What ever happened to the mashup artist?

Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk
Photo: C Flanagin (Getty Images)
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“A Stroke Of Genie-us” was built out of CD-Rs: 30 seconds of Albert Hammond Jr.’s guitar, stamped on the end with that indelible, coltish riff sliding down Fabrizio Moretti’s drums, under an a cappella take of Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle” that producer Roy Kerr was thrilled to exhume on the prehistoric internet. As a career DJ, Kerr was used to staying up into the wee hours chasing the tail of an enticing remix, but this was different. You weren’t supposed to sculpt dance music out of pop star outtakes and lo-fi EPs of garage rock. So why was it sounding so good?

“I had a few beers and thought, ‘You know what, I think this might work,’” says Kerr today. “The first cut was about five minutes, and I was like, ‘It does kinda work?’ [A friend] said, ‘Make it three minutes, and that will be amazing.’ I did, and it took on an importance way beyond my imagination.”

Indeed, there is a mischievous spirit to “A Stroke Of Genie-us”—part joke, part backdoor left hook—that leaves you blissed-out and near-catatonic the first time you hear it. Its genesis was, in part, a reaction to the tiresome pedantry of the late-’90s dance scene, home to more subgenres than DJs. “I was bored of it,” Kerr remembers. “I wanted to ignite something.” So he pressed his composition on single-sided, limited-to-500 vinyl, under the moniker Freelance Hellraiser.

Mashups had existed before this. Kerr himself was a disciple of London nightlife, and he can recall vanguards like Fatboy Slim alchemizing Madonna, Janet Jackson, or Whitney Houston with any number of carnal, big beat grooves on the dance floor every weekend. But it took “A Stroke Of Genie-us” for mashups to finally cross the Rubicon of taste, at least as far as the music press was concerned. Sasha Frere-Jones, then the pop critic at The New Yorker, wrote a piece in 2005 heralding Kerr as the harbinger of a new, radical movement, with an uncanny ability to “[broker] musical detente” between something as saucy as Aguilera and something as churlish as The Strokes. Pitchfork, in its ambitious attempt to celebrate and encapsulate the decade, named the song the 78th best track released between the years of 2000 and 2009—just ahead of Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” just behind Three Six Mafia’s “Stay Fly.” The Guardian went a step further and codified “A Stroke Of Genie-us” as the song of the decade.

Now, just eight years after The Guardian’s claim, it appears we’re living in a post-mashup world. There are obviously still plenty of viral horrors being released every day on the internet: You don’t have to go far to witness a poorly sequenced Cardi B instrumental smeared on top of a vintage Dr. Dre beat, or a chipmunked DMX on “Call Me Maybe,” or the unholy marriage of Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” to The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Party And Bullshit.” But it’s been a very long time since the mashup—or the “mashup artist”—has commanded that sort of attention or respect. Those who do catch fire are meme-y and sardonic, passed around in anonymous YouTube clips, most often existing as some sort of bizarre, through-the-looking-glass flip on Smash Mouth’s “All-Star.” They are far from being the subject of a breathless New Yorker profile or Pitchfork list.

The artists of this scene have all moved on as well. As Girl Talk, Gregg Gillis was arguably the most famous mashup artist of the era, but he hasn’t released anything since 2010’s excellent All Day. He still performs the occasional festival set, but these days he can mostly be found working as a producer for hip-hop artists like Freeway. (He declined to be interviewed for this story.) Similarly, Kerr has long since abandoned Freelance Hellraiser, today working behind the boards with artists like Little Boots, Ladyhawke, and London Grammar. Danger Mouse is happily earning Grammys and making money hand over fist with Adele and The Black Keys; he need never rehash The Grey Album again. Meanwhile, The Hood Internet flamed out spectacularly with its 2012 debut of original music FEAT, which earned an exasperated 3.0 from Pitchfork. (“If I heard that some mashup producers were making a record, I’d at least raise an eyebrow before giving it an honest listen,” laughs The Hood Internet’s Aaron Brink now.)

That millennial boom of cheeky, bastardized pop has reached its final resting place—a dot in time filled with countless bass drops, toilet paper guns, and sticky frat house sets, buried 30 yards east of the Empire Polo Club. The genre still has its classics: “A Stroke Of Genie-us” and Girl Talk’s virtuosic “Juicy”/“Tiny Dancer” swerve on “Smash Your Head” still have the power to move. But it seems that these days, most people regard mashups as a faddish gag or even a mistake, something lame and now woefully out of style.

Perhaps you could blame the era—or more accurately, the ways we’ve gotten used to the era. Kerr was old-school; his ingredients were pulled directly from physical CDs he found through crate-digging or online shopping. But The Hood Internet powered its fantasies through late-night peer-to-peer spelunking. As file-sharing passed the point of no return, it was suddenly possible to build a DJ monopoly from your bedroom.

“CD single rips and 12-inch vinyl rips—all the sources of the a cappella and instrumental tracks—were becoming more available,” says Steve Reidell, the other half of The Hood Internet. “The p2p stuff played a huge role in us finding source material to work with.”

Those were the days when mashups felt paramount and essential—the first moment any of us managed to listen to everything, all at once. The Recording Industry Association Of America was in a tailspin while our bandwidth grew to the point where we could stockpile entire discographies in the blink of an eye. Naturally, a few creatives saw the potential there for a brand-new instrument. Stealing gave their scene an edge that it’s never managed to recapture in the streaming age. Girl Talk proudly announced an anarchical, purely hypothetical record label called Illegal Art, while a consortium of DJs opened up a party brand called “BOOTIE,” or Bring Your Own Bootleg. The New York Times, in a now-famous backhanded compliment, deemed Girl Talk’s breakthrough Feed The Animals “a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

That declaration seems ridiculous today, when all music is free and delineated on a thousand different streaming services—when the biggest stars in the world are 17-year-old mutineers who amass millions of SoundCloud plays without a label or a PR liaison. But surely this music sounded better, and more radical, when it was colored by a national debate over copyright law, long before the music industry buckled and conceded?

“Mashups became more punk than punk rock. They didn’t give a fuck,” says dJ BC, most known for his 2004 Beatles/Beastie Boys mashup, The Beastles. “It was definitely subversive in a couple of different ways. It stole from different music. It turned music on its head and made it feel completely different, and this shit was illegal.

If that’s the case, then the mashup scene should ostensibly be thriving. After all, the war is won. There’s more creative liberty permitted with other people’s music with every passing year. And in the sense of pure quantity, it is: If you want a quick vision of hell, take any hit song and type it into YouTube followed with the word “mashup.” But there’s no such thing as a mashup artist anymore. That subversiveness applied in the early ’00s, when there were still rigidly defined barriers between hip-hop, dance music, and indie rock. But everyone listens to everything now. And while that’s certainly a cultural victory, the idea that you’re breaking down walls that is so necessary to produce a great mashup—the fundamental belief that Dead Prez and Grizzly Bear deserve to be in the same canon—has been rendered obsolete.

Most of the artists I spoke to seem to be at peace with this. “The things that were exciting about mashups early on happen outside of mashups now,” The Hood Internet’s Brink says. “You have indie artists on hip-hop records. I think it’s a good thing that people have gotten used to that, and that pop culture has gotten used to that in general.”

“It doesn’t do the same thing for me that it did 10 or 11 years ago,” adds Reidell. “After hearing two of one thing, you kinda just want to hear one of one thing for a while.”

It’s true that mashup artists predicted our present, and that now that we’re here, they’ll probably never be able to muster the same thrills that they did when the multiverse was collapsing. However, those thrills survive, albeit in different formats and different doses. Think of Chromatics’ suite of dreamy, vectorized heartland rock covers like Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black).” Or the Santana lick sticking out of DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts,” or even a determined Justin Bieber singing in Spanish on “Despacito.” Those songs ring with the same polychronic grandeur of the best mashups. They baptize you, bring you up for air, and show you a world of possibilities. Today maybe it’s easy to laugh off Girl Talk and The Hood Internet, or all the breathlessness that surrounded “A Stroke Of Genie-us.” But you can hear their influence woven like a sample beneath everything we listen to.