With creative partnership that dates back 15 years, to the 1999 release of their celebrated 7-inch single mix Brainfreeze, turntable maestros DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist [aka Josh Davis and Lucas MacFadden] have helped raise the bar and push the envelope of modern hip-hop tricknology.
[jump] Drawn together by a mutual admiration — both DJs had produced their own respective songs entitled “Lesson 4” in tribute to Double Dee and Steinski's famed series of 12-inch singles before they had even met — it was inevitable that the two talented turntablists and vinyl archaeologists would eventually work together. Their Brainfreeze set that debuted in San Francisco at one of promoter Mark Herlihy's legendary Future Primitive Sound Session parties would start a cottage industry of reissuing and compiling the rare funk 45s heard on the deftly executed mix.
While the two would reunite for two more 45s-only mix CDs and tours (Product Placement in 2001 and the more experimental mix The Hard Sell in 2007), their current project stands out as their most remarkable collaboration yet. In the summer of 2013, the pair were approached about the idea of making a mix that would draw on Afrika Bambaataa's enormous collection of 40,000 records that had been permanently archived at Cornell University.
After digging through the massive vinyl stockpile, the duo instead decided to craft a 90+ minute mix that they would take on the road spinning the very records Bambaataa had used to help lay the foundation of hip hop. The epic sonic travelogue featured on their Renegades of Rhythm Tour may be the most infectiously danceable block party/history lesson ever.
The eclectic mix spotlights Bambaataa's influences and many of the touchstone breakbeats he introduced to hip hop during the culture's early development. In addition to detours into Latin, soca, and go-go, the mix is sprinkled with ultra-rare acetates of Bambaataa demos that have rarely been heard outside of NYC block parties decades ago. All Shook Down recently spoke with DJ Shadow about the concepts behind the ambitious new mix and plans to possibly document it ahead of the tour's return to the Bay Area for a show at the Fox Theater in Oakland Tuesday, Nov. 25 at 8 p.m.
Once you and Cut Chemist put together the mix, is there room for changes as the tour progresses or is it fairly locked in?
This is the fourth major set that Cut and I have done together. The prior tour we did, called The Hard Sell, was at the time the most ambitious set we’d done. It probably still is, even including the Bambaataa set. It was eight turntables and we’re doing six for this show.
There was no built-in context [for The Hard Sell]. All that we knew was that we wanted to take the 45 thing as far as we possibly could so that we would really never do it again. We saw it as the be all and end all for any type of 45 rpm DJ show. So it made it really hard. When we first put the show together, it was to premiere at the Hollywood Bowl.
There were a lot of logistical things we had to consider and a lot of really ambitious stuff we were trying to do. There was a segment where we had drilled holes into centerpieces so that all the records would play off center and have this kind of woozy [makes siren-like sound] type of thing. We were playing records upside down so they were playing backwards. We were doing all kinds of crazy stuff. That show went through four major refreshes. We felt we were aiming for something and we didn’t know what our parameters were and we just wanted to go farther and farther. So whenever we had the chance, we kept tinkering and editing and changing the set.
[page] By contrast, with this set, there was a very clear narrative and a very clear idea of what kind of story we wanted to tell. It had a very clear beginning, middle and end in our minds. We wanted to be really respectful of the subject matter and we wanted it to be a celebration. We felt like we wanted to tell the story of Bambaataa as a collector, as a DJ, as a recording artist, and also as a kind of progressive musical visionary and peacemaker and social thinker.
So those were the narratives we set out to tell and our resources were finite. We went through the collection, pulled what we thought was relevant, distilled it down to a few hundred records and that was what we built the set from. So because of all those reasons, the set kind of came together. We spent so much time talking about it and thinking about it and playing through music, that when it came time to actually put the set together in the three weeks that we had, it just seemed to all kind of fall into place really naturally.
In all honesty, we’ve barely changed it from the first show to now, because it seemed to kind of work right away. Of all the sets we’ve done together, this is by far the best in terms of flow and crowd reaction and the feeling there’s nothing we would change even if we could. We feel like this is what it was meant to be.
Was there any era or style or artist you wanted to give more time to in the set, but in the interest of maintaining the narrative, couldn’t?
Well there are so many classic breaks that are so important. The hard part is that, even though we play for an hour and 45 minutes, we can’t let any one thing play for more than say…I think the longest thing we play is about two and a half minutes. And that’s one of Bam’s songs. There just isn’t a lot of time. We wanted to articulate that James Brown was one of his heroes, so I think we probably play more James Brown songs than anybody outside of Bambaataa.
There were a lot of classic breaks and jams [that didn’t make it]. We don’t play any ESG. We pulled “UFO” by ESG but somehow it didn’t get sent to us. I think what happened was it got pulled because of its visual beauty for a gallery exhibit that somebody was doing. So there were two competing interests and a few of our pulls didn’t make it to us. There were things like that that were kind of heartbreaking, but we realized there’s no way with under ten hours you’re going to get to everything.
Given the volume of records that didn’t make it into this set, have you given any thought to doing a second tribute to Bambaataa? Or does it feel like this one works so well that trying to do another version would be pointless?
That’s a good question. Not having really considered it before, I think Luke and I both consider this a one-time thing. What appealed to us about doing this in the first place, we didn’t think anything like it had ever been done. Where you had one of the top three foundational DJs at the root of hip-hop culture and you take their collection and have other DJs go through it [laughs]. It just seemed to us to be something completely unique that had never been done before, and that’s a good part of what appealed to us about doing it.
And we’ve never been really huge on sequels. So I consider this a really unique and really fun project that, to me, kind of stands alone. To be able to play it for Bambaataa in New York with him in attendance and to get his approval in that way and have the audience be able to look at him and pay their respects to him…there isn’t really anybody else on the face of the planet that I would show that amount of reverence to. I literally said to him – he was up in the balcony – and I said “Please accept this gift from us.” And it was completely heartfelt. Weeks after the fact, I couldn’t really think of too many people who I would make that kind of a statement to.
I figure this would be tricky as far as clearances, but is there any possibility of the mix being released as a CD? Or is there any chance of other documentation like a DVD of a performance or maybe a film about the whole project?
We did film a few shows. Apparently there was some problem with the audio. Somebody on the crew was trying to do it in addition to all their other chores. I don’t know; it’s still unresolved whether or not the audio actually survived. I know Cornell would like to document it. There’s talk of maybe trying to document the Fox show.
Of course we’d like to do something like a CD. We’ve always done stuff like that in the past, but I know a lot of people don’t understand how much things have changed in the Internet era. You really leave yourself open to a lot of grief, because everybody blows your cover. People don’t understand the difference between sampling and a mixed CD, and there are all these sample sites where people tell what we used and stuff like that.
A lot of artists who don’t know any better will Google their name, and stuff like that comes up and they think “Oh, where’s my lawyer? I want a million dollars.” Sadly, it’s another example of the chilling effect this mass communication has had on the art form. Maybe it’ll end up on Soundcloud or Mixcloud at some point, but a physical CD is unlikely.
DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist with Dam-Funk and Davey D play the Fox Theater on Tuesday, Nov. 25, 8 p.m. $35. www.thefoxoakland.com