Creator Confessional: The Demise of the Mashup? DJ Mike Relm on Why Viral Hits Aren’t What They Used To Be

Dj Mike Relm flipped
DJ Mike Relm Mike Relm/Wikipedia

Welcome back to our new feature, “Creator Confessional,” in which I speak to long-time veteran digital creators about the massive changes that have completely shifted our industry and the way all of us work over the last 10-15 years or so.

My guest today is turntablist, DJ and VJ Mike Relm, an experienced live musician and music video director who’s also notable for his many viral YouTube remixes and mash-ups. Remember those wildly popular Old Spice ads featuring actor Isaiah Mustafa interacting with a series of rotating backdrops? Realm’s 2010 remix scored over 1.7 million views.

Today, Relm is still touring and backing up some of your favorite artists. (I saw him play in a small art gallery on Fairfax with The Pharcyde once!) And his YouTube channel is still going strong. He recently announced two new projects: the collaborative musical group The S.T.A.C.K. Machine, featuring Bootie Brown, Del the Funky Homosapien and others; and a behind-the-scenes music docuseries called “Interval.”

Here are the highlights from our chat:

It feels to me like there are a lot of people who were around at the beginning of the YouTube/digital media craze that are still around. I think they all have interesting stories and perspectives to share, just from doing it for so long.

There was a Smosh video I was watching, and the title was something like “Was 2013 the Best Year for YouTube?” That kind of was the peak. Before Jimmy Fallon came in. They couldn’t put their finger on what it was, but that was the last year that there was a community feel. Where you knew who were the Top 5. Ryan Higa was at the top.

We all had an awareness of what the vague hierarchy was. Everybody might have a YouTube channel and they were posting whatever. But the people who were consistently doing it every day, who were becoming YouTube personalities, it didn’t feel like that big of a group. That’s how I’m making this feature right now. I’m relying on my old emails.

Today, there are tons of people with 15 million subscribers, and if you said, “I will give you $10 million if you can tell me what this person does,” I would have to guess. Maybe they’re a Twitch streamer.

I wanted to talk to you specifically because you’re in a pocket that I’m not in, the DJ, remix and mashup world. I’m assuming you probably trained in an era before you could learn how to do all of that on the internet.

Yeah, I learned all in person and over the phone.

Over the phone?

I started in ‘93, so we had internet. There were, like, AOL chat rooms, but no video. You couldn’t be like “check this out!”

Nobody on Prodigy or Compuserve was learning how to DJ.

No Angelfire websites, nothing like that. 

It was “Star Trek” trivia and movie showtimes.

It was just me and my friends. We would get tapes.

But where were you gaining this knowledge to begin with?

It was me asking my friends who had older brothers, but that often was bad intel. 

The Older Brother Network is unreliable.

Do you remember [classic ‘90s stereo systems], they had cassettes and then the EQ…

Sure, you’re talking to a fellow old person.

So a lot of people were like, “I got that! You can scratch a record on here!” But you’re really not supposed to. It’s not made for that. So I’m like “That doesn’t sound like what I hear on the radio. How do you mix the next song in?” And he says “Oh, you pause the tape.” 

Not exactly Eric B. & Rakim.

I wanted to hear, at least, give me the “Rockit.” So I would go to a record store. I grew up in the Bay Area. I didn’t actually go to Guitar Center until I was in my 20s but there were smaller music shops, record shops, places that sold turntables. So you’d go and ask them. Just question them, “How do you make this? What do you do?” 

What was cool was, the guys who I would hear on the radio would go to the record stores. So, like, “Oh wow, I heard his mix on Saturday. That guy’s really good.” And I could go talk to them, and at those same shops, they would sell the Battle Tapes. You know, The DMC World Final. They’re doing HELLA S**T. Mixing’s cool, doing parties is cool, but then I was like, “Whoa, that’s a different thing.” That was something I study. I could watch that tape over and over. 5-minute routine, over and over and over, and then kind of play along at home. “I’m gonna get those records, oh, that’s how he does that!” You’ve got to like mark the records.

[Mike here shows me an LP that he’s actually marked up with tape]

When it’s going around, you want to be able to replicate it. The sound starts when the marker’s here.

Basically, we’ve now recreated that. The Bay Area Record Store Knowledge Network exists today, but you just look it up on YouTube. That’s where all of that knowledge lives. Do you think that’s different? Better? Worse? Would you be the same kind of musician if you’d learned on the internet instead of in record stores and Battle Tapes?

I don’t think so. I would have to say, no. Only because, I feel like part of it, for me, was the fact that it took so long to get the source material to look at, and then to physically figure out how to do it, and make it my own, that’s what kept me going. I see people on TikTok, like “here’s how to do a baby scratch,” and to me, it doesn’t feel like I would obsess over it in the same way.

I need to obsess over things, maybe to my detriment. I really feel like I need to have it solidified in my mind. But who knows? Maybe it would be okay. But it was limited in what we did have access to. There are battle routines from people that I could recite to this day. I could do it, if I had the records. I don’t know a video like that. 

You learn about things in a very different way.

You’re not really learning as much for yourself. And I’m guilty of that. If I’m editing a video, and I have to figure out nodes in DaVinci Resolve, I’m not gonna figure that out for myself. But music, I don’t know. 

So you’re DJing and you’ve built up all this knowledge. What makes you decide to start making remixes and mashups and fun videos for the internet?

I feel like this was around 2009, maybe? At my live show, I was scratching videos and stuff.

You were already playing videos behind yourself during live performances.

And manipulating them and everything. It was this new technology that I was like, “Oh my God, this is the best thing ever.” It made prep time for my live performances exponentially longer. But it was super-rewarding. 

So when I was on tour, I was always like “I want to be able to translate some of this to a place where I don’t have to be there to do it.” That gets exhausting. I want to show people.

“Here’s what I do,” without having to physically do it every time.

Exactly. I’d also have ideas that I just couldn’t do live. Remixes on YouTube are different from what I do live. Totally different things, cause they’re cut real fast. So that was like my recording, something that can be viewed and enjoyed even if I’m sleeping or not touring. 

None of us knew what YouTube would be. It was like, “OK, I’ll put it on YouTube, I’ll put it on Vimeo, I’ll put it on Google Video, and see what happens.” Around that time was when you started being able to make money and get subscribers.

Your timing on that was sort of amazing, because mashups and remixes were YouTube’s bread and butter in that era. It felt like every day, for a while, that would be the thing that went viral. Somebody mashed up The Cure’s “Close to Me” and Jay-Z doing “Dirt Off Your Shoulders.” That’s a real one. That still exists. The other day, I saw a TikTok that mashed up “It Takes 2” with “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from “Mulan.” It works. 

So that’s out there, but obviously it’s not what it once was. But if you went to a club, and they put on a really cool mashup, people would still love that. We didn’t stop liking that, but it doesn’t go viral in the same way. What do you think is up with that?

I would say around 2015-ish, I noticed my videos weren’t getting the same kind of views.

It’s not dead. It’s just, for a while there, we were at Peak Mashup.

It’s not automatic. It got harder in part because we started to lose the monoculture. For me, the biggest [viral hits] were the times when everyone knows the thing. When Marvel was peaking, all my Marvel remixes would just go [viral], and I think like we were saying earlier, there are pockets and niches that I don’t know about. So if we don’t have that shared experience, it’s kind of hard. 

Back in the day, you could put “Drop It Like It’s Hot” over just about anything and it would work. “Genius!” But now, it’s like, what would be a good mashup now? Obviously like Kendrick’s “Not Like Us” with something.

Now you have to have that exact of-the-moment virality. It’s the Gregory Brothers thing. If you can marry the mashup to the viral clip at the exact right moment, you get “Dayum! Dayum! Dayum!

Or the “Bed Intruder” song. That was huge.

That’s what they were doing, was getting the timing exactly right.

They were on it. They were just ready, constantly.

It must have been non-stop for those poor guys. Do you think it’s cyclical? One day soon, everybody will want to hear Disney songs mashed up with hip-hop again?

I think it’ll come back but the cycle will be so much quicker. Everything goes so quick now. 

AI, as well, might have an impact. AI versions of this aren’t AS GOOD as the ones a real person with an ear would make, but they can already do it like… good enough that it sort of cheapens it. Hearing one now doesn’t feel as special as it did.

That’s how I feel with mashups in general. I think it got to a point where people were just slamming things on top of each other. It didn’t really have to match. I’m sitting here like “Are the levels right? Are we on beat here?” People don’t care. If it’s 60-80% there, they’re just going to scroll past it anyway. They’re not going to hold on to it and really listen. “This is my sh*t! Let’s play it in the car now!”

For a while, people were doing a lot with the “Pony” instrumental and stuff on top of that, and that’s cool. But it came and went really quick.

On TikTok, did you make some AI clips? Lana del Rey singing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” I saw was one of them. Was that just an experiment?

Yeah, just playing around with it. There was a lot of tweaking that had to happen. I would take the acapella and you load the model to make Lana del Rey sing this or whatever. It’s interesting. It’ll get better, which is scary, cause it was pretty close. 

I went through phases. At first, I was like “Whoa, this is really fascinating.” But then very quickly, it went to “I f*cking hate this. It’s terrible.”

It’s good enough to pass that first initial reaction.

It’s perfect for the scrolling culture that we’re in. “Oh, OK, cool, oh it’s Britney Spears doing Kendrick Lamar. OK, moving on.”

In the early days of digital media, it was really about, “How do I keep people on my video for the longest? How do I hold their attention? How do I get them to subscribe?” And now everyone’s just trying to grab you for two seconds during your daily scroll.

Yeah. I feel like, a lot of times, especially with TikTok, they encourage you to do the trend. “Now you do it!” Whatever it is. “That went viral, but now, watch me and my friends do it!”

My brain is wired differently. I’m always like, “I should do something original. What do I do that’s not that?” But now you’ve got to do that, you’re just reskinning it.

It’s so driven by the fear of missing out on the trend, of not being part of it. We see that so much in the culture. If you don’t have an experience that people feel like they’re going to miss out on, they’re not interested.

So a lot of people from our generation, they’re still active in digital media, they’re still working in this industry, but sort of pulling back from their own channels and being on every platform. They’re making less and figuring out where they want to go now.

You, on the other hand, you’re diving in even more. I just saw a video on your YouTube where you announced some new projects you’re embarking on. How do you find that in yourself, to say “it’s been 14 years and I’m going to rededicate myself to this platform”?

These are things I’ve always wanted to do. But because of the way YouTube is… People subscribe for a certain thing and if you do anything different, there’s a backlash. I would experiment but it wasn’t worth it to ruffle the feathers. I kept doing what I was doing, because it worked.

But now it’s like, the whole landscape has changed. A subscriber is… I’m not going to say it’s worthless, but it ain’t worth what it was before. Having 200,000 subscribers on YouTube, the value of that was a lot more than 1 million Twitter followers.

It was a guaranteed foundation for all of your videos. You knew, locked in, you had a few tens of thousands of eyeballs. That doesn’t exist anymore.

It’s insane to me, how much of a 180 shift [there has been]. We spent so much time and energy just getting those subscribers. “I don’t care what you do! Don’t even watch to the end of the video! Just hit subscribe now! Hit the bell now!” Now it’s like, we’re fighting through the algorithm to get to those people. 

So it’s stuff that I’ve always wanted to do. Going back to making music, I haven’t really done that on my YouTube channel except for mashups. And [“Interval”], I call it a documentary series, but it’s a lot looser than that. It’s a bit like [Penelope Spheeries’ classic music documentaries] “The Decline of Western Civilization.” Like, “OK, we’re backstage.”

Today, they kind of handhold you. Here’s a drone shot of the town they grew up in. But you watch that old stuff, you can smell it. You can smell that place. Mine isn’t as raw as that, but it’s in that spirit. I’m just showing up. Sometimes I’m backstage with somebody, sometimes I’m in somebody’s house. There’s one where I’m with a rapper, and he’s at his house, handwriting lyrics on paper for a fan. That’s it. It’s interesting to me.

A cinéma vérité kind of approach.

Yeah, fly on the wall, hanging out with my friends. It’s been cool cause it’s been an excuse for me to hang out with people. I’m not good at keeping in touch.

Nor am I. You’re enjoying my excuse to reconnect with people.

Content for Creators.

News, tips, and tricks delivered to your inbox twice a week.

Newsletter Signup

Top Stories