Quiet waves of sound start to build, and then the beat hits, sending you into the iconic hook you know so well. You’re ready for the first verse, but you’re instead splashed by a new voice and different words, all supported by the same instruments; before you know it, you’re shifted back into familiar territory, a fresh perspective imprinted in your mind.
A remix is defined as a piece of media that has been altered from its original state by adding, removing, or modifying sections of it. While the term “remix” can apply to anything from visual art to videos or even literature, we know it best in the context of music. Whether it’s for the radio, a rave, album B-sides, or just for the sake of adding a verse, remixes have the potential to unlock new perspectives on what already exists.
The basis of remixes lies in Jamaica’s dancehall culture. Dancehall, a genre somewhat similar to reggae, first bloomed in the 1970s. It rose out of the political climate and different socioeconomic factors in the capital city, Kingston, and recent changes in the city were reflected in the rising popularity of the genre. As opposed to the more international genre of roots reggae, dancehall was localized to the city.
The genre is primarily characterized by strong rhythms overlayed with toasting (a mix of talking, chanting, and rap) by a DJ. Toasting is an oral practice that is focused on storytelling, oftentimes in a rhyming scheme. As digital instruments became more common in the 1980s, dancehall adapted to focus on digital beats. The sound became heavily characterized by faster, almost more aggressive rhythms.
Jamaican sound systems are created by a group of people coming together to put on, essentially, a dance or party. They are a huge part of Jamaican popular culture, and they created strong communities as well as competition between various sound systems to be the chosen one of the public. Jamaican immigrants started sound systems in the United States as well, and these became a way for immigrants to stay connected to their roots.
As the genre grew and shifted to become more digital, producers began taking popular reggae songs and reconstructing them. This made the songs fit closer with dancehall and pushed the genre further. Jamaican sound engineer King Tubby is often referred to as the creator of the remix concept, as he was one of the first to experiment with emphasizing different aspects of a song’s pre-existing instrumentals in order to change the feel of the music; after accidentally panning all the vocals on a track to one side, he was left with an instrumental track that he realized could be further manipulated.
These reconstructed pieces, called “versions”, were in high demand by deejays looking to toast over backtracks. King Tubby is the forefront of the development of the dub genre. The term “dub” is derived from “duppy”, which was taken from the idea that the newly mixed versions were “duplicates” of the original recordings. Ruddy Redwood and Lee “Scratch” Perry were other producers who also helped popularize versions, furthering the growth of dub.
Simultaneously, DJs at nightclubs in the United States were starting to explore similar ideas of looping beats; however, they were experimenting with disco music rather than reggae. Disco and nightclubs, hugely popularized in the 1970s, were predominantly catered towards African American and Puerto Rican populations in New York, carving out a purposefully politicized community that celebrates embracing identity and forming a support system in the face of oppression.
Producer Tom Moulton is credited with creating the dance remix format that we are still familiar with today. He experimented with technology and records to cut together pieces of songs that were most optimal for dancing, developing a way to smoothly flow songs together. A good example of his work is his remix of Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep On Truckin'”. This R&B song was extremely popular in discos. Moulton took the most iconic rhythmic pieces and looped them, creating a more club-friendly track while still preserving the integrity of the song.
This disco-based form of editing collided with the concept of remixes through Jamaican immigrants coming to the states, particularly New York. Overall, the communities created by sound systems and nightclubs encompassed the values that are the foundation of hip hop culture that grew out of New York.
Today, remixes exist in many music genres, all the way from hip-hop to pop. While in the past it was difficult to find a path in remixing, the ready access to technology and music-manipulating software has made it possible for a wider range of people to expose themselves to DJ culture. What used to exist as solely a studio professional’s skill can now become a passion of a teenager sitting in their bedroom with nothing but a computer and an ear for sound.
My friend Rory Dreyfus describes creativity as “the impulse to make something of one’s own design.” Remixes are able to explore unlikely genre combinations, connect cultures, and give new meaning to songs through different lyrical lenses; though they branch off previous work, remixes ultimately say something about the uniqueness of the individual behind the process. Something creative does not necessarily have to be made fully from scratch; sometimes, creativity stems from seeing the potential to alter the existing.
A playlist of some of my recent favorite remixes can be found here.