It’s been called “bastard pop” and “bootleg remixes,” but since it’s been appropriated to describe any kind of combination of media, the most common term we have for it is “mashup.” Originally, it was used to describe unauthorized mixes where the vocal track from one song is laid over the instrumental track of another (or more than one) song to create a new tune.
You can get into all sorts of arguments over where this began or what was the first mashup record, but a pretty good educated guess traces it to computer/electronics wizard Mark Gunderson, who founded the group Evolution Control Committee in 1987. Four years later, a landmark legal case, where dreary singer/songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan’s publishing company successfully sued rapper Biz Markie’s label over a sample of GOS’s 1972 hit “Alone Again Naturually,” drove the hardcore art of sampling (especially the unauthorized kind) underground, which is where ECC comes into the picture again.
Around ’93/’94, Gunderson put out his totally unauthorized “Whipped Cream Mixes,” combining vocals from Public Enemy with the music from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, especially potent on “Rebel Without A Pause,” which combined the same-named PE song with Alpert’s “Bittersweet Samba.” Though mashup records wouldn’t explode on the scene until later, circa 2001 with Freelance Hellraiser (Roy Kerr) and Soulwax (Belgium DJ’s/producers/siblings David Dewaele and Stephen Dewaele), ECC’s revolutionary single was an opening salvo in the style.
But what were the origins of the mashup, even before the early-’90s ECC mix? Let’s start out with the general idea behind it, which is using bits of more than one song to create yet another song. If we run with that idea, we can find plenty of ancestors to the mash-up in music. How many of these songs are there? Thousands, probably, but we’ve narrowed the list down to 21, ranging from a variety of styles and eras. Let us know about your favorite before-their-time mashups in the comments.
Frank Cloutier & The Victoria Cafe Orchestra — “The Moonshiner’s Dance” (1927)
OK, so we’re going really old school here, courtesy of Harry Smith’s fabled Anthology of American Folk Music (originally released in 1952) and a wonderfully obsessive blog that covers this box set. Cloutier’s piece was part of the “dance” section of Smith’s set, but little is known of him except that he played around Minnesota. Thanks to the insanely detailed blog The Old Weird America, we also know that “The Moonshiner’s Dance” (filled with laughter and more “1-2-3-4” count-offs than the Ramones) is also culled from several other songs. There’s drinking classic “How Dry I Am,” square dance standard “Turkey in the Straw” among them, along with various folk, gospel, polka, jazz, and pop tunes. Cloutier threaded them all together in a style that folkie Peter Stampfel links onward to Spike Jones. Guitarist/folklorist John Fahey also called it his favorite song on Anthology, and you can see why — whoever Cloutier was, he expertly combined a slew of styles into a shorthand lesson on American roots music, all in the space of two minutes.
Stream “The Moonshiner’s Dance” here.
Buchanan and Goodman — “The Flying Saucer” (1956)
Producer Dickie Goodman teamed up with songwriter Bill Buchanan to create this strange hit. This remake of “War of the Worlds” was told through brief clips from no less than 18 rock and R&B records, including bits of Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Platters, Fats Domino, and Little Richard. The set-up was that the announcer would ask a question and the record clip would provide the answer: When a reporter asks, “What would you do if the saucer lands?”, the answer is “Jump back in the alley!”, taken from Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” “Saucer” was a #3 record in the States, but all of the uncleared samples also brought them lawsuits. Goodman would bounce back in the ’70s with another “answer-in-song” hit novelty — 1975’s “Mr. Jaws,” which was pegged to Me-Decade hits (and, for what it’s worth, was even funnier).
The Trashmen — “Surfin’ Bird” (1963)
Also known as Family Guy Peter Griffin’s favorite song, this early ’60s rock and roll novelty turned the Trashmen into one-hit wonders — but what a hit it was. Just listen to Tony Andreason’s cranky, rapid-fire vocal — you can only imagine how he psyched himself up to do the breathless breakdown in the middle where he hyperventilates, spits out gibberish, and then races through the last part of the song in a virtual rollercoaster ride. What makes this a mashup is that the group took the song from two R&B hits by the Rivingtons: “The Bird’s the Word” and “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.” Since it was obvious how much “Surfin’ Bird” appropriated from the two songs, the group had to hand over songwriter credits for “Bird.” Thanks to Griffin and a UK online campaign, the song would have numerous revivals and also enter the repertoire of everyone from the Ramones to Pee-wee Herman.
The Animals — “The Story of Bo Diddley” (1964)
The story goes that the Animals’ “Story of Bo Diddley” began when the band would jam live and singer Eric Burdon would improvise lyrics about the rock legend, ultimately turning the song into a six-minute epic that kicked off the band’s first British album (but was unfortunately chopped off the American version). In typical Animals fashion, it starts off with Alan Price’s stately organ, and soon the band bounces into a Diddley rhythm. Burdon tells us to gather around to hear Bo’s story and what a tale it is. In the space of the song (which he mostly talks through instead of singing), Burdon folds in Bo’s original “The Story of Bo Diddley,” alongside quotes from Bill Parson’s hit “All American Boy,” Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ New York,” and Johnny Otis’s “Willie and the Hand Jive” to tell Diddley’s story. Then things turn solemn and slow down as Burdon and the boys chart rock’s demise (which they blame on payola) as it’s taken over by pap like Bobby Dee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby,” which Burdon briefly croons. But then comes the Brit invasion, which they chart with a howling-dog version of “A Hard Day’s Night” and a tense take on the Stones’ “I Wanna Be Your Man” (which the Beatles actually wrote). And then Burdon sings about the Animals themselves, playing at a UK club that’s visited by Bo, who’s got his eye on the band. And what does the man himself think of the Animals? “MAN, THAT SURE IS THE BIGGEST LOAD OF RUBBISH THAT I EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE!” Burdon shouts. Still, the band’s perfectly happy to keep toasting their hero in the song, ending with a call-and-response of another Bo song, “Hey! Bo Diddley.”
The Beatles: “All You Need Is Love” (1967)
Yep, the Fabs themselves were not only pioneers of rap (listen again to the verses of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) but were also down with mashups early on. This ultimate hippie peace anthem starts with the very first notes, where a horn section plays “La Marseillaise,” which in turn would be sampled on A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album. In the long fade out at the end, you can hear John and Paul singing brief snippets of previous Fab hits “She Loves You” and “Yesterday.” The horns get in on the act then too, quoting Glenn Miller’s big band hit “In the Mood” (which led to a court settlement for its use in the song), Bach’s “Two-Part Invention,” and English folk classic “Greensleeves.” If that weren’t enough, “Love” would also be recycled as a sample by Krautrock legends Faust, on their self-titled debut (which could also be an early mashup).
Thanks to author and Beatles expert Richie Unterberger for helping to fact-check this entry.
The Beatles — “Glass Onion” (1968)
… And so the Fabs were at it again. Like “Love,” this White Album ditty came from Lennon, who was so self-conscious about the band’s work that he felt obliged to mull it over in detail in a song. He quotes “Fool on the Hill” (even including the recorder riff from the song), “I Am The Walrus” (including a cheeky Paul Is Dead “clue”), “Strawberry Fields,” and “Lady Madonna,” all here in one place. And just as “Love” found an afterlife as sample fodder, “Onion” was also tweaked by Danger Mouse on The Grey Album, mashed up with Jay-Z’s “Encore” (and the Fabs’ “Savoy Truffle” too).
Jimmy Castor — “Purple Haze/Foxy Lady” (1972)
Funksters probably remember Castor from the hits he had earlier in 1972, “It’s Just Begun” and that sampling favorite and hilarious evolution lesson “Troglodyte (Cave Man).” As a follow-up later that year, Castor and his band rocked hard on their next album, Phase Two, including a tribute to Mr. Hendrix. On the surface, this looks like a simple medley, but it ain’t. First we hear the words from “Foxy” coupled with the music from “Haze,” and then we hear the words from “Haze” sung over the music from “Foxy,” which makes this a true mashup. Also dig Castor’s heartfelt tribute to Jimi that starts out the song.
Roxy Music — “Re-Make/Re-Model” (1972)
From the first song on their first and self-titled album, this art-rock crew wore their influences on their embroidered sleeves. This bizarre, manic piece of music features seconds-long solos from each of the band members (as opposed to the hours of solos that many hippie bands of the time preferred). What they pull up here is a bunch of quotes from other songs: Graham Simpson’s bass solo is “Day Tripper,” Phil Manzanera’s guitar solo is from “Peter Gunn” (later popularized by the Blues Brothers), and Andy MacKay’s screaming sax solo riffs on Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” which he’d later cover as a single (we’re not sure what the source of Brian Eno’s synthesizer farts are, though). Together, these song sources lay a pretty good roadmap to what the band was all about.
The Residents — The Third Reich N’ Roll (1976)
Inadvertently celebrating the bicentennial, the mysterious San Fran avant combo unleashed this album (featuring Dick Clark on the cover as an SS officer) which served as an oddball hit parade of rock and R&B classics. The first side-long composition, “Swastikas on Parade,” includes an appropriately drunken version of “Double Shot Of My Baby’s Love,” a cult-like chant on “Land of A Thousand Dances,” German versions of “Papa’s Gotta Brand New Bag” and “Let’s Twist Again,” a nerd’s reading of “Hanky Panky,” and a warped take on “Wipe Out.” The other side-long piece, daringly titled “Hitler Was A Vegetarian,” includes the Residents’ demolition of “It’s My Party,” “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and “Sunshine of Your Love.” The climax comes in the middle of “Vegetarian” with their rearrangement of bubblegum hit “Yummy Yummy Yummy,” starting it out as sung by a pimply-faced kid and then an opera diva and then an army of zombies. And if you’re still not convinced of the mashup connection, the album ends with the “woo-woo”s from “Sympathy For the Devil” sung over a guitar solo lifted from “Hey Jude.”
Grandmaster Flash — “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (1981)
It’s a testament to Flash and this seven-minute mega-mix single, which pretty much gave birth to turntablism, that even 30 years later, it sounds remarkable. Though he and the Furious Five are mostly known for grim, urban realism of “The Message,” this record, which came out the previous year, also helped to make a mark for these Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
Starting out with a scratched-in intro of Spoonie Gee’s “Monster Jam” (“You say one for the treble, two for the time, c’mon girls, let’s rock that”), Flash proceeds to pile up samples from Blondie’s “Rapture” (which name checks Flash himself), Chic’s “Good Times,” Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (which would also use “Good Times” for its music), Michael Vinder’s “Apache” (along with “Funky Drummer,” the holy grail of rap samples), Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” (which, Flash shows us, is very similar musically to the Chic tune), and Flash & the Five’s own “Freedom” (“Grandmaster, cut faster!”), and “The Birthday Party” (“One! Flash, one time!”). Flash weaves back and forth between these songs and uses “Good Times” again and again as the musical backing. Just to add that nice little WTF factor, he also throw in a bedtime tale (The Hellers’ “Life Story,” which DJ Shadow would sample later), along with some dialog from another Flash — the 1980 film Flash Gordon.
Flash not only mined the catalog of his then-current label Sugarhill (Spoonie, Sugarhill Gang) and his own records but also followed threads from pop/funk records that were mined for rap and explored traces of where these songs started and went. And he also did it not at a lecture podium but in a single record.
Michael Jackson — “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” (1982)
Could it be that the late King of Pop was actually biting on other songs for this mega hit? Yep, he was. This song was one of many chart wreckers that helped Thriller become one of the biggest selling albums of all time.
So what does Jacko sweep into this hit from other sources? The lyrics “Too high to get over, too low to get under” might sound familiar to P-Funk fans as a variation on the first lines of “One Nation Under A Groove” (“So wide can’t get around it/ So low you can’t get under it/ So high you can’t get over it”). If that’s not convincing enough for you, the second song swipe should be obvious to anyone who remembers ’70s radio: Back in 1972, way before “Graceland,” Cameroon sax player Manu Dibango scored an international crossover club anthem and top 40 hit with his song “Soul Makossa.” At the end of the Jacko song, an a cappella chant starts up that’s exactly like the one heard in the Dibango song. Dibango’s tune would also pop up in other songs by the Fugees, Rihanana and Eddie Murphy (no doubt spurred on by Jacko’s appropriation).
New Order — “Blue Monday” (1983)
Though they were already known for rising from the ashes of Joy Division, it was this club hit that really put New Order on the map. Though most dance mavens know the synth line by heart, they might not realize that “Blue Monday” is actually expertly cobbled together from four other sources. In his book Manchester, England: The Story of the Pop Cult City, Dave Haslam explains: “[singer/guitarist Bernard Sumner] once told me… ‘the arrangement came from “Dirty Talk”, by Klein & MBO, the beat came from a track off a Donna Summer LP, there was a sample from Radioactivity by Kraftwerk, and the general influence on the style of the song was Sylvester’s ‘(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real.'” For the Kraftwerk sample, some are guessing that this might refer to the “choir” sounds heard on their song “Uranium.” Hard to believe that such a seemingly simple (but deadly effective) tune could have so many sources.
X — “True Love, Pt. #2” (1983)
Just as the Red Hot Chili Peppers were about to storm the world with their version of punk-funk, these L.A. legends beat ’em to the punch. On the last track on their fourth album, More Fun in the New World, Exene and John Doe cast aspersions on love, and as the band jams near the end, they also throw in quotes from Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop A Lula,” Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (perfect choice here), kiddie songs “Skip to My Lou” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” Elvis’s “Burning Love,” Leadbelly’s “Black Betty,” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddy’s Dead.” As they’d say on their next record, ain’t love grand?
Double Dee and Steinski — “The Lesson” (1985)
Originally birthed from a Tommy Boy remix contest for G.L.O.B.E. and Whiz Kid’s “Play That Beat, Mr. DJ,” this mind-blowing, extensive collage mined so many sources from music and movie history that the label could only put it out a promo EP at first. Of the dozens of sources, there was loads of James Brown, plus the Supremes, Little Richard, Herbie Hancock, Culture Club, Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone, Humphrey Bogart, and JFK. The three-part “Lesson” would eventually find its way onto numerous compilations before turntable wizards DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist recreated all of it live with Steinski in a dizzying display of craft (see video above).
The Fall — “I Am Damo Suzuki” (1985)
For the album This Nation’s Saving Grace (one of the best in their catalog), the Fall ranter/singer/leader Mark E. Smith and friends paid tribute to the Japanese singer of Krautrock legends Can with typically cryptic/hilarious lines like “Who is Mr. Karlheinz Stockhausen?/Introduce me,” referencing bassist Holger Czukay’s former instructor and one of the 20th century’s most notable composers. The Fall tune makes this list though for not only referencing Can songs (“Vitamin C”) and albums (Soundtracks) in the lyrics but also for the music — the doomy guitars are copied from “Don’t Turn the Light On, Leave Me Alone” while the martial drum beats are taken from “Oh Yeah.” As luck would have it, Nation was just reissued in a glorious three-CD set, so you can hear this tune in even more expansive company.
Sonny Rollins — “Soloscope” (1985)
This is stretching the idea of mashup a bit, but bear with us. Rollins you know as not only one of the greatest sax players ever. In the mid-’80s, he’d unleash an extended solo performance for his shows, folding in several other songs. So what’s actually inside of this stew? At a 2008 interview at SUNY college, writer/author Gary Giddins interviewed Rollins, playing a 1985 version of the song that he did live in Kansas City. This version of the song sounded beautiful, funny, lyrical, lively and playful. In a stunning display, Rollins folded in bits of The Marriage of Figaro, horse racing music, “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “A Tisket A Tasket,” and funeral marches — with the sax legend adding in choppy notes, honking, and other musical acrobatics. After the song was played, Rollins (ever the perfectionist) insisted that he could do better than that.
Not long ago, Rollins held a contest on his website to have fans try to ID the songs included in a more recent version of the solo. Watch the video above and see how many tunes you can pick out.
The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu — 1987 (guess which year it came out)
Subtitled “What the Fuck Is Going On?” this record was the primary assault for the ever-subversive dance producers Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (aka King Boy D and Rockman Rock), who once torched a million pounds of their money as an art project. Even before this debut came out, the JAMs released “All You Need Is Love,” which liberally sampled from the Beatles song of the same name and pinup-turned-singer Samantha Fox’s club hit “Touch Me.” A sample-scrubbed version made the rounds with threats of lawsuits looming but the evil duo weren’t quite finished yet with their copyright-flaunting work.
Their debut album came out months later and included a barrage of samples and song quotes strewn together, including the “Love” single and appropriations from the Monkees, Led Zeppelin, Dave Brubeck, Bo Diddley, Stevie Wonder, the Fall, and Julie Andrews (which would make quite a mixtape on its own). But the real trouble started brewing for them with the song “The Queen & I,” which included huge chunks of Abba’s “Dancing Queen” and a bit of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” Abba’s legal team won a lawsuit from the group that demanded they turn over the tapes and remaining copies of the album. The JAMs traveled to Sweden to talk it out with the pop superstars but were snubbed. The group then blasted the offending song at Abba’s label, giving their gold record for 1987 to a hooker and dumping most of the remaining album copies into the sea and burning most of the remaining copies in a farmer’s field (an image that became their next album cover, for Who Killed the JAMs?). The JAMs would go on to mutate into other bands like the Timelords and KLF (which would score international hits) before retiring in the early 90’s.
Public Enemy — It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)
Chuck D called rap a CNN for African Americans, but his own masterpiece might be a modern day version of Ulysses. Just as Joyce’s characters navigated through a painfully constructed, dense, multi-layered epic, so do PE here: Every song is a mind-boggling mashup of several funk and R&B tunes, along with numerous cultural references and answer-in-song lines reminiscent of Buchanan and Goodman’s “Flying Saucer. On “Night of the Living Baseheads” (which has almost two dozen samples in the space of three minutes.), one lyric is actually a sample from Run-DMC’s “Sucker MCs,” and “Louder Than a Bomb” takes a sample from Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble” as one of the lines in the song. As great as Chuck and Flav’s performances are here, credit has to also go to DJ Terminator X and producers Rick Rubin, Hank Shocklee, Eric Sadler, and Keith Shocklee (aka the Bomb Squad) for creating this amazing, rich tapestry of noise and rhythm. Add in speeches from Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan and you also have here an updated musical version of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s novel Soul On Ice.
For more details about Nation, see Christopher R. Weingarten’s excellent 33 1/3 series book on the album .
De La Soul — “Transmitting Live from Mars” (1989)
Sad to say, this wonderfully kooky one-minute snippet (along with Gilbert O’Sullivan’s aforementioned suit against Biz Markie) inadvertently helped to put an end to the golden age of hip-hop sampling. Plucked from their glorious debut, the historic Three Feet High and Rising, this tune features a French-language instructional record heard on top of the Turtles’ “You Showed Me” (which was originally a Byrds tune and was later covered by Salt-N-Pepa). When Flo and Eddie of the Turtles got an ear of this, they sued De La and settled out of court for nearly two millions dollars. Result: De La’s follow-up album took much longer, as they took pains to clear the samples they used.
Beastie Boys — Paul’s Boutique (1989)
Like It Takes A Nation… (which surely influenced the Boys), Paul’s Boutique was a dense epic from the era of hip-hop ultra-sampling. For this long-awaited follow-up to their multi-platinum debut, the Beasties left Def Jam and traded in Rick Rubin for the Dust Brothers with impressive results. Still in their adolescent phase but also making small strides towards maturity, the Boys wanted their follow-up to be substantial, so they took cues from Public Enemy and included numerous samples for each tune (roughly 100 songs are recycled on Paul’s), answer-in-song lines (including one from Johnny Cash), and tons of cultural references. Paul’s is so full of unexpected aural twists and turns that author Jim DeRogatis rightfully named it one of the greatest psychedelic albums ever made. And while the album dimmed the Beasties’ commercial prospects, it achieved their other goal, earning them long-term credibility as artists.
DNA feat. Suzanna Vega — “Oh Suzanne,” aka “Tom’s Diner” (1990)
Here’s an interesting story. In 1981, singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega wrote an a cappella ditty about a favorite haunt that later appeared on her 1987 album Solitude Standing, which also included her hit Luka. The album closes out with a version of “Tom’s Diner,” with some minimal instrumentation.
In 1990, the UK producer duo of Nick Batt and Neal Slateford, who called themselves DNA (no relation to the No Wave band), did an unauthorized club-release-only remix of Vega’s song, using her vocal-only version mixed with the rhythm from Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” and/or The Source’s “You Got the Love,” initially calling the end result “Oh Suzanne.”
Now here’s the weird part: Vega’s label, A&M, didn’t sue DNA but instead wisely saw the potential in the remade song. They bought the rights to the single and released it commercially under the song’s original title, scoring a #5 hit in America. Vega herself would follow-up with Tom’s Album, which included numerous versions of the song. And the life of the song didn’t even end there, as the DNA mashup would itself become sample fodder for Lil’ Kim and 2Pac.
Special thanks to Flavorpill contributor Michaelangelo Matos for inspiring this list.