Harold Heath on the pros and cons of remixing other people's records, and the joy of being downloaded for R.Hawtin
Starting out is a column about DJing, not production. But the lines between 'DJ' and 'producer' are increasingly blurred, and rare indeed these days is the novice DJ who is not also a novice producer. Rarer still the successful DJ who doesn't make records of their own. So with this in mind, your first official remix project might be just around the corner - congratulations!
You probably won’t get asked by a label to do a remix until you’ve released some of your own music, but when you do, it’s a chance to introduce your sound to a larger audience. You might also be part of a remix package that includes a producer who's way better known than you, which can bestow a certain credibility on you. Well, either that or their remix will highlight all the weaknesses and lack of ideas in yours. One of the two.
You’ll get to see the DJ feedback to your remix, as the label usually sends all producers involved in a release a comprehensive breakdown of DJ responses. This is great as it means you can see exactly how your remix performed compared to DJ Johnny Big Boots’ effort, presented as a pie chart, a percentage and a graph. And it’s always good to know that DJ Anonymous from Nowhereville, Invisibleland will be 'supporting’ your mix on their internet radio show.
The converse of this of course, is that sweet, sweet feeling when your remix is the most popular out of the EP. Obviously, the ideal scenario would be that if there are four remixers then each gets 25% of the votes, but it’s never like that. There’s almost always one mix that is more popular than the others, and when it's yours, it’s brilliant. Personally, the joy of being the top remixer was always somewhat tempered by the fact that I didn’t get to announce it to dignitaries and the press at a black-tie gala dinner at the Savoy, but it’s still pretty awesome nonetheless.
And of course all the other remixers involved are also reading the feedback, and one of them is having to search through all the graphs and charts and "will support in my Facebook Live show" comments to find a very thin slice of a pie chart containing their name. You win some, you lose some.
Aside from showcasing your production chops, a remix is also an opportunity to announce on social media that you have to ‘head back into the studio’ as you’ve got remix deadlines. Because if those deadlines are missed, there are some pretty serious consequences: imagine if you were a couple of days late returning your remix! Phew, you’d better get back in the studio quick. Fly, fly like the wind, and may your God protect you.
Garbage in, garbage out
In some ways, a remix can be easier than producing an actual original track, as there’s already a heap of ready-made parts for you to play with, rather than having to start from scratch. It all depends on the quality of what you’re given to work with of course, which is why you should be careful what you agree to remix.
You really can’t polish a turd. Even if you take it to pieces and use a tiny bit of it on a completely original new track, it still often tends to smell quite bad. You might be able to disguise it, and make it sound competent - but at the risk of sounding preachy, there’s a fair bit of perfectly competent dance music around. We don’t really need any more competent music. What we need is music that is bone marrow-meltingly good, that will astound, and that will live with people for years afterwards. No pressure though, obvs.
The whole area of reinterpreting an existing piece of music can be a minefield: just ask Marquis Hawkes, or indeed Leroy Burgess. And we’ve not even got into the controversies of unlicensed and unofficial re-edits and remixes. Then there’s record label expectations to deal with: I once sent a remix to a label who said, essentially, “That’s great, really like it, if you could just take off all the strings, pads and chords you’ve put on it, obviously, we can definitely put it out.” And not every remix project is great, or indeed needed - there are now more remixes of Show Me Love, for example, than there are atoms in the entire galaxy.
Aside from all this, though, remixing remains a crucial part of dance music culture. A good remix can revitalise a tune, revive an artist’s career, save a record label, and utterly slay a room when dropped at the right time. The only thing that beats reading that your favourite DJ is supporting your remix is when you hear them play it out and you witness a room go off to the sounds you put together.
Moments like that might be few and far between, but they make all the slog worthwhile. Precious seconds of visceral togetherness and jubilation, soundtracked by something that came out of your head, via someone else’s samples and a few machines - it never gets old.
Words: Harold Heath