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An alternative mash-up theory

The pairing of a booming ex-gangsta with four boomer heroes on DJ Danger Mouseís now-infamous The Grey Album makes a witty point about audience and genre. And the project has rallied the intellectual-property "Copy Left" (see Carly Carioliís essay in the March 5 Phoenix). But not everyone is impressed. On the remix-hosting Web site Boom Selection, "The Dr." grouses: "The concept feels like one of those ever so slightly pretentious American appropriationist art Ďprojectsí which have zero appeal outside of the online/New York music press. Just look at the press release on Danger Mouseís site ó itís the notion that everything has to be Ďworthyí and have a subtext that differentiates between the British and American mash-up/bootleg scenes."

Whatever one makes of "online/New York," the writer speaks with the bitter authority of one who knows what else is out there. Mash-ups ó often uncredited remixes that miscegenate a hip-hop or R&B vocal with an instantly recognizable rock backing track ó have been club commonplaces for the last few years, especially in Great Britain. (One of the best-known interbreeds Christina Aguileraís "Genie in the Bottle" with the Strokesí "Hard To Explain," improving both.) Itís true that The Grey Album is neither as seamless nor as danceable as the best single-track mash-ups. (Then again, it wasnít meant to be ó Danger Mouse can construct more conventional hip-hop when he chooses, as on Cee-Loís new . . . Is the Soul Machine.)

Itís also true that some of the formís direct precursors are by "slightly pretentious" Americans. Back in 1996, Columbusís Evolution Control Committee released "The Whipped Cream Mixes," a seven-inch that consisted of Chuck Dís raps from two Public Enemy songs ó "Rebel Without a Pause" and "By the Time I Get to Arizona" ó backed with instrumentals by Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass. A 1999 Pickled Egg reissue, also on vinyl, is still in print, and plenty of Negativland-style violation of political speeches and the Oscar Mayer theme is downloadable at ECCís Web site. (Either this is "fair use" or ECC is too small to sue.)

The mismatch is hilarious, but the record works as music, too ó the vocal cadences line up with the Brassís tacky rhythms and mock-Baja horns almost perfectly. The current mash-up scene grew from the wide availability of digital recording technology; like any other tool, this can be used with more or less skill and invention. But itís still not obvious just how these two tracks were made. Either their elements fit perfectly in the first place ó an amazing stroke of collagistís luck ó or someone spent many arduous hours with leader tape and a razor blade. Either way, when Chuck D calls out for "Terminator X!" and gets a marimba-and-snare break instead, itís the closest purely aural equivalent youíll find to every college potheadís favorite multimedia mash-up: watching The Wizard of Oz while playing Dark Side of the Moon.

Of course, you donít need a multi-track recorder, much less a sampler, to mix black and white ó at least, you didnít in Omaha circa 1971. The L.A. Carnival ó Would Like To Pose a Question (Now Again), on the reissue arm of Peanut Butter Wolfís Stones Throw label, assembles mostly unreleased recordings by this obscure Midwestern funk outfit. Their integrated membership was led by drummer/vocalist Lester Abrams, who was multi-racial by birth but identified himself as black after discovering Little Richard and Junior Walker.

The bandís choice of name remains mysterious; otherwise, this release and its liner notes go beyond crate digging into serious detective work. But what listeners need to know is that the L.A. Carnival made remarkable jazz funk, driving but rhythmically complex, with more than one sturdy post-bop soloist in the horn line. Given the turn-of-the-19th-century race riots that loom large in Nebraskaís social history, and Abramsís personal background, itís not surprising that his best writing concerns such matters. In "Colors," which was released regionally as a single, he pleads, "Donít put me down ó I am of one color," though heís subtle enough not to say which one.

The discís standout is "The Klan," an outwardly sedate soul ballad built on stately, strangely voiced horn triads and Abramsís falsetto, which is clearly modeled on Curtis Mayfieldís. The songís narrator describes the racially motivated disappearance and killing of his siblings, falls silent for Percy Marionís flute solo, then returns for the climactic final verse: "Minds have not been changed/The plan remains the same/I killed a man today with my bare hands/A member of the Klan." Equal parts rage, fear, and pain, this song is a stark reminder that artistic freedom isnít the only kind people fight for.

Issue Date: April 16 - 22, 2004
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