Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974
Reconstruction & Mix Translation by Bill Laswell
By Michaelangelo Matos
When they rewrite the annals of popular music again in a couple years, the 90s will be known as the remix decade--the years when a little piece of underground dance culture floated up into the mainstream and became nearly as ubiquitous as the bar code. Even rock bands that just three or four years ago had no connection whatsoever to rave culture--Metallica, Soundgarden--have undergone the beat-auteur treatment. Naturally, to your average underground dance fan, this smacks of opportunism. But as anyone who's studied those annals knows, opportunism can breed surprisingly good results. So it is with the remix: in the right hands, a dubious business enterprise can create sustaining art, or at least highly entertaining product.
Remixing can be traced back to mid-70s Jamaica, where producers would reinvent existing reggae material in "versions" or "dubs," and late-70s New York, where Walter Gibbons and Larry Levan would extend the most danceable grooves on disco records. It became commonplace during the late 80s and early 90s in hip-hop and early rave circles; remixes by top producers could often create a club hit for an artist, like Marley Marl's remix of L.L. Cool J's "Jingling Baby." Since good sampling equipment became available at lower prices early this decade, remixes have tended toward elaborate new constructions that retain only faint traces of the original. A good deal of a remix's appeal nowadays has to do with how much of the remixer's own personality is injected, and how it either dovetails or strikes sparks with the original spirit of the work.
Armand Van Helden, for instance, has a most impressive track record for taking on dubious projects and coming up with gold: his remixes of Tori Amos's "Professional Widow" and the Sneaker Pimps' "Spin Spin Sugar" are bold masterpieces that foreshadowed the speed-garage sound that's held UK club kids in thrall for the past year. For "Spin Spin Sugar," he constructed an epic of tension and release: a swirling, dense fog of sound gives way to a skipping house beat, which breaks down, comes back, and is swamped by an enormous bass line as Kelli Dayton's vocal, intact from the original and double-tracked to fantastic effect on the chorus, cuts through the wall of sound. The result is better than anything else carrying the group's name. For "Professional Widow" Van Helden structured an entirely new rhythm track, with a walloping funk bass line and galloping drums, over which Tori repeats "Gotta be big" like a robot; the repetition is hedonistic, ecstatic. These two tracks are everything a remix should be: smart, fun to listen to (and dance to, in this case), imaginative, an extension of the original work that isn't too reverent.
Maybe more instructive are two recent remix projects that could have been masterpieces but aren't: Bill Laswell's rehashing of most of Miles Davis's electric period, Panthalassa, and Jason Nevins's working over of two famous hip-hop tracks, Run-D.M.C.'s "It's Like That" and Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two." Both sources were ripe for remixing, each having pioneered a cut-and-paste aesthetic in some way, but neither producer was able to make a new record that justified its existence next to the original.
Miles Davis released 13 albums between 1969 and 1975, 10 of them doubles. Each was constructed from hours of studio or live jams; producer Teo Macero would edit down mountains of tape, adding effects and looping parts or sections, making the tracks cohere whether they lasted 2 or 32 minutes. There may be no modern music more fascinating in its willful malleability. Miles and the band might start out pinning you to the wall with sheer volume and rhythm--the drums crashing like a stock car pileup, the wah-wahed guitar screaming like a cat in heat, Miles stabbing the air over and over with a single note on the trumpet--and then slow down, not gradually but abruptly. The effect is staggering, like running full speed around a city block and then suddenly walking: the burn is still there.
Bill Laswell is well acquainted with electric Miles, and like Miles he has long championed an aesthetic that places more importance on process than on finished product. Over the last 20 years, the bassist and producer has worked with just about every musician alive, from Whitney Houston to Herbie Hancock to John Lydon to Lemmy Kilmister. Apparently he's going after the dead ones now: in addition to Panthalassa, Laswell has also contributed to a recent William S. Burroughs tribute and last year put out an album of ambient dub remixes of Bob Marley. This stuff bothers me. It's one thing to collaborate, even indirectly, with a living person; it's another to bask safely in the glory of a legend who can't comment on your work one way or the other. When I heard about Panthalassa, I braced myself for Laswell to ruin Miles's most exciting work the way he boiled down Marley's tough, conscious reggae into mystical soup.
As it turns out though, Panthalassa is a fine record. Laswell has fashioned a good one-stop introduction to this major artist's most difficult and rewarding phase. But that's about all he's done--frankly, anyone with a sampler and access to the master tapes could have made this album. Laswell's good taste trips him up. He's so careful that the only life, the only personality that comes through in the remixes, is Miles's, and while that's probably best considering the mess Laswell made of Marley, it's still disappointing. Here's the opportunity of a lifetime: to rearrange the already unsteady contours of some of the wildest and most beautiful music ever played, and instead Laswell moves the furniture around a little. A series of dance remixes, of Laswell's remix, including one by Philadelphia's King Britt, are planned; maybe they'll take the extra step he should have.
The recent spate of mid-80s hip-hop that's been remixed house-style is, naturally, a lot less reverent--crudeness is part of early rap's vitality, and none of the recent retoolings even pretends to the class-by-association that I find so suspect in Laswell's dead-guy collaborations. Theoretically, this is a good thing. Art should live, not ponder. But where I was wary of Panthalassa and ended up enjoying it, the opposite is true of the house-hop updates. While they sound fun in theory--today's upstarts, with equal parts love and disregard for history, retool their forebears--most of them are a chore to listen to.
These remixes originally bubbled up last year, mostly on 12-inches that were immediately scarfed up by underground DJs. The best known are by Jason Nevins, on the dance label Smile, a subdivision of Profile Records, which owns Run-D.M.C. and Rob Base's catalogs. Smile's recent comp Variety Pack collects his treatments of "It's Like That" and "It Takes Two," but there are others, on white-label bootlegs, such as a recent version of the Beastie Boys' "The New Style." These records' success is easy to understand: most ravers are in their mid-20s or younger, and they remember listening to Raising Hell and Licensed to Ill when they were in junior high. Since novelty plays an important role in dance culture, hearing the rhymes they grew up on atop the huge beats they now live for is a freaky kick.
The problem with these records is that they're shotgun marriages. Run-D.M.C. were often rhythmically monolithic, almost flat; when their vocals shadowboxed with simple, machine-generated funk beats, the result kept you on your toes. But on the new "It's Like That," Jason Nevins lays the original vocal on top of a booming four-four kick drum, and not much else. Every syllable falls on a beat--yawn. Nevins's "It Takes Two" redux isn't much better--the James Brown exclamations that drove the skittering break that underpinned Base's 1988 classic have been lifted and laid over another dessicated throb of Nevins's concoction.
The only house-hop record I've heard that comes near its illustrious predecessor is the uncredited white-label 12-inch that marries the vocals of Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" to Josh Wink's acid techno classic "Higher State of Consciousness." PE's original "Noise" track had plenty of just that--scratches, free-jazz horn bleats, air-raid sirens--and "Higher State" is noisy in its own way. Its TB-303 bass-line synthesizer squelches, screeches, and shape-shifts away into a sonic assault as disruptive as the Bomb Squad's. Rhythmically Wink's track is predicated on a skipping, funky beat, and Chuck D's vocal jumps like a fox instead of lying like a dog. The two cuts complement each other perfectly; the results go beyond novelty into credible union. It's a dare that pays off; here's hoping future remixers are brave enough to take the same kind of chances.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bill Laswell photo by Thi-Linh Le, various album covers.