Music

The Visual Realm of Mike Relm

Mixed marriages and pop-culture references make the DJ a rising star in modern turntablism.

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With his crisp dinner jackets, mod haircut, and coke-bottle glasses, Mike Relm is one of the more improbable-looking stars of modern turntablism. His tastes are improbable, too — from NWA to Led Zeppelin to the theme song from Charlie Brown — and not surprisingly, he's fascinated by mixed marriages. "On paper, Office Space and Missy Elliott don't make sense together; Run DMC and Bjork probably never met," Relm said in a phone interview, referring to some of his current mash-ups. "But the way I present it does make sense. I like to marry things, like, really marry them, like really make people associate things with each other. Like John Cusack, NWA, the Outfield, Team America, Y Tu Mama También, Almost Famous .... Those things are just in one three-minute segment."

A pop-culture junky and 1999 champion of the International Turntablist Federation's USA competition, Relm switched up his act after 2003 trip to Japan, where he discovered the Pioneer DVD turntable and Serato Scratch Live Software. The new gear allowed him to isolate segments from videos and chop, protract, or loop them as though they were record samples in a hip-hop song. Relm tours ten months out of the year (he's currently opening for the neo-Vaudevillian act, Blue Men Group) and occasionally gets to headline his own shows, which are stunning. He flits around the stage in his suit and tie, talking to the audience in a schoolboy cadence with a subtle lisp, and juggling multiple pieces of equipment: two mixers, a computer, and three turntables. His famous Peanuts segment has the cast of Charlie Brown playing their theme song, while Relm scratches records in the background. In "O Face," he riffs off a segment from Office Space in which the character Drew assures that if his date goes well, he might give her the "Oh" face. ("'Oh... Oh... Oh!' You know what I'm talkin' about. 'Oh!'"). Relm loops the "Oh" and puts it over a beat, so that Drew's body appears to be spasming onscreen, while he "Oh-Oh-Ohs" over and over again, in the cadence of a beatboxer. Fans have compared Relm's show to watching a concert pianist play complex two-handed concertos.

Raised in Daly City, Relm describes himself as the kind of kid who sat in front of the TV, played video games, and was content to spend Saturday nights barricaded in his bedroom. He took piano lessons until fifth grade, and started DJing about five years later. Relm cut his teeth playing house parties and Cotillions (the Filipino equivalent of quinceañeras) — events he wouldn't have otherwise been invited to. He was inspired by '90s-era scratch competition videos featuring Mix Master Mike and the X-ecutioners. But mostly, Relm absorbed influences by listening to the radio — everything from cutting-edge mix shows like Sway and Tech's World Famous Wake Up Show to amateur DJs who came on at 3 a.m. and sounded like a total trainwreck.

"It's a medium where you can't see anything, so you really have to listen and visualize what's going on," Relm explained, adding that he loved the intricacies of radio — how songs were compressed and edited; who was live and who wasn't; all the little sound effects they threw in. Often considered a quintessential form of escapism, hip-hop radio became Relm's primary source material. It led him to something seminal and real.

The secret to Relm's success is his talent for linking sounds and images. He usually creates sets in his head, then tests them out later. "O Face" came from knowing the line from memory, whereas the mock Larry King Live interview from Relm's forthcoming Clown Alley DVD spawned from a long-time fixation with Larry King. "It's this iconic thing," Relm explained. "Those dots in the background; he's talking to the camera; I'm talking to the camera; then there's this split screen where we're both talking!" King never actually called Relm for an interview. Relm made the clip by cribbing parts of the real Larry King Live. It looks as if the bashful, bespectacled DJ is being subjected to a brittle cross-examination.

Given Relm's incredible stockpile of references and images, there's often a wink-wink, nudge-nudge quality to his sets. Sometimes he'll insert regional cues like clips of a particular news anchorman; other times he'll sneak in a joke or reference for people who really know the material. Not that everything's completely arcane and weird, the DJ demurs: "It's not like watching Lost, 24, or Heroes. I didn't have a team of writers building a show for me." Still, he said, the whole thing can make sense if you want it to.

Granted, he said, the majority of his audiences still subscribe to a "move your ass, and your mind will follow" vein of philosophy. And that's fine, too.

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