Decades ago, as hip-hop first weaved its way into mainstream-American consciousness, those outside its genesis asked questions about its staying power. The unenlightened eagerly labeled it a passing fad. In 2009, hip-hop has become an essential cultural, creative and commercial force, making it hard to believe such inquiries were ever made.
While it is not a completely fair comparison, the areas of common ground shared by hip-hop and the mashup are bound to evoke similar questions about the longevity of the latter art form, an exciting and increasingly popular means of musical expression. Although hip-hop has expressed something significantly more important and visceral by giving voice to a marginalized viewpoint, the mashup has its place in reaching out to a generation increasingly affected (and, in many cases, disaffected) through commercialization and popular culture. By taking previously created works (via the sample) and spinning each on its head, mashup artists (like their hip-hop predecessors) blur lines often in brilliant fashion, thereby making an attempt to repackage (and reclaim) already-packaged cultural messages.
For the mashup to survive its detractors and claims of passing whim or trend, it will continue to need both stars and yeoman-like acts whose pure love for the genre lays the groundwork for further exploration and experimentation. At this moment, artists like Girl Talk (Greg Ellis) have become established stars, whereas labelmates like the Bran Flakes seem to reside happily as lesser-known artists.
Founded in 1992, long before Danger Mouse took a grey crayon to the Beatles or mad Mr. Gillis became the Pied Piper to an army of sweaty, subversive suburban kids, the Bran Flakes took seemingly disparate pieces of audio and fashioned a sound all its own. Bright, upbeat and funky (though far less club-friendly), Otis Fodder and Mildred Pitt of the Bran Flakes come across like Ellis’ older, more-eccentric uncle with a penchant for collecting obscure sonic references,
Whereas Girl Talk has become an encyclopedia of modern sound for the Wikipedia generation, Fodder and Pitt seem to relish reaching back into the archives, using ‘70s horns and spoken-word dialogues seemingly ripped straight from ‘50s film strips and Sunday-school tunes; in fact, one of the group’s patented moves is to incorporate kids’ vocal tracks into its anthems (see “The Sidewalk Song” or “Marchy March”), giving the album the feel of a sonic circus or the soundtrack to an off-kilter children’s show.
It speaks of the Bran Flakes’ concern for cool when one recognizes the “hippest” track on I Have Hands is “Stumble Out of Bed”, which marries Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” with Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the Osmonds. Yet, the album is mostly a fun and inventive trip, an odd odyssey through the minds of Fodder and Pitt. By the time listeners get to track 12, “Make a Funny Sound”, the cut almost seems like a mission statement for the record.
Other standout tracks include “Marchy March”, a tune, which fittingly features a marching band; “I Wonder Where My Grandmother Is”, a strange romp through the remnants of early ‘80s disco; and “Van Pop”, a serving of over-the-top funk. However, the unbridled joy of experimentation leads Pitt and Fodder to a few unfortunate stumbles. “Singing Dogs” has, well, a few singing dogs and “Do You Want Salad With Your Taco” manages to be both cheesy and childish in the span of a mere 46 seconds.
When we look back over the history of the mashup to declare it either a significant avenue of free expression or a once-innovative craze, we can only wonder whether the Bran Flakes will receive a mention as key contributors. While the duo may not be flashy or commercial enough to obtain that sort of attention, the band’s work on records like I Have Hands proves a need, as in any genre, for artists who love what they do and do it well. I Have Hands would make an excellent primer for anyone wishing to experience the joy that can come from mixing sounds together.