Heard and Seen
Mike Relm Adds Video to the DJ's Arsenal Of Breaks, Scratches, and Beat Juggling
Inhabiting an artistic space somewhere between the late-'70s South Bronx and early-'00s Las Vegas, Mike Relm is the world's first multijock. When Relm came to Baltimore with Del tha Funky Homosapien last October, local hip-hop heads finally got a taste of the A/V array he controls. Triggering music video samples from DVD, keeping time with layered audio backbeats, and introducing wax-based polyrhythms with the skill of a scratch master, Relm kept the rap crowd rapt. Now, a different section of Charm City is about to get wise to Relm's multimedia mash-ups when the Bay area native and San Francisco State film-school grad returns to town this week with the Blue Man Group. Though we aren't likely to see DJ battles at Caesars Palace any time soon, it does make perfect sense for Relm, an obvious showman, to complement the blue-painted Vegas Strip sensations on their "How to Be a Megastar Tour 2.0."
Live, the bespectacled Relm stands behind his multimedia rig in a neat black-and-white suit, tie, and mod glasses--more ska show than scratch performance--and it quickly becomes clear that the two-tone outfit is geared to not distract from his concoctions. Last October, Relm deftly used a Pioneer DVJ--which enables the user to mix and manipulate digital video in real time, similar to the way a CDJ can manipulate digital audio--to cut up Björk's surreal and somnambulant "Human Behaviour" video, directed by Michel Gondry. As the eccentric Icelandic chanteuse runs from a giant teddy bear, Relm tweaked the action, freezing an intense moment of Björk's vocal, jogging the DVJ back and forth, finally releasing it to the mechanized drum rolls of Run-D.M.C.'s classic "It's Like That."
He also intermingled classic rock (Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and the Outfield's "Your Love"), cartoon jive (Vince Guaraldi's Peanuts jazz), and movie clips--such as a thrown punch from Fight Club, which he chopped into a single staccato instant with the same precision of a standard DJ scratch, eventually spinning Tyler Durden's fist into oblivion. The culmination of Relm's solo set is a sing-along, with the audience as the choir and Relm as the on-screen director in a prerecorded flip chart-style video. As you watch the man in the flesh and simultaneously on screen, John Lennon's "Imagine" plays on top of a chunky hip-hop beat. On Relm's web site (www.mikerelm.com), you can purchase a DVD, Suit Yourself, a multiangle re-creation of Relm's DVJ routine from an earlier tour with MC Gift of Gab, as well as a CD mixtape, Radio Fryer, that captures his wide-ranging aesthetic minus the visuals.
Relm, 28, bought his first turntables at age 16 and won his first DJ battle two years later. In 2001, when he was 22, he was featured in the now legendary DJ documentary Scratch, alongside pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash and DJ Shadow. By 2004, when the DVJ debuted, Relm had already directed a music video for Oakland, Calif., rapper Mistah FAB, part of a side career in film production and editing where he nods to the aesthetics of Tim Burton and Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. And within a few years after winning his first battle, Relm was producing his own scratch records, with selected DJ-friendly sounds to stock the turntablist's tool kit, including a 12-volume series called the Zodyax Scop System.
With the proliferation of similar DJ tools, instructional videos, and YouTube highlights of past battles ready to consult, today's aspiring autodidact disc jockey has everything short of an all-in-one beat-matching tutorial from QVC to shepherd him or her through the basics. Eating a cheese steak backstage at Sonar last fall, Relm said that he sees hip-hop as an art that's lamentably full of unoriginal artists, content to mimic their favorites without adding personal flavor. And Relm also contends that many of the best routines are often developed by outsiders who don't pay attention to either virtuosic champions or cookie-cutter crabs, transformers, and other traditional scratch maneuvers. "What people don't realize is that a lot of the best techniques come from the guys who didn't win," he said.
Relm did win, however, including prestigious titles like the 1999 USA championship of the International Turntable Federation, a worldwide DJ battle organizing body, and he was a runner-up at the federation's world competition that same year. So he's often invited to judge scratch and juggle battles, and he's irked by what he sees and hears. "So I'm sitting there watching the routine, and I can tell who this guy studies," Relm said, reliving his frustration with unoriginal DJs with an incredulous laugh.
As far as inspirations for his own DJing, he cops to fawning over the X-Ecutioners' DJ Total Eclipse and his beat-juggle of A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario" when he first saw it on a VHS battle tape. But that was in 1999, back in those dark days before DVDs--let alone DVJs--came into widespread use, and DJing was still all about turntables and vinyl. Only developing his current routine in 2005, Relm's pioneering manipulation of live video was technically impossible 10 years ago. And it's this embrace of a still-developing technology that's allowed Relm to put his own stamp on the art of DJing, creating an all-new mix of performance and video art with traditional DJing that fearlessly plays with the ability to manipulate sound and cinema in the same carpal flurry.
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