How the Modern Remix Came to Be

Lee Scratch Perry (2016). Photo by Pitpony Photography/WikiMedia Commons.

The remix is an integral part of contemporary music, whether it's a new version of a recent hit record or a fresh take on an old classic. Today, it's most common for producers to rework a particular song's multitracks or stems from a DAW session. But where does remixing come from?

Jamaican Dub & The Origins of Remixing

For the purpose of this piece, we're defining a remix as "a variant of an original recording ... made by rearranging or adding to the original."

In order for a remix to be a remix, the original recording has to be altered in some way, though in hip-hop, there are a few notable exceptions to this rule. (A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario" and LA Jay's Fly As Pie remix of The Pharcyde's "Passing Me By" do not include any elements of the originals; both groups laid new vocal takes over completely new beats.)

But long before hip-hop, the remix as we know it was born in Jamaica.

I Roy's "Sidewalk Killer," a version of Tommy McCook's "Sidewalk Doctor"

In 1967 or '68, Rudolph "Ruddy" Redwood, owner of the Supreme Ruler of Sound sound system, visited Duke Reid's Treasure Isle studio in Jamaica to create a dubplate of The Paragons' "On The Beach." Dubplates were one-off acetates of brand-new songs that sound systems would get pressed up to premiere at dances.

According to Ruddy, as Treasure Isle engineer Byron "Smithy" Smith was cutting the acetate, he mistakenly left off the vocal track, leaving Redwood with one fresh acetate that only had an instrumental version of the tune (along with another acetate containing the standard mix). When Ruddy played this instrumental version tune later at a dance in Spanish Town, he'd switch between the original vocal version and the instrumental, exciting the crowd and coaxing them to sing along. Energized by the crowd's reception, Ruddy convinced Duke Reid to begin pressing instrumental versions on the B-sides of his records.

Hear the more-developed dubbing techniques on Coxsone Dodd's "Take a Ride" version.

From that point throughout the early '70s, pioneering Jamaican producers like King Tubby, Coxsone Dodd, Lee Perry, and more gained renown by creating increasingly complex dubs—by turns leaving out or exaggerating different moments of the original recording. Using the mixing desk as an instrument capable of dramatically altering a mix, these early dub masters used tape delay, reverb, and EQ sweeps to transform classic roots reggae songs into ghostly, ambient renditions of themselves.

This practice of "dubbing"—and the subsequent stylistic innovations that it introduced—would have wide-spread implications for the way that music was made in Jamaica and beyond.

Disco: Edits & Extended Cuts

Around the same time, a fresh brand of uptempo soul music was taking over nightclubs throughout the US. The music that we now know as disco would play an integral role in helping to take the Jamaican practice of reimagining pre-existing recordings to a whole other level.

Outside of the dub masters of Jamaica, a DJ and engineer from New York named Tom Moulton is recognized by many as a pioneer of the remix—and the progenitor of the 12" dance single. In a series of events that were not dissimilar to Ruddy Redwood's happy accident that resulted in dub a few years earlier, Moulton stumbled upon the benefits of the larger-format disc.

In 1974, While working on a mix of Al Downing's "I'll Be Holding On" at Media Sound studio in New York, Moulton was informed that the studio had run out of blank 7-inches to press acetates on. Facing an impending deadline, Moulton and José Rodriguez, the engineer, pressed the song to the only available wax—which, that night, happened to be a larger blank. Moulton asked Rodriguez to cut the grooves wider, so that the track would fit as if it were a 7". In order to accomplish this, Rodríguez cut the track louder. When Moulton listened to the larger, louder record—which also benefited from a greater dynamic range—its effect was pronounced.

As Moulton told The Independent in 2006: "I almost died when I heard it. I knew I needed all my music like this." Soon, it would have a similar effect in discotheques the world over.

The new 12" single caught on, becoming a standard size for promotional discs given to DJs to break on disco dancefloors. Moulton, already an established DJ and a first-pick choice by record labels hoping to introduce new artists and songs to disco revelers, ushered in the new era.

First Choice - "Armed And Extremely Dangerous" (Tom Moulton Remix)

In addition to his remixes for Downing, Moulton would gain renown mixing tracks for B.T. Express' "Do It (Til You're Satisfied)" and Gloria Gaynor's Never Can Say Goodbye, as well as for classic labels like Salsoul and Philadelphia International.

Moulton's mixes were characterized by echoed-out vocals, instrumental breakdowns, and extended play times perfect for DJs to continuously mix tracks and keep club-goers on the floor.

As disco and club culture came to dominate the music scene in the '70s, a host of remixers emerged, taking a cue from Moulton and expanding on the blueprint that he laid down. Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan, John Luongo, François Kevorkian, and others would gain success with their inventive and memorable versions of disco and soul tunes, forever solidifying the remix's place in popular music.

Hip-Hop & The New Elements Of Remixing

As rap music began to migrate from the parks, rec centers, block parties, and clubs of New York, the genre's initial appearances on wax featured emcees backed by session musicians replaying grooves from popular disco tunes. Records like Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," Funky 4+1's "It's The Joint," "Body Rock" by The Treacherous Three, and more are classics in this style that live on as evidence of the connective tissue between hip-hop and disco.

In the 1980s, the production of hip-hop and dance music grew even more sophisticated with the increased availability of drum machines, synthesizers, and samplers.

Hip-hop pivoted away from the live band sound and would be largely produced with electronic instruments, while electro and dance music remixes from producers like John "Jellybean" Benitez, Tee Scott, Shep Pettibone, and The Latin Rascals ruled the clubs and radio.

One such remixer who got his start in the disco era—and whose work represents an important step in the evolution of remixing, as well as a bridge between the worlds of dance music and hip-hop—was Boston-born DJ/producer Arthur Baker.

He began his career independently producing disco/soul singles like The Hearts of Stone's 1977 single "Losing You." In the early '80s, Baker rose to prominence working on a string of club classics like Freeze's "I.O.U." and Afrika Bambaataa & The SoulSonic Force's "Planet Rock" (created alongside his production partner, John Robie), as well as radio pop songs like Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."

One of Baker's most innovative remixes of this era was his Special Dance mix of Paul McCartney's "No More Lonely Nights." In contrast to the common disco-era technique of remixing by rearranging and extending pre-existing elements from the original recording, Baker's remix of "No More Lonely Nights'' broke from convention by introducing completely new musical elements. With an additional synth melody, a percolating electro bassline, and booming beats, Baker transformed McCartney's dreamy ballad into an uptempo club jam.

Marley Marl - "Marley Marl Scratch"

Around this time, one of Baker's proteges and former interns, a DJ/producer from Queens named Marley Marl, was making a name for himself producing a run of classic rap records, and completely reinventing what sampling and remixing could be in the process.

Marl was one of the earliest pioneers of sampling, chopping one-shot drum sounds and using phrases scratched on turntables as the hook for a song—two techniques that are still widely used today. He became rap's premier super-producer in the '80s and early '90s, establishing himself as one of the most influential producers in contemporary music through his original work with Roxanne Shante, Biz Markie, and Big Daddy Kane, as well as his era-defining remixes for Heavy D, LL Cool J, Paula Abdul, and others.

The Contemporary Remix

Thanks to Marley Marl, and producers like "Hitman" Howie Tee and Teddy Riley, hip-hop remixing had, for the most part, shed the influence of disco and reggae. Gone were those genre's insistence on extended mixes and dubbing. Instead, new-school producers in hip-hop, house, and techno embraced the practice of crafting remixes that were completely new compositions.

The possibilities of remixing were blown wide open as Chicago house and Detroit techno producers like Juan Atkins, Frankie Knuckles, and UK samplists like Coldcut were taking both new and familiar tracks and making them their own. One of hip-hop's greatest remixers in that regard was, not-surprisingly, a protege of Marley Marl.

DJ/producer Pete Rock came up as a teenager playing with Marley on WBLS radio in New York. When Pete broke out on his own as a celebrated producer and remixer, he went on a near-decade-long run, releasing several stunning remixes that are unparalleled in the genre.

Pete Rock's remix of Public Enemy's "Shut 'Em Down"

Pete Rock's now-classic mixes of tunes like "Shut 'Em Down" by Public Enemy, House Of Pain's "Jump Around," and Das Efx's "Real Hip Hop" are characterized by his signature low-pass filtered samples, high-energy grooves, and funky rhythmic bounce. More often than not, Pete's remix of a song was vastly superior to the original and would take precedence as the definitive version in the minds of listeners.

Speaking on his process of remixing, Pete explains how he got into the craft: "The remix started with Eddie F and the Untouchables. I was doing R&B remixes at first. I thought it was kinda fun to create your own version of a beat to acapellas."

Today, the term "remix" has any number of meanings, all of which depend on the remixer, the genre that they are working in, and the creative method that they employ. While disco edits crafted by DJ Kon and labels like Razor-N-Tape, Midnight Riot Records, and Disco Deviants have kept true to the blueprint laid down by first-generation remixers like Moulton and Tee Scott, these days, a remix can be almost anything.

In the 2000s, inspired by smash hits like Busta Rhymes' "Touch It" and Lil Wayne's "A Milli," rappers began releasing remixes that retained the music of the original, with multiple rappers jumping on and voicing popular tracks, similar to the ways in which Jamaican dancehall DJs would re-voice popular riddims.

Knxwledge's "timebak_," from Meek Mill Vol. 4_, an ongoing series where he places Meek Mill freestyles over new beats.

In 2004, Danger Mouse's bootleg classic The Grey Album found the gifted producer aligning vocals from Jay-Z's The Black Album with original beats sampled from The Beatles' White Album. With this landmark release, Danger Mouse sparked a legal firestorm, setting off the "mashup" craze (which has even deeper origins in '90s "blend tapes" sold on the streets by hip-hop DJs like Ron G and DJ Juice) and raised questions about the nature of the remix and music creation itself.

Whether it's Knxwledge's inventive, '80s-inspired flips of throwback Meek Mill freestyles or a club-ready remix of a chart-topping smash, our definition of what remixing really is—this practice of reinventing our favorite songs—is dynamic and ever-changing.

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