The last sound one would anticipate hearing at a Skrillex concert is a Vox Continental combo organ, the distinct retro instrument from the Doors' "Light My Fire." But that's what thousands of fans devour when the young electronic music producer spins "Breakn' a Sweat," a tune crafted with surviving members of the iconic 1960s rock band, in a documentary directed by Amir Bar-Lev called Re:Generation Music Project.
Bar-Lev, whose films include The Tillman Story and My Kid Could Paint That, follows musicians from differing genres and generations into the studio. He pairs five DJs, Skrillex (real name: Sonny Moore), who just won three Grammys on Sunday, Pretty Lights (Derek Vincent Smith), The Crystal Method (Scott Kirkland and Ken Jordan), Mark Ronson, and DJ Premier (Christopher Martin), with an omnium-gatherum of artists from rock, country, R&B, jazz and classical music, respectively, to explore the apparent vast sphere of inspiration that comes from collaboration, spontaneity and technology.
Can one artist's approach absorb another artist's approach and everyone walk away as friends? How does a deadline impact imagination, expectations and quality? These are just a couple of the questions that arise from Bar-Lev's intriguing premise.
When I asked Doors drummer John Densmore, 67, about any trepidations he had going into his recording session with Skrillex, 24, he referenced an uncomfortable scene from the film.
"My biggest fear? That I would be doing something I didn't resonate with. That's why I asked [Bar-Lev] to turn the cameras off for a few minutes," he said. "You know, let's hear the track and share ideas, and I don't have to say 'this sucks' on camera... obviously it didn't."
Indeed, "Sweat" is a booming fun factory encapsulated in five minutes and two seconds. It's undeniably Skrillex, with jutting synths that sound like agravic laser beams launching out of one's speakers, but Densmore's drums and percussion, Ray Manzarek's keyboard, and Robby Krieger's guitar are unexpected traditional punctuations that make this, the first record the three have made together in three decades, a satisfying 21st century debut for them. Even Doors frontman Jim Morrison, who died in 1971, shares in the effort; starting a little more than halfway through the song, listeners hear a 1969 interview clip in which he prophetically discusses what Skrillex is all about.
Smith, 28, also feels some distress on screen as he works with bluegrass genius Dr. Ralph Stanley, who will turn 85 next week. I asked him what he took away from the project: "Not to reference another artist when working with a legend of [Stanley's] stature. Yes. I immediately realized my mistake," he said with a laugh.
Their resultant track, a reworked "Wayfaring Stranger," also features country singer LeAnn Rimes, 29, who sounds as though her voice is drowsily draped over a crestless wave -- an alluring manipulation -- while Stanley's plaintive echoes against the beat rouse a mix of emotions.
The Crystal Method's Kirkland, who's in his early 40s and has maintained zenith status in electronic music since the 1990s, thought it was a "crazy" idea to create "I'm Not Leaving" with Martha Reeves, 70, of Martha and the Vandellas, and members from the Funk Brothers, both prominent Motown fixtures with hits dating back more than 50 years.
"Well, let's see. You want us to go to a city, meet someone we've never met before, record a song with them in one day, and then this is all going to be filmed in a documentary? Oh, yeah, sure! Let's do that," he said.
The Crystal Method bring their vim to "Leaving" as Reeves waxes Detroit's ruin and resiliency and the Funk Brothers deliver their kick better than ever.
Neo-soul luminary Erykah Badu, 40, was "scared" at first to write lyrics and sing for "A La Modeliste": "I wanted to deliver [for Ronson]. I never put a time frame on myself before, but I relaxed."
Alongside the Dap-Kings, who've been performing since the 1990s and toured with Amy Winehouse, Trombone Shorty, 26, drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, 63, rapper Mos Def, 38, Ronson, 36, and Badu cut a funktified offering dipped in New Orleans' verve.
DJ Premier, 45, who opens and closes the movie, is seen with a baton heading up the Berklee College of Music Symphony Orchestra in Boston. His humor regarding this unlikely scenario is disarming and his innocent discovery of Beethoven's power is endearing; one observes the esteemed hip-hop trackmaster being transformed by this experience. His contribution, "Re-Generation," finds the rapping of Nas, 38, accompanied by swelling strings as well as record squeaks.
All five songs and the processes undertaken to construct them reinforce a truth: music has evolved in numerous ways, but its purity always stirs on an instinctual, personal plane regardless of style or age.
Last week, I sat down with several of the musicians highlighted in Re:Generation:
What has changed the most in music since you started?
The Crystal Method (Jordan): A lot of it is technology, but as far as the music itself, technology has made it easier to do a lot of things, simple things like storage and better programs and software, things like that.
The Crystal Method (Kirkland): Nerd! [Laughs]
The Crystal Method (Jordan): When our first album, Vegas, came out, I think there was sort of this big buzz about electronic music, but there wasn't that many American or North American artists that were coming out the same time as we were. And now I think the greatest thing that's going on now is there's a lot of great American artists, like Skrillex, and North American artists too... I think now there's a whole big group of American artists to go along with this resurgence of electronic music.
The Crystal Method (Kirkland): The technology part of it, the access to music. It's everywhere. You can get music at any moment. I remember growing up there was this divide between genres. I was into metal. I love metal, and the New Wave kids were like, "Yo, man, Depeche Mode, man." It was always this separation between these genres, and at some point I realized that electronic music and New Wave, or what was called New Order and Depeche Mode and those bands, was a lot similar to some of the things going on in Metallica and metal, but now...people listen to so many things; their access to music...you're really seeing this blend of all these different things coming together. People love all different types of music, and they experience different types of music and they swim in it daily. Also, artists are more in control it seems like now. Someone like Skrillex, a kid playing to 200 people on a Tuesday night, and then two years later [it's] 80,000 people... that's crazy. That's the kinds of things that can happen now with the technology and the access and the people that are smart enough to tune into those fans that are out there, 'cause there are a lot of fans out there that listen to and want to consume music, and now it's much easier for them to do it.
Internet: friend or foe?
The Crystal Method (Jordan): Oh, absolute friend. Music consumption is way, way up. You just have to use the Internet now to your advantage. People are going to share tracks, people are still going to buy tracks. The same people that share tracks still buy tracks. It's absolutely a positive thing.
Why have you succeeded in this business when so many have become irrelevant overnight?
Ronson: It took me quite a long time; I didn't have my first success till I was about 30, 31, and I'd been trying for 12 years, so I don't really know. You can never expect to be at the top of the charts and have commercial success all the time, and to chase that is ridiculous, but as long as you make things that you know are good and genuine, there'll be times when you'll be hot and times you won't, but if you make good stuff you know is a good quality of work, I think you can kind of hang around.
Badu: I don't know.
Ronson: 'Cause she's dope!
Badu: I guess I would imagine that it's because of the belief that we have. Maybe. I'm not the best singer or dancer or anything, but I feel it and I believe it... perhaps.
Erykah, in the film, Trombone Shorty says the word gumbo, and we see you just take that word and you start going. When was the first time you ever did that, and when did you know that you had a talent for that?
[Laughs] I've always done it that way; it's the only way I know. Intuitively. That's how music and stuff comes. It's always the music first, and then I find out where my instrument fits in there melodically, and then the rhythm, and then words come out of there. I just open myself up. [I did that] when I was little.
Do you create for you or do you create for your audience?
DJ Premier: I do it for both. I gotta do it for me because I'm very fickle about what I like, and then on top of that, part of me having a hip-hop career that has made me and my partner, Guru, icons in the music business, the last thing I want to do is not please myself before I let other people hear it, because once it gets out there, it's gone, and if people don't appreciate it, then you're the only fan of your stuff. I'm a fan of my music, but only more once it's been accepted. Whether it's sold a million copies or 200 copies, my audience has always stood by me, because as I've gotten older... I started out when I was 21, professionally, so now I'm at 45, the phone's still ringing. I gotta make stuff that I would buy.
What has changed the most in music since you started?
The only thing that has changed in music now, unfortunately, as far as hip-hop, is now we have a generation gap with the younger rappers where they're like, "Oh, y'all are old." And I'm like, Well, look, Jay-Z's 42 and he's running it more than y'all are, and he's a couple years younger than me, and he's still bigger, he can sell out a stadium. I saw him sell out Yankee Stadium. Eminem is about to hit his 40s. They're still bigger than the younger rappers, and the thing is, we welcome them... we listen to their music, but the only thing that they can always throw darts at us is, "Oh, you're old." And it's like, OK, well, you're gonna be old one day. [Laughs] At 45, I'm still getting work. I'm still doing what I love, and I'm still excited when I make a track... other than that, the music is fine. It had to crumble a little bit in order to get out a lot of the garage that was in the same box. There's a garbage bag, and then there's the good bag.
What did you think was garbage?
The stuff that just lacks originality. I don't care if it was electro, I don't care if it was dubstep, hip-hop, soul, country. Every genre of music always has the garbage stuff that the artists that really are well respected and do it pure don't consider real music. And that's a fight that you have in our genre as well, but at the end of the day, that's why I must exist. I'm afraid to let somebody else take the torch 'cause I'm like, Y'all gonna mess it up. I mean, Jay-Z said that too. He said that's why he retired, and then once he saw how bad it got, he's like, "I need to come back and do another album because these guys are messing it up." There's a lot of artists that wouldn't be able to make it to their level now if [Notorious B.I.G.] was still alive, if Tupac [Shakur] was still alive, [Big Pun], ODB, Guru. We were still all together doing records. A lot of artists wouldn't be able to get in. The bar was way up here. Now, the bar's on the floor.
LeAnn, what did you learn from Derek (Pretty Lights)?
I've been in this business for, what, 18 years now, and 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 actually gone in and sung on a dance track. I've had people remix my stuff, but I've never gone into the studio. With dance music, it's not really about belting out and being necessarily you and all the LeAnn Rimes glory, like on a big ballad or anything. It was going in with a really open mind...I had so much fun because I really remained open. Derek was very much a director more than even a producer. He had a strong vision of what he wanted, and I kind of rolled with it. I tried to let it be his track and do many different styles of singing...he did a million things [to my voice]... when I first started, I thought, OK, this is really interesting, and then it's cool to do something like that but then not have to be you. I kind of got to hide and have a good time. It was nice.
Derek, what did you learn from LeAnn?
I learned that there are singers out there who are extremely fun to work with. You can listen and collaborate and, you know, come together to create something new. I knew LeAnn's voice and I appreciate it and that was why I requested to work with her, but I also had a specific vision of how I wanted it to sound. It was really cool that she could be flexible in that sense, and, like she said, take the direction and work with the vision that I had.
Rimes: And it's not easy to do that, especially when...you get into a style and habit of doing something your way, and even though I'm young, I've been doing it for a long time...I had no idea what I was walking into 'cause it was completely new to me, just as Derek had no idea of what really country music was all about, so we all have our own different styles, but I think when you respect someone, it's like, OK, I'm gonna definitely try it your way before I argue with you about not doing it your way, and then when you go there, you're kind of like, Oh, this is cool and different, and I'm learning something and creating something new for me.
What has changed the most in music since you started?
Originality. To me, I'm really sad... [We] were saying when you think of country music, you kind of had to dig back into the old school stuff to find something that moved you 'cause it was soulful. I miss the soul. I miss the truth. And I appreciate beyond belief the artists that continue to keep that alive in this day and age.
John, what has changed the most in music since the Doors started?
Electronics. Although there was electronic classical music in the '50s, Stockhausen, but this Re:Generation, it's combining electronics and musicians, which I think is quite cool. It brings the human into the techno, and you get the best of both.
Back in 1969, places like Whisky a Go Go were where Led Zeppelin, you, Janis [Joplin] and others were discovered and consumed. Now, we have the Internet. Is it a friend or foe?
The Internet is visual as well. The ability to reach zillions is fantastic. The difficulty is getting attention. I mean, how many videos are on YouTube? How do you get noticed? In the old days, you were playing in a club, three bands in one night, and sometimes you got paid, sometimes you didn't. So, it's the same. The struggle's the same. It's electronic, but it's always a struggle. To be an artist is to be rejected... but then you just keep going.
Do you think that the Doors would have broken through in today's world, their type of music, the sound, what you guys were singing about?
Why are we, why am I here at 67 years old? What the hell is going on here that we're still so popular? I don't know, but something's going on. It's the drumming. [Laughs] Why? I don't know...it's working. We're breaking on through every generation. Maybe to cut your umbilical cord and say good-bye to mom and dad, you have to hear "The End." You know that song? Father! Mother! It's a Greek Oedipal sort of good-bye.
What did you learn from Skrillex?
I learned to be more open to the future. I'm gonna play on stage with him, I think... I'm gonna chase him down and go up there and play my drum while he's doing his robot thing.
How do you see the importance of a frontman like Jim [Morrison] as opposed to a DJ behind turntables? How does it affect the experience and how people feel connected to Skrillex as opposed to feeling connected to Jim?
I think the reason both work is because it's sort of the tribal experience of a giant group of people resonating to the same heartbeat. We're all trying to get back to the womb, where we heard our mother pounding, and when we hear good music, it makes us move. We're back home. If you're performing and you're a duet on stage or a 40-piece orchestra, I like to think of that as one person, and then the audience -- a few people in a club or thousands of people for Skrillex -- is the other person, and you're gonna dance tonight, the two of you, so how's it gonna go? Is it gonna be a salsa or a waltz or whatever? You know, the feeling, I don't mean literally. That's what's exciting: the moment of live music, with the audience and the performer; that's like this great dance.
Re:Generation Music Project can be seen in theaters nationwide tomorrow, Thurs., Feb. 16, and next Fri., Feb. 23. Check cities and download the soundtrack for free here.
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