Joey Negro is the most well-known pseudonym of Dave Lee—a DJ, producer, and one of dance music's most prolific remixers. Under a plethora of other monikers including Akabu, Doug Willis, The Sunburst Band, Sessomatto, and Z Factor, Lee was one of the first artists to incorporate disco samples in house music when he began his production career in 1988. Today, he remains widely regarded as one of the most credible and in-demand artists on the global scene.
Intrinsically linked with the birth of disco house in the UK, Dave Lee set up the dance music division of Rough Trade, Demix, and through this experience and with other leading house labels led to establishing his own imprint Republic Records in 1988.
Joey Negro, as an entity, was born in 1990 with the release of Do It Believe It on US cult house label Nu Groove. The track was a breakthrough success and was followed by Do What You Feel, which was released on his second label and successor to Republic, Z Records. "Do What You Feel" eventually crossed from a club hit to a top 40 pop hit. Another Top 40 track followed with “Love Fantasy” and an album Universe of Love soon after that. But this was just the start: throughout the '90s and millennia, a continual stream of Joey Negro remixes and releases then surfaced, with artists such as Diana Ross, Kelly Rowland, and Empire of the Sun getting the JN touch. It's difficult to think of too many more prolific remixers active today.
Having recently dropped Produced With Love, his first LP in over 20 years, Lee offered to delve into this wealth of experience to advise producers on both the technical and non-technical aspects of remix commissions.
The first question you have to ask yourself is why are you doing the remix: because you love the song, because it’s good for profile, because you like the original version but feel it’s missing something you can add? Don’t just say yes out of reflex: doing a remix can be a lot of work, so make sure you really want to do it and that you think you can turn out something worthwhile that everyone will be happy with.
"In my experience, labels just want a big mix that will sell and get played by loads of DJs, and heighten the profile of the release or artist."
Make sure you and whoever you’re doing it for are on the same page as to what they are expecting from you. Do they expect you to use the whole song, or are they ok with a little snippet? I always ask them: what’s the last thing I did that you liked? This will tell you a lot, as they might not even be able to name anything. I still get people asking for something like "Make A Move On Me." You don’t want to spend ages on something that was never going to be what they wanted. If you’re not on in sync direction-wise, it's best you know that and do something more like the label wants if you think that’s acceptable—or you can just not bother at all. In my experience, labels just want a big mix that will sell and get played by loads of DJs, and heighten the profile of the release or artist.
I would personally never take on a mix that needs to be delivered next week. I like to have enough time to do it properly. If things aren't sounding right then you need time to leave and come back with a clearer approach. I also don’t want to label breathing down my neck if I’m late.
Before you agree to do the mix, clarify what parts the label has. Sometimes they have literally nothing other than a copy of the record; on other occasions they might have the vocals but none of the musical stuff, which means you’ll have to recreate all that if you want to use it, which can be a big job. So best you go into it with your eyes open: sometimes they won’t mention such things until later once you’ve committed to doing it.
Clarify the Deal
Make sure you clarify the deal upfront. There’s nothing wrong with asking how much you’ll be paid and when. Whatever you agree I normally ask for 50% of the fee upfront, which is the industry standard and usually possible. So do your best to get it without being too pushy. Who knows what might happen with the act, the label, the guy who’s commissioning the mix etc? If that’s the case it’s a little conciliation to have at least had some money for the work you put in.
When you’re discussing terms, ask that you can use your mix free of charge once on a compilation of your own material six months or more after the release. Not everyone will agree but many indies are cool about this; realistically it's not likely they’ll be missing out on much money and if they aren’t paying you much then it's a little perk they can throw in.
It’s always a good idea to refer to the original. If I’m doing a disco type remix I keep the original on a spare track in the session and compare my mix to it at various points. You might find they had a nicer reverb on the vocals or mixed something much quieter/louder/wetter. You don’t want to copy that version, but it’s good to make sure you’ve used all the best parts and there isn’t anything obviously better about it that’s missing from your one.
Make sure you’ve got the vocals properly in time. I’ve had remixes back which have got the vocals in completely different places within the bar/beat. As the original producer/writer, it just sounds wrong and is an instant negative. Again, refer to the original for this sort of thing, unless your remix is mind blowing and the original a non-starter the label will probably make you change it anyway. If the backing vocals have lots of harmonies try and get them separated so you can choose which of the harmonies to use or not. Harmonies can really restrict which chords you can use and dictate the mood of the song. It's better to give yourself as many options as possible.
"I never let the label hear a rough mix as either they are disappointed, or they love it and play it too much so that the final versions sounds wrong to them."
Don’t do the remix is one or two sessions and send it to the label. Live with it, play it out a few times and on different systems like your car, check you’ve got it about right sonically and arrangement wise before you let them hear it. I never let the label hear a rough mix as either they are disappointed, or they love it and play it too much so that the final versions sounds wrong to them. It’s also easy to think things you’re involved with are better than they are, so be critical. Don’t just listen loud on big speakers. Listen quietly and give it a rest for a week or two, so you can go back to it with fresh ears
If the main musical body of the song is a sample I would normally replay the bass on a subby bass sound. That way you have much more control of the bottom end. Otherwise, you're EQ-ing bass into the sample which can often sound messy. Though if you do go that route, I'd put it on a separate track in mono and low pass it and have it underneath the main sample. I’d also copy the sample onto a few extra tracks, maybe pick out a guitar lick and treat it differently with filter, phaser etc. Try putting the sample in a sampler and playing it down an octave to see if anything interesting happens. Also cutting the sample up into beats, playing it back in differently, reversing it, changing the start point. Not all of it will work but you might find something that sounds good. Stutter Edit is a plug-in that works well for stuff like this and sometimes on vocals too. Good for inspiration.
See It Through
If you get stuck, don’t call the label and say that you want to bail on doing the mix. It’s not the sort of honesty they will appreciate and to a degree, it’s a bit unprofessional leaving them in the lurch at the last minute having to find another person to do something you might have agreed to a while ago. If you keep at it, you will break through the barrier and finish the mix. Best thing is to work on something else and come back to it. Sometimes starting again is a good idea.
If you are taking on remix work you’ve got to give it one hundred per cent. That means using all your best ideas and sounds, that’s the deal. If you want to save your best ideas for you own music then maybe don’t do any remixes. Remixes can really help someone get noticed. There have been a few cases over the years where the remix was a completely new track and vastly superior to the original and it made a non-starter a massive club or even pop hit. In those cases, the remixer should really have got a royalty and some of the publishing. However, that doesn’t happen very often. If it does become enormous they’ll probably need your help for radio edits and stuff like that, at which point you can renegotiate. Even if you only ever get your fee, it will have helped your profile no end.