NEW COLUMN! A Rational Conversation Between Two Adults: The State Of The Remix

November 11, 2008

Every Tuesday, FADER deputy editor Eric Ducker gets on instant messenger and "discusses" a subject that's been on his mind with another member of our staff or a special guest. After the jump, read his condensed (and emoticon-free) conversation about the current state of the remix with old friend/former FADER editor Nick Catchdubs, whose Fool's Gold label just released a remix compilation and wrapped up a tour in support of it.

Eric Ducker: There is a deluge of remixes out there: officially released remixes, officially commissioned but rejected remixes, unauthorized remixes, “demo reel” remixes. At this stage, what is the purpose of remixes? Is it to benefit the song or to benefit the remixer?

Nick Catchdubs: It’s always been a symbiotic relationship, and I think the degree of who benefits more depends on the individual track. What’s interesting now is that there’s a definite “remix economy,” both on the official side with a constant stream of commissioned remixes from labels looking to get in on sounds/scenes that are bubbling and managers hustling to get work for their producers, as well as the unofficial tracks from producers looking to make a name for themselves by bombarding the internet. What I always think about in regards to remixes is, “Does this need to exist?” To me the best remixes become new songs that are greater than the sum of its individual parts.

ED: But couldn’t the unofficial, bombarding DJs say, “This does need to exist, because people need to hear what I have to offer”?

NC: Of course, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with unofficial remixes in principle, but the majority of stuff I hear lately has been pretty half-baked. Right now you have aspiring producers rushing to put out a mix before the real song has even got out there like that. It’s a constant one-upsmanship that becomes less and less about, “Did I make this better? What am I adding to the musical conversation?” Just because you can put bad keyboards under “Love Lockdown” doesn’t mean you should.

ED: So taking the self-promotion/economic benefits that remixing can have for producers out of the equation, let’s talk specifically about songs. What do you think has recently benefited from being remixed?

NC: On a macro level, you have this whole generation of “dance rock” bands where remixes were an essential part of their releases from the very beginning. That led into the more recent production style of guys like Switch and Fake Blood, where the original tracks are chopped up to the point that they’re almost completely unrecognizable, just a snippet of vocals going EK EK EK EK EK EK EK EK...FAKE BLOOD. Those guys are awesome at it, but it leads to a swarm of imitators. My favorite remixes have been relatively faithful to the original song. I think the Laidback Luke remix of Chromeo’s “Fancy Footwork” is great, it keeps the vocal intact with these huuuuuge accapella drops followed by thumping house breakdowns, the backing keyboard lines were turned into solo leads. The Crookers remix of Kid Cudi’s “Day ‘N’ Nite” was arguably the biggest remix of the year, and structurally it just supercharges the original song in a clever way. But most importantly they both translate to a mass audience. You don’t have to be a dance DJ or a blog geek to appreciate them. You can listen to it and hear what’s great about Chromeo AND Laidback Luke, what is dope about Kid Cudi as a songwriter AND why the Crookers have such a knack for these gigantic bass remixes.

ED: Rap remixes are in such a bad state right now.

NC: The thing that fucked up the rap remix game was trying to get ten artists on your shit at once.

ED: Puffy took a lot of shit for calling that collection We Invented the Remix, but it was kind of true after the “Flavor In Your Ear” remix. I guess, We Re-Invented the Remix (possibly for the worse) would have been more accurate.

NC: The good rap remix used to be one of two things: new beat (a la Pete Rock’s take on Public Enemy’s “Shut Em Down”) or the “Flavor In Your Ear” Socratic ideal. But the thing about the Craig Mack model (LOL) is that it makes sense for Biggie, LL, Busta and even fucking RAMPAGE to be on that song together. They are friends and peers and all doing their thing in 1994 NYC.

ED: So on one side you have dance music remixes that are all about promoting the producers with little regard to the song and on the other you have rap remixes that are all about promoting the rapper. And in the end, I’d rather listen to the original version of a MGMT song, even if they get top names like Justice and Soulwax to remix it. That being said, I probably download five remixes a day.

NC: What’s to say Soulwax isn’t the Busta to MGMT’s Craig Mack? The producers are more prominent on the dance side because if you’re paying 5000 euros for DJ XYZ to remix your shit, obviously you want to promote it and get the most out of it. Ultimately it’s all about context. I really enjoy MGMT’s “Kids” on its own, but the Soulwax mix DESTROYS in big room clubs and especially at the gigantic festival shows where it was designed to be played. It’s weird though, because if you’re not going out to see these guys, most people hear songs first on laptop speakers

ED: The primary method of dissemination (the internet) removes that context. I’m not saying they should only release remixes on non-rippable 12-inch vinyl (that would be stupid and unpossible), but it makes it harder to appreciate them for what they really are. All this being said, I still really like remixes as a way to track both producers and rappers in terms of their style and development.

NC: Definitely. A lot of times, remixes are the first place I hear different artists, then I go and research their other stuff. Beatport is great for that. Even with so much good shit, there’s still an over saturation though. On the Hype Machines of the world, it’s so much easier to find a remix than the actual song, and I think that’s where a balance needs to be struck.

ED: I just want to hear more one drop remixes of R&B songs, and less lazers.

NC: There’s an awesome two-steppy house remix of SWV's “Rain” that came out recently. There’s still hope! On the rap/R&B side there’s not as much incentive to do a new beat for something unless it’s commissioned, whereas dance guys will do it just to have something cool for their sets, regardless of whether or not a label will eventually buy it.

ED: Are most dance remixes done on spec?

NC: Not if you’re an established producer. Top tier guys have an agreed upon fee, if it’s rejected they still get half. Sometimes if it’s producer to producer, they’ll just trade.

ED: Let’s say the label has the new Spank Rock or Thom Yorke single. How many remixes will be done with a guaranteed fee and how many will be done on spec?

NC: Probably two or three commissioned ones, and then another four to five on spec, with the best getting used. Aside from budget, the biggest factor is whether or not people can get it done on time (or if they are interested in remixing the artist to begin with). Just think about how much stuff Justice must have turned down over the past two years!

ED: Who usually decides whether to reject a remix, the artist or the label?

NC: I’d say it’s 50/50, but I see it happening more on the artist side lately. The commissioning A&R gets it, but the band is like, “Where’s my vocal?”

ED: If remixing is primarily a marketing tool at this stage, do most artists see it on the same level as approving/disapproving album art or MySpace page layouts?

NC: I think it’s a little more personal because you’re dealing with the actual music. I can totally understand a band not wanting to use a remix. I may disagree from an aesthetic and a pragmatic standpoint, but it’s still one hundred percent valid for them to make that decision. I wouldn’t even go as far to say it’s primarily a marketing tool. I mean, it IS a marketing tool, but in the right hands a remix is an opportunity to make new music that’s genuinely cool and worthwhile.

ED: I’m just putting it out there...De La Soul’s “Buddy” remix might be the best remix ever.

NC: Hahahahahaha. Well played.

ED: How can the rap remix be saved? What’s your five point plan

NC: 1. There needs to be a moratorium on buffet-style rap remixes. 2. Guests for the right reasons. 3. Guys should be in the studio together, and if it has to be a remix via email, artists shouldn’t be afraid to ask dudes for a second take if the verse is wack. 4. I want to see remixes on new beats. 5. In the dance world, it’s so ill when artists reach back to veteran producers and unexpected names instead of just the trendy guys. One of my favorite curveballs of late was when Simian Mobile Disco had Luke Vibert do “It’s the Beat.”

ED: In dance there’s less of the idea that old dudes are out of touch as there is with rap. That being said, a lot of older dudes in rap are out of touch

NC: Yes and yes, but could you imagine the buzz if Pete Rock did a beat for one of these young dude mega-remixes? It doesn’t even need to be an old head. Alchemist remix! The Nah Right server would eat itself. People need to use the resources at their fingertips and not be afraid to make unconventional decisions.

ED: Where does Busta Rhymes fit into the quest to save rap remixes? Dude gets a bad rep for jumping on anything that is or could be hot, but really, I’m interested in how Busta Rhymes sounds over most beats

NC: Me too. One thing we didn’t really touch on (probably because its a whole nother conversation) is the total ubiquity of the remix mixtape post-50 Cent. I don’t mean blends, I mean artists taking other artists’ beats for their own unofficial mixtapes. It’s now the standard, but guys don’t add enough. 50 would get over De La Soul’s “Baby Phat” and sing about fat bitches. It was awesome, but now everyone just gets over everyone else’s beats and it adds to this overall feeling of disposability. I didn’t really give Charles Hamilton a chance until I saw him at The Fader Fort while I was DJing, because he would drop a new mixtape EVERY WEEK. There was nothing special about it. You can probably extrapolate that to the world of homemade dance remixes, guys just throwing extra 130 BPM kick drums underneath Gnarls Barkley and shit. I think there just needs to be a context. I make a lot of my own unofficial remixes, I don’t feel the need to shout them from the top of every blog rooftop in America. It’s just some cool shit to DJ out. It doesn’t make me Armand Van Helden.

ED: Also, it would take you a year to grow a goatee.

NC: And get more Jordans. And work on my abs. For me the consensus is: remixes are such an amazing blank slate, a chance to do something awesome, whether it’s presenting something already good in a new light, or finding the hidden beauty in something else. It’s frustrating when people chose to be generic instead of embrace the shit out of that opportunity. On the dance side and the rap side, guys should be amped to make more interesting decisions, cause at the end of the day it’s NOT THE SAME SONG. It can be whatever they want it to be.

Posted: November 11, 2008
NEW COLUMN! A Rational Conversation Between Two Adults: The State Of The Remix