The following is Part One of a three-part guest post by Chris Kohler, who previously allowed me to feature her excellent reconsideration of Michael Jackson’s oft-overlooked Invincible album for its 10th anniversary on this website. This is her passionately (and persuasively) articulated case for the value of remixes. Feel free to discuss further in the comments!
by CHRIS KOHLER
Part 1 of 3: Things you may not know about Michael Jackson and remixes
Once upon a time, a patient person, identity unknown, began to compile a list of the “Official” Michael Jackson remixes of his own songs, and posted the list on the Internet.
This list came to my attention in 2011.
Compiling it was a big task and I can tell you it isn’t even a complete list.
BUT – even incomplete, this list includes — are you ready? — 349 — yes, three hundred and forty-nine – official remixes that were released by MJ’s own label, MJJ Productions, on various albums around the world, at various times in his career!
This person’s list included instrumental versions, 7” or 12” edits for radio, extended versions, French and Spanish versions (“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”), the “Thriller 25” release, and some – but oddly, not all – of his acapella versions.
These were remixed by other artists and deejays who presumably were chosen and had their creations approved by the Executive Producer himself, Michael Jackson: Tony Moran, Moby, Roger, Teddy Riley/New Jack, Silky Soul, Clivilles & Cole, Love to Infinity, Track Masters, Basement Boys, Hani, Tee, Dallas, Todd Terry, Tommy Musto, 3 Boyz from Newark, Maurice, Jon B., Ummah, Mark, Refugee Camp, Mousse T, Deep Dish, R. Kelly, Jam and Lewis, Frankie Knuckles (RIP, Frankie…), and a whole slew of other individuals.
The earliest remixed song listed was “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”; the most recent was “This Is It”. (J5 and Jacksons songs were not included, though remixes exist.)
The listed song remixed officially the most times was “Jam” with twenty-seven, followed by “Stranger In Moscow” and “This Time Around” (yup) with twenty-four each, “They Don’t Care About Us” with twenty, “Who Is It” with eighteen, and “Scream” and “In The Closet” with sixteen each.
Why do I mention this list?
It reflects the biggest value of remixes I can think of: Michael Jackson himself allowed the practice and judging by quantity and quality, supported it.
Michael Jackson wasn’t the only artist to use remixes, or even the first – but his output is prolific by any standards, and I think he realized early on how valuable remixes could be to expanding his audience and record sales.
Indeed, by 1997 they took his stats to new heights, as Joe Vogel reminds us in a particularly pithy chapter of his book Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson: “In spite of its relatively low profile, Blood on the Dance Floor became the best-selling ‘remix album’ of all time, with an estimated eleven million records sold.” Even if not entirely MJ’s original intention, as some have suggested, the album ironically contained more remixes than it did new tracks.
But what might have caused MJ to first entertain the idea of a remix of his own work, decades earlier?
As a matter of fact, the iconic disco where MJ spent many evenings in the public eye, Studio 54 in New York City, had a regular staff of high-quality professional DJs which included a fabled remixer who, according to songwriter/producer/remixer Simon Langford, eventually also became a legend in the trade:
To many, the godfather of the modern remix is Tom Moulton, whose career started out by making ‘mix tapes’ for a Fire Island nightclub in the late ’60s. Eventually, he progressed to being an adviser on the nightclub-oriented recordings of the time: his skills were called upon to make sure that the records were club-friendly prior to release. Finally, he began to specialize in actually doing remixes, specifically for the nightclubs. He is said to be the inventor of the ‘breakdown’ and the 12-inch single format.
In the 70’s Moulton had become the most sought-after remixer in the world, and was said to hand-deliver his custom dance mixes to the Studio 54 dj’s – his reputation and high standards becoming a benchmark for dance music as we know it today. Artists whose work he mixed (such as Grace Jones and the O’Jays) were most assuredly part of the Jackson music collection, and MJ most assuredly shook his body down to the ground to some of Moulton’s mixes at Studio 54.
What better atmosphere for a latter-day king of dance music to get exposure to remixes and learn how the process works? Knowing how eagerly MJ embraced new ideas and always sought out industry professionals who helped him to formulate his own eponymous production style, who knows what interesting conversations might have occurred at Studio 54 other than the usual celeb headline-grabbers? His creative curiosity was always in operation.
The dance clubs that flourished all over the world during his long career wanted Michael Jackson music in danceable form, even the ballads and the “angry” songs; and he was, after all, known as the king of dance music internationally so it was logical and practical to provide for their needs. Once heard and enjoyed in the clubs, his songs would sell more recordings. Very $mart!
While MJ’s music is still instantly filling dance floors today, since the 80’s remixes have evolved in many directions from the original consideration of simply making songs more danceable: they have become an identifiable art form themselves and may represent a personal artistic musical statement by the mixer, or perhaps a social or cultural or even political statement. The original recording may be the point – or the artist who recorded it – or the philosophy of the artist or the mixer. An influential and talented subject like Michael Jackson invites a multitude of interpretation.
Where Michael Jackson really steps into the realm of the extraordinary, I think, is in the release of so many acapella versions – in other words, his songs with only the lead vocal extracted, plus perhaps some limited portion of his own harmony or percussion.
Wikipedia’s treatment of the acapella genre separates the recorded herd in this fashion:
A cappella can also describe the isolated vocal track(s) from a multitrack recording that originally included instrumentation. These vocal tracks may be remixed or put onto vinyl records for DJs, or released to the public so that fans can remix them. One such example is the a cappella release of Jay-Z‘s Black Album, which Danger Mouse mixed with The Beatles‘ White Album to create The Grey Album.
(That’s about as black and white as it gets. But Jay-Z was following the leader in this respect…)
I saw my first Michael Jackson acapella LP on EBay shortly after his death. A look through the discography of the Cadman/Halstead publication Michael Jackson For The Record, 2nd Edition Revised & Expanded shows an acapella release on a 12” single as early as 1988 in the U.S.; though not able yet to confirm the original MJJ Productions release dates, I also saw several “DJ edits” on EBay at various times which had subsequently been transferred to compact disc. More vinyl versions were to have been released in honor of the concert series “This Is It” opening in London.
The first time I listened to a Jackson acapella track, I was blown away by what a breathtaking statement of confidence on his part it was – to assume that his fans would want his songs with only his voice and no or little musical accompaniment! (And we did!)
What an intimate experience he gave us to share: hearing him create his signature sound, the listener now right there with him in the studio, practically inside his head, listening to him listen to himself playing back on his own headset! Brilliant and, I think, unprecedented at his level of success and popularity.
Beyond that, the acapella versions were another very practical provision from him that allowed for ease of remixes, because the stripped version would be so much easier to lay over a different or altered musical track or to change tempo, rhythm, meter, style, whatever – and now, with electronic synthesizers and computer mixing software available, even to manipulate pitch and tone, add audio effects, and tinker with any part of the vocal or musical sound.
By releasing so many official remixes and acapellas, Michael Jackson made remixing easier – he made it customary – he made it further acceptable in his industry – he made it enticing by his sheer popularity – and I honestly believe he knew that the creative world would have the desire to work with his music for a long time to come. (I don’t think he’d want it any other way…)
But – why remix Michael Jackson?
Okay – why climb Mount Everest?!
Lest my position regarding ANY remix of his songs be misunderstood, I say this:
- The original songs are brilliant in their own right, as released by Michael Jackson.
- They are as perfect as he could get them, in his estimation.
- There is no “need” to change a thing about them.
- There isn’t a thing wrong with them, nor do they need updating or reinterpretation, nor do they need any censorship!
- That they CAN be contemporized or reinterpreted is a constant testimony to their intrinsic quality.
The original material is SO GOOD – and that’s exactly what attracts so many people to tackle his songs, that and an honest desire to pay tribute musically; to connect and create with the very best.
BUT – I also assert that nothing that anyone does in a remix can destroy the quality of MJ’s original creations, or diminish them in any way. I believe the universal rules of physics are in control here.
For a fascinating taste of Michael Jackson’s relationship with Studio 54, check out blog authors Dancing with the Elephant and guest blogger Eleanor Bowman’s article, The Magic of Studio 54, at: http://www.dancingwiththeelephant.wordpress.com/?s=studio+54
This article continues in THE REMIX MANIFESTO Part 2.