Magazine article The New Yorker

1 + 1 + 1 = 1; Pop Music

Magazine article The New Yorker

1 + 1 + 1 = 1; Pop Music

Article excerpt

In July of 2003, Jeremy Brown, a.k.a. DJ Reset, took apart a song. Using digital software, Brown isolated instrumental elements of "Debra," a song by Beck from his 1999 album "Midnite Vultures." Brown, who is thirty-three and has studied with Max Roach, adjusted the tempo of "Debra" and added live drums and human beat-box noises that he recorded at his small but tidy house in Long Island City. Then he sifted through countless a-cappella vocals archived on several hard drives. Some a-cappellas are on commercially released singles, specifically intended for d.j. use, while others appear on the Internet, having been leaked by people working in the studio where the song was recorded, or sometimes even by the artist.

After auditioning almost a thousand vocals, Brown found that an a-cappella of "Frontin'," a collaboration between the rapper Jay-Z and the producer Pharrell Williams, was approximately in the same key as "Debra." The two songs are not close in style--"Debra" is a tongue-in-cheek take on seventies soul music, while "Frontin' " is hard and shimmering computer music--but the vocalists are doing something similar. Brown exploited this commonality, and used his software to put the two singers exactly in tune.

Both Beck and Williams are singing in an impaired but enthusiastic shower-stall falsetto. Williams's goofy come-on--"Don't wanna sound full of myself or rude, but you ain't looking at no other dudes, because you love me"--is both musically and conceptually in sync with Beck's own daft chorus: "Girl, I wanna get with you, and your sister. I think her name is Debra." Brown's collage sounds not like two songs stitched together but one single theme song for inept Romeos everywhere. After several months of work, he completed the track, called it "Frontin' on Debra," and posted it on his Web site. With an enthusiastic push from Beck, "Frontin' on Debra" was made commercially available in October on iTunes.

"Frontin' on Debra" is an example of a "mashup," in which, generally, the vocal from one song is laid over the music from another. The best-known mashup in the United States is an unauthorized album-length project called "The Grey Album," assembled by Brian Burton, known professionally as Danger Mouse. The vocals are from Jay-Z's "The Black Album," and the musical bed is a highly processed and reorganized version of the Beatles' "White Album." Occasionally compelling, "The Grey Album" is not a great example of a mashup, because the musical bed is processed so radically that its source is sometimes not clear. One of the thrills of the mashup is identifying two well-known artists unwittingly complementing each other's strengths and limitations: bacchanalian rapper Missy Elliott combined with morose English rock band Joy Division, ecstatic Madonna working with furious Sex Pistols. The most celebrated mashups are melodically tuned, positing a harmonic relationship between, say, Madonna's voice and the Sex Pistols' guitars.

Mashups find new uses for current digital technology, a new iteration of the cause-and-effect relationship behind almost every change in pop-music aesthetics: the gear changes, and then the music does. If there is an electric guitar of mashup, it is a software package called Acid Pro, which enables one to put loops of different songs both in time and in tune with each other. Mark Vidler, known professionally as Go Home Productions, explained some other benefits of digital technology to me in London not long ago: "You don't need a distributor, because your distribution is the Internet. You don't need a record label, because it's your bedroom, and you don't need a recording studio, because that's your computer. You do it all yourself."

A legally cleared album of mashups called "Collision Course" is currently in the Billboard Top Ten. It is a sort of "Black Album" footnote, a combination of Jay-Z's work on "The Black Album" and other albums, and the music of Linkin Park, the multiplatinum rock band. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.