DJ Shadow & Cut Chemist Mix A Q&A

DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist talk with Pollstar about their “Renegades Of Rhythm” tour honoring the legacy of hip hop icon Afrika Bambaataa.

Bambaataa is known not only for his work as an originator of breakbeat DJing, but also as a cultural leader.  Called the “Master Of Records” since the late 1970s, Bambaataa founded Universal Zulu Nation during that same decade.  Universal Zulu Nation, which was originally known as The Organization, helped spread the culture of hip hop throughout the world.

Bambaataa’s story is the basis for DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist’s “Renegades Of Rhythm” tour launching Sept. 1 in Toronto.  For this special outing the DJs immersed themselves in The Afrika Bambaataa Master Of Records Archive that resides as part of the Hip Hop Collection at the Cornell University Library.  Using the same vinyl records the hip hop pioneer played during his own DJ shows, the two turntablists will celebrate his legacy, life and cultural impact upon the world.

And while DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist spoke individually with Pollstar, we’ve mixed their responses together in one Q&A session, much like when the two DJs use various musical elements to create a much larger audio sensation.

Photo: Joe Conzo
DJ Shadow (left) and Cut Chemist.

How did this project come about?

Cut Chemist: A friend of ours, named Johan Kugelberg, is an art collector. He brokered a deal between Afrika Bambaataa and Cornell University to archive his record collection.  He asked us if we could do a mix to commemorate his legacy, using his material, his record collection.  We decided rather than just do a mix, how about we do a tour?  Something that people can see us do live.  When Shadow and I do projects together it’s always something that tours so people can watch us perform and not just put something out as a product.  This was no different in that respect.  Bambaataa is a huge influence on both of us and this was our chance to show the world how much of an influence he has been on us and our careers.

You’re using records from Afrika Bambaataa’s collection.  What kind of shape are those discs in?

DJ Shadow: The easiest way to answer would be to say, “If he played it, they reflect that.”  A lot of the jackets are pretty … battered from years and years of crate wear.  Some of the records are pretty destroyed. … Some of the more beat-up ones are the ones he had in the ’70s.  Through the ’80s, occasionally, when a record finally wore out he would replace it with another copy.  I think he kept doing that until the mid to late ’90s.  Some of the records are literally unplayable or they skipped all the way through.  That’s been a challenge as we put the set together.  In some cases, we found a classic breakbeat and there were five copies.  We were like, “OK. We’ll be cool with this.”

So you had some duplicates to work with.

DJ Shadow: Oh, yeah.  Back then, of course, DJs would play two copies to keep the break extended.  That’s how break dancing began.  We had three copies of Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk and they all skipped.

Will you be taking any special care when transporting the records on the tour?

DJ Shadow: They’re going to stay with us on the bus.  Fortunately, we’re not flying around or anything like that.  All the records will be on our persons at all times.

Photo: Joe Conzo

Do you usually tour with this much vinyl?

DJ Shadow: We went through the collection, pulled things that we knew, things that we thought we might want to use and a lot of things that we didn’t recognize that we needed to play.  I don’t know how many records that was, but it was more than a few thousand.  We listened to a lot of things, decided, “That’s really cool.  We should keep that,” or, “No, we don’t need that.”  I’m fairly familiar with the classic breakbeats, certain rock records and new wave records, of course, rap records, electro, some of the other genres.  But I wasn’t as familiar with a lot of the dub, dance hall, calypso, soca … We wanted to play through it and figure out what our favorites were. We sent a lot of stuff back that we didn’t think we needed to hang on to.  It’s just a constant distillation process.

We’re about halfway through putting the set together right now.  There’s a ton of stuff that is out because we need to make sure we’re considering the best options as we go.  Ultimately, we can’t play everything in 90 minutes. Only the things that we consider absolutely essential will go in.

How is the show arranged?

DJ Shadow: We both play together at the same time.  We have a total of six turntables and at any given time, two, three or four records might be playing simultaneously.  It’s fairly complex, I would say, in terms of trying to tell the story of Bambaataa as a DJ, visionary, social figure, public figure and what he stands for.  Also as an artist.  There are kind of … three or four different narratives that we’re trying to weave together.  The subtext is that a lot of what Bambaataa decided was worthwhile to play became the basis of hip hop.  By telling his story, in a lot of ways we’re on a parallel plane, we’re telling the story of hip hop itself.

What kind of visuals will be incorporated into the show?

Cut Chemist: I haven’t seen the finished product of what the visuals will be.  A lot of stuff that compliments the material and the time frame.  A lot of New York City stuff, maybe mid ’80s, early ’80s or mid ’70s type of stuff, maybe even some early ’70s … depending on what type of music [we’re playing]. 

Everything has to compliment an era that we’re going to tackle, as far as the music.  When you think about hip hop and how it’s formed through people like Afrika Bambaataa … there was a story before a story. … There was gang culture, the Latin explosion, obviously the disco era [with] Studio 54. … The history of New York City – you could take 1977 alone and do a four-hour set based on that one year.  A lot of the visuals will reflect that.  As well as still photographs to found footage to newly created animated footage that our visual counterpart will put together.

Will there be any spoken word?

DJ Shadow: Yeah, there will be.

Will it be live spoken word?

DJ Shadow: No.  We’re telling the story with the vinyl itself.  Spoken word is a genre that he definitely exhibited in his collection, from The Last Poets being among the more well known to … commercials … odd things, children’s records, sound effects records.  If it was out there and he felt it had some kind of relevance, either to him or his performances, it was in the collection.

In planning this show, has there ever been any conversation about whether there may be too much information for the audience to digest?

Cut Chemist: We’ve never had that conversation in any set we’ve ever done.  I would say the last set we did, “The Hard Sell,” was a lot of information, the most information we’ve ever had.  We had 10 turntables, including our portables, giant screens, wrist screens, robo-cameras.  Was it too much?  No, I don’t think so.  There’s almost no such thing.  That’s why we create things like DVDs, so people can revisit them. 

There’s something beyond the first listen. There are always layers to what … Shadow and I do alone and together. Together it gets even more and more layered.  We [ask ourselves] On the surface, is it good?  Are the surface listeners getting what they want? OK, good.  Are the people who are really listening, like train spotting, are they getting what they want?  Because we would do that.  Beyond that, the more experimental, the more eclectic people, are they getting what they want?  So there’s information for everybody.

The show sounds like something a fan could see this tour multiple times and still see or hear something they didn’t notice on previous evenings.

Cut Chemist: I think so.  There are so many things to focus on.  There’s enough information to see this thing at least twice or three times and focus on completely different aspects of the show. It depends on what you’re going for.  If people want to hear the classic breaks, you’re going to hear them. If you want to hear classic breaks blended in unexpected ways, you’ll hear a little bit of that.  All those layers are covered.

When telling this story, will it be a linear experience or more of a montage that jumps around the timeline?

DJ Shadow: I think it makes sense in certain cases to work chronologically but we’re not … restricting ourselves to that.  With every record we add we talk about where it’s going to take us next. With every group of music we pass by, we talk about, is this something we’re going to come back to or is it something we’ve moved passed it tempo wise?  We try to consider, first and foremost, does it make sense to the story and narrative?  And secondarily, is the sound a good mix?  [If] the mix is so great we’re not going to worry about the fact that it came out a year later than this record that comes after it. Or, if the story is too good to pass up, in some cases it might not be the most perfect blend we could have come up with, but it’s so on the money in the terms of the narrative that it just has to be that way.

We kind of grew up hearing his mixes and the way things are put together.  Sometimes it makes total sense and sometimes it just feels right.  We’re trying to consider all of that every time we add a record.

Do you think the fans are as knowledgeable as you are regarding the technology used to put on a show such as this?

Cut Chemist: I don’t know.  Maybe.  We are kind of going old school with this in using records.  We’re not using state-of-the-art tables and software.  Our fans are familiar with that – using turntables and records.  Beyond that, if we’re using vintage gear, which we may or may not, we haven’t gotten into that aspect yet.  Are we going to use compressors, two compressors to make the sound better because it’s vinyl and it’s quieter? – those kind of conversations have been happening. That’s when it starts to get a little advanced.

From your perspective, what is vintage equipment?

Cut Chemist: If it’s going to be something we’re going to be performing with, maybe not a compressor, but an … echo or something like that. Or a drum machine.  We would want it to be something from the era, so early ’80s to early ’70s, maybe.  Something that compliments the material we pulled from the records.

Will there be moments for improvisation?

DJ Shadow: Yeah. We try to leave some room, if we feel the audience is into it, we might extend a section a little bit.  I think one of the things that sometimes people don’t really understand about DJing is, sometimes people will ask things like, “Will the set be completely different from night to night?”  That, to me, as a DJ, is a bit of an absurd question. It’s sort of like asking a professional athlete if they’re going to bat left-handed instead of right-handed, just for the heck of it.  A good mix is a good mix. If you’re telling the story of a DJ and you’re telling the story of a culture, it’s not like, “Well, one night I’m going to work with this batch of records and the next night I’m going to work with that batch.”  The narrative is the narrative.

Right now the set is a work in progress.  When do you realize that you’re done and that you have a show to take on the road?

Cut Chemist: We have to fill the time slot, which is about 100 minutes, including crowd interaction, talking, stuff like that. Once we’ve filled that up with music and we feel that we’ve represented all the genres we want to [and] covered … Bambaataa’s taste and legacy, hip hop’s chronological build and how it has evolved … once the story has been told up to a certain point, not only these stories but our cultural art story.  It’s Bambaataa’s records but it’s also our filters that are choosing what to play, how to play them.  It’s our story as well as his story.  Once we feel like all those angles have been represented, that’s when we know we have the show.

Photo: Joe Conzo
“There’s a ton of stuff that is out because we need to make sure we’re considering the best options as we go.”

Upcoming dates for DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist’s “Renegades Of Rhythm” tour:

Sept. 1 – Toronto, Ontario, The Guvernment
Sept. 3 – Boston, Mass., House Of Blues Boston
Sept. 4 – New York, N.Y., Irving Plaza
Sept. 5 – New York, N.Y., Irving Plaza
Sept. 6 – Philadelphia, Pa., Theatre Of The Living Arts
Sept. 8 – Silver Spring, Md., The Fillmore Silver Spring
Sept. 9 – Baltimore, Md., Baltimore Soundstage
Sept. 11 – Charlotte, N.C., Fillmore Charlotte
Sept. 12 – Atlanta, Ga., The Loft At Center Stage
Sept. 14 – Lake Buena Vista, Fla., House Of Blues
Sept. 16 – New Orleans, La., House Of Blues
Sept. 18 – Austin, Texas, Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater
Sept. 19 – Dallas, Texas, House Of Blues
Sept. 20 – Houston, Texas, House Of Blues
Sept. 22 – Louisville, Ky., Mercury Ballroom
Sept. 23 – Chicago, Ill., House Of Blues
Sept. 24 – Minneapolis, Minn., Skyway Theatre
Sept. 26 – Denver, Colo., Ogden Theatre
Sept. 27 – Aspen, Colo., Belly Up Aspen
Sept. 29 – Las Vegas, Nev., Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas
Oct. 1 – San Diego, Calif., House Of Blues
Oct. 2 – Anaheim, Calif., House Of Blues
Oct. 3 – Hollywood, Calif., Hollywood Palladium
Oct. 4 – San Francisco, Calif., Mezzanine
Oct. 6 – Arcata, Calif., Humboldt St. University
Oct. 7 – Portland, Ore., Roseland Theater
Oct. 8 – Seattle, Wash., The Neptune
Oct. 9 – Vancouver, British Columbia, Commodore Ballroom

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