The last year has been a good one for the mash-up, that DIY form of culture-mulching in which anyone with an Internet connection can download two songs plus the software to splat them together and come up with a trendy dance-floor hit in a matter of minutes. In addition to the scores of articles that filled publications ranging from the New York Times to Salon.com, weekly mash-up-only dance parties sprang up around the globe; I even saw a piece on World News Tonight a few weeks ago, during which a blue-suited, geriatric reporter infiltrated the lair of a college student/amateur masher-upper as a voice-over explained, in that bemused newscaster voice, "It's something called a mash-up . . ." Then there's the headline-making Grey Album, DJ Danger Mouse's LP-length mash that pits the Beatles against Jay-Z. Now David Bowie -- or, more specifically, his marketing people -- has gotten into the, er, mix. Check out this stellar piece of copy, from Bowie's Web site, which is holding a mash-up contest (the winner gets an Audi): "The buzz in the music business is all about mash-ups. You've read about them, you've heard them, now it's time to create your own. . . . That's what you'll do here with any track from David Bowie's 'Reality' CD and any other favorite Bowie track."
Kids, can you say "oversaturation"? I knew that you could.
"It's sort of become the new karaoke, in my mind. You're at work, and someone's like, 'Hey, listen to what John did in Cubicle No. 4! It's pretty wacky: He did this thing with Christina Aguilera and the Strokes.' To me it's lost its appeal. And it's gone way, way out of the DJ realm."
Those are the words of Zach Sciacca, a.k.a. DJ Z-Trip, the so-called "king" of mash-ups (or, as he prefers to call them, "blends"), the man who, back in 2001, before 2 Many DJ's and Kid 606 dropped their mash-terpieces, set underground music circles ablaze with the brilliant pan-genre mash-mix Uneasy Listening Vol. One, which he co-created with DJ P. Since then, Z-Trip has traveled the world with his bottomless crates of records, spinning his unparalleled party-hearty sets for upward of 50,000 people at a time (he opened for the Rolling Stones last July). Last week, he got back together with DJ P to re-create Uneasy Listening live, for the first -- and last -- time in San Francisco. For Z-Trip, it's time to get out of the mash-up game. In his words, it's gotten "way too crazy."
"Somebody sent me a thing that was on Craigslist, of all places, that was like, 'Mash-up DJ wanted,'" he explains. "And then you have the David Bowie mash-up contest to win a car. When this sort of shit goes on, it makes me sort of not want to be a part of it. Although I might be the king of it, it makes me want to disassociate myself with it."
Z-Trip didn't father mash-ups -- most agree that that distinction goes to Evolution Control Committee (a.k.a. Mark Gunderson), which in 1994 spliced Public Enemy with Henry Mancini -- but as anyone familiar with the trend will tell you, Uneasy Listening is one of the best, most popular examples of layering dozens upon dozens of disparate songs from wildly different genres (from Kansas' "Dust in the Wind" to Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" to "The Imperial March" from Star Wars)into one cohesive, compelling, and most of all bootylicious mix. Perhaps the most important distinction, however, is that unlike those who would follow in their footsteps, Z-Trip and DJ P didn't create the album with computers. They did it live, using nothing more than four turntables and heaping helpings of vinyl.
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As he vehemently points out, Z-Trip is not a mash-up DJ. He's a turntablist, first and foremost, and there's a big difference. Mash-up DJs are known for working primarily on the computer, uploading tracks into ready-made programs that conveniently do the work of synching up the two songs for you; the mashers then burn the resulting pieces onto CDs, which they spin at clubs. It takes little or no musical talent to make mash-ups this way, which explains why the trend is so popular -- and why it has become so saturated with crap. This, to Z-Trip, is a problem.
"It works best -- and has always worked best -- when it's done with records," he explains. "It's the difference between going to New York and getting a slice of pizza or going to the frozen food section in a store and getting a pizza. It's the difference between using the ingredients that have always worked for years, that have made something classic, or using the new technology and trying to get over."
Obviously, Z-Trip's outlook is a little purist. But while dancing your ass off to a series of pre-burned mash-ups at a club may be a kitschy-fun time, it still doesn't compare to one of Z-Trip's live sets, during which he takes you on a guided tour through the whole history of recorded music. Not only can you hear the difference in Z-Trip's seamless mixes -- there are no pitch-shifted vocals, no artificially time-stretched rhythms, no glitchy, digital hue -- but you can also feel it on the dance floor when he massages one song into the next, dropping beats in and out with the grace of a symphony conductor. The fact that he doesn't rely on prerecorded material allows Z-Trip to be much more responsive to a crowd, and the booties, in turn, have a way of responding.
"The whole point is for us to go up and do it all on four turntables, in front of a crowd, rock the party, do it all on wax, do it all with skills," says the DJ proudly of his farewell performance of Uneasy Listening. "It takes a lot of fucking time and energy to match shit up. And if you fuck up, you fuck up hard. That's the other thing about it: The rewards are so much better if you pull it off. People who know, they recognize it, like, 'Wow, this guy's up there doing it with two records,' versus, 'This guy just pushed play on a CD.' If your back is turned to the DJ or your head is in the clouds, it doesn't really matter. But to me, it totally matters."