a new word for an old concept?
mash, mashing, mashups, mash culture--those products and processes of synthesis, juxtaposition, hybridization, appropriation, innovation, creation--have quickly attained a kind of prominence in contemporary discussions of cultural practice, especially with regard to music. increasingly, mash comes to accompany or even replace the term mix--though they would seem to signify something different.
so what then, if mash just seems like a new word for an old concept, is the difference? what does mash signify that mix does not? how does the term speak of (or to) the zeitgeist in a way that went previously unspoken? most anthropologists, artists, and even casual observers would acknowledge that people tend to mix up the various things around them in various ways through various cultural activities--making sense of the world, and expressing one's place in it, one's sense of self and community, by putting together, almost necessarily idiosyncratically, the particular set of (re)sources that one is surrounded by or presented with and that one seeks out. people blend musical styles, cuisines, fashion styles, dialects and languages, architectures, philosophies, religions, colors, and pretty much anything else culture-soluble.
if mash is simply synonymous with mix, then i see little cause for celebration, except that, i suppose, it's always useful to find a term with currency. but i'd like to think that that's not what's happening here, at least not yet. (give the mainstream media a chance to get ahold of it, though, and watch it lose all significance. kind of like the term deconstruct, which used to mean something quite specific and now simply means, at least for most, "to take apart.") so let's try to get to the bottom of this distinction: if culture has always been about mixing and matching and mashing and such, and if, musically-speaking, hip-hop and reggae long ago divorced beats/riddims from acapellas/voicings, engendering and encouraging recombination on a massive scale, what does the mashup represent that the remix or the dub or the collage does not?
i guess the main difference, and the thing that mash as a term-with-currency seems to express to people, is that "democratized" access (on one side of the digital divide at least) to the technologies that facilitate cultural creation/recombination at the level of mechanical reproduction has opened the floodgates of production, turning consumers into producers, and consumer-end products into canvasses, source materials--into things suddenly more "in process" (and thus open to revision, reinterpretation, resignification, and re-use) than they may have ever seemed before. this is most obvious in the song, of course, especially in digital form, where it expresses its essential malleability--its reducibility as much as its special, if flexible, form--in its particular combination of 1s and 0s. even if we don't see these 1s and 0s, we see waveforms and patterns, we hear relationships, and we imagine new connections.
because the mashup, like the screw and other forms of remixing, blurs consumption and production, it takes on a critical, if usually playful, resonance with regard to status quo notions of ownership. this may be one reason that words like "appropriation" get tagged, often in an unusually positive way, to the products and processes of mashing. the sense is that an artist's appropriation of commerical (i.e., copyrighted) culture serves as commentary as well as art. as far as this goes, the musical mashup (especially in the form of an mp3 circulating online) represents a great copyfight-shaped hole in the dyke of IP, and it seems like a downhill battle from here. just a matter of time before some of these mashup-making kids become case-closing judges. as technology ushered in the age of authorship, technology will also usher us into a new understanding of the way culture is produced, perhaps one that returns us to the more "communal" norms that obtained before relatively recently, when it was recognized that creation flowed from the public commons of ideas.
of course, mashing, and mashups, and music in a moment of mash culture, often involve (once again as a result of technological tools) another kind of appropriation as well--the power-infused act of transgressing cultural (or other) boundaries--and it is this more typically, negatively-inflected meaning of appropriation that i would like to explore in trying to describe a mashpolitik of sorts, and perhaps even point to a productive set of strategies.
for many people, mashups are apolitical. they're just plain fun. most mashups truck in irony and/or nostalgia--the pleasant swirl of memories and associations triggered by the juxtaposition of two well-known songs. even in such cases, though, there are political resonances. when we take christina aguilera more seriously over a strokes riddim, or eminem less over a britney beat, or appreciate the overlap between 50's "i'm into having sex, i ain't into making love" and trent's "i want to fuck you like an animal," we are made to reconsider things that we may not have really considered in the first place.
the proliferation of mashups (and mashup producers) represents a massive and mass-mediated demonstration for the cultural, legal, and technological freedom to do what we have always done as artists, as cultural agents, as human beings. so, despite the sheen of hipster surfaces in all of this, there are deeper implications in our consumption, production, and endorsement of mash(up) culture. although still frequently anonymous (due to tenacious lawyers firing off cease-and-desist missives), the people who make, download, and circulate mashups articulate a certain kind of cultural politics: one that imagines cultural expression not only as reflecting contemporary social relations but informing them. in this sense, the resonance of the mash expands to still broader horizons, and connects to earlier movements: the mashup--a fairly self-contained, "vertical" (which is to say, simultaneous) arrangement--sits easily alongside, and of course fits into, the mix--a "horizontal" arrangement (though often with moments of verticality, not to mention an overarching sense of unity). in the context of certain kinds of mixes, especially those that eschew geography or borders, the "horizontal" takes on a certain kind of time-release verticality. the mix becomes the mash, and the mash is revealed as the undercurrent, implication, afterthought, guiding principle, effect and/or affect of the mix.
thinking about mashpolitik and mashkultur (as if there's any other kind of culture) reminded me--along with /jace's [and this is exactly the type of post he'd prefer me to fax him, i'm sure] latest tantalizing promise to excavate some history--of the toneburst collective, the late-90s, boston-based, electro-multi(media)-culti cult of party people. toneburst's avowed "culture mashing," as ol' toneburster config.sys described it to me, continues to leaves its mark on the city (and the world, via various expatriates and broadcasting locals). and, fortunately for all of us, it seems like the world is finally catching on (as planned?) with similar movements more and more connected and in conversation. (we, those illbient originators, who i had the pleasure to catch live at a toneburst event way back when, represented a related, contemporary expression of this inclination, this tendency, this drive toward engagement, synthesis, absorption, and [urban] blends. and there were, of course, many more doing similar things, so don't take this little bit of historhetoric too seriously.)
what config.sys was referring to with that provocative phrase, "culture mashing," was toneburst's open approach to the world of sound as a window into cultural process and social connection. they were creating a sound world in their mixes and production that, like many of their vanguard peers and heroes in hip-hop, reggae, jungle, and assorted/associated styles, imagined the present-future, the sonic as reflecting and informing the social. eclecticists, if break-oriented, they mixed genres that weren't usually mixed and teased out the underlying connections.
as a casual observer of toneburst's activities in the late 90s and an increasingly integrated participant in former members' current activities, i can't underestimate the degree to which the toneburst aesthetic has informed my own musical map of the world. when i returned to cambridge from madison/kingston in 2003, i found dj c's and dj flack's mixes at their weekly spectrum event, now "beat research" across the street, beguiling in their ability to weave thematic and rhythmic threads across genres, styles, eras, etc. suddenly i heard much more clearly how jungle could emerge from reggae, how dub could overlay with hip-hop, how bhangra bounced off dancehall. in turn, i have brought these musical/cultural insights to my own study of music and society, and i'm grateful to these folks for their unintentional-but-generous research assistance.
it is through this lens that i hear (again, note the messy mixed A/V metaphor) /rupture's and mutamassik's north african/middle eastern incursions (inviting more of a conversation perhaps than hip-hop's and reggae's infatuated rip-offs). their approach strikes me as rather different from those who troll the (third) world for new exotica to dress up old wares. /rupture and mutamassik seek to make sonic (and real) connections, with people, lifeways, sonic structures, etc. this is inherently different than putting the third world "on blast", as it displays a degree of critical self-awareness and reflexivity. one gets the sense in listening that there is at least some theorizing going on, if sonically, latently, implicitly--and sometimes, or often in /rupture's case, explicitly.
i hear similar things in dj c's work with the mashit label, though the focus there is more concentrated on the sounds of jamaica and their resonance in the wider world. anyone who has listened to c's mashit records knows that their politics is hardly implicit: conscience a hang dem, babylon a fall, fuck you george bush. the selection of samples, or source materials, in the mashit catalog thus differs substantially from the more general tendency in ragga-jungle to grab any ol' patois shit--and often some gun-totin', ignant shit--and put some breakbeats over it. artists who appropriate the serious signifiers of jamaica too easily and without understanding or consideration of their local as well as global meanings do a disservice to all of we in the belly of the beast who really do try to chant down babylon. fortunately, mashit is a shining exception. not insignifincantly, the label's name itself plays on the current resonance of the mash, though it refers also to the toneburst connotation and adds additional ones: mash it, mas hit, MA shit.
back in the world of mashups in the stricter sense, i'm pleased to see and hear other boston-based artists making some fun music through simple, if adept, juxtaposition. if there is perhaps less conscious mashpolitik in such activities, there are effects nonetheless. dj bc has been making (radio) waves with his catchy combinations and has been exposing the boston massive to mash shit at his mash ave events. the sheer act of exposing people to mashed-up music as a commonplace feature of the contemporary cultural landscape is significant in its own right. meanwhile, the skillful vinyl blends of dj rndm (who connects, through his analog, real-time approach, to a pre-mashup mixing tradition) collide, for us boston folks anyway, the MOR hip-hop of 94.5 with the MOR rock of 100.7 (kid would kill williamsburg, yo), and i think that the implication of doing so is interesting for a city with such a history of racial segregation. for me, it foregrounds the distance between these pre-packaged demographics by collapsing it (and vice versa). we need more music, and more opportunities, to all get down together. and we could stand to be made more aware of the subconscious ways that we draw the lines of community, such as via musically-mediated identification. although i don't expect everyone to dig lil' jon and the eagles at the same time, hearing it happen makes me think about my community in a new way and wonder about what it would actually take to get this town moving together and moving forward.
the reason i bother to bring all this stuff together and theorize somewhat loosely and longwindedly about it to gather my thoughts in preparation for a little bit of edutainment i've been asked to provide to the somerville massive tomorrow night. as part of this year's artbeat festival in davis square, i'll be talking about mashups, playing some favorites of mine, and creating a couple boston-based mashes on the spot. since they're calling me a "mashologist" on the fliers, i figured i better get to studying up and finding a way to communicate the significance of all this to a diverse crowd. as someone with his ear to the boston soundscape, i'm definitely interested in the way that the mashed sounds of the city can reveal new relationships. what does the boston soundscape say? how can we make it speak with the voice that we imagine as our own, distinctive, collective voice? what is our musical heritage? how does it inform our sense of self and community? these are just a few of the questions that i'll be posing while i mix the sounds of somerville (musique concrete style) with beats and acapellas from some of boston's greatest bands. should be fun. (i'll try to post a wacky mix of this sometime soon.)
if you're in the area, i definitely invite you to come out and check the show tomorrow night. to those who read this in the next hour or so, i recommend checking out tonight's mash forum featuring our own jake trussell, aka dj c. (jake tells me that the questions closely resemble questions he fielded at a similar forum almost ten years ago. only then, they were calling it "sampling," which just serves to underscore the continuities here. this is another reason it is important to try to wrap our heads around what is new about the mash? is it just a simpler, sexier term? or does it mean something qualitatively different?)
so what is mashpolitik exactly? i've tried to articulate some of the concepts that emerge from the sounds of mixing and mashing, but it is the experience of the music and the sensibilities it engenders, as well as the intellectualization of all this, that creates some sense of politic, of social organization, identity, and action. with the detachment and promiscuous recombination of riddims and voicings come new combinations and conceptions, new imaginations of harmony and dissonance. (even so, it requires a great deal of vigilance and self-awareness about one's subject position to exercise a productive kind of mashpolitik; otherwise we risk fetishizing rather than engaging and collaborating.) the sound of mashkultur, for all its recourse to tribal signifiers, at least in the world of urban electronic musical styles and practices, is a cosmopolitan one, ecumenical in its influences and diverse in its sonics. it is the noise--the enigmatic deformation and subversion of known forms, of conservative relations--that will presage and bring about new forms of social organization. like santeria, mashing represents an explicit tactic of syncretism, a rewiring of master codes, and more often than not, an alignment against the status quo that proceeds, ironically, through mass culture. its fronts are rhythm and timbre, its tools samples and synths, breaks and bleeps, drum and bass. its time is now.