BOOTYLICIOUS! – Bootlegs And Why I Love Them

“Some of these bootleggers / They make pretty good stuff…” (Bob Dylan, “Sugar Baby”, 2001 – sample it!)

SKEE-LO – “I Wish (Soulwax Remix)”
It was a hot Oxford August night, the second or third time we’d put on Club Sussed, and attendance was not, shall we say, all it might have been. Aware that my fledgling DJ gig might be about to be pulled out from under me, I did the obvious thing and got monstrously drunk. Steve was playing the last set of the night so I hit the floor (almost literally) with the four or five other people still hanging around. I don’t know what I expected to hear but it wasn’t “Eye Of The Tiger”. It certainly wasn’t “Eye Of The Tiger” with the vocals from Skee-Lo’s minor hip-hop hit “I Wish”. And it really absolutely definitely wasn’t a mix of “Eye Of The Tiger” into the Breeders’ “Cannonball” with the vocals from “I Wish” bumping along the top as if nothing had happened. In my booze-induced euphoria I thought Steve was mixing all this stuff himself – without vinyl! What kind of God was I running a club with?

Six months on Steve is making his first ‘bootlegs’, I’m writing about them, and Club Sussed is still going, playing that track and lots more on a hopefully regular basis. Oh, and they’re getting talked about on Radio 4, played on Radio 1, debated on every music forum going, and Kylie Minogue just went onstage at the BRIT Awards doing a mix of her “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” with New Order’s “Blue Monday”. As is my habit I’ve been thinking about them as well as dancing to them, and this piece is a result of that – a celebration of the bootlegs I love and some of the ones I don’t. I wanted to start with the Skee-Lo story, though, because it’s still the favourite bootleg of a lot of people I know, and because I wanted to underline that beyond everything else they might do, most bootlegs are party music. Even if bootlegs were just novelty records, they’re novelty records you can dance and have a fantastic time with: don’t let that get lost in the many, many paragraphs to follow!

Everything has to start somewhere. Definition is not the aim of this piece, and bootlegging is great because it’s now, not because it’s new. But the ECC’s mix-up of Public Enemy vocals and Herb Alpert brass is a bootleg, however we end up defining it – one discrete track mixed over the top of another discrete track. This record’s been kicking around since the early 90s – reason enough, some sniffily say, to discount the whole new scene. That kind of thinking pisses me off, and it’s hard to avoid when you start talking about bootlegs – the idea that once you’ve got ‘the point’ about mixing tracks up, and had a laugh with one record, you’ve heard everything the genre has to offer.

But I have to admit that this kind of join-the-dots gameplaying is what the bootlegs themselves seem to offer too. When I see a list of new bootleg MP3s of course the ones I click on first are the ones where A + B = C and I know A and B already. For a lot of people – probably including most of the actual bootleggers – this is what the scene is all about. You hear Chuck D over Herb Alpert and it’s funny once or twice and then the thrill of recognition fades, so you delete it and move on to the next custom-pop kick.

The absurd output rates of Djs like Frenchbloke and Son confirm this: bootlegs are novelty music, and it’s the novelty aspect if anything which is going to be the motor driving the scene upward and onward. Frenchbloke himself – or Osymyso or Teddyedwards or the Freelance Hellraiser – would probably look at you funny if you said “Yeah, I think these records are brilliant pop and maybe that makes them brilliant art too”. If you said, in other words, that bootlegs had some kind of value as well as the novelty factor – which is exactly what I do want to say.

Back to “Whipped Cream”. Is it a good bootleg, anyway? It’s a funny track and I like it, but it’s funny because it works against the original Chuck D vocal, deflating it, making him sound a bit windy and stupid. And at the same time it doesn’t tell us much about Herb Alpert except that his Tijuana Brass were the kind of slick studio boys who could play behind anything – even in their virtual, unknowing sleep! Which we could have guessed anyway. So here’s a first step towards my answer to the question – “What makes a good bootleg?”. A good bootleg casts a new light on at least one of its component parts – and ideally that light should be a flattering one. Bootlegs notice something in the tracks they’re stealing from, and tease it out further.

OSYMISO – “Intro-Inspection”
Of course there were mix-and-match records way before the Evolution Control Committee. Ancestors of bootlegs – and skip this paragraph if you wisely don’t care – include the early hip-hoppers, particularly “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel”, and the cut-up DJs that followed them (Steinski and Coldcut, for instance). They include Negativland and John Oswald and the KLF, all of whom used their skills and others’ songs to make overt art-political points about creativity and copyright and censorship and pop itself. The list of progenitors runs wider and deeper: older novelty medley records – Stars On 45, Hooked On Classics – and any old medley record come to think of it. On hot, stupid days my favourite ever single is “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen, a straight steal-and-mix from two other surfin’ records. The Trashmen didn’t have MP3s to work from or CoolEdit to play with, so they just covered the bits they liked instead, but the principle – a magpie’s eye view of pop, cannibalising good records to make them better – is the same.