Published on November 13th, 2012 | by William Roy
“Skrillex, turn down the BPM!”: a look at Re: Generation Music Project
DJs and electronic musicians often get a bad rep from a large portion of people over the age of, say, 35. The all-familiar phrase “that’s not real music” gets thrown around amongst arguments that DJs steal their material by “merely” sampling, as well as the fact that they don’t play a “traditional” instrument.
A film released this year by the name Re: Generation Music Project takes this notion and flips it like only the proverbial remix artist could, raising questions about the process of music-making and ideas of creativity, and giving 5 eminent post-millennial producers a chance to work in unfamiliar territory with legendary musicians of a more traditional variety, ranging in styles from country, jazz, R&B, classical and rock. I use the term “post-millennial” loosely to categorize newer music that doesn’t always fit nicely into these archetypal genres that have been used and abused by the music industry since the dawn of time (or more realistically, the dawn of radio) to attempt to categorize and fit the various types of music into a neat and easily describable format. Thus, the words ‘post-millenial’ simply, yet sloppily, refer to a redefining of genres that is common in remix and electro cultures that don’t always have a name to begin with. As these new sounds evolve and develop specific styles and languages of expression unique to them, they find coinages such as dub-step, trip-hop, house, etc. This theme of rebirth and renewal of an old style into something new makes up the basis of Re: Generation Music Project.
The film opens to a scene of vinyl records being pressed and shipped out, and follows these records to their ultimate destination: the front door of renowned DJs and producers DJ Premiere, Skrillex, Mark Ronson, The Crystal Method, and Pretty Lights. Each record has the name of a genre, and the name of one of the producers printed in permanent marker on the cover. The film follows these producers as they delve into unfamiliar territory and attempt to understand their assigned genre and reshape and re-envision each genre through the language of their own craft.
The film finds the king of popular dub-step, Skrillex, working with three members of 60’s rock group The Doors. Electronic duo The Crystal Method is working with Motown artist Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas, as well as the Funk Brothers. Pretty Lights, an electro producer, is working with country artists LeAnn Rimes and Ralph Stanley. DJ Premiere is composing with the Berklee Symphony Orchestra, and multi-format producer Mark Ronson is working with members of the Dap Kings, Zigaboo Modeliste, Erykah Badu, Trombone Shorty and Mos Def. It is as clear as plastic wrap that the film hosts a massive roster of impressive talent with a dizzying array of musical backgrounds; but it is not just the talent that makes the film interesting. Rather, it’s also how the old and new interact, exchange ideas and ultimately synthesize a new way of looking at their conflicting genres.
The film hosts classic moments of tension such as when the Doors keyboardist and guitar player hear Skrillex’s skeleton track for the first time. Their facial responses are not unlike the average response of a parent right before they tell their kid to “turn that racket down!” Keyboardist Ray Manzarek handles the situation gracefully by asking Skrillex to turn the BPM down a notch, and before long they are cooking up jams, and appearing to have fun while doing it. The Doors drummer also gives Skrillex a hard time, expressing his discontent with the idea of keeping a groove with a machine rather than a real person. It takes some off camera discussion with Skrillex to convince him of the integrity of the project and of his own craft. Pretty Lights also runs into trouble when attempting to direct the aged and well weathered legend of Nashville country singer Ralph Stanley to sing the lyrics to a song a certain way. He responds by saying “I’d rather just do it my way”. These stressful moments of disagreement can underplay any collaboration in music, but these are some of the particular moments when generational gaps in taste and approach become clear.
Throughout the film you see the younger generations of producers approaching their musical elders with respect, admiration and patience. There is a clear desire in them to pay homage to the artists that they are paired with. This is something common in the remix generation of musicians, which is often misunderstood. Sampling has frequently been thought of as a malicious act, being called theft by older musicians. Furthermore, it is generally frowned upon, or pursued with legal action seeking monetary compensation. However, this film shows how genuinely passionate the artists are in giving new life to music that may be unheard of to a younger generation, and sharing older styles with their audiences.
The jazz song that Mark Ronson creates with the Dap Kings, Zigaboo Modeliste, Erykah Badu, Trombone Shorty and Mos Def is called Gumbo, a type of soup where you basically toss in all the ingredients that you have available to you. Gumbo becomes a symbol for the film’s overall premise, which is that music is a process of collaboration, a blending of styles and a carrying on of traditions from old to new. New types of music that use remixing as a viable art form can be viewed in a similar fashion to the folk art of storytelling. It is never quite the same as the original, but it gets passed on and readapted by new generations and told in novel ways, so as to carry on the story. The film ends in a variety of settings, showcasing the songs that are created. With some artists like Skrillex, Pretty Lights and The Chemical Brothers performing their songs at huge outdoor concerts, where countless spores of youth gather to embrace the new sounds, others perform at a jazz club where a small group of people bop to a new jazz sound performed with a different spin by Ronson, the Dap Kings and Badu. Meanwhile DJ Premiere, at a large concert hall, conducts his first symphony orchestra – complete with a hip hop beat and rap lyrics by Nas blended into the classical narrative.
No matter what the setting, and no matter what the result, the film leaves viewers with the idea that a new generation of musicians has arrived, and that their art is reshaping the ways in which musical collaboration is possible. It shows that this artform is more than capable of reviving and honoring the art that came before it.
Sources and further reading: the film, Re: Generation Music Project, for free on YouTube | the film’s official website | another worthy film on remix culture
Image (a picture of Tommy Dorsey) courtesy of the public domain.