Remix a Piece

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Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

When Dacoury Natche and I met, Kazakh music producer Imanbek’s remix of SAINt JHN’s “Roses” was at the top of our charts. I was on a road trip a few days prior and heard it at least twice an hour.

While the original artist SAINt JHN released “Roses” three years prior, it was the remix that was picked up on social media and broke through to mainstream radio stations, bringing the original with it. Essentially, the original served as a demo for a much more popular remix.

Remixing is at the heart of popular music. DJ Kool Herc sampled the best part of songs and hip-hop emerged as an art form. Hip-hop is one of the best examples of creativity involving mainly combining ideas. As Maria Popova writes in The Marginalian, “I frequently use LEGO as a metaphor for combinatorial creativity—if we only have bricks of one shape, size, and color, what we build with them remains limited; but if we build with pieces of various shapes, sizes, and colors, our creations will be infinitely more interesting.”

And before all of that, there was shanzhai (山寨). Before DJ Kool Herc, or combinatorial creativity emerged as a key component to creative work, there was shanzhai. While the term shanzhai is usually used today to describe counterfeit products (think of fake Nokia phones, the Motoloba, or Harry Potter and the Porcelain Doll), the word is built on a philosophy of creativity, “The Chinese idea of the original is determined not by a unique act of creation, but by unending process, not by definitive identity but by constant change.”

Byung-Chul Han writes that while a shanzhai product might be considered fake, that doesn’t mean they are inferior: “The ingenuity of shanzhai products is frequently superior to that of the original. For example, one shanzhai cell phone has the additional function of being able to identify counterfeit money. In this way it has established itself as an original. The new emerges from surprising variations and combinations.”*

In this prompt, you will be tapping into this idea of unending process by making a remix of your own work. Select one of the ideas you’ve completed. It could be your favorite idea or your least favorite idea. It could be the most popular one or the least popular one. You can ask your friend to choose from a bunch of options, or just randomly select one. Just pick one. After you’ve picked one, duplicate it (digitally or physically), and modify it by at least 3%, the percentage by which designer Virgil Abloh modified an original piece of work.

For a song, that might just mean tweaking a small portion of its running time, or supplementing it throughout with an infrequent chord or pattern. For a video, it might mean moving segments around or adding in a short new scene. For a painting, it might mean adding a new layer of paint somewhere—covering a figure, or creating a new one, or just adding to the background. Choose a part to change and a way to change it. (You can choose to modify by more than 3%, but give yourself some constraint.)

Similarly, you could choose to remix through reduction. Author and Princeton instructor John McPhee writes about a technique called “greening”—to “green” an opening paragraph by three means to cut three lines out of the paragraph as a way of forcing the editing process. He writes, “Green 4 does not mean lop off four lines at the bottom. … The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed.”

Remixing may become part of your draft, demo, and sketch process. For example, for three months, seven days a week, 16 hours per day, graphic designer Joe Perez worked on Kanye West’s Cruel Summer album cover. In a video Perez uploaded on YouTube, there are 325 different variations of the album cover.

When you decide that your remix has become a draft of its own, save it as a new piece of work with a different title.

Obsess over Details

Obsession is one of the core aspects of craftsmanship. Detail, perfection, and progression are all fruits of obsession, an absolutist view on the correctness, integrity, or honesty of something. These traits often provide a breeding ground for great work.

“The details are not details—they make the product just like details make the architecture. The gauge of the wire, the selection of the wood, the finish of the castings—the connections, the connections, the connections,” writes designer and architect Charles Eames. You could also make the case that a creative work is nothing more than a sum of details.

Author Robert Caro writes of his obsession with research in Working: “Whatever it is that makes me do research the way I do, it’s not something I’m proud of, and it’s not something for which I can take the credit—or the blame. It just seems to be a part of me.”

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