Hey, Napster is the new punk rock. The other day I read it’s Marxism and source-coder Shawn Fanning is “their Kurt Cobain”—”they” being new-gen digital Marxist music fans, apparently. Oh, please.
First off, this revolutionspeak is going to look a bit silly when Napster, its market valuation pummeled by legal setbacks, sells itself to the RIAA just in time to make an annual downloading subscription the must-have adolescent Xmas present for 2001. Second, the replacement of (a) wanting to beeeeee anarchy! with (b) free stuff for computer owners! may in fact not qualify as revolutionary. I’ll have to check my Little Red Book. Meanwhile, Napster’s beginning to look a lot like disco.
Disco created a critical mass of party people armed with turntables and artistic temperaments and loaded with wide-grooved vinyl rife with long instrumental breaks. Wait a couple years and chikkachikka-scrrratch: Home consumer becomes home producer.
Click ahead one generation and the analogy’s almost perfect: The same cheap’n’easy digitech that makes Napster possible in the first place also allows byting into formerly solid rock, and pulling tracks for kicks. With the disco-to-hip-hop model to guide the re-producers, it took only months to make the leap to art. Beyond the MP3s of Tori obscurities and that song from Coyote Ugly lives the world of home-cooked hybrids called byterock.
As with the legal battle, the two magic letters at the heart of the matter are “vs.” Key it as your search term and, depending who’s online, you might get something as obvious as “Fatboy Slim vs Eminem — My Name Is FatBoy Slim”: “Hi! My name is . . . the funksoulbrutha!” If the law of politics is that people get the leaders they deserve, the law of byterock is that artists get the hybrids they deserve. This mix is in full compliance, as retarded and obvious as Marshall Mathers and Norman Cook should expect, and just as catchy.
Or you might poll something as crude as “screwing.” DJ Screw’s shtick is to take popular raps (his best work is on Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’ “) and slow them down. A lot. It’s unclear why this is good exactly, but apparently it is, to judge from the cultic online collecting of screwed tracks. One side effect is to make certain lyrics more intelligible (again, unclear whether this is fundamentally a good thing). Mainly, screwing renders streetside bump into hypnotic underwater/outer limits funking, the sound of something happening in a strangely amorphous zero-grav. It’s the sonic analogue for Napsterspace itself.
At the far end of the complexity spectrum are byterocks like “DMX, Prodigy, Ice Cube, Eminem, & Rza — Firestarter (DJ Low Remix),” which doesn’t have a “vs.” but pulls the same shenanigans. Pasting perfectly paced raps onto the Liam Howlett instrumental track, it’s fully Red Alert-worthy: DJ Low (if that is indeed the original hahaha remixer) drags Prodigy back from the world of shitheel rock into the land of the loc’d and pushes Cube and RZA, who haven’t seen an edge in years, toward the precipice. Everybody wins.
For sheer Frankensteinism, there’s always “Big Pun vs TLC vs DMX-Still Not a Scrub Dog”; for junglist avant-pop, check out “The Jungle Brothers vs Christine Aguilera-JungleInABottle.” Kitsch-happy obscurantists might prefer “Mr. Oizo vs. Daft Punk – Flat Beat Bootleg Remix.” And if you want to leap from puppet-electro to cartoon shakedowns, “Britney Spears vs. the Powerpuff Girls vs. Adam Sandler” melds incidental dialogue, anime noises, and a Brit-hit into a cute ditty punctuated by bad words. Spears: “You drive me crazy.” Sandler: “Piece of shit.” Song slows to halt. One of the ‘Puffs: “This isn’t working, guys!” Sandler: “Oh yeah, ya think so?” Bring that beat back, and so on. It’s good to know that seven-year-olds have mastered CoolEdit. Really, it’s like having your own printing press, and making your own Garbage Pail Kids.
But for every novelty song out there, there’s a track rolling harder, like the flawless, brilliant, deep-Jeep funk of “DJ Sckizo vs. Christina Aguilera, Mos Def, Eminem, Britney Spears (Radio Edit).” Oh, really? What radio is that? You will notice, however, that DJ Sckizo isn’t sticking you up for 11 cents, not even for spelling lessons. He’s just rocking some party in the middle of nowhere, and you’re invited.
Once you follow into the dreamland where Britney and Eminem are floating in space like binary idols, there’s no turning back. The two are clearly the obsession of byterockers everywhere, with only Christine Aguilera putting in a barely comparable number of appearances. “Britney Spears vs Eminem – My Name is Crazy (DjHibass Remix)” is a simple yet crafty graft, as interesting as either source single.
Through the looking glass, as if we weren’t already, is the dazzlingly great and more to-the-minute “Eminem vs. Britney Spears – Oops! The Real Slim Shady Did It Again.” Throwing Eminem’s ventriloquacious vocal over Ms. Spears’s Swedish synth-thump knocks the White Riot off his wise-ass drawl and gives him an urgency he never quite manages himself. Meanwhile, the anonymous byterocker takes the deadzone-cum-skit that mars Britney’s “Oops! . . . ” and shuts it down to a few seconds, in which Em points out there’s a Slim Shady lurking in all of us. But obviously part of the thrill is how, for five minutes, there’s a Slim Shady lurking in Britney Spears and vice versa, right down to the perfectobeat outro, with the powerpop Frankenstein demanding, “Please stand up—I’m not that innocent . . . please stand up, please stand up, please stand up—hit me baby one more time.”
In Inside.com’s July note on Slim Spears hybrids, they index the phenomenon without making much of a point besides how the songs are “ironic” and “meta.” Another person hitting the Alanis bong. The pseudo-critical term they wanted was “self-reflexive”; recombined and rearranged, the songs often seem to be talking about themselves and their stars, commenting on the vertiginous whorl of pop culture from the inside, where, for example, Marshall Mathers, Eminem, and Slim Shady all exist at the same level—digits that we can push around.
There’s something going on here, and it’s not just about smirky chuckles. Giving the game away is the sweetly awkward “Nsync vs Britney Spears -Oops It’s Gonna Be Me -Remix,” in which our auteur home-cooks a herky-jerky he said/she said. This is merely a dorky game unless you, like any good ET watcher, know that Ms. Spears and ‘N Sync stud Justin Timberlake are rumored to be engaged. The hybrid isn’t much of a new song; instead, it’s a celebrity sex fantasy made from found materials. Creepy? Kinda sweet, actually. And, finally, Britney et al.’s demented game of sexual come-ons and plausible deniability collapses into the joke it is.
If Sckizo and DJ Low are delivering tracks as fresh as any hip-hop from the no-samples-cleared era—like, making art—the other end of byterock is up to something just as substantial: converting the stars of Jive and Interscope into rock’n’roll Ken dolls, and Barbies too. Music that spends millions treating you like a toy is suddenly itself the field of play. And even if that’s hilarious, it’s no joke—returning not free stuff but free play to the pop audience might in the end be Napster’s greatest hit. Maybe even a revoltin’ development.