Blood on the Dance Floor

Art, commerce and ideologies all collide in the strange world of the remix

Remixing is kind of like rearranging the furniture in somebody else's house. It's like doing plastic surgery on your best friend's wife to make her more attractive to you. It's like cooking a meal with stuff from your neighbor's fridge.

The name comes from taking isolated snippets of the basic recorded tracks (vocals, drums, etc.) and reconfiguring them, changing the sound of said instruments or even adding new music and vocals. Like hip-hop, remixing is intertwined with club DJs from back in the disco days. It was these DJs and their counterparts in dub reggae who played two records on two turntables at the same time, mixing and matching beats and phrases until something new and original was created.

There's an art to creating a successful remix. It isn't as structured as writing haiku, but remixers generally have to craft something new out of pre-existing music. Ordinarily, a digital tape with different parts of the original song (the drums, keyboards, vocals) is given to the remixer. The remixer then loops these bits together using samplers and computer software specifically designed to remix. They have become ubiquitous, with dance remixes of everything from hip-hop and pop to alternative rock.

There is an element of commerce to remixing as well. It's become big business; a successful remix can make a song a hit, letting a pop singer cross over into the dance world, giving him or her credibility. Big-name remixers garner thousands of dollars in fees and "points," or a percentage of sales. Money changes everything. It can cause friction, as it did between remixers Lo-Fidelity Allstars and original recording artist Pigeonhed over the song "Battleflag."

The tune originally was remixed for Pigeonhed's 1998 remix album Lightbulb Overflow Cavalcade of Remixes. The Seattle band didn't see much in terms of sales or radio play at the time, but last spring, the Allstars included the track, in a slightly different version, on its own debut record, How to Operate With a Blown Mind. With the muscle of a major label (Pigeonhed is on Sub Pop, Lo-Fi on Columbia), the song turned into a medium-size hit on alternative-rock radio with Blown Mind selling about 250,000 copies to date in America.

Producer Steve Fisk, one-half of Pigeonhed, has produced Nirvana, and the Screaming Trees, and has done remixes for Soundgarden and Yo La Tengo. He is still noticeably bitter about the travails of "Battleflag." Royalties from the single went to Pigeonhed, despite the fact that the Allstars recorded the majority of the music. But most listeners don't know the original artist or whose song it really is.

"Aside from the Lo-Fi Allstars' attorneys trying to steal the track away from Pigeonhed and a few other fuck-ups, it worked okay," Fisk says. "The 'remix' as a heavy [promotion] idea didn't really work for selling Pigeonhed records -- though most remixes aren't co-opted by the remixer and used as the remixer's single, either. We were excluded from any control/input over the video as well -- a bony old Englishman getting dressed, eating breakfast . . . eeeuuuw! The original, six-minute version -- before the 'motherfuckers' were nuked, before the Richard Pryor samples were omitted, before the outro was reworked and ruined for legal reasons [the original song also contained an uncleared Prince sample] -- was a really good track. The thing on the radio is Orwellian. I prefer the Lo-Fi mix on the Pigeonhed record. It's still missing the Richard Pryor bits, but you can hear what the Lo-Fi's intended."

Phil Ward from the Lo-Fi Allstars is also unhappy with the way things turned out: "All the publishing [rights go] to them; we're not making a penny off of it. The agreement was that if we released it as a single in England, which we did, we'd have to give them 100 percent of publishing [royalties]. It is a bit sickening because it looks like the biggest thing that we're going to have."

Others who have been involved in remixing are much less vitriolic. The Japanese answer to Beck, Cornelius, released two remix records last year, one of remixes he did and one of remixes done to his music. Continuing its high profile in remix circles, British duo Coldcut was among participants. It was their seminal remix of Eric B and Rakim's "Paid in Full," "Seven Minutes of Madness" in 1987, that was the first commercially successful remix. Taking the hip-hop hit and adding vocals from Israeli singer Ofra Haza, the track literally defined the modern remix. The Coldcut duo, Jonathan Moore and Matt Black, went on to reconfigure tracks by Yaz and Lisa Stansfield, making them a hot property in the club and pop world. Instead of continuing to churn out schlocky dance-floor pap, the pair went further underground, creating original music and remixes for some of the heavyweights of electronica. Moore and Black also started Ninja Tune Records, a well-respected trip-hop/electronica label.

They have also continued to do high-profile remixes for everyone from avant-garde composer Steve Reich to James Brown. With so much experience, Coldcut basically has remixing down to a science. In fact, it has gone so far as to help design its own remixing software. "We have a bit of software that we call 'DJamm' -- which is a bit like a digital DJ sort of mixing desk," says Moore. "Basically, I can load 32 loops in; I can loop them; and then I can randomize them in real time. It chops up the samples and plays them back up with a certain amount of randomness and a certain amount of density. It's something that [Black] and I designed with the people from [software company] Camart, so it's a special piece of software that, at the moment, is unique to us. That's a really sort of very fast, real-time way of getting together some funky backing tracks."

It's a far cry from the "Seven Minutes of Madness" remix a decade ago, when the pair recorded the album onto 24-track analog and pasted it from there.

Moore recognizes that the current popularity of the remix across formats is just part of a cycle. "It goes through phases. [There was] the Eric B and Rakim period; there were very few remixes up to that point. [And] there hadn't been anything that had been remixed in that way and charged up the charts. There were a lot of other remixes that came out at the time -- some were brilliant -- and a lot were just done to try and cash in. And that's always how it's sort of been; it gets more popular, [you] get more cash and shit. At the other side of the spectrum, you've got interesting artists actually finding a fertile ground, and that's rare, that side of remixing. It's much more interesting than, 'Let's wheel in Xsuperstar to put their name on this,' and basically make a track that sounds like X superstar with maybe the [original] vocal grafted onto it, and hopefully it will be a hit. And they are quite often, frighteningly enough."

The artistic side of remixing is still intriguing to Moore because of the discipline required. "It's not painting by numbers, but because you've got this information already, you're not having to create something from scratch. You have quite a lot of material, so in a way there's less stress and there's more enjoyment and freestyle elements than there is trying to produce your own material. Sometimes you do such a good track and it all comes together that you actually wish that it was one of your own tracks."

Washington, D.C.'s Thievery Corporation echoes that sentiment. Eric Hilton and Rob Garza follow in the Coldcut style by running their own label, 18th Street Lounge Music. Thievery Corporation's latest record, Abductions and Reconstruction, collects 15 remixes that they've done, because the pair felt that it had added so much original music that it could put it out under its own banner. Like the early work of Coldcut, Thievery Corporation is a bit low-tech, using samplers instead of software, often writing and recording its own music to accompany the remix.

"Sometimes you take on the remix before you even hear the song," Hilton says. "Sometimes they call -- it might be an artist that you think would be nice to do a remix for -- and you get the tracks and you start scratching your head, 'Oh, what are we going to do now?' We have a stock house of beats and drum sounds that we like, and, unfortunately, we'll sometimes use our better ones for a remix, and then we don't feel like we can use it for our own track. It kind of depletes your resources sometimes when you're doing a remix. There are plenty of remixes that we did where we felt, 'Man, we could have easily made that a Thievery Corporation song.' That's why we decided to release Abductions and Reconstructions; we felt we had altered those songs so much that we could almost release it as our own."

That's a trend in remixing that Fisk, Moore and Hilton agree on; the Lo-Fi's argument for more money for "Battleflag" is based on the fact that it wrote the majority of the music. "I get records with maybe four mixes of a song and each one sounds so totally different, and you know they're using a lot of new elements that weren't part of the original tracks," says Hilton.

The curmudgeonly Fisk is less diplomatic: "'Remix' is now a very nonspecific term," he says. "I expect it's going to get less specific; people will ask for a remix, instead they'll get a re-edit, re-EQ, or maybe a bunch of celebrities talking about how great the original is, 'mixed' on top of some fashionable drumbeats."

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