Wanna Buy a Bootleg?

by Michael Tatum

In a less ironic era, a bootleg was a crappily recorded Led Zeppelin concert purchased for a pretty penny at the local underground record store. These days, a bootleg, at least in the vernacular of British dance music, denotes a skillfully engineered track that fuses together two disparate songs -- the a cappella vocal from Christina Aguilera's teen-pop "Genie In A Bottle" on top of the instrumental introduction from the Strokes' garage-rock "Hard To Explain." The concept has proven so popular in the UK that an influential radio program showcases the week's best, a category that once famously included the one described in the previous sentence: "A Stroke Of Genius" (get it?) by Freelance Hellraiser, the bootleggers' unrivaled kingpin.

This "movement," if one could describe it as such, couldn't be better timed. Not only have easily downloadable computer programs made such musical splicing a cinch to orchestrate, but online file trading sites have provided the perfect forum to disseminate such music, much of which would have copyright lawyers chewing right through their muzzles if the resulting "mash-ups" (as they're called) were ever commercially released. Which of course begs the question -- just where does one go to hear all of this wonderfully illegal stuff?

"Boom Selection" is a popular website overseen by fifteen year old British DJ (the age is no typo) Daniel Sheldon. Don't be misled by his youth -- everyone from the top mixers to the enthusiastic up and comers vies to have his or her latest boots posted on Sheldon's site. So it's entirely understandable why Sheldon, who doesn't make any real money from the site itself, got more than a little irritated at the two high-priced bootleg compilations that crept into underground record stores during the first half of 2002, The Best Bootlegs In The World Ever and The Best of Boom Selector Vol. 2. In retaliation, he boldly made available through his website a three-disc set of MP3s comprising four hundred and thirty-two bootlegs, plus eleven additional megamixes. It's priced comparably to the two aforementioned compilations (a little over twenty dollars), but contains an almost gluttonous amount more of music. Titled Boom Selection_Issue 01, it reputedly runs a little over thirty-four hours, and is beamingly described by pop music critic Michaelangelo Matos, who claims to have actually listened to the whole thing over one weekend, as "easily the most illegal album in history."

That in of itself is certainly an attractive selling point. However, to those who aren't paid to listen to music for a living, the high-priced compilations that Sheldon disparages present themselves as a reasonable option. Having said that, the curious should probably hunt first for 2 Many DJs' excellent As Heard On Radio Soulwax Vol. 2, one of the megamixes that Sheldon includes whole on his compilation. It's the most publicized and best-known product of the bootlegs phenomenon, most likely because its borderline legality (cleared in only three mainland European countries, yet still available as an import in certain mainstream record stores) makes it somewhat easier to find. The album's megamix format suits the bootleg aesthetic well -- songs are not only welded together, but they overlap onto each other, and often bleed into the next track, as if trying on a different set of clothes briefly, only to discard them for another. This makes for arresting listening -- hearing Destiny Child's "Independent Woman, Pt. 1" on top of 10cc's pseudo-reggae "Dreadlock Holiday" is one thing; but when the latter takes five and the perky opening piano chords of Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" jump in, your jaw will drop.

Unlike most bootlegs, 2 Many DJs, as a whole, primarily has "art" on its mind no matter how sincere its dancefloor intentions. Many of the bootlegs submitted to Sheldon's site rely on current top 40 hits (the crasser the better), but the majority of the tracks here utilize relatively more obscure records for source material: club kids Miss Kittin and the Hacker, Icelandic electronica duo Röyksopp, a Eurodisco cover of Kiss' trashy "I Was Made For Loving You," and many others completely outside the radar of yours truly. Too bad -- not only does this tactic guarantee that only those "in the know" will get the jokes, it also slightly diminishes the surprise factor. Without question, part of the delight in this music lies in recognition, as with the barn burning track they fashion out of the familiar rap from Salt 'N Pepa's "Push It" and the gold-plated guitar vamp from the Stooges' "No Fun."

By contrast, The Best Bootlegs In The World Ever, which actually includes the "Push It/ No Fun" mash-up described above, dispenses with the pretense and channels the fun. Consisting of seventeen tracks some enterprising young wag downloaded from the internet and generously burned onto a CD-R for your listening pleasure, it's not a megamix like the 2 Many DJs record, but a rather a collection of discrete tracks, and better for it. The sustained energy of the megamix might rule in an all night disco, but in the privacy of your own home it's individual tracks that make a stronger impression. And regardless of how Sheldon feels about the thing, it easily stands as the most entertaining record of 2002, as definitive a document of thumb-nosing fun as pop music has ever produced. After beginning with a manifesto amalgamating the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" and Fatboy Slim's "Rockafeller Skank," the CD moves on to even wilder fare. On the most impressive track, Freelance Hellraiser one-ups his classic "A Stroke Of Genius" (also included) with the consciousness-expanding "Smells Like Booty," which weds the vocal of Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious" to the riff of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" so audaciously, you'll treasure every second of the sacrilege, even as Kurt Cobain fans who aren't even half-dead yet roll over in their graves.

Adhering to bootleg tradition, each track on Best Bootlegs appropriates at least one high profile radio hit, a modus operandi that may raise the eyebrows of music snobs who feel uncomfortable letting such lowballers as Adina Howard, D12, and especially Celine Dion (paired with the equally insufferable Sigur Ros, who at least have a better rep) into their record collections. But despite (or perhaps because of) that, the record really does have more art in it than the 2 Many DJs album anyway, as the pairings are often less arbitrary, more cunning. Legendarily homophobic Eminem wolfs down his mama's valium to the fey synth-pop of Depeche Mode, while the froth of Herb Alpert's "Whipped Cream" satirically undercuts Chuck D's politically charged rap on "Rebel Without A Pause." Meanwhile, the frontmen of several white rock bands are pushed away from the microphone to be substituted by black women on no less than seven out of seventeen tracks.

The Best of Boom Selector Vol. 2 is packaged similarly to Best Bootlegs, but reverses the original color scheme (white letters on black background). That's an almost full guarantee that the same mysterious crew who handpicked the track selection for the first title didn't have anything to do with second, because they apparently had no qualms about shamelessly copping the name of Daniel Sheldon's website for brand recognition either. The protests of the scenesters aside however, there's a more practical reason to object to Boom Selector: it simply isn't as good. Granted, there are moments. Ubiquitous bootleg victim Destiny's Child gets the white reggae treatment no less than twice (via the Specials and the 10cc mash-up also on the 2 Many DJs record), while the uproarious "Craig the Survivor" dumps the British R&B of Craig David's "Fill Me In" on top of Survivor's corporate rock "Eye of the Tiger." The odd card out here, Osymyso's "John's Not Mad," doesn't resemble a bootleg so much as old school cut-and-paste audio collage (à la Coldcut or Double Dee & Steinski), utilizing Gary Jules' Donnie Darko cover of Tears For Fears' "Mad World" for moody backdrop like it was Simon & Garfunkel's "7 O'clock News/Silent Night." Still, as a longtime irony fan, let it be said that the loop of Will Smith's self-aggrandizing declaration "I don't use no profanity" is especially satisfying.

However, like a conventional rock band on its sophomore outing, the bootlegs phenomenon, at least on the evidence of this middling sequel, may be running out of ideas. As indicated, much of the fun on Best Bootlegs sprang from "disparate" genres juxtaposed against each other, male singers being ejected for female ones, and the tweaking of good old-fashioned context. Boom Selector doesn't play such games of postmodern musical chairs nearly often enough. Grafting Grandmaster Flash onto Blackstreet, as Soulwax do on this CD's first track, is a completely obvious ploy that Sean "Puffy" Combs himself might have come up with. By the same token, the meeting of big beat electronica duos Chemical Brothers and Basement Jaxx on "Star Romeo" is also too similar stylistically to be interesting. Admittedly, giving Huey Lewis some extra power on "The Power Of Love" via bombastic rap-rockers Limp Bizket does achieve the same your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter trick that Herb Alpert did for Public Enemy on Best Bootlegs. It's just not as funny.

"Burn your own audio compilation," Daniel Sheldon reputedly urges in the notes of his Issue 01 box set, and maybe someone out there will cull another perfect hour from the thirty-four he's selling. In the meantime, take the original Best Bootlegs in the World for what it is -- a skillfully manipulated collision of accidents that saves you the trouble of ever having to purchase any volume of the interminable Now! series. Who knows how long it and other bootleg arcana will remain (more or less) available until some party pooper blows the whistle, but the historical moment Best Bootlegs represents has the potential to be the most exciting to come down the pike in far too long. Perhaps the future it posits will be a short-lived one, but for now, the music stands as more viable than any crappily recorded Led Zeppelin concert could ever be.

Chicago, IL
June-November 2002