FOREWORD: on SoundCloud rap & mashups...
The punk rap movement and its persisting vice grip on platform-of-choice SoundCloud has been covered in droves by several unlikely media outlets. To illustrate the penetrating power of the new underground, New York Times embedded an orange SoundCloud player locked and loaded with Lil Pump’s infamous “D rose” smack dab in the middle of this article from last June. But the actual dissection of the how, the why, and the who surrounding the new scene isn’t the most interesting bit here—at least not in this review. While new subgenre classifications like “punk rap” and “lo-fi rap” aren’t exactly misnomers, using them to actually refer to the likes of Ski Mask, Smokepurpp and Lil Pump is definitely not the right slang. Imagine someone asking you if you smoke pot instead of weed. Exactly. It’s an easy way to identify the uninitiated, or the out-of-touch. A much more acceptable genre title in conversation: SoundCloud rap. The music itself can most easily be identified by the platform it uses. In many ways this further indicates the strength and popularity of the genre’s styles, sounds, and idiosyncrasies because it has completely altered the consciousness of the entire website.
But what about types of music that also primarily live on other media platforms? Enter the mashup, a subgenre that lives and thrives on YouTube for the most part. Now, to use Lil Pump as an example once again: you wouldn’t call this video YouTube rap, or YouTube pop or any other pot-smoking pea-brained idea like that. It’s a mashup. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a pretty good one. And the core element of the music is the near seamless mashing up between Lil Pump’s “Flex Like Ouu” and—amazingly—the Wii Shop Channel theme song. Hence the name, because YouTube merely fits the needs of mashup music, but not its style. In this case the platform cannot ostensibly inform the music, nor vice versa. Mashups live on YouTube because the subgenre’s reliance on previously licensed music blocks it from the major streaming platforms; and SoundCloud and Bandcamp already have their own flagship styles (“Hey thanks for coming out guys, you can find us on Bandcamp—oh, we’re selling t-shirts and pins on the table out front!”).
If anything, this is precisely why mashups find themselves to be most successful on YouTube. The shock of two or more unlikely sources becoming one is itself an abstract meme, a joke that you don’t mind being told several times over, a framework that can lead to plenty brilliant one-liners in the comments. This is especially true when mashups are broken down into common time signatures or simple beat matching. This video is a perfect example: incorporating 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” Smash Mouth’s “All Star” and countless others into the melody of weeaboo anthem “Renai Circulation” in less than four minutes. Speaking of “All Star” specifically, it should be noted that Neil Cicierega’s obsession with the song has now spanned three full albums. Now, while these great projects have been praised elsewhere on YouTube for their ability to take this shock and horror approach and lead it into a genuinely enjoyable musical experience, I want it to also be known that mashups can be great and serious simultaneously. And let it be known that, more often than not, any mashups shared on Complex, Pidgeons & Planes, and the similar internet outlets are universally awful and are only featured because they source Drake or Chance the Rapper, etc. As you would expect, here is where the essential shock of a mashup is pigeonholed as clickbait. But there do exist mashup projects that are not just incredulous, but actually incredible.
Vinyl Fantasy 7
This leads me to Vinyl Fantasy 7. As the name would suggest, Vinyl Fantasy 7 is a hip hop mashup album released in 2010 by Team Teamwork, a project that predates YouTube as we know it and most of its musical conventions. You can tell this most evidently because it’s actually difficult to find the album in full on YouTube itself; thankfully the album is still up on SoundCloud and available for free download here hosted by Team Teamwork himself.
To relate back to my previous points, it is fair to say that on paper alone the combination of Final Fantasy 7 and hip hop’s recent previous eras can elicit shock. In fact, it’s quite easy to say that Cloud, Tifa, and Sephiroth bumping heads with the likes of Jay-Z, MF DOOM, and Gucci Mane is unusual and warrants special attention. But what allows Vinyl Fantasy 7 to ascend leagues beyond a good mashup album or even a great mashup album is its willingness to treat its source material on both sides with due diligence. The result is a full tracklist of hip hop verses and hooks that are elevated to new heights, a fully-fledged collision between two worlds.
To start I think it’s invaluable to note that in the context of my longstanding relationship to this album, I had absolutely no nostalgic connection whatsoever to the Final Fantasy 7 instrumentals themselves upon first listen. I say this because, even without any knowledge and experience in this world, Team Teamwork’s deft selection of hip hop verses allowed me to glean the essence of each instrumental with ease. This is most evident on the more aggressive mashups in the track listing. “Ante Up (Battle!)” ingeniously joins the unhinged lyrical delivery of M.O.P. with the ubiquitous fight song from the game, creating a fresh and detailed war anthem. Meanwhile, both versions of Sephiroth’s theme song—the essential big, bad, edgy villain of the game—with Clipse’s “Fast Life” and Slum Village’s “Get Dis Money” on two separate tracks. The result is irresistible: the instrumentals originally scored to instill fear into the player are tamed. The magnitude of the villain is distilled into a slick, trap-inspired energy that is conducted into the listener themselves. Now you aren’t facing the villain, you are the villain.
But Vinyl Fantasy 7 also possesses impressive emotional breadth to accompany its inventive song structuring and fresh drum enhancements. “Me and this Jawn (Mideel),” all things considered, can easily contend for a hip hop love song award with its sweet and earnest lyrical delivery and shimmering, crystalline drums and chimes. Likewise, hip hop sleeper hits like MF DOOM’s “Air” and Dorrough’s “Ice Cream Paintjob” are imbued with a glowing sense of opulence, playfulness, and humor that cannot be matched by their original counterparts. Even Jay-Z’s “Lucifer” is more devilish and sinister than ever placed perfectly in marching rhythm with the bell towers and eerie synths of the Mako Reactor theme song.
Most advantageous to Vinyl Fantasy 7 is its proper sequencing of all these mashups in proper story order. In this way, the wide range of vocalists and instrumental moods encountered in the 40-minute runtime approach the listener like proper characters, shades of a mysterious story that the listener must puzzle out for themselves. In this way Gucci Mane, Kool Keith, and even Tom Waits (the only non-hip hop vocalist featured) become suitable storytelling partners. With this overall sense of coherence, the projects most emotional moments gain permanence in the listener’s minds. Tom Waits’ harsh, gravelly voice clashing with the massive drum breaks and arpeggios on “The Prelude” is an easy example. Jenova’s theme, likewise, turns “Lyrically Inclined” into one of the most energized, star-powered hip hop performances of the millennium.
But what’s best about this project is shared with most of its competition: potential to discover new musical avenues otherwise unexplored and new worlds altogether. This album introduced me to numerous emcees that I now consider to be library standards and the entire world of Final Fantasy to boot. Vinyl Fantasy 7 is an album that is overlooked, underrated, foundational, and altogether essential listening for mashup fans, hip hop fans, and video game fans. It’s a shining example of the potential of a genre that is otherwise too often bogged down with mediocrity, fake hype, and memes. Seven years after its first release Vinyl Fantasy 7 is still an instantly satisfying, eternally rewarding experience front to back.