Mark Vidler has a knack for making opposites attract. The British music producer is one of the leading practitioners of the mash-up, an art form in which a disc jockey cuts and pastes songs from very different genres to create unusual hybrids. One of Mr. Vidler's recipes goes like this: Take a dash of Lionel Richie's piano from "Hello," sprinkle in the vocal from The Police's "Wrapped Around Your Finger," pour in the melody line of Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives," add a slither of Peggy Lee singing "Fever," and garnish with a pinch of back-up vocals from The Hollies and Led Zeppelin. Now mix ... but ... very carefully....
"People can now put software on their computer and reinterpret their favorite bands in a way that they find is interesting," says Mr. Vidler.
The DJ is poised to take the burgeoning music form mainstream. Until now, mash-ups have largely been an underground phenomenon because of the murky copyright issues involved. But Vidler, who first attracted notice by creating a mash-up of "God Save the Queen" by The Sex Pistols and Madonna's "Ray of Light," has been signed to the EMI label to create a whole album of mash-ups - the first official (and legal) album of its kind. In the interim, he's enjoying great success with one of the tracks that will appear on that record, a mash-up of Blondie's "Rapture" and "Riders on the Storm" by The Doors. Already a hit in the Netherlands, Italy, and Australia, "Rapture Riders" was recently released in the US as a single from Blondie's new "Greatest Hits: Sound and Vision" album.
"It was one of those things I heard in the deepest recesses in my mind while I was in the shower one evening back in 2004," says Vidler by phone from his London studio. "I was just listening to one of the pop stations in the UK and 'Rapture' came on. The funny thing is that I had been dabbling with a few Doors tracks that day as well, and 'Riders on the Storm' just kind of stuck in my head. And it clicked that they were both in the same key."
After the track was posted to Vidler's website (www.gohomeproductions.co.uk) as a free download in 2004, Blondie's webmaster heard the song and sent it to Chris Stein of the band. The Blondie guitarist was thrilled with the unusual alchemy of Jim Morrison's tremulous tales of a doom-laden road trip and Debbie Harry's bubbly rap about, well, a Martian invader with an appetite for cars. Following a few boardroom meetings with the surviving members of The Doors, the track was cleared for release.
Mash-ups aren't an entirely new phenomenon - musicians have practiced various forms of sampling from other artists since at least the 1950s - but they've taken off in recent years due to the availability of digital songs and the ease of computer technology. Many established artists have noticed the trend, recognizing that mash-ups can introduce their back catalogs to new listeners. Record companies now send Vidler masters of recordings for him to play around with in the hope that he might create a hit out of them. David Bowie even commissioned Vidler to create "Rebel Never Gets Old," a mash-up of two of Bowie's songs - one old, one new - that became a Top 40 hit in Britain.
"It's a new way of introducing youngsters and old people to back catalogues," says Vidler. "[Record companies] have embraced the concept."
Yet copyright law still presents gray areas. Literally. When a DJ named Danger Mouse created "The Grey Album" by fusing the Beatles's "White Album" with Jay-Z's "The Black Album" in 2004, it spurred a flurry of cease-and-desist letters from the Beatles camp. (Jay-Z, on the other hand, was inspired to collaborate with hard rockers Linkin Park on a mash-up album called "Collision Course.")
Vidler, too, has created Beatles mash-ups.
"I was told initially, when EMI signed me up, 'We love your Beatles stuff, but don't even attempt to ask us to clear it because we wouldn't know where to start,' " he recalls. "They're frightened of discovering where the publishing rights lie. It's easier to clear stuff with Paul McCartney's solo material ... but when it comes to the Beatles you've got so many interests."
Other bands, such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, are tetchy about others tampering with their heritage, but most established artists turn a blind eye to the practice so long as the DJs aren't profiting from their creations.
The musician says he believes that mash-ups have taken off in recent years because the iPod generation is accustomed to listening to songs on "random shuffle" and is less tribal about the types of genres it listens to.
Even so, many listeners may be shocked to visit Vidler's website and discover the marriage of Christina Aguilera and Van Halen on one track, or Whitney Houston taking the place of vocalist Thom Yorke on Radiohead's "There There." ("I think Thom Yorke would be far happier having Marvin Gaye take over the vocal duties," says the DJ with a laugh.) Neither mash-up made the cut for his album, due out this summer, but he has worked with EMI to get permission to combine, among others, Franz Ferdinand and Malcolm McClaren. Each artist on the CD will split the royalties, with Vidler receiving a producer's cut.
Vidler, a one-time guitarist in a band called Chicane, believes that his background as a musician has given him an edge as an arranger. But he says his album project isn't the peak of his art. He's just getting started. "I still think the ultimate mash-up has yet to be found," he says.