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Music by VICE

Give Life Back to Fhqwhgads

How a Strong Bad/Daft Punk mash-up album helped bring out the magic in 'Random Access Memories.'

by David Grossman
Apr 21 2014, 5:05pm

Confession: Random Access Memories was my least favorite album of 2013. To me, it was an album that literally—not metaphorically, but literally—lectured at me—not to me, not with me, but at me—about what is good music and what is not. Its stated intention was to get "life back to music," as if that was a thing that needed to happen, and proceeded to do that by giving the listener the privilege of listening to an old Italian dude talk about how much better everything was in the 60's and 70's. Nine minutes to get to one anecdote about how he liked synthesizers. It gave me the impression that the recording process was just two pretend robots masturbating to old Krautrock and Italo-disco records.

Of course, my opinion about Random Access Memoriesplaces me in the vast, vast minority. Besides its countless placements in Top Ten Lists, VICE's own The Collaborators series shows that the album changed the lives of people who worked on it. More importantly than any of that, it's led to new art: DJ Arique, a 21-year-old from New Fairfield, Connecticut, who made the remarkable mash-up album Random Access Fhqwhgads, thought it was "the best album of 2013, if not this entire decade." Where I saw posturing, he felt it "brought back to the days of listening to my parents' Michael Jackson and Diana Ross albums."

So, in one corner, we have Random Access Memories, a record that attempted to use the complex and analog to create wonder. In the other, there is Homestar Runner, a website that used the digital to create comedy as quickly and charmingly as possible. Started in 2000, Homestar Runner was/is a flash website with silly cartoons. No ads, no sponsored content, no search engine optimization—it sold t-shirts and DVDs to make rent, and its creators, brothers Mike and Matt Chapman abandoned it when they got jobs working on the alt-kid standby shows Yo Gabba Gabba and Gravity Falls—although they recently added a new cartoon on April Fool's Day, so who knows? The cartoons were about a bunch of weird looking friends and all the trouble they'd always get into. Techno, metal, and indie rock often played crucial roles. They Might Be Giants made regular appearances on the site. One of the most popular features was Strong Bad Emails, where a character, the sassy Strong Bad, would answer emails from readers and insult them. An early emailer signed his name fhqwhgads, and later inspired a diss track with a funky bass line, "Everybody to the Limit," which incessantly dissed fhqwhgads and the temerity they had to attempt to correspond with him.

This sort of insider-nerd comedy is not what the Internet is about anymore. For better or for worse, things are now made to be grasped as quickly as possible: get a brand, get people to understand that brand, monetize that brand. Homestar Runner wasn't exactly built on a mythology, and it didn't worship itself. It just had the same cast of characters and liked joking around, and made the type of jokes that were worth calling back towards. It monetized plenty, through t-shirts and DVDs and video games, but each product was a natural extension and an inside joke combined. Mixing its low-fi magic with Daft Punk's high-falutin' sense of self makes perfect sense. And when Random Access Fhqwhgads hit the Web in late March of this year, it showed how great the unlikely pairing could be. It knocks out almost all the vocals of Memoriesin favor of Strong Bad's melodic monotone "Come on Fhqwhgads, I said come on Fhqwhgads/ Everybody to the limit, everybody come on Fhqwhgads." It turned out to be the perfect pin cushion to deflate the balloon of hot rhetoric that kept me from enjoying the record in its original form.

Random Access Fhqwhgads is a one-joke album that keeps on giving, mainly because of Arique's decision to match Strong Bad's voice up with the beats. "I managed to start figuring out the BPM on each track," Arique told me through Soundcloud message, "So much so that making mashups using tracks from the album was very easy." "When it came to making Random Access Fhqwhgads, I started to mess around with 'Everybody To The Limit' and started stretching out the track so that it synced properly with the tracks on Random Access Memories. Some tracks, like 'Within,' 'Doin' It Right,' and the Japan-only bonus track 'Horizon,' were giving me a very hard time, so I skipped them in favor of doing the tracks that I know best."

That last part is key, I think. Instead of working it all over with the same vision of sonic perfection that keeps the original Daft Punk album from being accessible, Arique's mashup vastly improves on it by chilling out and getting to the good stuff. Take the album's opener, "Give Life Back to Fhqwhgads." It starts with the same whirling guitar as Memories, but almost instantly you're hit with a robotic voice saying "Come. On. Fhqwhgads." Strong Bad's voice, working on a loop approximately two minutes long, is sped up, and his speech pattern varies enough that it never seems old. Arique times the song's breakdown to match with Strong Bad questioning the audience: "I don't know who it is, but it probably is Fhqwhgads," allowing for a perfect moment of faux-tension.

From there, Arique moves on to repairing my least favorite track from Memories, "The Game of Love." The original is sweet and cloying like root beer, the new one feels like purple drank. Slowed down in a style that DJ Screw would have appreciated if he'd been really into internet jokes, Strong Bad would almost sound melancholy if he didn't sound wasted. It's the same joke as the first track, but articulated in a completely different fashion. In "Beyond Fhqwhgads," Strong Bad's voice feels like a band-aid doing its best to cover up the wounded soundscape behind it. The repetition builds and builds, and when you finally get to "Contawhagads," and he releases the audio from the full email clip—"I've carefully set aside this time for checking my email," Strong Bad intones—there's a feeling of denouement achieved. You've climbed the heights. For the first time, I was able to see the delicate craftsmanship in Memories, how it could be seen not as egotism but a dedicated tribute fueled by a need to listen to the music that inspired Daft Punk years ago. By removing the lecture from "Beyond," I was able to appreciate the bassline and keyboard swirls. "Fragments of Fhqwhgads" shows off the playfulness of "Fragments of Time," turning it into a Mario Kart race where you're always in first place. The vocal breakdown of "Come on, Fhqwhgads. I see you jocking me. Trying to act like, you know me" plays out delightfully over the guitar strumming in "Lose Yourself to Fhqwhgads," and keeping Pharrell's chorus turns the song into a duet that works on both a sonic level—Pharrell's smoothness with Strong Bad's mouth full of gravel—and aesthetically, given how eager Williams is to work with animated characters these days.

How do the subjects of Arique's work feel about it? According to Arique's Soundcloud messages, a Twitter follower who has "a close relationship with Mike and Matt Chapman" told him that his mashup "might or might not have loosely inspired the two to update the site after a long hiatus". Daft Punk presumably feels differently: "Technology has made music accessible in a really philosophically interesting way, but when everybody has the ability to make magic, it's like there's no more magic—if the audience can do it themselves, why bother?" Thomas Bangalter of the French duo asked in a Pitchfork feature on the two as the album was just coming out. Attitudes like this ignore exactly what is so magical about Random Access Fhqwhgads—by using Daft Punk's work as a jumping-off point, Arique helped make Daft Punk's work context for those who didn't get it the first time. Accessible technology doesn't destroy magic, like Bandalter presumes—it creates it where none had existed.

David Grossman drives a Wolksvagen. He's on Twitter - @davidgross_man