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’ – he’d recorded 2 versions, and was faced with the dilemma of wanting to use the first section of one recording, but take the rest of the track from a completely different and more progressive version. His comment to George Martin, when the producer pointed out the difficulties of matching pitch and tempo, was ‘you can fix it’. The fixed version is the definitive one that we all know, two recordings perfectly merged together by one decisive splice. You can hear it, if you listen carefully, at just before 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 and BBC Radiophonic Workshop innovators Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire (who constructed the ‘Dr Who’ theme working with tape loops), popular music increasingly embraced the splicing of tape as a creative outlet in the latter years of the ‘60s.
However, the vast amount of editing in popular music during this period was utilised as a medium for reduction, where a lengthy album track needed snipping down to a radio friendly 3 minutes or so. The big changes would come with the dawn of the Disco era, and the advent of the 12” single, where remix pioneers Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons would extend, rather than reduce tracks, catering for the demands of the dance floor, 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, in effect, 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, before the term mixing was in use, pioneered ‘changes’ or ‘blends’ (or what we initially referred to as ‘segues’ in the UK), instigating the art of continuation, matching the beats in such a stealth-like fashion that the audience might not even notice a new record had replaced the previous one on the twin turntables, which had become the standard DJ format for playing records in nightclubs and discotheques.
Elsewhere in New York, the South Bronx to be precise, the first tremours of a seismic shift were being felt at DJ Kool Herc’s parties, where Hip Hop was in embryo. Noticing how frantic the dancing would become when the break came in on the Funk grooves he featured, Herc devised an approach he called ‘the merry-go-round’, switching between the break sections on some of his big tunes he created a rhythmic medley that would drive the dancers crazy, causing them 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, as one of its four cornerstone elements, would birth the turntablist – unleashing a new type of DJ who used records as an instrument; something not only to be played, but to be manipulated into new recycled sounds. Scratching was invented by Grand Wizzard Theodore in the late ’70s and perfected by the great cut and scratch exponent Grandmaster Flash, who went on to make a truly groundbreaking record in 1981 called ‘The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’, made solely from other records, his own included.
Moulton and Gibbons had quickly graduated to mixing from the multitrack recordings, echoing the path taken by the Dub innovators in Jamaica, most prominently King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, whose 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 Kevorkian, Shep Pettibone and Jellybean Benitez, creating their own Dub interpretations and connecting ever-closer the club to the studio.
Multitrack recording had been developed in the 1950s and most of the records issued during the ’60s had embraced this new technology. The majority of the recordings The Beatles made were on 4 track – hugely limited we might think now, but the results tell us otherwise. As recording began to increasingly push at these boundaries, the studio became an instrument in itself, bands like The Beatles trying to squeeze every ounce of creativity out of these limitations, those very drawbacks often serving to inspire eureka moments as producers and musicians learned 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 something else on. It was by bouncing back and fro in this way that 4 track masterpieces like ‘Revolver’ (1966) and ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967) were achieved. Attention to detail was paramount, because the sound slightly degraded with each bounce in these pre-digital days – there was a fine line to tread if you were going to retain accepable sound quality.
As the amount of multitrack channels available multiplied, with 16 track, then 24 track recorders becoming the norm (these could also be hooked up to further machines to enable 48 for two machines, 72 for three, and so forth). Nowadays, with digital technology, an unlimited amount of tracks are available. We’ve come a long long way from the recording restrictions faced by ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and the music of that period. This YouTube clip illustrates the contents of each stem on the seminal album’s title track:
I started out as a DJ on Merseyside at the end of 1975 when we were still in the pre-12” era and the idea of mixing 2 records together was yet to make its way across the Atlantic. It wasn’t until 1978 that UK DJs began to give it a go, but the equipment had yet to catch up, the old belt driven turntables in most clubs unsuitable for DJ manipulation, so mixing never caught on at this stage over here. I wrote about the British lineage in some depth in a piece called ‘From Garrard To Technics – How British DJs 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. Then, 6 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’, which 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. You can hear it here:
Whilst failing to find a foothold during the coming years, 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, and London DJ Froggy, following a fateful trip to NYC’s New Music Seminar in 1979, where he saw Larry Levan play at the Paradise Garage, took it upon himself to buy a pair of Technics SL-1200s – as rare as hens teeth on the UK club scene at that time, but subsequently to become 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 provide 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 2 months DJing in Germany, where I used SL-1200s for the first time. I was now set-up to approach mixing seriously, and when, in 1981, I took over the Wednesday night Funk sessions at Manchester’s Legend, 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, and 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 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 2 copies of the same record, one perhaps 4 beats, 2 beats, or just a beat behind the other, repeating parts before maybe mixing to another section of the track, creating what was in effect my own live edits. 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 former Hi-Tension singer David Joseph, who was making a personal appearance, performing his solo debut ‘You Can’t Hide (You’re Love From Me)’. He was to appear on The Tube and they’d come to check him out, but 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, buying my first Revox B77 reel-to-reel just in time to record the ‘Best Of 82’ mix for Mike Shaft’s show, a cut-up of over 50 of the biggest tunes that year. The response to the mix was a revelation, and heralded an end of year tradition that ran for a decade, right through the Rave era. I would pass on the baton to future World Mixing Champion Chad Jackson after the ‘Best Of 83’, as it would, in turn, be handed to further custodians – Stu Allan and DJKA:
Earlier in ’83, excitedly cutting up tape for fun I made a madcap edit of a track called ‘Heaven Sent’ by Paul Haig, which Island Records had sent me a copy of. They pressed it up as a DJ promo – to my knowledge, this is the first example of a re-edit by a British DJ, although re-edit wasn’t a term we used at the time. I would make a series of what I called ‘turntable edits’ the following year, focusing on better-known tracks, which were played elsewhere on Piccadilly Radio (2 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, under various aliases we recorded all but one of the tracks on the ‘UK Electro’ album, 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, minuscule soundclips in comparison to what’s possible today, played into the tracks via an Emulator, one of the early sampling keyboards. This would be a forerunner of 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:
With the rise of the House music scene in the UK during the mid-’80s, from underground speciality to mainstream phenomenon following the Rave explosion of the ‘88/’89 summers of love, mixing finally became the norm for the majority of British DJs, to whom the microphone had been an essential tool of the trade previously. 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 systems like Cubase and Logic coming to prominence throughout the late ’80s / ’90s. Hits were being forged not only the studio, but now the bedroom as DJs took control of the music people danced to, this new breed of DJ / producer often gaining parity with the artist, and even becoming the artist themselves – dance culture had begun to hit paydirt.
Remixing, at first, was taking what was already on the existing multitrack and, as the name suggests, mixing the ingredients in a different way – changing the arrangement, adding EQs and effects, setting different levels etc. Later, additional sounds would be added to what was already on tape, these additions sometimes replacing the original track wholesale, so that some so called ‘remixes’ are, in fact, totally different recordings that have little in common with the originals. Technology had narrowed the gap between DJ and musician, the emphasis no longer on playing, but on programming, with the ’90s seeing club music continually divide into ever-narrower sub-genres.
Post millennium, editing programmes on home computers instigated a significant movement of DJs worldwide who, rather than produce their own records, 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-Rs, digital files or limited vinyl pressings, but later through the platform of SoundCloud, which was initially dependant on these very DJs for its growth.
The original re-edits date back to the ’70s, and were done by DJs working at US clubs where they had access to reel-to-reel tape recorders, enabling them to cut up and re-arrange existing records, creating their own exclusive versions that could only be heard in their venues. 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, reaching the wider DJ community in the process, whilst also 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:
Whilst tape editing is, with hindsight, extremely limited, digital editing opened up new vistas. Older tracks that weren’t in strict time, making them difficult, often impossible for a DJ to mix, could now be quantised, with the beats precisely placed, providing a constant bpm (beats-per-minute). Furthermore, multitrack editing was now possible via home computers, so the options began to increase further. Older tracks, already put into rigid time, could now be given further contemporary enhancement – perhaps the addition of a deeper bass or kick drum to fill out the sound in a way that’s more applicable to todays dancefloors, or the creation of an intro / outro that enables the track to be conducive for DJs to mix into and out of.
Cut and paste plays a huge role in the culture of our time, the manipulation of words, images and especially recorded music an everyday occurance, if only for our own online social media entertainment. Hip Hop, the dominant music of the late 20th century, was the epitomy of cut and paste – it re-wrote the rulebook of juxtaposition with its open minded wild style approach, which it cultivated via decks and samplers. A bit of this with a bit of that could often result in groove alchemy of the highest order.
With a general move away from vinyl and onto CDJ and computer based formats, the possibilities increased drastically for DJs, with programs like Traktor, Serato and Ableton enabling far more scope to personalise the music they play, tailoring it to their own individual needs, and often, in the process, giving themselves an edge over their contemporaries.
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-edits movement a few years on from my DJ return at the end of 2003. Having been totally detached from the club scene for a number of years, I had no idea that so many edits were being made, and that this had all been bubbling 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, whilst obtaining other peoples re-edits and mash-ups, either via CD-R or on limited vinyl, pressed up on labels like Better Days, Big Bear, Creative Use and GAMM.
In 2005 I compiled the first of my ‘Credit To The Edit’ albums for Tirk; the second, in 2009, following on from my BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix, perhaps the defining moment in my comeback years – the mix subsequently named amongst the best Essential Mixes ever, bringing me widespread kudos as a consequence, 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 more to the fore, with SoundCloud providing the perfect platform for them to connect with an eager audience of DJs and enthusiasts worldwide, prompting plays in the tens of thousands.
As the re-edit movement became more self-aware and sophisticated, some DJs, including Kon and The Reflex began to fanatically seek out the original multitrack parts, or stems as they’d come to be known in the digital age, of older, often classic recordings. Breaking the track down into its individual components, before re-arranging in a more beneficial way to their needs.
Computer gaming was to help shape the next phase, the Rhythm Game genre specifically, where Rock Band devised a multiplayer music format that required many popular tracks from years gone by to be broken down into stems, so that one person could be the drummer, the second play bass, the third guitar and the fourth sing. This became rich pickings for rework exponents, now able to rip these stems directly from the game and, in the process, access a history of deconstructed recordings by some of the great artists of popular music, The Beatles included, with their own bespoke version of Rock Band unveiled in 2009.
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, whilst adding their own EQs and effects, in order to create their own unique mixes 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 unimaginable when Francis Grasso was going through the changes and Kool Herc rode the merry-go-round.
Adapted from an article first published by Boiler Room in 2015 as ‘From Segues To Stems – A Potted History Of The DJ Manipulator’:
Further to the article, on November 15th 2015 I was part of a panel at London’s Institute Of Contemporary Arts, hosted by Boiler Room and Native Instruments, discussing editing and remixing. One of the New York greats, François Kevorkian, was also participating, and it was fascinating to hear of his emergence via the NYC Disco scene of the ’70s, initially providing drum accompaniment to DJ and remix innovator, Walter Gibbons, before eventually finding himself working for Prelude, one of the leading dance labels of the late ’70s / early ’80s, where he set off on the road to becoming one of the all-time legendary remixers. It was quite something to learn that his Dub sensibility had been sparked by the UK track ‘Love Money’ by TW Funkmasters, not King Tubby or Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, who he only got to hear subsequently. The full discussion is available here:
GW Choice Edits & Reworks 2015 & 2016: