Almost as soon as there were mixes, there were remixes.
Now a staple of electronic music, the remix is many things: a way for up and coming producers to make a name for themselves; a way for DJs to put their own unique stamps on other artists’ tracks; and a way for artists to put out different versions of their own songs. To celebrate the beauty and diversity of this practice, we take a look at some of the qualities that define a great remix.
It doesn’t really look like a real word, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Most of the earliest remixes were created solely to make Disco tracks more danceable after club DJs found that dancers preferred longer instrumental sections with heavier beats. Read our birth of the remix feature for more information on this topic, but needless to say many great remixes up the danceability of a track tenfold. Frankie Knuckles’ legendary House mix of ‘Rock With You’ takes Michael Jackson’s hit single, self-evidently danceable in its original state, and turns it into a wild ride of emotive piano chords and hard-hitting dance beats.
More recently, Terry Hunter’s EP of official Jill Scott remixes on his label T’s Box take four of Scott’s R&B tracks and turn them into dancefloor-ready Soulful House anthems. ‘Can’t Wait’, for example, was a slow-paced jam on Scott’s album Woman, making heavy use of an Isaac Hayes sample. In Hunter’s club mix, the Hayes Soul orchestra is replaced with an uptempo beat, Disco-inspired guitar playing, and warm deep house keys.
Just as important as danceability is originality. There’s no point making a remix if it isn’t going to give the listeners, in the club, in the car, or at home, something new, something different. Again, this quality is hard to pin down. In Frankie Knuckles’ classic ‘Rock With You’ remix, it’s the fresh new arrangement and additional instrumentation that bring out a brand new side to such a familiar track. David Morales’ Red Zone mix of Pet Shop Boys’ ‘So Hard’ gives the track a darker, harder edge, giving the melody a back seat and focusing on creating an intense tone.
Masters At Work burst on the scene with a remix of Debbie Gibson’s ‘One Step Ahead’ that reworked the bombastic sounds of the original into a more subtle, deeper mix. Originality in a remix can mean many different things, but it’s definitely an essential in a great remix. If we all knew exactly what it took to make original iconic remixes we’d all be producing, but most clubbers will be able to tell if a remix is a brand new original take with that extra special spark.
Respect for the material
Though increasing the danceability of the source track and adding your own spin are important, there is another key ingredient to the classic remix recipe: respect for the material. Making a great remix is about finding out what made the original track great, and then building on it. Patrick Cowley’s remix of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ is one of the first great remixes of all time. Cowley didn’t radically alter the central features. Instead, he stretched out the instrumental sections, and layered new, left-field synthesizer sounds over them.
Todd Terry’s classic remix of Everything But The Girl’s ‘Missing’ simply spices up the production of the original, keeping the central melody and structure intact. This remix is like a new coat of paint, or a slight change of focus; it brings out a side of the song that seems like it was waiting to be revealed.
Similarly, Terry Hunter’s recent ‘Can’t Wait’ remix puts Jill Scott’s powerful vocal performance front and centre, even as it replaces almost all of the original track’s instrumentation. The beauty of a great remix like this is its ability to sound entirely new without actually being a new song.
Though these elements can add up to a great remix, that doesn’t mean they always will. In fact, a groundbreaking producer could just as likely come up with the next iconic remix by breaking every single one of these rules. Since remixes are about taking unorthodox new approaches to existing songs, perhaps that’s quite fitting.