Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mashups and Mixtapes

I'm enjoying Rich Medina's mashup album titled "The King Meets the President." It is available for free download at . I highly recommend it if you are a fan of Michael Jackson or Fela Kuti or both. Imagine Michael singing his hits with Fela's Afrobeat orchestra as the backing band and you get the idea.

The mash-up is not a new concept in art. Simply put, it is the recombination of two existing works of art to make a new one. In the case of dance music the mashup often involves pairing two unlikely artists, such as rapper Notorious BIG and crooner Frank Sinatra. (For some fun examples of mashups please visit the following site: It could be argued that the mashup is a forced and intentional act of dialectical creation.

A close parallel to the mashup in literature is William Burroughs' fold-In technique of poetry where he takes two pieces of printed text, folds them in half, and then reads the two halves together as if they were a single narrative. Burroughs himself was inspired by the Dadaists. Of course making the leap from Burroughs to Rich Medina is not without complication, but the similarities between the mashup and the fold-in are undeniable.

Meghan Langley recently wrote a profile of Fela Kuti in Peace Review (2010, Vol 22, No 2, pp. 199-204), which provides an overview of his early life in Nigeria, education in England, political awakening in the US through contact with Angela Davis and other Black Panthers, and musical accomplishment in Africa. Langley writes, "(Fela) used his lyrics to protest and the instruments to make you listen" (p 202). Are writers limited to only using "lyrics" and not "instruments"? The answer is certainly No.

This brings me to Kenzo Digital's remix album titled "City of God's Son." It is available for free download at It is essentially a mixtape of New York's most famous MCs, such as Nas, Jay-Z, Ghostface Killah, and Notorious BIG. What makes this mixtape different is that Kenzo Digital weaves in dialogue from actors, such as Samuel L. Jackson, Lawrence Fishburne, Delroy Lindo, and Al Pacino to create a cohesive story.

In short, Kenzo Digital has produced a work of spoken-word prose. Amidst the soundscape of gun shots, sirens, music, and dialogue, salsa great Joe Bataan narrates the mixtape by reading original prose by Kenzo Digital. This mosaic of voices and sounds coalesces into a type of noir novella. It is heard instead of read, but the characters, plot, and setting operate in the same manner as a conventional story. In fact Kenzo Digital promotes the album as the first "Beat Cinematic" and "viral musical sound art."

Just as Burroughs' use of the "fold-in" is analogous to the mashup so too is his use of the "cut-up" similar to the mixtape. The cut-up technique involves fragmenting a complete work of prose and re-assembling the pieces to make a new text. This is exactly what Kenzo Digital accomplishes in "City of God's Son" with music, film, and original prose narrative. Again, the leap from Burroughs to Kenzo Digital is not without complication, but the parallels in method are undeniable.

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