Mash-Ups Are Back, And This Time It’s Serious

A decade on from Girl Talk, a new generation of artists are pulling fresh ideas from the data feed.

March 04, 2015

Kanye might've publicly apologized to Beck over the latest Grammys incident, but the internet had other ideas. Alongside the inevitable memes came an anonymous mash-up of Beck's slacker anthem "Loser" with Beyoncé's mega-hit, "All The Single Ladies," and another by the Arcade Fire's Win Butler that mashed Beck and Kanye together for posterity. It was funny to see these two tracks pop up, especially because it's easy to forget that mash-ups were ever a thing as they've faded in popularity over the last few years. While the mash-up in its purest form is still largely absent from the 2015 musical landscape outside of click-generating events like these, a new generation of producers are quietly using the mash-up aesthetic to create abstract sound collages that reflect our hectic online lives. To be able to make some sense of these current forms, though, it's worth taking a look back to the mash-up's heyday.

In the early 2000s, the mash-up was everywhere—not just in the clubs, but in the charts. British pop group the Sugababes had a UK and European hit with "Freak Like Me" in 2002, which brought together the lyrics from Adina Howards' song of the same name over UK producer Richard X's edit of "Are 'Friends' Electric?" by Gary Numan's Tubeway Army band. The mash-up also made it onto screens worldwide with Kylie Minogue's 2002 Brit Awards performance of her single "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" over New Order's "Blue Monday," orchestrated by UK producer/promoter Erol Alkan. Other innovators include the Belgian brotherly duo of 2manydjs, known for their Radio Soulwax records, and a couple years later in the U.S., Pittsburg's Gregg Gillis, known as Girl Talk. The roots of the mash-up, however, can be traced back to the sample blending of early hip-hop, musique concréte, or plunderphonics—a '90s anything-goes style of composing entirely through samples.

Mash-ups were successful because of the unique and very simple way that they satisfied the audience's appetite for new sounds. Instead of a new bass sound or intriguing rhythm, the listener got the shocking rush of hearing ubiquitous songs crossbred in unheard ways—and they couldn't get enough. "I did my Dr. Dre and Sugarbabes mash-up on a Monday afternoon and played it out at Trash that night," explains Alkan over the phone from London, referring to the popular club night he ran in the early '00s. "Someone from [British radio station] XFM was at Trash and heard it, and Tuesday afternoon they rang me asking for a copy. The next morning it went on the A-list, and stayed there for six weeks." The style also challenged genre and authorship: "Back then obviously we were trying to juxtapose a vocal with a production that the artists would never have considered," reflects Alkan. "You're almost playing their subconscious slightly, bringing them together without them knowing."

As with any novelty, however, the appeal of mash-ups quickly faded in an oversaturated market—so much so that the term fell out of favor. Most of the contemporary artists employing mash-up techniques that contributed to this feature reject the term "mash-up" because of its association with novelty songs, but for clarity's sake it will continue to be used here. Whereas fifteen years ago it was about shock value, the creativity of today's mash-up work lies in how it cuts across the endless feed of data—the information and images that scroll past our eyes everyday—in interesting ways. Nowadays it's not just music that is readily available to us, it's everything. We know what the world thinks via Twitter, how it's feeling via Facebook, and we can research it endlessly via Google. It's therefore hardly surprising that the media collage of the online world is being absorbed into art practices.

It's striking to see our feed-based lifestyles manifest as feed-based art.

For example, there's a striking analogy between what it's like to consume Berlin-based producer Lotic's recent track "From The Front"—which features samples from Top 40 luminary Dr. Luke, hip-hop and ballroom artist Sugur Shane, and Kuduro producer DJ Karfox—and the everyday practice of interacting with the world and our friends through a bunch of different apps and online mediums. It's striking to see our feed-based lifestyles manifest as feed-based art, which is an idea Janus and PAN-affiliated producer M.E.S.H. introduced to me when we talked about Copenhagen producer Why Be, who works in the same circles as the Fade to Mind and Janus crews: "I think with Why Be there is a visual and sonic language that you can only understand if you follow him, see the images he posts, hear what he DJs, etc," M.E.S.H. explained. "It's this manic car crash territory that is more than the sum of its parts. It's in his selfies and one-liners on social media as much as in his music. That's something that unites him with Lotic, Total Freedom, Flexxi, Shanti, and Elysia Crampton [formerly known as E+E] in my opinion. It's definitely a language that might or might not read in a fragmented form. As in, it's an ephemeral, feed-based practice that needs that context." For another take on this, FADER columnist Adam Harper has written about the meeting of pop and violent sound effects in what he deems "the divine surrealism of epic collage."

Another outcome from having access to all the world's music at their fingertips is that artists today are adopting more fluid ideas of taste. "I like to play contrasting genres," offered Berlin's Janus-affiliated artist Kablam, whose Soundcloud hosts a number of mash-ups that she calls "mess-ups," a title she explains by offering, "I made them because I mixed two songs when I DJ'd and simply liked the sound of it." Going on, she argues, "Two objectively very different genres can, of course, have elements that produce similar feelings. That is why all genre defining is bullshit anyway—who's to decide what belongs in which category and why?" By embracing the "mess-up," Kablam is questioning the relationship between power and classification, and offering indefinability as an illegitimate but perhaps more fertile alternative.

Today's mash-ups are seemingly a byproduct of the information sorting we've learned how to do everyday as digital citizens.

The construction of Why Be's tracks follows a similar kind of "mess up" logic: the original mash-ups were a case of mixing together hit-plus-hit, but his have no stable formula. Rather than try to control the feed of data, he embraces the wayward results of its sometimes inexplicable flows: "People get locked to play some of the European spots that I've played based off of two minute snippets that they've uploaded to Soundcloud," he said. "That is the most nonsense bullshit and at the same time the most liberating and amazing thing. It's not out of like, 'that stuff doesn't make sense,' but it's like stuff doesn't have to make sense. It can actually flow like that." If things don't have to make sense any more, weird-seeming ways of making music are allowed to emerge: "It kind of all starts when I'm just in room dancing to slowstyle or hardstyle," explained Nightcoregirl, who specializes in collages of hard dance music. "[When] I hear something that I'll just want to hear 2000 times, that's when I know I need to use it."

Today's new breed of mash-ups are seemingly a byproduct of the information sorting we've learned how to do everyday as digital citizens. Or as NYC producer and Lit City Trax affiliate False Witness put it: "What I try to bring out when I DJ or create songs is a chaotic nature of doing things," he explained. "I want to go out and feel really happy one second and then sort of depressed and sad and moody, and very psychotic at one point." While that might not make sense in logical terms, anyone who uses the internet will recognize the experience of feeling a mish-mash of emotions all at once, in the space of a single screen. This music could even be taken as an example to follow: instead of being run down by the noise, one can break down and reassemble the barrage of information to shout back at the feed.

Lead image credit: Justin Tallis and Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

Mash-Ups Are Back, And This Time It’s Serious