VERSUS: THE SCIENCE OF REMIXOLOGY
by Simon Reynolds
Last year, two albums--"Muziq Vs The Auteurs" and
Massive Attack V Mad Professor's "No Protection"--won
critical plaudits with their two different takes on the same
concept: a reknowned remixer's drastic (per)versions of the
original artist's material.
Massive Attack's languid trip hop is deeply informed by
reggae and sound-system culture, so it wasn't such a huge
leap for the band to invite one of its heroes, UK dub
producer Mad Professor, to rework the "Protection" album.
The Professor's treatments, while often extreme,
were sublimely sensitive to the spirit of Massive, and many
fans and critics reckon "No Protection" superior to the album
proper. But tekno boffin Mike Paradinas of Muziq and wordy
songsmith Luke Haines of the Auteurs come from utterly
opposed aesthetic universes. Haines' willingness to
subject his finely honed rock-lit to Muziq's merciless
mutilation seems masochistic (especially given
that Paradinas has never concealed his contempt for the
material he had to rework).
In both cases, it's the "versus" in the title that's
significant. . In the early '80s, a remix meant an extended,
marginally more dance-friendly version of a pop
song. But today, "remixing" usually means creating
an almost entirely new track which contains only tiny shards
and ghostly traces of the original. It's now the norm for
remixers to operate with an almost contemptous disregard for
the original work; in turn, their clients give the remixers
licence to deface and dismember. It's this adversarial
attitude on the part of remixer towards remixee that the word
"versus" evokes. Alluding to the reggae tradition of the 'soundclash'--a contest between rival sound-systems--"versus' also chimes in with the
widely held belief that dub pioneers like King Tubby and
Lee Perry are the founding fathers of today's science of
"Versus" is the subtext of so much of the most
challenging and vibrant musical activity of the mid-'90s. In
the area of "post-rock" experimentalism, the last two years
have seen a spate of "remix" albums by bands like God, Scorn,
Main, Tortoise and Ui, each featuring a gaggle of guest
remixers. Even Jon Spencer Blues' Explosion got in on the
action with its "Experimental Remixes" EP, wherein the
Explosion's live'n'smokin' R&B got seriously studio-warped by
Moby, Dub Narcotic Sound System, Wu Tang Clan's Genius,
U.N.K.L.E., and Beck & the Beasties' Mike D.
You can also see the 'versus' concept lurking behind
John Oswald's "Grayfolded" (where the plunderphonic
pioneer sampled improvisatory material from 100 live versions
of the Grateful Dead's "Dark Star", then wove it into a
seamless, ultra-kosmik uber-jam); behind Stereolab's "Crumb Duck" EP (in
which the band's playing was collaged and processed by
veteran avant-gardist Steve Stapleton of Nurse With Wound); and behind
Faust's comeback album "Rien", which was spliced together by experimentalist Jim O'Rourke out of live recordings of the group's reunion tour of America from
a few years earlier. O'Rourke is also working on a remix project for Mille Plateaux, where he's using the Frankfurt-based label's entire avant-techno roster as source material.
And all the above is before you even begin taking into account
entire genres of contemporary dance music, like trip hop, house and
jungle, where the simultaneous release of a bunch of barely
recognisable remakes by several different remixers (four,
five, six, and more!) is a common occurrence, and the "re-remix"
can prolong a track's dancefloor currency to a year or longer.
Dance music has its own 'remix albums' featuring guest producers, like trip-hopper DJ Food's recent "Refried Food", or The Shamen's CD-worth of versions of the same song, "Move Any Mountain". (One version consisted of dissassembled components of the track, to enable the listener to construct their own remix). Dance also has the 'remix tribute' album, where instead of covering songs by the original artist (as in the rock tribute album), forgotten innovators like Chris & Cosey or Yellow Magic Orchestra are 'honored' by having their classics vandalised by their aesthetic progeny.
* * * * *
Ironically, one of the few places this kind of remix-mania
isn't the rage is in Jamaica's dancehall reggae scene.
Ironically, because Jamaica was where "versus" began. "King Tubby and Errol Thompson (Joe Gibbs' engineer) were the first remixers", claims Steve Barrow, A&R director of the reggae reissue label Blood & Fire and dub historian (he is
currently co-authoring "The Rough Guide to Reggae", set for
'97 publication by Penguin). "But dub didn't demolish the
original completely, whereas today the remix is a complete
remake--say, just a wisp of Mariah Carey's vocal over a
whole new rhythm track. The ur-text of a dub is always the
original vocal version.
"At first dubs were just called 'instrumentals', then they
started calling them 'versions'," Barrow continues.
"Gradually, more effects were added --echo, thunderclap, etc-
-and dubs got closer to what we now think of as a remix. By
1982 dub had run its course in Jamaica, it had become a
formula. But that was just at the point when dub techniques
were first being picked up by disco producers and used in
According to Barrow, the "versus" in Massive Attack V
Mad Professor is a "take-off" of the "soundclash", an event where sound-systems competed to attract the majority of the audience to its end
of the hall or enclosure. "In the early days of reggae, you
might have Kilimanjaro Vs Jah Love Music. Most Jamaican
dances featured just one sound, but in the ska days, you'd
get places where loads of sounds would meet and compete.
There's always been intense competition in Jamaica between
sound-systems--to get the best, most exclusive records (a.k.a
dubplates), to have the most powerful PA system, the best
sonic effects. Cos that's the way to increase patrons and
gate-money, and to build up loyal followers".
Later, "versus" became a sort of free-floating buzzword,
as with albums by Scientist (Overton Brown, a protege of King
Tubby). "With, say, 'Scientist Vs Prince Jammy', that's just a
concept, to recreate the old vibe. It's similar to the idea
of 'meets', as in 'King Tubby Meets The Aggrovators At the
Dub Station': that phrase describes the economic relationship
between the producer and the band, but in a more vibesy way.
It's just a more exciting way of describing the record than
'this is King Tubby working over a bunch of Bunny Lee
The current revival of "versus" has taken the word from
its original context and used it to describe the modern ethos
of remixing, ie. the remixer is paid handsomely for
mutilating, maiming and mutating the client's original work
to the point of utter unrecognisability. But dub still comes into
play, in so far as dub's bag of tricks -- dropping out the
voice and certain instruments, extreme use of echo, reverb
and delay in order to create an illusory spatiality, signal
processing, the addition of sound-effects--have
been dramatically expanded thanks to digital
recording and mixing techniques.
The idea that early '70s dub is the origin of
remixology's science of sound-mutation is fervently embraced
by Kevin Martin, who put together the celebrated compilation
"Macro Dub Infection" ("Compilation of the Year" in the Village
Voice's 1995 critics' poll). Drawing on artists as diverse as
New Kingdom, 4 Hero, Tricky, Tortoise and Laika, "Macro Dub Infection"
tracks the virus-like spread of dub ideas throughout '90s music culture,
contaminating everything from hip hop and jungle to avant-techno
Kevin Martin also leads not one but three experimental
bands, God, Ice and Techno-Animal. God is one of a number of
English post-rock outfits who've released "remix" albums. On
"Appeal To Human Greed", God's jazz-core tumult is vivisected
and reassembled by avant-garde kinsmen such as Bill Laswell
and My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields. Drone-rockers Main
and hip hop noir unit Scorn put out "Ligature" and "Ellipsis"
respectively, long-players based on the same premise.
American avant-rockers have followed suite: Tortoise with the
"Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters" mini-LP, while Tortoise's
ubiquitous drummer/producer John McEntire is one of the guest
remixologists featured on Ui's "Unlike" CD Why is there so
much interest in remixing? Is it just a knock-on effect of
rising interest in club-based and post-rave musics, itself a
bored response to the tired traditionalism of grunge'n'lo-fi
in America, and Britpop in the UK? Or does it run a little
"People have lost respect for the heart of the song,"
argues Martin. "The song is no longer considered sacrosanct,
it's seen not as a finite entity, but a set of resources that can be
endlessly adapted and extended." Martin thinks this state of
affairs is way cool. In fact, when he got Kevin Shields to
rework a God track, and hired jungle producers Spring Heel
Jack to remix "Heavy Water" for Techno-Animal's "Babylon
Seeker" EP, he "told them they could leave nothing of
the original if they wanted. They were astounded!"
The subtext of "Macro Dub Infection", says Martin, is to
show "just how important the processing and treatments have become in modern
music. It's almost like musicians are accessories to the
process now. You've got people doing great work who lack any
traditional instrumental skills"--Martin means sampler-
wizards and engineer/poets such as Tricky, Howie B,
jungle producers like Dillinja--"because the sampling and sequencing
programmes available enable them to rampage through the back
catalogue, the canon of past music, and create great things."
Then there's relatively new technology like "hard disk
editing", of which Martin is a big fan: digital software
whereby musical information is chopped up, layered,
rearranged, processed through effects, all within the
"virtual space" of the computer, and to infinitesmal degrees
of intricacy. What "hard disk editing" and
sampling/sequencing programmes like Cubase demonstrate is the
extent to which the techniques of remixology have ceased to
be a supplement to the original act of creativity. For better
or worse, remixology has infected the process of music-making
itself, with the result that there's no longer such a thing
as an 'definitive version' or a primal moment of creation.
It also means that "music has become a science, it's less
instinctive," admits Martin. (The invention of
wordprocessing programs and the PC has had a similar effect on
Ironically, Martin is only just embarking on his first
remix of someone's else music (he's reworked God tracks in
the past). He's doing an Ice remix and Techno-Animal remix
of the Palace single "More Brother Rides", at the invitation
of the band's UK label Domino.
"I'm toying with keeping some elements of the track,
'cos I like it, but it is tempting to obliterate it totally.
I think the Techno-Animal version is going to be more
devastating: I want to make it robotic-sounding, so I'll
probably just keep the vocal and highly process it. With the
Ice remix, I mislaid the instrumental contributions by the
other members of Ice, so--after panicking!-- I pitched down the vocal,
reversed the bass-line and accentuated the rhythm by looping
certain drum-fills. The idea is to turn a very cerebral song
into something more physical and hypnotic. What interests me
about this Palace project is that it's the collision of state-of-art
studio techniques with a simple, heartfelt song grounded in a
rootsy, traditional genre.There's something about Will Oldham's
voice that made me think of roots reggae singer Horace Andy,
and I'm into the idea of playing on that, putting his nasal,
country voice into a post-dub context, framing it with music
that's like a hybrid of Mo' Wax-style trip hop and PiL's "Metal
Despite "Macro Dub Infection", Martin doesn't necessarily
agree with Steve Barrow that Jamaica is the absolute and
undisputed origin of remixology. Echo effects were being
explored up by all kinds of artists in the psychedelic era,
from Miles Davis to Yoko Ono and Can. Even before that,
Martin says, the early '60s "English Phil Spector", Joe Meek, "was
doing weird mixes of songs, while Brian Wilson was recording
peculiar alternate takes. It's just that the record companies
wouldn't put them out".
Dub's concept of the "soundclash" does, however,
inform Martin's latest project "Techno-Animal Vs Reality",
which is soon to be recorded for the Mille Plateaux label.
Five guest artists--ambient noir-ist Thomas Koner,
trip-hopper DJ Vadim, Sonic Boom (ex-Spacemen 3, currently of
E.A.R), New York dub collective Word Sound, and ambient-
jungle producers 4 Hero--will supply Martin and his partner
Justin Broadrick with "minimal material". Techno-
Animal will then add rhythm tracks. The results will be
handed back to the guest artist, who will do a final version;
Techno-Animal will also do its own version of each track.
As such, "Techno-Animal Vs Reality" will combine the
antagonistic aspect of "versus" and the collaborative
implications of "meets".
* * * * * *
If remixology and dub-derived studio-as-instrument sorcery
have rejuvenated left-field rock, there are times when you
have to wonder if remix-mania hasn't gone too far. Is there perhaps a
case for a neo-conservative stance on remixing: ie. that it's
time to bring back remixes that enhance the original or bring out
hidden possibilities, rather than dispense with the
As well as being a fad, you also have to wonder if
remixology isn't just a giant scam some of the time. There's
a story, which may or may not be apocryphal, concerning
Richard "Aphex Twin" James--a highly sought-after remixer,
even though he's infamous for obliterative revamps that bear
scant resemblance to the original. Hired by a famous band's
record company to do an overhaul, James
agreed, then promptly forget all about the assignment. On the
appointed day, a courier arrived chez Aphex to pick up the
DAT of the remix. Initially taken aback, James quickly
recovered his composure and scuttled upstairs, rifled through
his massive collection of demos and unfinished tracks, picked
one at random and handed it to the messenger. Band and
record label both professed themselves highly pleased with
True or not, many of Aphex's remixes might as well be
all-new compositions. The scale of devastation is in ratio
to his estimation of the band: Curve and Jesus Jones got
absolutely decimated, Saint Etienne (of whom he said "I
think they're a good pop group but I don't actually like
them, if you know what I mean") got severely mutated, but
Seefeel got loving, respectful treatment. For his gorgeous
remixes on that band's "Time to Find Me", James retained most
of Seefeel's original track, albeit considerably rearranged.
Recently, Aphex Twin has largely dropped out of the
remixing game (although he did rework Gavin Bryars' "The
Sinking of the Titanic", with mixed results). But James'
buddy Luke Vibert, a.k.a. Wagon Christ, has stepped
into the breech, becoming one of the busiest, most in-demand
remixologists of last year. Not only can he dish it out, he can take it too: witness the brilliant Wagon Christ EP "Redone", which features an extremist jungle
version of one Vibert track by none other than Richard James.
Of all the genres of modern dance, jungle has taken remix-
mania the furthest. As a result, jungle has a fluid, hazy-
round-the-edges notion of authorship. Often, a track will be
popularly attributed to its remixer; generally, remixes are
so dramatically different from the originals that this seems
only just. One example is Omni Trio's "Renegade Snares",
often regarded as a Foul Play track, owing to their remix and
subsequent "VIP" re-remix. Ironically, both versions are
examples of sympathetic remixing at its best: each
dramatically intensifies the thunder'n'joy of the original,
turbo-charging the breakbeats while retaining the tracks'
hooks and melodic refrains, albeit in shuffled order. Appearing live,
Foul Play have also been known to "play" their masterly
remix of Hyper-On Experience's "Lords of the Null Lines" as
if it were their own track (which in a sense, it is).
Jungle has introduced some new twists to remixology.
There's the "VIP Remix" (basically a marketing buzzword), and
there's the sequel, on which the original artist re-
interprets his own work. Metalheads (the name Goldie used to
operate under) put out the "dark-side" classic "Terminator"
in late 1992, then followed it up half-a-year later with
"Terminator II". Such is the track's repute, a full three
years on, that "Terminator 3" is due out any week now,
confusingly released via another alter-ego, Rufige Cru.
Goldie's ally Doc Scott has just done the same thing to his
'92 classic "Here Come The Drumz", which has just been 'resurrected' in the
form of "Drumz '95". Here, the only remnant of the original,
barely recognisable because of the extreme digital processing
bought to bear, is a tiny fragment of Chuck D's vocal:
* * * * * *
Posing questions about authorship and attribution, remixing
also problematises the notion of copyright. If, in the age of
"versus", the remix is tantamount to an all-new track,
why should the original artist get all the royalties? At the
moment, copyright remains with the original artist, and the
remixer gets a flat fee. (Sometimes artists will "swap"
remixes of each others' work). But Kevin Martin says he can
"see it getting to the point where percentage points are
added to the contract, so that the remixer gets royalties.
Then again, in jungle particularly, so much of the 'original'
music is sample-based, that you could argue that neither the
artist nor the remixer are 'creators' in the traditional
sense. It's more the case that both the artist and the
remixer act as 'filters' for a sort of cultural flow".
In this vision, beats and riffs, textures and
atmospherics, circulate in the sort of "data ocean" described
by David Toop in his book "Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient
Sound and Imaginary Worlds". Creativity operates on the
macro-level of the entire genre, not the individual artist, a
phenomenon Brian Eno calls "scenius", as opposed to "genius".
The deejay's role in all this is acting as yet another filter
for the information-flow (of course, in jungle and techno, most
"artists" are also professional deejays). The turntable "selector"
constructs the raw material of tracks into a meta-track, a
"journey" for the listener, or, with less propulsive genres
like ambient, an "environment".
"Some deejaying is already live remixing," says Kevin Martin. "Not just in the linking and layering together of different records, but in the use of
effects: deejays have 'kill switches' that can drop out
entire frequencies for periods, and some advanced decks have
sampling equipment with two-second memory and an array of
In dance cultures like jungle, house and techno, the
"versus" concept is not so important as another dub reggae
term, "version". This was the idea of endlessly re-using the
same drum & bass grooves as the basis for different songs,
so that you'd get entire albums based around a particular
"riddim". In the jungle scene, "version" has gone
haywire, fractal. One particular breakbeat, called "Amen"
because it's taken from a funk track by The Amen Brothers,
has featured in over 2000 tracks and is still being chopped
up and processed. Hundreds of tracks feature an instantly
recognisable hiccup --a sped-up snatch of James Brown yelling
"you're bad, sister!"--as a convulsive percussive tic. A 21st
Century blend of cyber-dub and digi-funk, jungle has set up
an anarcho-communistic free-for-all in which (musical)
property is theft. In this new world order, everybody is
"versioning" everybody else, and music is about the
undeclared war of all "versus" all.
'Muziq Vs The Auteurs' (Astralwerks)
Massive Attack V Mad Professor -- 'No Protection' (Circa, UK
King Tubby, The Observer Allstars & The Aggrovators ---'King
Tubby's Special, 1973-1976' (Trojan)
Faust -- 'Rien' (Table of the Elements)
John Oswald -- 'Grayfolded' (Swell/Artifact)
Stereolab/Nurse With Wound -- 'Crumb EP' (Duophonic). One
track appears on the Stereolab compilation "Refried
'Macro Dub Infection, Volume One' (Caroline)
God-- 'Appeal To Human Greed' (Big Cat)
Techno-Animal --'Babylon Seeker' EP (Blue Angel Records)
Main --- 'Ligature' (Beggars Banquet)
Scorn -- 'Ellipsis' (Scorn)
Tortoise --'Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters' (Thrill Jockey)
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion ---'Experimental Remixes'
Ui-- 'Unlike: Remixes Vol 1' (Lunamoth)
Aphex Twin Remixes:
--Seefeel's "pure, impure", released in America as part of
'Polyfusia' (Too Pure/Astralwerks)
--Saint Etienne's "Who Do You Think Youre Are", on "Hobart
Paving" EP (Heavenly)
--Gavin Bryars' "Raising the Titanic: The Aphex Twin
Wagon Christ Remixes:
--remixes of RHC, Ruby and Project One on "The Real Trip:
Further Self Evident Truths" (Rising High USA)
--"Redone EP" (Rising High USA)
Jungle, trip-hop and house remixology:
---"Renegade Snares (Foul Play VIP Re-Remix)", on Omni Trio's
"Music For The Next Millenium" (Sm:)e Communications)
---"I Seen A Man Die (4 Hero NW2 Gangsta Move)" and "4 Hero
Reinforced", on Scarface's "I Seen A Man Die" EP (Virgin,
---Remixes by Wagon Christ, Autechre, Dr Rockit, Fila
Brazilia and others on DJ Food's "Refried Food" (Ninja Tune)
---Green Velvet "Flash Remixes" (Relief) --- 7 versions total on one double 12 inch pack, and another three versions out in the UK too! Is this a record?