It's 10:30 a.m., and Mike Relm needs a cup of coffee. The sleepy-eyed DJ, VJ and producer looks none too alert standing outside Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas, after a typical long night of gigs (he played Dim Mak's showcase the night before) and parties at the 20th annual SXSW conference.
Post caffeine fix, Relm is back to business: He heads straight to the bargain record bins, making selections based on eye-catching cover art or interesting album titles. Relm is best known as a technical turntablist — his cred exploded when he won the International Turntablist Federation's U.S. competition in 1999 and placed second in the world finals, and he's released seven scratch albums in eight years under various monikers. So it's no surprise that he's digging for samples: a nice horn solo, a funky drum break or a snazzy keyboard glissando to complement his cross-genre mixes, which are pulled from golden-era hip-hop, rock, '80s pop and soul.
“I used to try to do more obscure things, but then I realized that the obscure things wouldn't even get noticed in my set because of all the other recognizable stuff,” Relm says as he decides to purchase all five of his discount vinyl selections. “I might be like, ‘Well, I found this in Germany and no one has it,'' but people don't care. I'm walking the line. I'm not trying to go corny, but I'm definitely trying to use more familiar things, things people would know that they could relate to.”
Relm's sets incorporate referential pop-culture hits — think New Order's “Bizarre Love Triangle,” Kool & the Gang's “Jungle Boogie” and Vince Guaraldi's “Linus and Lucy” at various intervals — while winking a conspiratorial eye at the indie crowd. For example, take a track off his latest, self-released album, Radio Fryer (2005, www.mikerelm.com), in which Relm mixes the stylings of Miami bass MC Shy-D with Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The booty-bass tempo a cappella feels chaotic laced over that signature guitar riff, but only for a moment. Relm transitions seamlessly in a total of 41 seconds, easing into the grunge-rock intro before phasing it out with Outkast's “The Way You Move.” While Relm plays some club jams, his mixes aren't intended to get the crowd sweating on the dancefloor. Short, succinct snippets of songs replete with turntable trickery, Relm's mixes aim to effectuate nods of recognition, maybe even a few smirks and giggles — symbols that his audience appreciates his careful choice of content and the skill with which he puts it all together.
Relm carries that same philosophy into his video mixes, which have become an integral part of his live show (check out Relm's self-released 2005 DVD Suit Yourself). Splicing together clips from feature films, documentaries and original footage, Relm crafts an eclectic, humorous collage of pop-culture classics, like the scene from Office Space in which frustrated co-workers gather to smash a fax machine with a baseball bat, or a home video of Relm holding up signs with the lyrics to John Lennon's “Imagine.” He often works backward from his video compilations, soundtracking the scenes with his audio mixes. (Relm has also worked on scores and tracks for two films, Along Came Polly and Scratch.) Since the advent of new video technology such as the Pioneer DVJ-X1 — which allows DJs to treat DVDs like vinyl on a turntable — he's been able to realize his full artistic vision, scratching both the audio and visual elements of his set live in real time.
“Before [the DVJ], it was a mess,” Relm says. “I would have the visual guy play [my DVD], and it just ran. Five minutes into it, I was way off track. But now it's like, I'm playing this, and it matches that — everything is completely synchronized. It helps the audience understand what I'm doing on the turntables as well.”
In addition to its vast music collection, Waterloo has a wall of DVDs. Suddenly Relm is in heaven, snatching up rare music documentaries and short films to pair with his vinyl. His style — pop culture referential sans cheese — is typified by his selections, a mix of art-school favorites, cult classics, unknown treasures and old-school jams.
Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis)
The whole Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum thing just happened — Blondie, Miles Davis and Lynyrd Skynyrd were inducted — so I thought I'd pick this up. I do play Blondie in one of my sets: I show the Pulp Fiction scene where they're doing the twist, and “Maria” is one of the songs I mix in to change it up.
TOMMY DORSEY AND HIS ORCHESTRA
Hawaiian War Chant (RCA Victor)
There's nothing Hawaiian or war chant about this record. I thought it would be paradise but aggressive, cause it says “war.” Maybe some drums or the horn that they use signals war or battle or whatever. But it has nothing to do with Hawaii or war chants. It's more orchestral. It's kind of cool, kind of beautiful.
Letter to the President (Image Entertainment)
I'm not sure what this is. There's hip-hop concerts and street footage, and it says, “The film takes a look at a variety of issues directly affecting the urban community. The crack conspiracy, racial profiling, police brutality, poverty and prison need a hip-hop task force.” I also noticed that Snoop narrated it, so I'm sure he says a lot of good things. There are just certain things you just know you're going to get something out of. If I was just going to take these three DVDs right here, I could do a good 15 minutes live with the material that's in there.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (Brave New Films)
I'm not a crazy political person, but I do like to send a message if I feel like it's necessary or appropriate. I'll point out certain things in my shows, like the fact that Time magazine named Hitler man of the year in 1938 and George W. Bush was Time's man of the year in 2000.
You can pick up a bunch of films, and you just know that with certain ones you're going to get something. This is a documentary on the cost of Wal-Mart, so you know that there's going to be some executive saying something really stupid in it or some worker who knows some inside thing about how we're getting screwed on this and that.
INTERNATIONAL ALL STARS
Hit Themes from Foreign Films (London)
I picked this one up because I'm really interested in scoring films. I'm not going to sample any of this, but it's something I'm going to listen to for ideas on how to score things, how themes go and how they're put together. It's like telling a joke: You have to build it up, and then there's a punch line. I'm learning a lot about human behavior — how can I make people react at certain times?
THE LOVIN' SPOONFUL
The Best of the Lovin' Spoonful, Vol. 1 (Kama Sutra)
Everything these guys do sounds good. They write cool '60s pop stuff. I really like the song “You Didn't Have to Be So Nice.” It's fun. I like fun records, just to listen to. Maybe I'd use it to make a mixtape for a girl. I wouldn't play it live — at least I don't think I would play it — but you never know. I never count out things that I would or wouldn't play.
The Short Films of David Lynch (Subversive Cinema)
David Lynch has the most ridiculous visual style. Mulholland Drive was crazy. I was so mad it didn't win best film 'cause it was really good on all levels. I use part of his stuff in my set for visual stuff. You look at his work, and it's like, “What is this? What is this guy thinking?” He has that crazy mind. I'd like to meet him one day, just to see what he's like.
“Passin' Me By” (Delicious Vinyl)
I bought this 'cause my “Passin' Me By” instrumental has a skip in it, and I haven't played it in a while. It's always good to have. And I mean, it's Pharcyde. I'm just a fan.