|"I listen to classical music all the time. It is the most beautiful form of music to me. Mozart is my favourite. He's powerful. Dance music, in general, has to be powerful to get over."
"Back then the idea of a remixed record was to back-beat it - two records together - to phase it. My idea was - wow, you've got this opportunity; take the record, cut it up, extend breaks, re-arrange it the way I wanted to hear it."
For a long time it was impossible to live in New York without hearing 'This is a KISS Master Mix... Mix... Mix... by Shep Pettibone!' resounding across the airwaves and into the streets. While there had been disco radio mixes before Pettibone, there was never anything like the buzz that kept building on the streets until demand was such for his remixed tapes that Prelude released the landmark KISS Master Mixes LP. This documented for the first time the state of the art in NYC club-sty(e mixing (volume 2 forthcoming).
Fierce, the word popularised by Pettibone, is the best description of his own mixing style. If 'turntable jazz', the term coined by critic Michael Freedberg for the vinyl legerdemain of b-boy and disco DJs is apt, then Pettibone could be the new form's Charlie Parker, working with three Technics 1200 turntables and a Bozak mixer. It's a bit easier to accept the stop-on-a-dime repeats and starting juxtapositions and you know they are pre-recorded on tape but when you see the same bravura cut-ups improvised live, the complexity of Pettibone's musical re-shapings becomes clear.
During his hiatus from radio remixing, Pettibone has been playing records live at Better Days, a Black gay bar in the Times Square area. Every club's sound reflects its demographics and, at Better Days, Pettibone spins almostexclu- sively Black urban post R&B style disco. He constantly mixes over-the records, dropping in extra hand claps (like the delayed intro clap in Prince Charles' 'Jungle Stomp') and effects and hardly ever seems to let a record play through. The peak comes when he juxtaposes an acapella version of Chocolate Milk's 'Who's Getting It Now' with the instrumental version of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean', creating a new song that remains perfectly in sync for minutes. He is constantly teasing the discs with his finger and tapping the rims of the turntable to bring records into sync.
It's 3.30 in the morning, the lights are flashing, the men screaming and I'm exhausted yet riveted to my spot as Pettibone initiates a new cycle with Sylvester's 'Don't Stop'. The gigantic synth-drum break erupts, the surging vocals climax and the slightly calmer synth melody keeps sneaking back. Build it up and put it back over the top-:'The young man responsible for this aural mayhem startles me with his clean-cut appearance. While he describes his personal pre-remix history as 'boring', he also tells me that his mother was an opera singer and that between the ages of five and 11 he travelled around the European opera hall circuit with her.
As I write Pettibone has just resumed doing Master Mixes for KISS-FM and producing mixed dance parties for the radio by DJs Jellybean, Larry Levan and Bruce Forest. From the intensive listening he has been doing over the last few years he told me that he couldn't experience music without hearing it as separate tracks.
SH: How did the idea of radio mixing get started?
SP: "It was Frankie Crocker's idea (programme director at WBLS). Back then the idea of a remixed record was to back-beat it - two records together - to phase it. My idea was - wow, you've got this opportunity; take the record, cut it up, extend breaks, re-arrange it the way I wanted to hear it. I learned about the actual concept of radio tapes from Ted Currier. He was with WKTU for two years and with WBLS for two years and then with EMI/Liberty. He was the first person who ever did those 92KTU dance parties, back when it was Studio 92. The average club DJ can't come along and make a tape and expect it to sound fantastic. You can't think 'club' because it's different. It's all to do with the station's compressors and the levels where you have your mix riding."
The turntables are quite different, aren't they? "They are similar but they're quartz locked. Usually you touch a turntable to slow it down and speed it up - with these you had to put all your pressure because of the quartz lock."
The Master Mix tapes for the radio and the album were all done with records - never the master tapes? "A hundred per- cent with records and whatever tape recorder echo effects I could find. I'd go back and forth between tape recorders to get effects but you start to lose sound quality."
At Better Days, besides the air of sex and excitement it seemed to be about the nostalgia people feel for old classics. "True. The music right now is not good. I'm sick of hearing drums and synthesisers. I'd like to hear music again; Strangely enough, all these computer records started after 'Thanks To You' by Sinnamon. It was kind of like that computer sound within a Black vein."
"Thanks To You' and 'Don't Make Me Wait' came out and started the whole dub thing in disco. "Peech Boys started that - like what are the handclaps doing? You never heard handclaps used. Not always - Witch Queen was one group to use wild handclaps. It was a sense of dub. Now what seems to create excitement in 'Planet Rock' type music is the dub factor. If you just let the record sit through all the way it would be a bore."
If you're a mix conscious producer you can do what the Peech Boys are trying to do with Larry Levan - use the mixing board as a sixth instrument in the recording process.
"There are a lot of producers out there thinking that way now. I think the one who really started it was Arthur Baker. The first record he ever did, I worked on."
'Jazzy Sensation'? "A big garage record. It was the beginning of that sound. There weren't any records out that sounded like Kraftwerk, except Kraftwerk."
It was intriguing to me on the Master Mix album how you were redoing tracks that had already received a pretty definitive mix by Francois. "He's another person I respected. He always gave me the tracks I needed, that drum track with one instrument playing on top of it that I need for a remix. With his arrangement of the mix he would simplify it enough so that I could loop certain parts."
Like the two repeated elements in Jeanette 'Lady' Day's 'Come Let Me Love You' -the drum break and the descending flute and vibes lick. "That actually came off another record entirely."
One of my favourites is the B-side dub you did for Sinnamon's 'He's Gonna Take You Home (To His House)'. The A-side was sort of disposable but the 10 minute instrumental was like radical trance music. Do you ever want to put dub versions on A-sides? "The A-side of 'Thanks To You' (Sinnamon), she was singing on those breaks. It was very mixed. I slowed it down incredibly, it was like 130-136 beats. 'Thanks To You' was one of those records I came home with four or five reels of tape on it. I just took every way possible and put all those ways together on the 12inch."
Like a number of the people I've spoken to you don't seem very positive about current trends in disco. What are your favourite records to spin and listen to from the past? "They seem mainly to be Salsoul records and 'Spank' (Jimmy Bo Horne), 'Love Is The Message', T Connection's 'At Midnight'. I listen to classical music all the time. It is the most beautiful form of music to me. Mozart is my favourite. He's powerful. Dance music, in general, has to be powerful to get over. I guess I carry over what I get from his music into what I do."