By PETERSON GONZAGA
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—In today’s music scene, a disc jockey no longer just spins records. He also produces tracks. The DJ-turned-producer can now manipulate the music and voices to create their own songs through technological advances.
In the documentary “Re:Generation Music Project,” the process is taken one step further as Greenlight Media & Marketing and director Amir Bar-Lev taps five well-known DJs—DJ Premier, Pretty Lights, Mark Ronson, Skrillex and The Crystal Method—and has them step out of their usual music element to create an original track by collaborating with artists in a different music genre.
For DJ Mark Ronson, working with singers Erykah Badu and Mos Def and musicians Trombone Shorty and Zigaboo Modeliste, along with members of the Dap Kings, helped bring his jazz collaboration to life. Originally, the track was to be an instrumental piece but Badu was brought on board at the last minute.
“We’ve (film producers) spoken to Erykah and she’s interested in being on it,” Ronson recalls being told. “It was like Christmas and Hanukah rolled into one.”
It was a bit intimidating for the veteran DJ after he heard Badu’s second album, “Mama’s Gun,” which he says had a significant influence on him.
“Going into something that you hold in that esteem, you’re always nervous,” he says. “The thing about it was she was cool. She’s dope.”
For the Grammy-winning Badu, the process of this project was a big challenge.
“He (Ronson) had one day to direct the band,” she says. “The next day I had to write the song and that night we had to perform the song.”
Badu admits she was scared since she never puts a deadline on herself for a project.
“I wanted to deliver, you know,” she explains.
During an interview at the Juniper House in Hollywood, Badu notices a picture of herself performing their track at the Preservation Hall in New Orleans, and comments, “That’s a picture of me right there!”
DJ Derek Vincent Smith a.k.a. Pretty Lights, didn’t have it quite as easy with his country music collaboration on “Re:Generation.” The genre was foreign to him. Coming from electronica music, he had no connection at all to country music. After searching through various record stores for a country music track, Pretty Lights settled on basing his track on Burl Ives’ version of “Wayfaring Stranger.” Matching a voice to Ives was a no-brainer for the DJ as Ives’ version reminded him of the voice of Dr. Ralph Stanley. Working with Stanley, though, proved to be a bit of a challenge. Stanley didn’t think he sounded anything like Ives and wanted to do it his own way.
Pretty Lights says he could have communicated his idea to Stanley in a more diplomatic way
“I realized I tripped up in the beginning by pushing him in a direction of referencing another artist,” he says. “In hindsight, I thought if someone said that to me, I would say the same thing he did. After that, we were able to get on the same wavelength, and he realized I was trying to get him to make the song darker.”
Aside from Stanley, country artist LeAnn Rimes added her vocals to the collaboration and understood what Pretty LIghts was trying to create.
“I liked being able to work with someone young who had a fresh approach to a different style of music that I have had hits in but I’ve never gone on (in studio) and sung on a dance track,” she says. “I had so much fun because Derek was more like a director than producer. He had a strong vision of what he wanted and I kind of rolled with it.”
The Crystal Method had a slightly similar challenge as Pretty Lights did as the duo had to roll with the punches that Martha Reeves of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas threw at them. Crystal Method members Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland realized they should have ncluded the singing legend when they created the lyrics for their R&B-influenced collaboration.
Having respect for Reeves and her pride in Detroit, the duo worked tirelessly to ensure the lyrics were based on their day exploring Detroit with her. There were moments that challenged Jordan and Kirkland as the Old School singer refused to sing certain lyrics that weren’t positive about the Motor City.
“She is so pro-Detroit,” says Jordan. “She was probably being protective. We probably should’ve worked out the lyrics with her and not so last minute. She was just reacting to certain words that she didn’t want to present Detroit in that certain light. It worked out for the better.”
For hip hop DJ Premier, having to work with classical music gave him a new respect for the genre. Coming into the project, he was more concerned with what portions of classical music tracks he could sample instead of appreciating the music itself. He began to appreciate the music during the process as composer Bruce Adolphe illustrated that classical pieces are actually stories. Once DJ Premier understood that, he was able to find bits and pieces to sample in his track and brought the track to Stephen Webber of the Berklee College of Music.
Webber took the track and created sheet music for the school’s orchestra to play DJ Premier’s composition. Aside from creating the track, DJ Premier was given the opportunity to conduct the orchestra. It wasn’t a total cakewalk for DJ Premier, though. He says he felt overwhelmed every day.
He explains, “If I’m going to put myself on camera like that and be that vulnerable when that’s not my world. I like the camera when we’re shooting a music video. But having a camera following me around. That’s not my world.”
In Skrillex’s world, music and spinning records go hand in hand. The young popular DJ-producer could directly relate to the rock ‘n’ roll genre he was given. Skrillex a.k.a. Sonny John Moore was able to connect with the remaining members of the legendary The Doors, as he is a musician himself. It wasn’t a challenge to get Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek on board. The duo had open minds to jam with whatever track Skrillex created for the collaboration. However for The Doors drummer, John Densmore, it was a different story. Densmore wanted to make sure the human side of being a drummer wasn’t lost in the process.
“I was pleased to find out that Sonny was a musician,” he says. “He understood that a musician playing on top is a human thing then you got the electronic bed to lay on.”
Densmore summed it up best for all involved in the “Re:Generation Music Project,” when he says, “This re-generation is combining electronics and musicians is very cool. It brings the human into the techno. You get the best of both.”
“Re:Generation: Music Project” plays in select theaters on Feb. 16 and Feb 23.