Sometime this March, a CD titled "The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever" began showing up at independent record shops in New York and London. The disc contained 15 of the most popular "mash-ups" -- the Frankensteinian song-craft method of matching the vocals of Song A to the music of Song B -- being traded on the Internet and played on BBC Radio One's popular "Remix" program. Ramming the tracks together without breaks and including an unlisted bonus track, the disc played like a Bizarro World version of a "Now!" compilation.
Here was a world where a rapper's self-importance was punctured without ruining the party (such as Nelly's "Country Grammar" + the weedy theme from the British TV show "Grange Hill"), where future-obsessed modern R&B explicitly acknowledged secret debt to early-'80s new wave (Kurtis Rush's Missy Elliott-meets-The Cure "One Minute Lovecat"). And most of all, where white, post-punk rock underpins black pop instead of rejecting it: Soulwax's "Smells Like Booty" (Destiny's Child + Nirvana) or Freelance Hellraiser's "A Stroke of Genius," an audacious, brilliant shotgun marriage of The Strokes' "Hard to Explain" and Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle."
Nevertheless, the disc also pissed off some scene purists, a feeling compounded by "The Best of Boom Selector Vol. 2," which appeared in July. Though every bit as good as its predecessor (Ultra 396's "Rock the Party" = Pink's "Get the Party Started" + The Clash's "Rock the Casbah" may be my favorite single of 2002), "Vol. 2" seemed suspiciously unrelated to either the first volume or to the Boom Selection website (boomselection.net) for which it was named. Set up last year by The _Dr., a.k.a. Daniel Sheldon, a 15-year-old from Manchester, England, Boom Selection is the unofficial clearinghouse for the mash-up phenomenon. Along with several BBC Radio DJs who broadcast boots regularly, Sheldon is usually the first person to be sent new tracks by clandestine artists such as Soulwax (a.k.a. 2 Many DJs and 2 Ugly DJs), Frenchbloke and Son, Girls on Top, Kurtis Rush and dozens of others. Considering that anyone with the inclination and the right equipment could put together a collection at least as good, the $20-plus price tag on the discs smelled like a rip-off. Sheldon thought so too, so he decided to do something about it. And boy, did he ever.
Comparing "Boom Selection_Issue 01," the mammoth set Sheldon sells (boomselection.info/thecd), to box sets like the four-volume, six-hour "Anthology of American Folk Music," or even the nine-CD, 11-hour "American Pop: An Audio History 1893-1946" set, is like comparing the pure ideas of a Pollock with a carefully considered Rembrandt. Only, in this case, the Pollock is the size of an office complex. In "Boom Selection's" liner notes, Sheldon notes that he wanted to "come up with some sort of Ã?definitive' collection of the scene," and it may well be that he has, if only because, like the scene elf, the set is a glorious, deliberate, goddamned mess.
For $22, you get three discs of MP3s featuring 432 songs and 11 DJ mixes. While most of these tracks are built on uncleared samples, 83 of them aren't bootlegs but official releases -- though most of those have at least a tangential relation with bootleg culture, i.e., the five sample-heavy Avalanches cuts and several early-'80s Sugarhill Records rap tracks. Minute for minute, this is easily the most illegal album in history. Though the discs are advertised as totaling 42 hours, the actual amount is closer to 34. (That's right, I counted.) As Sheldon puts it in the notes: "Burn your own audio CD compilation." And I will soon, several of them. But first, over the course of two weeks, I played the entire thing from beginning to end.
The first lesson of such a task is that archives aren't albums. For all the crowing about the smartness of the best boots (not to mention both volumes of "Best Boots"), there are at least five hours of utter, unlistenable crap here. There is also the small matter of repetition. If radio and MTV airplay has negated any need for you to hear Eminem, Destiny's Child, Missy Elliott, Nelly, Craig David, Nirvana, Fatboy Slim's "Rockafeller Skank," or Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" ever again, you ain't heard nothin' yet. Their combined bastard offspring are the reason this monument exists, and they occupy a healthy chunk of it. This is compounded by the DJ mixes: ranging from 20 to 75 minutes, most of these sets contain tracks otherwise available within the box.
But the secret of "Boom Selectiion" is that it's not really an album, or even a DJ mix. Played in bulk, it's like hearing a radio station from the fourth dimension -- "Transmit-ting live from Mars," as the De La Soul track included here puts it. Partly it's because, like hip-hop and rave's sampledelic early days, many of the mash-ups enable you effectively to "hear the joins." Even on flawless productions, there's a friction generated between the materials that's reminiscent of the way an album like the Beastie Boys' sample-studded classic Paul's Boutique cut sources apart and together -- more angles jutting out, more jagged edges -- a style that stopped being the norm in the wake of the smooth, cohesive sound of Dr. Dre's The Chronic. Kurtis Rush's "Get Ur Faith On" (Elliott + George Michael) and Braces Tower's "Special Child" (Destiny's Child's "Say My Name" + The Specials' "Ghost Town") work not simply because they yoke the vocals of one song to the music of another, but because the vocals are made over to fit the feel of the new backing track. So Missy's quick-lipped rap becomes a kind of folkie stutter, and Beyonc? Knowles and company are dubbed up till they're ghosts in the machine, not masters.
Despite the moment it's riding, "Boom Selection" is also Sheldon's attempt to place boots in a far larger continuum of decontextualized audio-collage and cutup artists such as the Tape-Beatles, who aren't included here, and Culturcide and Negativland, who are. Animals Within Animals' "Hello" splices together three-and-a-quarter minutes of "hello"s from Louis Armstrong, the Beatles, Oscar the Grouch, the Singing Frog, and, disturbingly, Dr. Dre's "Still D.R.E." Osymyso's ambitious 12-minute "Intro Introspection" is a whole other animal. Combining the openings of 100 or so famous songs, it lags at times, but for the most part it's one stunning moment after another, particularly when the riffs of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Stayin' Alive" march in tandem.
While most of the cutups tend toward the sophomoric (e.g., the one-note smut of Christian Rock's "Felicity Kendal"), their political edge adds a welcome tonic to the pop-and-pop-only tenor of most of "Boom Selection's" contents. In Cassetteboy's "Di and Dodi Do Die," a Princess Diana anti-tribute, John Lennon is made to say, "I always believed Elton John would kill her in the end," while the same artist's "We Are New Labour" has Tony Blair declaring war on England: "We are launching the biggest assault on poor 11-year-old Emma O'Brien."
You may not be able to cold-rock a party with such sentiments, but they're not all that far from the heart of mash-up culture as a whole, which is another reason to love "Boom Selection." That said, there's already a sense of diminishing returns as the same songs get reused over and over again, and the form's increasing mainstream acceptance may put the brakes on it as an underground form: Witness Minogue performing "Can't Get You Out of My Head" over the track of "Blue Monday" on the BBC. If anything, though, "Boom Selection" is a groundbreaker as much for its format as the music it contains. Just imagine Sony piling the entire Bob Dylan catalog onto four MP3 discs and charging through the roof for it. You can bet folks would buy it. After all, if it's illegal now, it's probably the future.