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Mash-up Mayhem: From legal action to 'Glee'-full acceptance

October 23, 2009 |  1:39 pm


Thanks to Fox's freshman hit show, "Glee,"  now even your grandmother knows the definition of a mash-up.

Of course, the craze for cut-and-pasting songs has roots in decades-old music practices, and mash-up mania is more than 10 years in the making. And with Madonna gladly handing over her entire catalog for "Glee" to deconstruct, it's obvious the music industry has come a long way since the days of cease-and-desist orders ... or has it?

Here, we trace the last decade of mash-ups' tumultuous relationships with their mainstream source materials.

1999-2000: Eminem releases the “The Slim Shady LP,” layering his vocals over AC/DC's “Back in Black"  and Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby." Meanwhile, DJ Z-trip and DJ P are poised to release the LP “Uneasy Listening,” a turntablist tour de force that plunders a thick catalog of classic rock, hip-hop, techno and funk. These experiments, combined with the burgeoning popularity of file-sharing technology (Napster, LimeWire and later Bit Torrent) stoke the imagination and provide tools for scores of budding mash-up artists.

2001: Freelance Hellraiser releases “Stroke of Genie-us,” blending the Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” lyrics with instrumentation from the Strokes’ “Hard to Explain.” The track spreads like wildfire across college radio stations and gets noticed by mainstream media such as the Village Voice.

2002: Australian pop princess Kylie Minogue jumps on the mash-up bandwagon, performing Soulwax’s rendition of her hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” with New Order’s “Blue Monday." Meanwhile, Get Your Bootleg On, an online mecca for mash-up downloads and discussion boards further galvanizes the mash-up “community,” and Greg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk) crashes the mash-up scene with his first LP “Secret Diary.”

2003: Mark Vilder, a.k.a. Go Home Productions, releases "Ray of Gob," crafted out of Madonna's "Ray of Light" and the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" and "God Save the Queen." The single is condoned by the   artists and Pistols guitarist-turned-radio-host Steve Jones even gives it airplay. The single was eventually pressed into limited 12-inch vinyl and sold by Half Inch Recordings in the U.K. 

2004: A pivotal year in mash-up culture, '04 sees copyright controversy swing in many directions. Danger Mouse releases “The Grey Album,” an ambitious, full-length album mashing the Beatles' “White Album” with the a cappella vocals from Jay-Z’s “Black Album.”  EMI, owner of the Beatles catalog, orders that distribution be ceased because of the unauthorized use of samples. In protest, hundreds of websites band together for "Grey Tuesday" and post the album for free download. According to the event’s organizers, some 100,000 copies were downloaded in 24 hours. In other news, Beck gets hip to mashing and contracts with DJ Reset to release his  “Frontin' on Debra” (a three-way mash of material by Beck, Jay-Z and Pharrell) for purchase on iTunes, making it the first legal mash-up for sale in the US.

2005: Perhaps catching on to the idea that mash-ups could provide key exposure in niche markets,       Martin Gore approves a mash-up made by Tel Aviv’s Bonna Music, which remixes Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence" with Balagan's "Sheket" (the Hebrew word for "silence"). The same year, Warner Records puts the kibosh on Party Ben and Team 9’s “American Edit,” a mash-up album using Green Day songs available for free download on Ben's website

2006: Mash-ups continue to crossover into mainstream arenas. For the 2006 Grammy Awards, Paul McCartney makes a surprise appearance with Jay-Z and Linkin Park to perform the already-mashed "Numb/Encore." McCartney blends the melody line from "Yesterday" into the mix.  Building on the buzz from his first two albums, Girl Talk drops “Night Ripper,” another sample-saturated bomb, which uses more than 150 different musical sources in 16 “songs.”  The album treads into more accessible, hip-hop-based territory and garners high marks from hipster circles. The album is made available on the Illegal Art website,  with a “pay want you want" policy. Gillis’ label prepares to use the Fair Use Act to ward off litigation. 

2007: Only three years after clamping down on Danger Mouse, EMI does an about-face and sponsors Mark Vidler’s (a.k.a. Go Home Productions) “Mashed,” a fully legal, 14-track mash-ups compilation -- but only for U.K. release.

2008: Interscope Records begins an aggressive marketing campaign for its still-underground artist Lady Gaga by working with local DJs in cities nationwide to create unique mash-ups with her (not yet charted) single “Just Dance.” Girl Talk breaks into the big, big time with his fourth schizophrenia-inducing LP, “Feed the Animals,” which ends in Time magazine’s top 10 albums of the year and receives four stars from Rolling Stone.

2009: Annie Lennox approaches remixing savant Jordan Roseman, a.k.a. DJ Earworm, to create a custom-made retrospective mash-up, called "Forwards/Backwards." Sean Kingston follows suit and gives Earworm access to the studio multi-tracks of his entire body of work. The mash-up-centric video game DJ Hero is released, and over next several months, "Glee" instigates further mash-up fetishism.

Is open-source mash-up construction the wave of the future? Will copyright concerns be a thing of the past for mash-up artists? Opinions, please!

-- Ramie Becker

Photos: From left, Girl Talk, Madonna, Danger Mouse. Credits: From left, Andrew Strasser, Anthony Harvey, Myung J. Chun


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