A Slapdash History of the Hip-hop Megamix
The megamix is a variegated mural, with flashes of color – neon pink, chartreuse, head-gash red – popping off chipped concrete, an amalgamation of flavor so fresh it strains the vision, so vivid it glows.
Consider the following musical scenario.
The beat from Boogie Down Production's "My Philosophy" (which is a beefed-up loop of Stanley Turrentine's "Sister Sanctified") and De La Soul's "Plug Tunin'" (sampled from Manzel's "Midnight Theme") morph together like two perfectly-laid bricks on a brownstone, the overlapping drums cemented by a smooth plane of mortar. P.O.S (Stephan Alexander) brings it all down in ruin with his vocal flow while Turrentine's alto sax cries over the Invitations' tenor and some dude's spoken-word snippet gets cut up in the left channel. Easy E's pubescent-sounding voice is scratched amongst a barrage of samples before he's freed to rap the opening lines of "8-Ball" with the drums doubled-up on Boogie Down Production's beat. After Easy explains he has the police on his drawls and a chilly 40-ouncer resting between his legs, the horns from "Second That Emotion" slot over the bumps with grainy analog bliss, and Smokey Robinson sings about the sweet kisses of a one-night stand, his voice dripping honey-sweet pathos while Syl Johnson moans and a woman giggles, call-and-response style, on the libido-satisfying opening break to "Different Strokes".
The year is probably 1988. The place is undoubtedly Compton, California. In a studio, maybe even a bedroom or living room, DJ Tony A "The Wizard" (N.W.A.'s forgotten member, their "fifth Beatle"), is catching wreck on two turntables, recording his auditory concoctions into a multi-track tape recorder. Is he aware he's in the process of creating one of the greatest works of music in human history?
"Yo, hold up, money grip! Get off that bullshucks…"
Nah, just cool it and listen here.
From hip-hop's infancy, the cool summer evenings in New York City parks where DJs mixed everything from Sesame Street records to James Brown, so long as there was a hot drum break pressed into the grooves, the genre was rooted in eclectic taste. Rolling Stone can re-rank the 100 greatest hip-hop songs of all-time 'til Snoop's final mic-drop blows a fissure through the earth and triggers Armageddon, but they're misleading the unknowing masses into thinking these are the greatest, most representative recorded moments in the genre's history. The essence of hip-hop not only as music but as a sociocultural phenomenon is embedded in its most important art form: the multi-track megamix.
The megamix is a variegated mural, with flashes of color – neon pink, chartreuse, head-gash red – popping off chipped concrete, an amalgamation of flavor so fresh it strains the vision, so vivid it glows. Don't touch the paint, it's radioactive.
A megamix isn't monochromatic artwork. The late-night bomber responsible for this mural isn't packing a color scheme and working with variations of tone. He's grabbing every color he can fit in the over-the-shoulder sling bag. His style is somewhere between artfully selective and haphazard. The result is stimulus overload, too much to take in. So much style that it's wasted, to quote Steve Malkmus. Except style is never wasted. It forces the audience to look closer, listen closer.
I won't try to pinpoint where it all started. I wasn't there way back when. I'm just a fan, a white suburban kid who took to turntablism in the 21st Century at age 14. Most of my knowledge of DJing came from watching Youtube videos. Expansion of my record collection was limited to whatever recently-abandoned rap twelve-inches the local record store within biking distance stocked in the used bin that week. But hip-hop is about mythology, and suburban kids who fall in love with the music have really fallen in love with its myths and legends. All we have out here is a notion that the world transmitting these fresh sounds to our Cape Cods might actually exist somewhere out there.
So I'll start with the most legendary megamix of all-time, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel", (Sugar Hill Records, 1981) single mix with an official label release, which was at least the first popular recorded blueprint for how to get busy on the ones and twos.
"You say one for the trouble / Two for the time / C'mon, girls / Let's rock that…" But where'd Spoonie Gee go? Instead we get Debbie Harry rapping with her suave natter-in-your-ear-at-a-party delivery that "Flash is back / Flash is cool" before Spoonie gives the countdown one more time and the break to Chic's "Good Times" explodes in. That's four jams dropped in 30 seconds using three turntables.
As a teenager stuck on the realness of early '90s jazz-inflected boom-bap rap who thought owning a Sugar Hill record was wack, I used to get home after cross country practice and slide my dad's colossal, dusted-up, Jurassic-era tape recorder on the floor in front of my speakers, plug mics in to both the left and right channels, and record myself cutting records. An offbeat chirp scratch, sluggish drums dragging overlapping beats into rhythmic disarray, a badly-pressed joint's volume too low in the mix; I was always fucking something up, rewinding the cassette, starting again.
Until you reach that moment when you lose track of the pressure of recording a flawless mix, spinning straight-to-tape without an audience can be stressful -- maybe as stressful as spinning for a mass of dumbfounded onlookers. At a party you can direct the energy in the room. Alone in a basement, your mistake doesn't belong to a unique moment in time, but is a blip you can erase forever by simply taping over it, something that "never happened", and the pressure to eliminate each of these imperfections forces the DJ into an airtight space – a constraining force on creativity. This may be the same reason some bands' first records sound tepid compared to live shows where they're loose and taking risks that could break into unforeseen moments of musical enlightenment (or, as Bob Ross would say, "We don't make mistakes, we have happy accidents").
Flash recorded "Adventures", a seven-minute display of finesse, close-listening, musical knowledge, and all-around turntable mastery, live in 1981 using equipment more primitive than my dad's tape recorder. He essentially invented the megamix in real time. No happy accidents. Listening to "Adventures" in 2018 can be a practice in pejorism ('believing the world is getting worse'). How can push-button DJs nowadays be so wack with such advanced technology? We replaced oversized tape decks and clunky mixers yet reverted to troglodytes without rhythm and the bravado of being in the here-and-now.
But I'm sounding like a cranky luddite.
DJs started scooping up four-track recorders, adding overdubs to their mixes. Loaded tracks mostly clocking under ten minutes were pressed to twelve-inch singles, many of which weren't attributed to famous DJs. Check out Shadow 1's scratch-assault A.D.D. cut-and-paste masterpiece on Megga Records. Or the "Scratch Party Pyramid Mix" of drum-machine-laden early '80s classics from Yazoo to Herbie Hancock. Or the party-rockin "James Brown Mix" by Double Dee and Steinski. Or the New York Scratchmasters' glossy jams that melded bouncy, key-soaked R&B and pop tunes with electro and nascent hip-hop. Hard to cop on vinyl today, these records serve as artifacts suggesting that in the early '80s the idea of a song belonging exclusively to a single genre was nonsense.
In a 2010 Red Bull interview, 'Detroit House' music maestro Moodymann (whose hair was being braided during the talk) said one of the most offhandedly profound statements I've ever heard regarding what hip-hop music is about: "We had two categories. We had that good shit and we had that other shit." One reason why the megamix is the quintessential hip-hop artwork is because it's an exhaustive celebration of the variety of music that generated the genre.
A hip-hop record is usually a collage of sounds pilfered from old records, whether they be soul, funk, rock, krautrock, disco, new-wave, tribal percussion, SFX, comedy, calypso, reggae, jazz, or blues. The megamix takes the songs created from samples and layers them together, along with other music, sometimes the original samples themselves, creating an effect kaleidoscopically multifaceted and meta. Let's put an a capella of Eazy E – from his days of wearing the white horror-flick hockey mask and rapping cartoonishly about murdering innocent people in his neighborhood – over Buju Banton's 'reggae riddims' and the dub of Just Ice's "Going Way Back." Or pitch down Big L's squeaky battle-rap delivery to a death-by-purple-drank chopped'n'screwed drawl and lace it on a sexy R&B groove worthy of a Sunday morning top-down cruise in church clothes.
Hell, let's stuff the rappers in the car too and see what happens (although we'll make it the crimson Cadillac Escalade with butterfly doors that 50 Cent whips in the "How We Do" video – though word is it belongs to Shaq?). Dr. Dre rides passenger, banging out beats on his battery-powered MPC Renaissance. Kurtis Blow is jabbering to Mike D. of the Beastie Boys about how to pick up fly girls at the roller rink, although Mike D. is already confident in his ability to do this and is just waiting to insult the man's mustache. Lauryn Hill tells MC Hammer he should reconsider the parachute pants. Nas is trying to read a paperback of Baldwin while Lil Wayne polishes his pistol. Snoop is swigging a bottle of Remy at the wheel and swerving over the double yellow, hitting the three-wheel motion on the way to where exactly?
Critics might say the megamix goes nowhere. What's the destination? How do all these disparate sounds and voices amount to anything more than a colorful gimmick?
The answer is in how the pieces interact to form a collage which displays the breadth of the human musical soundscape. This is, of course, an unattainable goal. But the planet spins, styles shift, sounds evolve, trends flourish and die. As time progresses, the megamix inherits new possibilities. It can draw from so many disparate sources to prove everything is new under the sun, that there are infinite ways to rework the golden plates and detritus our junk-filled culture squeezes out of pressing plants, and that, regardless of the range of musical styles, it can all be enjoyed. That the only genre that matters really is the good shit, and can't everything be good shit?
Think of the megamix like the concept of the Jungian collective unconscious. We have all this music to choose from, mountains of vinyl records and thousands of hard-drives worth of Soundcloud and Bandcamp uploads, some of which can stand on their own and some of which need to be tweaked or presented in a different context to be appreciated. I've kept almost every shitty record I've ever picked up on a whim in a record store or in someone's trash left out on the curb. Why? Because a bad record is just a record that has yet to be mixed the right way, presented in a sonic environment that works. Maybe it's as simple as looping the bassline, scratching the kick drum, and layering it under the instrumental of a Bootsy Collins interplanetary funk jam. Maybe there's just three notes of ghostly piano melody worthy of saving the record from the scrap heap, but imagine the possibilities existent in our endless world of sound for just those three notes.
DJ Shadow's Endtroducing (Mo' Wax, 1996), the album that had people christening Shadow the 'Mozart of hip-hop', was a direct descendant of the megamix. Thousands of forgotten records culled from lord only knows what caverns of vinyl gloom were reworked through Josh Davis' sampler to create gorgeous compositions devoid of any regulating genre tag (the term "trip-hop" was wrongly thrown around, perhaps as a way to turn Portishead fans onto the record?); it all formed up to be one of the select few LPs that I argue is almost inherently "timeless."
On the B-side, you have Beck's Odelay (GDC, 1996), a masterwork of genre-bending, occasionally genre-smashing slacker anthems, an album that sounds like the product of an alternate universe of 1996. The record is pop art trash that would have made Warhol grin, an homage to the anything-goes aesthetic of hip-hop DJs, the tastemakers of a genre Beck found far more forward-thinking than the staid canon of rock 'n' roll.
If you were to take Bradbury's time-travel machine back to 1981 and burn the studio that housed the recording of "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" to rubble, Odelay and Entroducing never come into existence.
Back to our scheduled program…
In the early '80s, hip-hop and disco had already begun to split. In gay clubs, disco would eventually transform into house and techno, while hip-hop exchanged the beanie for the Kangol and got paid mad loot for turning up strapped to the studio in baggy sweats. A complete divergence was never possible, but you'd be deemed wack for dropping a disco or electro-tinged rap joint after Run D.M.C.'s "Sucker M.C.'s" changed the game in 1984. The early '80s had great disco-themed megamixes, some highlights being the Big Apple Production mixes (Vol.1 features Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," The Clash's "Magnificent Seven," Madonna's "Everybody," and the Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra" – that is hip-hop), the cheekily titled and unabashedly gay "Sportswear for the Flasher," and every mastermix the Latin rascals spliced together for 98.7 Kiss FM.
As boom-bap took over hip-hop in the '90s, long, drawn-out flow mixes overran the market, and megamixes were mostly relegated to the first five minutes of each side of a tape as initial attention-grabbers. Of course, it shouldn't surprise that perhaps the best longform multi-track mixes of the '90s came from none other than a teenage DJ Shadow, spinning for the Bay Area's hip-hop and R&B station, 106.1 KMEL, before he even owned a sampler. He had the stacks of raw hip-hop and obscure heat, the painstakingly honed turntable prowess, and the creativity to churn out overloaded mixes that came out hard, head-boppable, and mind-expanding all at once. The megamix as storytelling.
How can a mix tell a story? By offering an immersive study of the musical landscape of a specific time and place, allowing sounds and voices to blend and contrast each other in a way that essentially forms a period piece (like the Shadow mixes, steeped in tape hiss and repping forgotten crankers of hip-hop yesteryear). The KMEL megamixes are dated like one of those time capsules you bury in the backyard and forget about for 15 years before taking up the shovel and unearthing it in hopes you'll discover something profound about a world, and perhaps a self, you have in many ways forgotten. Why were Puma track suits so dope, and why did you stop rocking them? Were folks really hip to Downtown Science in 1991? Well, Shadow was, and he thought you should be too. The story a megamix tells is colored not just by an era and place, but by the DJ twisting the knobs, flicking the faders, caressing the holy Schallplatten. Shadow's four-track workouts present the listener with hip-hop circa '91 as directed by a 19-year-old white kid who probably didn't do much besides sit in his room and immerse himself in classic funk and soul tunes and golden-era rap bangers.
Which backspins us to Dr Dre and Tony A A in '88, breaking down and building back up the hottest sounds of their time for what would become the most flavor-crammed multi-track megamix of all time: 88 Boom N Bass.
If you had to beam up a sampler disc to outer space so that bug-eyed Martians could get down with exactly what this hip-hop stuff they keep picking up in rogue signals is all about, a worn copy of 88 Boom N Bass is all you'd have to send. Let it be hip-hop's Voyager selection.
Peep a sample. Less than five minutes in Tony drops MC Lyte's "10% Diss", a verbal onslaught against style-biters, then a snippet of Sweet Tee's cutesy flow, followed by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's suburban crossover "Parents Just Don't Understand", Ice T's gangster-rap classic "Colors", and hip-hop's then-foremost poet Rakim. In terms of musical and lyrical content, 88 Boom 'N' Bass is a jungle of contradictions. But so was hip-hop in 1988. Gangster-rap was beginning to take over the west coast, but the sounds of NYC were still hot in L.A., electro had yet to bleed out, and goofballs like Dana Dane and Biz Markie were getting props in the same world supporting radical voices like Public Enemy, KRS-One, and N.W.A. Hip-hop was in a transitional stage, somewhere between death-stare rep flaunting and "Peace, Love, Unity, and Having Fun!" Battery Brain's Action Pack Rap Attack (1988), another West Coast megamix from 1988 that would have been sold at roadium swapmeets alongside Tony's tape, colors much of the same material from a more lighthearted, comedic lens than Tony's tougher take on the era. We have the music, but what matters is the presentation. The aural world of late '80s South-Central Los Angeles as presented through multi-track mixes offers the most thorough study of hip-hop's depths.
True mixmasters are few and far between today, but don't believe for a second that turntablists have given up on assembling globs of auditory tang into lush sound collages grounded in rhythm. Check out Pipomixes' Beats, Headphones, & Coffee (Soundcloud, 2014), which blends laidback, low-end heavy future beats with classic rap flavors in a surprisingly melodic amalgamation. Or DJ Revolution's Ultimate Revolution (Soundcloud, 2015) mixes, which manage to sound reminiscent of old-school multi-track tapes while moving through trap beats and mainstream glitz rap. Then there's DJ Yoda's How to Cut & Paste: 80's Edition (Antidote, 2003), a representative sample of the megamix metagenre that presents nostalgia the same way bros at a frat party present a guileless freshman with a never-ending bong session of especially potent jungle juice, or even "mash-up artists" like Girl Talk, who disavows the label of DJ when that's exactly what he is. Software-to-control-vinyl programs like Traktor and Serato, along with mixers like the Rane Sixty-Eight and Pioneer DJM-900NXS2, have opened capabilities for DJs to produce multi-track mixes live, as J. Rocc demonstrated with his four-turntable set at the 2011 NAMM conference.
In other words, don't call it a comeback. We've been here for years. Shit just went underground.
But it'll come back 'round. 'Cause all mixes aspire to be megamixes. No one (except for maybe raver kids tripped-out on blotters and strobe juice, who should reevaluate their life decisions) wants to sit around and listen to a five-hour techno set where the DJ drops maybe 20 tracks and stands around sipping martinis and fiddling with volume knobs when he wants to look cool. Nah son. People want to hear a DJ get busy, mixing the crowd's favorite joints in combinations they never thought possible. When I'm playing out, elevated in the booth above a horde of hoodie-rockin' heads (or, as usually happens, a couple of my dweeby friends in button-down tees and narrow-cut jeans sipping cheap beers on a desolate dancefloor), do you know what I wish for? I wish I had eight arms, like that red octopus on the front jacket cover of Ultimate Breaks and Beats Vol. 13 (Time Warp 513, 2008), rocking the cyclops sunshades, cutting slabs on both decks, working the boxy throwback mixing unit and shouting over the mic. Give me a hot mess over a flawless set any day.
And if it doesn't come back around? If lazy push-button DJs win the day and jam-packed flavor shots sink to the nether regions in a sea of banality and all-around wackness? We erect museums. 'Cause what other form of popular music produces collage-style works on par with what modernists of the visual art world began experimenting with in the early 20th Century? Music is still catching up, and the megamix has been at the forefront for decades. Picasso and Rauschenberg would dig it. Emerson would dig it. The megamix is an auditory embodiment of the oversoul, years of human progress compiled and reworked to perfection, the zenith of what we have to offer.
But perhaps I'm rambling here.
I've been typing away at this shit for too long. The die-cast aluminum platters on my turntables are starting to rust. I can feel my wrists weakening. Time to hop back in the mix. If anyone has a Tascam Portastudio they're planning on throwing out, send it my way. I'll be up in my lab assembling.