Thursday, October 7, 2010

2 Many DJ's: As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Pt. 2 (2002)


You're looking at a mashup album, a mix tape with the twist of recontextualization, here aimed for dimly lit dance clubs with a cheery, almost masochistically over-the-top sense of fun. The rush of pleasure comes out of recognition of a zillion popular favorites; the secondary aristic appreciation is a gut-level wonder at how many records are being culled from at once, and how they are jumbled together into what sounds bizarrely logical. If the mashup album is a genre, As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Pt. 2 could reasonably be described as one of two quintessential examples.

The other one? That would be Danger Mouse's Grey Album, a far more focused and linear fusion of Jay-Z and the Beatles, which was never legally released but virtually launched DM's career. But the mashup existed well before the 2000s; it is arguably an outgrowth of early underground hip hop. Sampling was so advanced and admirably reckless by the end of the '80s that records like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique (produced by the Dust Brothers) and De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising (Prince Paul) render every use of the tool thereafter nearly beside the point. Still, Beck's Odelay and the Chemical Brothers' Exit Planet Dust slowed down and discovered nuances in the tool that the feverishly paced earlier records were too drunken on a million possibilities to investigate. And a tool was what it remained; the sampling, the mixing, the tampering, the twiddling was a rush of interactive joy providing the backdrop to these performers creating something wholly unique, something beyond its sources.

Though I'd consider making a case for Paul's Boutique since nothing else the Beasties did came even close to its brilliance, the only great record that's actually about sampling, indeed the masterpiece of the "mashup" ideal before there was a mainstream term for it, is the Avalanches' Since I Left You. One of the reasons Since I Left You is so compelling is that it doesn't sample a damn thing you've ever heard of. Actually, it samples the sort of unloved leftovers you find in the fifty-cent bin at your local record store or goodwill: spoken word nonsense, easy-listening, obscure dusty soul, bad jazz, worse disco, worst Beautiful Music. It is the crafting of divinity from tripe, of something from nothing -- art, right?

So you can think of this 2 Many DJ's record as the same idea with another school of thought: the speed and pace of sampling is just as breakneck even if the rhythms and detail are less densely layered. The difference is that you've heard an awful lot of these records. Probably not all of them, sure; Erykah Badu's approval notwithstanding, the overlap of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (and/or Mancini) fans with Breeders fans, much less Basement Jaxx fans, remains miniscule. But anyone who has been alive and not living in a monastery at some point in the last forty years will recognize a significant number of the songs used on this album.

Rather than carving out an experience of its own like Since I Left You, and thus becoming a singular work, the 2 Many DJ's record draws upon the listener's emotions, culture, and experiences. The mashup trend of the 2000s relies muchly on a hardline view of pop music history -- it throws around touchstones, gems, and nearly-forgotten distractions of the prior fifty years and blips them in and out speedily, just enough time for that sheer rush of recognition. The latter is what all pop music DJ's thrive on, but I've always preferred the ones (and been the one) who let the songs play out untouched, little attention given to BPMs and mixer-melding. When in service of music like this, such trickery plays for me as almost cheap -- an easy way of proving one's adept genius at mixing and matching, a way of speeding up the process of enjoying music to a simple system of momentary impulses, button-pushed feelings.

There's value in that, to be sure, and the record is a fun listen. Once. I miss the feeling of something new laid on top of it, and moreover I'm distressed at the chronology drawn upon, in service of an eclectic but blind-spotted nostalgia that generally cuts off at the dawn of the MP3 age, nods to Destiny's Child and "Fuck the Pain Away" aside. We are much more in the service of "9 to 5" and "Oh Sheila" here; there is the notion of an underground in the form of, well, the Velvet one, but that savvy and prescience is locked away in 1967. I can't imagine the record would be much different released eight years later, when mass awareness of popular music has cut cleanly between those who really, really care and those who don't pay much attention at all. Radio Soulwax serves as a slightly disturbing reminder at how the communal experience of pop has been cut off at its knees since the dawn of the millennium. I usually don't miss it, but the magic-discs-in-The Time Machine quality of the permanent rotation and re-re-revision of past generations' keystone moments here is disheartening. Like listening to classic rock radio in 2010 that isn't aware the world kept moving after 1974 (in ways beyond Guns N Roses, AC/DC, and The Wall). There's nothing wrong with Top 40, but to so limit a joyous scope only serves to in turn limit future perception, untrue perception, about the worth and meaning of Western popular music. That's operating on the theory, of course, that the 2 Many DJ's record would prove an exception to this cutoff point, which I admit is probably not the case.

I hasten to add that I understand why this has accolades. I have nothing but admiration for the skill and calculated aural button-pushing required to put together something like this, which I'm certain was not easy. I can't identify with it because it feels like a celebration of music that it truncates, rather than a ruthless chopping-to-bits of it all into something genuinely new -- a rapid-fire flipping of the proverbial channels. And even when you're dancing, well, nonstop is nice. But the occasional tense, pregnant, giddy pause is better still.

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