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Regressive and Reflexive Mashups in Sampling Culture, by Eduardo Navas

Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel some time in the early days of hip hop.

Image source: greatestcities.com

Update as of 8/13/10.  The revised version of this text is now available online as Remix Theory post 444.

Update as of 4/29/10: This text has been revised for the book publication Mashup Cultures. In the revised print version, I introduce a series of new terms along with a diagram.  The 2007 draft is shared below in the tradition of online sharing.  The final argument while it has not necessarily changed is more precise in the revised print version, which I encourage those interested to read.

This text was published on June 25, 2007 in Vague Terrain Journal as a contribution to the issue titled Sample Culture.

Today, sampling is practiced in new media culture when any software users including creative industry professionals as well as average consumers apply cut/copy & paste in diverse software applications; for professionals this could mean 3-D modeling software like Maya (used to develop animations in films like Spiderman or Lord of the Rings );[1] and for average persons it could mean Microsoft Word, often used to write texts like this one. Cut/copy & paste is a vital new media feature in the development of Remix. In Web 2.0 applications cut/copy & paste is a necessary element to develop mashups; yet the cultural model of mashups is not limited to software, but spans across media. Mashups actually have roots in sampling principles that were first initiated in music culture around the seventies with the growing popularity of music remixes in disco and hip hop culture; and even though mashups are founded on principles initially explored in music they are not always remixes if we think of remixes as allegories. This is important to entertain because, at first, Remix appears to extend repetition of forms in media, in repressive fashion; but the argument in this paper is that when mashups move beyond basic remix principles a constructive rupture develops that shows possibilities for new forms of cultural production that question standard commercial practice.

The following examination aims to demonstrate the reasons why mashups are not always remixes and the importance of such difference in media culture when searching for new forms of critical thinking. I will first briefly define mashups and Remix to then examine mashups’ history in music, then briefly consider them in other media, to then examine in detail their usage in web applications. This will make clear the relationship of mashups to Remix at large, and will enhance our understanding of sampling as a critical practice in Remix and Critical Theory.

Introducing Mashups

There are two types of mashups, which are defined by their functionality. The first mashup is regressive ; it is common in music, and is often used to promote two or more previously released songs. Popular mashups in this category often juxtapose songs by pop acts like Christina Aguilera with the Strokes, or Madonna and the Sex Pistols.[2] The second mashup is reflexive , and is usually found outside of music, and most commonly in web 2.0 applications. Some examples of this genre include news feed remixes as well as maps with specific local information. This second form of mashup uses samples from two or more elements to access specific information more efficiently, thereby taking them beyond their initial possibilities. While the Regressive Mashup is a remix the Reflexive Mashup is not, that is if a remix is defined as an allegory that finds its authority in sampling pre-existing objects. But to move further with this argument Remix must be defined in detail.[3]

Remix Defined

A music remix, in general, is a reinterpretation of a pre-existing song, meaning that the “aura” of the original will be dominant in the remixed version. Some of the most challenging remixes can question this generalization. But based on its history, it can be stated that there are three types of remixes. The first remix is extended meaning that a longer version of the original song is created. This extended remix containing long instrumental sections is more mixable for the club DJ. The first known disco song to be extended to ten minutes is “Ten Percent,” by Double Exposure, remixed by Walter Gibbons in 1976.[4]

The second remix is selective ; it consists of adding or subtracting material from the original song. This is the type of remix which has turned DJs into popular producers in the music mainstream. One of the most successful selective remixes is Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” remixed by Coldcut in 1987.[5] For this song Coldcut produced two remixes; the most popular version not only extended the original recording, following the tradition of the club mix (as in the previous Gibbons example), but it also subtracted some sections as well as added new sounds, while always maintaining the “essence” of the song intact.

The third remix is reflexive ; it allegorizes and extends the aesthetic of sampling, where the remixed version challenges the aura of the original and claims autonomy even when it carries the name of the original. In Reflexive Remixes material is added or deleted, but the original tracks are largely left intact in order to be recognizable. An example of this is Mad Professor’s famous dub/trip hop album No Protection , a remix of Massive Attack’s Protection . In this case both albums, the original and the remixed versions, are considered works on their own, yet the remixed version is completely dependent on Massive’s original production for validation.[6] The fact that both albums were released at the same time in 1994 further complicates Mad Professor’s allegory. It is worth noting that Mad Professor’s production is part of the tradition of Jamaica’s dub, where the term “version” was often used to refer to “remixes” which due to their extensive manipulation in the studio pushed for autonomy.[7]

Allegory is often deconstructed in more advanced remixes following this third form, and quickly moves to be a reflexive exercise that at times leads to a “remix” in which the only thing that is recognizable from the original is the title. Remixes can quickly crossover and blur their own definitions. Some do this by becoming Regressive or Reflexive Mashups as I explained in the introduction. Now that remix has been defined in its three basic forms, we are ready to look at mashups in music as well as other fields in mass culture, especially web 2.0 applications. This will then expose the latent state for critical practice in Reflexive Mashups: new opportunities for critical practice are waiting for media producers to put them into practice.

Mashups Defined

The foundation of musical mashups can be found in a special kind of Reflexive Remix known as the megamix, which is composed of intricate music and sound samples. The megamix is an extension of the song medley. The difference between a medley and a megamix is that the medley is performed usually by one band, meaning that a set of popular songs will be played in a sequence with the aim to excite the listeners or dancers. A popular example of a medley band is Stars on 45, a studio band put together in 1981 to create a medley of songs by the Archies, the Beatles, and Madness among others.[8]

A megamix is built upon the same principle of the medley but instead of having a single band playing the compositions, the DJ producer relies strictly on sampling brief sections of songs (often just a few bars enough for the song to be recognized) that are sequenced to create what is in essence an extended collage: an electronic medley consisting of samples from pre-existing sources. Unlike the Extended or the Selective Remixes, the megamix does not allegorize one particular song but many. Its purpose is to present a musical collage riding on a uniting groove to create a type of pastiche that allows the listener to recall a whole time period and not necessarily one single artist or composition.

The megamix has its roots in the sampling practice of disco and hip hop. While disco in large part experimented with the Extended Remix, hip hop experimented with the Selective and Reflexive Remixes. Grandmaster Flash may be credited with having experimented in 1981 with an early form of megamix when he recorded “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,”[9] which is essentially an extended mix performed on two turntables with the help of music studio production. The recording included songs by The Sugarhill Gang, The Furious Five, Queen, Blondie and Chic.

Flash’s mix does not fit comfortably into any of the remix definitions I have provided above. Instead, it vacillates between all of them as a transitional song which in some ways is an Extended Remix of (the early 80’s group) Chic’s “Good Times” upon which sections from different songs (such as “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Rapture”) are brought in for a few bars to then slip back to Chic’s groove. Flash’s mix is all the while also a Reflexive Remix because it pushes the overall composition to attain its own independence by the quick juxtaposition of the songs. But in the end, the slipperiness of the recording is mainly invested in exploring the creative possibilities of the DJ mixing records on two turntables as quickly as possible. The influence of the cutting and switching from one record to another found in this particular recording can be sensed in megamixes that were produced in the music studio from actual samples. Some examples from the history of electro-funk are “Tommy Boy Megamix” produced in 1984 which is a six minute remix of the most popular songs produced by the hip hop label Tommy Boy; the megamix includes compositions by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, as well as Planet Patrol and Jonzun Crew among others.[10]

The music mashups of today follow the principle of the eighties megamix, and unlike the Selective or Extended Remixes, they do not remix one particular composition but at least two or more sources. Mashups are special types of Reflexive Remixes, which at times are regressive –meaning that they simply point back to the “greatness” of the original track by celebrating it as a remix; this tendency to take the listener back to the original song logically leads us to name such remix a Regressive Mashup. Some popular music mashups are “A Stroke of Genie-us” produced in 2001 by DJ Roy Kerr, who took Christina Aguilera’s lyrics from “Genie in a bottle” and mashed them with instrumental sections of “Hard to Explain” by the Strokes.[11] Another example is a mega-mashup by Mark Vidler which includes, among other songs, Madonna’s “Ray of Light” and the Sex Pistol’s “Problems.”[12] But perhaps the most popular and polemical mashup up to date is a full-length album by Danger Mouse titled The Grey Album , which is a mashup of Jay-Z’s special acapella version of his Black Album with carefully selected sections from the Beatles’ White Album .[13] The Grey Album is important because it is completely sampled. One can argue that it is one of the most important sampling experiments, along with Marrs’s “Pump Up The Volume”[14] which can be considered as an early mashup still relying on the concept of a uniting groove as first experimented on the turntables by Grandmaster Flash. The Grey Album goes further because it exposed the tensions of copyrights and sampling with emerging technologies: Danger Mouse deliberately used the Internet for distribution and he pushed EMI (the copyright holders of the Beatles’ White Album ) to take the Grey Album off line.[15]

The creative power of all these megamixes and mashups lies in the fact that even when they extend, select from, or reflect upon many recordings, much like the Extended, Selective and Reflexive Remixes, their authority is allegorical –their effectiveness depends on the recognition of pre-existing recordings. This becomes the norm once the concept of mashups moves to other areas of culture, supporting forms of entertainment and consumerism; however, this norm can be disrupted with Web 2.0 applications, as we will see below.

From Music to Culture to Web 2.0

Tall buildings in major cities are often covered with advertisements selling products from bubble gum to cell phone services, or promoting the latest blockbuster film. The building turns into a giant billboard: advertising is mashed up with architecture. A more specific example; cigarette companies in Santiago de Chile have been pushed to include on their cigarette packs images and statements of people who have cancer due to smoking: two cultural codes that in the past were separated on purpose are mashed up as a political compromise to try to keep people from smoking, while accommodating their desires. The Hulk and Spiderman have been smashed up to become the Spider-Hulk. In this case, the hybrid character has the shape of the Hulk with Spiderman’s costume on top. It is neither but both–simultaneously. [16] Mashups are everywhere. They have moved beyond music to other areas of culture. Such move is dependent on running signifiers relying on the spectacular repetition of media. And repetition had meddled with computer culture since the middle of the twentieth century.

The strategic combination of mashups was at play in new media during the eighties with the conceptualization of the personal computer. The computer’s “desktop” which was designed for Apple’s GUI (Graphic User Interface) is in essence a technological and conceptual mashup; in this case the computer’s information, which usually was accessed via the notorious command line was made accessible to the average user when it became smashed up with a visual interface called a “desktop” making an obvious reference to a person’s real life desktop. This allowed the computer user to concentrate on using the machine for personal goals, while not worrying about how the different parts of the computer ran. This conceptual model has been extended to web application mashups.

Web Application Mashups

Mashups as a conceptual model, however, take on a different role in software. For example, the purpose of a typical Web 2.0 mashup is not to allegorize particular applications, but rather, by selectively sampling in dynamic fashion, to subvert applications to perform something they could not do otherwise by themselves. Such mashups are developed with an interest to extend the functionality of software for specific purposes.

The actual code of the applications is left intact, which means that mashups are usually combinations of preexisting applications that are brought together with some type of “binding” technology. In a way, the pre-existing application is almost like Lego’s: ready for modular construction. The complexity with web applications mashups lies in how intricate the connections become. The most rough of mashups are called “scrapings” because they sample material from the front pages of different online resources and websites, and the more complex mashups actually include material directly taken from databases, that is if the online entity decides to open an Application Programming Interface (API) to make their information available to web developers.[17]

In either case web application mashups, for the most part, leave the actual code intact, and rely on either dynamic or static sampling, meaning that they either take data from a source once (static) or check for updates periodically (dynamic). Web application mashups are considered forms that are not primarily defined by particular software; they are more like models conceived to fill a need, which is then met by binding different technology. The most obvious example is Ajax which has been defined by Duanne Merrill as “a web application model rather than a specific technology.”[18] Ajax tentatively stands for “Asynchronous Javascript + XML.” When considering the history of the technology used in the Ajax model, it becomes clear that the technology being used to develop web 2.0 content has been around for a while: Javascript and XML have been part of the web for many years. The development of web 2.0 lies in part in a cultural sophistication of certain technology.

Some well-known mashups include mapping mashups, which are created with readymade interfaces like Google Earth or Yahoo’s maps, offering the combination of city streets with information of specific businesses or other public information that might be of interest to the person who developed the mashup.[19]

A mashup model that appears to be stable as long as the websites offering the information keep their APIs open is Pipes by Yahoo! .[20] This particular type of mashup, unlike reblogs, goes deeper into the database to access dynamic data. Pipes by Yahoo! actually points to the future of the web, where the user will be able to customize, to an extremely sophisticated level, the type of information that s/he will be accessing from day to day. Pipes, in theory, provides the user with the same possibilities made available by Google, when the user is able to customize his/her own personal portal news page. The difference in Pipes, however, is that the user can combine very specific sources for very specific reasons. In a way, the specificity demands that the user really think about why certain sources should be linked. Pipes basically allows the user to choose a particular source, such as news, biddings, or map information to then link it to another source. Many of the pipes that I have browsed through leave me with a sense of critical thinking and practicality by the persons who created them. Not that Pipe developers are after social or cultural commentary, but rather that they develop most pipes to be useful in specific ways.

When the user is initiated in Pipes, some of the examples provided include: “apartment near something,” “aggregated news alert,” and EBay “Price Watch.” All these pipes propose a very specific functionality; that is to find an apartment, to get the latest news, or to keep up with the best prices on particular biddings on EBay. For example, a user could be looking for an apartment in a particular area. Then the person could connect a public directory, such as Craig’s list, which has rental information, to Yahoo maps; the Pipe would then be updated as the information is updated in the particular sources, meaning the map or the rental resource.

What these examples show is that web application mashups function differently from music mashups. Music mashups are developed for entertainment; they are supposed to be consumed for pleasure, while web application mashups, like Pipes by Yahoo! , actually are validated if they have a practical purpose. This means that the concept and cultural role of mashups change drastically when they move from the music realm to a more open media space such as the Web. We must now examine this crucial difference.

The Ideology Behind the Reflexive Mashup

Contrary to popular understanding, Web Application Mashups are not remixes in the traditional sense. The reasons for this are partly ideological. (When I say ideological I do not refer to a simplistic notion of false consciousness, but rather ideology as something constantly contested in day to day material reality.)

Let’s take the music mashups considered so far. Their power lies in their spectacular aura; meaning that they are not validated by a particular function that they are supposed to deliver, but rather by the desires and wants that are brought out of the consumer who loves to be reminded of two or more songs for his/her enjoyment in leisure. Music has this power because it is marketed as a form of mass escapism. According to political economist Jacques Attali, the average person consumes music in order to wind down and find delight in the few spare moments of the everyday.[21] Those who can, go to concerts, but most people are likely to enjoy music as recordings on CDs and MP3s. When they hear their favorite songs mashed up, it is very likely that they will really get excited and find pleasure in recognizing the compositions; their elation will help them cope with whatever stress they may have had throughout the day. At times they may be listening to mashups mixed live at a club while having a drink or simply be at home with friends. Musical mashups are Reflexive Remixes that never leave the spectacular realm. They support and promote the realm of entertainment and therefore find their power as forms of regression. But web application mashups function differently as we have already seen with Yahoo! Pipes. The reason for this is because web application mashups are developed with a purpose; this tendency for optimized functionality has pushed web application mashups to constantly access information from the originating sources: to constantly update data. They are (at least initially) proposed to serve as convenient and efficient forms to stay informed rather than to be entertained.

It can be argued then that the notion of Mashups found in music culture is appropriated in the name of efficiency once such concept enters new media culture; this also changes the concept of a mashup drastically making it reflexive rather than regressive. The term reflexive here functions differently than how it functions in the Reflexive Remix. As previously defined, the Reflexive Remix demands that the viewer or user question everything that is presented, but this questioning stays in the aesthetic realm. The notion of reflexivity in a mashup implies that the user must be aware as to why such mashup is being accessed. This reflexivity in action in web applications moves beyond basic sampling to find its most efficiency with constant updating . So a Reflexive Mashup does not necessarily demand critical reflection, but rather practical awareness. Usability rules here, making allegory as encountered in other remixes incidental; allegory is pushed to the periphery. The validation of the Reflexive Mashup found in web applications does not acquire its cultural authority in popular recognition of pre-existing sources, but instead it is validated based on how well those sources are sampled in order to develop more efficient applications for online activity. This turns the Reflexive Mashup into a different object one which does not celebrate the originating sources, but if anything, subverts them. And because of this, the Reflexive Mashup is not a remix–that is if we keep in mind the definitions of remix put forward above; a web application mashup does not point back allegorically to pre-existing sources for validation, like Extended, Selective and Reflexive Remixes do; it merely uses them to develop a more efficient tool. Reflexive mashups are designed for efficiency and optimal use, not celebration or enjoyment of spectacular material.

However, this does not mean that reflexive mashups cannot be used for spectacular entertainment. Youtube and Myspace are some of the most obvious manifestations influenced by mashup models in Web 2.0, where people are willing to tell their most intimate secrets for the sake of being noticed, and to (maybe even) become “media stars.” One has to wonder how the concept of privacy may be redefined in these spaces. So, with this in mind, Pipes by Yahoo! may be used for a spectacular cause in the end; its foundation in functionality does not make it free it from the allegorical tendency that other forms of Remix are dependent on; however, this duality in purpose may be a hint as to the real possibilities that lie latent in emerging technologies, which can be tapped if one is critically aware of the creative potential of web 2.0.

Sampling and the Reflexive Mashup

Mashups, whether they are regressive or reflexive, are dependent on sampling. But sampling, as can be noticed from the various examples that have been discussed, begins to be supplanted by constant updating . What is to keep in mind is that some mashups do not “cite”, but rather materially copy from a source. This is different for the constant updates found in Web 2.0 applications like Pipes by Yahoo! because such mashup is dynamically accessing information. In music, architecture, video and film as well as many other areas of the mainstream the source is sampled to become part of another source in form; while in more dynamic applications developed in web 2.0 the most effective mashups are updated constantly.

The Remediative Mashup in music is regressive because it samples to present recorded information which immediately becomes meta information, meaning that the individual can then understand it at a meta-level, knowing it can be accessed in the same form over and over again–this recorded state is what makes theory and philosophical thinking possible. Because of its stability, the regressive mashup–which could be a building covered with an image publicizing a particular film, like the Transformers ; or a cigarette box showing the image of a person with lung cancer, or two songs by disparate musical acts like Christina Aguilera and the Strokes–depends on the recorded signs that are mashed up: they are recorded to be repeated, accessed, or looked at perfectly over and over again. While the Reflexive Mashup in Web 2.0 no longer relies on sampling but instead on constant updating , making incidental not only the allegorical reference that validates the Regressive Mashup, but also pushing forward with a constant state of action toward constant reflection on what is being produced each time the mashup is accessed.

The mashup being a mere instrument that can be manipulated for specific purposes can still be regressive; meaning that even when it updates itself constantly with new information, such information is futile if the person that is using the technology is not critical of the material being accessed. This means that we are in a time period when it is becoming more and more apparent that what is needed at all times is a constant critical state of reflection: constant updates , rather than expected samplings .

And with a critical position, I conclude that the foregoing argument is that Reflexive Mashups are not remixes validated by allegory; if so, then, what are they? Naming what they are at this moment may not be as important as to realize that they point to a constructive rupture in the repetition of contemporary culture.

[1] Mike Snider, ” Maya Muscles its Way into Hollywood film awards,” USA Today , 25 March, 2003, (23 June, 2007) .

[2] Sasha Frere-Jones , “1 + 1 + 1 = 1: The New Math of Mashups,” The New Yorker, 10 January, 2005, (23 June, 2007) .

[3] These definitions are discussed in greater detail in Eduardo Navas, “Turbulence: Remixes + Bonus Beats,” Turbulence.org, January 2007 (23 June, 2007) < http://transition.turbulence.org/texts/nmf/Navas_EN.html >.

[4] Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, Last Night a DJ Saved my Life (New York: Grove Press, 1999), 178-79.

[5] ” Paid in full” was actually a B side release meant to complement “Move the Crowd.” Eric B. & Rakim, “Paid in Full,” Re-mix engineer: Derek B., Produced by Eric B. & Rakim, Island Records, 1987.

[6] Ulf Poschardt, DJ Culture (London: Quartet Books, 1995), 297.

[7] Dick Hebdige, Cut ‘N’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music (London: Comedia, 1987), 12-16.

[8] “Stars on 45,” Wikipedia , November, 2007, (23 June, 2007) < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stars_on_45 >.

[9] Grandmaster Flash, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” 12 inch single, Sugarhill Records, 1981.

[10] “Tommy Boy Megamix,” 12 inch single, Tommy Boy, 1985.

[11] A copy of this mashup can be found at The Hype Machine: DJ Roy Kerr, “A Stroke of Genius” 23 June, 2007 (23 June, 2007) < http://hypem.com/track/54069 >.

[12] Mark Vidler, “Ray of Gob” for more information on the mashup see Go Home Productions, 2006, (June 23, 2007) .

[13] Frere-Jones.

[14] For a good account on the importance of “Pump Up the Volume” see, Ulf Poschardt, DJ Culture (London: Quartet Books, 1995).

[15] Corey Moss, “Grey Album Producer Danger Mouse Explains How He Did It” MTV , 11 May, 2004 (23 June, 2007) < http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1485693/20040311/danger_mouse.jhtml >.

[16] These are citations based on my own travels to different cities. The buildings with images can be found in any major city. For information about cigarettes see: Liz Borkowski, ” The Face of Chile’s Anti-Tobacco Campaign: The Pump Handle” 4 January 2007, (23 June, 2007) for an image of the Spider- Hulk see: “The Incredible Hulk Engine of Destruction,” (23 June, 2007)

[17] Duane Merrill ” Mashups: The new breed of Web App. An Introduction to Mashups, ” 16 October 2006, (13 December 2006) < http://www-128.ibm.com/developerworks/web/library/x-mashups.html>

[18] Ibid

[19] For various examples on map mashups see the blog Google Maps Mania , 21 June, 2007, (23 June, 2007) < http://googlemapsmania.blogspot.com/>

[20] Yahoo! Pipes, 23 June 2007, (23 June 2007) < http://pipes.yahoo.com/pipes/>

[21] Jacques Attali, Noise The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1985).

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