Originality in Digital Music

This post is longer and more formal than usual because it was my term paper for a class in the NYU Music Technology Program.

Questions of authorship, ownership and originality surround all forms of music (and, indeed, all creative undertakings.) Nowhere are these questions more acute or more challenging than in digital music, where it is effortless and commonplace to exactly reproduce sonic elements generated by others. Sometimes this copying is relatively uncontroversial, as when a producer uses royalty-free factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live. Sometimes the copying is legally permissible but artistically dubious, as when one downloads a public-domain Bach or Scott Joplin MIDI file and copies and pastes sections from them into a new composition. Sometimes one may have creative approval but no legal sanction; within the hip-hop community, creative repurposing of copyrighted commercial recordings is a cornerstone of the art form, and the best crate-diggers are revered figures.

Even in purely noncommercial settings untouched by copyright law, issues of authorship and originality continue to vex us. Some electronic musicians feel the need to generate all of their sounds from scratch, out of a sense that using samples is cheating or lazy. Others freely use samples, presets and factory sounds for reasons of expediency, but feel guilt and a weakened sense of authorship. Some electronic musicians view it as a necessity to create their tools from scratch, be they hardware or software. Others feel comfortable using off-the-shelf products but try to avoid common riffs, rhythmic patterns, chord progressions and timbres. Still others gleefully and willfully appropriate and put their “theft” of familiar recordings front and center.

Is a mashup of two pre-existing recordings original? Is a new song based on a sample of an old one original? What about a new song using factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live? Is a DJ set consisting entirely of other people’s recordings original? Can a bright-line standard for originality or authenticity even exist in the digital realm?

I intend to parse out our varied and conflicting notions of originality, ownership and authorship as they pertain to electronic music. I will examine perspectives from musicians and fans, jurists and journalists, copyright holders and copyright violators. In so doing, I will advance the thesis that complete originality is neither possible nor desirable, in digital music or elsewhere, and that the spread of digital copying and manipulation has done us a service by bringing the issue into stark relief.

What Is Originality?

Before we can discuss the impact that digital music has had on the concept of originality, it would be helpful to have a definition of the term. Donald Coffman has a useful approach based on information theory. In his formulation, originality is coextensive with novelty, which in turn is coextensive with informational entropy. A more novel musical idea will have higher entropy because it will contain information that is new to the listener. A well-worn cliché will have lower entropy because it introduces little or no new information. Coffman’s example of a low-entropy musical idea is the leading tone followed by the tonic. This note sequence conveys little information to the Western listener; we have heard it countless times, and we have come to expect it. Following the leading tone with the flat second would be a higher-entropy move, unexpected to most Western listeners.

Analogies with physical systems are helpful here. Atoms in a regular crystal lattice like a diamond comprise a very low-entropy physical system. The musical equivalent would be a MIDI sequencer playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on an endless loop. Gas molecules bouncing randomly around a room are a high-entropy system. Here, the musical equivalent would be a sequence of pitches, rhythms, durations and so on all chosen at random, or unpredictable bursts of white noise.

We generally find the extremes of both high and low musical entropy to be equally boring. Our senses are most gratified by systems in the middle, blending order with disorder: fractals, chaos, recursion, metastability. In the physical world, our senses are most gratified by biological forms, mountains, clouds, and ripples in water. In music, we prefer a delicate balance between predictability and novelty. While Western culture gives lip service to the supreme value of originality, in actual practice, we prefer a balance of the predictable and unpredictable.

What is Authenticity?

The idea of originality is inextricably tied up with notions of ownership, authorship and authenticity. For my purposes, these three concepts are interchangeable. When we hear a piece of music, we want to know that there is a human mind behind it, a set of emotions we can connect with and relate to. The era of recorded music has posed a challenge to our notions of authenticity. Walter Benjamin puts it best:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be….The presence of the original is the prerequisite of the concept of authenticity. (Benjamin 1969)

If we hold Benjamin’s criteria for authenticity to be true, then modern studio recordings are inauthentic indeed.

The Beatles are an excellent test case. At the beginning of their recording career, they simply performed live in the studio, producing a slightly more polished result of what you would hear if you attended one of their concerts. Their last few albums, on the other hand, were elaborately overdubbed collage works that would be difficult or impossible to recreate live. There is no single “original” performance of “A Day In The Life” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” in Benjamin’s sense.

Recent decades have seen an ever-widening gap between people playing instruments in real time and the final product of a recording, especially since the advent of synthesizers, sequencers and digital editing techniques. As Evan Eisenberg says:

The word ‘record’ is misleading. Only live recordings record an event; studio recordings, which are the great majority, record nothing. Pieced together from bits of actual events, they construct an ideal event. They are like the composite photograph of a minotaur. (Eisenberg 2005)

Jesse Walker concurs:

Critics have long debated who ‘creates’ a pop record: the artist listed on the sleeve, the producer behind the scenes, the composer in the wings, or the sometimes anonymous studio employees who actually play the music. (Walker 2003)

It is no wonder that our ideas about authenticity, authorship and ownership of music have grown so muddled. Some musicians remain convinced that synthesizers can never be “authentic” because they are “fake.” But creating a synthesizer patch “from scratch,” building up timbres from raw waveforms using modular electronics or code, could logically be viewed as being more “real” than playing a piano or guitar built by someone else. Traditional instrumentalists decry the use of samples as “unoriginal” or “stealing,” but have no difficulty at all drawing on standard chord progressions, rhythmic and melodic figures, instrumental combinations, song forms, stylistic idioms and the like. The term “sampling” includes practices as diverse as appropriating long and recognizable sections of existing recordings; using short and unrecognizable fragments of existing recordings; using single-note recordings of “real” instruments designed to be mapped to a MIDI controller in order to mimic the sound of the original; and exotic granular synthesis techniques that process short samples beyond recognition. Musicians will vary wildly in their convictions about which of these practices are acceptable and which are not.

At the most controversial end extreme end of the scale lies the mashup, a new work consisting solely of pieces of pre-existing works, individually familiar to the listener, designed to produce surprising juxtapositions. The mashup has been hailed as the most emblematic and significant art form of the time, while simultaneously being dismissed as a shallow novelty or reprehensible thievery.

Controversy over digital music extends far beyond sampling. Some musicians feel that playing digital synthesizers by hand counts as “real music,” but that MIDI sequencing is “cheating.” Some feel that laborious tape editing is acceptable, but effortless digital audio editing is not. Still others can accept digital recording and editing in general, but morally object to techniques like pitch correction and rhythmic quantization. And the situation only gets more complex when we consider the gulf between what musicians say publicly and what they practice in the privacy of the studio.

So what is authenticity in the digital world? I believe that the technological tools and techniques at work do not determine the “realness” of a piece of music. The important factor is emotional truth-telling. Does the music convey or evoke real feelings? Does it tell stories, literally or metaphorically, that truthfully convey the world in which we live? Can a human connection be formed between musician(s) and listener? If the answer to these questions is yes, then I consider the music to be authentic. That said, it may still be difficult or impossible to identify a specific author for a piece of modern electronic music, or even a clearly-defined group of authors. Can music be authentic without having an author? I believe that it can.

Recoding and oral tradition

Art and architecture critic Hal Foster coined the term “recoding” to refer to sampling, remixing, mashups, quotation and all other forms of artistic appropriation. (Foster 1985) Recoding is a useful word — while the various practices it subsumes differ technically, they spring from the same creative impulse and are treated similarly under the law. Recoding shows the way toward a future for recorded music that is more in continuity with music’s past. If I buy a recording, I can listen to it or dance to it, which are both fine activities, but what if I want to go further? What if I want to engage with it, converse with it, customize it or adapt it to my own needs?

Copyright law tightly circumscribes our ability to recode recordings. This flies in the face of the uncountable centuries of musical culture. Before recording technology existed, if you wanted to hear music, someone needed to play or sing it. The normal method for passing music along for nearly all of human history was by oral tradition. A great deal of responsive interaction, adaptation and reinterpretation was an inevitable part of this transmission process. While most of the music we encounter in the modern world is in recorded form, we still carry strong traditions of sharing, adapting and customizing our music. Our instinct to share music we like and to remake it as we see fit is in direct conflict with our notion of recordings as physical and intellectual property that we do not control.

Sampling and originality

More than any other digital music-making practice, sampling provokes the greatest controversy, the hottest emotions, and the most contentious legal battles. For the purposes of this section, I will define sampling to be the appropriation of pieces of recordings created by others in order to recontextualize them in new works. The sample might consist of a single snare drum hit or a long passage, or anything in between.

While digital sampling is a new development, the practice of interpolating familiar material into a new work is of long standing. Classical composers have frequently “sampled” one another’s themes, along with folk and traditional music. Puccini uses “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a leitmotif for an American character in Madame Butterfly. Tchaikovsky interpolates the French and Russian national anthems in the 1812 Overture, along with a Russian Orthodox plainchant and other folk songs. The Nutcracker Suite quotes the traditional “Grossvater Tanz.” At the end of his Violin Concerto, Alban Berg quotes Bach’s chorale “Es ist Genug.” The Habanera from Carmen is based on the song “El Arreglito” by Sebastián Iradier. (Slonimsky and Kassel 1998) The list of such appropriations is endless.

While we have largely made our collective peace with the idea of composers borrowing ideas from one another, sampling recordings feel like another matter entirely. A recording is a physical, tangible artifact in a way that a chord progression is not. Copying the information from a recording feels like a physical act of taking. Even though digital copying does not remove or destroy the original, our mores are still shaped by the idea that unauthorized sampling deprives the original owner of something. Sample-based forms like hip-hop, house and techno have swept the world and transformed global culture, but controversy continues to rage over their basic moral validity.

Thomas Joo represents the prevailing view of the anti-sampling camp: “[S]amples are valuable to music producers because they offer a way to obtain the sound of a musician without employing any musicians.” (Joo 2012) I take strong issue with this assertion. Sampling musicians are still musicians. Indeed, in my own experience, the selection and deployment of the right sample can require significantly more creative effort and time than producing boilerplate genre material on the guitar or on sheet music. People who like hip-hop but are uncomfortable with the practice of sampling tend to invoke the Roots, who play live instruments with considerable skill. However, the Roots are firmly part of the sampling community. Their live performances strive to emulate the sound of sample-based production, turntablism and sequencing. And even though the Roots’ drummer, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, is one of the finest musicians of his generation, he nevertheless regularly uses sampled breakbeats in his production work.

Is sampling stealing?

Sampling provokes considerable ire from not just from copyright holders, but from musicians and listeners generally. Some musicians equate sampling with simple plagiarism, and some judges ruling in high-profile sampling cases concur. My own stance is that transformative use should absolve the sampler of all accusations of theft. Sampling, say, a two-bar segment of a song takes nothing away from its author or performer. No one would ever mistake a transformative use of this two-bar sample with the original. Indeed, the sample might draw valuable attention to the original, so long as there is proper attribution.

There is a reasonable objection to sampling that has nothing to do with theft. Rather, it concerns the hijacking of emotional associations. When we hear a song based on a sample before we hear the original, then the original will inevitably evoke the sampling track. I heard “Crazy In Love” by Beyoncé dozens of times before I ever heard the source of its distinctive brass and cymbal samples, “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” by the Chi-Lites. As a result, the Chi-Lites’ song will always evoke Beyoncé for me. It is natural to feel protective of one’s memories and emotional attachments around favorite songs. My hope is that while samplers should be free to recode, they would be attentive to the feelings surrounding a well-known piece of music, and that they would handle those feelings consciously and respectfully.

The creative value of sampling

Sampling is an essential part of the contemporary creative toolkit. It enables us to actively engage our music collections, to remake recordings as we see fit. In this respect, sampling has some of the same satisfaction of learning how to sing songs we like, or how to play them on an instrument. As with learning and adapting songs in the traditional manner, sampling lets us remake recordings to our own tastes.

Samples can also be sonically manipulated in real time in ways that live instruments can not. One can instantly alter the pitch or tempo of a sample, or rearrange its components in a different order. Thomas Joo, like many critics of sampling, undervalues this power to reshape the meaning of a sample’s source material: “Even the most active engagements with texts, such as the production of innovative derivative works, involve at least some ceding of the meaning-making function to the author of the source work.” (Joo 2012) This may be true for some works, but it is quite possible for sample-based music to be significantly greater than the sum of its parts. For example, the song “They Reminisce Over You” by Pete Rock and CL Smooth turns samples of a lite-jazz recording of a Jefferson airplane song into the basis of an elegaic tribute to a friend who died young. Pete Rock and CL Smooth transform trite and banal source material into a powerfully moving and substantive new work.

Sampling is also quite effective as a music teaching and studying tool. Sample hunting requires listening actively, with an acquisitive ear. Once a sample has been isolated, hearing it looped endlessly allows the sampling musician to gain a more intimate and nuanced familiarity than the usual listening experience affords. Furthermore, the expediency of sampling encourages spontaneity and experimentation. If I want to try out ideas over a certain beat, it would be logistically inconvenient to involve a live drummer. My apartment is not the right environment for a full drum kit, and I lack the equipment to record one properly. Meanwhile, I have a hard drive full of the best drummers in recorded history playing in every conceivable style, with an essentially limitless selection of others a few mouse clicks away on the internet. How could I possibly pass up the opportunity to practice and write along with Clyde Stubblefield or Questlove or Max Roach? It isn’t just beats that can inspire new tracks or compositions. A short instrumental passage, a vocal phrase, a fragment of speech, a sound effect or atmospheric sound can inspire new work. The effortlessness and immediacy of sampling creates such a wealth of possibility that the challenge becomes choosing from among them.

Samples are not only valuable for their expediency. They possess their own sonic and musical qualities. There is a substantial difference between a person playing a particular phrase repeatedly and the playback of a recorded loop. People cannot help but introduce slight variations of attack, subtle tempo changes, and all of the other nuances of live performance. In some styles of music, constant nuance and variation is a good thing. In electronic music, however, one usually wants the hypnotic, trance-like effect produced by identical looping. A sample’s effect comes not just from its musical content, but all the subtleties of its timbre imparted by the particular interaction of the microphone and preamp and mixing desk and tape or digital medium. The magic of a sample like the Funky Drummer or Amen break is not just in its beat — there is also the tape hiss, the equalization, the compression and reverb. A drummer might be able to recreate the musical performance closely, but not the particular sonic ambiance.

The evocative power of a sample can be used to create webs of reference and self-reference. A striking example is “The Score” by the Fugees, from the album of the same name. In addition to an array of samples of other artists, “The Score” samples every other song on the Fugees’ own album, making for a dizzyingly recursive work of art.

Nas Is Like

An excellent example of the sampling art form is the hip-hop song “Nas Is Like” by Nas, produced by DJ Premier. The instrumental track combines a programmed drum machine beat with twittering birds sampled from “Why” by Don Robertson. The vocals are accompanied by a sample of low-fidelity plaintive strings, sampled from a rather unlikely source, a Lutheran inspirational recording called “What Child Is This.” Imaginative though these sample choices are, DJ Premier’s real artistry comes in his construction of the song’s chorus, built entirely from snippets of other Nas songs. Most of the lines in the chorus come from Nas’ breakout hit “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” including the phrase “Nas is like” that gives the song its title. Other phrases come from Nas’ “Street Dreams,” itself based on “Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics.

The most inventive sample in “Nas Is Like” is a single syllable taken from Biz Markie’s song “Nobody Beats the Biz.” Biz Markie describes himself in the song as “highly recognized as the king of disco-in.’” He hits the last syllable in ‘recognized’ in a particularly loud and nasal tone, and out of context, it sounds like he is saying “Nas.” It is no wonder that DJ Premier is an admirer of Biz Markie — both are given to creative samples and allusions. The chorus and title of “Nobody Beats The Biz” are a play on a commercial jingle that will be familiar to anyone who watched television in the New York City region during the 1980s. Just as Biz Markie’s tune evokes the familiar in a surprising context, so too does DJ Premier gratify fans of Nas’ earlier recordings by sampling them in “Nas Is Like.”

Remixes and originality

The conventional wisdom in the music world holds that remixes are antithetical to originality. After all, a remix is, by definition, a modification of an existing work, with substantial amounts of the original still present. William Gibson disagrees with this conventional view:

The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital. Today, an endless, recombinant, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of creative product (another antique term?)….The recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries. (Gibson 2005)

I agree with Gibson’s sentiment, with one caveat: remixing is not so new as we generally believe. While the recorded form of the remix is a technological novelty, the practice of placing an existing musical work in a new setting is quite ancient.

As with sampling, remixing has strong precedent in classical music. Any piece entitled “Variations on a Theme by [Composer]” is effectively a remix; for example, “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” by Johannes Brahms. It is quite common for classical works to be elaborated versions of folk, dance or religious songs. Bach is known to have drawn heavily on Lutheran hymns for source material, using their melodies and chord progressions as the bases for his Baroque elaborations. The album Morimur substantiates this hypothesis by superimposing a performance of the D minor violin partita with a choir singing the hymns believed to form its basis. The musical fit is remarkably seamless.

One could also make a case that jazz musicians’ reinterpretations of popular songs constitute analog remixing. Even the most prolific jazz composers like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane devoted album after album to highly personalized and idiosyncratic arrangements of popular standards. The emblematic Coltrane remix is his rendition of “My Favorite Things,” from his album by the same name. The E major and E minor parts in Coltrane’s arrangement of “My Favorite Things” are open-ended loops. Soloists play each one as long for as long as they see fit, and then signal the band to continue to the next section by playing the “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” melody. The result bears the title of a standard tune, but is unmistakably Coltrane’s creative statement. Even Coltrane’s completely “original” music draws heavily on other sources. His classic tune “Impressions” is a mashup of “So What” by Miles Davis and “Pavane” by Morton Gould.

Aficionados of dance music know that the official release of a song is just the beginning of its musical evolution, and that its truest expression may well come in the form of an extended dance remix. Björk, for example, has embraced the idea of her work consisting of an endless stream of remixes, rather than final, fixed recordings. She encourages her collaborators to find surprising settings for her material, sometimes changing their key and mood entirely, making these songs remixes from the outset. Each single she releases is accompanied by a string of official remixes commissioned by a variety of other artists. Björk released an album, Telegram, consisting almost entirely of remixes of her previous album Post, some of which are quite radical — the electronic dance beats of “Hyperballad” were replaced on the remix by a classical string quartet. Furthermore, Björk has been positively encouraging of fan remixes, to the point of releasing an entire album of remixes and covers of her song “Army Of Me” to benefit tsunami victims in 2005.

It is possible for an artist to make a rich and varied career solely from remixing the work of others. Examples of pop remixers range from the starkly avant-garde “Plunderphonics” recordings of John Oswald, mangling songs beyond recognition, to the good-natured Tangoterje, who extends the funkiest and most danceable parts of songs and layers them with psychedelic echoes. The genre of Jamaican dub consists substantially of remixed “riddims,” recordings of rhythm-section grooves overlaid with snippets of vocals and sound effects, and processed heavily through echo and delay. William Gibson’s statement that the remix is less the anomaly than the static recording, fixed for all time, becomes less controversial with each passing decade.

Mashups and originality

Even more than sampling and remixing, mashups challenge our conventional notions of authorship, ownership and authenticity. Are mashups the most innovative and vital musical form of our time, representing the independent musician’s reclamation of consumerist pop culture? Or are mashups lazy and dishonest, the most venal kind of intellectual property theft?

Club DJs have been mashing up songs on the fly for decades, intermixing popular dance dance tracks with hooks and breaks from other well-known dance tracks. Most of these mixes are ephemeral, created on the spur of the moment for a particular club crowd, but some get recorded and find their way into non-club contexts. High-profile examples include “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel” and Double Dee and Steinski’s “Lesson” mixes. You could think of these early mashups as very fast-paced medleys, stringing together short segments of well-known songs into a cohesive whole.

While it is possible for a vinyl DJ to combine two different songs simultaneously, lining up the keys and tempos requires considerable skill. The mashup did not find widespread expression until digital editing software made the beat-matching and transposing tasks easier. Using a modern program like Ableton Live, it is possible to superimpose any combination of recordings at the same tempo in the same key with a few minutes of work. Dance and pop songs have long been released in DJ formats with unaccompanied vocals on one side and instrumental versions on the other, facilitating remixing on the fly; such releases are invaluable raw material for mashup artists.

The most typical mashup strategy is to layer the acapella vocals of one song onto the instrumental from another. The challenge is to find two songs that are stylistically wildly different and get them to sound like a unified whole. For example, an anonymous internet artist created a track called “Gettin’ Freaky In Black,” combining vocals from Missy Elliot’s hip-hop/dance song “Get Ur Freak On” with the instrumental version of the hard-rock “Back In Black” by AC/DC. This improbable-seeming combination has a joyous quality distinct from either of its sources.

More adventurous mashup artists take the medley concept of Grandmaster Flash a step further by layering several different songs together simultaneously. DJ Earworm has produced an annual mashup series called The United State Of Pop. Each year, he combines the top twenty-five Billboard hits of that year into a single track. He invests considerable effort into making all of these fragmented songs cohere musically, and the result is a remarkably deep dive into the collective American psyche.

As a practitioner of the mashup, I am strongly in favor of the form as a valuable form of artistic commentary and musical expression. But it is worth examining opposing viewpoints. David Gunkel summarizes them well:

[T]he mash-up is regarded as ‘bastard pop.’ It is the monstrous outcome of illegitimate fusions and promiscuous reconfigurations of recorded music that deliberately exceed the comprehension, control, and proper authority of the ‘original artist.’ In doing so, however, the mash-up does not just challenge the authority of the author but demonstrates that the concept of authorship in popular music has itself always been equivocal and something of an artifice.(Gunkel 2008)

Gunkel’s invocation of the word ‘bastard’ is richly significant. It suggests that there is a proper, ‘pure’ way of breeding songs, and that mashups violate our most basic mores around legitimacy. If artists’ works are their exclusive progeny, then appropriative forms like the mashup are an assaultive affront to artists’ rights to control and protect their ‘children.’

But do artists really own their work, once it is completed? Whatever copyright law may have to say on the subject, our society has not made up its collective mind on this question. Many of us feel that if we purchase a recording, or a book, or a computer program, it is now ours to do with as we please. Sasha Frere-Jones defends the rights of audiences to use creative work to suit their own needs:

See mashups as piracy if you insist, but it is more useful, viewing them through the lens of the market, to see them as an expression of consumer dissatisfaction. Armed with free time and the right software, people are rifling through the lesser songs of pop music and, in frustration, choosing to make some of them as good as the great ones. (Frere-Jones 2005)

Frere-Jones articulates my motivation as a mashup artist precisely.

Kembrew McLeod, a passionate advocate for remixers and other makers of appropriation art, is nonetheless conflicted about the mashup:

Despite my appreciation for them, I do not mean to idealize mash-ups because, as a form of creativity, they are quite limited and limiting. First, because they depend on the recognizability of the original, mash-ups are circumscribed to a relatively narrow repertoire of Top 40 pop songs. Also, mash-ups pretty much demonstrate that Theodor Adorno, the notoriously cranky Frankfurt School critic of pop culture, was right about one key point. In arguing for the superiority of European art music, Adorno claimed that pop songs were simplistic and merely made from easily interchangeable, modular components. Yes, Adorno was a snob; but after hearing a half-dozen mash-ups, it is hard to deny that he is right about that particular point. (McLeod 2005)

This is a thoughtful criticism, but in this instance, I do not believe McLeod and Adorno to be correct. Adorno’s vaunted European art music is, in its way, as modular as contemporary American pop. The components are different, but they nevertheless comprise a finite set, overlaid with fairly rigid restrictions on what is and is not permitted. The rules of harmony and counterpoint are algorithms for producing common-practice era classical music. Software has produced ersatz Bach pieces good enough to fool experts.

Meanwhile, where is it written that mashups must be limited to top 40 pop? Any recording is fair game. Jazz fans can enjoy jazz mashups; country fans can enjoy country mashups; opera fans can enjoy opera mashups. The aforementioned DJ Earworm produced the delightful “Brazilian Diamonds,” combining Django Reinhardt’s “Brazil” with Paul Simon’s “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.” The result is a heady blend of jazz, samba, soft rock, isicathamiya and mbaqanga. Who would have guessed that the bouncy rhythms of samba as filtered through the mind of a Belgian gypsy jazz guitarist would mesh so well with the bouncy rhythms of South African pop as filtered through the mind of a Jewish folksinger from Queens? This sort of discovery is only possible via extensive trial and error, and should be rewarded as we would reward any other form of creativity.

It has been my experience that writing an “original” song “from scratch” is more like creating a mashup than unlike it. Songwriting consists of splicing and hybridizing together a series of scale fragments, chord progressions, rhythmic figures, melodic shapes and timbral combinations. The given set of musical modules is bounded by stylistic considerations — I will draw on a different set of modules to write a bebop head than a country ballad. The combinations may be novel each time, but the basic ingredients are not.

The Grey Album

Perhaps the most famous (or notorious) mashup is the 2003 album-length work by Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton called the Grey Album. It accompanies every acapella track from Jay-Z’s Black Album with new instrumentals comprised solely of samples taken from the Beatles’ White Album. Danger Mouse never intended the Grey Album to be a commercial product; he conceived it as a creative challenge to himself. Nevertheless, copies found their way into record stores, and Danger Mouse found himself on the receiving end of legal threats from EMI, administrator of the Beatles’ copyrights. Danger Mouse cooperated with EMI’s efforts to remove The Grey Album from stores, but in the meantime, copyright reformers on the internet turned him into a cause celébre.

On February 24, 2004, the activist group Downhill Battle led an act of civil disobedience known as Grey Tuesday. Hundreds of web sites changed their color schemes to grey, and approximately 170 sites made the Grey Album freely available. Over one hundred thousand copies were downloaded, and the ensuing controversy vaulted Danger Mouse into celebrity. Both Jay-Z and Paul McCartney were vocally supportive of the Grey Album. In Jay-Z’s case, this is unsurprising; he released the entire Black Album in DJ format with the explicit hope that remixers and mashup artists would do exactly what Danger Mouse did. McCartney’s reaction is somewhat more surprising, since the Beatles have generally been strongly protective of their recordings. Nevertheless, in a February 11, 2011 interview with the BBC, McCartney indicated that he regarded the Grey Album as a flattering homage.

Thomas Joo maintains that Danger Mouse “never stood a serious chance of contesting the cultural meaning of the Beatles‘ White Album or Jay-Z‘s Black Album.” (Joo 2012) I myself am proof that this is untrue. I was indifferent to Jay-Z until I heard his music combined with Beatles songs that I had long known and loved. The Grey Album acted as a cultural ambassador, opening me up not only to Jay-Z but to many other hip-hop artists as well. The Grey Album has inspired a flood of imitators, album-length mashups combining Jay-Z’s vocals with Radiohead, Weezer, Brian Eno and others. A notable example is “Dirt Off Your Android,” combining Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” with Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” As mashups like these become commonplace listening, their impact on the rest of popular music is already being felt, as wild eclecticism and jarring stylistic combinations have moved from the fringe toward the mainstream.

DJs and originality

The least likely exemplars of musical originality are disk jockeys. The typical DJ simply plays one preexisting recording after another. While the job requires attention to song selection and sequencing, few “real musicians” would consider DJing to be a form of creativity, much less an outlet for original expression. Nevertheless, the most skilled DJs have shown considerable ingenuity in their ability to deconstruct and recombine recordings. The cut-and-paste style of urban disco DJs in the 1970s was a crucial influence on the first generation of hip-hop and electronica producers. As technology progresses, the practices of turntable virtuosos have become accessible to average working DJs as well. Ed Montano quotes DJ Goodwill:

You used to be able to just get up and play a record, and it would go for seven minutes, and there’s not much you could do with it. But now… I can loop sections of it, and add bits to it before I go out, and I can get rid of the breakdown if I don’t like it. As technology becomes more palatable and it all goes towards laptops that you’ve already put the music into, you’re going to be able to have so much influence on the music you’re playing. (Montano 2010)

Only the most ambitious DJs presently take advantage of the freedom to create remixes and mashups on the fly in front of a dance club audience. Nevertheless, the practice is spreading. The most meticulously curated and creatively blended mixes show as much of the creative stamp of the DJ as a jazz solo speaks with the voice of the improviser. I foresee that the best DJ mixes will come to be regarded as compositions in their own right, with DJs considered creative authors in their own right. Dance music aficionados already widely hold this view.

The evolutionary model of musical creativity

In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to describe a self-replicating information virus, using our minds as hosts. The analogy is to genes, self-replicating molecules using the bodies of organisms as machines to perform the replication. (Dawkins 1976) Memes are transmitted from one mind to another by imitation. This transmission process has been helped greatly in recent history by meme-friendly media like books, recordings and especially the internet.

Dawkins inspired subsequent theorists like Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett to argue that all of human culture, language and technology are vast complexes of memes; indeed, memes may even comprise our consciousness and social identities. A key corollary to this theory is that memes evolve semi-independently of their human hosts. Rather than thinking of ideas as belonging to us, we should think of them as symbiotes or parasites, like the mites on our skin or the bacteria in our guts. Sometimes musical memes reward their human hosts (musicians) with wealth, fame and personal happiness. Sometimes the human host ends up broke, despised and alone. The memes don’t “care” one way or the other; they are as mindless as viruses. Whenever we have a song that we dislike stuck in our head, we experience just how independent our resident memes can be.

Susan Blackmore encourages us to take the “meme’s eye view.” From the memes’ viewpoint, humans don’t write music at all. Musical memes self-replicate, mutate and hybridize in our heads. They spread via performances, scores, recordings, teachers, television, movies, web sites and countless other cultural vectors. (Blackmore 2000) The meme theory gives us a useful paradigm for understanding how musical ideas spread. Just as biologists create tree diagrams showing the descent and spread of a particular gene, bifurcating at each mutation point, so too can we make evolutionary trees for memes. Digital sampling in particular makes the heredity networks neatly unambiguous and easy to parse out. It is more difficult to trace the spread of a certain melodic motif or chord progression or rhythmic pattern, but such hereditary histories most assuredly exist.

DNA gets copied when cells divide and replicate. Music gets copied from mind to mind when people hear it and want to reproduce it. All musical learning begins with imitation of other musicians. As music gets copied from one person’s mind to another, it sometimes mutates. Think of learning an existing piece of music as being like asexual reproduction. Usually the two child cells are exact clones of the parent cell. Mutations are errors that result in inexact copies. Mutations generally harm the child cells’ ability to survive and reproduce, but every once in a while the mutation is advantageous.

Consider “Amazing Grace,” which was sung to as many as twenty different melodies before it settled into the one familiar to us. Imagine that you know how to sing one of the “Amazing Grace” variants, and that I want to learn it. Say that we can’t read music and have no way to make recordings. You will likely repeat the song to me until I can successfully copy it by imitation. Perhaps I will not quite learn the melody accurately, and will remember it with one or two notes changed. This mutation will probably make my version of “Amazing Grace” less compelling and memorable, and other people will be less interested in learning it from me. But perhaps I will have stumbled upon an improvement. My version might even spread and eventually crowd out your version. Such a process surely produced the “Amazing Grace” that the world knows now, just as mutation and natural selection produced a variety of hominid species at were then crowded out of existence by humans.

Musical imitation need not take place at the scale of entire songs. It can happen at smaller scales, at the level of riffs and chord progressions and rhythmic motifs. Particularly successful memes in the American folk tradition include the I-IV-V chord progressions, the major and minor pentatonic scales, and the blues scale. When someone combines a variety of memes into a novel configuration, we call the process “composing” or “songwriting.” Writing music is closer to hybridizing and selective breeding than creating a new life form from scratch.

The pioneering producer Brian Eno likes to use the word “scenius” rather than genius to describe exceptional creativity. He believes that the image of the lone visionary is a myth, and that valuable innovations are produced by networks of people communicating ideas back and forth. This view dovetails neatly with the meme theory. A rich and thriving ecosystem of memes under strong selective pressure will produce the most robust and adaptive replicators. By this view, environments like 18th century Vienna or Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s are to be credited for the music they produced more than any particular individual person in those environments.

The meme theory neatly resolves the vexing issues of authorship underlying music-making in the digital domain. Rather than searching in vain for an individual author, we can look at a piece of music and inquire into the natural history of its component memes. We can trace them through software companies, magazines, schools, producers, engineers, compilers of sample libraries, session musicians, songwriters, critics and all the other vectors through which they have traveled to coalesce and hybridize in this particular songwriter’s mind, this sheet of staff paper, this reel of tape, this Pro Tools session, this MP3. Perhaps this complex of memes will be unsatisfying or unfashionable, and will vanish in obscurity. Perhaps it will cause enough gratification to motivate us to copy it, to share it with friends, to imitate and sample and remix it. So it is that the memes evolve and spread.

An example meme: The Amen Break

The most-sampled recording in history is likely a song called “Amen Brother” by the 1960s soul band The Winstons, specifically a five and a half second rhythm break by drummer Gregory Cylvester Coleman. “Amen, Brother” was an obscure B-side that would likely have been forgotten had crate-digging hip-hop producers not discovered Coleman’s drum break and begun sampling it extensively in the 1980s. The Amen break gained a higher profile among hip-hop musicians when Breakbeat Lenny included it in the first volume of his compilation series Ultimate Breaks and Beats.

Over the years since, the Amen break has become ubiquitous not just in hip-hop, but in every style of dance music. It almost single-handedly spawned entire genres of electronica, particularly especially drum ‘n’ bass and its various offshoots. The Amen appears in songs by rock and pop artists ranging from Oasis to Nine Inch Nails. It has also been used in television theme songs and commercials. Casual popular music listeners have likely heard the break it in dozens, if not hundreds, of recordings. Noteworthy examples of the Amen break include “King Of The Beats” by Mantronix, “I Desire” by Salt N Pepa, “Straight Outta Compton” by NWA, “The Angels Fell” by Dillinja, “Girl/Boy” by Aphex Twin, “Nightlife” by Amon Tobin and “Streets On Fire” by Lupe Fiasco. Luke Vibert made an album under the pseudonym Amen Andrews in which nearly every song uses a resequenced variant on the Amen break. Noteworthy television usages include the themes to Futurama and the Powerpuff Girls. The Amen is the exemplar of a successful meme. Its success has not benefitted Gregory Cylvester Coleman, however; he died in obscurity, sharing none of the fame of his drum break.

An example meme: The Champ

“The Champ” by The Mohawks has had a particularly colorful evolutionary history as a meme. The organ riff that begins the song will be instantly recognizable to hip-hop fans due its repeated sampling. The Mohawks were an ad-hoc band of session musicians led by a British organist named Alan Hawkshaw, best known for his commercial jingles, library music and television theme songs. He also played on records by Barbra Streisand and Olivia Newton John, making him a rather unlikely source of inspiration for hip-hop artists. Nevertheless, the Champ riff is one of the signature sounds of 1980s hip-hop. It is sampled in “Eric B is President” by Eric B and Rakim, “Smooth Operator” by Big Daddy Kane, “The Big Payback” by EPMD, and “Miami Bass” by Stetsasonic. Its use tapered off somewhat in the 1990s, but it has never gone out of style entirely; for example, Mary J Blige loops it under almost the entirety of her 2005 song “Gonna Breakthrough.”

The most interesting uses of the Champ riff are the ones that reshape or recontextualize the sample. Guy reharmonizes the sample in “Groove Me,” using the accompaniment to change the riff’s key from B major to C# minor. Fu-shnickens shifts and reorders segments of the sample in “La Schmoove” to produce a variant riff. KRS-One alters the sample even further, reordering its constituent notes until it becomes an almost entirely new melody on “Step Into A World (Rapture’s Delight.)” The most popular song to draw on “The Champ” is “Slam” by Onyx. It does not use the sample itself; rather, Onyx shouts/sings its melody for their chorus.

An example meme: ORCH5

While most famous hip-hop and dance samples come from soul, R&B or rock records, a particularly famous sample comes from a highly improbable source: The Firebird by Stravinsky. A single loud orchestral attack from The Firebird was included in the sample library that came with the Fairlight CMI, where it was labeled “ORCH5.” This orchestral stab came to fame in electronic music culture when Afrika Bambaataa used it in his breakthrough 1982 electro-funk/hip-hop song, “Planet Rock.” Robert Fink evocatively describes ORCH5 as “the classical ghost in the hip-hop machine.” (Fink 2005)

ORCH5 is the loud chord at the beginning of “the Infernal Dance of All the Subjects of Kastchei,” pitched down a minor sixth and slowed somewhat. Fink observes that the eight-bit resolution of the analog-to-digital conversion “produced a brittle, grainy sample whose frequency spectrum is shifted noticeably towards the upper registers of the orchestra. This has the paradoxical effect of making the sample sound both ‘old’ (because its low fidelity cannot capture the full range of the orchestra, as in the pre-LP era), and ‘new’ (because the sound itself is noticeably devoid of romantic lushness).” John Robie, the keyboard player on “Planet Rock,” found that he could play eight instances of ORCH5 simultaneously on both hands, producing a distinctive and enormous-sounding minor-key synthetic orchestral hit. This sound has become a standby in hip-hop and electronica production since then.

Other artists of the early 1980s were inspired by Bambaataa or by happenstance to use ORCH5 as well, including Kate Bush, Art of Noise and Mantronix. The multi-octave minor-key orchestral stab has become something of a trope in hip-hop production, though usually not produced with the expensive and user-unfriendly Fairlight CMI. Instead, producers have imitated the general sound of ORCH5, using whatever combination of synthesizers and samplers is at hand. Meanwhile, “Planet Rock” itself has been sampled and referenced a great many times in later hip-hop and dance tracks, including the aforementioned Fugees song “The Score.”

The Anxiety and Ecstasy of Influence

The literary critic Harold Bloom published a book in 1973 entitled The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. In this book, Bloom argues that a poet drawing on the work of another poet will produce weak, derivative work. While he recognizes that some outside influence is inevitable, he urge poets to resist these influences. Bloom gives voice to the broad consensus surrounding up all fields of creativity in western culture: that an original idea is the most valuable idea, and that artists must strive to avoid imitating their predecessors. The anxiety of influence can be felt whenever musicians resist sampling for moral grounds, rather than aesthetic or legal ones. Jonathan Lethem wrote an eloquent rejoinder to Bloom, an essay entitled “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Not only is this essay a rousing manifesto in favor of the remix and the mashup aesthetic across all art forms, but it is itself an example of the mashup form — the essay is comprised entirely of quotes and paraphrases appropriated from other sources. Lethem asks whether it is necessary that we continue to resist the collective nature of creativity. Emphasis is in the original:

[D]oes our appetite for creative vitality require the violence and exasperation of another avant-garde, with its wearisome killing-the-father imperatives, or might we be better off ratifying the ecstasy of influence—and deepening our willingness to understand the commonality and timelessness of the methods and motifs available to artists? (Lethem 2007)

One might well consider appropriation of sounds created by others to be a form of theft, but one could just as easily consider it to be a tribute, an homage, a way of humbling oneself before one’s source of inspiration. In an ideal world, all samples would be clearly sourced and accredited. Sadly, the high cost of sample licenses drives many sampling musicians underground and encourages secrecy about sources.


Plato predicted the modern attitude toward copyrighted recordings when he spoke about the written word in Phaedrus: “[E]very word, when once it is written, is bandied about alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect itself.” (Gunkel 2008) Copyright protects recorded artifacts from “ill-treatment.” It does not protect creative acts themselves.

The image of paternity continues to underlie our moral instincts around copyright. Gunkel makes the connection to parenting explicit:

[R]ecordings are, to put it in rather blunt terms, promiscuous bastards… And, in being separated from and abandoned by its progenitor, writing is unavoidably exposed to considerable abuse and misuse… Copyright… includes stipulations that articulate proper use of recorded material and delineate what constitutes inappropriate application of the same. This is done, it is argued, in order to assert the property rights and moral authority of the legal author over his/her creative product. It is, to redeploy the Platonic metaphor, a matter of paternity.” (Gunkel 2008)

The legal status of derivative musical works like remixes and mashups is murky at best. Judicial opinion has been contradictory, with some rulings allowing small portions of copyrighted recordings to be used without permission, while others forbid taking even the shortest and unrecognizable unauthorized sample. The Fair Use exception has protected satirical works, but has thus far not afforded sampling artists much protection generally.

The free-culture adherents believe that copyright law exceeded its original purpose to “foster the Useful Arts and Sciences,” and that now it mostly stifles less-powerful creators while benefiting more-powerful entities. Lawrence Lessig and his allies believe that sampling and remixing of popular culture can empower us, enabling us to take ownership over the products of the dominant culture industry and enhancing “semiotic democracy.” In their view, copyright law is grossly overbalanced in favor of large corporate entities and other powerful actors. (McLeod and DiCola 2011) Thanks in part to high-profile controversies like the Grey Album, there are signs that our copyright culture might be relaxing, de facto if not de jure.

Greg “Girl Talk” Gillis is a mashup artist whose work consists entirely of highly recognizable pop samples. Girl Talk samples with no permission whatsoever, and sells his music commercially. He invokes Fair Use to justify his practices. So far, no one has taken action against him. This is probably due less to the robustness of Fair Use as a legal argument, and more to public relations considerations. Copyright attorney Martin Schwimmer once assured me that no one will ever sue Girl Talk, regardless of the legal merits, because it would be a losing proposition. Girl Talk would be a highly sympathetic defendant, with a fervent online following. (Martin Schwimmer himself is a fan.) If Girl Talk is successfully sued, the internet will rise up in protest, resulting in a public relations disaster that would cost the copyright holder far more than they could win in a settlement. If the hypothetical copyright holder brought a case and lost, it would open the floodgates to unlicensed sampling. Rights holders prefer the status quo, where the law is murky and people mostly license their samples to be on the safe side. This tenuous arrangement is unlikely to be stable in the long term.

Is Compulsory Licensing the Answer?

A compulsory license for compositions has been in place since the Copyright Act of 1909. The license allows anyone to perform or record a cover or arrangement of an existing copyrighted composition, so long as they pay a license fee. This fee is determined by statute, not by the copyright holder. Furthermore, the copyright holder can not refuse to grant a license. In fact, there is no need for the would-be cover artist to have any contact with the copyright holder whatsoever; licenses are handled by the quasi-governmental Harry Fox Agency. The compulsory license does not allow musicians to alter the composition beyond light stylistic adaptation, nor does it allow derivative works to be created. While this scheme has been the occasion for some debate, it has worked well enough for over one hundred years.

Legal scholars of the free-culture movement argue that there should be a similar compulsory licensing scheme for sampling and remixing of recordings. (McLeod and DiCola 2011) Currently, anyone who wishes to sample a recording needs the permission not only of the copyright holder of the composition on the recording, but also the copyright holder of the master recording itself. Typically, a songwriter will hold the composition copyright, and a record label will hold the master recording rights. Either of these rights holders can agree to a sample license or refuse it, and can set whatever license fee they see fit. A compulsory license would make it as easy and inexpensive to license a sample as a cover version. Thomas Joo, an opponent of such a scheme, believes that by holding down the market rate for sample clearance, a compulsory license would be a de facto subsidy for samplers and remixers. He objects to such a subsidy, because he does not feel that the interests of appropriation artists should be favored over those of rights holders. (Joo 2012)

Should we place a higher value on the right of a copyright holder to control the use of their work, or on the right of everyone else to recode that work? As a producer and ardent fan of sample-based music, I come down firmly in favor of a compulsory license, along with a clear and generous fair use policy. In the media-saturated world we inhabit, the ability to claim ownership over that media, to repurpose it for our own creative ends, and to be able to freely disseminate our derivative works, is essential to a healthy and functional intellectual climate. Our culture needs remixes and mashups far more urgently than it needs new string quartets or bebop heads. It is exactly the controversial nature of recoded works that makes them culturally valuable.


Trying to identify the author or authors of a given work of electronic music is challenging at best and impossible at worst. Consider “Nas Is Like.” We can identify Nas as the writer of the rap portion, any quotes and allusions aside. But the authorship of the backing track. The components were arranged by DJ Premier, who also programmed the drum machine. But those components were created by Nas and his various collaborators, by the producers and performers on the records that Premier sampled, by Biz Markie, by the makers of the turntables and samplers Premier used in his production, and so. Once we include the web of influences on all of these people, the notion of authorship comes to appear irrelevant.

We will still need some way to identify composers and copyright owners, if only for the sake of the commercial and legal status quo. Regardless of our laws, however, the memes will continue to replicate and spread, as Danger Mouse proved. We should bring the law in line with the inflexible realities of our culture, with an awareness of the true complexity of the concept of authorship in any work that we produce. Ideally, we can embrace the meme’s eye view, and see ourselves and our computers as host environments where music can make itself. The less we resist the memes’ natural evolution, the greater the diversity of new ideas they will produce for us.


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Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force — “Planet Rock

Anonymous — “Gettin’ Freaky In Black

Biz Markie — “Nobody Beats The Biz

Danger Mouse — The Grey Album

DJ Earworm — “The United State of Pop” series, “Brazilian Diamonds

Double Dee and Steinski — “Lesson 1 – The Payoff Mix,” “Lesson 2 – The James Brown Mix,” “Lesson 3 – The History of Hip-Hop Mix”

Fugees — “The Score

Grandmaster Flash — “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel

John Coltrane — “My Favorite Things

Max Tannone — “Dirt Off Your Android

The Mohawks — “The Champ

Nas — “Nas Is Like

Pete Rock and CL Smooth — “They Reminisce Over You

The Winstons — “Amen Brother