The Strange Bliss of the Mashup Era

Milkman’s ‘Algorithms’ and its ilk brought with it maximized enjoyability through someone else’s playlist.
illustrated by Seth Laupus
August 24, 2020, 12:00pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Algorithms issue, which investigates the rules that govern our society, and what happens when they're broken.

There’s plenty from my college experience I’m embarrassed about, but if there’s a genre of music I’ll defend within an inch of my life, it’s the mashup. I came of age—which is to say, started to party—during the height of the late aughts and early 2010s mashup craze, a time that dared to ask, “What if one pop song could actually be… a bunch of songs?” To have graduated from high school the summer of 2009 was to drive around the suburbs in a hyper-air-conditioned sedan drinking Jamba Juice and blasting DJ Earworm’s “United States of Pop 2009 (Blame It On The Pop) .” Look, I’m not saying it was a better world, but I’m saying it was a different world.

Sampling was not new to my generation. In fact, it doesn’t even belong to my generation. Sampling as we know it (taking part of an existing piece of music and looping it beneath a different piece of music) originated in the 1940s. As gramophones and radios cemented their place as household staples, composers began to wonder whether they could start to create work using pre-recorded music. The movement, led by Pierre Schaeffer, was initially known as musique concrète and was built upon by other mid-20th century composers like Pierre Henry, John Cage, and Daphne Oram. Musique concrète served as the foundation of electronic music, which eventually made its way into everything from film scores (1956’s Forbidden Planet) to popular music. By the late 1970s and early 80s, sampling was commonplace in funk and hip hop—Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” for example, sampled Chic’s “Good Times.”

It wasn't until the early to mid-1990s that mashups—music dedicated solely to the artistry of sampling—started to appear, reaching the apex of their popularity in the mid-aughts. Girl Talk’s Night Ripper was the artist’s breakthrough—a dorm room essential, to borrow a phrase—but the 2006 album was the artist’s third. (His first album, Secret Diary, begins with a glitched-up version of “Get Ready For This” mashed up with a number of brief snippets, including “Who Let The Dogs Out?” Almost 20 years later, glitch music is certainly having a moment, with ever-increasing popularity of artists like 100 gecs.) In the late aughts, electronic music had yet to permeate the dominant pop music sound, but mashups were in abundance. By the early 2010s, so long ago now it might as well be a century, licensing-related lawsuits and the rise of electronic dance music in pop saw the end of mashups. Let’s not forget that Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards wound up suing Sugar Hill Records.

Go to any YouTube page for a mashup and you will inevitably find a string of comments that range from “tight” or “this still goes hard” from anywhere between a day and a few months and a year or two ago. Nostalgia for the mashup era is still rampant, in my own house especially. Among the singular Girl Talk (whose last album All Day came out in 2010), there was the tongue-in-cheek Super Mash Bros., the hour-long mixes by The White Panda, and a mashup album I’ve referred to in semi-recent pits of mania and despair, joy and sentimentality: Milkman’s 2011 mashup album Algorithms.

Algorithms was Milkman’s third album; it followed 2008’s Lactose & THC and 2009’s Circle Of Fifths. These first two albums are solid party mixes, no doubt, each with particular standouts, striving to merge together the types of songs that would get a rousing cheer if played in a house party basement. But Algorithms, the final mashup album, “hits different,” as they say.

For listeners of mashup albums, the anticipation was never so much a question of “what songs will be put over other songs?” but about the emotional reaction triggered by a combination, by a transition. Mashup albums are a product of trial and error, some of this happening in a room and some of it happening live during a show. It’s anything but algorithmic, despite the craft requiring a merging of similar algorithmic tendencies between songs. But it’s not devoid of personality, or a sensitivity to the feel of a room—or the idea of a room. When I listen to Algorithms now, my reaction still feels live in an inexplicable way. In its opening track “Sky High,” the combination of Ceelo Green’s “Fuck You” and Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity,” is a cold splash of water to the face, a reckoning of time and music, as it spins into “Ice Ice Baby” and “Under Pressure” later on. Like any pop album, it starts big, brassy. There are plenty of the fratty college staples like Mickey Avalon’s “My Dick,” Three 6 Mafia’s “I’d Rather,” but the scales tip in favor of eyes-closed, hands-up late aughts classics like Muse’s “Starlight” and Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up.”

You hope, as you walk into a party or a club, that the DJ knows what they’re doing.

I know, I know—you’ve heard all these songs before. Too many times! And if you were choosing, you wouldn’t choose these songs. But so much of public life involves being forced to hear songs at random—someone’s headphones playing too loud on public transit, a restaurant’s theme-appropriate playlist, a drug store’s light rock station. Sometimes I don’t want to pick my own songs, I’m sick of my playlists, my limited taste. In the mashup album, in Algorithms, that responsibility belongs elsewhere, and I get to just be along for the ride.

I wrote to Milkman—née Gregg Luskin—about the construction and context for Algorithms, a near-decade old project, and how the finale of his mashup trilogy came to exist. “Algorithms was the culmination of four years, two prior albums and countless live performances tweaking the process of creating mashups. The reason I titled the album Algorithms was because it was just that, an algorithm at that point,” he said. “Circle of Fifths was the first album that incorporated some more electronic influences in it, and I found that when re-mashing those pieces live, it got the best crowd reaction. [E]lectronic music still hadn’t made its way to the mainstream in the USA. Algorithms took these learnings and had a few more 'dancier' tracks on them.”

“Let Go,” the album’s standout, begins with the tell-tale beeping and booping (technical terminology) of Owl City’s “Fireflies” and a verse from “Bump Bump Bump” by B2K featuring P. Diddy. “Fireflies” was admittedly corny and somewhat maligned from the onset—its video featuring its lead artist (remember: Owl City is a guy, not a band) pressing a button on a keyboard that says “MAGIC”—and less than two years after its release, it was already a frequent go-to for mashups. Still, the opening melody invokes a winking nostalgia, like the most romantic-sounding dial-up tone of all time. “Let Go” shifts into a life-affirming chorus of MIMS’ “Like This” over Discovery’s “I Want You Back” (a remix itself!) before returning to “Fireflies,” newly paired with Kelis’s “I’m Bossy.”

Mashups at their least creative are like performing a fine-tuned copy and paste. Often, it’s a cynical genre of music, used to prove just how similar popular songs are to one another; the more seamless the transition, the less daring the original work is. Like all crafts, however, there can be apparent artistry to it—effort, dedication, pathos. “‘Let’s Go’ was an attempt to ‘structur-ize,’ if you will, the classic nature of a mashup/DJ mix,” Luskin wrote me. “Usually you go from one song, to the next, to the next and it’s discouraged to ever return to the same track. It made sense to experiment with treating a mashup like a true song, with an intro, chorus, versus, breakdown, etc. I think it turned out wonderfully.” In the way that a pop song will teach you how to listen to it, how the chorus is somehow already in your head the second time it comes around, “Let’s Go” prepares you for something new and old all at once. By the time it arrives at the bridge—Kanye West’s “Gold Digger”—there’s a sneaky triumph to it. Simply put: it rocks. From there, the album really tumbles from one banger to another: “Love Struck,” “Look Around,” and so on and so forth.

The way in which I have previously given myself over to the streaming algorithm comes by way of playlists designed for me based on the garbage I listen to, the skip button never too far out of reach. With Algorithms, and with mashup albums in general, a shuffle effect is rendered useless; unless the title of the mashup track tells you what’s on it (and they rarely do), it’s like giving yourself over to chance. To someone else’s algorithm, someone else’s playlist. It’s not only that Algorithms consists of songs that are, in their own way, pillars of the past 25 years of music (yes—even “Fireflies,” or “Hey, Soul Sister,”), but it’s the album (the algorithm!) I’ve trusted to give me the most joy. You hope, as you walk into a party or a club, that the DJ knows what they’re doing. They know how to guide your experience to maximize enjoyability, nostalgia, energy. In my house, everything is under my control: the level of dust, whether or not the dishes are done, if the produce goes bad. And so to surrender myself for a little under an hour to a joy manufactured for a different me, a different time, a different place, is a reminder of what it feels like to dance.

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