Cookin' The Mix
The distinctly eighties phenomenon of remixing is playing a significant part in the development of today's popular music. Tim Goodyer discusses the art of remixing with Norman Cook.
From behind the turntables to the Housemartins and back again - Norman Cook talks about remixes and the gear and politics behind them.
NORMAN COOK IS a busy man. To date his remixing credits include The Jacksons' 'I Want You Back', Eric B & Rakim's 'I Know You Got Soul', James Brown's 'She's the One' and Kid 'n Play's 'Do This My Way'. He's just finished another James Brown remix, 'It Began in Africa', and is currently lining up some work with the Wee Papa Girl Rappers. Not bad for a Housemartin.
Taking four years off from being a club DJ and remixer to become a pop star may sound like an odd twist to a career in music. Yet this is Norman Cook's story: originally a popular Brighton DJ, recently bass player with the Housemartins, now a much-in-demand remixer.
Four years ago Cook was concentrating on his DJing and sending demos of his remixes to the record companies. He'd just finished a M/A/R/R/S-style cut-up, called 'The Finest Ingredients', when he got a call from old school friend Paul Heaton, inviting him to join a band called the Housemartins - their success needs no qualification here. On the surface, Cook's scratching and remixing and his contribution to the Housemartins make an unlikely musical combination - one that was to present Cook with a few problems as a Housemartin.
"I put the remixing on hold when I joined", he explains, "but things happened: 'The Finest Ingredients' came out as a bootleg and did quite well, and when the M/A/R/R/S thing hit the charts our record company said 'you could knock one of those out in an afternoon'. But the band said 'the Housemartins aren't associated with that kind of music, you can't do it'. There were arguments about what I could do without damaging the Housemartins and, in the end, I wasn't really allowed to do anything. We had quite a narrow-minded following, I think - a lot of The Smiths' 'anorak' fans who I find appallingly narrow-minded. They hate disco music, they hate beer-boys and they hate curries... Instead they sit at home in their bedrooms writing poems of teenage angst. So we decided it was better to make little white pop than dabble."
But since the Housemartins dissolution earlier this year, dabble he has.
"It started with the pause button on the tape recorder, then I got two record decks...", says Cook, recalling pre-Housemartin times. Since then he has put together his own 16-track studio (based around a Fostex E16), using it to demo remixes before taking them into a 24-track studio. There are two basic approaches to creating a remix: one involves the use of the multitrack master tape, the alternative is to use copies of the record when the multitrack is unavailable. The multitrack allows free access to the instruments and the voices in the original recording. Working with records, the only way to significantly alter the mix is with vicious use of equalisation.
"If you're working off records like I did with the James Brown stuff", says Cook, "and you want to elongate a song there are various ways you can do it. You can edit it on tape and add things over the top, or you can find an exposed drum beat that you can sample and loop, or you can find another record's drum beat that fits the song, put that down and spin the record in over the top. If the timekeeping's bad you have to put the record down first and then sample one bar and keep retriggering it to keep it in time, which can be very difficult and time-consuming - especially with James Brown's drummer. There are lots of other tricks - like if you have to sync things up so the speed's right, but the pitch is wrong, you can harmonise it - but that's basically it. With a lot of things, the only way to find out if something works is to try it and see.
"If I've got the multitrack I go through it and see what's on which track. Then I clear about ten tracks either by wiping or bouncing. If there's a riff or something I particularly like I transfer it to Sony F1 or, if I'm only going to use it at certain points, I bounce it down onto another track.
"A lot of records are too full for a dancefloor - you really want to hear the beat and what's going on in the song, and if you've got the song at one end and the beat at the other and tons of instrumentation in the middle you lose the aggressiveness. If a mix is too busy I take things out, if there isn't enough going on, I add things in, like a bassline or guitar lines.
"The easiest song to remix is one you hate - if it's a song you really like you don't know what to do with it. I've worked on things where I've thought I don't want to change that bit because I like it... And I don't want to change that bit because I like it... Sometimes it's a case of deciding what you want and then being bold. If you want to do a remix that doesn't sound like the original you've got to be able to wipe things confidently."
A remix can become far more complicated than simply spinning out a chart hit for the benefit of the disciples of dance. The song can be completely re-arranged or a new piece of music can be constructed using the additional parts either recorded for the occasion or "lifted" from other recordings.
"Instead of approaching it like a remix of one song you can treat it like a medley" comments Cook. "Really, you're writing a new track using bits of other peoples'. If you do a medley, like the early Steinski ones, that's like a whole new song so I think maybe you should even get a songwriting credit for it."
One such musical reconstruction is Cook's own remix of James Brown's 'It Began in Africa'.
"Basically I started with the drumbeat and spun everything else in over the top. Between the actual sections of the record - the verses and choruses - I had a totally free hand. I had the idea of introducing it with the phrase "it began in Africa", and putting the jungle beat to it. I tried to get a story about the beat. Apart from the actual bits of the record I felt the rest of it was like my solo Bomb the Bass thing rather than a remix."
Another remix involving tracks other than the one being remixed didn't turn out quite so well. Commissioned to remix Stetsasonic's anti-apartheid anthem 'A.F.R.I.C.A.', Cook included the chorus of Jerry Dammers' single 'Free Nelson Mandela'.
"I'd done a remix with a new bassline and the 'Free Nelson Mandela' chorus in it", confirms Cook. "Everyone was up for it until it came to asking Jerry Dammers for the right to use that one bit of vocal, and he said 'funny you should say that because I'm going to redo the record and I don't want you pre-empting it'. By the time he'd actually said no, Go Discs had lost their erection about the track so they scrapped it. Jerry Dammers wasn't against us using bits of his record, it was just the timing of it - if it had been me I'd probably have done the same thing.
"An important aspect of remixes is the timing. The record company will give me about two days to demo it and a day to do it, and, if it takes three weeks for the record company to get it out then the record's probably on its way down the charts. That's what happened with 'She's the One', it went in at 42 and I turned the remix round in four days and then it took them two-and-a-half weeks to get it out. By that time the record had been in the Top 40 and was at about 80 and it was too late."
THE ISSUE OF artists' consent is a significant one in remixing. Once a song has been recorded it is easy for a record company to commission a remix without the consent of - and sometimes without the knowledge of - the artist concerned. Looked at one way, it's a cheap way for the record company to get another record out. Cook accepts the challenge.
"Machines will write songs for you, but it's a one-in-two-million chance that they're going to write a good song for you."
"I always ask for a copy to be sent to the artist before it comes out", he maintains. "Stock Aitken & Waterman would probably argue that you're doing it to increase the artist's sales and that's what they must want, but it's their music and it's precious to them. I'm not completely militant but I've got a quiet conscience about it.
"I often say 'can you get the artist to come in and say what they like and what they don't'. If they don't like it, I'll do it again. I'd hate it if someone butchered something I'd done. It's not really feasible to butcher the Housemartins stuff but dance music and rap are very butcherable."
The subjects of remixing and sampling have probably been the cause of more, and more significant arguments than any other musical development this decade. Is a sampled sound or phrase any less musically valuable because it's being used in a setting other than that for which it was created? Is there any difference between sampling music and recreating it using "real" instruments? Stock, Aitken & Waterman's Pete Waterman advocates plagiarism over sampling. Mention of the production partnership to Cook is like waving a red rag at Joseph McCarthy.
"I've got ethics about music that are the opposite to Stock, Aitken & Waterman", he declares. "They say it's wrong to sample other peoples' sounds but it's alright to rip off other peoples' ideas and tunes. To rip off other peoples' ideas - basslines and things like that - should be punishable by death. I think it's sick for Stock, Aitken & Waterman to stand there and say 'we ripped off the bass line from Colonel Abrams' 'Trapped' and Steve Arrington's 'Dancing in the Key of Life'. They always start writing their songs by ripping off somebody else's bassline and I think that's totally wrong.
"You've got to think of it in terms of every time you do anything musical you're copying somebody else. If you play a conventional drum kit you're playing it in the way you've heard other people play it. There's always unconscious plagiarism in whatever you do. It's gone so far with James Brown that using something of his is almost like using an instrument: you on bass, me on keyboards and him on James Brown samples... Also, if you just rip off someone's idea you're not crediting them for it; if you use a sample of their voice everyone knows it's them. You've only got to look at James Brown and Ofra Haza to see how their careers have been launched or relaunched by peoples' usage of them.
"Most musicians I know would be flattered if somebody 'borrowed' something of theirs. I think there should be copyright on ideas not on sounds. A mate of mine did a Shakatak remix and he was worried about using samples so he got these guys in to pretend to be James Brown's band. Everybody acknowledged that it was meant to be James Brown but it was in order to get round the law. It was pointless.
"One of Stock, Aitken & Waterman goes round listening to the radio and buying every dance record that comes out just to rip off ideas. And because they don't use the actual sounds they think it's alright, they're proud of it!
"They're taking music back to the most basic three-chord structure. If you take away all the sequencing and the production all you've got is really crap three-chord songs - the sort that got laughed out in the '60s. They're taking any sort of innovation out of music; they're taking the love out of music. They're everything that's wrong with the music industry They're not musicians they're businessmen, idea thieves."
Leaving politics in favour of the safe subject of equipment, Cook is eager to express his enthusiasm for Roland's instruments. As testament to his words, TR808 and TR626 drum machines sit with an MC500 sequencer, JX3P polysynth and S10 sampler at one end of the studio.
"I like buying things just as they're going out of fashion because they're dead cheap" he explains. "I bought my 808 and the sequencer when everybody was getting into mega sequencers. I don't know why, but every time I chose a piece of gear it turns out to have been made by Roland."
There's nothing that's exactly, er, new though, is there, Norman?
"Things that become redundant become really cheap, and I really like the idea of picking up an MC500 for 50 quid when the 'toy boys' don't want them any more. I'm thinking about buying a DX7 now, because everybody's saying they sound too bright.
"I'm really anti too much technology. The S10 does everything I want a sampler to do - here or in the studio. I've spent days with the S900 and it's frustratingly slow to use. If I'm on my own and I want to try something with a drum loop, it takes me about a minute with my sampler and sequencer. To do it on an S900 takes five or six minutes even when you know your way around it. Writing to the Steinberg takes another five or six minutes, and by the time you've done all that you've forgotten what your original idea was.
"The Steinberg does too much for me. I'm happy with an old-fashioned sequencer. Also, this idea about not putting things down on tape 'til the last possible moment - if you've put something down the worst you can have to do is wipe it. I put things down on tape as a guide that I wipe an hour later and put something better down.
"You can take technology too far. People have different ideas of what is too far but it's easy to forget that you're trying to make a song that sounds good. I was scared when I set the studio up because I didn't want to fall into that trap - that's why I haven't got a computer, I wanted to use my energy putting ideas down not working out how to use everything. I was in a studio a while ago and the engineer was really enthusiastic about having just got the latest update for his Steinberg. But halfway through the session he was saying 'of course, a week ago with the old version I would have been able to do this immediately'. I was getting really pissed off because all I wanted to was get on with the track. The records they were making there were just as good a week before they had that technology. I like the idea of being able to do everything here but I don't like the idea of having to work slowly.
"Machines will write songs for you, but it's a one-in-two-million chance that they're going to write a good song for you. If you look at it from an A&R man's point of view, he's not looking for something that's brilliantly produced, he's looking for something that excites him - and a mega snare sound doesn't excite him any more.
"There are so many people in the music industry obsessed with money, there are so many people obsessed with fame, there are so many people obsessed with art and there are so many people obsessed with technology. I'm obsessed with getting ideas down before I lose them and I'm obsessed with rhythm and the beat."
Looking to the future, Cook isn't content to remain a remixer, as he explains: "Remixing is a good laugh and it pays the rent, but after a while you think 'maybe I could have made a whole record out of the idea I put in there.'"
There is talk of making a dub album ("I'll have to use 48 tracks...") and even of writing some songs for a solo album. More immediately, Cook wants to get into production. He's already working on material with MC Wildski, with whom he currently works nightclubs, with MC Brooklyn, who's recently been signed to Polydor, and with the Rhythm Sisters. There may even be a Housemartin or two involved - our conversation opened "I was in Hull working with Stan yesterday..."