Realm: a kingdom, sphere or domain. Fitting name for a man named Mike, who created his own space in DJ culture and entertainment at large. There are only a small handful of DJs who have persisted since the rise, peak and fall of the turntable battle scene during the late 90s. Unlike most of the icons of turntablism Mike Relm (from Daly City California, the DJ capital of the universe) chose to move in a direction in stark contrast to what most enthusiasts would consider the focus of DJing â€“ the visual field.
This makes perfect sense, considering modern technological innovations and the historical role the DJ has played since day one; as selector, entertainer and virtual tour guide through the past, present and future. Format caught up with Mike Relm after a recording session for his debut studio album, Spectacle, which dropped earlier this month, and found out how he made his art form, ‘bigger than hip-hop.’
â€œI donâ€™t want people to come out to my show and think that it is going to be a mindless free for all because I like hanging around with smart people.â€
Format: How would you define your world of indefinable arts?
Mike Relm: I could narrow it down to the media performance but that makes it sound very dry and technical. I got a lot of crap on stage with me that I use a lot. I look at bands and, you look at a drummer and that dude is playing the entire night. He doesnâ€™t stop. In the world of DJing everyone is kind of up there with their head phones cueing something up and then they finally drop the song and itâ€™s like, ‘It took you three minutes to do that? Damn!’ So Iâ€™m trying to be in between that where I am definitely working because Iâ€™m on stage. I got to give the people something to look at as well as to listen to. I donâ€™t have back up dancers, I donâ€™t have singers, and I donâ€™t rap. So I have to present something kind of like Kraftwerk. Itâ€™s four guys standing there with keyboards, midi controllers and laptops but the whole presentation is amazing. I think their performance is completely mind blowing. So I take a lot of influence from those guys. And of course Shadow, Mix Master Mike and Swamp.
People kind of dismiss you if youâ€™re on turntables. If youâ€™re a DJ forget it, play some music and go home. But it doesnâ€™t have to be like that. DJing is half of what I do. I donâ€™t just use turntables. I use samplers, controllers, video equipment and projectors. Iâ€™m able to control everything from the sounds to the visuals.
Format: Did your choice to go in that direction, giving attention to presentation, have any thing to do with the (sometimes apparent) limits of scratch culture? I ask because you came up in ITF and started hanging with the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and then we didnâ€™t hear much from you until you were doing something completely different.
Mike Relm: Yeah it took a minute because I was really consumed in that world from â€˜94 all the way to 2002. But then it was like the bottom fell out. It was like, â€˜Oh my God this is the newest thing. DJs can be anything they want. They can play samples and they can be a band. Theyâ€™re better than a band because they can play records. These guys can scratch any sound and make a band out of it.â€™ Well not really. I mean no one ever really made anything good except for Shadow.
Format: Shadow worked mostly with samplers. Have you ever felt any inclination to go in the direction of D-Styles and make a whole scratch album?
Mike Relm: Yeah I thought of it. I think Phantasmagoria is an art piece. I listened to it a month ago. It took years for him to build that and it is still amazing. It is probably the best thing anyone has done with pure scratching.
Format: I heard it was also the only 100% scratch album. Even Wave Twisters had a lot of MPC on it?
Mike Relm: Youâ€™re right. People have tried to do work similar to D-Styles but he is the original. That one will stand alone. With the trends now everyone is hopping on the MPC. Everyone has Garage Band, which is great. But nobody is going to take the time to meticulously create. D-Styles is one on the best scratchers on the planet. When we were doing it in the 90â€™s all we did was scratch. Very few turntablists in the battles could actually mix and do a party. They wanted to go straight into winning DMC.
Format: How did you transition from opening up for the Gift of Gab and other hip-hop acts to touring with the Blue Man Group? Is there a major difference in what you have to bring to the stage?
Mike Relm: The biggest difference is the content. It is completely different for the Blue Man shows and for the Tony Hawk shows. Itâ€™s not just the heads going. Itâ€™s not mainly the college crowd. For Blue Man there were families so I couldnâ€™t doâ€¦
Format: The â€˜Oâ€™ face?
Mike Relm: I did â€˜Oâ€™ face. That got the best reaction. It worked every single night. Weâ€™d have meet and greets afterwards and Iâ€™d talk to the kids. I was wondering why they thought it was so cool. Most of the kids thought that it was a song about letters. The crowds were bigger. With the Blue Man it was arenas. With Tony Hawk weâ€™re looking at 10 to 20 thousand people per show. Thatâ€™s a totally different audience from age to musical taste from anything Iâ€™ve done. What was great about doing tours with the Gift of Gab, Del, The Jurassic 5 and Mike Patton was that was where I was comfortable. I started touring in my comfort zone. I knew the crowds. I listened to the same things. We all had the same taste and watched the same movies. You learn a lot about yourself and other people. So when Blue Man came around it was a different thing but I already know me. I know what Iâ€™m doing on stage. I know what works all I have to do is adjust if for the new audience and Iâ€™ll be cool.
Format: So how did the connection with The Blue Man Group come about?
Mike Relm: They were looking for an opener. It was Tracy Bonham before but she decided not to do the tour anymore. I think they were looking on YouTube because they called me out of nowhere. They said, â€˜We saw a video of you on YouTube and we really like it.â€™ That says a lot about them because it wasnâ€™t like I was on the front page of YouTube; I wasnâ€™t pushed by any higher authority. At the time I was happy to have 15,000 views on a video. They definitely had to look around for my video.
Format: As a DJ or Selector working during a time when a vast amount of information is available to the public with the push of a button, do you feel a renewed sense of responsibility or any added pressure as somebody who is expected to keep in tune and put the masses onto the best possible sounds?
Mike Relm: The musical side of that pressure is a part of what I do so Iâ€™m use to it. But now it is a visual responsibility. I donâ€™t play garbage. The footage I choose, I choose it the same way I choose sounds and music. Itâ€™s the same exact process except itâ€™s for videos. I donâ€™t play â€“ (I donâ€™t want to offend anybody) â€“ Lilâ€™ Jon. Even though I like it for what it is, itâ€™s just not a part of my show. I wouldnâ€™t play that kind of video. The only music videos I play are Michel Gondry videos.
Format: Youâ€™ve also evoked different emotional responses with the visual audio mix, especially when you play John Lennonâ€™s Imagine.
Mike Relm: I like to go to shows and not have peopleâ€™s political agendas pushed too hard because they came there to have fun. I appreciate the message but I like when people do it creatively. When I do it, itâ€™s almost tongue in cheek but not really. Itâ€™s not exactly Colbert or the Daily Show.
Format: And that particular song is apolitical. Itâ€™s actually against politics.
Mike Relm: Totally. Itâ€™s against a lot of things. Itâ€™s all about peace and love. The reason why I put the words on the screen is because people know that song. You can sing along to it with your eyes closed. But when you read the words you can really see where it is going. It does so much more at least for me. Itâ€™s very important for an artist to put that type of idea out there. You canâ€™t just go up there and have a dance party and sweat and go home. I want people to do several things during my show. First I want them to laugh. I like to make people laugh more than I like to make people scream. I get much more satisfaction because it is harder to get. Secondly, people have to think a little bit. I donâ€™t want people to come out to my show and think that it is going to be a mindless free for all because I like hanging around with smart people. So I keep that in mind while Iâ€™m crafting my sets. Once I get your attention I could put up anything I want.
Format: Is film something that youâ€™re looking to do as well?
Mike Relm: Thatâ€™s what I wanted to do in life. Then I fell in love with scratching and I got kind of good at that. As the gigs kept coming it became my career. I went to school to study film. I feel more passionate about that than anything. I love music but film is the ultimate form of expression. You can cry listening to a record but when a film makes you cry itâ€™s a little more across the board. Like when you watch La Bamba or I am Sam. There seem to be more emotional films than records. Everyone is in the same place and that is a very difficult thing to achieve. When I started doing it with the visuals it changed the entire game. After Hurricane Katrina I made a video that was pretty heavy, because that was what was really going on. And it really got to people when I played the truth. But from a fictional stand point making people cry can be very difficult. I plan on doing some films after I release a few albums first. Iâ€™m working on finishing my first one.
Format: Whatâ€™s the direction of Spectacle? Are you making beats?
Mike Relm: Itâ€™s all original sounds. There are no samples. Itâ€™s not a mixtape. Right now I feel like creating my own stuff. So first Iâ€™ll do a record and then after that Iâ€™ll do a film. My next live show is totally different. I retired my set. Itâ€™s time to showcase new ideas. Itâ€™s not going to be just me on turntables with a screen. Thatâ€™s all Iâ€™ll say.