The Roots’ Stro Elliot talks about James Brown’s remix
Stro Elliot is no stranger to the remix game, but when he was tasked with tackling James browndiscography, even he had some reservations. âI’m always like, ‘Why would you change those drums? Why would you want to change anything? ‘ I can say that about a lot of things, but most notably the records of James Brown â, the producer and Roots explained the MP with a chuckle. But at the heart of Elliot’s mission is to explore the connections between the music of the past and the present. As a multi-instrumentalist and producer, he uses his remixes to strip tracks down to their basics and rebuild them as new creations. On his new James Brown project, Black and strong, he does not suggest a new way of sounding Brown’s music, but rather imagines the music approached from a different mindset than in his first iteration.
Elliot, who has released music on DJ House Shoes’ legendary Street Corner Music, is now spending his day as a member of The Roots. The support of these two camps, in particular the drummer of The Roots, Amir “Questlove” Thompson, gave him the assurance that he was the right man to tackle James Brown’s imposing catalog. Encouragement from Thompson, who is himself a Brown aficionado, came from Elliot’s ability and his approach. âI tend to take great care in how I approach it,â says Elliot. “Although I try to put my own special spices in it, I do my best to stay true to the original feel of the track.”
Elliot is a DJ and producer by trade, but his work with The Roots has led him to explore Brown’s music from the perspective of several instruments. On some songs, he polishes the guitars, on others the drums and bass. He even performs occasionally with Brown’s voice, keeping the spirit of the legend’s music in the work, but adding his own flair to the songs he tackles. With Black and strong, Stro Elliot has a conversation with history and demonstrates that no matter how many years go by, we still speak the same language as James Brown and his legendary band.
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How did you initially get involved in approaching this James Brown remix project?
For the people who knew me before this project, they knew I had a helping hand in remixing a lot of classic artists, be it Michael jackson, Prince, or others. There were two James Brown remixes that I had done in the past, one of which was called “James Baby” which was getting a lot of traffic and a lot of spin. It was gaining traction among DJs in particular, who I always give ultimate credit to, as these are the people who ultimately pushed – not just this album, but probably every other record I’ve ever released – in what concerns remixes.
“James Baby” has found its way into Questlove from The Roots and House Shoes from Street Corner Music. They both had mutual friends who worked at Universal who were excited to potentially do a project for James Brown. I was, at the very least, on a shortlist of people to do so. When the world stopped in 2020, I was trying to put things together for the project. I ended up having a lot of time and took over the project with Universal.
Were you working with stems or remixing entire tracks? How did you approach the creation of this project?
I had already started one of the songs before I even knew I would be part of the project. It was called “Get up”. This was initiated by Questlove during a recording. At Jimmy Fallon, we play music on the home speakers between commercials. The original song came along, and he challenged me to play with it, which he does with some songs that seem irreversible. He said to me, âI dare you to do something to one of James Brown’s more out-of-date songs. This is the one I started before they contacted me. In total, I mean there were maybe four of the 10 songs they sent stems for. The others were just me working with what I could.
Do you prefer it to be that way, where there is some constraint?
It depends, because there is a certain stubbornness in the way I work, during which I sometimes like the challenge of trying to figure out certain things without having the stems there and all mapped out. But for some songs, it sure wouldn’t have been so good if I hadn’t had a clear James Brown voice, or some guitar or brass parts, and things that make the song pop. It just depends on the track or the mood I’m looking for.
How did you relate to James Brown’s music growing up?
I imagine anyone who had parents who listened to music, especially soul or funk, grew up with James. James Brown was a person who cut across genders in terms of what your parents might have in their homes. I grew up with kids whose parents had mostly classic rock or even country, but they had at least one or two James Brown records. So my parents were no different in that they had a huge collection of things. We had mostly soul and jazz, but there was definitely a collection of James Brown records that I grew up with.
Is it ever intimidating to take on some of the music giants and put your own spin on them? Or at this point, are you used to it?
Absoutely. Anytime you have the courage to say, “Oh, I’m going to grab that Michael Jackson track, make my own version of it, reconfigure it, or mess it up without necessarily knowing what the reception will be.” Is intense. Fortunately, I was lucky that the majority of them were well received.
But it could very well have gone the other way around, especially with the DJs where they’ll be the first to tell you, âNo, you didn’t have to touch that song. Sometimes a fan base will tell you, âNo, this is a classic song. Don’t touch it. He doesn’t need a remixer or anything. For this reason, I tend to take great care in how I approach it. Although I try to put my own special spices in it, I do my best to stay true to the original feel and energy of the track.
Is there something you learned while playing with The Roots that you applied to making this album?
Ah, absolutely. With this particular project, and probably a lot of things to come, their fingerprints will be on my work, as I’ve never been in a band of this caliber before. Being surrounded by musicians like that on a daily basis, in addition to what is expected of you, and being on a show like Tonight’s show where everything goes so fast, a lot of things happen on the fly.
I also think that the musicality that I am able to testify every day adds to it. As you hang out with a bass player every day, you notice what they do in certain sections of the songs when they move or certain keys change. It’s the same with everyone else in the band, whether it’s guitars or keyboards. You take every part more seriously than if you were just a âbeatmakerâ. They definitely added to my way of approaching music, even if it’s just âremixesâ.
How would you describe your process?
The best way to explain my process is that it is a solo jam session. It can start with anything. It could start with singing. It can start with the battery. Drums are usually the starting point for me because that’s how I start a lot of things. I have an idea of ââwhat I want to do in terms of the drums, but things are likely to change in terms of the tempo. If the battery is too busy I can start removing stuff once I start adding vocals and stuff. With this particular project, it was a mix of everything. There are some tracks where I started with just his vocals and tracks that I started with what the guitarist was doing, and building around that.
At Black and strong, it often happens that the mood changes halfway. Some tracks by James Brown open with âOh, here’s where a bridge comes out of nowhereâ. Or, “Here’s where all of a sudden the corns are doing something different than they were doing in the first half. It’s the most fun in the world to be able to respond to that and build around all of these changes.
Would you say your overall philosophy is to breathe new life into old classics?
I think there’s a part of me that feels like it would be fun to try and see what I could do. Like on the âSex Machineâ remix, I imagined James Brown in the studio with Fela Kuti. On the album, I loved imagining James working with some of my favorite artists and producers. I’m trying to become a person in the studio with these other two artists that I have a lot of respect for, and imagine what that might be like.
Who else would you like to have a conversation with with James Brown, musically speaking?
Oh wow. Well I want Questlove to be in a conversation with anyone who plays music. It is a given. I’d like to see DJ Premier on a project like this, or maybe Clark Kent, who’s also a DJ. In terms of producers and DJs, I think of the artists I named, as well as Pete Rock, who also started to incorporate a lot of James Brown productions into his work as well. The history of Brown’s music is so rich.
Black & Loud: James Brown reinvented by Stro Elliot releases February 4 and is available for pre-order.