Hybrid Vigor

As rules of thumb go, this one is pretty infallible: By the time we've heard about it, a trend's hippest participants will think it's on the decline. That means that mashups, or the manipulation of the musical genetic material of several different songs to create a new song, may be on their way out, because we've become infatuated with them.

The technique of blending melodies and lyrics from different—sometimes widely divergent—artists and genres is not new. It's at least as old as rock'n'roll; there were novelty hits back in the 1950s, such as Dickie Goodman's 1956 "The Flying Saucer," created with analog tape and a razor blade. The advent of software editing programs such as Acid Pro, however, has made it possible to easily capture, loop, speed- and time-align, and alter the pitches of different elements—which now means anyone can produce a song that mixes, say, the vocals from Whitney Houston's "It's Not Right But It's Okay" with the musical accompaniment of The Who's "I Can't Explain." (Can't Explain/OK)

Well, anybody with an idea, lots of time on their hands, and lots of bandwidth. And ears—the unfortunate downside to the whole mashup scene is the same as the brilliant bit: Anybody can play. As a result, there are some truly amateurish mashups out there. At their best, however, they can be breathtaking, such as Hank Handy's delirious medley that combines 40 different Beatles songs into one delicious rave-up. The Handy mashup illustrates one of the problems with the genre, however: It appears at a variety of different URLs throughout the Web, with varying degrees of fidelity. The one we list is the best-sounding we've found, but an even better-sounding version may exist somewhere out there.

Not that mashups are about fidelity—at least not in the sense that we audiophiles tend to use the term. They can, however, be true to the music they dismantle and pay tribute to in a different sense. There's an almost certainly apocryphal story concerning Handel's retort to charges of melodic plagiarism, "Yes, but look what he was doing with that tune." In that spirit, many mashup artists consider their work to be a rescue mission, saving a fantastic riff from one song and marrying it to an inspired vocal performance from another.

The first authorized, commercially released mashup from a major label, DJ Reset's "Frontin' For Debra," which combines the track "Debra" from Beck's 1999 Midnight Vultures with the 2003 Pharrell Williams/Jay-Z single "Frontin'," takes its core elements from two completely different genres, but creates something that sounds conceptually unified—and possibly even better than its basic elements. ("Frontin' For Debra" is available as a paid download from www.itunes.com)

Another infectious example of DJ Reset's eclecticism, "Sympathy", borrows from sources as disparate as the Rolling Stones, Mary J. Blige, and Ja Rule.

Then there are radically different takes on the same basic building blocks, such as these two songs which rely heavily upon the Scissor Sisters: "Take Your Mama Fighting" and "No One Takes Your Freedom".

Of course, as with almost any other current trend in popular music, there are legal ramifications. In 2004, DJ Dangermouse (Brian Burton) mixed a capella vocal tracks of Jay-Z's The Black Album with musical tracks crafted from elements of the Beatles' The Beatles (more popularly known as The White Album) to create a fascinating hybrid he called The Grey Album. Reviews were mixed, but the actions of EMI—owners of the Beatles' recording catalog—were unequivocal: They issued a cease and desist order.

In that case, Dangermouse had clearly sampled from copyrighted material and, as unenlightened as many felt EMI's actions to be, they were legally defensible. In many cases, however, the authorship of songs is not so clear in the sampling age. These days, many songs are based on samples, sometimes as many as six or seven in a single backing track. In many cases, these are credited, in others, not. Artists creating mashups for commercial release find negotiating these interlocking copyrights a legal minefield. That's why many of them release their work on the Web, making their livings as dance club DJs, having achieved either fame or notoriety.

The thing about the mashup scene is that it has a palpable excitement, the sort that has been all too rare in the major record label version of the popular music front for a long time. At last fall's AES convention, Stereophile editor John Atkinson and www.stereophile.com webmaster Jon Iverson wandered over to the Remix Hotel, a show presented by Primedia's Remix magazine and catering to, well, the remix/mashup auteur crowd. "It was fabulous," Atkinson reported. "It has all of the energy and excitement—over gear and music—that I recall from the hi-fi industry 20 years ago. These were people who cared deeply about music, and they had all the can-do spirit and enthusiasm that I wish we had more of now."

And perhaps we soon shall have. If you can't beat 'em, co-opt 'em—at least that's what the record labels seem to be saying. Christina Aguilera and Paul McCartney have both hired mashup DJ Freelance Hellraiser to produce entire albums of authorized remixes, presumably with access to master tapes and studio-quality gear. Linkin Park and Jay-Z have had 13 weeks on the Billboard charts with their MTV Ultimate Mash-Ups Presents: Collision Course.

Of course, a musical trend's popularity is no guarantee that any care will be given to how it sounds. That's an area where we'll have to hope that the pride of the mashup creators will serve audiophiles well. Perhaps we audiophiles can help guarantee that outcome by evaluating this new musical form on its own merits—and perhaps letting any budding mashers hear what their productions sound like on equipment that puts the fidelity back into "high fidelity."

In the meantime, here are some of the mixes that Jon Iverson and I have been burning up bandwidth with lately:
Sixxmixx's "Led Snoopelin"
Sixxmixx's "Finding Out Sharona Is Blind"
Team9's "Love Tax"

And if you want a tutorial, so you can create your own, this one's aimed at users of Tracktion software—but the basics are the same for most editing programs.