Various Artists: What is Hip? Remix Project 1

[13 February 2005]

By Pierre Hamilton

Why won't you listen to me Frankenstein, I'm your master!

This music does not belong together; this music belongs together. Those are the two extremes in the mash-up world. It’s a double-barreled statement. One that acknowledges that the nature of the beast is to tear a tune from the past in order to re-contextualize it, while accepting that if done poorly, the listener will return to nostalgia’s warm embrace.

Warner Bros. doesn’t get mash-ups. Familiarity is necessary. Dusting off a bunch of tracks that made your company a lot of dough doth not a good mash-up make. What is Hip? features a group of relatively unknown producers, which, in a post-modern world, doesn’t matter because no one knew who DJ Danger Mouse was and he created the most well-known sound collage by mashing the Beatles’ White Album with lyrics from Jay-Z’s Black Album (The Grey Album). Therein lay its success. Black and white stand in for two extremes of popular culture, two familiar colours. As much as “Listen to the Music” made waves in the ‘70s, the Doobie Brothers are dead and since the mash-up doesn’t use a new track or a familiar producer, it fails to generate the sparks essential to make this thing live, at least in my head.

If these aren’t good mash-ups, maybe the album is, as it claims, just a hodgepodge of classic tunes remixed with a tendency towards ambient electro beats. NYC-based Sasha Frere-Jones (www.sashafrerejones.com) says nostalgia is heroin for critics and with these 14 remixed tracks culled from the Warner Bros. vaults, it’s safe to say that, for the most part, I’d rather shoot up with nostalgia than try to get a fix off what’s here.

The Doobie Brothers, Seals and Croft, Rod Stewart, George Benson. In the schizophrenic mind of popular music, these musicians are dead and I feel more at home with their rotting carcasses than I do these new creations. Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze” is one of the best of the 14 tracks because of the original tune. The opening chords consistently invoke the image of a ‘70s sunset and the accompanying instrumental plays it safe by keeping it minimalist—allowing a piano to swirl around while a complimentary drum beat adds a more up-tempo but mellow buzz. It makes me want to listen to the original, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the album, what with it being the second track. Nightmares on Wax successfully resuscitate the sophisticated sensuality of George Benson’s “Masquerade”, but the Philip Steir and Ramin Sakurai remix of Devo’s “Whip It” is too muddled with vocal adlibs. Nightmares on Wax are adroit remixers because they control their creation—giving it leeway and than reeling it back in. Near the end of “Masquerade”, they pull the plug on Benson and the saccharine melody they’ve pieced together, if only to demonstrate this beast must bow to its master, reviving it in time for the song’s conclusion.

What is Hip? is a remix album for the “Me Generation” of the ‘70s. People who grew up on the music that was popular in their time, but pay enough attention to their children’s music to wonder aloud what their old favorites might sound like remixed. For them this is groovy, you dig? For my generation, the one that loves these un-bastardized originals, its older people frantically grasping for what’s hip now (Check out the reviews at Amazon.com and you’ll see what I mean). Tower of Power sums it up nicely on the title track “What is Hip?” Remixed by Meat Beat Manifesto, the track seamlessly merges warm, mid-tempo “you are now leaving earth” synth beats with trumpets pointed skywards. This remix is successful because while it’s possible to determine where the original ends and the remix begins, the blend is rich and aromatic. In an examination of the never-ending pursuit of coolness, this song reveals the album’s Achilles Heel. It acknowledges its own futility when it offers the lyrical advice, “What is hip today might become passé”. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Whether mash-up or remix, concocting art from the pieces of past is what Mary Shelley warned us about in Frankenstein. Immortality and the desire to revive the dead are woven into the human condition, from the Egyptian Pharaohs to Jesus Christ and, more recently, cryogenics. Music makes it easy. Frankenstein taught us that the hitch is ensuring that the beast remains loyal to its master (the scientist) upon re-entering the world. If it was a killer, it will kill again and therein lay the Warner Bros. philosophy: if it was hit song, it will be a hit again. And it is with the older crowd, just not with this 20-something.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/various-whatiship/