Mash-ups grow up

DJ Earworm leads the new wave of bastard pop children

By Marke B.


For folks who haven't wound their musical subculture trend-watch clock (don't they have a Mac Dashboard version yet?), we're just a freckle past the hair when mash-ups, those quasi-legal, bastard-pop children of sampling software and hit-and-run blogging, grow up into a genuine form of artistic expression, slipping from their novelty "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" shackles to get all symphonic on us.

Anyone who's winced their way through the Billboard chart–topping, Grammy-winning train-wreck that was the Linkin Park/Jay-Z collab Collision Course (Warner Bros) knows the time is right. That particularly egregious collusion between label royalty and corporate boardroom was neither illegal nor innovative (and thus, to many, not a real mash-up), and the only thing edgy about it was its crass audacity. But its popularity could be seen as a watershed. Mash-ups can now stop adding up to mere punch lines (it's officially been done to death) and start to speak a complex language all their own, something more resonant and heartfelt.

You could see these two conflicting mash-up impulses (joke vs. art) dancing awkwardly together almost from the beginning: While Danger Mouse rode to the top of the download charts by cunningly superimposing the vocals of Jay-Z's The Black Album over cut-and-paste snippets of the Beatles' "White Album" to produce his ho-hum 2004 online landmark, The Grey Album (get it?), SF's bastard pop breakout boy Party Ben was up to something much more visceral and haunting with his worldwide hit "Boulevard of Broken Songs" — a full-on collage, key changes and all, of songs by Green Day, Oasis, Travis, Aerosmith, and Eminem. The first kind of mash-up is as obvious as black and white. The second kind accesses a far more challenging palette.


The Bay Area has proved a fertile ground for this second, more expressive form, producing a freaky cadre of experimental bastard-pop artists that rivals London's snider, status-obsessed lawsuit-baiters and New York's hip-hop-flavored laptop jockeys. (Our biggest mash-up stars are also proudly queer, which only ups their outlaw bona fides — and may help explain their strange enthusiasm for deconstructing Madonna and Kelly Clarkson). San Francisco's Future Primitive Sound claims a place in early mash-up history, overlaying insanely diverse tunes since 2001. Local impresarios A plus D, a.k.a. Adrian and the Mysterious D, keep a steady stream of bootleg dance-floor dialogue flowing through their packed monthly, Bootie, while releasing mixes that beg mercy from the music-snob mind (e.g., their truly twisted La Tour/Protection "Protect Yourself while Having Sex" mix). And Party Ben keeps hitting strong with regular appearances on Live 105 — his recently cancelled "Sixx Mixx" show on that station was one of the first nonpirate mash-up showcases in the US — and, in November, he coproduced, with Team9, a self-released album's worth of Green Day bastardizations, American Edit, under the pseudonym Dean Grey. (Green Day's representatives are pursuing legal action.) The minds behind last spring's wildly popular The Best Mashups in the World Ever Are from San Francisco (No Label US) can't be identified here, for legal reasons. But almost every major player in SF's intelligent bastard-pop scene points to one man as their inspiration: DJ Earworm.

"I hate using rap. Rap's too easy," says Earworm, a handsome, scruffy thirtysomething whose thrift-store/campus-jock outfits tend to match his black-and-red bicycle. "Anybody can throw an a cappella track over another record and call it their own. That's just sampling on a basic level. What interests me is the affinity of musical elements that present themselves when two or more tracks meet, and the window of dissonance that opens in their overlap. Irony is boring. I'm after a certain transporting feeling, a melancholy nostalgia or beautiful sadness that tells you you've created something completely new."

His tracks certainly bear that last statement out. "Brazil Is Full of Love" launches Björk, Death Cab for Cutie, Cat Power, Cornelius, and Chris Isaak into a bossa nova night-flight through subconscious airspace, while "No One Takes Your Freedom," which pivots Scissor Sisters, the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, and George Michael around a series of minor chord clusters, radiates new shivers from familiar aural places. And, just to prove his technical wizardry, he's just dropped "What's My Name?" a 22-song mash-up that constellates a roster of popsters, from Aaliyah to Jason Mraz to Lynyrd Skynyrd, into a sublime orchestral masterpiece. His Web site served up almost a gig of downloads last year, enough to attract the attention of major-league publisher Wiley, which tapped him to write the first mash-up how-to manual — a 300-plus-page technical opus that's scheduled to be released later this year.

"I've actually gotten a lot of support from some of the artists whose stuff I've appropriated," Earworm says. "Like Scissor Sisters wrote me after they heard "No One Takes Your Freedom" to say how much they liked it. But I can't deny that the less-legal aspects of what I'm doing definitely still attract me. The glamour is that it's 'wrong.'

"But I mean it's not like we're doing this shit for profit," he continues. "Most mash-up Web sites actually link to major charitable foundations. And who's to say who owns music, anyway? Major record companies are such a fucking scam. If you partner with them, you're fucked. If you don't partner with them, you're fucked. So fuck them."


Earworm grew up Jordan Roseman on a '70s hippie commune in Iowa, an experience, he says, that gave him an early taste for life on society's margins. It also brought home the hardships of such a life. "Everyone realized how impossible it was to live off the land," he says. "So my mother and I packed up and moved to Chicago." There, young Roseman pursued his dual interests in computer science and music, landing a bachelor's in both at the University of Illinois. His obsession with early-'80s new wave groups like Depeche Mode and OMD had him bent feverishly over his Apple II, experimenting with electronic music-making.

He also came out during this time and pursued his musical and sexual interests in San Francisco, where he was soon drawn into the avant-garde sphere of notorious classical composer Charles Molle, at one point moving into his house. "Charles was such an enormous influence on me, pushing me to expand my musical boundaries, to see my ideas as actual compositions," he says. "People would come from all over the world to hear him talk — he was that magnetic. And he did a lot of LSD, which was probably part of the charm." (The classical music pedigree of bastard pop isn't so farfetched: Elliot Carter's 1961 Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano placed two orchestras on the same stage, playing different scores simultaneously.)

When technological advances allowed homemade mash-ups to proliferate, Roseman jumped, utilizing his ear for key and tempo to catalogue an extensive library of mixable tunes. "He has thousands and thousands of songs electronically categorized by their musical elements," Party Ben says. "He's operating on a whole higher artistic level than the rest of the scene. He's the genius."

It was at that time that Roseman also took on the moniker DJ Earworm — after the German word Ohrwurm, or a tune you can't get out of your head — and, through the patronage of A Plus D, began scoring publicity and releasing mixes. "The 'DJ' part is a bit of a farce," Earworm confesses. "I didn't learn to 'spin' until after I got my first DJ gig — at the SFMOMA of all places. Then I was, like, shit, I better come up with something quick. I don't touch vinyl — I mix live on my laptop. That probably makes some people angry, but it's not the beat mixing that makes DJing an art. Beat mixing is a craft, a scientific quantity. It's feeling the crowd and knowing how to take them somewhere musically that's the art. That's what I do — no vinyl required."

Earworm currently plays regularly at the notorious queer monthly Faggot, at Daddy's in the Castro, and has a new monthly club night, ADD (Attention Deficit Disco), opening March 18 at the Transfer. Still, he swears allegiance to no particular scene but his own. "Mash-ups are just a way of getting attention for me as a songwriter," he says. "My real goal is to become a singer. Just me on my keyboard, singing pretty love songs." *



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