of music into the mainstream: mash-up.
And its arrival comes less than a year after the genre made controversial headlines when Danger Mouse was hit with cease-and-desist orders for "The Grey Album," an unauthorized CD mashing The Beatles' "The White Album" with Jay-Z's "The Black Album."
"Strictly speaking, mash-up is when you take the vocals from one song and superimpose it on the instrumentation of another to create a new song," explains New Jersey's DJ Jesuspants, host of mash-up radio show "Re:Mixology" on WFMU-FM (91.1) and an early pioneer in the genre.
But while Jay-Z and Linkin Park may appear to be trendsetters to today's teens, don't forget that Public Enemy and Anthrax teamed up for "Bring tha Noise" 12 years ago, and that in 1986, Run D.M.C. paired with Aerosmith for "Walk This Way." Even as recently as 2000-01, Eminem hooked up with Dido (in the studio) and Elton John (at the Grammys) to perform "Stan."
And the process of cutting and pasting lyrics and beats from different genres has been going on in London for years, with underground DJs using the Internet and computer software programs to remix the hottest songs on the pop charts.
The work resulted in a creative new sound with equally creative titles. In no time, singles such as "Faint Britney," (a mash-up of Britney Spears' "Toxic and Linkin Park's "Faint") and "Bizkit of Choice" (a mash-up of Limp Bizkit's "N 2Gether Now" and Fatboy Slims' "Weapon of Choice") were circulating on the Internet.
The British public loved the new sound, catapulting several mash-ups to the top of the pop charts. Despite its huge following abroad, American audiences didn't catch on the genre until British DJs and the Web brought the sound stateside. The combination transformed the genre from underground phenomenon to mainstream sensation.
"It's one of the biggest things being talked about in the industry," says DJ Buddha, a Boston-based spinner who follows the trend by brewing his own special brand of mash-up, which mixes vocals by Spanish artists with traditional reggae beats.
The industry is not just talking about the trend. As with underground music genres of the past (jazz, house, rap), it's absorbing it.
Just this year alone, legendary rocker David Bowie introduced a single, which blends his vintage single "Rebel, Rebel" with his newest release "Never Get Old." Capitalizing on this, European carmaker Audi launched a new campaign that encourages audiences to create their own mash-up singles à la Bowie.
The trend also has expanded to include mixing different genres in new music. Country crooner Tim McGraw and rapper Nelly recently teamed to perform the single "Over and Over," which hit No. 1 on the charts in early November. Hot on their heels is legendary rapper Nasir "Nas" Jones who just released a single, "The Greatest Man," which blends his contemporary hip-hop style with that of old-school blues of his father, noted jazz musician Olu Dara Jones.
Like jazz, rock and rap before it, mash-up's dip into the mainstream exposes it to being commercialized. With bigger and bigger artists vying to participate in the trend, the onus on good music could be discarded for big bucks.
"A lot of times the music doesn't sound right. A lot of DJs just mix big-name artists together, because they think it will be popular," says DJ Buddha.
Yet some insiders remain hopeful, arguing that the cultural benefits outweigh the negatives.
"It's good when you see artists coming together," says Miami based producer Remi. "You realize that the music is pretty much the same."
Emerging hip-hop artist Colie agrees.
"It is an excellent thing," says Colie, who's based in New York. "People are taking notice of each other. It shows that black people listen to white music and white people listen to black music."
In addition to the cultural exchange, says DJ Jesuspants, there is a huge financial payoff for parties involved.
"A number of people benefit from it. Record companies, composers, writers and the artist,'' he says. "Conceivably, you can have up to four different parties profiting from one album."
The party which has the most to gain is the audience.
"The listener benefits because they get exposed to different artists. Which is important, because now if you look at urban kids they might very well have [rock act] the White Stripes as well as rap music," says Salaam Remi, A-list producer for artists like Sting, Celine Dion and Carlos Santana.
So a large audience is ready for the new sound. But is the new sound ready for a large audience? Jay-Z and Linkin Park's collaboration might answer that. The six songs they performed that night at the Roxy also were performed and mixed in the studio, and make up "Collision Course," the first studio-produced mash-up album of its kind in the United States. It hit the charts at No. 1 last week.
And there's more to come. There will be at least five more episodes of "MTV Ultimate Mash-Ups," with Gwen Stefani and OutKast or U2 and Eminem rumored as possible collaborations.