When discussing the intertwining of hip-hop and hard rock, it's much easier to dwell on the past two decades of embarrassments (three words: Limp Bizkit reunion) than on the successes. However, quality hybrids of spit lyrics and monster riffs didn't start with Rage Against the Machine's 1992 debut. From Afrika Bambaataa's early embrace of classic Grand Funk Railroad and Led Zeppelin tracks to Rick Rubin's bridging of styles with Run-DMC, hip-hop beats and guitar crunch share a fruitful history that far outweighs the stigma of late-'90s nü-metal.
While plenty of modern hard-rock acts use DJs to add hip-hop gloss to their sound, only a few turntable maestros creatively bring heavy rock to their mixology. Canadian phenom Kid Koala (aka Eric San) might seem an unlikely champion of iron-fisted genre-splicing, given his predilection for jazzy, melodic scratching and humorous concept albums. But don't let the wax-fondling marsupial's cuddly exterior fool you. As half of DJ and production partnership the Slew, Koala conjures the most fist-pumping salvo of distortion-driven hip-hop since Jay-Z had "99 Problems."
The concept behind the Slew took root almost five years ago when Seattle-based producer, remixer, and onetime Beastie Boys beatsmith Dynomite D approached longtime friend Koala to collaborate on rock-flavored beats for a documentary soundtrack. The DJ was cagey about the film's subject matter during a recent phone interview, but online research suggests the now-shelved doc focused on an obscure Seattle psych band also called the Slew. That group's unreleased recordings reportedly provided the foundation for the duo's new rock-oriented turntable album, 100%. Several prototype "Slew tests" appeared on Koala's 2006 effort, Your Mom's Favorite DJ, applying his intricate cut-and-paste techniques to howling blues vocals and fuzzed-out guitar tones. The solid results produced on that album demanded further exploration.
"We'd always wanted to work on a heavier record," Koala says. "Our mantra in the studio was, 'What would happen if Public Enemy's Bomb Squad produced a Black Sabbath album?'" Following the densely layered templates of Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet and the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, the duo meticulously refined the bruising beat science heard on 100% during sporadic recording sessions over the next few years.
"We actually cut everything on vinyl and assembled it by hand, which is why it took so long," he explains.
The final product proved well worth the wait. The opening title track's menacing swirls of scratched harmonica, guitar, and vocal snippets build in stereo-panned intensity until a savage drumbeat hits like a sandbag. Though uniformly crushing in terms of guitar heft, the tunes range in mood from the cowbell-banging Hendrix groove of "Problem Child" and the stomping riff party of "Robbing Banks (Doin' Time)" to the ominous blues of "Shackled Soul" and "Southeast Soliloquy."
Koala posted the full skull-splitting album as a free download on his Web site in early September. His next task involved translating the music from 100% to a live show that could be taken on the road. Backed by the powerhouse former rhythm section of Wolfmother (Chris Ross on bass and keyboards, Myles Heskett on drums), Koala and frequent onstage partner DJ P Love (aka Paolo Kapunan) will be manhandling some 80 pieces of custom-pressed vinyl on six turntables run through guitar amps to match the thunderous live instrumentation. Koala laughs as he describes weeks of focusing on "sound-absorption physics," preparations that include specially designed turntable stands to handle the vibrations from the anticipated high volume.
"These guys are massively loud onstage," he adds. "We don't want to be all careful up there. It's a rock show." This unique tour promises to keep heads nodding and banging when the Slew unleashes its unusual muscular grooves live.