The Art of Creative Critique (AKA why I remix)

Shameless plug time? Yes, shameless plug time.

Around early November last year I completed and posted this little thing:

A remix of C-ute’s “Kanashiki Heaven”, which I cleverly renamed “Kanashiki Amen” in honor of the main sample I used; the remix was borne out of a desire I’ve had since the beginning to put my own spin on that particular C-ute song as well as an excuse to utilize that legendary “Amen Brother” drum break in some kind of composition–and with the remixed title merging together the way it did, you could say it was a match made in…heaven.

The end result is a contrast to the original, as I chose to replace an intense high tempo rock sound with a somber mid-tempo funky groove beat that matches better with the song’s vocal flow and sad lyrical theme, and swap out busy layers of instrumentation for scratched rap quotes that punctuate the rhythms and make reference to the performers, their lyrics, and the new beat. It was quite fun working on this, especially with the stereo separation of each singer’s vocals, the samples used, and random experimentation leading to the subtle inclusion of a video game theme right after the second verse, but admittedly it was a bit frustrating as well, with inspiration sometimes hitting roadblocks along with the tedious nature of certain aspects of remixing (sample morphing, sound volume checks, etc.).

More than simply having fun with a song I like, however, this remix was also a statement. Taking advantage of my access to a means of music production, it was my way of saying “I’m impressed by what you’ve done, but here’s how I would’ve done it”. “Kanashiki Amen” was a personal celebration of the awesomeness that is “Kanashiki Heaven”…but at the same time it was also a critique of the song.

Real talk: everyone, no matter who they are, has their own biases when it comes to music, the biases being deeply rooted in each person’s tastes, background, and experience, and as you can tell from this blog’s header and previous entries, my tastes and background are in the realm of hip-hop music–more precisely, roots in jazz and funk via hip-hop/rap, which extends to post-’80s R&B, EDM, and rhythmic hard rock (AKA that “dreaded” nu-metal). As such, my initial dive into the world of idol music was a bit jarring with the lighthearted tones and complex melodies often painted over fast, repetitive, simplistic four-on-the-floor kick drum beats (a reversal of the melodically simple, rhythmically complex world I came from)…so, just like how I initially needed shows like Utaban and Mechaike to spark my interest these idols, I needed a filter to help comprehend and appreciate these songs. This filter existed in two different forms, one being to seek out songs styled after or referencing genres I like, such as Momusu’s “Do It! Now”, “I Wish”, “How Do You Like Japan” and “Memory Seishun no Hikari”, Salt 5’s “Get Up! Rapper”, Berryz Kobo’s “Anata Nashi de wa Ikite Yukenai”, and, for a non-H!P example, AKB48’s “River”.

The other was exploring H!P songs through the world of remixes and mashups, whether they be official or fan-made, created by others or my own work. This ranged from the criminally-underrated Club Hello! Trance Remix album (which I will address eventually), to an awesome mashup of Momusu’s “As For One Day” with Limp Bizkit’s “Take a Look Around” (which sadly has disappeared from the internet)…and of course my first contributions to the fandom, starting with a hip-hop composition that revolved around random samples of Coconuts Musume, Mini Moni, and 4th generation Momusu (essentially the things that got me interested in H!P in the first place), followed up by a crazy mashup of “Osaka Koi no Uta” with a hardcore reggae-flavored DMX jam, and capped off by my first proper remix of an H!P song:

I replaced the “modernized disco” of the original with a completely modern hip-hop sound, spacing and spreading out the kicks, snares, and claps to create a half-tempo slow bounce, and since this was my first true remix I ended up throwing a lot of different elements at it, such as guitar solos and some of the most random vocal samples that could vaguely fit. Although to be fair, the absence of the Engrish MC from the acapella of the song–something I thought was essential to the work–led to me needing to recreate it somehow, which I did with the aforementioned samples and guitars. Ultimately the purpose of that remix, as well as all the other remixes I’ve done since, is to have fun with and celebrate H!P songs that stand out for and inspire me. Whereas “Renai Revolution 2010” was a learning-the-ropes exercise, a few later ones played around with nods to hip-hop canon, with me recreating beats from certain well-known rap songs and applying the appropriate H!P vocals to them in an almost-mashup-but-not-quite sort of way–I’m quite proud of how I slowed down “Resonant Blue” in order to merge it with an Eric B & Rakim classic.

But I wasn’t just having fun morphing soundscapes with these. Some were made with the added purpose of addressing elements that I didn’t like and “fixing” them. Another side to my music biases beyond what I like is what I dislike: pop-punk and light/fast melodic rock are amongst my least favorite of music genres, as I tend to find them aesthetically ugly sound-wise and can’t help but see them as the opposite of the hard-yet-smooth flowing rhythms of the funk/hip-hop family tree. So of course I would extend this attitude towards the music of Buono, the beloved trio of H!P Kids’ brightest stars known for their fast melodic rock tunes. It was a bit of a dilemma, loving the members but having mixed feelings towards their songs, wanting to simultaneously love and hate their work for being catchy and energetic yet still “ugly”…so I decided to actually do something about it, devising a plan to take a few songs that stood out for me the most and transform them into something I could more easily jam to. Unfortunately I only had time/energy/focus to remix one song, but that song turned out to be one of the remixes I’m most proud of:

With the original song blazing through at 206 beats per minute, it was an easy and natural process to cut that in half and produce something more in line with my kind of music: the frantic, noisy original arrangement gets replaced by a mellow mid-tempo bass-driven groove to complement the singers’ rap-like lyrical flow, with some occasional guitar riffs thrown in as a nod to the song’s (and group’s) rock origins. What’s interesting is that the acapella I used still had artifacts from the original song that luckily weren’t too intrusive and in fact made things easier for me by providing some extra sonic flavor to work with. Beyond that, the beat I created was an exercise in using a continuous, minimalistic drum pattern with no breaks or stoppage that relied on empty spaces to help with the sense of rhythm…and of course with the title of the song being what it is, I had to have my own fun with it, taking samples from an obscure Zelda game Nintendo would rather forget ever existed, itself a popular source for the crazy phenomenon known as YouTube Poop.

Not technically H!P but still H!P-related, the same situation gave rise to this remix:

As much as I love Ai Kago’s singing and wanted her comeback to succeed, her first music release after leaving H!P left a lot to be desired, so I got to work on fixing that. The light melodic bass line and relatively weak drum beats got replaced by more complex and harder hitting drum patterns and a consistent, funkier bass groove, and the gentle guitars were done away with in favor of aggressive hard rock riffs and solos (with 2:45-2:55 being the part I’m most proud of), all capped off with carefully selected scratched vocal samples that emphasize the song’s theme of independence and essentially scoff at how (I still think) Up Front mishandled the scandals that led to her departure. In a sense, this is probably the most personal of my remixes, as I made it to critique more than just the song itself.

Lastly, there’s the similar situation of loving a song as it is but seeing missed potential and wanting more out of it. I first did this with “Nanchatte Renai”, capitalizing on its R&B/rap teases to make a moodier half-tempo hip-hop version, and again with the aforementioned “Kanashiki Heaven” remix (which you would think would go with the Buono example, but by the time this song came out my tastes had expanded and biases had weakened, plus it’s a more aggressive and electronic-flavored song anyway). But the most prominent example of simultaneous celebration and critique would be the remix I made for “One Two Three”, the epic 50th Momusu single that set off the group’s spotlight revival and solidified their new EDM sound. Now don’t get me wrong, I love what this group’s been putting out lately, the way Tsunku is merging recent dubstep/electropop trends with his own twisted visions of composition, but at the same time I think it gets a little too much with the electronic sounds and droning, repetitive, monorhythmic house-style drum pattern. So in response I conjured up this:

I loved the original for teasing some funky rhythms with its memorable synth organ triplet groove and the hip-hop style drum pattern at the start of each verse, but for the most part the song kinda devolves into the same “oontz oontz oontz oontz” that, while serving as a nice foundation for some fun beats, can become quite tiring when overdone. So with this remix I once again cut the drum tempo in half (a common practice in my work if you haven’t noticed yet) and made that slowness the point of emphasis with some occasional double-time passages but all with a syncopated hip-hop swing in the beats. And with the original sounding overly electronic with the synths and filtered vocals, I opted for a “live” hard rock style to dominate the instrumentation, turning the synth organ groove into a bass line accompanied by aggressive rhythm guitars that sometimes follow an inverted note progression (high-to-low when the bass goes low-to-high). And of course the usual barrage of scratched samples, these ones heralding the start of a new era for the group (with an obscure Family Matters scene thrown in for title-mocking purposes)…all of this comes together to give this beloved tune a hard-hitting nu-metal-revival swagger that directly counters and addresses what I thought the original fell short in.

And really, that’s the main thing for me when it comes to current “electro Musume” songs (and also dating back to a bit of Platinum era as well). Overall the compositions and arrangements have been fun to listen to, providing a lot of interesting instrumentation and flavor and just straight up sounding good…but the simplistic repetitive beats are ultimately holding these songs back from reaching full greatness, and despite the occasional teases of switched up funk or half-tempo passages, it has remained the last frontier that I’ve felt Up Front’s producers need to conquer…

…that is, until now!

This is “Egao no Kimi wa Taiyou sa”, the leading A-side to Morning Musume’s upcoming 55th single…and it’s as if H!P management had heard my prayers and answered back, daring me–a person who prefers collecting albums over singles–to actually buy this! The “We Will Rock You”-style stomp/clap intro…the bouncy trap-music-style beat that pervades the verses…a triplet-stuffed lyrical flow almost reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar…and yes, the house beat sort of returns, but this time tempered with smartly placed snares and claps to keep things steady and funky–even when the song goes into double-time it sticks with that hip-hop swing. EDM blessed and enhanced with hip-hop flavor; cutesy charm with the right touch of attitude…it’s not perfect, but still, with a beat that nowadays is usually reserved for B-sides or album tracks, this is the single I’ve been waiting for since becoming a fan…and all they had to do was cut the apparent drum tempo in half–well, a bit more than that, but you get the idea.

(and the music video itself is pretty damn good too, with some well-done creative effects for some dynamic scenery and dance move complements…and the way the dance starts with a confident “y’all can’t fuck with us” stare from Sayu to go along with the stomp/clap intro gives me chills)

Sometime last year I was told by a presenter at a convention that “the best way to critique a work is to make your own version”. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing this whole time as an H!P fan, feeling good in knowing that I have the means and know-how to take this route whenever it fancies me (other parts of the fandom do this as well with fanfics, exploring idol personality possibilities through writing). But what’s even sweeter than having this option is when an official release is made in such a way that I don’t feel the need for it.

Of course, I could still potentially remix this song anyway should the inspiration still arise…I’m a creator and explorer at heart, after all.

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3 thoughts on “The Art of Creative Critique (AKA why I remix)

  1. Pingback: Recommended Community Reading: January 13, 2014 | Idolminded

  2. From one hip hop head to another, Tsunku snapped with Morning Musume’s latest single, and by the way, i heard some of your work, you did a great job on remixing Aibon’s no hesitation song, i wonder how she herself would feel about that song, take care, bro.

  3. The one mashup you mentioned, “As For One Day/Take A Look Around”? I have it on my other laptop in itunes format, if you’d like it. I got it from a friend years and years ago- I hate to think of how young I was then.

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