In 2002, Sean Combs as the erstwhile "P. Diddy" released a compilation album through his Bad Boy Records imprint entitled "We Invented The Remix." While the release was a chart-topper, featuring re-workings of antecedent hits from his stable of pop-rap artists, the album title itself was largely received with confusion and even derision.
"WHAT?! Who does this guy think he is? Who is 'WE?' Bad Boy did NOT invent the remix!"
Which is, of course, true; Bad Boy did not. But that is not what he meant.
The essential idea of remixing – taking an existing recording and changing its fundamental parts to create a new interpretation of it – first began in Jamaica in the 1960s at the hands of men of African descent. Trailblazing producers like King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry were trying to create alternate versions of the popular Reggae tunes in Kingston's booming dancehall scene. Their approach was to completely re-record a track, thus "doubling" or "dubbing" it, using primitive equalization and sound processing gear to remove vocals and isolate the underlying rhythm, usually just the drums and bass. Next they would add special effects like echo and reverb to highlight certain parts of the track and warp it into a sexy, tripped-out instrumental. These spare "dub" mixes provided ideal music beds for the dancehall MCs – called "DJs" – to perform over, in an early form of rap called "toasting." In the footnotes of music history, the Dub Remix stands as one of the most astonishingly groundbreaking and avant-garde techniques ever developed. It's worth repeating that this was the 1960s.
Moving into the '70s, the Jamaican diaspora throughout the world brought musical innovators to seminal locations for the advancement of DJ culture, in particular New York City and London. There they applied the same basic principle from Dub – strip a record down to its component parts, extend it, change it, add to it, enhance it for a dancefloor – to what became hip-hop and disco, and, later, house, techno, drum & bass, and dubstep.
In the modern era, the remixer has evolved from an exclusive club of elite producers hand-picked by major record labels, working in multimillion-dollar studios and paid hefty fees, to a massive swarm of anonymous kids working in dank bedrooms, using cracked software, and paid nothing. Today, "remix" is everywhere. It's part of the pop vernacular, propelled by the EDM phenomenon. Soda, candy, clothing, cosmetics, consumer goods of all kinds ... new product iterations touting "Remix" on the package. As a culture, it is now about as corporate and lily-white as it gets.
But its origins descend directly from Jamaica and black men. THEY invented the remix.
So what makes a great one? What is their purpose? What are the musical and production values that make them work? And, considering these factors, what are some of the Greatest Remixes of All Time? For insight into this, we asked veteran DJ/Producer Strobe who has over 20 #1 Billboard Club Chart remixes to his credit. His latest, for Adele's "When We Were Young," is currently Top 10 and climbing. Strobe – also an avid dance music historian and vinyl junkie – dug through his collection to come up with this list of 15 gems, a few handfuls of the best ever, and a cross section of genres, styles, and eras.
Everything But The Girl | “Missing” (Todd Terry Remix) | 1994
Strobe: Most people think this is the original, but the album version of this track is starkly different, a folksy-pop tune typical of EBTG during this period. What Todd did was magical, drop a percussion loop from River Ocean’s “Love & Happiness” under the original guitar parts and cut them up into a more rhythmic pattern. Other than that, he didn’t really mess with the song’s structure. There is nothing in the production that shouldn’t be there and nothing is missing (<—a pun!). I first heard this track played by David Morales at Club USA in Times Square. Few records have ever stopped me in my tracks and made me run to the DJ booth, but this is one of them. The fact that it was Todd Terry just made it sweeter. Twenty-two years later, it has never been officially remixed again or bootlegged better.
Robin S. | “Show Me Love” (Stronebridge Remix) | 1993
This enduring classic was spawned from Stonebridge asking Champion Records if they had any demos lying around. The original mix from 1990, produced by George & McFarlane, sounded nothing like this 1993 remix and had very little in common. At this point you might be saying, “Wait, this wasn’t the original mix?!” Nope. The original was very Euro-Pop and lacked any of the hooks that made this one of the greatest remixes ever. One of the two most famous Korg M1 organ hooks appears on this remix, and it is instantly recognizable on any dance floor anywhere in the world. That hard hitting snare actually had a kick behind it which made it so upfront. Stonebridge added a really nasty bass part overtop to round out one of the most hook-filled remixes of all time. Over the years, this record has been remixed, remade, sampled, bootlegged and covered but none have even come close to the Stonebridge remix. I first heard this in 1992 at Tracks in DC.
Nightcrawlers | “Push The Feeling On” (MK Dub Of Doom Mix) | 1992
Likely a contender for the “Most Remixed Song of All Time,” or at least “Most Stolen Hook” comes from Marc Kinchen, better known as MK. This selection is the second track on this list to use the Korg M1 organ as the hook, predating “Show Me Love” by a year. The original version was an early-90s disco-tinged club track and contained none of the sounds that MK infused into his remix. The only original elements used were select vocal snippets arranged in his signature cut-up style. All the other hooks – which came mostly from the M1, including the sax and string parts – were added by MK. Throughout the decades, he has constantly delivered massive remixes and I could easily make a Top 10 list of just his tracks. I first heard this record at Metropol, Pittsburgh in 1992 and immediately thought, “What is THAT sound?!” I ran home and looked through organ sounds on every synth I had (there was no Internet to check at the time) and, lo-and-behold, I found it on my own M1. That sound is huge again and MK still uses it in his recent work, like his mix of Storm Queen “Look Right Through.”
Sneaker Pimps | “Spin Spin Sugar” (Armand’s Dark Garage Mix) | 1996
The mid-90s were decidedly Armand Van Helden’s reign of terror on the dancefloors across the globe. Between original releases and remixes, his tracks were everywhere. He commanded insane amounts of money to remix records and ushered in something new to the remixing world: a “no recall” clause in the contract that basically stated that whatever he turned in was final. This mix sparked an entire new sub-genre of House called “Speed Garage,” mostly big in the UK. Taking cues from Drum & Bass records, Armand laid this out with those records in mind and you can hear the arrangement similarities with the breakdowns and sound FX used. Even the huge bass sound reminds me of some classic jungle tracks. It had a great chunky drum loop, also atypical of a lot of house at the time. While the original was an electronica track and cool in its own right, Armand’s mix is still decimating dance floors and speakers 20 years later. I was working as an intern at Logic Records when this promo came in. No one wanted it so I took it home and still have it.
Mr. Probz | “Waves” (Robin Shulz Remix) | 2014
This is one of those remixes that you listen to and think is cool, then you listen to the original and think “Did this guy literally just speed the original’s BPM up and add a drumbeat?” The answer is “Yes.” Go back and listen to the much slower, mostly rhythmless original, if you don’t believe me. So why is it on this list? Because not every remix is a masterpiece of originality. This record was born of opportunity and I’ve heard it everywhere for the past two years. It was #1 in more than 17 countries and helped propel (much to many people’s dismay) the whole Tropical House era. It also started the “let’s-see-what-other-records-we-can-speed-up-and-put-a-drum-loop-under” era. It launched Robin Shulz’s career into overdrive and made him an A-lister seemingly overnight.
Ram Jam | “Black Betty” (Ben Liebrand Rough 'N Ready Mix) | 1989
Back when remixing wasn’t the total deconstruction of everything, Ben Liebrand took a hillbilly rock track from the late-70’s and turned it into a dancefloor smash. He added a much needed steady club beat and a funky bass line, then dropped in parts of the original, sometimes super chopped-up but tastefully done. It is considered a classic now and even though the original was sampled by Todd Terry and Tech Nine for “Slam Jam” on Strictly Rhythm, this one hasn’t really been updated, at least not in any way that got much attention. This record was given to me by a local DJ that spun Hip-Hop who said “maybe this is something you might like.” He was right. I still play this in classic Club and House sets.
Happy Mondays | “Hallelujah” (Paul Oakenfold & Andrew Weatherall Mix) | 1990
Happy Mondays were part of the Manchester movement of bands experimenting with electronic elements and rave culture in the late-80’s and early-90’s. The original was electronic indie rock but the Club Mix was on another level. Stripping most of the rock elements for a more slow-paced Trance vibe with happy pianos and psychedelic synths, this mix was six minutes of heaven if you were tripping on something at the Haçienda. Really more of a dub mix, Paul and Andrew cut most of the vocals and the ones that are present are buried and warped with lots of effects. It stands on its own as a great production, even without all the Happy Monday’s elements. Solid production is part of what makes a great remix. Sometimes it’s in a supporting role, sometimes it takes center stage. I first heard this record at Metropol spun by Kris Kersey and I remember thinking it was pretty boring. Mind you, I’m a Chicago Househead and I like my tracks to jack a bit, so this was a little too mellow for me. I came to appreciate it later on as I got more into the rave scene and artists like Orbital. Looking back now as a remixer myself, this was way ahead of its time.
Cornershop | “Brimful of Asha” (Norman Cook Remix) | 1997
Another record that most people couldn’t tell you what the original sounded like. Norman Cook stepped in and flipped the song in a way that paid homage to the original with the guitars and vocals, but that beat just took it to another level. And the word salad vocal bits after the intro are just insane. Heavy programmed breaks with scratches and samples overtop like icing on a cake makes it one of the stand-out tracks of the '90s Big Beat era. It was so well remixed that you can’t really listen to the original album version after hearing this. I first heard it in a record store in NYC. I can’t remember which one but I bought two copies.
Michael Jackson | “Rock With You” (Frankie Knuckle’s Favorite Club Mix) | 1995
Michael Jackson has been remixed hundreds of times in the past 30 years, but I have never heard a treatment that tops what the late “Godfather of House,” Frankie Knuckles, did to “Rock With You.” The Quincy Jones-produced original is a classic dance record you never get tired of hearing, but if you can make a track that is already dancefloor-friendly even MORE so, you have a magic touch. Opening with the signature Knuckle’s piano sound layered with Michael’s vocals and lush strings, this record is a perfect set starter that still works today. About two minutes in the kick comes and starts a nice slow build. For the next five minutes it’s pure house music bliss. Frankie kept all the right elements from the original and fused them seamlessly with the classic melodic production he’s known for. There aren’t many cases where both the original and the remix are amazing and timeless, but this is one of them. I actually bought the 7” of this at a National Record Mart in Pittsburgh on a trip home from New York.
Duke Dumont | “The Giver (Reprise)” (Mark Ronson Remix) | 2015
Producer extraordinaire Mark Ronson took a dark club track originally released in 2013 and turned it into a retro R&B track that, if you didn’t know any better, you might think was actually from the '80s. Gone are the repetitive drums and dark bass tones, replaced with 808 drums and classic digital synths arranged with Ronson’s ear for the retro sounds. Even on the reprise release that came out in 2015, the vocals were never really a standout part of the track, but in this remix they take on a whole new life. Now it actually feels like a song. This is a case where a remixer worked in reverse – taking a record already made for the dancefloor and turning it into a track for the bedroom. It’s sexy.
Eric B & Rakim | “Paid In Full” (Seven Minutes Of Madness – The Coldcut Remix) | 1987
Remixes don’t always need to be rebuilt from the ground up. Sometimes you can take what is there and build around it. Many early remixes were just extended versions that brought elements from the original in-and-out without adding much new material. The original version of this track is based around two key elements: a drum loop sampled from an old soul nugget called “Ashley’s Roachclip” and a bass line interpolated from Dennis Edwards “Don’t Look Any Further.” It is a perfect beat and now one of the most iconic in Hip-Hop history. So what do you do to that?!? Coldcut doubled the length of the original and added a kitchen sink full of samples, including obscure spoken word bits, James Brown count-offs, and, of course, the inspired Ofra Haza vocal. The popularity of this song was largely due to this remix, which Rakim loved but Eric B hated. Regardless of how the artists felt, it became one of the first commercially successful remixes to ever go Top 20 in many countries. It is the record that broke Hip-Hop in the UK and really set Coldcut’s career in motion.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs | “Heads Will Roll” (A-Trak Remix) | 2009
Who hasn’t heard this in the club? Those intro stabs are a glorious trip back to the '90s rave scene and all A-Trak had to do was sample the synth and cut it up with a hard attack. In fact, if you took off the vocals this could easily have been released in 1995 and played at a rave. Other than the vocal, not much from the original made the cut in his remix, besides a wobbly synth line in the bridge. Overall, it’s pretty basic programming with sparse instrumentation, but it totally works. The original had that New York indie rocktronica vibe but this remix could easily work on radio as well as the clubs. I first heard this played in a club in Pittsburgh by Digital Dave. It was one of the few times I trainspotted a DJ.
Radiohead | “Everything In Its Right Place” (Hybrid Remix) | 2000/2004]
A good remix doesn’t have to be a deconstruction. In this case, it used the foundation of the original version and built it into something fresh but still recognizable. Hybrid have a knack for taking elements from a track and turning them into something wonderful. The original album version of “Everything” is a four-minute journey into ambient electronic music for funerals. Other than the intro on Hybrid’s remix, everything from 15 seconds onward shocks life into this track. First, they actually put movement and a beat into it. Then they brought musical elements to the front, liberally filtering things to add interest, and made the vocals seem like a main part instead of buried. They took a track that was destined for background music and turned it into something that would work on a dance floor (or a club scene in a vampire movie).
Eurythmics | “Sweet Dreams” (Dave Angel Nightmare Mix) | 1990
Dave Angel took an iconic dance record and turned it into a version that, at first listen, sounds like theme music for a Halloween rave in a graveyard. Gone are the catchy synth hooks, replaced by spooky oboe lines and haunting church bells. Vocal snippets copped from the beginning of Out Of The Ordinary’s track “The Dream” sound like they are talking to you in your nightmares. Even the name, “The Nightmare Mix,” is a clever contrast to the song title. The breakbeats, the rolling bassline are fantastic on their own and I wish I had a version without the Eurythmics in it. The parts from the original, filtered and dropped into the track, almost sound like a live mashup that shouldn’t work but does. It’s dark and haunting and if you were on acid at a rave in the '90s you probably needed therapy after hearing this. Moby played this at the club I worked at in 1991 and I asked him “how much do you want for this record?” I ordered two copies the next day.
Azzido Da Bass | “Dooms Night” (Timo Maas Remix) | 1999
Long after I heard the Timo Maas mix of this record, I unknowingly heard the original in a club and said to myself “this is the worst remix of ‘Doom’s Night’ I’ve ever heard.” Timo’s funky beat and percussion, with that pipe hit and those harsh ‘womp’ synths, were like nothing I remember hearing before that. From the first beat it just builds and builds until the first breakdown. That bass whips people into a frenzy and the energy doesn’t let up until the end. This was always a record I could fill a dance floor with. It was different but it resonated with people around the world, going Top 10 in the UK, a feat even the original never came close to doing. Even today, this record sounds fresh and every time I play it people run up to me asking what it is.
Simian | “Never Be Alone” | 2004
Originally remixed by the French duo Justice in 2004 as “Never Be Alone,” this track was re-released as Justice vs. Simian “We Are Your Friends” in 2006. Neither record was amazing but just the process itself is interesting. Don’t get me wrong – the resulting “We Are Your Friends” release was massive around the world and won several awards, but this is a rare case where a band remixed an obscure song that had done so well that it was released as a new record altogether. Justice took elements from the original and ran them through distortion and compression until they were totally new elements, layered with that funky French bass and tons of crunchy drum sounds. They used only select vocals from the refrain and bridge. In the end, I doubt many people remember the Simian original but now no one can forget that vocal hook.
New Order | “Bizarre Love Triangle” (Shep Pettibone Remix) | 1986
This is one of those instances where the remix is a like an evolved Pokemon compared to the original. The original is flawless, a perfect representation of 80’s British New Wave dance. It honestly didn’t need a remix. But when you hand a record over to Shep Pettibone, one of the best remixers ever, you know you’re going to get something special in return. Again, not all remixes take the record in a different direction. What Shep did was make the beat more steady for the club, vary the bass part, and showcase some of the elements that didn’t get a spotlight before. And he packaged it all with a nice mixable intro and outro. Basically, it’s the original on steroids. I can play this in a set today and it will work every time.