Edit culture is very much ingrained into the DNA of dance music. Along with the remix, it remains an important utensil for breathing new life into existing works; a skill that few can do right and fewer still master. To pay homage, Boiler Room and Native Instruments combined forces to lead an exploration into its significance. In a piece that discusses the role of edit culture, Greg Wilson describe his early run-ins with the reel-to-reel machine, all the way through to the use of STEMS.
Back in 1966, The Beatles’ record producer, George Martin, executed my favourite singular edit of all time. John Lennon had been working on the now iconic “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and having recorded two versions was then faced with the dilemma of wanting to use sections from both. When George had pointed out the difficulties of matching pitch and tempo, Lennon’s response was simply “you can fix it”. The fixed version is the definitive one that we all know; two recordings perfectly merged together by one decisive splice and you can hear it if you listen carefully around the minute mark on ‘going to’:
Editing has been around as long as magnetic tape itself, but thanks to the influence of avant-garde experimentation — via the likes of the French movement Musique Concrète, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, British innovator Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop — popular music increasingly embraced the splicing of tape as a creative outlet in the late 60s.
However, the vast amount of editing during this period was as a means of reduction; the art of snipping a lengthy album track down to a radio friendly three minutes or so. The big changes would come with the dawn of the disco era and the advent of the 12” single. This is where remix pioneers Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons would extend tracks to cater to the demands of the dance floor; a place where gradual builds and long breaks would really make their mark.
The first officially released 12”, “Ten Percent” by Double Exposure (issued by Salsoul in 1976 and ‘mixed’ by Gibbons) was actually an extended edit, credited on the label as ‘disco blending’. Moulton and Gibbons could look back to DJs like Francis Grasso at Sanctuary and Nicky Siano at The Gallery, who pioneered ‘changes’ or ‘blends’ (or what we initially referred to as ‘segues’ in the UK) before the term mixing was in use. They instigated the art of continuation, matching the beats in such a stealth-like fashion that the audience might not even notice that a new record had replaced the previous one. By this time, the twin turntables had become the standard DJ format for playing records in nightclubs and discotheques.
Elsewhere, in the South Bronx of New York, hip-hop was in its embryonic stages and being incubated at DJ Kool Herc’s parties. Noticing how frantic the dancing would become when the funk breaks came in, Herc devised an approach he called ‘the merry-go-round’. Switching between the break sections on some of his biggest tunes, he created a rhythmic medley causing the dancers to break (as in hit a breaking point rather than anything to do specifically with the break in the music).
This resulted in the birth of B-Boy culture, and a whole foundation of increasingly astonishing dance moves resulted. Herc, a Jamaican immigrant who brought the sound system sensibility from Kingston to NYC, set in motion a cultural revolution that would eventually birth the turntablist. This new type of DJ used records as an instrument; an object to not only be played, but be manipulated into new recycled sounds. Scratching was invented by Grand Wizard Theodore in the late 70s and perfected by the great cut and scratch master Grandmaster Flash. His groundbreaking 1981 record The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel was made solely from other records, including his own.
Moulton and Gibbons had quickly graduated to mixing from the multitrack recordings, echoing the path taken by the dub innovators of Jamaica like King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Tubby and Perry’s mastery of tape delay and spring reverb heralded the epoch of the remixer. The next wave of New York DJs would unleash such sonic innovators as Tee Scott, Larry Levan, François Kervorkian, Shep Pettibone, and Jellybean Benitez; each creating their own dub interpretations and connecting the club and the studio ever-closer.
As recording began to increasingly push at these boundaries, the studio became an instrument in itself
The advent of the multi-rack
Multitrack recording had been developed in the 1950s and most of the records issued during the following decade embraced this new technology. The majority of The Beatles’ recordings were made on four-track – hugely limited by today’s standard, but the results tell us otherwise. As recording began to increasingly push at these boundaries, the studio became an instrument in itself with the likes of The Beatles trying to squeeze every ounce of creativity out of these limitations. Those very drawbacks would often serve as inspiration for producers and musicians who had to learn to think laterally.
To free up space on the tape, two tracks would be bounced together onto a third to create an additional track to record on. 4-track masterpieces like Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) were achieved in this fashion of bouncing to and fro. Attention to detail was paramount because the sound slightly degraded with each bounce in these pre-digital days. As the amount of multitrack channels available multiplied, so did the opportunities. With 16-track and then 24-track recorders becoming the norm, these could be further hooked up to enable 48 for two machines, 72 for three, and so forth. Digital technology offers an unlimited amount of tracks. We’ve come a long long way from the recording restrictions faced by Sgt. Pepper… and the music of that period.
I started out as a Merseyside-based DJ at the end of 1975 when the idea of mixing two records together was yet to make its way across the Atlantic. It took until 1978 for UK DJs to give it a go but the equipment had yet to catch up and the old belt driven turntables in most clubs were unsuitable for DJ manipulation. I wrote about the British lineage in some depth in a piece called From Garrard To Technics – How British DJ’s Began To Mix.
The first proper mixing DJ in this country was Greg James, an Argentinian-born American from Pennsylvania, and a friend of the Studio 54 DJ Richie Kaczor. He’d been brought over to play at The Embassy in April 1978, which was positioning itself as London’s answer to the gloriously infamous New York nightspot. Six months later, there was another major development when the CBS Records’ club promotion department issued a DJ only album of current and upcoming releases. Instant Replays contained what they described as ‘non-stop segued music’. Key to this were Record Mirror Disco columnist, James Hamilton, undoubtedly the greatest UK champion of mixing in its genesis, and Graham ‘Fatman’ Canter, the DJ at central London Soul club Gullivers. This was the prototype mix album from a UK perspective.
A small but significant group of British DJs, working in venues with the necessary vari-speed turntables, continued to show faith in this new direction. Via Record Mirror, James Hamilton took it upon himself to fly the mixing flag. Meanwhile, having seen Larry Levan play at the Paradise Garage in NYC, London’s DJ Froggy bought himself a pair of Technics SL-1200s. At the time, they were a rarity on the UK club scene, but subsequently became the DJ standard. In another important development, ex-Blackpool Mecca DJ Ian Levine, who had left his Northern Soul past behind him, took up residency in 1979 at London’s new gay mega-venue, Heaven. It was these 3 DJs, along with Graham Canter that provided the cornerstones for the evolution of mixing from a British perspective.
In 1980, I became the resident at state-of-the-art New York-styled club Wigan Pier, which boasted 3 x Technics SL-1500s fully equipped with vari-speed and a sturdy needle. I’d spent the previous two months DJing in Germany where I used SL-1200s for the first time. I was now set-up to approach mixing seriously. So when I took over the Wednesday night funk sessions at Manchester’s Legend in 1981 — a new club opened by the owners of Wigan Pier, with a trio of SL1200s, not to mention the best club sound system I’d ever heard — I was well and truly tooled up.
I quickly built my reputation as a mixing DJ, especially given the increasing amount of new electro-funk records released from ’82 onwards. This electronic direction in dance music was better suited to mixing than the less precise rhythms of a live drummer, no matter how good they might be. The drum machine was taking over with units like the Roland TR-808 and TR-909, the Oberheim DMX and the LinnDrum soon to monopolise dance productions.
One of the mixing techniques I really got into was ‘doubling up’ – playing two copies of the same record, with one perhaps four, two or just a beat behind the other. This act of repeating parts before mixing to another section of the track was essentially my own live edit. People who came to my nights were known to buy a record they’d heard me play, but take it back to the shop saying it was the wrong mix only to be informed it was the only mix! It was this very technique that led to my appearance on the Channel 4 show The Tube in February 1983, giving the first live demonstration of mixing on British TV. A couple of researchers from the programme had come to Legend to see the singer David Joseph performing his debut single “You Can’t Hide (Your Love From Me)”. He was due to appear on The Tube and they had come to check him out. When they heard me doubling up with his record they asked me along too.
My mixes on Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio had taken things to a whole new level for me, and it was this that led me down the road of tape editing. I bought my first Revox B77 reel-to-reel just in time to record the Best Of ‘82 mix for Mike Shaft’s show featuring over 50 of the biggest tunes that year. The response to the mix was a revelation and kickstarted an end of year tradition that ran for a decade and through the rave era. I would pass on the baton to future World Mixing Champion Chad Jackson after the Best Of ‘83, who in turn handed in on to further custodians – Stu Allan and DJKA.
Mixing as the norm
Earlier in ’83, while excitedly cutting up tape for fun, I made a madcap edit of a track called “Heaven Sent” by Paul Haig that I’d received from Island Records. They pressed it up as a DJ promo and to my knowledge, this is the first example of a ‘re-edit’ by a British DJ. The following year, I would make a series of what I called ‘turntable edits’ focusing on better-known tracks to be played elsewhere on Piccadilly Radio. Two of these, by Chaka Khan and Scritti Politti, would appear on my 2005 compilation Credit To The Edit.
By this point I was no longer a DJ. I’d retired at the end of 1983 to pursue my ambitions of becoming a remixer/producer. In 1984, working alongside a pair of Manchester musicians and under various aliases, we recorded all but one of the tracks on the UK Electro album. It was part of the influential Electro series released by Street Sounds – the first mix series issued in Britain. UK Electro was also the first British dance album to utilise samples, miniscule soundclips in comparison to what’s possible today, played into the tracks via an Emulator. This would act as the forerunner for the heavily sampled British dance tracks that would score big later in the decade via artists like S Express, M/A/R/R/S, Bomb The Bass and Coldcut.
Mixing finally became the norm for the majority of British DJs with the growth of house music in the UK during the latter part of the 80s. Before that, the microphone had been an essential tool of the trade. With samplers, notably the Akai S1000 and S3000, and then home computers becoming increasingly accessible and affordable, many of these DJs then began making records of their own on the programs available. With programs like Cubase and Logic coming to prominence throughout the late 80s and early 90s, hits were not only being forged in the studio, but also in the bedroom.
“The re-edit movement became more self-aware and sophisticated”
Into the future
Skip forward into the new millennium and home computer editing programs instigated another significant movement among DJs worldwide. Rather than produce their own records, they began to cut up tracks from the past in order to make them relevant to the present. At first, as with the original re-edits, these were used as exclusives by the DJs who made them, but they’d subsequently be shared with other DJs, at first via CD-Rss, digital files or limited vinyl pressings, but later through the platform of SoundCloud, which was initially dependent on these very DJs for its growth.
The seeds of the current re-edit movement were sown in the 80s via now classic edits by DJs like Danny Krivit (New York) and Ron Hardy (Chicago), which were subsequently pressed onto bootleg vinyl. Elsewhere in the Big Apple, crack edit crew The Latin Rascals were tearing up the airwaves, with Double Dee & Steinski fusing their DJ and studio engineering skills to devastating effect. Digital editing opened up new vistas. Older tracks that weren’t in strict time could now be quantized providing a constant BPM. With multi-track editing now possible via home computers, the options began to increase further. Tracks could now be further enhanced to fill out the sound in a way that was more applicable to today’s dancefloors, for example. Or the creation of an intro/outro could be filed in to make the tracks more conducive for mixing purposes.
The re-edit momentum was further aided by the demise of vinyl, the majority of DJs switching CDJ and computer based formats, although, paradoxically, vinyl pressings of these re-edits helped keep the format alive. Along with Todd Terje, a young Norwegian DJ who was building himself a big reputation, I’d found myself at the vanguard of a swiftly evolving re-edit movement having returned to DJing in 2003. Having been totally detached from the club scene for a number of years, I had no idea that this edit culture had been bubbling away for a decade or more. This was pure serendipity for me, playing right into my hands. The days of splicing tape now long gone, I’d entered the digital domain and was putting together my own edits and mash-ups (combining 2 or more separate tracks – generally the vocal from one and the backing from another) to play out and share. At the same time, I was getting music from others, either via CD-R or on limited vinyl, pressed up on labels like Better Days, Big Bear, Creative Use, and G.A.M.M.
In 2005 I compiled the first of my Credit To The Edit albums for Tirk. The follow-up, in 2009, came on the back of my BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix, which is perhaps the defining moment in my comeback years. The mix was subsequently named among the best Essential Mixes ever bringing me widespread kudos given its global reach. As the second decade of the 21st century arrived, a new generation of editors began to make their mark. Names like Late Nite Tuff Guy, The Revenge, Psychemagik and Leftside Wobble came to the fore using Soundcloud as their main platform. The re-edit movement became more self-aware and sophisticated, with some DJs, including Kon and The Reflex, fanatically seeking out the original multitrack parts (or stems) of older, often classic recordings.
Computer gaming, and more specifically, the rhythm game genre, was to help shape the next phase. Rock Band devised a multiplayer music format that required popular classics being broken down into four stems — drums, bass, guitar and vocals. This became rich pickings for rework disciples, now able to rip these stems directly from the game and access a wealth of deconstructed recordings by some of the great artists of popular music — The Beatles included.
Rock Band has served to attune a coming generation of DJs to the logical next step: the performance of live remixes, with DJs rearranging the stems, while adding their own unique effects on the fly. STEMS, as such, provide a new format — another way of releasing music, especially (but not exclusively) current dance music. For, as Rock Band has proved, there’s a wealth of older material that might also be well served by stem availability – classics and hidden gems ripe for revival in this new 21st century context. They also provide a creative platform for DJs that was unimaginable when Francis Grasso was going through the changes and Kool Herc rode the merry-go-round.
There’s a space for future legends to be eulogised in future times; an opportunity to help shift the course of this culture of ours. Let’s hope the upcoming innovators of stem culture continue to build on what went before with a similar spirit of adventure and discovery.
This article was originally published in collaboration with Boiler Room.