From topping the 90s charts to ‘very controlled and predictable’ today: is the remix dead?

Estimated read time 7 min read

Back in the 1990s, the right dance remix could make – or sometimes resurrect – a career. Fatboy Slim’s mix of Cornershop’s Brimful of Asha took a marginal indie band to the top of the British charts, Andrew Weatherall saved Primal Scream from potential obscurity with his remix of their lachrymose ballad I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have (which became Loaded) and Todd Terry’s remix of Everything But the Girl’s Missing gave the band a new lease of life in electronic music.

Kelli Ali says that Armand van Helden’s 1997 remix of Spin Spin Sugar by her former band Sneaker Pimps – a classic of the early UK garage scene – introduced the group’s music to an audience “who were maybe searching for something to listen to outside the club, when the sun came up.” She says: “It meant that our music crossed over to a whole generation of hardcore clubbers. I still have friends saying they were dancing to the track recently, which is pretty epic in terms of longevity for a remix.”

But while people are still listening to the classics in 2024, “remixes don’t have the same immediate commercial impact as they did in the 90s,” says Wez Saunders, chief executive of leading house music label Defected. “The digital music era, streaming platforms and social media have changed how music is consumed and discovered. And remixes today don’t necessarily lead to massive chart hits.”

Remixes have their roots in the disco scene of the 1970s, when the launch of the 12-inch single allowed producers such as Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons to make extended versions of popular songs that would keep the dance floor moving. In the 1980s producers such as Shep Pettibone and Jellybean Benitez wove a similar magic, creating elongated versions of songs by stars including Madonna, Pet Shop Boys and New Order that kept those artists in touch with the dance scenes they drew influence from.

But it was in the late 80s and 90s – at least in the UK – where the remix really thrived, as dance music took over the charts. Consider, for example, how Boston producer Armand van Helden took a forgotten bass lick from Tori Amos’s 1996 song Professional Widow and transformed a lurching piano boogie into an irresistible anthem, or Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne strapped drum machines and samples to Happy Mondays’ lumberingly funky Wrote for Luck to create supercharged indie-dance. In Mixmag’s 1998 list of that year’s 10 best remixes there are two British No 1s – Jason Nevins’ remix of Run-DMC’s It’s Like That and Fatboy Slim’s Brimful of Asha – as well as a No 3 hit, Fatboy Slim’s remix of Wildchild’s Renegade Master.

Remixes back then were bold, according to Paul Woolford, who was nominated for best remixed recording at the 2023 Grammys for his rework of the Knocks’ Slow Song. “If we analyse all the greatest remixes going back to, say, Shep Pettibone’s key work, the ones that were the highest watermark were all outliers in some way stylistically,” he explains. “The remixer took them way out there in comparison to the original. They were way more than just utility.”

As well as being artistically daring, the impact of a remix could be lasting, too. In the case of Everything But the Girl, Todd Terry’s Missing remix sparked off a new creative and commercial chapter for the folky duo, encompassing house, drum’n’bass and Ben Watt’s DJ career. “I can remember thinking, if this catches light, this really could lead somewhere new for us,” Watt told DJ Magazine in a 2023 piece on Missing. “We could leave the 80s behind, we could re-develop our sound for a new era.”

Kelli Ali of Sneaker Pimps performing in 1997.View image in fullscreen

But nowadays, the only remixes getting traction tend to be when a new verse is added to a rap or pop track, often simply to reinvigorate streamings and contribute to the song’s chart placing, although Ice Spice joining PinkPantheress’s Boy’s a Liar last year was among the rare revamps that improved on the original. There’s been a post-pandemic trend for pop edits in the dance world – such as Bored Lord’s take on No Doubt’s Don’t Speak, played even in underground clubs – and sped up/slowed down versions of songs on TikTok, but these aren’t artistic renovations in the way that the best remixes are. Club-forward pop stars such as Charli XCX and Robyn commission their own innovative remixes, though they rarely break out of fan circles.

One reason for the decline is that there were lots of formats to fill in the 90s, thanks to labels using multiple CD single releases to edge songs up the charts. Then Napster exploded, broadband became widespread, CD singles disappeared and record labels tightened their budgets.

Also, remixes tend to be long, and “long records don’t tend to chart any more, maybe because of streaming,” says London DJ and producer Erol Alkan of a format shift that favours shorter songs and truncated intros. In the 90s and 2000s, he says, “people would have been buying the song on 12-inches as well, which would have gone a long way to securing sales. And that doesn’t exist any more.”

This, in turn, has led to a conservatism among record labels. Woolford says that many labels today “will only commission remixes in a utilitarian way. I often have conversations with house labels who want to commission them but they want very controlled and predictable results. They stipulate sometimes they ‘just want a more banging version’ or something similar.”

One consequence of this shift has been the decline of the dance remix specialist. In the 90s Armand van Helden, Andrew Weatherall, MK and Deep Dish were arguably better known for remixing other people’s records than making their own, while 4hero, Todd Edwards and Carl Craig produced jaw-dropping remixes alongside their own sublime work.

Mix master … MK.View image in fullscreen

These artists are largely still producing. But the absence of genuinely essential remixes over the last decade is telling. Worse, as a remix nerd, I can’t think of the last time a remixer transformed a song I disliked into a guilty club treat, such as MK’s remix of Celine Dion’s Misled or Van Helden’s remix of Rednex’s Cotton Eye Joe.

Maybe there is hope. Saunders says that remixes still play a role in artist discovery, cross-genre promotion and keeping tracks relevant, while Alkan believes remixes can still be important artistically, mentioning the recent Bullion remake of Pytko’s Silent. “He turned it into this absolutely near-perfect pop song. He just went in, took all the effects off and put the song to the front,” he says. “I found that really inspired.”

Woolford, meanwhile, points out that there still are open-minded A&Rs and labels. “I recently reworked Calvin Harris and Eliza Rose’s Body Moving into an eight-minute combination of Nuyorican soul-influenced almost jazz-funk that develops into a hardstep jungle smasher,” he says. “This was for Sony – and I didn’t expect them all to get it but they absolutely did and loved it.”

So come, remixers, and be bold: pump up the drums, jack up the bass and help unbreak my heart (Frankie Knuckles Franktidrama Club Mix, naturally).


You May Also Like

More From Author