Remixing has a long and arguably checkered history. From soundsystems in Jamaica cutting "dubs" to win over audiences, to early hip-hop producers pioneering the use of sampling, to New York's early 80s disco producers creating extended versions of tracks, and the eventual rise in the early 2000s of crude and cheesy mashups. Remixing, as a technique for processing content, has taken over every cultural space and now millennials especially interact with the world in this fashion—quickly switching between social media platforms, apps, videos and articles, while producing gifs and memes to create new meaning. Remixing is the pervasive thread connecting all different types of music and culture made for this generation.
But what does all that mean for the inherent quality of music? Back in 1936 Walter Benjamin argued that when a singular spectator becomes a mass spectator art loses its aura. But we are now living in an age of constant mass spectatorship, where music comes with an orchestra of instant opinion, so much so that the professional album review is more or less obsolete. For Benjamin, even the most perfect reproduction lacked the original's presence in time and space—its unique existence at the moment it was made. However, music these days is not only consumed differently, but it also comes from scenes which are diasporic, with tracks created from stems made across different places and time zones. An "aura" in Benjamin's understanding is a relic of past it is unlikely we'll ever see again.
Today remixers play a vital role in an artist's navigation of the attention economy, often producing something with more cultural kudos than the original, thus allowing for a lengthier promotional rollout and ensuring mainstream music still reaches the underground. Therefore the rising importance of remixes can be seen as a sign that the periphery can not only resist the mainstream's power, but also penetrate it on its own terms. Does this then mean that the remixer is now the most important type of musician? I spoke to one half of two remixing duos who started out in different decades and in different countries, Richard Dorfmeister of Viennese musicians Kruder & Dorfmeister, who came to prominence in the early 1990s and are best known for downtempo-dub remixes of pop, hip-hop and drum and bass tracks, and Kahn, of Bristol grime kings Kahn & Neek, to try find out.
Brian Eno argues that genius springs from a collective scenius, which would suggest that the remixer is a big part of any movement within music, but remixing wasn't always such a big part of the music industry. This was partly down to musicians earning more than they do now, so feeling less pressure to maintain several strands of revenue. But this was also down to logistical issues. "To produce music was always connected to renting a studio," Dorfmeister tells me. "Paying an engineer and finding the studio rent. It was not the ideal place to produce music just due to the time-pressure and the uncomfortable circumstances. So when the home studio revolution started and the tools for making music at home became somehow more affordable, that's where it all began."
Kahn's love for remixing came much earlier. "Some of my earliest experiments with production software when I was a teenager were using samples and vocals from other songs," he remembers. "I would set up camp in the music block more or less every lunchtime at school, trying to get my head around a sequencer program called Cubase. I'd burn CDs at home and bring in clippings of sounds and songs I liked and just spend ages cutting them up, looping little samples and trying to add my own ideas on top." This excitement, he tells me, never left him. "Since those days I've always enjoyed making my own versions of things, I still find I work most efficiently in the studio when I'm remixing something."
The remixing revolution as surmised by Dorfmeister is according to Kahn what democratised the music industry. Rather than seeking "approval from some record label in order to get heard" artists could "connect with an audience directly." This capacity to connect with an audience online has created a vortex wherein musicians can kickstart their careers, but this isn't without pitfalls. "The vast amount of content online nowadays naturally has pros and cons," Kahn asserts. "It's easier than ever to find out about new music, but at the same time movements in music can fall victim to saturation at such an increased speed that there's a danger of subcultures burning out before they've even achieved their creative potential."
Dorfmeister also cautions about the possible decrease in the value of a remix, saying that they "used to be on 12" only and normally limited and hard to get. You had to dig hard and definitely spend a lot of time and money in record stores—since it's all online the exclusivity is gone and it's now more about having the right information."
This importance on the right information is not lost on Kahn. "I really love working with vocal stems and structuring musical ideas around them, changing the mood of the original song," he explains. "My major focus when remixing a song with vocals is to give the vocal space and let it really come through in the mix, often meaning I strip away most of the musical source material in order to essentially start from nothing and build the piece back up using my own ideas and sounds."
Indeed, these unique ideas and sounds are what gives producers like Kahn, or contemporaries such as Murlo, their distinct flavor, which no doubt has helped to propel them to the status they've achieved. And when Dorfmeister was first getting into remixing it too was about "treating the remix track as if it would be the original." Nowadays though, Kahn warns, "remixing can certainly become very predictable, especially in the mainstream. You have people being commissioned to do a 'dubstep remix' of this, 'deep house version' of that…it gets pretty tiresome." He hasn't lost faith in it as a culture though. "I do still believe that remixing culture can be subversive, it's all down to the imagination of the artist that's doing the remix." Dorfmeister concurs, but also adds it's usually a task that "takes more energy and effort to make it worthwhile" with a "process that takes time and goes through several stages of production."
In a broader context, remixing can also be understood as cultural blending. In the wake of the Brexit result, and the rise in racist and xenophobic attacks across Britain, communities are under threat. In the lead up to the referendum, many musicians voiced their support for Remain and afterwards, haven't shied away from expressing their dismay with the majority choosing Leave. Perhaps now then the time is ripe for musicians to once again roll up their sleeves, and rather than through Twitter, make political statements through music. With remixing as a symbol of cultural blending it's particularly important to uphold in an increasingly divided world.