Until last week, I thought I might be the only person with a deep, heart-aching love for both Jay-Z and Radiohead. I mean, they’re such divergent joys: Radiohead, the brilliant, brooding, pessimistic, artful rockers from working-class Southern England who many think are the best rock band of their generation, and Jigga, the too-cool-for-school, hyper-self-confident, braggadocious, drug-dealer-turned-self-branded-multimillionaire mogul from the Brooklyn projects, who many think is the best MC of his generation.
But there are a lot of people who deeply love both, and finally, one of them decided they were two great tastes that’d taste great together. Minty Fresh Beats, aka 22-year-old Max Tannone, produced Jaydiohead, the new mashup album that’s quickly becoming an Internet sensation. It’s available as a free download at jaydiohead.com.
It’s fun listening to the puzzle coming together, and there’s a deep funkiness to this mixture of gangster tales and intellectual rock.
Minty Fresh is new to New York City. He moved to Manhattan in June after growing up in a tiny, rural town in upstate New York called South Kortright. He does audio post-production—sound effects—for commercials at a video production spot in Soho but because he’s new, his place still leaves much to be desired. “I was bored,” he says. “I have no Internet in my apartment, I got four channels on my TV, I just moved in, it’s small as hell, I said I gotta do something. So I made the project.”
A mashup is a three-way collaboration: a producer, and two pieces of music that were never meant to go together. It’s a postmodern song, maybe even a post-song song, a Burroughsian dream of a song. Technology has become so democratizing—from the programs used to create the music to the ‘Net as a means to distribute it—that anyone can be a big-name music producer and Minty Fresh took advantage.
Over the last six weeks of ’08, Minty Fresh spent all his free time working on the Jaydiohead mashup. Some think making an album like this one simply takes laying a vocal track over an instrumental music bed, but that’s not the way real producers do it. “It’s not like these songs took me ten minutes to do,” Minty Fresh told The Daily Beast. “They took days and days and weeks.” He did it all on a laptop, starting each song with an a cappella version of a Jay-Z song, and then searching for Radiohead songs that had a tempo close to that of Jay’s vocals. “On a lot of Jay-Z mashups [by other producers], “ he says, “The vocals are really sped up, so he sounds like a chipmunk or slowed down so he sounds like a giant. My golden rule is that the a cappella is the master tempo. I’m not tryin’ to change the tempo of his lyrics.” After choosing complementary beats, Minty Fresh considered what it would mean, emotionally, to fuse the tracks. “I say, what vibe do I wanna convey with the new musical world I’m gonna put the lyrics to?”
When he found the right two songs to mash he chopped up the Radiohead song a few measures at a time, to build a beat that the vocals can smoothly flow over. At times he creates loops from parts of the Radiohead songs and lays them cheek to jowl until the structure of the song dictates a music change. “It was like a jigsaw puzzle,” Minty Fresh says. “To make it all sound cohesive is the real battle.”
There’s been a lot of Jay-Z mashup albums over time—Jay with Coldplay, Oasis, Pavement, and most notably the Beatles (the widely loved Grey Album by Danger Mouse)—so there was a lot of pressure on Minty Fresh. The core community that would judge this album has heard this sort of thing before. But it has the advantage of Radiohead’s heavy, funky grooves (they’re a bit of a funk-rock band to me—the delicious bass lines on Kid A is what first drew me into them) so there’s room for Jay to flow slickly inside their tracks.
There’s been a lot of online excitement about the album—Minty Fresh put the songs on his MySpace page and went from 30 song plays a day to 6,000. Even Jay-Z knows about it. In an email, he told The Daily Beast, “Heard OF it but haven’t actually heard IT. (The gate squeaks as I close it back!)”
If this were just a good idea but not actually good music—just a thought exercise—then it wouldn’t even be worth commenting on. We’ve heard lots of mashup albums and they’re not news in and of themselves. But this is interesting because most of the songs cook. It’s fun listening to the puzzle coming together, and there’s a deep funkiness to this mixture of gangster tales and intellectual rock.
And the recontextualization of both Jay and Radiohead lays a new mood atop the familiar songs. On “No Karma” you get Jay’s “No Hook,” in which he discusses his father coming back into his life after decades of estrangement and just months before passing, laid atop the dour, depression-inducing beat for “Karma Police,” which makes Jay’s story exponentially sadder, the gloomy music telling of emotions too hurtful for Jay to even utter. Or on “99 Anthems,” the heavy, danceable funk of Radiohead’s "National Anthem" meets “99 Problems,” Jay’s sneering tale of escaping from any and everything. The original “99 Problems,” produced by Rick Rubin, had a harsh, piquant rock beat that was different than most of what Jay-Z usually does, but here the churning Radiohead beat gives Jay a new propulsion and energy.
Radiohead front man Thom Yorke has the perfect voice for his sort of music, never truly singing, never seeking to dominate the instruments, almost moaning over the beats as if he were just one more instrument within the mix. I like the sound of his voice so much that I love Radiohead songs even when I can’t make out what it is he’s saying—but Jay-Z gives us clearly delivered vocals that fill up the musical space and show you how funky Radiohead really is.
Minty Fresh says he didn’t do the mashup for cash, but just to give the people something fun. “I just wanted to do something I thought was cool,” he says. “I haven’t seen a dime and I don’t plan to. I didn’t think this through all the way, I guess. But I didn’t wanna capitalize on it financially. I said, put it out and if a few of my friends bump it at their parties that’s awesome. That’s as much as I expected. Hopefully someone will like what I did with this and will contact me for some other work but I’m just happy people are enjoying it.”
Touré is the host of BET’s The Black Carpet and the host of Treasure HD’s I’ll Try Anything Once . He is the author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid, Soul City, and The Portable Promised Land. He was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, was CNN’s first pop-culture correspondent, and was the host of MTV2's Spoke N Heard . His writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times.