If ever a poll were conducted to discover the greatest house records of all time, there’s a pretty good chance that one – if not several – of the songs included on Defected presents Def Mix would make the cut. Stretching back almost 20 years and encompassing the remixes and production work of Def Mix’s Satoshi Tomiie, David Morales and Frankie Knuckles, this compilation is almost a history of the remix itself. Not only that, but it is mixed together in a way that makes one go, “Wow, did they do all of those?” Which, of course, they did. They’re clever men, those fellas.
More than a company or organisation, Def Mix is a family. Most of the people involved in Def Mix have been together for over twenty years; having only been at Def Mix for a mere fourteen years Hector Romero is considered something of a newbie. At the head of this family is Judy Weinstein, a veteran whom few outside the industry know but whose appreciation and understanding of dance music has been instrumental in its development in New York. Before the rise of Def Mix, Weinstein set up the For The Record DJ pool in the 1970s and guided the career of Larry Levan. Judy’s got form. “To all of us, she’s our mother, she’s our sister, she’s our girlfriend, she’s our wife. She’s just there for us,” says David Morales. He’s not joking.
As Weinstein as the fulcrum, Def Mix has developed into a multifaceted organisation that has developed the careers of its DJs, as producers, remixers and even, dare we say, as people. Sitting near Judy in their tightly knit offices in downtown Manhattan is Hector Romero, a young Puerto Rican DJ, who runs the Def Mix labels. “The A&R and business side has always been my passion,” he enthuses. “Producing is not my thing. I really don’t dig being in the studio and I found that out a long time ago. I love DJing on the weekends working in the office during the week.” Anyone who has ever heard him play at Pacha (or indeed anywhere else) will know Hec is no desk jockey.
The careers of the Def Mix DJs span the modern history of dance music. They were not only there, but helped shape and form what we listen to today and how we listen to it. They were the original travelling superstar DJs, lauded all over Britain and Europe and worshipped in Japan. Guided by Weinstein, David Morales was the young DJ who made his name as spinner at The Red Zone (where he was also accompanied by a new arrival to New York: Satoshi Tomiie) and whose remix work reached a dizzying apex with his own “Needin’ U”. Tomiie had first come into contact with Def Mix when he handed Frankie Knuckles a demo tape during a tour of Japan. The demo included a song called Tears that later featured the vocals of Robert Owens and launched his own career – for many years, Satoshi was the resident keyboard player for both Frankie and David. And Frankie, the remixer par excellence, was resident at Chicago’s famous Warehouse whose name gave us the style of music featured here: house.
Between them, they were instrumental in inventing the modern remix and helping transform it into an art form (as well as an industry). In the process they redefined the remix itself. In its original form during the naissance of disco, the remix was simply a rearrangement of existing elements of the original track. In essence it was little more than re-editing the existing song to make it more dancefloor-friendly. The advent of house changed all that and soon remixes had been radically altered. “It’s totally leftfield now,” claims David Morales. “It’s totally in another place. I mean let’s not even call it remixing any more. Originally you used what was there, but then it came to the point when you just got rid of the original music and started to put new music. So now people expected to hear something totally different. Let’s say what you do to it makes the record successful. But you’re only getting a one-time fee. In reality you’re sort of becoming a co-writer.”
At one stage during the early 1990s everyone and their father was getting remixed. This lead to some extremely bad remixes but also to some unlikely and incredible results. One of the greatest examples is included here with David Morales deep and devastating take on U2’s Lemon from 1993 (limited to only 1,000 promo copies it is now something of a collector’s classic). What separated Def Mix from many of their peers was their ability to remix songs from unlikely sources and still keep their original integrity without forsaking any dancefloor drive, such as on Sounds of Blackness’ amazing The Pressure (the sound of soulful London in 1991) or Morales’ so-so def mix of Strobelight Honey, hip-house at its best.
In fact, listening to this compilation provokes a flood of reminiscences. Where were you the first time you heard My Peace Of Heaven or Tears or Where Love Lives? A babble of nights and songs come rushing into the memory from dark nights at the Sound Factory helmed by Frankie Knuckles, to Southport weekenders on the frozen Lancashire tundra, the intimate Feel Real, northern soul at Hard Times or early days at the Ministry of Sound. So many memories… what’s yours?
At their creative peak in the 1990s, DJs would happily buy pricey imports simply because there was a Def Mix somewhere on the package. Shop workers could (and would) sell hundreds of copies purely on the promise of a Red Zone dub or a Frankie Knuckles Classic Club Mix. You can tell why listening to the aspirational quality of Def Mix’s work. It was no secret that Frankie’s hero was Trevor Horn and listening to the lush and expansive arrangements of The Pressure or Where Love Lives you can hear echoes of both Horn and the glossy disco on which Knuckles and Morales were both raised.
Using experienced and brilliant keyboard players like Eric Kupper, Peter Schwartz, Peter Daou and, naturally, Satoshi Tomiie, these are high-end productions done in great studios. There’s little unnecessary trickery on display here, no fiddling and infrequent timestretching. If a song needed its tempo changing, chances are the singer would come in and re-do the vocal (as Mariah Carey did for Dreamlover on David Morales’ landmark remix).
Although, this compilation is mainly comprised of remixes there are also some excellent original productions that perfectly demonstrate the trio’s versatility. Frankie contributes his top twenty hit The Whistle Song, featuring a mesmeric flute solo from session player Paul Shapiro, while Robert Owens’ I’ll Be Your Friend, collaboration between David, Satoshi and the singer, still sounds incredible full 16 years later. David Morales’ (alias The Face) own Needin’ U is a perfect encapsulation of their roots, drawing on a pair of disco classics for its source material – Rare Pleasure’s Lay Me Down Easy and Chi-Lites’ My First Mistake. Morales also contributes Philadelphia by Brooklyn Friends, his homage to MFSB and Philly International that featured Satoshi Tomiie and Peter Daou on keyboards.
Although many of these songs went on to become chart smashes, often propelled into the charts as a result of the golden touch they received at the hands of the Def Mix team, their classic status is guaranteed irrespective of chart placing. Ten City’s wonderful My Peace Of Heaven only reached a miserable (and undeserved) 63, while Tears never made it beyond the giddy heights of 50; by contrast, the relative success of Aqua and Whigfield proving beyond doubt that the British public have cloth ears.
But we are not simply celebrating the talents of the Def Mix crew; if this compilation is anything it is also a paean to the power of the song. There are no dark dubs here. There are no one note basslines. There are only organically grown grooves made from sustainable rhythms and keyboards and many many great tunes.
It’s fitting that Loleatta Holloway sees our journey out, thanks to Satoshi’s excellent remix of Salsoul classic Dreamin’, since the echoes of disco are all around us on this mix. As West End boss Mel Cheren once said, “House is disco on a budget”. With the lush strings and giant Redwood drums included here there’s nothing cheap about Def Mix.
Or perhaps house is something else. As Frankie once said, “I view house as disco’s revenge”. And here’s the revenge, over three glorious CDs, the art of the remix laid bare.