It starts off promising enough, even for the staunchest of soul purists. The beautiful guitar playing of David T. Walker and the bass playing of Wilton Felder interweave around one another free of percussion to create one of the most famous and beautiful intros in all of soul music, the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back." From there, it all goes downhill -- quickly. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, for Motown has stepped into the dimension of despair otherwise known as "the remix project." With the recent onslaught of abhorrent cash-cow remixes feebly flooding the market in an attempt to introduce young people to classic soul imprints (see Atlantiquity, Mayfield: Remixed, Blue Note Revisited and the Verve Remixed series for similar crimes of passion), it has become the trend du jour to grant dance and hip-hop producers access to master tapes locked away (for a good reason, mind you) in vaults or archives. Instead of offering reasonably priced discs of the classic works; instead of offering up single MP3s on Internet purchasing stations; instead of coming up with creative new deluxe editions of these classic works, all that is left is the notion that someone, somewhere, thought this trend was a good idea. They should be tarred and feathered. This is, without question, the most ill-conceived and poorly executed project in the history of the Motown label. And coming from a label that released records by Rockwell, that speaks volumes.
With the exception of a rare few (namely one: Jazzy Jeff), many remixers involved in this project have a limited shelf life due to the complete polarization of the timeless classics they've contributed here. Where are all of the quintessential producers of hip-hop and electronic music? Hopefully they had the good sense to gracefully decline invitations to this project, knowing what kind of car crash was eventually bound to ensue. Or perhaps, like most people, they simply knew better and realized that it's nearly impossible to improve upon near-perfection. Indeed, the first two "remixes" on Motown Remixed -- "I Want You Back" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" -- are saved only by furious bass playing and the impassioned vocal performances found in the original tapes. Their bleak, bare-bones production suggests a half-hearted effort on the part of their remixers, who were quite obviously only in it for the money. Or conversely, perhaps they realized (after signing the contract) an important childhood lesson: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Of all these remixers, King Britt has unquestionably turned into the Joey Bishop of the remix rat pack. Not really famous for much else other than the fact he was the DJ for Digable Planets, he's appeared on every single one of the aforementioned remix series albums in an attempt to solidify his place in soul music history as a quintessential remixer. He's failed, miserably. His "remix" here of Edwin Starr's politically potent and groundbreaking (for the candy coated, "nothing's-wrong-stay-apolitical" Motown) "War" is nothing but an insipid Femi Kuti rip-off that strips away all passion and ferocity from the original. Britt should be grounded from his mixing board and his studio until he learns his lesson and stops making horrible remixes. Or at least until he has the good sense to go back and retool his mediocre Sylk 130 project. Even worse, though, is the treatment of Smokey Robinson's beautifully manic "Tears of a Clown." It's turned into a shopping-mall-happy, big-beat explosion. And why on earth would anyone want to listen to an inferior version of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" hopelessly reworked by DJ Spinna, when the original is still as sensual and near-perfect over three decades later? It's a bit like having your child go off to an Ivy League school to learn how to flip burgers. Vapid, khaki-wearing soccer moms in mini vans may find this stuff appealing, and record executives might find this stuff trend setting, kitschy, and groundbreaking, but for music fans both diehard and casual it's an insult to a legacy. It's the desecration of a song that has endured the test of time to become one of the most important tomes in African-American culture. It's worse than sacrilege or blasphemy -- and Harry Weinger should seriously re-evaluate the mental health and stability of the people surrounding him who told him this project was a good idea. Other than that, it's OK. Sort of. Whatever. ~ Rob Theakston