-- Paul D. Robbins Ph.D., Hallucinogens
Neither Eddie Def nor DJ Cue has experienced the effects of the alkaloid DMT -- the most intense psychedelic substance known to humans. They hadn't even heard of it when they were in the process of arriving at their project's surprisingly apt name. In fact, the name they'd originally planned to use for the five-CD outing was DMS, but their record label, Dogday, informed them a Seattle group was already using those initials. So Def and Cue changed their moniker to Drum Machine Technicians -- and happened upon an obscure drug reference that, accidentally and uncannily, describes their music perfectly. The tracks on Terminal Illness from Eddie Def (out now) and C4 from Cue (out in December) come in short bursts of crunchy loops; the beats clatter against each other, and the patterns indeed often get caught in little anxiety-provoking ruts.
"I try to picture it in a real spacey way, like how aliens would make music, or what they would be listening to on a different planet or something," says Eddie Def. He says this without a second thought, not knowing that DMT experiencers commonly refer to the sounds they hear as "alien music," and that conversations and noises around them are chopped into cryptic fragments. And that is exactly the effect these two local hip hop and battle DJs have created with their Akai MPC 2000 sampling drum machines. "It's like, what section should [our CDs] be in at the store?" Cue asks himself. "There should be a section called just 'Drug Music.' It's like, take this and listen to this -- prescription drug music. I don't even take drugs, though -- I'm kind of a hypocrite."
The idea for DMT "probably just came out of nowhere" according to Def -- he recently produced the beats for Bay Area freaky super group El Stew's well-received album. Then Cue had an offer to produce a series of instrumental CDs, and brought in his longtime collaborator from the infamous scratch crew the Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters (now renamed the Space Travelers) with the idea that they trade off solo albums as DMT, then join forces for the fifth and final one. The project affords them the opportunity to rest their scratch skills a bit, something they don't often get to do, given their involvement in the turntablist movement since its very beginning. In fact, there isn't a single scratch on either of the first two CDs. "It's like we're going on to a new level," Cue says. "Who cares about scratching or turntables, who cares about rap, who cares about techno, who cares about anything? Let's just try this new shit. Someone likes it, great. No one likes it, great."
Both albums are constructed mostly out of noise, fragmented patterns, unusual time signatures, distortion effects, and deep bass sounds -- all elements currently very much out of vogue in hip hop. And while both Def and Cue are about as familiar with techno as they are with DMT, the drug, references to the sci-fi darkness of techno are often more obvious in their work than references to today's rap productions. This unconscious crossover is understandable given their influences -- "[Afrika] Bambaataa, Arthur Baker, Kraftwerk, Mantronix," as Eddie Def puts it. Afrika Bambaata and the Soulsonic Force's 1982 track "Planet Rock" -- which combined the breakbeats of hip hop played on Roland TR 808 drum machines with the cold synthesizers of Kraftwerk -- came out of the New York hip hop scene, but is also generally considered the first techno track. Techno music by way of Detroit and Europe evolved into a 4/4 bass thud, while hip hop on the East Coast became uninterested in the drum machine in the late 80's -- and the two basically ignored each other for a decade or so.
In the last few years, however, there have been all kinds of interesting hip hop hybrid creations coming from electronic musicians, but next to none from the hip hop camp. DMT represents one of the first attempts from hip hop producers at seriously exploring the electro-funk legacy in their beats. "I always wondered why that part of hip hop went away," Def says. "The Electric Kingdom, the Egyptian Lover, Rodney O, Breakers Revenge -- pure drum machines and vocoders. I always wondered what the hell happened to that. It just got wiped out by gangster rap. And then it just became not cool or something."
Both Def and Cue -- who owns Daly City's popular record store Cue's Records -- are largely disappointed with the current state of hip hop, the music they've crafted their lives around since their early teens. "Shit is getting boring in hip hop," Def says. "Especially like played out, slow loops and bass lines -- after a while it gets really common. Take gangster rap for instance: Everyone's a hustler, or a pimp, or clocking ice or gold, or wearing their sweats up to their knees, all kinds of shit. And it's all over the world. You hear a guy from Brooklyn, you hear a guy from Compton, from Oakland, and Sacramento, they're all just saying the same stuff.
"I don't expect to capture that audience," he continues. "[DMT] is more like new wave breaking music." Both Def and Cue grew up in San Francisco in the '80s, when movies like Wildstyle and Beat Street were inspiring kids to bring sheets of tile out to the corners and do headspins. "It was crazy, it was like everyone had ski glasses and a Kangol, tagging on buses," Def remembers. Hip hop wasn't just something presented on a stage, it was young people participating in the streets and having fun, opening their minds to new sounds and rhythms.
DMT is dedicated to resurrecting the experimentation and the otherworldly feeling the early breakdance anthems had. "I'm trying to come in on the two [beat] instead of the one," Def explains. "Like on certain sequences there will be a loop, and then the drums go away, but the loop keeps going, and then something will come in on the three. Somebody who makes beats like DJ Shadow or DJ Krush might look at it like a sampling mistake, but I'm trying to do it like that. Like I'm trying to come in the back door."
But while the innovative approach of electro-funk and breaking music is kept alive by DMT, the tracks aren't especially easy to dance to -- the samples and loops are chopped up so as to be more brutal and twisted than funky. Cue is curious about what sort of physical reaction their music might cause. "It's cool to listen to in the car, but I want to hear it loud, like on a rave system. I just want to see what the hell happens to the crowd, if someone passes out or throws up. My goal is to really flip people out."
On Terminal Illness, Def takes half of one beat from the all-time body rocking classic "Good Times" by Chic and repeats it to the point where a dancer might blow a knee trying to mimic the groove. "I never make music really for people," he says. "I just make it to tweak myself out. Because I've been listening to music for so long, I think, 'what would tweak me out? I'm 28, I've been listening to this shit for years, I'm into the DJ scene, the whole hip hop shit, everything, what would freak me out that would be out there?' And that's when I start making stuff."