Four Guys from Liverpool, Nine Guys from Staten Island

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday, January 24 edition of NOW! as the first entry in my new column on hip-hop music and western pop culture, “A Man and His Mixtape.”

If there is one institution that has made hip-hop such a dynamic and nuanced force the past decade, that has fueled the rivalries and the collaborations, that makes the medium so prolific, that institution is the mixtape. A rapper will take established beats, the beats of other artists, and spit new verses for them. The result is something both novel and happily familiar. This willingness to reinvent and recycle the old is an instinct that reaches to the core of hip-hop, to the technique of creating beats out of samples of other genres of music.

While there have already been several great mixtapes released in the first few weeks of 2010, if you ask me the hottest thing to drop so far this decade is not a mixtape at all, nor an original album. It is the mashup Wu Tang Vs. The Beatles: Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers. Mashups are close cousins of mixtapes, but in this case both parts — beats and vocals — are familiar. The artistry comes from merging often extremely disparate elements in appropriate or occasionally ironic ways. Though Beatles purists may bristle at the thought of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s 60s masterpieces being cut up and sullied by the 90s gangster grit of The RZA, GZA, Ghostface Killah, ODB, Raekwon and the rest, the result for the rest of us is fantastic.

This is not the first mashup to pair the admirals of The British Invasion with titans of rap. A more well-known predecessor, DJ Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album matched samples from The Beatles’ The White Album with the vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album. The combination won acclaim for being so novel (for its time) and fame from the controversy of Apple, the record company that viciously guards the copyrights to all Beatles songs, attempting to purge the unlicensed work from the Internet. In the end, however, The White Album’s gentle guitar riffs failed to match the urgency of Jay-Z’s flow, and the mashup remains more of a historical blip than an album to be listened to over and over again. (A better match for Jay-Z was found in the bouncy anthems of Weezer’s The Blue Album, which was used to create, unsurprisingly, The Black and Blue Album.)

Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers doesn’t have that problem. The Wu’s relaxed and sassy lyrics feel right at home over the twangy, peaceful sounds of the culturally ubiquitous psychedelic classics. From putting ODB’s gold digger worries in “Got Your Money” over a melancholy cover of “You Never Give Me Your Money” by a female singer, to Lennon’s opening lines in “Come Together” transitioning cleanly into Method Man’s “Release Yo Self,” the whole collection is fun and winking in its thematic pairings. Tracks open and end with either the classic Wu Tang skits or snippets of Beatles interviews from throughout their career, or some clever combination thereof. In the end, Wu Tang Vs. The Beatles has one big thing going for it where many mashups fall short: it is eminently listenable.

The Wu Tang Vs. The Beatles mashup album, Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers, can be downloaded for free at http://wutangvsthebeatles.bandcamp.com/.

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