In this month’s Deconstructed, we explore how Honey Dijon turned Jessie Ware’s pop song ‘Ooh La La’ into a disco stormer.
Deconstructed, a monthly series here on Attack Magazine, is all about the arrangement. We break down not the nuts and bolts of a production but the overall structure – how do the intro, breakdowns, drops and other elements contribute to the song’s success? Usually, we look at original compositions. Today, however, we’re going to pick apart a remix and see what kinds of changes need to be made to turn a pop song into a club track.
On the lab table this time is Honey Dijon’s reworking of ‘Ooh La La‘, a radio-friendly pop tune from Jessie Ware. While the original – featuring production from Ford out of Simian Mobile Disco – is a catchy piece of rhythmic pop, it’s Honey Dijon’s remix that steals the show.
Honey Dijon should need no introduction. A Chicago native who first started going to legendary clubs when still a kid, Honey Dijon now splits her time between New York and Berlin. Her DJ sets are legendary, known for crossing genres like the epoch-making DJs she first witnessed at the Music Box and other clubs growing up. She knows groove and brings it to her remixes and original productions as well.
Let’s see how she turned a pile of kindling into a raging house on fire.
Honey Dijon’s remix of ‘Ooh La La’ is short. It’s clearly intended for the radio and home listening rather than the dance floor. This is reflected in the intro section, which is fairly truncated compared to other, club-ready tunes. This is not a criticism, although we would love to hear an extended version with a longer, more DJ-friendly introduction.
To this end, the 124bpm track kicks off with the beat already full rather than building up piece by piece. Dijon has replaced the acoustic drum kit of the disco original with dirty programmed beats, moving the focus from Studio 54 to a dark, basement spot. The kick sets the tempo with a classic four on the floor rhythm, while claps sound on the fourth beat of alternating bars. There’s no snare or other percussion on the backbeat yet. Dijon programs open hats on the off-beat to lift the groove, while acoustic-sounding hats with plenty of roomy ambience drop on the downbeat of each bar.
Dijon also fills out the beat with some unusual sound design. Creaks, bumps and other snippets of sound – possibly made from the original vocal stems – add interest.
There’s more. Although this intro is only four bars long, Dijon has packed a lot in. Under the drums, there’s a simple two-note bassline. It sounds as if it’s been programmed using distorted kicks. Using percussion as fodder for a bassline was common practice in classic house records and Dijon is continuing the practice here.
Lastly, Dijon ends the four-bar intro with a solo’ed section of Jessie Ware’s voice, with the “ooh” cut off in mid syllable. This serves as a transition to the start of the song proper.
This four-bar section introduces the bassline. It follows the same basic pattern as the original and could even be the acoustic guitar with its top-end filtered off. The distorted kick bassline from section 1 adds syncopation and gives it more of a popping groove. Dijon further fills out the low-end rhythm with a scratchy sawtooth sound that appears at the end of each bar, like punctuation.
The bit from the vocal stem, which we first heard in the previous transition, here gets looped, creating a queasy groove. Another snippet, this time from the original’s Rhodes stem, takes us into the turnaround and to the first verse. We can already see how Dijon is using elements from the original to build up a new song.
The groove that Honey Dijon built up in the first eight bars now provides support for Jessie Ware’s vocals. They appear to be largely unchanged from the original, marking this as a radio remix rather than a strictly club one. However, Dijon does continue to run the queasy vocal loop from the previous section under them for two more bars, lending the verse an otherworldly quality.
At bar 11 position 4, Dijon throws in an unexpected bit of audio. It sounds like a snippet from a longer section, perhaps a guitar. Treated with plenty of reverb, it acts as an accent, filling in the space between vocal phrases. It’s these kinds of little touches that add spice and personality.
At bar 15 position 3, Dijon inserts another edit from the guitar stem, again accenting the vocal. This one is longer and adds melodic interest to the track, which so far has remained fairly musically sparse. Dijon lets the vocals and bassline take centre stage, using melody more as window dressing than the driving force.
Enter the snare. While house has traditionally made use of snares on the backbeat (positions 2 and 4 in a bar) – and in defiance of the original – Dijon’s remix does not. This makes it more streamlined. Without a heavy snare to hold down the groove, it can stay light and free. The snare that she drops here is part of a simple fill, with three sounding as the beat drops out.
Let’s talk about the second half of the verse here, from bars 17 to 25. The groove, bassline, and vocals continue as before, but now Dijon has dropped in the Rhodes line that she teased in section 2. There are still remarkably few musical elements, even with the Rhodes, but the song never feels minimal or lacking. That’s testament to the groove that she’s built, particularly the double, bouncy bassline.
As before, accents chopped from the guitar stem appear occasionally, adding interest and surprise to the proceedings. Again, they’re used to fill out space between vocal phrases. Another short snare fill appears at the end, this time to take us into the chorus.
The chorus starts at bar 25 but it’s largely the same as the verse. The drums, bass and groove all continue along as before. Honey Dijon does add more edited accents though to fill out the vocal and keep the interest of listeners piqued. A quick mid-chorus fill drops towards the end of bar 28 and again in bar 32, which brings us to the turnaround.
‘Ooh La La’ is in D minor. Despite increasing the tempo from 120 to 124bpm, Dijon has kept the song in the same key. Although D minor is sometimes called the saddest of all keys, its common use in dance music likely has more to do with how it sounds on a sound system, particularly the bass.
Here we get a four-bar instrumental section before verse two. A pre-verse, perhaps? The beat and bassline continue unabated but Dijon brings back the queasy vocal loop from earlier. This creates continuity and, through repetition, makes it into a hook. She adds to the hook this time by including a short snippet of an “ooh”, treated with a slapback delay. Dijon adjusts the feedback amount so that it never repeats in exactly the same way throughout the section. This keeps things fresh and live-sounding and prevents it from becoming repetitive. At the end of the four-bar section, the drums drop out, leaving space for the verse vocals to enter.
For verse two, Dijon lets the vocals keep the focus. There are none of the accent edits that we had in the first verse or chorus. A quick single snare is all we need for the fill.
Although Honey Dijon is generally considered a house artist, her DJ sets are famous for crossing genres. While there are plenty of great dubs and instrumental versions of vocal songs, sometimes you need to let loose with a full-on vocal track. There’s a real feeling of release when you can sing along with a song. While as a producer there might be the temptation to use the vocals more as an instrument and process and edit them beyond recognition, sometimes you need to leave well enough alone, especially when the vocals are strong on their own. This is what Dijon has done with this remix. It’s just too bad there’s no extended dub – we’d love to hear Dijon stretch out with this groove, Ron Hardy-style.
“Treat me nice”, a vocal line from section 10, gets repeated, extending out the verse. Under this, Dijon adds a funky, staccato Rhodes line. This underpins the groove and keeps the momentum moving. She modulates the Rhodes with an autopan, synced to the song’s tempo. Edited guitar accents appear between the vocals as well. She’s done more than just chop them up though. As the unexpected two-note phrase in bar 48 shows, she’s likely thrown it into a sampler and played the edit chromatically.
Now here’s a surprise. Although Dijon has kept the backbeat clear so far, she introduces a clap at bar 49. It’s very quiet, not at all heavy, and yet it’s undoubtedly there, subtly adding to the groove. A quick drop in the beat under the sample at the end of the section sets the stage for verse three.
The next verse starts at bar 49. While the song so far has been content to get by with just the vocals and that unstoppable bassline, Dijon has judged that it’s time to add a little more. And so we get a rhythmic, high keyboard line under the vocals. It’s rather simple, mostly just playing one note, but it works to support the groove, which is clearly the focus of the song. The keyboard is doubled by a brassy synth, panned to the left to fill out the sound stage.
Again, the beat drops out just before the turnaround. Honey Dijon is favouring dropouts and simple fills rather than big, energy-increasing snare rolls. This song is about the sleek rhythm and supporting the vocal rather than huge build-ups and increasing tension.
Chorus two drops at bar 57. The drums continue (including the quiet clap) as well as the bassline. Dijon also employs the Rhodes, mirroring the staccato line from verse two. Again, there’s some nice panning happening, just enough to keep things interesting without overwhelming the vocal. The three-snare fill ends the section.
The chorus elements continue. Dijon has pushed the Rhodes back in the mix slightly by shelving some of the highs. This reduces the energy a touch. Arrangement in dance music often amounts to controlling energy, letting it ebb and flow throughout to prevent listener fatigue. Although this is a radio remix and rather short, there’s still a masterful (yet subtle) display of energy wrangling happening. The same three-snare fill takes us out of the chorus and into the middle eight.
The rhythm of the vocals changes here in the middle eight section, which occupies bars 73 to 81. While the other chorus elements stay the same, Dijon changes up the percussion to fall in line with the vocal. The kick drops out, for one, signalling that the middle eight can function as a kind of breakdown. While the clap stays the same, the hats have disappeared, replaced by tight shakers playing an 8th-note pattern. It gives the groove a snaky, sensuous feel that works perfectly with the vocal line. The now-familiar three-snare fill signals the turnaround.
We’re back to the chorus. However, the Rhodes is gone, replaced by the guitar accents from the first chorus (section 8). Circling back to the sound used at the beginning of the song gives it a satisfying sense of completion and closure.
The groove continues, with the guitar accents sounding despite the lack of vocals. The rhythmic single-note keyboard line from section 12 returns, keeping things chugging along. However, instead of repeating the chorus, as a normal pop song might, Dijon combines and loops a few different vocal snippets, creating a nonsensical line, employing the words more for their inherent rhythm than meaning. The three-snare fill again signals the turnaround.
For the final eight bars, Dijon lets the groove continue, with only the occasional teasing appearance of a vocal. The keyboard line from the previous section continues, although with the number of notes reduced, heralding the coming end of the song. The song finishes with the familiar snare fill and is then cut short, leaving the listener wanting more.
If you enjoyed this tutorial you might find our book ‘The Secrets of Dance Music Production’ a helpful resource for similar tutorials.