Mike Relm: From "Back in Black" to Blue Man Group

DJ Mike Relm is the Outback Steakhouse of turntablism. He entertains great gobs of people via tried-and-true musical recipes that inflict heartburn upon those who are sick of AOR radio. He's best known for his "video scratching" technique, in which he synchs scenes from movies like Pulp Fiction and Zoolander to well-worn riffs by the likes of Led Zeppelin, John Lennon, and the Beastie Boys.

Though Relm is unlikely to impress pop-culture-weary hipsters, there's no denying his hustle is tremendously successful. Since January 2007, he has toured with the Blue Man Group virtually nonstop, and is currently opening for its How to Be a Megastar Tour 2.1 show. At arenas and casinos in towns like Biloxi and Wichita, Relm says he tailors his shows largely to family sensibilities and has given scores of red staters their first live scratching performances.

A veteran Bay Area DJ who won't disclose his age, Relm is known for his consistent attire (a Reservoir Dogs-style black suit) and popularity on YouTube. He's also quite accomplished on the ones and twos, having won a turntablist competition in 1999 and performed with rappers like Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Lyrics Born since then. He has played Bonnaroo, Coachella, and the Winter X Games in Aspen, clips from which can be seen on his self-released DVD, Clown Alley, which comes out April 1. (More on that later.)

But in the past year his identity seems to have been largely gobbled up by his affiliation with the Blue Man Group. Besides warming up the Blue Man crowd, Relm also appears in the main act, performing a song that introduces a character called Floppie the Banjo Clown. A satire on the clichés that go along with the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, the show gives the cobalt trio an opportunity to show off their zany antics and penchant for fashioning instruments out of unlikely objects (like PVC pipes) and making music by, say, pounding piano strings with a mallet. "Blue Man has really inspired me, just watching how they approach the show ... how they play the instruments they create," Relm told me last fall, the first time we talked.

Relm, too, is not afraid to give the people what he thinks they want (clichéd anthems like AC/DC's "Back In Black," for example). The Blue Man influence can be seen on Clown Alley, which features a similarly silly-without-being-obtuse vibe. The DVD comes with 3D glasses and, alongside assorted concert footage, features a series of humorous bits, including a mash-up interview of sorts with Larry King and a segment in which a pair of demented clowns accost Relm. For reasons never explained, the clowns are after his briefcase, but he's able to overwhelm his captors by hosing them down with Silly String. (Therein lies the 3D magic.)

The concert footage features nary a cultural reference twentysomething and thirtysomething viewers won't recognize. Office Space is "scratched" so that Drew shows us his "O" face over and over, while clips from Nacho Libre and Napoleon Dynamite are accented by tracks like "The Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel and "Fire" by Jimi Hendrix. The songs are often barely cut up from their original versions, and the approach grows wearying for those who aren't interested in hearing these golden moldies for the umpteenth time. Though there's nothing wrong with taking identifiable imagery and songs, the ones Relm has compiled have been used in other contexts ad nauseam. He says that his audiences tend not to dance when he's spinning; throwing something more diverse into the mix might at least get them wiggling in their seats.

Clown Alley follows a more straightforward release of concert footage called Suit Yourself, culled from Relm's first nationwide tour in 2004 and 2005, when he opened for Gift of Gab from Blackalicious. Though Relm is obviously a talented DJ and has a great sense of working a crowd, you wonder if he can transcend his gimmicky shtick when he returns to playing smaller venues. For now, he seems better suited to set up shop in the familiar Blue Man locale of Las Vegas, which he concedes would be a fantasy residency of sorts. "Everything is ten times more amazing in Vegas, no matter what," he says. In a city that concerns itself with appealing to as many people as possible, Relm would seem to fit right in.

 
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