PRINT October 1994


the Remix Generation

DANCE MUSIC HAS BEEN associated with young people and with youth culture throughout modern times. Dance music gets you through your teens, 20s, and beyond, and through the working week. Intrinsically hedonistic, it is closely tied to the body and to sexuality. Dance music brings people together across all social barriers. Sometimes it also constitutes barriers of its own, including some, excluding others. It is going-out-late-afterwork music, weekend-in-the-city music, and its themes are simple and direct—love, loss, lust, dancing. As Sheryl Lee Ralph sings on her 1994 dance-floor remix of her earlier techno dance classic “In The Evening,”

New York—life in the city can be so hard, But after dark . . . I light up like a star. In the evening the real me comes alive, I can feel it, something happens that I can’t describe,
But it helps me to survive.1

The remix single is the central form of much contemporary dance music. Combining old and new technologies, independent producers, themselves often successful club dj’s, make electronically reedited versions of successful new dance originals and older dance classics. Throughout remix culture, the old distinctions and hierarchies between performers, producers, and dj’s have all but broken down. This music is far from the world of the multinational corporations that preside over the decline of the old pop music industry. It belongs to small labels, socially and economically close to their audiences in the clubs—people who love to stay up all night dancing.

Older collectors of 33-rpm LPs and 45-rpm vinyl singles often express incomprehension of the remix phenomenon, on the grounds that it undermines the notion of an “original.” But this is to take a narrow view of the ways people make and buy records. Popular singers have rerecorded earlier works and made cover versions of other people’s songs for years. Curtis Mayfield’s classic 1965 version with the Impressions of his song “People Get Ready” may in one sense be “the original,” but who would choose to be without Aretha Franklin’s version too? Besides, ’60s record companies such as Philles, Motown, Red Bird, Scepter, and Wand all routinely made different versions of the same song with different artists from the same label. Certainly no version of “I Heard It through the Grapevine” compares with Marvin Gaye’s, but would one’s affection for the “original” prevent one from enjoying another performer’s concert version? I think not.

Rather than contrasting the supposed gulf of difference between remixes, whether on 12-inch vinyl or on CD, and an “old” record culture of original 45-rpm singles, we should recognize the continuities between singles and remixes, not least at the levels of connoisseurship and the pleasure of collecting. The private satisfaction of owning two different versions of a Dionne Warwick or Four Tops single back in the ’60s is pretty similar to the pleasure of tracking down an obscure remix. Indeed, dj remixes stand in a direct line of descent from the 12-inch 45-rpm dance singles of the late ’70s, the heyday of hi-NRG disco music and the epic disco anthems produced by Giorgio Moroder and sung by divas like Grace Jones and Donna Summer. Just as Motown used to try out the same songs with different artists, so in the late ’70s younger Motown singers such as Bonnie Poynter were recycling earlier Motown standards for a new disco generation. There are also direct continuities in the careers of younger producers such as the late Dan Hartman, who moved from making his own 12-inch 45-rpm classics such as “Instant Replay” and “Relight My Fire” in the late ’70s to making remixes for Holly Johnson and others in the ’90s.

The development of ’70s hi-NRG dance music into the different tribes of house, garage, techno, techno-trance, and the rest is inseparable from the history of the black and gay communities from which they derive. In the most obvious example, it was the gay black Chicago dj Frankie Knuckles who invented the lean, pared-down sound of house music and thus helped liberate disco and dance culture from the dead hand of the corporate record industry, with its costly aristocracy moguls and superstars.

In the ’90s, successful dj’s such as David Morales travel internationally to make club appearances, and may earn considerable sums remixing new material for Aretha, D-REAM, and the like. Other dj’s have established their own recording companies and produce full-length CDs as well as singles. All this is wired to local radio stations everywhere from L.A. to London. There is a whole new generation of small specialist independent record and CD labels. As always in the history of dance music, imports play a special role; in London, for example, the prospect of a new Pet Shop Boys remix by the Frankfurt duo Jam and Spoon is anticipated with every bit as much excitement as the arrival of new Tamla or Atlantic singles from America was in the ’60s and ’70s.

Remixes also perpetuate the legacy of ’70s dance music in a host of updated versions of standards such as Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free” (remade by Respect featuring Hannah Jones) or the Donna Summer/Barbra Streisand epic “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” (reworked hugely successfully this year by Kym Mazelle and Jocelyn Brown), or the old Dreamgirls show-stopper “And I Am Telling You” (astoundingly rerecorded by Donna Giles). These are not cover versions in the sense of being in a marketplace of competition with one-off “originals..” In this way the finest dance songs of the ’70s become standards through reinterpretation, just like the songs of Irving Berlin and the Gershwins from before World War II. They also retain a powerful sense of the closely entwined histories of black and gay dance culture over the past thirty years. Such music is also, unsurprisingly, closely connected with recreational drug use, especially Ecstasy (MDMA), acid, and speed, the all-night clubber’s old reliable. Today’s dance clubs, raves, and warehouse parties provide many with a sense of belonging rarely available elsewhere in the McJob world of the ’90s.

Remix culture is equally inseparable from technological advances in sound and lighting systems. Dance music has to be loud, but volume has widely given way to music of great complexity. The operatic work of Jam and Spoon, for example, is as distinct in its way as the Phil Spector sound of the mid ’60s. Remix culture is able to incorporate other forms of music to its priorities, as pop singers such as Alison Moyet “cross over” via remixes into dance and club hits. For several years the Pet Shop Boys have regularly reworked album material into remix singles that develop and expand their original songs as pure dance tracks, with their lyrics often stripped down to a phonetic intensity. Such lyrical condensations, the words known but no longer fully heard, are characteristic of the harder forms of house music. Hard techno music has largely dispensed with lyrics altogether, becoming a highly abstracted musical form in the emergent sounds of junglism.

Remix culture proceeds from the relatively straightforward recognition that a good song contains a multitude of performative possibilities. You get the “original,” but you also get another four or five originals, or the 1994 remixes of a 1993 dance-floor favorite or a 1979 classic. The recording establishment and rock culture have always belittled dance music and the club scene. The remix is disco’s revenge on the decomposing rock industry, and it is a sweet one.

Simon Watney is director of the Red Hot AIDS Charitable Trust.



1. Sheryl Lee Ralph, “In the Evening,” A Saturday Night at Heaven, London: Klone Records, 1994.