The New Jewish Soundscape
Music mashups comprise a genre particular to the digital age. The creation of a mashup involves splicing two or more existing tracks together to create an (arguably) unique product. Anyone with “Garage Band,” or similar music software, can do simple song splicing, forcing two performers (say, Willie Nelson and 50 Cent, or Beyonce and Nine Inch Nails) to unwittingly collaborate. In their short history, mashups have already pricked ears and turned heads in both curiosity and disdain.
Mashups push boundaries. They question traditional notions of creativity, originality, ownership, and even identity. Like a musical collage, the individual components stand on their own, but when put together with a fresh ear, a whole new set of meanings emerges; the final product is greater than the sum of its parts. And for some young Jews, mashups are the vehicle for expressing the postmodern Jewish experience. It's a limited, but telling, phenomenon.
"The first mashup we did came when we were in a bar and were listening to Madonna's latest tune at the time - 'Hung Up,'" recalls DJ Tanya Winston of London-based klezmer-house mashup group Ghettoplotz. "We started humming “Oseh Shalom” to it and realized that it could work. It felt especially funny because of all the Madonna - kabbalah links. That mashup still goes down a storm in our sets!"
Ghettoplotz was inspired by the British Asian dance scene, already a kind of meta-mashup in itself. For them, fitting together the pop crooning of one of the biggest artists on the planet with a Hebrew plea for divine peace was a natural move. "We wanted to create a similar scene to represent ourselves and feel proud of," Tanya explains.
Ghettoplotz's members are diverse in religious observance, but all connect culturally to Judaism, and all love the connections that can come through music. Their mashups allow musicians and audience alike to abandon the stodginess of hyphenated identity, to be more than that - something real, whole, and exciting. "[Our audience is] anyone who likes a kicking dance floor with a sense of quirkiness and sonic culture and history thrown in. Mashups done well can give things a sense of cheekiness and fun."
Like Ghettoplotz and other mashup artists, Erez Safar (a.k.a. Diwon), the driving personality behind New York Jewish music label Shemspeed, uses his work as a way to introduce listeners to new, unfamiliar sounds. For Diwon that means little-known Sephardic tunes and other unique cultural tidbits from his family's tradition. "I have always had a passion for Yemenite and Middle Eastern music...whenever I hear Middle Eastern styles, I always want to 'mash' it with the rhythms in my head," he recalls. "I get a kick out of introducing people to things that they might not have otherwise given a chance."
Ghettoplotz and Diwon both find their inspiration in creating fun music with a positive message. They play on the universality of musical expression. Mashups create the ideal space to introduce Jewish themes to that mix. Likewise, Tel Aviv-based DJ crew Soulico, now signed with Jewish music label JDub Records, first broke onto the American scene with its funky, Middle Eastern inflected mashups which also draw from seemingly disparate influences, bringing out surprising congruence. "They flip a 500-year-old folk song into a hip hop beat and that’s not an easy task," says JDub's president, Aaron Bisman, in the group's Last.fm bio. "Soulico does it seamlessly."
The rise of the internet and the prevalence of digital media have democratized the musical playing field in unprecedented ways, and a new generation has risen to the occasion in a big way. "The market is flooded with good and bad music," Diwon points out. "It's easy to acquire and manipulate music. You can turn it into something that inspires you, gives you goose bumps." Listeners have been afforded a newfound sense of ownership over their favorite songs. They are no longer just consumers, but consumer/producers capable of putting a new product back on the market. Mashups are popping up everywhere you turn.
But not everyone is pleased with this rise of consumer empowerment and expression. Some question the creative integrity of mashup artists, arguing that their final products cannot not, and should not, be considered "original" pieces. Related to this debate, mashups have also come under heavy criticism in recent years because the nature of the genre conflicts with current U.S. intellectual property law. "Copyright law is crystal clear on the subject of mashups," says Alessandro Quargnali-Linsley, vice president of Chicago-based artist development group Misery Loves Co. "They fall under the label of 'derivative works', and as such can only be created with prior permission from the copyright holder. Failure to obtain that permission leaves the DJ open to civil lawsuit."
Jewish mashups are not immune to this. Though the expression may be authentic, it could also be illegal. An owner-less Hasidic niggun is one thing. As soon as a major artist enters the soundscape, the issue isn't creativity, it's ownership.
But the law, Quargnali-Linsley argues, is dated. Mashups artists are effectively using an entire song as an instrument, an unprecedented move that at the time the law was written wasn't even a remote possibility. "It's somewhat akin to those laws that require people to walk in front of their car with a lit lantern on foggy nights."
Which leads some to think it's time for a change. New laws could be written to accommodate modern art forms based on derivations. "The sort of law I'd like to see would allow a DJ to be able to pursue their art form without fear of civil suit, yet still protect the original copyright holder from what amounts to theft of their skill, time, effort and money in creating the underlying work," Quargnali-Linsley contends. "There's a world of difference between the intent - and artistry - of a skilled house DJ and someone like Vanilla Ice [who was famously sued for copyright infringement]."
Nonetheless, mashup culture is alive and thriving. Jewish mashups in particular continue to grow steadily, both reflecting and reimagining Jewish life in the digital age. It's a phenomenon that will only continue to evolve. "Maybe the now-standard mashup/bootleg concept will get stale and die out," DJ Tanya admits. "But hopefully people will always be fusing together sounds from different cultures and different parts of their lives. That's how fresh musical styles and scenes will continue to be formed."
Miriam Brosseau is a musician and Jewish educator based in Chicago, IL. She and her husband, producer Alan Jay Sufrin, make up the "biblegum pop" duo Stereo Sinai.