Consider this: according to Discogs.com, about 800 remixes were released in 1983. In 1990, more than 4,000; in 2000, almost 15,000. And in 2010, there were 22,750 remixes released, an increase of more than 450% in twenty years. Not surprisingly, as that number has leapt up, remixes also have come to represent a much larger share of what's being released: in 1983, they accounted for 2% of all releases; 7% in 1990; 17% in 2000; until, by 2010, a staggering 20% of all releases were remixes.
How did we get to the point where a one-hit-wonder band from the '90s like Marcy Playground can release an entire album of remixes made by fans? Why is everyone a DJ these days, and why does every band in the world have to have a remix? The short answer is "because they can." As technology has advanced, so has the remix. It started in Jamaica in the '60s with dub effects, emerged in America through disco and the 12" mix, helped to create rap through the power of their sound systems, exploded in the '90s with the maxi-CD, and became participatory (and ubiquitous) with digital mashups. At each step of the way, the particular kind of technology available shaped the nature of that moment's remixes.
Used as a verb, "remixing" has been possible (and practiced) ever since the existence of multi-track recording. At the dawn of sound recording, a song had to be recorded directly to the form it would eventually be heard, and there was no way of extracting just the bass or guitar part without taking all the other parts with it. But once sound could be recorded to 4 or more tracks (from which it's then "mixed down" into the final, combined form you hear), engineers could return to the working versions of songs and "remix" them: make the guitar louder, take out all of the vocals, even make the track shorter or longer.
This isn't to say that recorded sound couldn't be manipulated prior to the advent of multi-tracking. Most notable here is William Burroughs' "cut-up" technique, which took a Dadaist trick of cutting up words to rearrange text and then applied it to the magnetic tape on which recordings used to reside. Musicians like Brian Eno and Genesis P-Orridge used the technique to clip sections, rearrange them and place them in a new sequence—Burroughs characterized this as a "method for altering reality." Recording engineers did this too, but they called it an "edit," and they used it not to alter reality, but as a way to, for instance, shorten a long track for radio play by removing an instrumental section or extra verse.
As a noun, though, "remix" implies something a little different than either re-balancing a song or re-arranging its parts. Its use connotes a track that has been fundamentally transformed, either in form or content, into something new. There's a self-consciousness about remixes: while a radio edit is intended to make the same musical experience available in a different context, a remix is intended to be a new musical experience entirely.
As such, the first recordings that could be called "remixes" were produced in Jamaica in the 1960s. The island's extremely strong local music culture enabled a tight interplay between the people who made records and the people who listened and danced to them. As DJ/producers like Lee "Scratch" Perry saw that crowds were interested in longer musical experiences than they could provide with the single format (the 7" vinyl disc on which singles came was generally only able to hold four minutes' worth of music without suffering a drop in sound quality), they produced new versions which they referred to as "versions." What makes these remixes is that, besides dropping out the vocals to concentrate on instrumental sections, producers started adding new material to better capture the energy dancers were looking for, both in the form of new instrumental parts and effects (like long echoes) put on the existing parts.
There were economic factors, too. Since Jamaican producers tended to be owner-operators, both recording and distributing their own music, they had access to the multi-track masters at a time when American musicians didn't. In the United States (and other industrialized countries), the master recordings were owned by the record company, making it much more difficult for artists to get their hands on their own recordings, let alone legally release remixes. With ownership resting on the business side, there was an impetus to see recordings as "finished" for American musicians that didn't necessarily exist for these Jamaican producers. And since recording equipment was enormously expensive and generally only available in commercial studios where artists would have to pay for time, American musicians simply weren't able to remix their material in the way people like King Tubby could.
WE CATCH 'EM ON THE FLIP
The remix wouldn't have happened in America without the 12" single. Though the form predates disco, that was the sound that made the remix what we know today. "New York remixers—many of them DJs—weren't really influenced by Jamaica, in part because New York dance crowds demanded music that was much more up-tempo than reggae and dub," wrote Tim Lawrence, author of Love Saves the Day: American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, in an email interview with me.
"Jamaican remixes usually involved the producer-DJs taking out elements from the original track and placing greater emphasis on the drums and the bass via a process of subtraction, but the records weren't extended. New York remixers would also strip records down, but they were also focused on drama and an idea of a journey, so they would often retain complete elements from the original and would then take the record 'somewhere else' by stripping out certain sections and extending others. New Yorkers developed their own remix technique in almost complete isolation and apparently without outside influence for something like seven years."
The first American remixer, it's generally agreed, is a guy named Tom Moulton, about whom Lawrence writes about extensively in his book. Moulton was interested in finding ways to provide different party experiences to New Yorkers, and experimented with a lot of different techniques, including cutting up existing recordings, as people had been doing for years. Lawrence identifies the first of these as a remix of Don Downing's "Dreamworld," which Moulton produced in 1974. Moulton's signal innovation, though, was to put such remixes on a 12" disc, the format usually used for full albums.
In preparing his remix of Al Downing's "I'll Be Holding On," which took a three-minute soul song and extended it to almost seven minutes long, "Moulton's assistant happened to press up on a 12" blank because he'd run out of 7"s," writes Lawrence. "Moulton was stunned to hear the power of hearing the music's grooves spread out over the larger disc." (Without getting too technical, the less time you're trying to fit onto a disc, the louder it can be.) The success of this technique led to the first commercially released remix, Double Exposure's "Ten Percent," in 1976.
While these were a hit with dancers and DJs, labels didn't feel the same way. As Lawrence put it in his email: "The dance market turned out to have quite different values, with dancers much more interested in hearing a brilliantly re-structured twelve-inch single than listening to a bunch of catchy singles plus extra cuts on an album. That meant that twelve-inch singles didn't necessarily translate into album sales, and from that point on the music industry (and especially the music majors) were always skeptical of the format."
TAKES YOU BACK TO THE PAST
Nevertheless, the form persisted in a new genre: hip hop. Jamaican ideas of remixing formed the foundations of the genre, and the initial impetus for rap was very similar to that of dub and disco remixes: Dancers wanted more instrumental sections to dance to and less singing. But with hip hop, MCs picked up the talkover mic and started to add their own vocals. And with parties often happening outside established clubs in outdoor or otherwise improvised spaces, DJs like Kool Herc gained influence as much for the power of their sound systems as their DJing skills. Disco remixes happened because their vinyl was louder; rap happened, in some small part, because DJs' speakers were louder, making loud vocals an attraction party promoters could provide.
At first, hip hop remixes followed a similar pattern to the disco remix, with the instrumental portion of the song altered while the vocals were either cut up or left intact. In an email, Andrew Nosnitsky, who writes about rap for a bunch of different places including The Wire, told me there were good economic reasons for this. "If a record wasn't connecting at radio they'd give it a different beat and try again. If it wasn't hitting on the West Coast, they'd get a Warren G remix, if underground mix shows weren't playing it they'd get it a Beatminerz mix, if they wanted to expand to dance markets they'd push a CJ Mackintosh hip house mix."
But that didn't last. According to Nosnitsky: "The old model remix, the one where the beat actually changes in some way, has pretty much been dead on an official level for a long time. Nowadays 'remix' just means that a gang of famous artists pile verses up on an existing hit." This is the format we know and love today.
EVERYTHING'S REAL IN THE FIELD
But how did remixes end up conquering rock, too? The answer can be summed up in two made-up words: "electronica" and "maxi-single."
The shift from cassettes to CDs put the single in an awkward situation. It was considerably cheaper to produce a vinyl disc or cassette with less information on it, and so a single with an a-side song and a b-side song worked logically with the format. CDs, though, cost the same amount to produce whether they contained 80 minutes or 80 seconds of music. (The mini CD, which functioned in the same way a 7" record would, never caught on.) At this point, it became almost irresistible to start putting more and more tracks on CD singles. If the label could provide more songs with relatively little additional production cost, then they could justify charging more for the CDs. And thus was the "maxi-single" born.
What to put on those maxi-singles, though—especially when the whole idea was not to increase the production cost? Bands always produce more songs than fit on an album, but if a label was interested in producing, say, eight different singles for one song, you'd need more than the two or three cast-offs a typical recording session would produce. The answer was remixes. Compared to a whole new recording session, they were cheap to commission, especially if you went with lesser-known producers; the remixers would be flattered to be associated with generally better-known acts; and the artist would benefit from the increased visibility with the remixer's fanbase. Throw a few of those together—especially if the remixer was kind enough to produce multiple mixes —and you had enough tracks to plausibly fill out enough maxi-singles to bilk a dedicated fan out of at least a hundred dollars. The result was that remixes, instead of being initiated by a producer drawn to a particular track, were getting done whether or not they were a good idea, just to say that such a remix existed. An apocryphal story has it that a courier arrived to pick up a commissioned remix from Richard D. James of Aphex Twin fame, and James, having forgotten to do it, simply grabbed a random track off of his shelf. He got $5,000, and the Lemonheads, the victimized band, never released the mix.
But why dance remixes? The traditional filler material for rock bands, after all, was the live album, and indeed live versions of existing songs sometimes ended up on maxi-singles too. At the time, though, there was something much cooler about electronic music. In a historical context, this was unusual; rock bands had for many years defined themselves in opposition to the aesthetics and techniques of dance music. While there were certainly notable exceptions, the idea of rock bands en masse deciding that a dance remix was just the sort of thing they were looking for seemed unlikely. Rock and dance had lined up in the UK in the early '90s, generating some important work. This had carried forward into Britpop's more rock-oriented moment (though some were later to the party than others). When the semi-terrifying "electronica" trend hit the US, it coincided with the heyday of the maxi-single, and the two proved well suited to one another.
AUDIO PIRACY AS COMPOSITIONAL PREROGATIVE
As with remixes, mashups can be traced back a long ways. John Oswald has been producing what he calls "plunderphonics" for fifty years, the KLF had a number-one hit with their mashup of Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll (Part Two)" and the Doctor Who theme song, and the Evolution Control Committee had a few hits on college radio in the early '90s with their combination of the Tijuana Brass and Public Enemy. Even Malcolm McLaren had a go at it with his haunting (really!) mashup of Joy Division and the Captain and Tennille, "Love Will." As Oswald put it (in 1988), the practice of taking "a recognizable sonic quote" from an existing song and placing it over something else in such a way that "you can reasonably recognize the source" has cropped up here and there for a long while.
As the practice we know today, though, mashups weren't possible without the technological convergence of high-speed Internet, wide availability of digital music (the so-called "celestial jukebox"), and low-cost audio production software. They're generally understood to have broken wide in 2001 with "A Stroke of Genie-us," a track by Freelance Hellraiser combining Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" and the Strokes' "Hard to Explain." (The track was the #26 single on the year-end Pazz and Jop critics' poll.)
While prominent mashup artists have emerged (Soulwax, Osymyso, Go Home Productions, DJ Earworm and, most famously, Girl Talk), as a genre it's highly participatory, encouraging listeners to make their own mashups as much as to consume those already existing. The whole spectrum of tools now standard on any home computer enables this: a CD-ROM drive for ripping music, music recording software for editing music, and a high-speed Internet connection for finding a cappella or instrumental versions of tracks, as well as for distributing your completed work. Most important was the development of the software that let you match the beat of samples, so that even if two songs were in different tempos, you could automatically align them at the same rate without changing the pitch—a process that can take hours to do by hand.
It was this same bundle of tools that lands us squarely where we are today. As the entire music market moved inexorably downward, remixes stopped being just about major acts commissioning major remixers; now any band can get its songs remixed, and anyone can be a remixer (I've done 'em). While the physical reality of doing a remix used to involve the cumbersome process of getting the tracks to the remixer and the remixer having the studio space to do the edits, now people who've never met can send each other zip files via Dropbox and everything can be accomplished on laptops.
The weird thing is that there hasn't exactly been a renaissance of remixes: while opening up the floodgates to cultural production has produced a few golden ages, this area has ended up looking more like a vast, cluttered wasteland. While there have been lots of great remixes of late, they've all been from people with major careers already: the DFA, Jaques Lu Cont, Jamie xx. Remixes have now gotten much easier to do, but they haven't necessarily gotten better; listening to Moulton's "I'll Be Holding On," it's hard to say anyone's done much better.
Remixing as a theoretical idea has had a lot of interesting consequences. But remixing as a musical technique has, weirdly, gone almost nowhere at all: it started great and stayed great but never altered itself much along the way. Perhaps because it's only been around a handful of decades, and that isn't enough time to ask for such dramatic twists and turns. But the story of remixing seems more or less to be the same story over and over again, retold every time the technology shifts.
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