Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The anatomy of a mashup - with guest blogger Christine Boone

My friend and former classmate from the University of Texas at Austin Christine Boone is writing her dissertation on mash-ups. I asked her to write up a little something for Always More to Hear sharing her vast knowledge about the different types of mashups.

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There are several different types of mashups. The most basic kind is vocals from one song, instrumentals from another. Of that basic type of mashup, I think the most impressive examples are the ones in which the vocals are sung, not rapped. I love rap, but since there is no pitch material involved, it's much easier to work with than singing. You can put a rap on top of most any musical background, and it will generally work as long as the meter is the same in both songs. Therefore, I think the best kind of basic mashups using rap are ones where the instrumental background is totally unexpected and extremely far removed from anything related to hip hop.

A personal favorite is a really early mashup from 1993: Public Enemy "Rebel Without a Pause" + Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass "Bittersweet Samba" by the Evolution Control Committee. This was 1993, the ECC was clearly way ahead of their time! The innocence and total uncool-ness of Herb Alpert is so completely foreign to Public Enemy, and it's really funny to hear the two of them together.



The play between unrelated genres makes a great mashup, regardless of whether the vocals are sung or rapped. However this next example contrasts a prefabricated studio band with a squeaky-clean image of the The Monkees with Iron Maiden, a heavy metal band that sings about Satan.

"I'm a Believer" + "The Trooper": This might actually be my favorite mashup - dare I say - ever?



Besides the wildly contrasting genres, other great parts about this one include the relatively unaltered status of each source track. Sometimes would-be great mashups end up sounding weird, because one song has to be sped up or slowed down a little too much in order to get it to work with the other song. If either song has been changed in this case (in either pitch or tempo) it's not noticeable.

It's also great because its sung vocals fit perfectly over instrumental accompaniment. This is particularly difficult to do, because you need to worry about the notes in the melody line fitting with the harmonies in the accompaniment. Sometimes you can find two songs that use the same chord progression. (Or a million songs? See the Axis of Awesome: ) When this is the case, the songs can be easily put together. But in the case of "Trooper Believer", the harmonies are completely different to begin with, which makes it even more awesome that they fit together.

Another type of mashup is one in which some of the source material is very heavily manipulated, sometimes to the point of becoming unrecognizable. This happens quite artfully in DJ Danger Mouse's Grey Album, which famously combines Jay-Z's Black Album with the Beatles' so-called White Album. One of my favorite tracks is "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," because of what Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) has done in order to create a musical accompaniment for Jay-Z's rap vocals.

Rather than simply placing two songs on top of one another, Burton has completely cut up the Beatles' "Julia" and composed an entirely new accompaniment using individual notes from the guitar and vocal lines.



And then there's the crazy jumble, how-many-songs-can-you-name? technique of Girl Talk. Perhaps the most famous mashup artist, Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis) makes a living creating manic mashups that seamlessly incorporate as many as 30 songs per track. "Play Your Part (Pt.1)" is a great example.



This type of mashup is extremely appealing to listeners because of the sheer number of songs involved. It becomes sort of a game to see how many songs you can recognize in each track. Gillis' DJ'ing/mashup skills amaze me, because not only does he combine songs of different genres like any successful mashup artist, but he does it with so many songs. He keeps a constant beat and weaves samples in and out, keeping crowds at his live shows dancing the entire time.

Mashups are mostly an amateur art, which is great, because it gives everyone a chance to be creative and make music. However, it does mean that there are a lot of really bad tracks out there. But that means you get to have more fun digging, so enjoy!

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Christine Boone received her Bachelor's degree in vocal performance at Indiana University, her Master's degree in music theory at the University of Texas, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in music theory, also at the University of Texas. She has presented papers on The Beatles in both the United States and the United Kingdom and given guest lectures on the music of Richard Wagner. Christine is currently writing a dissertation on mashups.

3 comments:

Karen said...

Great insights about mash-ups!

max den said...

Amazingpost

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