Thursday, March 25, 2004

Black, White, and Grey: Mash-Ups for Suburbanites

I know nothing about rap. I do, however, think that Jay-Z is a genius. His Black Album has become an instant classic due to the mash-up phenomenon.

Mash-ups are remixes that take the voice tracks from one album and mix them into other tracks, often from other genres of popular music.

Now, I really don't get rap or hip-hop and I certainly am not an expert on Jay-Z. Basically, he's a pretty bad-assed rapper type guy. And he produces urban music that is far outside my ken as a white middle-aged male Canadian suburbanite. I have, however, become familiar with his work due to remixes.

The first remix I discovered is Danger Mouse's--by now quite famous--mash-up of the Beatle's White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album: The Grey Album. Danger Mouse suffered through a cease and desist letter but by then his work had been widely distributed on the Internet. MTV.com has detailed his story.

The second remix I found is possibly my favourite: Mike from Philadelphia's remix of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Weezer album colloquial known as the Blue Album. Mike's DJ name is "...uh, Mike" and his efforts have produced "Jay-Zeezer". To be honest, Mike's beats aren't great but his sense of irony is supreme.

The final remix that has come across my desktop is DJ Halfred's remix of Metallica's Black album and Jay-z's Black album to produce "Black on Black."
It's hard to imagine two greater anti-piracy advocates than Metallica and Jay-Z and here they are mixed together and widely distributed using technologies like Bit Torrent.

Of course, by listening to these remixes I'm probably trampling on all sorts of copyright laws. Thank goodness I'm an academic and can indulge in certain free use privileges... so long as I produce some criticism. So here it is:

What do the Beatles, Metallica, and Weezer have in common? They positively bleed whiteness in a non-hegemonic sort of way. These three artists represent the core cannon of pop-music listening for white, middle-aged, college educated, suburbanites. And now another cultural element from the world of music--rap--has been reabsorbed into white music as some sort of resistant text.

I'm reminded of Fiske's work. Here we have a very readerly text in Jay-Z. His work is about oppression. It is a form of resistance against hegemonic culture. Of course, it also sells very well and is marketed widely. Now, people have reclaimed the meaning of his texts by mashing them up with quintessentially white texts. The irony is that what we would consider hegemonic culture--the recording industry--stands in quite clear opposition to this social process of recreating the meanings of texts.

Here's a snippet from George Lipsitz's essay "Cruising Around the Historical Bloc: Postmodernism and Popular Music in East Lost Angeles":

"It is on the level of commodified mass culture that the most popular, and often the most profound, acts of cultural bricolage take place. The destruction of established cannons and the juxtaposition of seemingly inappropriate items characteristic of the self-conscious postmodernism in 'high culture,' have long been staples of commodified popular culture. With their facility for cultural fusion and their resistance to univocal master narratives, expression of popular culture contain important lessons about the problems and promises of culture in a world in which 'all that is solid melts into air.'" (1990 pg. 135-136)

Of course, Lipsitz was talking about ethnic minorities. But the mash-up phenomena I've been discussing is very white. Perhaps de Certeau was right: "Marginality is becoming universal. A marginal group has now become a silent majority." ([1980] 2002 pg. 68) At some level we're all minorities so where exactly is the hegemon?

References

de Certeau, M. ([1980] 2002). Introduction to The Practice of Everyday Life. In B. Highmore (Ed.), The everyday life reader (pp. 64-75). London ; New York: Routledge.

Lipsitz, G. (1990). Time passages : collective memory and American popular culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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