[7 August 2005]
There are those among us who reject remix projects such as this on principle, holding fast to the notion that tampering with classic music in such a fashion is at best superfluous, and at worse patently disrespectful. While I can understand this notion, I do not think it correct or even defensible. Great music, enduring music, deserves to be redefined and rediscovered by successive generations. The notion that the original recording artist possesses some kind of moral right to have their music held static throughout eternity is relatively recent. Up until, really, the early years of rock and roll, the song itself was ceded primacy in the artistic equation: some artists wrote their own songs, and all artists had signature tunes, but most popular artists, regardless of genre, worked from common repertoires. The best songs became a part of this repertoire.
But somewhere along the line things changed. The premium was placed not only on singers who could sing their own material, but the singer’s own interpretation was summarily considered paramount. This makes a certain degree of sense, but it effectively relegated the previously plastic process of continual reinterpretation to the scrap-heap. Covers are novelties, and are often considered a slightly shabby substitute for “real” recording. Used to be that songwriters like Gershwin or Porter could produce a body of work that would be revisited and reinterpreted for decades, continuing to change with the times, with new artists recording and performing new versions to exploit new styles, and no honest interpretation considered more or less valid than another. Before the invention of recorded music and the institution of universal publishing copyrights, popular song was nothing but accumulated traditions and gradual transformation. Now, to a large degree, this kind of intergenerational collaboration is a thing of the past. Not only is it expected that each succeeding generation will reject the music of its forebears, it is mandated by the relentless pace of commercial society. Those who reject this notion either wholly or in part are considered hopelessly retrograde.
While there is a tendency to view remix albums such as Motown Remixed as garish artifacts of this selfsame capitalistic mentality, it is important to recognize that they actually represent a significant evolutionary leap for the modern pop form. Now, it would be disingenuous of me to assert that all remixes were created equal. Most remixes, like most of anything, are mediocre. But when a remix really kicks, it becomes the very best type of collaboration: a meeting of the minds between two disparate creative forces to create something new and compelling through the process of synthesis. Given the ubiquity of powerful home computing and affordable audio software, the potential for remixers to create entirely new channels of trans-generational communication is incredibly exciting.
It would be hard to find a more esteemed body of song than that represented on Motown Remixed. I am happy to report that this disc breaks the recent spate of bad luck we’ve been having with remix anthologies—it easily outclasses the mediocre third volume in the otherwise superlative Verve Remixed series, as well as the disappointing Atlantiquity project. The M.O. for a classic remix compilation should be simple, but it’s an imprecise science. You need to get the best remixers you can to work with the best tracks you have, give them the creative latitude to express themselves fully and stand back. Sometimes things that look great on paper come out limp, and sometimes the least auspicious pairings can yield surprising results. It’s as much luck as anything.
The disc kicks off with Z-Trip’s excellent remix of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”. Those familiar with Z-Trip might be expecting something wild and crazy, but the track is actually quite restrained: Z-Trip strips back the more rambunctious pop elements until all that’s left is the backbone of a tasteful soul jam, with languid guitar and sultry bass set atop a bedrock of funky breaks. It probably shouldn’t be, but it is especially poignant to hear a young Michael Jackson singing so effusively. Z-Trip wisely understands that the best strategy involves letting Jackson’s voice take the center stage.
The Randy Watson Experience delivers a fantastic remix of Gladys Knight & The Pips version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, full of irresistible ‘70s funk breaks and coruscating electric organ. Again, when dealing with material this strong, the remixers’ prerogative needs to be elaboration without obfuscation: adding new elements without obscuring those attributes that made the song a classic to begin with. Da Producers’ remix of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” follows these suggestions to a “T” but still manages to fall somewhat flat—Gaye’s voice and the song’s sultry melody are out front where they should be, but the generic funk undercarriage seems just slightly gratuitous.
DJ Smash turns Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” into a lazy downtempo house workout. Like many of the mixes on the disc, Smash doesn’t change the structure of the song at all, and letting Wonder carry the day makes his own contributions look that much better. Salaam Remi’s “Krunk-A-Delic Party Mix” of the Jackson 5’s “ABC”, however, drops the song’s main hook in favor of a crunk party feel, turning the prepubescent Michael into a retrograde Lil’ Jon, complete with repeated appeals to “shake it, shake it, baby”. It’s interesting, even if not wholly convincing.
The album gets slightly soggy in the middle portion. The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” comes off enervated by DJ Jazzy Jeff a& Pete Kuzma’s infusion of tasteful jazz elements. Considering how funky and forceful the original is, the track needed a remixer who could approach the material with an eye towards something more enthusiastic. I will say in the interest of fairness that Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm” has always been one of my least favorite songs, and Groove Boutique’s lounge remix does little to improve what was already a fairly treacly and exhausting track. Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You” was never a song that suffered from a lack of energy, but Tranzition’s remix saps a great deal of the original’s effusive tension in flavor of a faux-languid “Quiet Storm” vibe.
However, things pick up with the Easy Mo Bee remix of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”. This is essentially in the same “Quiet Storm” mold as the previous remixes, but it works better on account of the note of insistent sensuality that runs through the minimal percussion, accentuated by the slight bits of orchestral flourish. The Hotsnax remix of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown” is one of the album’s high points, taking the irresistible hook of the original and giving it over to a full-scale dancefloor rerub, in the vein of Fatboy Slim. Because the original was already so punchy, the dense, jocular big beat vibe is exceptionally appropriate. My only complaint is that the track is so short—in fact, some of the best mixes on this disc suffer from the sin of brevity, which might actually limit their utility for many DJs.
The last few tracks are exceptionally strong. DJ Spinna’s remix of Eddie Hendricks’ “Keep on Truckin’” is a surprisingly subtle reworking, isolating and accentuating the hooks over a skeletal rhythm section. Perhaps the disc’s finest moment comes on the ever reliable King Britt’s imaginative recreation of Edwin Star’s “War” as an Afrobeat jam in the mode of Fela Kuti, with hypnotic proto-house drumbeats and sinister saxophone squonks hiding deep in the mix. Again, at only five minutes and change, this track could easily do with being half again as long. The album’s final cut is DJ Green Lantern’s “Evil Genius” remix of Rick James’ “Mary Jane”. I don’t particularly know why this is billed as a “Bonus Mix”, but it’s a good note on which to end the compilation, with an almost psychedelic combination of stomping beats and retreated flute notes. It’s weird and funky in equal measure, just like the late Super Freak himself.
Although there were a handful of clunkers, the disc’s overall quality is exceptional. The high regard with which the remixers obviously hold the original tracks has inspired many of them to produce exceptional work. Of course, folks like Z-Trip, King Britt and DJ Smash can be expected to excel whenever they rear their heads, but lesser-known remixers like Hotsnax and Salaam Remi also announce themselves with confidence and poise. If all remix discs were this good, well… the world would be a better place, I’ll say that much.
(Note: According to Amazon, the UK version of the disc features a significantly different tracklisting, with the addition of “Stoned Love” by The Supremes’ remixed by Tom Moulton and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” by Gladys Knight & The Pips remixed by Kenny Dope. Also, the UK version does not feature the mixes of “Mary Jane”, “ABC” or “Tears of a Clown”.)