10 Times Electronic Producers Turned David Bowie Originals Into Otherworldly Space Odysseys

Tracing the Starman's wide-reaching influence on electronic music through the songs that sample him

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Jan 12 2016, 10:23pm

Photo by Adam Bielawski/Wikimedia Commons

Low, with its gaseous gasps and post-Popol Vuh grandiosity, marked the recently departed David Bowie's former's first foray into alien electronics. Recorded in collaboration with Brian Eno during Bowie's Berlin period, the 1977's album's seeping mixture of vaporous synthesizer excursions and great serpentine structures were a far cry from the mannered orchestrations and fistfuls of glitter that launched the space-age icon's career.

Over time, Bowie settled more firmly into those avant tendencies; decades later, he even started filling records like 1993's Black Tie White Noise and 1997's Earthling with noxious synth bass bursts and brittle breaks. Over the years, more club-dwelling practitioners of electronic music began to embrace him back, sprinkling bits of Bowie recordings—from just a few small words to full iconic choruses—throughout their work. Whether menacing or sublime, corny or compelling, a snippet of a Bowie record always makes for an impactful moment. Below, presented chronologically, are a few of the most compelling breadcrumbs Bowie bequeathed to electronic music, each demonstrating a different part of the untouchable legacy of a man more multifaceted than anyone you'll ever know.

1. Nine Inch Nails, "Self-Destruction, Final" ("Time" sample) [1995]

Trent Reznor's music has often been evocative of Bowie's darker moments, but he made that connection literal in 1995, with a Nine Inch Nails/David Bowie co-headlining tour and this series of remixes from Further Down the Spiral. A trio of broken industrial reworks of The Downward Spiral's "Mr. Self Destruct," each contain a brief sample of Aladdin Sane's "Time" that highlights the bleak humor of both parties: namely, that either would consent to imbuing the tri-partite remix's overwhelming darkness with the phrase "falls wanking on the floor."

2. David Bowie, "I'm Afraid of Americans (Photek Remix)" [1997]

The head-spinning original was the result of another Bowie/Eno pairing, but a peak-form Photek was able to make Earthling's drum & bass dalliances both more gritty and more extraterrestrial. Pitched synth bleats and jump-roping drum breaks give this a propulsion you don't generally picture from the Duke's later years—a speed-demon odyssey on par with the liftoff of his earliest work.

3. Dario G, "Sunmachine" ("Memory of a Free Festival" sample) [1998]

British trance trio Dario G keyed in on some of David Bowie's brightest work (the 1970 single "Memory of a Free Festival") for "Sunmachine" —a beautiful burst of buoyant kickdrums, jaunty piano plinks, and fluttering flutes newly recorded for this mix by Bowie's own long-time sideman and producer Tony Visconti. It's cheery to a near-comical degree, but a reminder that all the fantasy and phantasm of Bowie's long career was a cloak for these special moments of unrestrained joy.

4. The Chemical Brothers, "Star Guitar" ("Starman" sample) [2002]

So many have tried to refract or redirect the light of the Starman, but few did it with as much success as Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons on their 2002 composition, "Star Guitar." Centering on a measure-long snippet of acoustic guitar from Bowie's original, the British duo goes for the same middle-distance gazing that made David Bowie's work so special.

5. David Bowie and Philip Glass, "Heroes (Aphex Twin Remix)" [2003]

Leave it to Richard D. James to shun the anthemic calls of David Bowie's most grandiose number in favor of modest introspection. On his 2003 collection of odds, ends, and remixes, Aphex Twin offered up this aural swoon, a mashup of sorts of Philip Glass' orchestral rendition of "Heroes" and the vocals from Bowie's original. It's just as hazy and angelic as anything contained on Low (or on any of the Berlin-schooled ambient records that informed that album for that matter), a sign of the delicate experimentalism at the heart of all of Bowie's songwriting.

6. David Guetta, "Just For One Day (Heroes)" ("Heroes" sample) [2003]

Then another David, the same year, decided to go the obvious route with the same song, blowing "Heroes" up to stadium size. He picked the right song, if nothing else, and it's a testament to the towering efforts of the original that its still emotionally affecting when wrapped in the neon gauze and cheap highs of this rework.

7. Benny Benassi, "D.J." ("D.J." sample) [2008]

Benny Benassi's mid-aughts electro endeavors may seem a strange fit for an official rework of David Bowie's 1979 single "D.J.," but camp Bowie apparently liked the bootleg version enough that he bestowed his stamp of approval and released it to celebrate the original's 30th anniversary. You have to imagine that the affinity is due, in part to the giddy postmodern mantra that Bowie's "I am a D.J./I am what I play" becomes amidst Benassi's belching synthesizers—a cross-generational wink as intriguing as any flailing synthwork.

8. Jamie Lidell, "Little Bit of Feel Good (Mr. Oizo Mix)" ("Shake It" sample) [2008]

French house producer and film director Quentin Dupieux, aka Mr. Oizo, rightly saw a similarity between Jamie Lidell's cyborg-soul and the post-disco locked-grooves of the Let's Dance era. Oizo's rework of "Little Bit of Feel Good" relies on a bit of tone-setting from a few samples from "Shake It," pitch-morphed to nearly unrecognizable formants and phonems. The resulting work is futuristic and unknowable in a way that even the original never really was, a baffling collision of epochs and forms that shouldn't resolve, but somehow do.

9. David Bowie, "Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix by James Murphy for the DFA)" [2013]

After cribbing a riff from "Heroes" to bolster the emotional bombast of the last LCD Soundsystem album, DFA founder James Murphy collided with David Bowie once more a few years later, when he turned in this megamix of "Love Is Lost." Originally a torpid, emotion-heavy effort from Bowie's 2013 album The Next Day, Murphy transformed the track into a 10-minute expedition that matches Bowie's best work in winking danciness and high-minded concepts (he calls this the "Hello Steve Reich Mix"). Only at the five minute-mark does the track open up from fractal synth lines into the thrumming digitalist Chic-isms you expect from Murphy, but it's a fitting tribute to the strange twists and turns that Bowie's career has taken over the years—just when you think it's all figured out, the track morphs yet again.

10. Neil Cicierega, "Transmission" ("Space Oddity" sample) [2014]

Neil Cicierega's postmodern pop collages play as if Oneohtrix Point Never's broken technoballads were sourced from pop-culture ephemera and early-00s alt-rock cheese, so it's no great surprise that the Boston-born composer finds something fruitful in the outsider experiments and goofy humor that David Bowie espoused over the years. "Transmission," a 54-second snippet from his 2014 album Mouth Silence, is creepy on its face, using a crackly sample of "Space Oddity" to break up the anxious readings of a shortwave radio numbers station. But the alt codes for those numbers spell a secret message amidst the acoustic guitar fuzz: "SMASH MOUTH." It's terrifying, goofy, and brilliant each at different layers—an oddity as complex as the man who spawned it.

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