Monster Mash-Ups

How musical collages are challenging traditional ideas of authorship.


"Rock the Party" is an incredibly generic title, but the song is anything but conventional. Its vocals are lifted from "Let's Get This Party Started," Pink's catchy and forgettable hit du jour. Behind them, though, is the rattling beat of "Rock the Casbah," released two decades ago by the Clash.

Not an imitation of the beat. The beat itself. A person or consortium called Ultra396 has spliced vocals from one track onto the music and chorus of another, and has done this so smoothly that it sounds like they were always on the same record.

While politicians debate the propriety of biological engineering, a similar sort of tampering is exploding in a network of underground laboratories. The results, alternately dubbed "bootlegs" and "mash-ups," crossbreed songs, not genes; they are remixed at home by amateur producer/collagists and released to the world via the Internet. Technically, they are illegal. Practically, they are unstoppable. Search for a particular mash-up online, and you may discover that it has disappeared, swallowed by legal threats, software troubles, or—most likely—the high cost of hosting it on a site. Search for mash-ups in general, though, and you'll find a cornucopia of brilliant, foolish, and brilliantly foolish novelties.

Critics have long debated who "creates" a pop record: the artist listed on the sleeve, the producer behind the scenes, the composer in the wings, or the sometimes anonymous studio employees who actually play the music. In certain contexts—experimental tape loops, freeform radio collages, Dickie Goodman novelty singles—authorship seemed to splinter even further, as composers, DJs, and comedians inserted samples from older recordings into new and very different contexts. When rap exploded in the '80s, so did sampling; and so did sampling-related litigation.

Now cheap, easy-to-use remixing software and quick distribution via the Net have set off another explosion. What once was avant-garde, and then was monopolized by the entertainment combines, is now a populist art form that virtually anyone can practice. Without much difficulty, you can lay one singer's vocal track onto another artist's music. With a little more effort, you can alter one or both to make the fit more snug (in Dsico's "I Need to Be Sedated," the Ramones' punk vocals have become more ethereal to match their new electronic backdrop) or more jarring (when DJ Andy Crane paired a Method Man rap with the theme from The Muppet Show, he chopped up the latter a bit, in what I can only assume was an attempt to make my brain hurt). With still more effort, you can create even more elaborate bootlegs: Osymyso's "Intro Introspection," for example, spends 12 minutes fusing the introductions of well-known songs. But the real difference between "Rock the Party" and "Intro Introspection" isn't a matter of increased effort—just increased inspiration.

Nor is music all that gets mashed. The Web contains a host of political remixes, in which politicians' and newscasters' words are recombined to satiric and/or sophomoric effect. In one early example of this subgenre, Ronald Reagan rhapsodized about poisoned meat. More recently, Bill Clinton has fielded questions about his "seven pounds of semen" and George W. Bush has declared America the center of world evil.

Interestingly, some of the same artists who benefited from the sampling boom of the '80s have been less than tolerant of their younger brethren. And no, they don't reserve their ire for those who didn't ask permission to use their work. The Belgian duo 2manydjs, a.k.a. Soulwax, spent nearly three years trying to clear the rights to all the records it intended to use on a mash-ups album. Along the way, it discovered that "a certain very well known hip-hop trio from New York, for instance, who once encountered some copyright-lawsuits of their own, will never, ever license one of their tracks for any compilation."

The trio in question—the Beastie Boys—was not the only act to deny the remixers a right it has no qualms demanding for itself. So did Beck, the Chemical Brothers, and the Notorious B.I.G., among other heavy samplers. Beck partially redeems himself, if industry rumors are true, by having helped convince his label not to sue RTMark for its Deconstructing Beck CD, which consists entirely of radically reassembled Beck tracks. Still, a ladder-pulling strategy appears to be at work.

Maybe that's hypocritical, and maybe it's just a part of the aging process—as a once-controversial practice becomes accepted, a new group of upstarts comes along. If that's the case, there's little reason to expect it to stop now. In 20 years, Ultra396's heirs might be suing someone for appropriating "Rock the Party" without their permission. "Bah," they'll complain. "Doesn't anyone respect the rights of authors anymore?"