Without Clearance

Or, how Eminem's hit single spawned a dozen of the best (illegal) songs ever.

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Mathers & Oates? The pairing of Eminem's "Without - Me" and Hall & Oates's "I Can't Go for That" might be - the best single of the year. Too bad it's illegal.
Mathers & Oates? The pairing of Eminem's "Without Me" and Hall & Oates's "I Can't Go for That" might be the best single of the year. Too bad it's illegal.

What burbles through the veins of the online underground soon enough trickles into the mainstream, and by the time The New York Times comes sniffing around, the trend has usually passed its expiration date. Yesterday's Brand New Thing is today's forgotten fad. Seems like only yesterday we were praising Freelance Hellraiser's miraculous mash-up -- "A Stroke of Genius," which features Christina Aguilera singing "Genie in a Bottle" over the Strokes' "Hard to Explain," with nary a note or beat altered -- and now we discover the fad is finished, or so rags like Spin and Britain's Uncut would have us believe.

But the fact is, the spotlight has only illuminated a cavernous underground, where bedroom DJs sit and spin their Frankenstein creations, which take the words from one song and fuse them with the music from another. Take this monstah: "Bring the Music," which merges the lyrics from Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" with the music of M's "Pop Muzik," resulting in the whitest bit of militant rap, uh, ever. Or "Wonderwoman," which grafts the melody of Oasis's "Wonderwall" to Lil' Mo's low-key rap single "Super Woman," rendering it Britpop by way of Strong Island. As the mashers' proponents and practitioners like to point out, these are amazing songs not because they merely fuse the previously incompatible, but because they render the familiar absolutely, brilliantly brand-new -- and they do so without losing the integrity of the two parties suffering through this shotgun marriage. This isn't just a novelty, a cynical P. Diddy remix, but a wondrous love affair that gives birth to a beautiful baby you want to look at (or, OK, listen to) all day, every day.

(Quick aside to point out obvious irony: It's considered genius when "Roy" Hellraiser or one of his plugged-in peers commits this copyright transgression, but when Mariah Carey sings over Tom Tom Club, she's called out for being lazy. And no, this mash-'em-up "movement" does not consider "Ice Ice Baby" as its linchpin, though maybe it should. Robbie Van Winkle, we salute you.)

But as evidenced by the treasures constantly being unearthed at the Brit-based Boom Selection (www.base58.com/booms/), there's still plenty of gold left in those mine shafts, plenty of cutting and pasting and mashing left to do, now that everybody's in on the secret. The subculture has moved out of the basement and out to the pool: As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2 -- credited to 2 Many DJs and featuring such "collaborations" as Emerson, Lake & Palmer groovin' "Peter Gunn" to Basement Jaxx's "Where's Your Head At" and the Stooges pushin' it with Salt N Pepa -- is the album of the year, if not ever. Same goes for The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever, a best-of compilation that also finds Destiny's Child in Nirvana -- and the audience, too, for that matter.

The boom in the boot culture has also brought us a dozen or so of the best singles of 2002 -- all of which happen to be Eminem's "Without Me," sort of. Steve Mannion and the fine folks at Boom Selection were kind enough to post to their site a cappella and instrumental versions of Marshall Mathers's hit, which would-be Hellraisers can download for a little mix-and-match mayhem. This has made Em one happy rapper: "I think that shit is fucking bullshit," he has said. "Whoever put my shit on the Internet, I want to meet that motherfucker and beat the shit out of him." Ooh, how veddy nice of him.

Thus far, some 30 versions of "Without Me" have made it to the Boom Selection's site (www.base58.com/withoutme), most of which are kinda sloppy and kinda crappy -- say, that version that fuses it with Human League's 1981 hit "Don't You Want Me." Great concept, poor execution. But for every bust or two, there's a brilliant hit single you'll never hear -- on the radio, at least, as record companies have proved they have no interest in these remixes hitting the stores or the airwaves. (When a London radio station tried playing "A Stroke of Genius," Aguilera's publisher promptly issued a cease-and-desist order -- which is a shame, since it's the best thing she's ever, or never, done.)

Astonishingly, Em goes well with just about everything: Wings and Hall & Oates, Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley, Blondie and Prodigy. He's one-size-fits-all, plug-and-play, a man for all genres. Some are oddities you'll listen to once or twice, but never revisit -- the take that fuses Eminem with Stereolab or the one that finds Mathers rapping over Dexy's Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen," both of which are busier than a Manhattan hooker during Fleet Week. Some are cool little novelties, precious jokes, but not much more; one, which is way too short, lifts only the lyrics about Moby and layers them over a snippet from his "Natural Blues." And then there are the obvious choices: U2's "With or Without You," which becomes "With or Without Me" (haha), for starters.

The best of the lot let the lyrics play out in their entirety, yet somehow recast "Without Me" in someone else's image. Their creators -- who go by such names as The Toxteth Crusher, Spaced Ghost, B.R.K., and Denboy (surprisingly, none is called Lives in Parents' Basement) -- barely touch the lyrics (no slowing down or speeding up to keep pace with the beat), yet make it sound entirely unique.

It's oddly moving when commingled with Hall & Oates's "I Can't Go for That," bright and cheery when Marr-ed by the Smiths' "This Charming Man," disco-dancy after getting tangled up in Michael Jackson's "Burn This Disco Out" and Angie Stone's "Wish I Didn't Miss You," funky as old underpants when retrofitted with the Elvis Presley-Junkie XL "A Little Less Conversation" redo currently topping the pops in England, and as classic-rock as a hoisted Bic when battling Led Zep's "The Wanton Song." The Timo Maas "Get Down" mash-up is better than the real thing, and not surprisingly, Slim Shady also sounds right at home in the company of Prodigy, who "Breathe" new life into the song; you always knew Marshall was just a punk. Oddly, no one's yet fused Em's "Without Me" with Robert Goulet's "Without Me" (from The Happy Time soundtrack), though surely it's but a matter of time.

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