This is my favorite single moment from Doug Pray’s DJ documentary Scratch: Mixmaster Mike, best known as the Beastie Boys’ DJ, in his home listening to a record of Robert Johnson’s "Ramblin’ on My Mind," and then scratching the everliving shizznit out of it.
Why do I love this clip so much? For one thing, there’s the expression on Mixmaster Mike’s face as he’s listening to the record, just standing there and bobbing his head but otherwise just listening, getting ready to start scratching. Then he grins and he’s off. I love that grin. I look at Mixmaster Mike as he smiles and I think I know that feeling — that drunk wired-up feeling of the performing body about to take flight. That’s what I love about this clip, the feeling of flight, the representation of a musical performance at the moment of lift-off. The fact that what Mixmaster Mike plays is awesome simply confirms that exultant moment in which he slips free of musical gravity.
There’s a common point of view within popular music scholarship that understands such moments as instances of critical trangression — that is, moments in which mass-culture dreck is redeemed through an artist’s creative redefinition of it. The old version of this was a certain interpretation of what it meant when jazz musicians subjected old Tin Pan Alley standards to bebop’s chord substitutions and lightning tempos. These techniques defamiliarized (i.e., messed up) those old standards, and the assumption was that beboppers were messing with those old standards in order to keep an ironic distance from their sentimentality. Joseph Schloss, in his fine study of hiphop production, Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop, quotes Elizabeth Wheeler’s interpretation of De La Soul’s "Say No Go," which follows the same line of thought:
The mixes of De La Soul epitomize the art of ironic sampling. As the basis for "Say No Go," the story of a crack baby, producer Prince Paul takes the cheesiest pop song imaginable: "I Can’t Go For That" by the "blue-eyed soul" duo Hall and Oates. De La Soul pick out the incidental line "Don’t even think about it, say no go" and transform it into the centerpiece of their version. The phrase "say no go" leaves the context of an insipid love story and lands in the ghetto, where babies addicted to crack cocaine are born every day . . .
"Say No Go" also contains the blank pastiche that links hip-hop most closely with postmodernism. Ultimately, you cannot tell what De La Soul think of Hall and Oates; they use "I Can’t Go For That" not only ironically but neutrally. Out of the corny, Prince Paul salvages the hip: one compelling seven-note riff and one soulful twist of Daryl Hall’s voice.
Schloss asked Prince Paul what he thought about this interpretation:
PP: Wow. That’s pretty deep. But I think the bottom line is just: that was a good song! . . . We didn’t consciously think of "Hall and Oates," "Resurrecting," you know, "Postmodern." We was just like, "Wow. Remember that song? That’s hot!"
JS: See, that’s part of it, too . . . she assumes that you think that song is corny. . . . I thought that there was a lot behind making an assumption like that. Like, "Oh, well somebody like Prince Paul couldn’t actually like that song, because . . ."
PP: Nah, that was a hot song!
This "ironic distance" style of interpretation clearly doesn’t explain Mixmaster Mike’s cut-up of "Ramblin’ on my Mind." Mixmaster Mike isn’t keeping his distance from the song he’s cutting up; neither does his scratching represent some kind of triumph over or diminishment of it. When you perform, you perform something; and your relationship to that something is, ideally, transcendental. But you are not transcending what you perform; you are simply transcending, intransitively. In the best moments of performance you fly into the ether, and what you perform is both what bears you aloft and what you take with you.