If you're much of a serious music fan, you've probably read about them. And if you're less of a Luddite than I am, you've probably heard plenty of them. They're mash-ups or blends or bootlegs: the practice of blending two (or sometimes more) different songs into one new creation, usually adding the vocals from song A to the instrumental track from song B. This practice, made possible by home-computing technology and easily distributable via file-sharing programs, has turned any music fan with the right equipment and a little imagination into a remixer. The results of this democratic revolution can be found all over the Internet, with some of the more infamous mash-ups (such as "A Stroke Of Genie-us," which blends Christina Aguilera's vocal from "Genie In a Bottle" with the music from the Strokes' "Hard To Explain") crossing over to radio and mainstream magazine exposure and some of the more successful sonic architects (such as "Stroke" creator Freelance Hellraiser) becoming actual stars in some locales and circles (especially Europe).
Luckily, for those of us more comfortable with traditionally packaged music, someone has bootlegged the bootlegs. A 17-song collection of some of the best of the boots, The Best Bootlegs In the World Ever!, began popping up in independent record stores in New York and London earlier this year. A seemingly unconnected sequel, The Best Of Boom Selector, Vol. 2, showed up a few months later -- though there is no Volume 1 and the set doesn't seem to have any affiliation with the Boom Selection Web site, which has become the definitive chronicler of the phenomenon (at BoomSelection.net, where you can purchase a three-disc mp3 set of this stuff that's over 30 hours long).
Taken as albums, these records are sort of like K-Tel collections of online music culture, where trademark artists such as Soulwax (who seems to get off on the pure sound of the form) and Freelance Hellraiser (a brilliant recontextualizer) share space with one-shots and more "minor" artists. Some source material keeps reappearing: Missy Elliott, Eminem, Destiny's Child, and Fatboy Slim seem to make up the Mount Rushmore of mash-ups. And one of the consistent cultural outcomes of the music is to unite styles that may seem opposed, melding "black" hip hop and R&B and "white" punk and hard rock (though, too often, it's vocals from the former with music from the latter, hardly ever the other way around).
The best of these culture clashes can be divided into three categories: good jokes, great grooves, and (pardon the pun) strokes of genius.
Some of the jokes are funny in concept but don't really hold up to repeated listens -- for example, Evolution Control Committee's "Rebel Without a Pause," which lays Public Enemy vocals over a Herb Alpert instrumental, and DJ French Bloke's "Destiny's Kennedys," which matches "Jumpin' Jumpin'" with "Holiday In Cambodia." Others are funny in concept only (and with Sealion Dion vs. Cigar Ros' "Bium Bium Bambalo," which proves that the atmospheric soundscapes of highbrow Icelandic rockers Sigur Ros are every bit as much of a snore as the new-age overemoting of middlebrow diva Celine Dion, concept is plenty).
But other jokes are deeply, wonderfully hilarious. Picasio's "Craig the Survivor" has Survivor's macho "Eye Of the Tiger" power chords driving a vocal from wispy British slow-jam singer Craig David. On Kurtis Rush's "Enter the Bitch," the ominous rumble of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" gives way to the sassy braggadocio of Missy Elliott's "She's a Bitch." (I've heard this at least two dozen times now, and I still chuckle every time.) Best of all is Mighty Lord Fenn's "The Power Of Bizkit," which drains all the machismo from Fred Durst's embarrassing "Rollin'" vocals by laying them atop the eternally square synth rock of Huey Lewis & the News' "The Power Of Love." It seems safe to say that there will never, ever be an official Limp Bizkit song half as fun as this.
Even better than the jokes are mash-ups as how'd-they-do-that groove music: DJ EZG's "Rockerfaction" makes history by intertwining two of rock-and-roll's greatest blasts of noise --"Satisfaction" and "The Rockafeller Skank" -- into a groove that, like prime James Brown, could extend to infinity without losing its physical pull. Similarly thrilling is Freelance Hellraiser's "Public Prince," which unites the two greatest rhythm artists of the '80s by putting the vocals from Public Enemy's "Nighttrain" atop the keyboard-and-drum vamp of Prince's "1999." And Soulwax's "Push It/No Fun" is a hip-hop/punk shoutalong that imagines Salt-N-Pepa fronting the Stooges.
Others flow so smooth that cultural collision is beside the point. On "Dreadlock Child," Soulwax (a duo that has released some of its mash-ups legally in its native Belgium under the moniker 2 Many DJs) uses a reggae track I can't ID to skank along perfectly with Destiny's Child's "Independent Women, Pt. 1." And who knew the Clash was one of the great disco bands? Ultra 396 and Basement Clash did, apparently. The former's "Rock the Party" segues the vocals from Pink's "Get the Party Started" onto the band's "Rock the Casbah," while the latter puts the vocal from Basement Jaxx's "Romeo" over the music from "The Magnificent Clash" to create "The Magnificent Romeo," in both cases creating flawless mixes that transcend any of the source material.
Actually, "The Magnificent Romeo" is so perfect that it qualifies as one of the genius cuts, a title it'll have to share with three Freelance Hellraiser mixes, all, along with "Romeo," found on Best Bootlegs. "A Stroke of Genie-us" earns its reputation: By divorcing the yearning of Aguilera's vocal from its standard bubblegum-R&B backing track and the crisp coolness of the Strokes' guitar-bass-drums from lead singer Julian Casablancas' bored-boy whine and then combining them, Hellraiser humanizes both. And by doing it so assuredly, he (I'm assuming) creates a brand-new song that, if only legal, would probably be a massive hit. Hellraiser also gives these records their most priceless joke: Depeche Mode's bouncy synth-pop "I Just Can't Get Enough" + Eminem side project D-12's drug-abuse-celebrating "Purple Pills" = "I Just Can't Get Enough Pills." Don't tell Lynn Cheney about this one. Then there's Freelance Hellraiser's (and from what I've heard, the form itself's) grand achievement, "Smells Like Booty," a mash-up that layers Beyoncé & company's "Bootylicious" vocals over Kurt Cobain & company's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" musical assault, resulting in a record that, however seemingly impossible it may be, is actually better than its title. The first 25 seconds of "Smells Like Booty" may be the most undeniable, giddily rapturous music produced this year.
Judging these of-the-moment pop artifacts as competing objects with any album listed in Billboard or reviewed in Rolling Stone requires traditionalists to come to grips with the notion that, outside of post-9/11-oriented albums from Bruce Springsteen, Wilco, and Sleater-Kinney, the records that most crucially define the current state of pop music are not available commercially -- at least, not legally. I got mine through back channels, and the only advice I can give is to hunt around -- that or download them and burn your own. This music's worth whatever detective work it requires.
Grades: Best Bootlegs -- A; Boom Selector --A-