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.
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.”
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.
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.