TOP TEN LISTS: Retakes of a Life – Whitney Houston In the Mix (Top Remixes to Remember Her Music By)
By: Jason Shawhan
Whitney Houston’s music was a gift that she gave for all to hear. But the beauty of her many remixes is that dance music was occasionally able to give back; there is a tension and a vibe in many of the great tracks that reconfigured her voice for late-night consumption by disco light that weren’t always there in her official output. With Whitney, there is always the voice. In the way that every Michael Jackson song was defiantly his (with his proprietary percussive noises and snaps), Whitney’s voice and its arrangements (which she often did herself) made these songs her own. So finding the right sounds to bring That Voice into new realms could sometimes be a challenge.
But as Alba’s timeless anthem says, “Only Music Survives.”
With that in mind, I’d like to take you on a brief tour of some of Whitney’s outstanding moments on the dancefloor. By no means is this comprehensive. These happen to be my favorites. My hope is that it might give you an excuse to re-experience an old favorite, or hear something for the first time you might never have heard before. Regardless, respect to Miss Whitney Houston. Here’s hoping everybody finds that someone to dance with (who loves them). Here they are, in no particular order.
- “My Love is Your Love” (Jonathan Peters)
I’ve never found a middle ground with Jonathan Peters mixes. Dance mixes, by nature, often aim for a middle ground that will attract clubgoers while not pissing off fans of the original song, and if, in the process, they achieve something transcendent and magical, that’s just gravy. Jonathan Peters mixes were never about the middle ground, and sometimes they didn’t work at all. But when they did (Jessica Folker’s “To Be Able To Love,” Luminaire’s “Flower Duet,” Paula Cole’s “I Believe In Love”), it was dazzling. And his mix of “My Love is Your Love” is the first Whitney track I listened to after hearing of her untimely passing. It is cosmic and beautiful, with a lush arrangement. It uses periodic sequences of dissonance to build into the big moments of beauty, and I’m in awe of it, more than a decade on. Of all of the remixes that have been done of Whitney Houston’s songs, this is the one that feels like the perfect blend of artist and new sounds.
- “I’m Every Woman” (Clivilles + Cole)
C+C gave a preview of what was to come in the X-Beat era of 90s house music with this track. A double vinyl set with three different ten-minute mixes, the gem here is the Clivilles and Cole House Mix II, which runs through the album version (with some Cathy Dennis pads), drops down to a lounge-y interlude, then kicks in around 6:14 with some serious deep house damage. C+C use some devastating loops and set the tone for what would become the New York sound of much of the 90s- deep, dubby, and cavernous.
- “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” (Daddy’s Groove, Peter Rauhofer)
Here was a chance for mixers to use some of the newfound grit in Whitney’s voice. Daddy’s Groove and Peter “The Artist Formerly Known As Club 69” Rauhofer both go for expansive, big room house mixes. But Daddy’s Groove use almost trance-y build-ups, which contrast nicely with Rauhofer’s chilly pinpoint synths. Either way, one sensed the immediacy and importance of the record, Whitney’s first after a long time away.
- “It’s Not Right (But It’s Okay)” (Thunderpuss, Johnny Vicious, Direct Hit/Robert Coleman)
Here’s the song that birthed countless remixes and hundreds of drag queens. It’s sassy, confident, and angry, and it’s an instance of dance music making a major step back into the mainstream. Thunderpuss (Hot Tracks’ Chris Cox and Kon Kan’s Barry Harris) mixed this track and knocked it out of the park, until pop radio had to reach out and take notice of what remixing was doing. It was a remarkable achievement for them, and a nice turn of events for a song that initially started out as the B-side to Houston’s “Heartbreak Hotel.”
But Thunderpuss was just one of the many mixes of this track. Peter Rauhofer (as Club 69) did a mix, KCC did a bootleg that ended up being picked up by Houston’s label, Arista, and there was a bootleg that got played in my club of choice at the time that mixed Whitney’s vocals with “Got the Groove” by SM Trax. So there was a lot of ground to be covered here.
Direct Hit, one of the remix services at the time, did a mix of the track for their Sector series that married Whitney’s voice with a track built on the syncopated relentless handclaps-and-synth-cowbells of Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” and some killer organ stabs from the Alex party records. It was a great assemblage of 80s and 90s sounds and it was the most fun of all of that era’s mixes. Robert Coleman, who did the mix, crafted something very special indeed.
But remember what I said about this being an angry song? Well, Johnny Vicious lived up to his name on this mix, and he created something unique. Clubland was moving away from the clanky Tribalism of the X-Beat sound and into the big room Circuit Party vibe. Vicious found a way to blend the clashy pummel of those X-Beat beats with the massive synth noises that drove the circuit sound, and he built a monster out of them for this song. I remember when the promo 12” singles went out, and one was advised to let the whole, 13+ minute Johnny Vicious Momentous Mix play out for maximum effect.
And it was like nothing else. Vicious’ mix brought the anger at the heart of this song front and center, taking one of Whitney’s anguished side notes from the breakdown and making it part of the musical backbone of the piece. The drop out at 6:44 is sublime, building itself back up into a completely different attack on the synth sequences. But even that plaes to the moment of drama he’s got in store… At 11:10, when he brings out the defiant rejoinders of the song “pay my own rent,” etc., it hits hard. And then at 11:32, he goes into a sustained note that sinks into your spine and you get the emotional heart of this song in such a visceral way that you just have to say “Damn.”
- “Million Dollar Bill” (Freemasons)
A lovely poolside margarita of a song. I’d always wanted to hear what would happen when James Wiltshire would finally get to remix a Whitney track, and the end results are just beautiful. I like to remember in this kind of joyful place.
- “I’m Your Baby Tonight” (Yvonne Turner)
Slightly housified from one of the first female, and most unheralded of full-on remixers. This was big enough to become the standard album version outside of North America. It was 1990, so a world that embraced “Vogue” would definitely feel inclined to accept house beats from its biggest names. Yvonne Turner would also remix tracks by Yazz & The Plastic Population, Lisa Stansfield, and Oleta Adams.
- “I Look to You” (Giuseppe D)
Giuseppe D always has a gift for contrasts, and here, he finds a lush and supportive synth sound to elevate Whitney’s vocals, occasionally stripping things down to the gentle piano that periodically runs counterpoint. There are a lot of things happening in the track, but always in service of the song and its emotions. This is one of D’s best mixes, easily up there with Lutricia McNeal’s “Stranded” (which, if you don’t know it, you need to remedy that).
- “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (The KLF, DJ Earlybird)
This is the track that made the Roland TR-808’s synth cowbell sound immortal. The original dance mix, by Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero (a-ha’s “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” Jennifer Rush’s “Heart Over Mind,” Madonna’s “Open Your Heart”), as was customary at the time, didn’t stray too far from the original version, and was a massive hit in clubs, on the radio, and in boomboxes.
Almost immediately, it popped up again in a rather unexpected place. The KLF, or, as they were then known, The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (or, furthermore, The JAMMs), made a track out of house beats, orchestra hits from Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft,” bits of the Mission: Impossible theme, and heaping chunks of Whitney’s recording of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Known as “Whitney Joins The JAMMs,” the end result managed to not result in too many lawsuits, and it also put Whitney’s voice into some underground places it might not ordinarily end up.
A few years back, DJ Earlybird did a mash-up of Whitney with Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which is a great record to throw on at a party. There’s an alternate version that brings Sean Paul into the mix, but I prefer keeping it focused on my divas. Call me old-fashioned…
- “Same Script, Different Cast” (Jonathan Peters)
This remix is what a knock-down drag-out war between divas and synthesizers would sound like. Frenetic, busy, overwrought, and always getting higher and louder until finally everything explodes- and it is never anything less than enthralling. The last chorus, where everything modulates up again- it’s madness, but it all works. Sometimes in a remix, less is more. This is not one of those times. Recognizing the kitchen sink attributes of the duet, Peters and his team went all-out. This remix shines like a mushroom cloud made out of mirrored disco ball panels. Whitney and Deborah Cox’s vocal performances here were simply titanic. You have to go back to the 70s, to Donna Summer and Barbra Stresiand’s “No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” to find that kind of take-no-prisoners diva power.
- “Peace and Harmony will Save The Day” (DMC/Kevin Sweeney)
“Peace and Harmony” was originally an Italo-inspired Brothers in Rhythm track that sampled a couple of lines from Whitney’s “Love Will Save The Day” and matched them to a new Dina Carroll vocal. Fortunately, DMC decided to fully bring in Whitney’s vocals, and the end result is hands-in-the-air Italo at its most ebullient. As with the Sector Mix of “It’s Not Right,” it’s fun to hear mixes which place Whitney’s voice in the context of 80s club sounds that would have been a bit too much for her image at the time.
- “You’ll Never Stand Alone” (Jimmy from Jersey)
Often misattributed to genius remixer James “Jimmy Gomez” Wiltshire (who did later remix Whitney as part of the Freemasons), this unofficial take by underground mixer Jimmy from Jersey (Lebo M’s “He Lives in You,” Faithless’ “Hour of Need”) is simple and direct and it works beautifully.
- “How Will I Know” (Divide & Kreate, Junior Vasquez)
Whitney’s breakthrough uptempo hit was initially remixed by Jellybean Benitez, the man who turned countless records into nightclub smashes in the 80s (E.G. Daily’s “Love In The Shadows,” Maria Vidal’s “Body Rock,” Alphaville’s “Jet Set,” as well as tracks by Divine, The Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac, and producing Madonna’s “Holiday”). But it didn’t get supremely turned out beyond its original, recognizable form until 2000’s Greatest Hits collection. In what was widely seen as a controversial move by much of the industry, all of Whitney’s uptempo hits were presented in remixed form. This pissed a lot of people and fans off, but it served as a remarkable show of thanks from Whitney to her fans in the dance music community. Among the new mixes done for that project were several “Junior Vasquez” mixes, including a remarkable take on “How Will I Know.” It was bouncy, big room house, but with all of the fun and joy of the original song kept intact and, in fact, amplified. Using the background vocals as a counterpoint in the intro even added some great tension to the song, and it stands as one of the greatest achievements on that compilation.
Immediately after Whitney’s passing, an a cappella of this song started making its way around the Internet. It was a pristine example of Whitney’s voice and what it could do, but it also posed the question to at-home producers and mixers throughout the world “What can you do with this?” Sweden’s Divide & Kreate (they made that amazing Kanye West/The Knife mash-up a few years back) put Whitney’s vocals over the magical, melancholy track of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” and made something unearthly; they find the melancholy in the song and turn it into something even more than it was before.