The Remixmasters

A history lesson for Puffy Combs.

The debut of Jennifer Lopez’s J to Tha L-O! The Remixes at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart earlier this year was just another notch on the career bedpost for the multimedia Latina. But for the art of the remix, it was a milestone: the first time an album composed entirely of remixes hit No. 1 in the United States. Serendipitously enough, Lopez’s collection followed directly on the heels of her onetime beau P. Diddy’s We Invented the Remix—an album whose typically grandiose title, you won’t be surprised to hear, is so much hooey. We Reinvented the Remix as a Marketing Ploy would have been more accurate.

Remixes have actually been around for more than 30 years now, ever since a late-’60s Jamaican DJ named Rudolph “Ruddy” Redwood discovered that the crowds who flocked to his sound-system parties loved to hear instrumental versions of ska hits. Driven by technology, the remix has evolved from those humble beginnings to become the pre-eminent musical tool of the last three decades, the principle that underlies everything from reggae to hip-hop to techno. The following five landmark remixes track its migration from Jamaica to New York and finally to the Internet.

Upsetters, “Moving Forward” The original The remix In the late ‘60s, Jamaican producers began to create one-off “versions,” or “dubs” (for “doubles”), of ska records. After DJs discovered that crowds loved to hear these mixes as a preview to forthcoming “official” releases, dubs took on a life of their own. Working with little more than a four-track mixer and using just a few tracks over and over again, producers like King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry were limited to dropping instruments abruptly in and out of the mix and adding echo effects. With these simple tools, they created a sense of sound as a physically mutable space.

A good dub mix is like an inverse of its original, the ghostly imprint that’s left over when you take the song away. On their dub of Bob Marley’s “Keep on Movin’ ” from Blackboard Jungle (1973), Tubby and Perry let the acoustic guitar intro chime in before quickly stripping the track down to its elemental bass and drum pulse. Fragments of skanking rhythm guitar alternate with acoustic ornamentation throughout the rest of the track, each mixed in and out of the haze for rhythmic effect.

Betty Lavette, “Doin’ the Best That I Can” (Walter Gibbons remix) The remix While Jamaican DJs were developing dub mixes, New York DJs were discovering that long songs featuring instrumental breakdowns could ignite a dance floor. After playing around with tape edits that retooled songs along these lines, pioneering disco producer Tom Moulton invented the 12-inch vinyl single after he realized that its wider grooves made for a louder, punchier sound and its length invited extended tracks. The result: sweeping, epic mixes featuring intricate arrangements and minute sonic details.

Walter Gibbons was the remixer on the first-ever commercially released 12-inch, Double Exposure’s “10 Percent.” That mix was mostly an exercise in stretching the original track out, but his take on soul singer Betty Lavette’s sole foray into disco was a textbook example of how to both rearrange and deconstruct a song. (In fact, it was so successful that no one remembers the original anymore—perhaps the truest mark of a great remix.) Gibbons first set the original vocals off against strings, horns, and a pulsating bongo beat, then broke the track down into a series of elements that envelop the listener in an unfolding sonic drama. As the mix develops, glistening chimes, chicken-scratch guitar, a distorted bass line, and piano each leap out and take their turn at center stage.

Grandmaster D.ST, “Rockit (Mega-Mix)” The original The remix Hip-hoppers wouldn’t like to admit it, but their music owes as much to disco as it does to reggae. Kool DJ Herc brought Jamaican sound-system culture to the Bronx in the mid-’70s, but disco’s concept of the “break”—the moment of peak intensity in a track, when a particularly catchy instrumental riff is highlighted—supplied hip-hop DJs with their raw material. Rather than simply mix songs together, as disco DJs did, hip-hop DJs effectively created brand-new tracks by cutting and scratching “breaks” taken from other tracks. They introduced real-time, live-action collage as a method of composition.

Grandmaster D.ST was the DJ on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” the record that introduced scratching to many people in 1983. On the remix, one of hip-hop’s first to get official release, D.ST opened with the sound of engines roaring and cut back and forth between “Rockit,” other tracks from Hancock’s Future Shock album, a Stevie Wonder bass line, clock chimes, vocal sound bites from the movie Wild Style, and much more. The key is a sense of the remix as an improvisational space where anything can happen next, as long as the beat keeps rocking.

Dillinja, “The Angels Fell” The original The remix Drum ‘n’ bass—the hybrid of hip-hop, house, and dubs that emerged from England’s early ‘90s rave culture—took the remix principle further than any other music before or since. Using music software programs like Cubase to speed up, chop, and mutate hip-hop breaks beyond recognition, drum ‘n’ bass producers made the remix a kind of collective endeavor. The “original” tracks became almost irrelevant as producers passed rhythmic DNA and touchstone samples around, remixing them repeatedly.

“The Angels Fell” was one in a series of mixes that stretched over the course of five years, from 1992 to 1997. Sharing a break-beat, a vocal snippet, and a theme with “Angel,” by the British electronica star Goldie, Dillinja created an answer record that replaces Goldie’s soulful vocals with a sense of militant dread. “Angels Fell” shares with dub music an attention to the texture of beats and their interplay with sub-bass lines, but at much faster and more complex levels than Jamaican DJs could have dreamed of in the early ‘70s.

Kylie Minogue, “Can’t Get Blue Monday Out of My Head” The original The remix With Internet bootlegs, remix culture comes full circle. Bootlegs are new tracks created by splicing two or more tracks together on music-editing software like Acid Pro and Cool Edit, then released over file-sharing services. Like Puffy, they thrive on sampling big pop hits that everybody knows. Like dub reggae, they use the same tracks over and over again. (Eminem’s latest single, “Without Me,” is the current favorite.) And like hip-hop DJs, they thrive on unexpected juxtapositions.

Downloading the hundreds of bootlegs floating around the Internet is like tuning into pop’s unconscious—a place where Christina Aguilera meets the Strokes, and Destiny’s Child rubs up against Nirvana. So far, bootlegs are a mostly anonymous, semilegal phenomenon, but musicians are starting to catch on. Brit girl group the Sugababes recently topped the UK charts with an “official” bootleg, and Kylie Minogue caused a sensation at the Brit Awards in March when she performed a version of her international hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” mixed with New Order’s “Blue Monday.”