Music Mixmasters

Mash-ups go mainstream

| September / October 2004

Imagine Joni Mitchell singing 'Woodstock' while the grunge metal guitars of Soundgarden wail accompaniment. Imagine jazz pianist Herbie Hancock jamming with the Beastie Boys or Salt-n-Pepa collaborating with Iggy Pop. Imagine any two or more musical compositions overlaid so artfully that something new and wonderful is created -- a total blend, not the snippets you hear in sampling. Once the domain of an avant-garde audio underground, this sort of remix -- often called a mash-up -- has become a populist art form, thanks to the Internet and increasingly sophisticated (and readily available) audio editing software.

Mash-ups are especially popular with tech-head fans of current rock and rap, but the idea of altering and recombining pop music electronically is not exactly new. Rapping over existing music tracks has been a mainstay of hip-hop music since the late '70s; sampling came later, and in the late 1980s John Oswald's recording Plunderphonics featured Dolly Parton singing a duet with her own slowed-down voice, James Brown shouts spliced together provocatively, and Michael Jackson's 'Bad' run through an audio blender. For the latter offense, Oswald was ordered to destroy all copies of the CD, which he did after distributing hundreds of copies for free. Today's mash-ups, on the other hand, are created on such a widespread and anonymous scale that an industry-wide clampdown is impossible. Technically illegal bootleg recordings are burned onto CDs, posted on blogs and other Web sites, and otherwise given away or swapped widely. The movement has grown so large that there is now a television show in the U.K. -- MTV Mash -- that commissions legal remixes (

Singer David Bowie, for one, has acknowledged these bootlegs, promoting a Bowie-Bowie mash-up contest on his Web site while stipulating rules that allow him to retain copyright. Others in the music industry have reacted more negatively. Last year the record label EMI served a cease and desist order on DJ Danger Mouse in response to The Grey Album, a remix of the Beatles' White Album (owned by EMI) with rapper Jay-Z's The Black Album, but such legal challenges seem like thumbs in a leaky dam. Since mash-ups are generally created outside of the cash economy, for pleasure and not profit, there is every indication that the movement and its practitioners will continue to thrive.

An audio bootlegger known as IDC says he's excited to be part of what he calls 'the first music scene to be born of the Internet.' Calling mash-ups 'aural pop art,' IDC notes -- in an interview in the webzine The Confidential ( -- that the movement has advanced beyond the simple mixing of vocals from one song with rhythm tracks from another and has moved into more complex blends of individual instrumental tracks. Take 'Bootystition,' a remix that mash-up aficionado Leslie Powell says combines 'Wild Cherry, Stevie Wonder, Destiny's Child, and Peter Gabriel into this thing that is utterly uncanny.' Such mash-ups are not mere remixes, Powell says, but rather are 'designed to sound as if they're completely legitimate songs, crafted that way originally.'

The movement of mixing isn't limited to music. Years ago people listened to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz and discovered that the album matched the movie scene for scene. Before that, Woody Allen appropriated a Japanese action movie and redubbed it comically, creating What's Up, Tiger Lily? Since then, underground versions of Star Wars Episode 1 and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone have made the rounds, notable for their alternative sound tracks. Also, as Jesse Walker noted last year in Reason magazine (May 2003), the Web contains countless satirical 'political remixes' in which 'politicians' and newscasters' words are recombined.'

As Powell suggests, audio and video mash-ups are the latest in a long tradition of media appropriation and cultural poaching that includes slash fiction -- fan-written short stories that put TV and film characters in radically new contexts (see 'Kirk, honey. It's me, Spock!,' Utne Reader, Sept./Oct. 2002). The human spirit will always find ways to recombine what it is given and create new metaphors outside the bounds of commerce. In a fractious world, mash-ups are a metaphor of connection, bridging the unbridgeable, confounding the idea of purity, and gleefully flouting borders.

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