The Grey Album - Sampling, Bootlegs, Mashups & a Beatles Time Twist
MUSIC is not a GENRE - Season 3 Episode #32
ALL ABOUT IT
FEATURED SONG: REC – “The Power of Repetition (Everlasting)” (from Syncopy for the Weird)
The conventional wisdom regarding music creation is that it involves instruments, voices, and traditional elements of composition like chords, melodies, harmonies, rhythm. That is both true and false. It’s true that most music of the last 500 years has been created with most or all of these elements. It’s false because there are many ways of creating music that involve two or one or none of them. The whole truth is any new music, no matter how it comes about, is an act of creation. As always, conventional wisdom falls short.
When sampling began in the 1980s, some people protested that this was not real creation. Every part of that statement is false. Sampling – using pre-recorded music snippets to add to or wholly create a new work, actually began in the 1940s, with a post-modern music movement called “musique concrete”, using tape splicing. The term itself was coined in the 1970s. In the 1980s, sampling entered pop culture in a big way with hip hop and other electronic/rock music. It was a great time for this, first because it was brand new to most people, and second because the music industry hadn’t yet set usage standards & rules.
That’s where bootlegs come in. Once laws were in place that protected existing recorded material, artists had to pay to use samples. OR they could do an end run around this and put out their work for free. As long as an artist doesn’t make money from a work, anything can be used without penalty. Once the internet was robust enough to handle mass distribution, an artist could release something for free that anyone could get access to. Even if this work didn’t make money, it might make a career.
Which is what happened for Danger Mouse – and this is where mashups enter. He had a brilliant idea. Why not take Jay-Z’s The Black Album, mash it up with the Beatles’ White Album, and call it The Grey Album? There are few people on earth who could afford to buy all that music to sample, so he put it out for free in 2004 (which is why my copy is a CD-R with a home printed insert), and he’s had a flourishing career ever since. He didn’t just sync up tracks from each album, he weaved them in ways that put ALL of the music into a new context. He used old existing things to bring something new into existence. He CREATED MUSIC.
Thus, the birth of the mashup – NOPE. Wrong. And this is where the Beatles Time Twist spins through. The Grey Album may have popularized mashups more than anything that came before it, and kicked off a flood of amateur & professional mashups right when technology made it easy for anyone to do it. But it sure as hell wasn’t the first. Not even close. The first mashup was put on wax in 1967 by Harry Nilsson using – you guessed it – Beatles music. More than 35 years before Danger Mouse used Beatles music for his trend setting mashup, Nilsson used Beatles music to invent the whole idea, at a time when the Beatles themselves were using sampling via spliced tape on songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” & “Revolution 9”. Pretty frickin’ cool.
I don’t do mashups, and I haven’t used very much pre-recorded material in my works. But the mashup aesthetic has been a huge influence. I like to layer two or more disparate sounds, or shove together two or more kinds of music, to create something new. You can hear that best in the song below, which uses at least three pre-recorded samples as rhythmic/drone bed for the rest of the music, which itself mashes together hip hop, pop, psychedelia & avant-garde:
REC – “The Power of Repetition (Everlasting)” (from Syncopy for the Weird)
Do you remember The Grey Album? Do you remember how the TV show Glee used to mash together two songs into a new kind of performance? Are there any other album or song mashups you’ve enjoyed? Or do you believe that all music should be created from 100% new elements always? Discuss dammit!