SF-based DJ Mike Relm tells us about avoiding the ‘made-to-order whatevers’

Mike-RelmPhotos by Mike Frash // Written by Molly Kish //

I had the pleasure of conducting an intimate hotel interview with Mike Relm while he was on location shooting his Serrato Live “Icon Series” feature. We spoke about his roots as a Daly City DJ, his passion for film and pop culture and his innovative approach to an art form he’s single handedly elevated. Showbams spoke with Relm leading up to his hometown “Ghetto Blaster” tour stop at The Independent in San Francisco.


Showbams: Before you became involved in turtabalism and the whole DJ game, did you have any prior musical training/background?

Relm: I mean like for real, for real…not really. Well, when I was younger I played piano for a little bit and then I played trumpet in elementary. But, it wasn’t anything that I took like extremely seriously. You know it was like, “this is what kids do,” probably because I’m Asian. Once that faded I started playing sports and collecting comics, just doing kid stuff, not really thinking about how it was going to effect my life later. I wanted to draw comics for a long time, but then I discovered DJ’ing and movies and thought that this was a little more interesting to me. Then in high school…there was a lot of DJs where I went to school. I don’t know why I thought that was normal.

Showbams: This was out in Daly City, right?

Relm: Yeah, in Daly City for some reason there were a lot of DJ’s. There were crews of them and they had their cool jackets and they got to go to all the parties. I wasn’t like a loner or anything, but I didn’t have a cool “thing.” So I just kind of investigated and figured out that I could do that, it made sense to me. I heard things on the radio and I was like, “okay, how does this guy mix this song into that?” You know I tried it on my cassette deck and I couldn’t figure out how he made it speed up and how the beats matched. I could hear that it was blending, he wasn’t just pressing play and then it was fading on top of each other. I knew there was something going on, I just didn’t know how it was done because I couldn’t see it.


So, my brother he knew this other kid who had an older brother who DJ’d and said, “you know he uses turntables.” I was like “Ohhh” because you can slow the platter and manipulate it, you can actually touch the sound. It wasn’t like a reel where you were struggling to match the beats, which made a lot of sense. So I just got more into that and took it kind of like a type of art. Because you know most of the guys who were in the jackets, they didn’t really DJ and were more of the “crew.” They would set up the equipment and stuff and that’s fine, but I wanted to be “the guy!” I wanted to be the one mixing and scratching, which is kind of how it all started. It was such a young art form, and it still is. There was just so much to learn and discover in it.

Showbams: Are you innately drawn to or put off by any certain genre of music when putting together your mix-tapes and mash-ups?

Relm: Definitely hip-hop, obviously that’s where I started. Dance is pretty easy to mash stuff up on because it has a very consistent quality. Like classical has different time signatures, so if your trying to make like a 4-4 beat of it, you have to kind of edit it and repeat or drop things out. You’re not forcing it if you’re doing it right, but you have to sort of massage it a little bit to make it work.

I tend to gravitate towards beats with swing. It doesn’t have to ba a jazz swing or rock swing, it just has to work. There are so many samples, that you’re like “that’s such a cool sound, but why is he doing that?” Or “how can I make it work,” or “this would sound good if this was done with it.” What I’m drawn to isn’t necessarily perfect sounding or in my mind feels complete because then, what am I going to do with it? There are some songs that are amazing but I don’t want to touch them. Yeah like I’ll listen to it, but I don’t want to do anything to it, because I like it so much.


Showbams: Are you ever able to turn off this type of innate re-mixing while listening to music, or is it something that is constantly going on in your head?

Relm: I can’t and I’m not trying to. It’s not like “OH GOD, TURN OFF THE NOISE.” It’s great, that’s how I enjoy things. I’m definitely not like a lyrics first person. I listen to a song and just kind of dissect it sonically. I love organ chords, something about them just feels epic! I also can tell when “oh that person listened to this other song and maybe they liked it so much they just wanted to make it their own version.” Which is great, but I definitely listen to things actively and I don’t remember lyrics too well. When other people are singing along to a pretty popular song, I find myself thinking, “Woah, I don’t know this song.” I know how it goes, where it goes and I know the drum rolls and everything but I don’t know what they’re saying. I’m not completely deaf, I’ll know enough but it’s kind of cool because going into film and television, it helped me look at that in a totally different way. I really enjoy movies, but I look at them as samples. I’m listening, paying attention to the editing and watching to see if I could use it for something.


Showbams: You were going to SF State and studying film when your career as a turntablist really started taking off. Was it always your intention to have your background in cinema play such a large roll in the type of work you produced, or was it just naturally what your interests developed into?

Relm: Kind of both, I didn’t know that I could DJ for this long. Back then a couple guys were doing it and it was either you could be the crazy guy and take a chance scratching for a living or you could play it safe and Dj at a club. Not that DJing was a safe career compared to like a business person or something that has a 401K, but for me those were the two options that were laid out at the time.

As time went on though I was pretty lucky because when I was doing the scratch battles, it was probably at the peak of when you could have been doing it. Now there are so many contests that have come and gone, that it doesn’t mean as much. I was going to school and studying film which is what I really wanted to do, but now I can combine both. It was the way the technology worked out…


Showbams: The timing was perfect really.

Relm: Yeah, I got really extremely lucky, I was in the sweet spot for doing that. If I had started a little later as a DJ, I probably wouldn’t really understand a lot of the things. It’s like a photographer who starts shooting on film, they understand lighting far greater then someone who starts on digital. They’re like, “I can see it, I can see things going on,” but your backgrounds blown out, change your F-stop! When they got to digital, they just understand it better, they can apply the same effects to digital. The same thing applies to vinyl, serrato scratch live and those programs, it’s analogous. You can throw somebody in straight digital and they’ll be fine, but there’s certain things that you just kind of pick up that you can teach, but it’s very tough to translate. I can tell kids, you know like we used to scratch when the sounds were actually on the record. They’re all, “but that doesn’t make sense, but the waveforms they’re all here?” I’m all, “we didn’t have waveforms, you had to like LISTEN TO IT to match the beats.”

Showbams: I know that your shows have a lot of multimedia and video aspects in them. Do you have any directors or film composers that you draw influence from?

Relm: I guess from the beginning it was always Tarentino and Michel Gondry. The way Tarentino does his films are already like re-mixes. You can hear it in the dialogue and see it in the way he sets up the scenes. A lot of people think he is just ripping off others, but he’s not. Really, everything’s a re-mix. Anything anyone has ever done, you know like Craigslist, is a re-mix of a newspaper! Nothing is completely original anymore. Not to say that we are less human beings than the generation before, but they got influenced by others as well.

The way I set my show up is different in that I’m not the “yeah, ya’ll put your hands up” guy, I’m not “that guy!” That’s just not me. One of the lessons I’ve taken from Tarentino is that in his films he never really lets you forget that you’re watching a movie. He’s not trying to to be like, “you’re in a different world now,” it’s like no, you’re watching a movie. That’s kind of the way I do my live show, I’m not trying to make you think that you’re anywhere else except a box where there’s loud music, a screen and lights. I like to have that kind of communication. As for scores, Elfman, ever since I was a kid I was like okay, that guy can do no wrong!


Showbams: As an artist where most of your work draws from well known samples and copy-written material, what are some of the barriers you face with distribution and marketing?

Relm: Distribution channels are definitely different if you’re doing it the way I am. You can’t just press up blue ray copies of whatever I’m doing and sell it at Best Buy. But there are so many other channels now that are available. Before it was just me putting the files up on my website and you could watch it there. Now there’s YouTube, but even in that as you gain more popularity it gets challenging. I’m not completely under the radar anymore like in the beginning when I would just be doing a lot of art shows and stuff. Where it was like “Oh, there’s this guy doing this cool new thing where he’s scratching video.” And earlier the art community really embraced it, they’re always kind of first anyways, because I think they understood kind of what I was doing. It was interesting to me, that’s why I did it.

I think as time went on, I wouldn’t say my approach became more mainstream but it cast a wider net. I wasn’t trying to take like crazy “found footage” and do something with it. I wanted to work with things that people recognize, that’s part of the fun! There’s a huge learning curve, even within my shows when I take something that people are unfamiliar with and doing something with it, because they don’t know what’s being done. But if I work with something like The Peanuts or Led Zeppelin, they know what it’s originally supposed to look like. Then when they see what’s being done with it, they’re like “Oh, oh that’s, I get it!” I don’t have to sit there and explain like, “Okay guys, so I have this record and this record controls the files…” nah, I don’t want that. Then it cuts the umbilical chord of the show. I don’t want them to have to sit and intellectualize it too hard. That doesn’t make for an entertaining time.


Showbams: You play off “the association” and people can connect on that level too, in which they can appreciate you creatively tweaking something they’re familiar with.

Relm: You always get the like, “Oh, I remember that,” or “Oh, I get that one!” That even comes with being a DJ, because we do that with songs. With copy write, I don’t know, I guess I’m pretty lucky with that as well. I don’t make a piece for a show and think, “huh, am I going to get in trouble for this,” because if so, I would never do anything! When I first started DJ’ing, people would ask me like, “how do you get permission to play the songs?” I’d be like, “What?! I’m just playing a song, what are you talking about?” I guess it’s a little different now, but what it comes down to is that no one is watching my show thinking “well he did this thing with Office Space, I was going to buy it on Blu-Ray, but I’m good.” No, why would you do that?


Showbams: Beyond creating mix-tapes and sampling for your live show, you wear several other creative hats as a director of commercials, producer of short films and re-mixer of pop culture events and full length movies. How do you go about choosing the content that you work with in such facets?

Relm: Just kind of goes back to how I listen to things. Hearing music as a teenager, I used to take in a song and store it in my mental library under things I want to play or scratch with or re-mix. That’s kind of how I do everything now. I’m trained so that even when I watch TV, I feel like I need to go find these soundbites or re-watch that clip. Like I just did a Key and Pele re-mix and that was simply due to the fact that I liked the show. I saw that sketch and it was so musical how they were doing it. I just thought, I’m going to make it more musical.

There’s so much going on in media and entertainment, it’s not hard. I used to just take cult things. That was my deal, and you couldn’t hate on that. But now, you can do things with pop culture and put a different spin on it, and it’s almost less corny. Like you can watch Honey Boo Boo the TV show, and my remix is not as corny but still kind of funny. Part of it is taking guilty pleasures, I don’t know…

Showbams: Are you watching something for instance and just have that moment where you’re like “Aha!”?

Relm: It is very “Aha!” Like I’ll be watching something from TMZ, and a day later people will send it to me and tell me I should re-mix it. But it’s not the same, the humor won’t be there. Because it sort of is my voice, there is a genuine quality to it where as even if it is Honey Boo Boo/Gangam Style, it has to come from me. It’s weird because you can’t quantify it like, I can’t make a list where these are the things that make me want to re-mix something and you can go do this now. Which I think is the way it should be with everybody.

Because if you’re not you’re just doing “made-to-order whatevers.” I know people that are working on videos or something and they have a checklist?! I’m like, “why do you have that,” can’t you just go listen to stuff and watch things, you’re supposed to enjoy what you do. Even when I’m doing my movie trailers and things like that, I’m not trying to make fun of anybody. I just think okay, how can I elevate the energy of this? But, when it’s pop culture I can take a few more comedic liberties with things. It just really comes down to what your voice is I guess.


Showbams: Have there ever been any directors or producers of the material you are working with contact you after seeing your re-mixes of their work?

Relm: Yeah, a lot of them do and because I’m not making fun of them. I’m fans of the things I re-mix. Like Jon Favreau liked the Iron Man thing I did, and Edgar Write liked the Scott Pilgrim thing I did. Those were early on before I started doing things directly with the studios and filmmakers. It was just me doing it because I liked it. That was extremely cool! You could see people were watching it, but you didn’t know who. They were just numbers that were racking up and I was like “Hey a lot of people are watching this, what should I do next?”

Then all of the sudden you get a tweet from Favreau or Write and they could’ve gone either way. They could have said, “take this shit down dude, this is mine.” But they’re were like no, this is cool, do another one or what else you got, this is interesting. Which says a lot about filmmakers too, because your first assumption would be “ah man here it is, here’s the take down notice.” But, it’s not, and I think that there are people like that, and the people who want to act that way just kind of don’t get it.

Unless I’m pissing on it, you know like taking their work and drawing bunny ears and penises on it, that’s just disrespectful and you have every right to take that down. I’m trying to basically in my own way promote their film, because I like it and that’s my tribute to it. As long as that comes through, it’s a good thing, because I actually care about the stuff. It is very cool when they come back and say, “this is dope.”


Showbams: Currently you’re in SF filming a project right now. Could you elaborate on it?

Relm: I’m shooting with Serrato. They have something they call “The Icon Series” which are features on people who use the software and embrace it, focusing on what it is about the individuals that makes them special. When you’re looking at gear in general, it can get dry, like “oh, this gear changed my life, because I used to use this, now I use this, see!” Yes of course, it’s technology which gets better, so yeah, this thing replaced that. Buy a new car!

It get’s kind of predictable, so what they’re doing is interesting, not only because I’m a part of it but I like biographies, like the old school Ted Talks, where you can be like “wow that guy is really saying something.” You have designers who aren’t talking about how they use Photoshop but rather the thought process and theories. That’s kind of what they’re doing but in a shorter package. They’re beautifully shot, everyone looks great in it, so yeah I’m excited!

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