I Want You Back

Reminding us why we cared about Michael Jackson: Z-Trip reexamines the Jackson 5 on 'Motown Remixed'
Natalie Demotte
Various Artists
Motown Remixed
Curtis Mayfield and Various Artists
The Curtis Mayfield Collection
Various Artists


Remixing a song--any song, but especially one that's considered a "classic"--requires a kind of irreverence on the part of the remixer. Fundamentalists need not apply. You have to believe that the track/text isn't so sacred as to be above (re)interpretation. The act or process of successfully remixing, in fact, demands that you pull alternative meanings from whatever is already committed to tape, that you hear more than what's actually there in the handed-down scripture. At the same time, most of the best remixes retain something of the original song or track's essence. Some simply, and with minimal retouching, bottle the carbonated joy that floats through and across the melody. Others seize on the passion or sadness with which a single written line or ad-libbed riff is sung, thereby making it ripe for sampling and looping into the locus of an overhauled track.

Remixers who tinker with something that was recorded in years past aren't just altering BPM, musical beds, and melody lines. They're fucking with powerful intangibles: upper-case cultural and lower-case personal memories, and the point where the two meet; the moods, aesthetics, and sounds of eras gone by, as captured by the technology and production techniques of the day; the deeply embedded expectation of when a singer's ecstatic whoop is released, of when and how the bridge kicks in, and of when the aural money shot (always determined on a listener-by-listener basis) is delivered. Studio technological facelifts might imbue a track with youth and contemporary relevance, but they also run the risk of erasing the accrued weathering that makes art resonate across the ages, creating, in effect, Botoxed beats and grooves, unable to move...the listener.

Motown Remixed, whose knob-turners include ?uestlove, King Britt, Hank Shocklee, Jazzy Jeff, Z-Trip, and Mocean Worker, ranges from the inspired to the insipid. The latter is encapsulated in Tranzition's version of the Supremes' "My World Is Empty Without You." Even with the long-overdue critical reassessment (and elevation) of Motown's artistry that came in the wake of the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, it's still common practice to discount the subtle, often brilliant musicianship of classic Motor City tracks. The original "My World" opens with an insistent, brooding bass line that flowers into drums, skittery guitar, and an impassioned lead performance from Diana Ross. The mid-tempo groove is a shimmering contradiction of dark emotional impulses and pop flourishes, perfectly capturing the rush of chemical currents that break through minds and bodies caught in the throes of emotional withdrawal. The remix takes a too-literal approach to the song title, resulting in a lugubrious dirge that places the lead vocals slightly off the beat to no good effect.

On the flip side, Easy Mo Bee's "Just My Imagination" is as wistful and lovely as the original, with only surgically fine modifications; King Britt's "War" has been given an irresistible Carnivale feel. Da Producer's mechanized shuffle-beat for "Let's Get It On," which anchors silky instrumentation and Gaye's own sexy vocals, is fine, but by being so of-the-moment, it's already--ironically--more dated than the original. And while Salaam Remi's self-explanatory Krunk-a-Delic Party Mix of the Jackson 5's "ABC" is a lot of fun, it's Z-Trip's "I Want You Back" that breaks your heart. Opening with an extended guitar solo that then retreats for that signature thumping bass, this mix places both (hardened) drums and Michael's vocals a little higher in the mix. It's a funky re-imagining of the tune, underscoring how scarily good young Mike was. Preadolescent Jackson was one of the top male soul vocalists of all time, armed with an unbridled eagerness to match his idols (James Brown, Jackie Wilson) and the intensity to pull himself within whispering distance of their greatness. Z-Trip's handiwork places studio outtakes and ad-libs back in the mix to remind you how that tabloidy creepy white woman with a predilection for preteen boys was once the coolest black male on the planet.

The Curtis Mayfield Collection, a dance-floor-centric overhauling of classic Mayfield recordings, shouldn't work at all but it absolutely does. (This is also the collection most likely to give soul purists a stroke.) The highlight is Louie Vega's opening cut, "Superfly." In the original, the gritty urban landscape of '70s inner-city black America was captured in both the lyrics and instrumentation. Vega's Latin-inflected house track (deeper emphasis on horns and percussion) respectfully moves the musical frame into the present, managing to make the point that while so much has changed in the world, too much hasn't: Tryin' to get over, indeed. Grandmaster Flash's two-step version of "We're a Winner" achieves an old-school hip-hop effect via go-go. The Stonebridge club remix of "People Get Ready" repeatedly isolates the title phrase and loops it for a soulful, tentatively hopeful chant.

Atlantiquity is the sultry, nearly flawless soundtrack to Negro Boho parties or multi-culti dreadlocks/nag champa/tofu & chicken wings gatherings where the sound of the latest David Byrne world-music compilation would be too painfully clichéd to be endured. As with Vega's "Superfly" overhaul, King Britt's remix of Chic's "A Warm Summer Night" is given a Latin dye, with sexily fingered guitar cascading atop percolating beats. The Spinners' "I'll Be Around," melancholia is underscored with cooing female backing vocals added against a sparse, dry-beat spine. The effect retains and underscores the original's aching devotion in the face of a one-sided breakup. Atlantiquity benefits from being largely composed of works by less known or now-undervalued artists. (Chic, the Spinners, Donny Hathaway, and maybe Sister Sledge being the exceptions.) That means fewer rigid preconceptions to battle, but the remixers are still respectful. Vikter Duplaix's take on Slave's "Watching You" is modest, cognizant of the fact that the track needs only the barest dusting off. The Sa Ra (featuring Me'shell NdegéOcello) remix of Kleeer's "Tonight" manages to bottle the power of barely fettered nostalgia in its largely instrumental jam. Maybe one of the biggest surprises comes from the new "We Are Family," in which the swapping of vintage disco grooves for rawer percussion, drum work, and extended vamping surprisingly recasts the appealingly grainy vocals of teenaged Kathy Sledge; she now sounds like a seasoned old pro jamming with the session guys.

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