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The Evolution of the Remix

(Editor’s Note: This article is by Chicago-based writer and music producer Fredrick Royster, who originally wrote it for his Medium page. He licensed it to Vehlinggo, which edited it to fit house style.)

I’ve been making dance music — don’t call it that horrible marketing term, “EDM” — since 1995.

My love of dance music was passed down to me from my loving late brother, Vernon. He was 12 years older than me and he was constantly buying 45s — God, I’m old — and 12-inch singles of pop, rock, and R&B songs home, almost weekly.

My love of dance music grew even more when I started hanging out with my good friends Damian, Mike, and Chris in high school, and they introduced me to Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, and New Order.

Since we lived just 25 miles west of Chicago, the birthplace of House music, my brother was also bringing club music records home regularly. (Once, when I was eight years old, my brother took me to the city and to the famous Reckless Records in Chicago.)

Almost all of these 12-inch singles were remixes or extended versions of the original album version.

At first, remixes were predominately for dance and hip-hop records. But as time went on, Bruce Springsteen, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Rolling Stones, and U2 were commissioning remixes for their songs by dance music DJs and producers like David Morales and Paul Oakenfold.

Early Reverberations

How did remixing get its start? You have to go all the way back to the late 1960s to Jamaica and the reggae and dub music scene with legends such as Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Both live and in the studio, producers started manipulating songs, bringing out parts of the original that you didn’t really notice before by boosting or dropping out instruments or vocals. Heavy reverb, delay, and echo were applied to vocals, and instruments and strange sound effects like the sound of a rooster crowing would be dropped in the mix.

Then producers started making “versions.” The song may have the same undercarriage and rhythm section but with new instrumentation on top. Versions were almost always instrumentals, so an MC could toast his verses over it.

What we now think of as the modern remix or extended mix was born in the sweaty clubs of the exploding Disco dance scene in New York City in the ’70s.

The Godfather of the Remix was Tom Moulton. He noticed at a Fire Island Tea Dance in the late ’60s that people would start dancing to their favorite song, but it ended too soon, and all fun and momentum were lost. So he went home, got out his trusty razor blade, and started cutting up audiotape with laser precision, making the songs longer so people could dance to them.

Another DJ, Walter Gibbons, is the Father of the 12-inch Single. He created the first commercially available remix, “Ten Percent” by Double Exposure. He had never produced a record in his life, but the famous Disco label Salsoul Records trusted him and his dance floor sensibilities.

Another instrumental figure was the legendary Larry Levan, who was a DJ at the infamous and well-storied Paradise Garage club in NYC. His impeccable taste in dance music and his sensibility to bring out the darker, more bass and dub-heavy elements of dance records propelled him to dance music superstardom.

The Artistry

After Gibbons all but left the dance music scene, Levan became the in-demand remixer. Also noteworthy were Francois Kevorkian, known for his remix work for Depeche Mode, and Shep Pettibone, who became one of the hugest forces in dance music culture in the ’80s till the early ’90s. Pettibone is best known for his collaborations with Madonna (he was co-writer and producer of the best-selling mainstream 12-inch of all time, “Vogue,” and her Erotica album).

I was born in 1976, and that was the perfect time to watch the evolution of the remix in real-time.

At first, remixes were just extended mixes like Paul Young’s “Love of the Common People.” Usually, the intro and outro would be extended, and the song would be literally remixed with instruments and background vocals brought up in the mix. In the remix of Young’s “Common People,” you can hear that they were experimenting with dub reggae influences on the intro with its use of heavy echo and reverb on the vocals.

As time went on, remixers started adding additional keyboards and drum machines that were not on the original version, like on the remix of the Phil Collins-Philip Bailey collaboration, “Easy Lover”.

Arthur Baker, electro pioneer and producer of New Order’s “Confusion,” remixed, of all people, Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” in 1984.

It appears that Baker replaced or doubled the real drums with a drum machine, added some soulful female backing vocals, and a xylophone line that’s not on the album version.

Baker strikes again with his remix of Cyndi Lauper’s secret ode to female self-pleasure, “She-Bop” (1984). It’s quite different from the more rock-sounding album version. Baker used cutting-edge tape cut-ups and stutters that were popular in ’80s hip-hop and dance music at the time. Once again, it sounds like Baker replaced the live drums with a drum machine for a harder club vibe. Lauper must have liked the remix, because she used an edited version for the music video.

In 1985, one of the biggest forces in dance music and one of the most prolific remixers of the ’80s, Pettibone remixed the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls.” His remix is also heavily altered from the album version and seems like he dropped the beats per minute and added plenty of Latin percussion. He uses unused vocals from the original, and added a boisterous crowd chanting “WEST! END! GIRLS!”

I have done a lot of investigating, and please send me corrections if you know more, but from what I can find one of the earliest remixes that ditched most of the original production to create an almost entirely new track — while keeping the vocals — was the controversial remix of New Order’s “Subculture” by John Robie, another seminal figure in the electro scene who worked with Arthur Baker, and produced Freeez’s “I.O.U.”

New Order purists shunned the remix. A few synth lines, guitar parts, and the bass line remain, but he shifts the bass line in time to create a completely new feeling. The drum track is totally redone with new keyboards added, a new arrangement, and soulful female backup vocals sing along with Bernard Sumner on the remix. Even the words on the second verse are slightly different, which makes me think that Sumner resung the vocals for the remix.

Robie took a guitar-based synth-pop record from England and turned it into a state-of-the-art ’80s dance floor track.

Clearly, New Order ended up liking the remix, because they started performing it live in the 2010s.

Pettibone pushed the limits of the remix even more in 1986 with his definitive version of the New Order classic, “Bizarre Love Triangle.” Few people know of or listen to the Brotherhood album version. Pettibone put in a heavy four-to-the-floor kick drum to turn up its dancefloor potential and added a massive orchestra hit — it’s the version that every high school dance has played ever since.

Madonna, who always had her singles remixed since the very beginning of her career, had Pettibone remix two tracks on her You Can Dance remix collection. Like Robie, he used cutting edge sampling and tape techniques along with adding an improvised piano break on “Into The Groove” that Madonna loved so much she used it on her Who’s The Girl tour.

A fun fact: Shep based his remix of “Into The Groove” on the remix he did of Alisha’s “Baby Talk,” which came out earlier. Strangely enough, it is a sound-alike of “Into The Groove”!

Like “West End Girls,” Pettibone’s remix of Madonna’s “Where’s The Party” on You Can Dance also seems slowed down. And like with “West End Girls” he added plenty of Latin percussion. The bass line is the same but it sounds like a different synthy patch was used for it.

New Order turned to Pettibone again for a genre-defining remix for “True Faith” from the Substance compilation album. Pettibone’s extended mix added another orchestra hit, a Roland TR-808 drum machine, and a new synth line that echos the sung melody on the chorus, while ditching some of the synths of the Stephen Hague-produced original.

He also created an entirely new bridge/middle eight that’s not on the album version. What’s more intriguing is the second part of the mix. Like the Jamaican “versions,” Pettibone only keeps the percussion of the original and adds an entirely new bass line, industrial percussion, and new synthesizer work.

The Explosion of Remix Culture

1988 is when remix culture seems to have exploded, and what most people think is a remix started when remixers threw out the entire original production and arrangement and only kept the vocals or a few parts from the original.

House music, born right here in Chicago in the mid-’80s, was starting to go from the underground to the mainstream, especially in the UK, where American house records like Little Louis Vega’s “French Kiss” started going to number one, and M|A|R|R|S’ “Pump Up The Volume,” a track made almost entirely of samples, was also a number one in some regions.

House pioneer Steve “Silk” Hurley, along with Arthur Baker, was commissioned to do remixes for Roberta Flack’s “Uh-Uh Ooh-Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes),” which was more of an R&B quiet storm jam. They transformed it into a dubby House track.

Once again, Pettibone was at the forefront of remixes when he became known for his huge dinosaur stomping bass lines along with his rapid Roland TR-909 “machine gun” drum machine style.

He turned teen queen Debbie Gibson’s “Electric Youth” into an acid-house stormer, complete with a Roland TB-303 acid synth line.

He remixed Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” (1988) into what would be a prototype for his remixes for Madonna and Janet Jackson (“Miss You Much,” “Vogue’s” older brother, “Escapade,”and “Rhythm Nation”).

It was Madonna’s Like A Prayer album where Pettibone’s work started to take flight. His remixes for both “Like A Prayer” and “Express Yourself” became legends on the club scene. Madonna loved his remix of “Express Yourself” so much that she had her video — which originally had the LP version — re-edited to Shep’s mix. She only performs this version live.

When the ’90s hit, everyone and anyone wanted a remix.

Queen Latifah got the then-relatively unknown techno group Orbital to do their first official remix of her underrated house track, “Welcome To My House,” in 1990.

Annie Lennox’s “Little Bird” remix package (1992) was downright daring, featuring remixes from House legend Todd Terry, and Techno/rave artists Utah Saints (which sampled Annie in “What Can You Do For Me,” so it was all very clever) and N’Joi.

Even gospel-turned-pop-singer-for-one-album Amy Grant had a very Soul II Soul-esque remix of her pop/adult contemporary hit “Baby Baby” commissioned.

Candi Staton’s 1986 hit “You Got The Love” has been remixed so many times, I’ve lost count, but its big break was a 1991 remix by the Source. Then Florence and the Machine did a cover of it in 2009, then the XX did a cover of it, but using Florence and The Machine’s version cut up on the chorus. What a ride!

In 1991, rock legends U2 did something few rock bands had ever done: They commissioned remixes for most of the singles on their popular album Achtung Baby. If anyone knows how this came about, let me know (perhaps it was Brian Eno?)

Up and coming progressive trance/house DJ Paul Oakenfold and partner Steve Osbourne — under the Perfecto name — along with Apollo 440 remixed “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” When re-released, the Perfecto Mix went to number 8 when the album version didn’t crack the top 10 at number 12 on the BBC chart.

Perfecto went on to remix so many acts like The Rolling Stones, BT, former adult movie star Traci Lords (yes she made a dance music album in the ’90s, and yes it’s good), and New Order (“World” and “True Faith 95”)

In the mid-’90s, remixes hit their zenith. Hex Hector’s remixes for Toni Braxton’s “Un-break My Heart” and Allure’s “All Cried Out” started a rush of ballads turned into remixes.

One of the most definitive moments in ’90s remix history is Todd Terry’s smash remix of Everything But The Girl’s “Missing.” Like U2, the LP version didn’t do well on its first time around, but when it was released a second time in 1995, Terry’s remix went on to be the radio mix and a worldwide smash and changed EBTG’s sound forever — with them going on to make two dance/drum’n’bass albums, the stunning Walking Wounded and Temperamental.

What Pettibone was to the ’80s, Terry was to the ’90s, remixing everyone from Bjork to The Coors, and The Cardigans, Garbage, and even Meredith Brook’s infamous one-hit-wonder “Bitch.”

Another milestone remix was Armand Van Helden’s remix of Tori Amos’ “Professional Widow.” He took a harpsichord dirge and a few very sexually suggestive vocals, cut them up, and turned it into a worldwide dance floor hit. He pretty much created an entirely new genre of dance music called Speed Garage that he also used with The Sneaker Pimps, Faithless, and CJ Bolland, splicing elements of Drum’n’Bass and house music together.

A&R execs for country music artists wanted to get in on the trend, too, with remixes of Shania Twain’s “You’re Still The One,” Faith Hill’s “Breathe,” and LeeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live” all being club hits. Reba McEntire’s remake of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” also had remixes commissioned.

Dance music acts like Underworld, Orbital, and techno pioneer Moby would remix their own work, creating entirely new inventive takes on their originals.

The Stretch

As time went on, the concept of the remix stretched more and more — almost to the point where you wondered if it was actually a remix or a new song.

House pioneer E-Smoove is guilty of this on his remix of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Liberation.” The seven-inch edit has the vocals from the album version, but on the 12-inch version the Pet Shop Boys are not on the track at all. Pet Shop Boys fans were fuming, but as a stand-alone house track E-Smoove’s re-interpretation stands up to anything Master’s At Work, Murk, or Funky Green Dogs were doing at that time.

Intelligent Dance Music (stupid name)/ambient artist Aphex Twin tells the story of how he was commissioned to do a remix for alt-rockers The Lemonheads. The legend goes that he either forgot or ran out of time, so he just took an old track of his off the shelf and turned it in as the remix. Aphex Twin has been known to fabricate things, so we have no idea if this actually happened, because that remix was never released. He got paid 4,000 bucks anyway.

Over time, what people used to call the “dub mix” — a DJ tool that was mostly instrumental but with a few heavily treated vocal lines repeated — became the main remix.

There is a love-hate relationship with these mixes. Techno artist Luke Slater remixed Madonna’s “The Power of Good-Bye” and just looped her singing “Freedom Comes” over and over on top of an aggressive techno beat. And like with “Liberation,” fans were angry.

Sometimes these remixes work, like the trance remix of Kylie Minogue’s “Breathe” (1997) by Nalin and Kane, which become a sexy, hypnotic dance track.

However, the most popular of this kind of remix happened much earlier with the legendary remix by MK of Nightcrawlers’ “Push The Feeling On” from 1992, which just takes a few vocal cut-up vocal snippets over an entirely new track; but it was a smash. I only heard the original last year, and few people even know what the album version sounds like. It’s been updated and redone several times, most recently by Riton.

The beloved Pump Panel remix of New Order’s “Confusion” from the Blade Soundtrack (1998) was originally just a Pump Panel track. The only thing it shares with “Confusion” is a vocal snippet, but it’s put through a vocoder so I’m not even sure if that’s Sumner singing or not. Once again I don’t know the legal, behind-the-scenes activities, but it went from an original track to New Order remix.

By the early 2000s, bootlegs and then official mashups became all the rage. A mashup is nothing new — DJs have been doing it for years. Many hip hop and dance records would have an instrumental, dub, or “bonus beats” of a track so a DJ could remix in real-time or a rapper could rap over them.

The most successful ones were the ones that took two songs from two totally different genres like “A Stroke of Genius,” a mashup between modern rockers The Strokes and Christina Aguilera’s smash debut, “Genie In A Bottle”.

Someone at Aguilera’s label obviously was listening, because they got mashup artist Freelance Hellraiser to create a very rock-oriented remix of her song “Fighter.”

Today, remixes are so ubiquitous, they are not quite as special as they once were. Nevertheless, I still love them and how inventive how they can be. Todd Terry faded away a bit, but then he came back with an incredible remix of Lana Del Ray’s “National Anthem,” turning it into a massive club banger.

With computers so cheap and programs like GarageBand free, anyone can remix a song if they put in the work and find the many leaked a capellas that are on the internet.

Something is captivating by taking something old, repurposing it, and turning it on its ear to make something brand new.

Viva La Remix Revolution!


This article originally appeared on Royster’s Medium page.

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