WHITEOUT: DJ White Noise
For any of those who have frequented frat row this past year, you may have become familiar with the mash-up beats of DJ White Noise, aka Mike McCourt. This political science sophomore, and staff head of Jam 91, The Lion 90.7fm’s hip hop show, has managed to garner Penn State cult fame status, and has even traveled on request to lay down the funk for parties at schools such as Bucknell University and Villanova University. In early April, he released his sixth album, WHITEOUT, sponsored by DirtyMexicanLemonade.com. In light of this recent release, I met up with White Noise to uncover the foundation and inspirations behind this “cut and paste” composer.
Onward State: Now I assume that GarageBand or Pro Tools wasn’t your first musical “instrument.” Can you tell me about your musical background?
White Noise: Well, I played the tuba back in grade school, then I picked up the saxophone, and eventually piano and guitar. It all actually comes into play a lot in mash-up because back in high school, I took a music theory class, and the knowledge I gained from that I use in pretty much every mash-up, from transposing stuff to matching keys.
OS: So how did you come to start making mash-ups?
WN: I had never really heard of mash-up before; I had no idea what it was. But I went to this one party, and my friend played “Sweet Home Alabama” vs. “Country Grammar.” And I was like, “Holy shit, this is awesome!” He sent me a bunch of other songs, and I began to wonder if I could make this music. So I opened up GarageBand and threw down “99 Horrors,” the beat of “The Horror,” by Rjd2 mixed with Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” At first, it was me and a bunch of my friends doing it. Basically we would download a rap instrumental and a rap a capella, and then just put them together. Eventually they stopped doing it, but I kept going, evolving to the Girl Talk-esque style you hear now.
OS: But why mash-ups? Why is this where your passion lies?
WN: At first– I’m not sure if this is what drives me now– it was because I was never one to enjoy mainstream pop. Like “Country Grammar,” I knew the song, I had heard it, but I never really liked it that much. Growing up, I was one of those kids that was like, “You can’t spell crap without the rap.” I listened to The Beatles and Dave Matthews Band. Rock, and that was it. But once I heard mash-ups, it gave me a way to enjoy those popular songs that everyone else was listening to. So when I started making my own mash-ups, I tried to take songs that I didn’t really like, and mixed them with a song that I do like, so that artists like Ke$ha could be tolerable. Whether it is because of mash-ups or not, I am a lot more tolerable of pop and hip hop now, so maybe I do it now because I love the music (laughs).
OS: So I have to ask, how do you even begin a mash-up? There seems to be a million samples in each song, and I have no idea how I could start such a project.
WN: (laughs) At the very start, when I make the A v B kind of song [one song’s beat mixed with the vocals of another], I just hear one song, and realize that it sounds like some other song I know, based off an interval, melody, or core progression. These songs are all pretty well planned out once I get started. Once I get into the Girl Talk, “bastard pop,” it’s a little more complicated. I find a song that I want to sample, but not what I want to sample it with necessarily. So I create a loop, and go into my iTunes library and just search for something to put on top if it. That’s the hardest part. Actually creating the mix is easy. The real challenge is finding songs that are in the same key, same tempo range, and other details like that, that I can actually loop over top of that other part. My basic formula is find a good drum track, and then a good guitar or piano riff from a rock song, and then adding in a rap a capella. Rap a capella’s are nice because it’s just a matter of matching tempo; rap has no key. But I always try to add in pop melodies that match in key, so it isn’t just rap, rap, rap, rap.
OS: How long does it take to make a song?
WN: Well, when I’m doing an A v B song, I have finished songs in about 25 minutes. The more intuitive, mega-mix ones, just to get a rough draft down, it takes about five to six hours. Then when I begin tweaking and revising them, I have spent a whole year working on them, making sure each fill and transition is perfect. I also go through these mashing binges, where for one week, as soon as I get back from classes, I’m working on songs. Then, for a month after, I won’t touch a single song. I’m on and I’m off, and I don’t know what that is, sometimes I’m feeling it and sometimes I’m not. If I could cut back on that, I could probably come out with an album every month (laughs).
OS: In comparison to a majority of other musical styles, mash-up is one that you have to really consider the interest of the audience. Do you ever feel that you have to limit your ideas to meet the standards of the audience?
WN: I just have to keep in mind that my target audience is kids partying, and for whatever reason, at a party, they do not want to hear any new songs. It’s as if they have this perception, “I haven’t heard this before, therefore it sucks,” and I just think, at least give it a shot. All they are listening to is Top 40 stuff, and that really just limits the pool of what I can play. If you’re vision is that narrow, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. It just amazes me that I am being paid to take care of the music playlist; I am taking that load off their shoulders, and yet so many people come up to me and request music. Aren’t there more important things to worry about right now? Grabbing some booze and talking to someone of the other sex? The worst is, and I hear this all the time, when girls tell me it is their birthday (laughs). That’s great, but I don’t care.
I will be playing up-beat techno, and girls will come requesting me to play “Teach Me How to Dougie,” and I won’t do it. I structure my playlists specifically so that they gradually keep building up throughout the night, to encourage more people to dance, so I’m not going to switch back to a slower rap song. It might not bother them very much, but that’s because it’s just one of those details people overlook. People think what I’m doing is just pressing a few buttons, but it is so much more than that. Some people just consider me a service, but I know that what I do is a performance.
Album Review: WHITEOUT
Dirty Mexican Lemonade, a music forum dedicated to college mixes, describes WHITEOUT as “pure audio gold,” and there is no disputing this fact. When McCourt told me that he has gotten much better with mixing and production since his earlier releases, he wasn’t lying. With 20 tracks wielding a formidable 110+ samples, it is easy too see his adroit ability to seamlessly weave samples from opposite edges of the musical spectrum, not only on top of each other, but in each transition. In the song “All By Yourself,” in a matter of about 3 minutes, he combines Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulders” and The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” which segues into the instrumental build-up of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” mixing samples of Gucci Mane’s “I’m The Shit,” and Lil Jon’s “Snap Yo Fingers,” with Chris Martin’s ever-familiar croon. These kind of amalgamations not only give listeners something to shake their ass to, but lead to fan-favorite, and even sometimes impassioned sing-a-longs.
Yet, beyond his technical prominence, I am most impressed by his seemingly unthinkable choices in song mixture. It is the job of a mash-up artist to always have his or her audience on their toes, struggling to hold back a smile when they hear two or more songs that they love in unison, a wave of sheer excitement trickling throughout their body. It is not an easy task to create something that makes people think, “I would have never guessed to put these songs together,” and yet remain familiar. Biggie + Elton John + a dash of Steam? I will let you hear just how good that is for yourself (see the song “Tony Danza”). Another surprise comes in the song “And You Said,” where Phil Collins’, “In the Air Tonight,” is mixed with underground hip hop wordsmith Aesop Rock’s “None Shall Pass,” proving McCourt’s comprehensive reach in the musical realm (seriously, he made a mash-up with Phil Collins… tell me that’s not awesome).
As we all prepare ourselves for the sunny summer days, you are going to need to find that perfect summer soundtrack. By combining elements from songs of all genres, there is nothing better than a solid mash-up album to narrate your days. And with an album as good as WHITEOUT, you are going to have one hell of a summer. You can download WHITEOUT here for free, get the download links for his previous works under the Downloads tab of his Facebook, and get updates on new music, shows and more by following him on Twitter @WhiteNoiseMash.
(This song is from a previous release, not WHITEOUT).