There's probably no form of music more soulless than the mash-up, that chimera created for the most part by Internet-savvy kids with cheap sound-editing programs. Sure, the synergy of a mix can sometimes outshine the source material--50 Cent meeting Nine Inch Nails, Missy Elliott fronting Joy Division---but most mash-ups are musical one-liners, exercises in irony good for a quick laugh but rarely a second listen. The form just came into its own in the early 2000s, but Gawker's music blog Idolator (among others) has already declared it dead.
So it's sort of surprising that when local rockers Steve Reidell and Aaron Brink--aka STV SLV and ABX--started mixing their own tracks as the Hood Internet this spring they referred to them as mash-ups, rather than "blends" or even "remixes," both of which imply a bit more seriousness. But they're the honest type. "I looked it up on Wikipedia," says Reidell. "Mash-up's probably the best word for it," Brink agrees. Now, even more improbably, they're being hailed by some music bloggers as redeemers of the form.
Part of what makes the Hood Internet's mash-ups so compelling is that Reidell and Brink, who also play together in the local rock band May or May Not, clearly like the indie rock and rap songs they're mixing equally. Free from the smirking irony that's de rigueur in the scene, they piece them together in a way that makes the disparate genres work off each other rather than compete. Almost every weekday since late March they've posted a new track (complete with a Photoshopped publicity shot) to thehoodinternet.com, and while the results are inherently ridiculous--coke rappers Clipse + a synth-happy instrumental break from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah = "Clipse Your Hands Say Wamp Wamp"--they're also brilliant. I've been playing their newly posted first mix tape as much as anything in my current rotation.
Brink is a psychology grad student and Reidell is the art director and webmaster for the Metro. At Estelle's, before the Hood Internet's first-ever DJ set, upstairs at Subterranean a couple Thursdays ago, they're both looking pretty indie-rock in worn-out vintage T-shirts and beat-ass jeans. But both guys go back a ways with hip-hop. Reidell, 28, admits he was a typical 90s alternative kid who avoided mainstream radio and rap music on principle. "I didn't actively dislike it," he says, "but I didn't give it a chance until I was at college." That's where Juvenile's 400 Degrees changed his life. Meanwhile Brink, who's 27, says he "was listening to N.W.A in junior high."
Both started making hip-hop music in college (Reidell at the University of Wisconsin and Brink at the University of Michigan), crafting beats and rhymes in what Reidell describes as "silly little rap group experiments." Those projects didn't go anywhere, but the skills Brink gained using production software put them where they are now. "Clipse Your Hands Say Wamp Wamp" was essentially an experiment to see how indie rock and rap would mix. Brink sent a copy to the tastemaking indie-rock blog Gorilla vs. Bear, which received it enthusiastically. Reidell---who's obsessed with straight-to-video hip-hop movies--had registered thehoodinternet domain, inspired by a minor character from the Cam'ron film Killa Season, and he and Brink planned to use the site to host other people's mash-ups, specifically ones using laughably obscure source materials or ones that just turned out laughably bad. Encouraged by music blogger buzz over their first track, they began making and posting their own indie rock-rap hybrids instead. They got the site going March 26 with "Rock Yo Sea Legs," which mixes the Shins and Crime Mob, and have since maintained a surprisingly high baseline quality. Occasionally they'll even blow right past it to an OMG level that's close to the old Missy/Joy Division classic.
They follow a pretty simple formula. First they find a loopable chunk of music--anything from the New Pornographers to, say, something dancey by Hot Chip--and lay an a cappella rap over it. Reidell and Brink pool their ideas and help each other with technical work, but for the most part they work on mixes individually. Compared to a lot of mash-ups, which can involve extensive editing and EQ manipulation, there's not a lot of computer wizardry going on, but the Hood Internet more than make up for it with their ability to match material. "I'm a Flirt (Shoreline)" replaces the popping, twitching synth funk of R. Kelly's "I'm a Flirt" with a driving, piano-based snippet of Broken Social Scene's "7/4 (Shoreline)," transforming Kelly's claustrophobically tight groove into an expansive, muscular epic. Flipping the formula, they splice the vocal part to "Alala" by Brazilian dance poppers CSS to the tense minor-key instrumental of Rick Ross's "Push It," giving the CSS's Technicolor giddiness a throbbing paranoiac edge.
Other tracks are more typically pranky--the combination of Spoon and Ghostface Killah yields the groan-inducing pun "The Ghostface of You Lingers"---but these guys aren't playing it strictly for laughs. "There are things I take seriously about hip-hop, and things that I think are funny," Brink says. Humor, Reidell points out, plays a major role in rap music anyway, especially stuff coming out of the Dirty South; the Hood Internet's adding jokes to the mix, but without the derisive attitude common to other mash-up producers. A Hood Internet joint is to Eminem rapping over a Michael Jackson track as Shaun of the Dead is to Scary Movie--one is a heartfelt tribute to an imperfect genre, the other is just a staging area for dick jokes. "There are funny things about it, and things that aren't funny about it," says Reidell. "Some of the stuff sounds really good and can be played in the club and people would dance to it."
A couple of years ago, the idea of indie rock infiltrating hip-hop clubs would have been a joke. These days, it's not so hard to imagine. Check out Kanye West's new mix tape, Can't Tell Me Nothing, which samples Daft Punk, Thom Yorke, and Peter Bjorn and John's whistle-based soft rocker "Young Folks." The Hood Internet's already started attracting attention from the hip-hop scene: local DJ and producer Mano chose one of their tracks to open his own recent mix tape. It'll take some work if they want to become fixtures on the club circuit but they seem to be on their way. "Beat matching, I straight up don't know how to do that," Reidell admits. "Our band [May or May Not] takes up a lot of time. There are a lot of instruments, including turntables, that I'd love to learn."
After the interview the Hood Internet starts spinning their first ever DJ set as mash-up team. The bass is too loud, the sound's overall blown out, and their transitions are shaky. But the crowd seems to get it and it looks like the guys are having a blast.
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Rob Warner.