Punk legend/Dischord label owner Ian MacKaye, commenting on the declining state of the record industry, pointed out that music was like water. It had always existed, and will always exist, regardless of how it is commodified. The fact that people buy less bottled water doesn’t mean they drink less water, they just do it in ways that are less profitable for large corporations. Following that analogy, mixtapes are like Nalgene or Sigg refillable water bottles, offering listeners the opportunity to tap into the rivers of music available for free (plus the cost of a computer and Internet connection, of course). The economics of mixtapes are still fuzzy, and many artists probably fail to recoup the costs of recording and releasing mixtapes, but they can be a valuable way to hear artists you might not check out if it involved plopping down ten or fifteen bucks. Free mixtapes also offer a gray legal area where recycling and remixing other artists’ music is permissible, or at least difficult to prosecute.
Music is like water in another important way: it is an essential component of life. There is no better reminder of how fundamental music is to the human experience than to listen to music from other countries and cultures. In that regard, the Very Best are a perfect example both of the power of music and the importance of mixtapes. The Very Best is Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya and Euro producers Radioclit. They began making waves last year by remixing M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” and continued their winning streak with remixes of songs by R&B artists like Maya and indie rock acts like Architecture in Helsinki, all of which are on this mixtape. “Tengazako,” their take on “Paper Planes,” is a logical progression of the world hip hop that M.I.A. created on “Kala.” Diplo’s beat remains intact, but M.I.A.’s voice has been replaced by Mwamwaya’s gorgeous singing in his native Chichewa. I have no idea what he’s singing about, but he’s clearly keeping with the intent of the original song. Later on the album they tackle “Boyz,” managing to blow both Jay-Z’s and Wale’s remixes out of the water.
Their take on indie rock is particularly fitting, given how hot African rhythms have become with the hipster set. They flip Vampire Weekend’s preppie interpolation of South African music on its head, turning “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” into something authentically African instead of a long-distance imitation. On “Kamphopo,” they rework an Architecture in Helsinki track until the twee indie pop leanings of the original are barely recognizable, and “Birthday” offers a radical reinterpretation of the Ruby Suns reinterpretation of the Beatles song. The Radioclit originals like “Funa Funa” stand their own against the remixes and reworkings on the album, proving that these guys are equally adept at creating new material as they are working with other artists’ music. Through it all, Mwamwaya’s voice remains beautiful and compelling, despite being unintelligible. Yet another important fact about music: you don’t need to understand what the singer is saying. It’s the way they sing that is important, and Mwamwaya’s emotions are crystal clear no matter what language you speak.
Like M.I.A., the Very Best’s music is global, spanning multiple continents and genres. The group itself is international; Mwamwaya lives in London, Radioclit are from Europe, and their label is based in New York. The music incorporates elements from music from the entire continent of Africa, reggaeton, Brazilian music, American hip hop, and whatever else the group feels like dabbling in. The only real misfire is the one step into cheesy world music territory (whose idea was it to cover Michael Jackson’s song from “Free Willy?”). This one stinker is more than made up for by inspired tracks like “Salota,” which borrows El-P’s fun-crushed beat from Cannibal Ox’s “Life’s Ill.”
“Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit are the Very Best” is the equivalent of taking a multi-continent trip to the nightclubs and block parties in all four corners of the globe, and at a much more affordable price. Of course, like all good dealers the Very Best is hoping that this free taste will get you hooked on their product, and you’ll shell out some actual cash for their forthcoming debut. If their official album is anywhere as good and interesting as this mixtape, it will be well worth your hard-earned cash.
The mixtape can be downloaded for free HERE.