Dig the New Breed

Live Human proves that turntablism can learn a thing or two from jazz -- or is it the other way around?

The debate about whether or not a scratch DJ is a "real" musician should be over by now. It's been well over 20 years since Grandmaster Flash first started working over the instrumental sides of disco 12-inches at Bronx block parties, a little less than that since Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" first brought scratching to the pop charts, a decade since Bay Area DJs first graduated from pause tapes to turntables, and five years since underground collectives like the Invisibl Skratch Piklz proved it was art, and pop acts started figuring DJ tweaks into their hit-bound productions. Not that it's been an easy climb to credibility, particularly among old-schoolers: In the same way a discombobulated Pete Seeger tried to take an ax to the power supply when Bob Dylan played old folk songs electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Run-D.M.C. DJ Jam Master Jay tried to cut off the Piklz's power supply during their "Peter Piper" routine at the 1995 Source Awards.

But times change. A few weeks ago at the DJ Expo at the Cathedral Hill Hotel, the Piklz provided a skills showcase for attendees and Jam Master Jay was one of many polite onlookers. Carlos Aguilar, aka DJ Quest, was part of the crowd as well, declining when asked if he might want to come up and spin for the crowd. Like the individual members of the Piklz, Quest's reputation is well-established at this point. Starting his career as a San Francisco DJ in 1987, he became a member of what's now known as the Bullet Proof Space Travelers, including DJs Cue, Marz, and Eddie Def and MC Eddie K. An earlier configuration, the Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters, released Hamster Breaks Vol. 1in 1992, and since then Quest has kept busy performing and recording with the Space Travelers, DJ Shadow's Quannum side project, the Neo Trio, and the "turntable jazz" group Live Human, featuring bassist Andrew Kushin and drummer Albert Mathias. He also received significant exposure last year for a collaboration with Shadow on "Holy Calamity (Bear Witness II)," a track on Dan Nakamura and Prince Paul's rightfully acclaimed Handsome Boy Modeling School album.

All of which should position Quest as prime booster of the turntable as an instrument and DJing as an art form, but Quest himself isn't convinced. "It's always been my instrument, but I've never been down with the whole 'turntablism movement,'" he says in his Mission District home and practice space. "That's a term used by most of these DJs who didn't believe in the turntable being an instrument until everybody jumped on the bandwagon. I think it's going to be 20 years before a DJ can get up there and jam with a band and really be on the level of every other musician. The turntable hasn't been developed. Yeah, you can get up there and scratch, fuck it up, come up with new sounds, this and that, but it's still a little baby instrument. I look at this guy at shows, and he doesn't need to stop."

"This guy" is Kushin, who like Mathias come from a background in the local avant-jazz realm. "There are a lot of DJs who don't have that sort of talent," says Kushin. "But in the case of Carlos," he adds flatly, "he's a musician." When the three met each other in 1996, the Live Human concept wasn't as gimmicky as "jazz musicians meet hip hop" -- which isn't a new idea anyway. It's as old as the Last Poets, and began picking up steam in the mid-'90s, as trip hop acts and showcase compilations like Mo' Wax's Headzshowed that a hip hop/jazz fusion could sound more intense and creative than the dry fuzak of Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, and their ilk.

"I think a lot of times, until you see us play live, people think we're a jazz fusion group," says Mathias. "But we're not like that. We don't draw from that too much apart from the instrumentation." For four years the trio has performed around the city, and has recorded an EP, single, and full-length album, though until recently, purchasing any of them required overseas connections. Over six days in 1998, the three recorded their first album, Monostereosis: The New Victrola Method; a year ago, British trip hop label Fat Cat released it exclusively overseas; and last week local label Hip Hop Slam finally released the album stateside.

In other words, Monostereosis is old; indeed, by the standards of the fast-moving world of electronic music and DJ experimentation, it's downright elderly. But it's a tremendous example of how a record that is essentially a collection of breakbeats -- all three are rhythm instrument players, after all -- can establish song, mood, and the combination of virtuosity and passion that all great jazz aspires to. Driven by Kushin's stand-up bass lines, the results can be as elementally funky as "Orangebushmonkeyflower" or as loping and drowsy as "Percodan." In its most frenzied moments -- "G. Shroom" or the Quest showcase "Step Up," which comes on like a chamber orchestra in overdrive -- it's more powerful and aggressive than anything that's come from the trip hop camp. Kushin claims a great admiration for John Zorn's Naked City project, while Quest is a Kraftwerk booster; somewhere between frenzied jazz skronk and Teutonic electro chill, Live Human has found an exuberant compromise.

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