7. Create Your Own Mashups
There are a few more ways you can differentiate your sound, even when you're playing the same tracks as another DJ. One way is to create a mashup.
At its most basic, a mashup blends two songs together to create a new one, but there's really no limit to the number of sampled elements it can contain. Probably the most well-known (and controversial) mashup ever made was Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, which mashed the solo vocals from Jay-Z's The Black Album together with digitally chopped selections of Beatles songs from their classic White Album. It was a work of genius, and needless to say, when it leaked online in 2004, it also stirred up a lot of legal questions about sampling, rights ownership and copyright control.
Of course, there's also a not-so-fine line that separates a mashup as masterful as The Grey Album from a cheap, cheesy knockoff. Mixing five huge dance anthems together might energize a crowd, but to a lot of devoted fans of dance music, it degrades the clubbing experience. Even worse, you might piss off the club manager, which means you've lost any chance of coming back. Mashups can be powerful, but it's best to use them in moderation. With that warning in mind, there are a number of ways to make them.
You can use your DJ mixing setup to produce a mashup live in a club, or you can use software tools like Ableton Live, Logic, Cubase, or Mixed In Key Mashup to make one ahead of time and save it as an MP3. Whatever method you choose, keep in mind that the most common (and accessible) mashups take the beat from one song and the vocals from another. A more complex mashup might alternate between two different melodies while using an acapella from a third song.
If they're done well, mashups can fundamentally change how people remember songs. Like The Grey Album, they can even become just as famous (or more so) than the original songs. Two mashups of tracks by David Guetta and LMFAO are perfect examples. Guetta's production partner Joachim Garraud took the lead vocal of Guetta's "Love Don't Let Me Go" and mixed it with The Egg's "Walking Away (Tocadisco Remix)." The result made a huge splash on YouTube and was a worldwide club hit. A few years later, DJ Inphinity's mashup of LMFAO's vocals over Chuckie's "Let the Bass Kick" became one of the biggest summer anthems of 2009.
The best mashups usually don't go for too much complexity, but there's still an art to making the different elements mesh together smoothly. Let's take a look at Kaskade's "Move for First Aid" as an example.
The mashup blends the following tracks:
Michael Woods, "First Aid"
Camelot key: 4A
Kaskade and deadmau5, "Move for Me" (acapella)
Camelot key: 4A
As you can see, both of the original songs are harmonically compatible. When you're mixing in a club, chances are you're changing the key with practically every mix. It's common to mix from 8A into 7A into 6A in just minutes. But when you're making a mashup, it's usually best to choose two songs in the same key to make things easier on yourself.
It's also important to be aware of key changes that already exist within a song. Even if two songs are in 4A, the chorus of one might be in a different key, so it's possible you won't be able to overlay them without dissonance. When you're creating a mashup, make sure the specific sections of the tunes you blend together are in the same key--or harmonically related keys, if you have time to experiment.
DJ Prince: Guru of Harmonic Mixing
DJ Prince has been our mentor for all things related to DJing as a musical art form. We spoke to him about his approach to making mashups and mixing harmonically.
You launched one of the world's first websites about harmonic mixing back in 1996. When did you start using the technique yourself?
Prince: I guess I started out mixing in harmony around 1987, at first just by accident. At that time, I had to concentrate really hard to keep the beats in sync, and when the songs coincidentally were in the same key or in harmony, I had a hard time hearing which song was going faster or which one was going slower. I guess they blended so well that it was hard to tell them apart. It puzzled me why this happened now and again.
Another factor was the club and DJ magazine Mix Mag. It used to review the DJ battle sets for DMC's World Mixing Championship eliminations in the UK, and it used the phrase "out of key." Curious as I was, I had to investigate what this key thing was all about. There was no Internet to Google the information, and no harmonic mixing gurus were around, so I did it the old-fashioned way: I went to an actual library--you know, where they have books and everybody whispers. I spent hours and hours reading about music theory, although I couldn't play a single note on an instrument. What I really found useful were these notation books of pop songs; Pop Hits of 88 was one of them. I remember you could find the root key at the start of each notation. I wrote down the root key of all the songs I could find and tried to mix them. Then I had a eureka moment: This actually works!
I always had an ear for what sounded good and what didn't. I just couldn't explain it until then. I was so excited; it was like finding the holy grail of mixing. On the other side of the Atlantic [from Norway, where I live], they had discovered it long before me. I was somewhat disappointed and extremely happy when I found the DJ magazine called Harmonic Mixing by Mark Davis. After reading that, it all made sense. The harmonic overlay chart was first printed there. I had seen the content before, only as the circle of fifths, but I didn't make the connection at the time. When the UK Mix Mag Update, a kind of weekly newspaper for DJs, listed the top 100 club hits along with their BPM and keys, I was hooked!
You helped thousands of DJs discover harmonic mixing before Mixed In Key and other websites came along. Why do you think so many people are interested in this technique?
Prince: People are often very passionate about their art or hobby, and they go to extreme measures to perfect their skills. Some focus on beatmatching and some on scratching, while others just want to DJ and make the floor rock. And then there are the "nerds" or the perfectionists: they always want to push their talent a little farther than the rest. Mixing harmonically actually makes perfect sense, and it is the right thing to do--not just for the studio/mega-mixing DJs, but also for live DJs. Though harmonic mixing makes a mix sound good, it actually does have another function. It has a psychological effect on the dance floor. God truly is a DJ when he can manipulate the feeling and take people on a journey using his harmonic mixing skills. I guess more and more DJs became aware of this and were interested to learn more. I was one of them. That's why I focused on teaching others through my website back in the early days of the Internet. Of course, another reason is that all those masters of mixing at that time (Ben Liebrand, for instance) were a huge influence on up-and-coming DJs.
Before the technology came along, what was the typical process for DJs to get their tracks keyed for DJing?
Prince: We either asked a musical friend to help us, or we tried to do it ourselves using a keyboard and a good pair of ears. There were professional services around, like Camelot, providing the keys and BPM, but it cost a lot for up-and-coming DJs.
If you did it yourself, it took some time, right?
Prince: The actual process of finding the key was time-consuming if you didn't have perfect pitch. Many have relative pitch hearing, but a lot of DJs are completely tone deaf--still, they're eager to learn. It's actually possible to learn to get a better ear for harmonic mixing just by training. I used to have a Korg Poly-800 synthesizer. This was my best friend. I spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours keying songs on it. First, I tried to find the root key. I closed my eyes and tried to listen for the note that blended seamlessly with the song playing. After I found the root key, I had to determine whether it was in a major or minor chord. In the beginning, the whole process could take up to 20 minutes for each song. It was a good way to learn how to play the keyboard, much to my family's frustration.
In recent years, mashups have become much more common. We heard a story about you and Norwegian television.
Prince: Well, it's a kind of an ironic and tragic story. It started at Spellemansprisen, which is the Norwegian version of the Grammys. Yosef Wolde-Mariam and Tshawe Baqwa from Madcon, who are both of African origin, were presenting the grand prize, "Song of the Year." [Madcon is one of Norway's biggest rap/pop duos.] The winner was the hillbilly band Plumbo for its song "Mokkamann," which directly translates as "shitman." When the members of Plumbo went on stage, they were high on winning the grand prize and maybe a little drunk. Their lead singer, Lars Erik Blokkhus, took the microphone and said to Madcon: "When I look at you two, this song gets a new name: ‘Moccaman.'" In this case, he used "mocca" to refer to "dark" coffee beans, and it was obviously a bad joke. The crowd started to boo and throw stuff on stage. The singer from Plumbo was quick to apologize, but later Tshawe from Madcon called him a bad word, and a member from another band poured beer over Plumbo's lead singer on live TV. The scandal was all over the news. Twitter and Facebook exploded with discussions and arguments.
When I woke up the next day, I was bombarded with this story. All my friends online were discussing who was right and who was wrong. It was overwhelming. I was actually getting tired of all the news coverage and came up with a cunning plan. What if Plumbo and Madcon straightened out their differences, became friends, and made a song together? So I took "Mokkamann" and mashed it up with Madcon's "Beggin'." The songs were in D minor, and some parts sounded really good together. It's not my finest or most technically brilliant mashup, but it sure was a fantastic idea, politically and timing-wise. It took me about 20 minutes to make it. Then I uploaded it to a streaming service and shared the link on my Facebook page. After that, it just exploded.
It had 50,000 hits within two days, and I was all over the media with headlines like "DJ with a reconciliation song," "DJ wants Plumbo and Madcon to be friends," "DJ Prince could be the DJ for the United Nations' Conflict Department," and the list goes on. Radio stations picked it up. This was the first time one of my mashups created such a media storm and so much hype, which is kind of nice. I think Plumbo and Madcon are friends now, but I don't think they will ever make a song together.
Should DJs experiment with making mashups themselves?
Prince: Creating a mashup that fits together well is actually a very rewarding experience. It is like a composer discovering a great melody, a photographer finding the right inspiration, or a scientist making a breakthrough. All the songs of the world are like pieces of a puzzle, so when two parts fit, it gives us pleasure and enjoyment. It's also a natural process for DJs to play around with mixing songs together, and some mixes are good as mashups. Unfortunately, most mashups aren't endorsed by the record companies, and some DJs have had their YouTube account deleted (me, for instance) or have faced prosecution (like mashup artist Girl Talk). All in all, everything is a mashup or inspiration, but that's a topic for another book, I guess. I say be creative; it's your right. Share your mashups, but don't sell them. And please mix in harmony. If the mashup is good enough, who knows? Maybe it will get an official release, endorsed by the record companies, and take you to stardom. I'll be listening!
An Easy Way to Make Mashups
We always try to stay attuned to the demands of the DJs we work with, and one thing we discovered was that a user-friendly software solution for mashups didn't really exist. We wanted to be able create mashups in five minutes or less, but there was no easy way to do it. That was the inspiration for our cleverly named Mashup software.
This is the audio editor that we always wanted for Windows and Mac because it's so easy to use. All you have to do is drag music files from iTunes or your hard drive into the Mashup browser, and the software automatically detects which files are most compatible. A value of 100 means the mashup will be harmonic, while a value of 0 means it will be dissonant. You can add as many tracks as you want, and even create a mixtape from 20 different songs.
We designed Mashup to beatmatch tracks automatically, and simplify the process of adjusting tempo, editing volume envelopes and tweaking phasing, so you can render a new audio file in a matter of minutes (check out http://Mashup.MixedInKey.com for a tutorial and digital download). It makes the mashup process easier, but remember, like any software program, this is just a tool. Mashups can be a great outlet for asserting your creativity as a DJ and a producer, but there are also plenty of other great ways to boost your DJ skills. Once again, it circles back to energy.
December 2013 update: Mixed In Key just released new DJ mixing software called Flow that combines all the best ideas from this book. Use it to play perfect DJ sets, radio shows and podcasts on your laptop. Visit FlowDJSoftware.com