All About the Remix
For various reasons, the remix—or, specifically, the dance remix—was created in the 1970s for club DJs. Eventually released commercially as 12-inch vinyl singles, early-day remixes weren’t dramatically different from the original source. Remix engineers—they weren’t considered producers back then and often remained nameless—would simply put certain instrumental passages in a loop, turn up the drums and percussion, and leave the vocals intact.
In other words, the whole endeavor involved tinkering with the original instrumental track without replacing it completely. It really wasn’t until the 1990s when remix producers routinely created their own instrumental tracks from scratch. Keep in mind record companies started out promoting extended remixes of dance singles or at least up-tempo songs. And once the remix field expanded to cover non-dance recordings and ballads, there was no choice but to produce a substantially different instrumental track.
Beyond dance clubs and the occasional mix shows on the radio, the 12-inch vinyl single and CD maxi-single will always have a special meaning to dance music fans and collectors. The first time a dance remix connected with mainstream audience was in 1994 when Ben Liebrand’s remix of The 4 Seasons’ “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” became a top 15 hit in the U.S. Two unusual things about this remix: 1) This was actually a reissue of Liebrand’s 1988 handiwork and 2) the original, dance-leaning version was already a No. 1 hit in 1976. The first time a dance remix crossed over from nothing was in 1996 when Todd Terry’s remix of Everything but the Girl’s “Missing” went all the way to No. 2 stateside. The Bayside Boys remix of “Macarena” made it a monster hit later that year. Cedric Gervais’ remix of “Summertime Sadness” gave Lana Del Rey her first top 10 hit in 2013. Felix Jaehn’s remix of OMI’s “Cheerleader” became an international hit two years later. SeeB’s remix of “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” helped revive Mike Posner’s career, including a Grammy nomination for song of the year.
Inspired by Jamaican dub music, the dub remix surfaced in Europe and North America by the early 1980s. Record companies released dub versions of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go” (simply titled “Tainted Dub”), Yaz’s “Situation,” ABC’s “The Look of Love,” and Thompson Twins’ “Lies.” And what was on the B-side of Madonna’s debut 12-inch single? The dub version of “Everybody.” With most of the original vocals removed, the dub remix was supposed to signal a more experimental and radical production.
The most celebrated dub remix is perhaps Marc Kinchen’s rework of Nightcrawlers’ “Push the Feeling On” in 1993. While the acid jazz original is not horrible, MK’s dub version (subtitled “The Dub of Doom”) achieved cult status immediately. Not only is his instrumental track iconic—Pitbull would sample it on “Hotel Room Service” in 2009—but the way he processed the snippets of original male vocals (“their lives again” and “pull us through”) is ingenious. You can draw a line from this dub mix to the manipulated vocal bits on the aforementioned SeeB remix. Though not labeled as a dub mix, Above & Beyond’s remix of Madonna’s “What It Feels Like for a Girl” retained not much of the original vocals. Note that this remix was used as the soundtrack for the song’s official music video in 2001.
Here’s a question to ponder: Is producing a good remix out of a boring original easier or harder than delivering something equally good out of a memorable original? To do the former, one must ditch the original instrumental track. The hurdle for the latter is that listeners will always compare the remix to the original. Now that the recording studio is as mobile as the software on a laptop, anyone with a little ingenuity and inclination can produce a remix at home. Judging by the number of unofficial remixes on the Internet, we must say it looks like people are busy making DIY remixes in front of their computers.
Another thing that’s different about the remix business today is that the endgame for some is to eventually release their own original recordings. Most of the remix pioneers—Walter Gibbons, Tom Moulton, Phil Harding, Francois Kevorkian, and Shep Pettibone, for example—never went on to release their own music (Kevorkian did release his own artist albums in the 1990s). Just as college athletes feel the pressure to turn pro, perhaps some remixers feel what they do is only a steppingstone to something else. We submit it’s better to be a master producer than a forgettable artist. As Joseph Campbell would say, follow your bliss.
History buffs should check out our take on the history of dance music.
Spotlight on Trace Adam
We first came across this remixer when we went looking for remixes of Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side” as we prepared to add it to our Megamix page. Trace Adam’s stately transformation of Grande’s reggae-tinged hit remains his best to date. Indeed, it is definitely one of last year’s highlights. Almost as good is his 2017 remix of Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm.”
So what makes his remix work such a breath of fresh air. Let’s start with what you don’t hear. His style cannot be labeled base, tropical, trap, future, or anything trendy—and that’s a very good thing. We always say the more a song sounds trendy and state-of-the-charts, the sooner it will sound dated. Try to be timeless not trendy. Also missing is a cacophony of instruments on his remixes. We may have come a long way from the old four-track recording days, but just because it’s easy to add more instruments with the click of a button doesn’t mean one should do it. Less is more. Adam’s work is like the audio equivalent of a clean-tasting dish; it’s not muddled by too many competing sounds. Oh, you also don’t hear any altered vocals—no pitch change or chipmunk effects (we have DJ Snake/Diplo/SeeB to thank/blame for the revival of that trend).
If you subscribe to the belief that a true dance remix should be at least seven minutes long, you’ll be glad to know he provides a long version and a shorter version on the Internet. There’s something refreshingly old-school about offering a long intro. The main riff he created for “Side to Side” is not unlike the one Calvin Harris blasted on Rihanna’s “We Found Love” from start to finish. While Harris’ riff is loud (some people compare it to alarm bells), Adam’s is more understated but no less effective. It surfaces by the 1:25 mark and takes center stage around 3:15 on the extended remix.
Ariana Grande Featuring Nicki Minaj - Side to Side (Trace Adam Club Mix) [►]
For Katy Perry’s underrated “Chained to the Rhythm” he fashioned a memorable riff that sounds pleasantly fuzzy and static-y like that old modem (Perry does mention dancing to the distortion). The percussion on both these remixes is modern with a firm nod to the past.
Katy Perry Featuring Skip Marley - Chained to the Rhythm (Trace Adam Club Mix) [►]
Trace Adam on the Net: youtube.com/traceadamremixes
Spotlight on Paul Gannon
File this one under guilty pleasure. It’s understandable that artists in general and remixers in particular may have a signature sound. But Paul Gannon’s remixes all sound remarkably similar. In fact, they’re so virtually indistinguishable that one wonders if this Irish DJ even cares what song he’s remixing. That said, his one-size-fits-all approach has surprisingly worked more than once.
James Arthur - Say You Won’t Let Go (Paul Gannon Bootleg) [►]
Julia Michaels - Issues (Paul Gannon Bootleg) [►]
Some people describe his style as Melbourne house or Melbourne bounce. It reminds us of the fast-tempo cheesy fare from the early 2000s (think Sir Ivan’s “San Francisco [John Kano Mix]” and DJ Fluid’s remix of “Shimauta”). And what sounds like kick drums feels like Cascada on speed.
Paul Gannon on the Net: soundcloud.com/paul-gannon-2nd-account
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