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The Re:Mix Lab: A “RE:GENERATION” Music Project Preview

Lilian Min |
December 8, 2011 | 2:14 p.m. PST

Associate Entertainment Editor

Grammy nominations have only recently been announced, but one Grammy-related project has been in the works for a while, and is finally being unveiled to the public.

The DJ documentary RE:GENERATION, in association with the Grammys and presented by the new Hyundai Veloster, takes five of the world’s premiere DJs and forces them to experiment with musical genres outside of their comfort zones.

And the team behind the RE:GENERATION documentary project aren’t pulling punches with these DJ/genre pairings: DJ Premier tackles classical music with the Berklee Symphony Orchestra, and a little help from Nas; The Crystal Method head to Detroit to record with the inimitable Martha Reeves and the Funk Brothers; Pretty Lights wrangles country sonic iconography with Dr. Ralph Stanley, of bluegrass banjo fame, and LeAnn Rimes; British DJ Mark Ronson goes to the home of jazz to record with Erykah Badu, Mos Def, members of the Dap Kings, Zigaboo Modeliste, and Trombone Shorty; and Skrillex serves up a rock collaboration with the surviving members of the Doors.

Last night, the Veloster team hosted a preview event/showcase/party for this new documentary, held in the Farmers and Merchants Bank building.

The first floor level space held a bevy of interactive events showcased in tricked out Veloster cars; one had a 3-D TV set up in the trunk, another had a turntable that allowed event attendees to mix tracks, and one had a Microsoft Kinect (ed. note: I rocked at beach volleyball).

Installed around the event space were multitudes of different artist collaborations: Shepard Fairey art prints, tokidoki accessories, various designer shoes, etc. This idea of collaboration, of things coming together from different places but ending up in the same end product, was reflected in the event’s name: the Re:Mix Lab.

This idea of remix was not just a random inspiration meant to fill the room with as much technological and artistic gadgetry as possible; remix and reformatting are the heart of the DJ culture, and something that the artists involved in the RE:GENERATION film stressed and showed both on screen and off.

The documentary portion of the film began with a brief introduction by KCRW’s Jason Bentley, who gave a little bit of background information about the film’s director, Amir Bar-Lev. Bar-Lev, whose most recent film is The Tillman Story, about NFL player-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, has worked with musicians before; in his documentary Trouble the Water, about a couple in Katrina, Bar-Lev used music by Massive Attack, Citizen Cope, and The Roots.

With RE:GENERATION though, Bar-Lev was attempting to document the creative processes of 5 different DJs as they worked with giants of their chosen genres to create new chimera renditions of songs.

The clip shown to the audience was not a steady stream of footage; rather, it was a look into the beginnings of each collaboration, with more focus on the initial DJ + genre collision rather than the fleshing out of those collision’s ideas.

Skrillex (real name Sonny Moore) was the first DJ shown in the preview clip, working with the surviving members of the Doors Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, and Robby Krieger. While initially Lee didn’t know how to approach his childhood idols, by the end of the clip everybody in the studio seemed to have locked down on a musical idea.

DJ Premier was shown learning how to approach classical music from renowned composer Bruce Adolphe. While Premier (real name Christopher Martin) did know the basic note structures (in the film he cracks “I used to play piano… Now I have to relearn where middle C is”), he initially approached classical music as a source for sampling, not as a genre that values completion over fragmentation.

The Crystal Method was given a tour of Detroit by none other than Martha Reeves, former frontwoman of Martha and the Vandellas. The focus of their portion of the preview was about the memories associated with old Detroit, particularly poignant in the face of the city’s depleting population and struggle for economic resurgence.

Pretty Lights (real name Derek Smith) had the unique challenge of working with what was arguably the hardest genre to translate to his electronic DJ stylings: country. His clip in the preview showed him nervously trying to direct Dr. Ralph Stanley, who when asked if he wanted to hear the original version of the song they were working on replied, “I’d rather do it my way.” Out of all the artists involved, Smith seemed to have the most difficulty with his chosen genre, remarking that he didn’t understand the “twangy” nature of country music.

Mark Ronson, on the other hand, appeared to slip effortlessly into his selected genre of choice. His music already has jazzy elements in it, as evidenced by the horns in his album “Version” and some of the songs off of his last album, “Record Collection.” Watching him work with some of the Dap Kings seemed like a natural thing for him, and what we heard of their track sounded like a sample clip from his next album, so seamless was the infusion of his style with a jazz sound and instrumentation.

After showing the preview clip, Henley sat down with DJ Premier, Erykah Badu (representing Mark Ronson’s eventual collaboration group), Skrillex, both men behind The Crystal Method, and the film’s director, Bar-Lev. Pretty Lights and the country genre received no representatives at this post-clip Q&A.

While Skrillex received most of the questions initially, as Lee is fresh off of his 5 Grammy nominations (“I was touring in the UK… my manager opened the curtain, and was like ‘Rah! You got nominated for a Grammy!’, and I was like okay and went back to sleep… I thought it was a dream”), eventually all of the artists involved got to talk about their experiences.

The one thing they all agreed on was a greater understanding of their chosen genres (DJ Premier: “I used to sample classical music before… now I have a lot more respect for it. I wanna go to an opera with Bruce [Adolphe]!”), and a deep appreciation of the opportunity they had to work with some of the best artists in their field.

Of course, the DJs involved had plenty of stories to tell about their collaborators. The Crystal Method’s Scott Kirkland also shared some colorful anecdotes about Martha Reeves, joking “She was feisty from the beginning… She would be so nice until we got to the recording studio and tried to work on the track, and she would be like ‘No, don’t do that.’”

Erykah Badu, who guest sang on Mark Ronson’s track, revealed the inspiration behind her lyrics for the song: “I get there and Mark is like, ‘You need to write lyrics for this song… and we’re performing it tonight’… I was having this conversation with Trombone Shorty, and it was so surreal because there were all these cameras around us, and he said, ‘I’m going to go get some gumbo.’”

And here, at last, the audience got to hear all five collaboration results. All five were cut with film footage from their respective collaborations, and the resulting videos were then DJed by none other than DJ Premier himself. 

The Re:Mix Lab experience really tried to capture the essence of the film, and the collaborative nature behind the work that went into it. For the most part, Bar-Lev and his 5 DJs succeeded in creating and showcasing unique tracks that reflected the multitude of inspirations behind them.

While the film isn’t out in theaters until February 16th, several of the song collaborations are available online already. Mark Ronson’s track in particular is standout, although that may be because he was already more familiar with jazz than, say, Pretty Lights was with country.

However, all the songs are worth listening to, for their existence cements a central tenant of modern music culture: this is what happens when artists come together for nothing else than the pure joy of transforming strange and separate sounds into music.

Reach Lilian Min here. Learn more about the RE:GENERATION Music Project here. The film's preview and one of its completed tracks are shown below.

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