I love mashups–really, any kind of aural collage or remix–more than a reasonable person probably should. During my preteen years, I wasted hours on my Pioneer double cassette deck, mixing everything from Badfinger songs to The Hobbit on audio book into bastard combinations of Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy and YouTube Poop. To this day, there are mashups I prefer to any of their constituent parts: a 2005 version of LCD Soundsystem’s “Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” mixed with Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” and ingeniously titled “Janet Jackson is Playing at My House,” has been stuck in my head for almost a decade now, despite the song itself having seemingly succumbed to the twin Internet plagues of time and DMCA notices. And yeah, I’m one of those assholes who gets legitimately excited whenever a new Girl Talk album is announced.
So it should probably come as no surprise that I instantly fell in love when I heard New York DJ Scott Melker‘s series of mashup EPs combining recent mainstream hip-hop hits with ’70s-’90s pop. My younger sister, who I don’t even think would be embarrassed to be publicly described as a Hall and Oates fan, introduced me to last year’s Ballin’ Oates, the collection that finally gave us the combination of the blue-eyed soul duo’s “Rich Girl” and Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” we never knew we needed. There’s also the wonderfully-titled Trill Collins, which left me surprised and frankly dismayed by the amount of latent affection I have for the solo music of Phil Collins, and the even-more-wonderfully-titled Skeetwood Mac, which mixes 2 Chainz’ “Yuck!” with the Rumours cut “The Chain“…’nuff said. Most recently at the time of this writing, Melker released Red Hot Trilli Peppers: my least favorite of the bunch, but only because the Chili Peppers have a less interesting body of work than any of the other artists; whatever your feelings on the original songs, pairing B.o.B.’s “Headband” with “Give It Away” is still an inspired move.
Putting my wide-eyed enthusiasm briefly aside, there’s still a part of me that wonders about these mashup things. They’re easily read as the ultimate in (post-) postmodern emptiness: just blank, nihilistic musical irony where the only meaning we receive as listeners is a punny title and a surge of nostalgic endorphins from hearing familiar hooks in a new way. There’s also the intercultural queasiness that comes with an almost entirely white artist base appropriating what is at least nominally still African American street music and pairing it with highlights from their parents’ record collection or the latest indie-rock hits: a kind of musical slumming that plays irreverently with cultural and racial hierarchies while ultimately leaving them safely intact.
But I’m not really that cynical. I think mashups are in many ways the ultimate music for the shuffle era: the eclectic tastes and digital consumption habits I share with many of my generation have already made it likely for me to hear Procul Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” BLACKstreet’s “No Diggity,” and Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” in the space of an hour, so why not in the space of a minute? As for the mashup artists themselves, the good ones at least have an all-too-obvious enthusiasm and deep knowledge of their source material that, to me anyway, more than vindicates their colorblind sense of mischief. It’s just that for white kids–or any kids!–in the 21st century, ’70s/’80s M.O.R. is as valid a touchstone for sampling as James Brown or P-Funk.
At least in part because of my aforementioned misgivings, though, I find myself feeling a much deeper appreciation for the recently-released Yasiin Gaye project by Nashville-based producer Amerigo Gazaway. Part of Gazaway’s “Soul Mates” series of “collaborations that never were,” Yasiin Gaye blends vocal and instrumental samples from Marvin Gaye’s deep catalogue with rap verses by Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def. It’s less a straightforward mashup project than it is a fullscale recontextualization of both artists’ work, similar to Danger Mouse’s now-legendary Grey Album. But to a greater degree than even The Grey Album, the driving impulse behind Yasiin Gaye isn’t novelty or cleverness but a genuine sense of kinship. Bey and Gaye are clearly two artists participating in different strains of the same long musical tradition, a fact Gazaway draws attention to with musical pairings that are as revelatory of the source material as they are impressive in their resourcefulness. There are even a few winks to shared elements in both artists’ milieux: the primary hook in Gazaway’s version of Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” comes from Gaye’s 1963 single “Can I Get a Witness,” but the album version still opens with an extended sample of the song’s original hook, “One Step Ahead” by Gaye’s contemporary Aretha Franklin.
None of this is to say that Gazaway’s approach to the mashup is objectively “better” than Melker’s, or anyone else’s. Let’s take the Devil’s Advocate approach again and observe that Yasiin Gaye is exactly the kind of project that lends itself to critical respectability: everything about it, from the choice of artists–a seminal figure in “conscious” hip-hop meets the seminal figure in “conscious” soul–to the documentary-style sampling of What’s Going On reissue producer Andy Flory, to the faux-retro cover art pairing the iconic sleeve images of Bey’s Black on Both Sides and Gaye’s posthumous 1997 collection Vulnerable, feels calculated to announce itself as an Important Work. Melker’s aforementioned Ballin’ Oates, by contrast, has no such pretensions: the cover, in cropped form at the top of this post, looks like the result of Melker messing around with the Snoopify app, festooning Hall and Oates with deliberately cartoonish gold chains and facial tattoos. It doesn’t say Important Work–quite the opposite, in fact–but it is a hell of a lot of fun. Remix culture can be serious business, and that’s great, but it needn’t always be.
What ultimately connects these two projects might be the most banal thing there is to say about mashups, but I feel compelled to say it anyway: in their own distinct ways, Melker and Gazaway demonstrate the ongoing creative vitality of sampling in this era of near-totalitarian copyright protection. Of course, hip-hop has by necessity moved past its “Golden Age” of unlicensed sample-heavy masterpieces like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, and, contrary to the opinions of a few crusty purists, it is doing just fine. But the grey-market, only-ever-half-legitimate world of mashups still serves to remind us of the incredible frissons that can occur when disparate but familiar sounds collide in new and interesting ways. Now where’s that tape deck?