We looked into the history of DJs playing records at the wrong speed, with a little help from LTJ Bukem, Nick The Record, Sally Rodgers and Vladimir Ivkovic.

The Basics

An interesting side result of vinyl DJ culture was experimentation with playing records at the wrong speed. If you’ve not used a vinyl record deck before, all records play at one of two speeds, either 45 revolutions per minute (rpm) or 33 rpm. 7” records always play at 45, albums always play at 33, some 12”s at either 33 or 45. If you play a record at the wrong speed it either sounds way too fast or way too slow. Eventually, every vinyl DJ would play a record at the wrong speed by mistake and ninety-nine times out of a hundred it would sound awful. Either so slow, sludgy and full of low end to be unplayable or so fast that the vocals sounded like cartoon chipmunks. But there were a few records that if you played them at the wrong speed sounded pretty cool.

Nick The Record is a DJ, producer and rare record dealer and has seen and heard his fair share of DJs spinning tunes at the wrong speed. “Perhaps the two most famous examples are Harry Thumann’s ‘Underwater’ played at 33 by Baldelli & ESG’s ‘UFO’ which was played by the early NYC Hip Hop DJ’s at 33. It was even released at the slowed-down speed when it was comped on the ‘Ultimate Breaks & Beats’ compilation series.”

ESG ‘UFO’

Four sisters and their conga playing friend made up New York new-wave funk band ESG. Factory Records’ Martin Hannett produced their 1981 ‘UFO’ track in a few spare moments at the very end of a studio session. It ended up as one of the most sampled tracks in hip hop. At its intended tempo it was a frantic, skeletal collection of parts; a simple descending b-line, some sound effects and a killer breakbeat. As Nick points out, hip hop DJs played it at 33 rather than 45 and you can immediately hear why. The drums are crunchier, the bass get broodier and the siren sound effect is altogether darker. The track loses its initial hurried quality, delivering its goods at a languid pace. And pitching it down gives it some additional extra low-end, meaning it smacks over a decent sound system. 

Harry Thumann ‘Underwater’

Playing records at the wrong tempos was a common technique among Italian DJs in the late 70s and early 80s, one sometimes taken to extremes by DJ pioneer Daniele Baldelli. Baldelli was resident at seminal clubs Baia Degli Angeli and Cosmic, and was famous for combining a broad range of music with an innovative mixing style where he often played records at drastically altered speeds. 

Harry Thumann’s ‘Underwater’ was one of the tracks that Baldelli would play at 33 rather than 45. It‘s a high-paced Italian disco instrumental from 1979 featuring a hi-energy synth b-line, a funky glockenspiel, harp flourishes and orchestral sweeps. However, play it at 33 and it morphs into something more emotive and way funkier. Changes that rushed by now unfold at a leisurely pace, the synths are stretched out, the low end heavier, the french horns sound almost biblical and the sluggish tempo reveals the inner workings of the various rhythmic mechanisms at play. 

I often play vinyl records pitched down, especially house music, it just widens the sonic spectrum a bit and it works in more genre-fluid sets.

SALLY ROGERS, A MAN CALLED ADAM

Linda Law ‘All The Night’

Fast-paced disco has provided a rich source of tempo-elastic songs for DJs to play with. US DJs Rub ’N’ Tug’s 2005 loft-party compilation ‘Rub N Tug Presents Campfire’ featured a forgotten, slightly over-exuberant Euro-disco record called ‘All The Night’ by Linda Law. But they played it at a sultry 33, transforming ‘All The Night’ into a lost ‘The Wall’-era Pink Floyd track remixed by Larry Levan, in a good way.

Some records sound better for me played on the wrong speed: the frequencies and tones are different, it appears as though there is another layer of music hidden below or above the intended speed

VLADIMIR Ivkovic

The Elasticity of Audio

A key with all these tracks is that their original tempos were both pretty fast, so they don’t sound too plodding when slowed down. With the explosion of faster tempo dance music in the 90s – hardcore, the faster end of techno, jungle, drum and bass – there were more options for DJs to get creative with wrong-speeding. 

Sally Rodgers from A Man Called Adam has spent many hours behind the decks and is a DJ comfortable with experimenting with the extremes of pitch adjustment: “I often play vinyl records pitched down, especially house music, it just widens the sonic spectrum a bit and it works in more genre-fluid sets. And I often play tracks on the wrong speed – I recently got a 12” on Discom called ‘Sidarta’ [Yugoslavian prog-rock fusion from 1979 ] by 37°C, not much info on the label and I really liked it at 45, it’s a long proggy, cosmic workout. Found out I was playing it at the wrong speed but it seemed a bit dreary at 33.” 

Belgrade-born Berlin-based DJ Vladimir Ivkovic runs the Offen Music label and is a big fan of playing records at the wrong speeds: “Some records sound better for me played on the wrong speed: the frequencies and tones are different, it appears as though there is another layer of music hidden below or above the intended speed. This layer can sound quite exciting. It’s most interesting when I play ‘big’, ‘known’ records the wrong way. I get the impression that people in the club context recognise something, the track sounds familiar but also somehow alien. I like to imagine that in such situations some neurological processes get activated, that can bring the person to interesting places… and it’s always nice to see the surprise when track ID questions are answered, and people realise that this amazing psychedelic track is actually a terrible trance record, or some half-baked downtempo ambient piece.”

The All-Powerful Pitch Control

Pitch control has always been at the very centre of the DJing craft. With pitch control, DJs could blend disparate music seamlessly and get creative, producing rudimentary live remixes with two copies of the same record. Likewise, the pitch control allowed for creative layering: a hip hop acapella could be sped up to blend with a mid-tempo house tune, two mismatched records could be pulled into a happy marriage on the decks with nothing more than some judicious pitching and maybe a little EQing. Having control over the tempo gives DJs an element of creative control over their music, as well as a chance to present things as they feel they should be, even if it’s not how the original artists intended. Sally continues: 

“We [A Man Called Adam] were playing in California in the late 90s. The promoter took us out to this hip little drum and bass club after a show in Oakland. As we walked in this young guy was playing a cool jazzy drum and bass track that we vaguely recognised. Turns out it was a picture disc we’d released under our Beachflea alias. It was a jazzy hip/trip hop thing with no info on the vinyl. He’d just assumed it was drum and bass and to be honest it sounded better at that speed!”

LTJ Bukem ‘Atlantis (I Need You)’

The dreamy liquid drum and bass of LTJ Bukem and the Good Looking label provided plenty of opportunities for creative DJs to play around with tempo and a tune like Bukem’s 1992 ‘Atlantis (I Need You)’ is transformed at 33 into low-slung space funk. At its original tempo, the high-paced Amen break pitters and patters away at the top end of the frequency spectrum, but at 33 the break is far more present in the mix, the synth flourishes are deeper and the warm pad washes take their sweet time.

The rapidly increasing tempos of the rave scene in 1991 were the product of a fetid sweatbox of clashing ideas, a moment of genuine creativity in dance music history, and an atmosphere in which DJs were often happy to stretch out and experiment. Wrong-speeding was a trick that Bukem himself had been experimenting with for years: 

“As we entered 1990 the breakbeat became such a dominant force within electronic music. In the late ‘80s I was always taking beats from breakbeat albums, such as ‘Bonesbreaks’ or ‘Renegade Break Loops No 1′, as a tool to transition between various tracks, so the mind was kind of programmed to look out for anything that could be used in the same way. Hip-hop instrumentals were perfect for this if you could find one that sounded OK sped up.” 

Masters At Work ‘Justa “Lil” Dope’

One such track was a Masters At Work sample cut-up from 1991. ‘Justa “Lil” Dope’ is a noisy hip hop instrumental at its intended speed but DJs quickly realised that if you played it at 33 it instantly morphed – ably assisted by the Barrington Levy vocal sample it has to be said – into a rave classic.

Speedy J ‘De-Orbit’

1991 was a good year for tempo-malleable electronica, with the album version – pressed at 33, played at 45 – of Speedy J’s ‘De-Orbit’ getting plays in the rave scene. Bukem included it at 45 on his ‘Hardcore Volume 3‘ compilation in 1992 along with Todd Terry’s ‘This Will Be Mine’ played at the wrong speed too:

“There were quite a few that I’d experiment with, but of course I had my favourites which would get used frequently, like Speedy J, which is just an amazing track in itself that sounded great sped up. Beat wise, ‘Bring the Noise’ (Bonus Beats) by Mission Of 1 and ‘Live At The Bar-b-cue’ (Instrumental) by Main Source were also big favourites of mine. Most famous of all of course,  Masters At Work’s ‘Blood Vibes’ and my all-time fav by them ‘Jump On It’ [both at 45] which I just played forever!”

Smack My Pitch Up

As production technology has been driven at least partly by the needs and wishes of DJs it’s no surprise that warping and time-stretching has continually been at the heart of, and improved upon by successive DAWs. And with the current standard digital DJ set up DJs can easily mix wildly different tempo tracks in different ways and re-present their music in new forms. The sync button may well cause controversy among those who think that it causes homogeneous, boring sets but it’s always worth remembering that it might be the actual DJ that’s causing the homogeneous boring sets rather than a small aspect of the technology they’re employing. 

More than ever before, DJs can dislocate audio and rehouse it in new musical settings, stretching and compressing their timing and reimagining what a song could be, and how a musical mood can change if you merely radically alter the pitch. The little secret joys of discovering an obscure super-fast disco tune that you were never sure about works better radically slowed down, or a weirdly paced breaks track actually sounds amazing at the wrong speed are now open to any DJs prepared to experiment a little. As Bukem says: “Anything can potentially sound right at any speed, if played at the right time, in the right mix.”

Follow Harold on Twitter.

Author Harold Heath
20th April, 2020

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