Pop Goes the Bastard
What do you call a song that has the vocals of Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious" welded onto the backing track for Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"? "Smells Like Teen Booty," of course. What name do you bestow upon the offspring of a shotgun marriage between Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" and the Strokes' "Hard to Explain"? What else but "A Stroke of Genius."
And that last is what some, especially across the pond, feel is a pretty good description of the latest fad in DJ land. Stateside, the genre -- which is also called bootleg, bastard pop and mash-up -- is just beginning to attract attention. Spin and Entertainment Weekly each have recently written up the phenomenon.
But the record companies also have a name for it, and that is "illegal." And many on the Houston DJ scene call it unoriginal and worse.
"Blasphemy" is Houston DJ Ethan Klein's description. "Definitely," he says. "When I hear 'em oh, God. There are people who live by them -- that's all they'll buy, and I think that's gross. Yeah, I have one or two -- but they are the legal remixes done either by the original artist or a DJ who has permission."
Don't go looking for these mash-ups at your local record store. "They're big with downloads, but generally they don't release them for sale," says Bruce Godwin, owner of Houston dance-music shop The Record Rack. "Some of them are white-label vinyls [bootlegs released for sale], but most of them are bootlegs that somebody did on their home computer, then put out. Occasionally some of them come out for real after they've been out as a bootleg because they're so good, but not very many."
The high-tech era has made this a very democratic medium. A March article in the London newspaper The Guardian reported that London radio station XFM is besieged with mailed-in packages of mash-ups made by tech-savvy schoolkids. "People are downloading the tracks off the Net and then mixing them together with a computer program that can pitch-shift the vocals from one track to match the tempo and key of another, which wasn't possible with two turntables," says Godwin.
As it turns out, sometimes it was. One who proved it was Mark Gunderson of Columbus, Ohio's the Evolution Control Committee, the self-proclaimed inventor of what he calls plagiarhythm. In 1991, the ECC released a single of Public Enemy's "Rebel Without a Pause" backed by Herb Alpert's "Bittersweet Samba" with a B-side of PE's "By the Time I Get to Arizona" with Alpert's "Whipped Cream." On the A-side, the result is astounding. Chuck D.'s snarling fulminations and Alpert's sassy brass fuse perfectly. Flavor Flav's manic rants weave in and out seamlessly, the music shifts keys when D. does, and when he shouts out for a few cut creations from Terminator X, Alpert's drummer obliges with a cheesy little rat-a-tat-tat snare drum solo right on cue. Gunderson did not shift the pitch or the tempo of either song.
Gunderson says his idea was so simple, he was surprised no one had thought of it before. "I was heading home from a record sale one day and looking at what I bought, and I saw that I had this Public Enemy 12-inch and I also had this Herb Alpert Whipped Cream (and Other Delights), and before long it was like 'Your chocolate's on my peanut butter and my peanut butter's on your chocolate, and hey, they go good together.' "
Chemistry Records owner Chris Anderson scoffs at Gunderson's claim to have invented the phenomenon. "Nah," he laughs. "That idea's too basic. It's been around forever."
"Isn't that funny," says Gunderson, more in wonder than with sarcasm. "He's probably right that it is a basic idea, but then where are the people who did it before us?" And as yet no one has furnished Racket with a smoking gun to disprove Gunderson's claim. Most of the examples that people cite are merely extended samples or remixes, not the juxtaposition of two wildly different songs played simultaneously from beginning to end.
Not that Gunderson contents himself with mere mash-ups. His plagiarhythm casts a much wider net, and in 1999 that net got entangled in a pretty powerful turbine. When Gunderson decided to recast Houston's own Dan Rather as the front man for AC/DC, CBS hit Evolution Control Committee's label Eerie Materials with a cease-and-desist order. "Rocked by Rape," the offending song, finds the off-kilter news anchor reciting a cut-and-pasted litany of hallucinatory cataclysms over a riff very much like (but not quite identical to) that of "Back in Black." The song is complete with bridge and chorus, intro and outro (lifted from The CBS Evening News), and a mounting sense of urgency, hyperbole and madness -- the ECC's Rather is always exclaiming things like "cocaine, crack cocaine, mountains of cocaine!" "deeper and deeper into damage, even death!" and "died of a heart attack, died of breast cancer, died of a Japanese nuclear bomb!" It all passes by so fast that little of it has time to register. "I think that reflects the way violence piles up on itself and you become desensitized to it," says Gunderson. "It becomes nonsense." (Rumor has it that an unamused Rather saw a slide montage set to "Rocked by Rape" at a roast that was broadcast on C-SPAN.)
After the initial cease-and-desist order, Gunderson organized a letter-writing campaign and garnered some favorable publicity. CBS wisely decided to drop the matter. "They never pursued it," says Gunderson. "Which leaves us in this nether region where we're not really legitimized enough to release the record again, but we're not under the legal gun." ["Rocked by Rape" is available for downloading at www.evolutioncontrol.com/cat_ecc.html; "Rebel Without a Pause (Whipped Cream Mix)" is at www.detritus.net/ecc/gunderphonic.]
Gunderson is unrepentant about his work. "People naturally want to juxtapose things like that. It's like you're in kindergarten and they hand you some scissors, a bunch of magazines and some paste and say, 'Take these magazines and cut 'em up and put them into some new form.' It's a very basic urge; it's just a pity that it's illegal."
Klein thinks that a creation like the ECC's "Rocked by Rape" deserves respect. "House music, hip-hop music and electronic music in general is based on samples, but to be creative with those samples is another thing," he says. "Taking a sample and reversing it, putting some reverb and distortion on it and making it your own sound is creative. But if you're taking a sample and just setting it to a new beat I don't know. There's just no originality to it."
And for the most part, he's right. Even the most well-done mash-ups like "A Stroke of Genius" and the PE-Alpert collaborations are just novelties, like the experience of watching The Wizard of Oz set to the music of Dark Side of the Moon. Once you get over the recontextualization factor, you're left with just two songs you're already familiar with. One has to leave the confines of the mash-up to create a real work of art like "Rocked by Rape."
You might not know who Bill Parsons is, but if you listen to NPR, it's likely you've heard some of his work. With co-writer Eric Weinberg, Parsons and his band the Fifth Amendments penned such ditties as "The Love Bug Song," "$2.60 in Chicago," "Hand Count" and of course, "Enron-ron," all of which are Morning Edition staples. Parsons is also a serious folksinger whom The New York Times called "an emerging voice on the East Coast folk music circuit." See if you agree at Anderson Fair on May 2 Those who missed out on the recent 420 Fest on Washington Avenue have another chance for a little Heights-area high times at the Million Marijuana March Benefit on May 4 at Fitzgerald's. The event features a rally, a march and what organizers are calling "a fat sack of Houston's top rock bands," which includes Geek, Prison Love Scene, Carolyn Wonderland, Faceplant, Simpleton and Superna, among others. And if you inhale enough secondhand smoke at the marijuana benefit, you just might be giddy enough to be amused by the Dave Matthews concert later that night at the Woodlands Pavilion Speaking of Ms. Wonderland, Racket spy Greg Barr reports that after reading last week's installment of Racket (about Ozzy's whiz on the Alamo grounds), Carolyn told the crowd at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge that she's planning to squat down and pee on Ozzy's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Now that would be cool. She needs to read William Barrett Travis's last letter aloud to all passersby while she does it, and also at her ensuing trial Bulletin from the artists' collective front: This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb, The Devil Is Electric and Chenevert 13 perform at The Southmore House at 4401 La Branch on May 8, while crosstown rival art gang Creative Autonomy Collective will host a concert featuring Ottophobia, Christpuncher and One Last Chance on May 2. The CAC is at 2014 Washington Avenue.
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