The craze for mashing up wildly different records to create illicit bootleg mixes has moved into the mainstream, and underground producers such as Richard X and Mark Vidler now find their services in hot demand with artists and record labels.
The illegal bootleg or mash-up, which takes two or more records and pitch-matches and time-stretches them to fit together, has proven to be one of the most interesting by-products of the availability of cheap digital audio technology. When these copyright-snubbing mixes first started appearing on file-sharing networks three or four years ago, there was the slight whiff of novelty about them: Christina Aguilera's 'Genie In A Bottle' seamlessly woven into the Strokes' 'Hard To Explain'; Whitney Houston performing 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' over Kraftwerk's 'Numbers'. But then in 2002 the bootleg moved over into the mainstream when the Sugababes covered mash-up pioneer Richard X's cut and pasting of Adina Howard with Gary Numan and took it to number one as 'Freak Like Me'. Then, earlier this year, US hip-hop producer DJ Danger Mouse broke illegal download records — and attracted cease-and-desist warnings from EMI — with his illicit blending of the Beatles' White Album and Jay Z's Black Album to create The Grey Album.
More importantly, perhaps, one-time bedroom mashers like Richard X and Go Home Productions' Mark Vidler are finding that bootlegging is a route to more legitimate production work. The likes of Madonna, Cher, David Bowie and Kraftwerk are among the artists sanctioning, or at least quietly approving, and even commissioning what have become more officially known as 'copyright-infringing material bootlegs'.
As you might imagine, given his deliberately blank trading name, Richard X is a bit cagey about his musical past before earning his reputation through bootlegging. He'll go as far to say that he was operating in the dance scene as an engineer, though he's reluctant to name any of the artists he worked with and reckons he wasn't exactly suited to the job anyway. "I was always into programming and if you've got a background of working on other people's records, after a few years you see how these things are done. But the music I like is very specific — a lot of electronic music — and I don't have the patience to work on other people's stuff."
In 2001, he came up with the idea of his Whitney/Kraftwerk mash-up and released it on limited edition seven-inch as 'I Wanna Dance With Numbers' under the name Girls On Top. The 'B' side featured a similarly warped cross-pollination of the Human League with TLC ('Being Scrubbed'). "It was kind of a little personal thing at the time. I just thought, I could listen to this all day. It wasn't about getting one over on the majors, it was a cheeky irreverence. It was the excitement of the two worlds colliding."
Within months, the tracks were being played in the right clubs and on fashion catwalks and the bootlegging movement was born. "I wasn't the first person to do bootlegs," he admits, "but I think what I did was maybe just in a new area. A lot of the previous bootlegs up until then were house music, with a trad a cappella and tired 4/4 loop. Maybe what I did had the shock factor."
Compared to some of the more sophisticated techniques now employed in the art of bootlegging, Richard X now looks back on the methods he was using as little as three years ago as being slightly old-fashioned. "If you didn't have the a cappella, then you'd just look for it on Napster, download it on dial-up, convert that, do the rough loops in Acid and then export it into Cubase as WAVs. Then the a cappella was dropped in and chopped in over the top. Very simple process, but funnily enough, compared to other productions that were going on at the time — especially the ones using cheap VST plug-ins — it sounded really exciting."
This fresh new approach to making pop music didn't escape the attention of Universal Records when they were looking to relaunch the Sugababes, and they contacted Richard X with a view to using his Numan/Adina Howard bootleg, originally titled 'We Don't Give A Damn About Our Friends', with the girl trio replacing the latter's vocals. Shrewdly, the company weren't keen to smooth over the rougher edges of X's original production.
"The one that was released ended up using my same loops from Acid," he points out. "Apart from the Sugababes singing it, it was almost the same seven-inch that I'd put out. I think they were canny enough to realise what it made it good was that edge. There were only eight channels used at the mixdown — stereo loops, stereo handclaps, stereo echo and the girls. Apart from having a posh U87 or 149 and a vocal room, the whole thing was Acid and my malfunctioning System 100. It wasn't exactly SARM West."
Obviously, pitfalls abound when trying to clear the tracks and officially release what began as an illegal bootleg. In his experience, however, Richard X has had nothing but positive feedback from the artists he's sampled. "The first response I got was from Kraftwerk. They apparently said they thought it was the worst record they'd ever heard. But then later that changed round to them really liking it and understanding it. They were willing to clear it, which was incredible. Then the Human League got in touch and that was a great moment. Gary Numan was obviously very happy when the Sugababes one went to number one. The artists certainly have all been great, but the companies and the people who own the masters sometimes haven't."
If the down side of bootlegging is the inevitable flood of half-baked, amateurish mash-ups now appearing on Limewire and Kazaa, then there are some who are taking an altogether more considered approach to the form. Mark Vidler of Go Home Productions used to dabble with similar tape-based remixes back in the early '90s, when he was the guitarist with shoegazer indie band Chicane. Then, inspired by 'A Stroke Of Genius' ("It sounded like a lost Blondie record to me"), he began creating his own, more ambitious bootlegs, matching such disparate artists as Madonna with the Sex Pistols and Beyonce with Jimi Hendrix. What's more, his work has attracted the attention of some of the artists themselves — both Bowie and Cher have since employed him to create their own bespoke mash-ups.
"I'd always sort of messed around with a Tascam Porta One, doing these little remixes," Vidler recalls. "I was very into the Jamms, Coldcut and Steinski, so I was always doing these tape mixes that we'd play at our gigs. I remember I took the a cappella of Sweet T's 'It's My Beat' and slapped it over the 'Theme From The Monkees' and the Style Council's 'Long Hot Summer'. It's a great little period piece because it's all done with a simple turntable and the pause button on the cassette player. You can hear me actually slowing down the record to keep it in time!"
Vidler is similar to Richard X in that the setup he uses is fairly basic. "I had a Mac for graphic design, but I do all my music on PC. Most of the software I had when I started — Acid 1.0, the early versions of Sound Forge — you could only get for PC, and you can still only get for PC. Actually, up 'til recently I had a very old PC with very limited RAM and disk space, so all of these tracks were actually created with a really rough machine. Now I've got a custom-built computer with a Pentium III, 512k of RAM and 80 Gigabytes of disk space. I don't look too much into soundcards and things like that, I just use the basic internal job. The final results I've given people like David Bowie, they're completely happy with. So at the end of the day it's how you get the tracks to gel together in the final mix. I take pride in the mastering side of things — I use a lot of Waves plug-ins, their compression is just the best."
In many ways, the bootleg phenomenon seems to have been made possible by one piece of software alone: Sonic Foundry's Acid (now a Sony product). "Acid was the revelation for me," Richard X enthuses. "I'd gone through Notator, Cubase, all the tedious MIDI-based programs, which for me were never as inspirational as just sampling or chopping drums together. With Acid you could finally get your hands on high-end — or low-end, as it turned out — audio processors where you could actually manipulate loops and samples quickly and intuitively, making crazy things, trying things out. A lot of that interactivity was the same thing as being into analogue synthesizers and wanting to twist knobs."
Mark Vidler, likewise, says that his most essential software tool is Acid Pro 4, along with Sony's Sound Forge 5. "I've flirted with Pro Tools and Cubase, but for the stuff I tend to do, pitch-shifting and editing, I still find that Acid is the easiest to use. It's popular amongst the guys who're doing this kind of stuff and it's really developed. The first version didn't have EQ for every track, it was very basic stuff. Literally you could just loop tracks and pitch-shift them — which was the appeal — but now it's a full-on program. There's a few things that have been added recently, like you can now use VST Instruments within it, which you couldn't do before.
"Another one I use is Orion Pro. I remember there was this whole debate about Reason coming out and I thought that was a fantastic piece of kit. But Orion Pro, I found that you could pretty much do all that Reason did at a much cheaper price at the time. So I use that for a lot of filtering effects."
If Vidler's more musical take on bootlegging will often find him figuring out the chords to songs for perfect pitch-matching ("It does help if you've got a background in music and a bit of music theory, rather than just sitting with a whole pile of records and playing around for four hours until two fit together"), his techniques are fairly straightforward and well-practised.
"What I normally do is get the vocal beat-mapped first. Once you have that set in Acid, you can shift the pitch infinitely without altering the tempo. You can do it in very fine increments. In early versions, you could only pitch it by a semitone. Normally these things are only a key out, or if you're lucky they're both in the same key."
Almost everything that Vidler creates has been posted up for free on his web site at www.gohomeproductions.co.uk, though he rotates the tracks he makes available and — perhaps there's some irony here — is careful about the amount of material he gives away for nothing ("I don't really want to put a hundred tracks up there for people to grab"). His most famous bootleg is probably 'Ray Of Gob' — Madonna's 'Ray Of Light' over the Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy In The UK' — since it won the approval of its participants, who even allowed the bootlegger to put it out as a semi-official release through a "verbal agreement".
"That track was done quickly one Sunday afternoon," Vidler recalls. "I'd been mucking about with the Madonna vocal and the Jam's 'To Be Someone'. I was also messing around with Pistols tracks at the time and realised that so many of them were in the same key. So I just quickly put the riff of one to the other and developed it from there.
"A few months later I got a call from Guy Oseary, who's Madonna's business partner at Maverick. Steve Jones from the Pistols had actually called him up and said 'Oi, get in contact with this lad, I like what he's done.' The Pistols all got in contact, apart from John. Then John got sent some copies of it and he absolutely loved it. They all pushed to try to get it released officially — as far as I know Madonna says she loves it too — but the crux came with Maverick. They didn't really know where to put it in terms of a single release or as a part of a mash-up project they were thinking of doing. But again it just shows that the Americans are a little bit behind in terms of where the thing's going and understanding what bootlegs/mash-ups are all about. Over here, people know where it's going. The Americans are just latching on to it now."
Vidler says that, for him, the concept behind his work is that he's actually creating the illusion of a 'third track' or, in some cases, bringing together artists from across the decades. 'Work It Out With A Foxy Lady' — Hendrix vs. Beyonce — is a particular high point. ("There was a little bit of pitch-shifting involved, but it does sound like the two tracks were made for each other. She's got a very soulful voice and it's very easy to mix with guitars.") But it's his work with the Beatles' catalogue, particularly his spooked blend of Radiohead's 'Karma Police' with 'A Day In The Life', that is the most impressive, and for Vidler, the most rewarding.
"The beauty of the Beatles stuff that I've done is that because of the stereo separation back in the '60s, George Martin would quite happily dump all of the instruments in one side and the vocals in the other, so it's easy to separate them. You get a bit of bleed, but with a bit of filtering you can get rid of that. So with a lot of '60s stuff, the separation is almost there.
"Of course now, with the advent of 5.1, it's even better because you can actually isolate the tracks. I think you'll find you can get the whole of the White Album separated, just through kids that were using the right software and pulling out the guitar track, the drum track, the vocal track. I've got good contacts for this stuff! There's people out there who just have to have every noise that was put to tape by the Beatles and it's amazing what gets in the hands of the collectors. I mean, I've got a cappellas of 'I Am The Walrus' and 'Penny Lane' that nobody else has got.
"It's all done through different techniques of inverting the phase and sort of reverse-engineering the backing track. Some of the tracks are quite what they call 'dirty' — there's a lot of bleed coming through, a drum track or a guitar track, but with a bit of filtering and EQ, you can eradicate that. And if you've actually put it in time with the new backing track you're working with, you can cancel out any random snares or things like that.
"The vocal for 'A Day In The Life' I actually received from someone who'd reverse-engineered the track off of the Anthology DVD, so he managed to pretty much isolate John's vocal. Again, 'Karma Police' is quite a simple chord structure, it's sort of descending scales, which a lot of bands use, so it was put together very quickly and it works so well as a simple idea."
Vidler is nothing if not dogged in his work. When two tracks prove resistant to being mashed, he'll look at them in meticulous detail. "I did one where I had Wings' 'Back Seat Of My Car' with the a cappella of the Beach Boys' 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times'. Those two songs, if you take them in their own right, have got dozens of chord changes in them. I spent weeks chopping bits, shifting them, trying to get them to match and I think I pulled it off. I'm quite proud of that one."
Now that he's something of a player in the world of bootlegging, Vidler often opens his email inbox in the morning to find it full of MP3s of a cappellas and backing track separates. "There's a lot of people from the on-line community who've gotten in contact to say that they've been a collector for 30 years and they've got their hands on some Queen backing tracks or whatever. People can see the affection I have for the material."
Artistic and copyright issues aside, both Richard X and Mark Vidler are now enjoying the profile-raising benefits of being leading bootleggers. The former's 2003 album Richard X Presents His X-Factor Vol. 1 featured his Sugababes track alongside more traditional collaborations with Kelis and Jarvis Cocker, while the latter's official bootleg of Bowie's 'I'm Afraid Of Americans' with XTC's 'Making Plans For Nigel' is due to appear on the Club Bowie 2 mix compilation. What's more, he's now supplying legal mixes to MTV for their Mashed show, in which the bootlegged artists' videos are niftily cut together to accompany the tracks.
Both agree that there's something of a DIY punk ethic behind all of this. "Who needs a distributor?" says Vidler. "The beauty is that this stuff has been created at home and it's reaching the far corners of the world, which 10 or 15 years ago you couldn't have done. You can actually set this up yourself and you don't need too many people in the initial stages to get your foot on the ladder."
Richard X is keen to stress how inspirational bootlegging is likely to be for a new generation of aspiring musicians and producers: "It's natural for a 13 or 14 year old kid that the first thing they do musically is attack a Britney Spears record. If I was that age again with my first computer, that's all that I would do. For most of my teenage years, I just recorded my SH101 into a Fostex four-track and it's the same thing, it's inspiring. Bootlegging is kind of a seed to show you what you can do with music and the idea of form and function."
As for their beloved Acid, Vidler says he can't imagine himself ever wanting to use any other program, while Richard X has become a victim of his own success and, sadly, has had to move on to Pro Tools. "My PC got water-damaged and I had to get a Mac," he explains, a touch wistfully. "I work in bigger studios now and you get into that world of Pro Tools and compatibility issues. So I had to abandon it. But I wish they'd make it for the Mac."