The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever

Various Artists

(no label)

Listening to The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever, a recent compilation of 17 “mashups,” is like visiting a bizarre parallel universe, one with a wilder and more dynamic rock scene than our own. Also known as “bootlegs,” “bastard pop,” and “missies,” mashups have been popular for a couple years now in European dance clubs (especially in England, where they’ve been featured prominently on the London radio program Remix), and recently they’ve been covered by NPR, Spin, and the New York Times. They’re records constructed on home computers, mostly by teenagers, in which existing tracks are combined into new ones. Freelance Hellraiser’s “A Stroke of Genius,” one of the best-known mashups, pairs the vocal from Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” with the instrumental track from the Strokes’ “Hard to Explain” to create what’s essentially a new song.

Of course, obtaining the rights to chart-topping songs is prohibitively expensive, which is one reason you may never have heard a mashup: most of them are illegal. You’d think Aguilera would welcome the kind of hip validation a duet with the Strokes would bring, but her management put the kibosh on “A Stroke of Genius” just as it was starting to take off in England. Island Records has released a legal mashup, but there are hundreds of illicit ones floating around, posted on the Internet or issued as white-label 12-inches that disappear in a few weeks. The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever is becoming increasingly hard to find, but it’s worth the effort: almost every track outruns its source material by a mile.

News stories about mashups often start with a riddle (“What do you get when you cross Nirvana with Destiny’s Child?”), and in fact it’s hard to describe a mashup without making it sound goofy. On Best Bootlegs, Missy Elliott is backed by the Cure, Salt-N-Pepa by the Stooges, and Chuck D by the Tijuana Brass. You might think that after the initial shock of hearing Destiny’s Child sing “Bootylicious” over the power chords of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” you’d never have reason to listen again. But once you get past the novelty of Freelance Hellraiser’s “Smells Like Booty,” the song’s allure begins to deepen. On track after track the original recordings fit together so seamlessly that you might wonder how they ever existed apart from each other. Jacknife Lee’s “Get Your 9lb Cock On” finds Missy Elliott fronting the obscure Irish punks Compulsion as if they’ve been rehearsing together for months. On Soulwax’s “Push It/No Fun” the Stooges’ guitars lean so hard on Salt-N-Pepa’s vocals you could almost believe it was recorded live. The track is unnervingly sexy–and more than a little scary.

Of course, none of this is unprecedented in the world of club music. Remixes involve digital manipulation of other artists’ tracks, and techno genres like cutups and sampledelica use the same cut-and-paste techniques. But rather than redecorate the original tracks, as most remixes do, mashups completely transform them. And when a cutup artist like Kid606 uses vocal tracks at all, they become one of many ingredients in an aural collage or soundscape–distorted, objectified, left floating in a wash of percussion. On a mashup the vocal tracks sound like lead vocals, and the final products are actual songs, with hooks, bridges, and emotional payoffs. The best of them sound not like tricked-up dance tracks but like full-blown rock ‘n’ roll.

Mashup vocals are often taken from reviled or ignored sources–manicured pop acts like Aguilera or Destiny’s Child–and recast in wildly unlikely contexts (Nirvana, Gary Numan) where, against all odds, they actually work. In contrast to the original production excess, the neopunk chord progressions help focus the melodies. But what’s most startling is the way the new settings magically turn TLC (or Destiny’s Child or Adina Howard) into effective, even great singers, both expert riot grrrls and the sultry soul queens they clearly aspire to be. (The loud guitars often obscure the more embarrassing melismata, which helps a lot.) In an odd way these records recall a particular strain of girl pop from the 60s and 70s, whose devastating vocalists–Dusty Springfield, Olivia Newton-John–produced a handful of great, producer-driven singles amid otherwise unfocused careers. (Of course, how could Aguilera know that her ideal producer was an anonymous 16-year-old in London?)

Several mashups use Eminem raps to surprising ends–including one that pairs the alleged homophobe with the Smiths. The delirious “My Name Is Funk Soul Brother,” included anonymously on Best Bootlegs, interweaves vocals from Fatboy Slim’s “The Rockafeller Skank” and Eminem’s “My Name Is,” sped up just enough to turn Slim Shady into a blathering hip-hop Jerry Lewis. The real star of the track, however, is the rhythm bed, whose supercool riff is derived only in part from the Fatboy Slim record (where the rest of it originated is anyone’s guess). It’s as stripped-down as a two-note James Brown guitar figure, but it’s closer to Eddie Cochran than to funk, and it rocks like nothing on or off the charts right now. Even the best of Eminem’s releases seem like they’re standing still next to effortlessly kinetic tracks like this one or “I Just Can’t Get Enough Pills” (the D12 rap “Purple Pills” goosed by Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”).

Much like 70s punk, mashups function not only as rock music but also as rock theory, critiquing by example today’s stifled and obvious musical landscape. There’s a lot going on here, and most of it is liberating. Rap needn’t be set to predictable funk beats, R & B ballads needn’t come wrapped in lace, and garage melodies needn’t recycle the Ramones. Tracks like “A Stroke of Genius” or McSleazy’s “Don’t Call Me Blur” (Madison Avenue’s “Don’t Call Me Baby” set to Blur’s “Song 2”) show how much more bands like the Hives or the Strokes could be doing–particularly if they didn’t turn a deaf ear to black music. The cross-pollination of black and white sounds has defined American pop, but in today’s indie-rock scene, funk (or its first cousin, rap) is about the only trace of R & B you’re likely to hear.

That strict musical segregation is the key subtext of Best Bootlegs. Many of the tracks are textbook examples of how exciting that cultural collision can be, loosening up rock’s melody and rhythm. The melodies of “Don’t Call Me Blur” or “Get Your 9lb Cock On” sound like punk, but it’s punk informed by Smokey Robinson, punk that likes to dance as much as it likes to fight. “A Stroke of Genius” is better than any song in the Strokes’ catalog, with its melody line that snakes around the guitars, its unexpected harmonic twists in the chorus, its breakdown on the line “My heart is saying no.” The track wouldn’t sound out of place on the first Pretenders album. Along with “Smells Like Booty,” it rescues the love song from the clutches of Clive Davis (a feat that alt-rock bands are too cool to try). The lyrics to “Genie in a Bottle” or “Bootylicious” may be the stuff of teen fantasy, but in a punk context they seem erotically charged and emotionally overdetermined, like the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” or the Crystals’ “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.”

Another parallel with 70s punk rock is that mashups require the least technical skill of any electronic genre to date while yielding the greatest results. There’s no room for the DJ to show off his chops; the skill is in the selection and juxtaposition of sources. (It’s no coincidence that, in their invention and their sheer audacity, mashups recall early hip-hop classics like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising–both recorded in 1989, before a flood of litigation put an end to casual sampling.) These aren’t flashy records, but they’re great ones, and they deserve to be heard–they would jump out of the radio, for one thing. Exposing mashups to a wider audience might be the only way to learn whether they’re really the wave of the future, to see how much they’re capable of shaking up the rock world. Sooner or later the major labels will find out who Freelance Hellraiser is and put him under contract–and, of course, that will be the moment the genre begins sliding downhill. In the meantime, finding the latest cuts by Dsico or DJ Food or Girls on Top may constitute something of an adventure. Now there’s a word you don’t much associate with rock ‘n’ roll anymore.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin-Photo Reserve.