The Art of Crafting a Jazz-Hip-Hop Remix Album

A deep dive into the making of Mike Casey’s ‘Surprise! The Remixes,’ authored by Mike Casey himself.
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This is a guest editorial by rising saxophonist and melody architect Mike Casey, detailing how a jazz-hip-hop remix album is made. 

As a former DJ, it’s an honor to be writing for DJBooth, a site I read daily in high school! Though I took a break from DJing in 2012 to focus on my goal of being the best saxophonist/composer/artist I could be, I miss the craft. The influence hip-hop and DJing has had on my life—and my musical outlook—is undeniable. To this day, as a jazz artist, I still think of my “setlist” as a DJ would. Jazz conception and education often focus on individual songs/improvisational solos and approaches, and how each song interacts with the one before and after is not given much thought by comparison. I aim to take the listener on a journey.

The rhythms and phrasing of my favorite rappers have influenced how I phrase my lines as a saxophonist, and how I deliver them—with as much attitude and emotional intent as possible. Even when the best rappers are not being transparent with the meaning behind their words, we still believe in them anyway because of their strong vocal delivery. I try to do the same with how I tell stories through my saxophone.

To scratch my own artistic itch and stroke my past DJ roots, I collaborated with several producers—including the Emmy Award-winning Apple Juice Kid, who’s worked with Mos Def, Wale, MC Lyte, and Phonte—from around the world to remix and re-imagine my first two live albums, The Sound of Surprise and Stay Surprising. Both projects were recorded from the same live show in 2016 and later split into two albums.

Here’s a deep dive into the process of making Surprise! The Remixes (part one and part twoin our words, along with links to stream both the original and remixed versions side by side.

“Miles’ Mode (Wyldephyre Remix)”

“The moment I heard the 12-tone melody—a melody where notes aren’t repeated until all 12 are played—of ‘Miles’ Mode,’ I knew this was a song I wanted to remix. Because of the dissonance in the melody, I had one main goal: add as much grit as I could, primarily found in the shakers and chords. The groove also adds to the dissonance with a loose time-feel—almost as if the beat had a ‘drunk’ feel to it.

“I began the chord progression the same way as the original, but then deviated into my progression as I changed the melody around. Our biggest challenge was making the saxophone organically fit into this highly electronic track. After many stages of processing, we found adding an octave to the horn gave it this body, making it match the electronic vibe of the track perfectly.” –Wyldephyre

“Wyldephyre and I were flatmates last year and became fast friends while completing our master’s in Contemporary Performance/Music Production at Berklee’s Valencia campus in Spain. This was the only remix crafted in person, and also the most musically involved—we easily spent over 100 hours collectively honing in on every detail of the music and mix. Both G-funk and Dilla are some of my favorite hip-hop inspirations, so it was fun to juxtapose those influences together against my take on Coltrane’s ‘Miles' Mode.’” –Mike Casey

“Never Let Me Go (Stan Forebee Remix)”

“I wanted to create a different feeling around the sax using a new chord progression, but keeping the original melody involved as much as possible, having the sax tell a different story with different chords, and turn Mike’s take on this jazz standard into a lo-fi Stan Forebeat.” –Stan Forebee

“This one was super fun to create, bouncing feedback and tracks back and forth, and hearing Stan completely turn this one on its head. I was inspired to re-arrange this classic jazz standard into the rare sax-drum duo format after being fortunate enough to hear the legendary Roy Hargrove slay this standard live three times. The original is sparse and intimate, which left Stan with plenty of room to flip this into a lush, poetic masterpiece.” –Mike Casey

“Cold Blooded Blues (Burbank Remix)”

“When I was first asked Mike to do a remix, I was just excited to get to work with an excellent saxophonist! I heard one part, in particular, in one of his songs, and I wanted to sample it and see what I could do to make it different from the original. I warped the sample and created drums around [the sample]. I wanted the mood to be both happy and sad at times. I put the kick to a rhythm, creating a smooth, relaxed swing with the drums. I added some sound effects, some atmosphere into the beat, and a small Rhodes part behind the saxophone.” –Burbank

“‘Cold Blooded Blues’ was originally written for my mentor, Abraham Burton, who got me into a lot of old school blues saxophonists. He used the term “cold-blooded” a lot. Though I didn’t originally intend on having any vaporwave influence on this project, some of what he added seemed a bit vaporwave-y, which brought a unique touch to the project.” –Mike Casey

“Hydraulics (Apple Juice Kid Remix)”

“When Mike Casey asked me to remix one of his tracks, I was honored and excited to use my jazz meets hip-hop remixing skills on someone’s original work with their blessing. I have mostly ‘illegally’ remixed artists like Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra. I approached Mike’s songs in the same way as other remixes I have done in the past, just listening and waiting for drum breaks or melodies to catch my ear and inspire me.

“I always want people to nod their heads or dance to the music I make, so I hope I accomplished that with this remix. The main difference: We went back and forth on the mix, changing certain elements. It was cool to be in contact directly with the artist, hearing their direct feedback, instead of remixing someone who is gone, and you hope you are doing it justice. I am happy to be a part of this project, and hope people around the world can enjoy this intersection of hip-hop and jazz.” –Apple Juice Kid

“The drummer in my trio, Corey Garcia, wrote ‘Hydraulics.’ It’s one of the most unique compositions I’ve ever come across, between the gritty kitchen-sink groove and the funky controlled dissonance. I used to listen to Apple Juice Kid’s Miles Remixed project back in middle school, so it’s truly an honor to work with him on this! Shout out to Eddy Hugill on the mix/master.” –Mike Casey

“Heartbreak (Ol’ Burger Beats Remix)”

“I think I approached the Mike Casey remix the same way I would approach most of the jazz records I sample. I chose the ‘Heartbreak’ track because of its spirituality, percussive sound, and the hypnotic patterns of the bass.

“I often look for elements in the melody that stand out from the rest, things that would make a good loop—even if I’m not looping it at all. ‘Heartbreak’ had plenty of those. I went deep into the percussion of the track and tried to make a circular rhythm pattern out of the cymbals and hi-hat brushes. I played some Rhodes piano lines and some small details on my Prophet synth and sampled those into the composition, too.” –Ol Burger Beats

“This remix is interesting because it lacks the ‘2 and 4’ of traditional hip-hop and almost has a reverse swing to it with the drum pattern OBB made. I love the Rhodes lines and chords he added, and the extra atmosphere he created. Some people thought it was a whole ‘nother song, or even confused it with the OG version—I like to keep people guessing. Shout out to Meghan Gaudet on the mix and master.” –Mike Casey

“Dagobah (b l o o p r Remix)”

“I was excited for the opportunity [to remix this record] after familiarizing myself with Mike’s work. After reworking the sample into a few sequences, I added the main drum groove. I wanted to create a bright textured sound with Foley percussion-like bells. It provides an interesting contrast to the more mellow jazz tones from the sample. Some live DJ effect automation like filters, reverb, and delays were then added throughout the track for excitement and atmosphere. It was a great opportunity to work with a modern jazz artist like Mike, and I’m proud of what we did together!” –bl o o p r

“This is a super fun remix, and the darkest, sparsest, most mysterious of them all. Star Wars (Dagobah is the swamp planet Yoda hides out on, in fact, you can catch Yoda dancing to the remix here), and my hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, provided inspiration.” –Mike Casey

If you enjoyed any of the above material, I’d love to keep in touch directly. Music, videos, tour dates, and more are available on my website. Plus, for any aspiring MCs out there, I am doing a #JazzHopChallenge with RapChat (like TikTok for hip-hop) where the winner gets a shout out on my socials and a free copy of Splice’s first-ever saxophone sample pack, by yours truly! 

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