Mashup vs. Remix
The most accessible and common pop-culture miximal forms you’ll likely recognize are remixes, mashups, and tributes, but what are they exactly, and where did they come from?
Lets illustrate the audio definitions to begin, but for the record, pure visual art analogs exist. Some of these visual art forms are explained under the species-level definitions of the miximal taxonomy with identifications such as supercuts, or visual remixes such as cutdowns. But for simplicity, let's start with the audio definitions of these forms and work our way into the other complexities.
An audio sample is small unit or fragment of a song, such as a few notes, removed and used outside of the original work. Early audio-sampling techniques produced a new form of musical expression first appearing in the 1960s and used by the Beatles in such songs as Yellow Submarine and I Am the Walrus. In 1979, the first popular rap song to fully exploit sampling was Rapper’s Delight by the Sugarhill Gang, which led to a revolutionary new school of expression. Today, sampling has morphed from tiny morsels of flavoring into complex blends of ingredients that produce new miximal recipes in every type of offering.
While contemporary innovators might want to lay claim to these sorts of inventions, music has a long and rich history of miximal experimentation.
The thirteenth century produced the notion of rounds (or rondels) that later evolved into the form known as a canon. In general terms, the canon can be roughly thought of as a prehistoric remix. A canon is like a remix? Well, basically, yes, in principle. You can be sure that Johann Pachelbel, the baroque composer best known for his Canon in D Major, would have flipped his wig if he’d seen the technology tools available today.
Row, row, row your boat is a type of canon in which a melody is woven with one or more imitations of the same melody that are played after a given duration. Canons, like remixes, are self-referential and rely on what we’d now call a multitrack approach to creating a layered experience. But an important distinction shared by remixes and canons is their focus or reliance on internal inspiration rather than external elements.
That said, new tracks or sounds such as base beats can be introduced, but the introduction of sounds are just that—sounds rather than songs—the introduction of another song would be considered a mashup, not a remix. Its important to state right about now, for illustrative purposes I'm limiting these explanations to a purest definition of the forms but in reality art is frequently broad or nuanced in ways that make purest definitions to simplistic, but for our purposes here, lets keep it simple.
A remix is typically audio or video (but can also be applied to the visual arts or literature) that, like a canon, uses a singular source of inspiration (such as a song). But, unlike a canon, remixes employ various complex layering techniques (such as sampling and multitrack overlays) or supporting generic elements (such as a rhythm track) along with heavy use of editing and effects to transform a specific known or familiar work into an incremental, new experience.
When creating audio remixes, it’s important to acquire the raw elements of a song—i.e., the isolated a cappella track of the vocals, for example. Finding a popular song’s instrumental tracks can be easier, especially if the song is available as a karaoke single. Another popular technique is to use a hack of Guitar Hero®, the popular air-guitar computer game, to isolate and remove tracks.
But, more and more, artists themselves are releasing isolated tracks to encourage remixers to publicly contribute remixed versions of their songs. The companion remixes are sometimes referred to as crossovers, or cross-genre mixes since they frequently change the target audience—for example, making a dance remix of a previously undanceable song. Many popular remix producers have been hired by artists to officially remix songs and have even been paid directly or given royalties for their work. The hit Bad Romance by Lady Gaga was remixed by DJ Chew Fu, who describes himself as a “serial fixer.” The H1N1 remixed single is available for sale on Amazon and iTunes alongside the original song.
There are many examples of (legal) financial opportunities for remixers, including DJ Earworm, (one of my personal favorites) a San Francisco–based mashup artist who has been creating year-end mixes titled United State of Pop, using the Billboard magazine top 25 hit songs from the prior year. His mashup supermixes caught the attention of singer Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics, who hired him to create Backwards/Forwards, an official mashup of nine of her much-loved songs—which leads us to the topic of mashups versus remixes.
The late sixteenth century transformed the multitrack notion of a canon into the more complex notion of a fugue. The fugue is known for having multiple voices, or melodies—either playful or dueling in nature—that ultimately “sound together” simultaneously at the end. A fugue can be loosely described as a prehistoric mashup in which competing melodies create a transformational work (as opposed to an incremental work) that is based on the combination or mashing of more than one melody. The experiential nature of multiple simultaneous audio channels—be it canons, remixes, fugues or mashups—has been repeatedly reinvented by available technology and, most importantly, the collective creative genius that continues to reveal our modern world in ways we can’t always anticipate.
A mashup shares similar editorial and creative processes with a remix but—not unlike the fugue—typically uses two or more competing elements. However, mashups differ greatly from the classical notion of a fugue, since mashups don’t rely specifically on the artists’ intensional and specific original elements but rather incorporate found external identifiable source materials with the goal of creating synergy among the found artifacts. If successful, mashups produce an entirely new and transformative work (while keeping key identifiable elements of the independent sources intact). Why listen to one song when you can enjoy two or more at the same time?
Frequently, you can identify a mashup by its title, which usually includes a “versus” reference, such as with performers “Madonna Vs. Deep Purple” or “The Beatles Vs. Nine-Inch Nails” or, sometimes by song titles “Thriller Vs. Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Baby Got Back Vs. Turn the Beat Around” and even esoteric combinations of circuit bending “Speak-n-Spell Vs. Elmo Vs. Casio.”
YouTube is a great resource that contains tens of hundreds of thousands of pure musical mashups, musical mashups with accompanying video mashups, as well as pure video mashups and even brand mashing (typically forms of brand violation or Culture Jamming) with such unlikely combinations as the mashup from TV’s Family Guy, Kramer Versus Predator, perhaps inspired by the original and infamous Marv Newland cartoon Bambi Meets Godzilla.
Contribution vs. Curation
Middleman roles have always existed in art. In a museum, we call this person a curator; in publishing, we refer to the role as the editor; in television, we experience a prime-time lineup of shows thanks to the programming executives. In radio, the term DJ (disc jockey) represents a traditional role of programming a lineup of music; however, in miximal culture, the DJ (audio) or VJ (including video) role has been reinvented into an active, participant capable and even expected to make creative content contributions, as opposed to just selections.
Weaving multiple songs together through cuts and overlays produces a transformational work that creates a new (yet familiar) tune that can be oddly compelling or a complete disaster. This trend has given rise to the miximal DJ culture whereby the musical mixologist brings not just a curatorial perspective but also an editorial and execution style that often overshadows the source elements and delivers an experience that is truly greater than the parts.
Remixes and mashups can exist as static or canned works but are also found in real-time live performances thanks to the talents of club DJs, such as Francis Grasso, an American disc jockey from New York City. Grasso is credited for inventing a technique called slip-cueing—which was later referred to as beat-matching, mixing, or blending—that has become the basis of the most-successful club DJs’ performances. Dave Clarke (not the Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five) is a techno DJ and producer who is famous for fusing hip-hop beats and techno in his sets. No short list of music mixologists would be complete without a mention of Danger Mouse and the amazing megamix talents of Gregg Michael Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk), be sure to check out my blog Miximalism for more on the greats including Girl Talk.
DJ Paul V, originally from Boston, is one of the central mashup DJs in the Los Angeles scene. From 2007 to 2009, Paul hosted a pivotal radio show in Los Angeles on Indie 103.1 FM radio called Neon Noise. I talked with Paul about when he first encountered mashups.
The first mashup he ever heard—and the one widely cited as the song that started it all—first emerged in 2001. Referred to as “the song that defines the decade” in a UK Guardian newspaper article was Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle mixed over a song from the garage-rock revival band the Strokes’ first album, Hard to Explain. The song was titled A Stroke of Genius (also frequently cited as “A Stroke of Genie-us”) and was created by a British producer named Roy Kerr (a.k.a. the Freelance Hellraiser).
UK Guardian's Lynskey describes the song as “pop brilliance” and writes, "In the 1980s and 90s, art-minded mashups by the likes of John Oswald and the Evolution Control Committee tended to highlight the smash-and-grab nature of combining well-known songs, producing satire and subversion from the mismatch. . . . Kerr . . . was more of a benign matchmaker, showing two disparate artists how much they really had in common."
Arguably, the earlier 1980–1990 influences and experimental sounds coming from Plunderphonic and the Tape-beatles form the basis of the current debate over the official beginnings of mashups or bastard pop—as it was known at the time—however, the British bootleg scene and bastard pop took a huge evolutionary leap with Mark Gunderson’s Evolution Control Committee, which, in 1993, produced a recording of Public Enemy’s “The Rhythm, the Rebel” mixed with “Bittersweet Samba” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass—clearly laying the foundation for Kerr and others to refine and take the genre mainstream. For you geeks and archivists, the internets time tunnel will happily transport you to gunderphonic for some additional detail.
Several hundred seven-inch vinyl singles of A Stroke of Genius were released on an independent label, which quickly generated a cease-and-desist order from RCA, the label of both Aguilera and the Strokes. Kerr later became Paul McCartney’s official tour DJ and additionally worked directly as a paid remixer for Aguilera.
DJ Paul V found Stroke of Genius on a promotional compilation CD The Cornerstone Player, a subscription-based three-CD promo package to which alternative radio stations frequently subscribed. Billboard magazine described Cornerstone Promotions, publisher of the package, as combining “the functions of a record label with the business model of an ad agency.” Founded in 1996 by Rob Stone and Jon Cohen, Cornerstone also has an in-house record label, Fader.
DJ Paul V recognized the appeal of mixing what he called “obnoxious pop along with trendy alt-rock and indie” sounds, and he soon found a wealth of emerging mashups on peer-to-peer file sharing sites, such as Soulseek.
Successful mashups use an A vs. B formula that
necessitates that the listener be familiar with at least one of the tracks, so,
as DJ Paul V explains, “the
whole point is that your ear thinks it’s getting one thing, but suddenly it’s
not . . . you don’t have to know both [tracks] but you have to know one really
well.” The techniques of fussy beat-matching and key
correction (a key is commonly described as music’s harmonic center—for example,
the key of C minor) are employed to steer clear of what mashup artists call key clash. The craftsmanship of beat-matching
and key correction are important aspects to successful mashups.
In 2003, Paul V started the first mashup club night in Los Angeles and soon began a “mashup of the day” feature for Indie 103.1 FM, which later became a Friday night hit show, The Smash Mix, combining mashups and indie hits which ultimately moved to the coveted Saturday night midnight-to-3:00 a.m. slot with his new hit show Neon Noise. With a well-established radio audience, Paul started a club night of the same name and transformed the radio show into a hit club experience.
Concurrently with Neon Noise, Paul became the founding DJ for the monthly Los Angeles mashup club night called Bootie LA, a franchise of the original San Francisco critical hit Bootie SF. The Bootie club’s tongue-in-cheek tag line is “ruining your favorite songs since 2003.” The official Bootie website describes it as “Launched in 2003 in San Francisco by A Plus D, aka DJs Adrian & Mysterious D, Bootie was the first club night in the U.S. dedicated solely to the burgeoning artform of the bootleg mashup—and is now the biggest mashup event in the world, with regular parties in several cities on four continents, and various one-offs around the globe.”
Examples of a typical Bootie lineup have included such songs as these:
A Plus D (San Francisco, Calif.): “Don’t You Want My Bad Romance” (The Human League vs. Lady Gaga)
DJ Schmolli (Vienna, Austria) “Bulletproof Radar” (La Roux vs. Britney Spears)
Dan Mei (Denmark) and Marc Johnce (Nuremberg, Germany): “My Life on the Crazy Train Sucks (So What?)” (Kelly Clarkson vs. Ozzy Osbourne vs. Pink vs. Daft Punk)
DJ Lobsterdust (New York City): “NirGaga” (Nirvana vs. Lady Gaga)
Party Ben (San Francisco): “Single Ladies (in Mayberry)” (Beyoncé vs. “The Andy Griffith Show” theme)
MadMix Mustang (Schijndel, Netherlands): “I Got More Than a Feeling” (Boston vs. Black Eyed Peas)
The Illuminoids (Los Angeles, Calif.): “I’m a Girl U Want” (The Monkees vs. Devo),
The Kleptones (UK): “Voodoo Sabotage” (Beastie Boys vs. The Prodigy vs. Pendulum)
DJ Paul V (Los Angeles): “Might Like Ghosts Better” (Amanda Blank vs. Bad Cabbage vs. Deadmau5)
For these and many more, visit tabTV's video playlists collection MashMIX.
The other cousin to remixes and mashups is the alpha trend
known as a tribute, which can share elements of both a remix and mashup but is
specifically designed to pay homage to (or negatively comment on) a specific
person or work rather than as commentary, satire, or a parody of the source.
While terminology like remix and mashup is associated with pop-culture media, the underlying and guiding principles behind it are evident across a broad range of media. Miximal principles transcend physicality and material processes to encompass conceptual thought as well. In staking out the scope of artistic miximal influence, it is important to illustrate other manifestations aside from music and consider influences in writing, fine art, and the visual arts. There is mounting evidence of the miximal influence to be found in our language and literature—for more on the topic, read my blog MIXimalism.
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