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Cut Chemist & DJ Shadow Hit The Road To Honor Afrika Bambaataa
Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Two turntables and a microphone may be enough equipment to encompass some careers, but when Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow were conceiving a set to honor hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa they knew they’d need more.

They started with Bambaataa’s record collection.

With the crates of one of hip-hop’s founding fathers in hand, the two created a six turntable musical retrospective, complete with visuals, that not only gives insight into who Bambaataa was, and is, but also illustrates hip-hop’s beginnings, and initial growth.

The show, which they titled the Renegades of Rhythm tour, is currently on the road in North America, having kicked off on September 1st in Toronto, and winds down on October 9th in Vancouver.

I caught up with Cut Chemist to find out more about the origins of the tour, and what it was like going through Bambaataa’s records, and deciding what to use for the show. He also revealed a tour horror story from his past that involved the toughest crowd he’s ever played for.

Adam Bernard: Let’s talk about the Renegades of Rhythm tour. You and DJ Shadow are going to be using Afrika Bambaataa’s records to illustrate his story on six turntables, and you have visuals in the mix, as well. What was the origin of this idea, and how did you go about bringing it to life?

Cut Chemist: There’s an art collector in New York named Johan Kugelberg, who works for a company called Boo-Hooray, and he brokered the deal between Bambaataa and Cornell University for the acquisition of Bambaataa’s records, because they’re preserving a lot of hip-hop, and other things. They’re kind of a Smithsonian Institute, of sorts. They’ve (also) acquired Buddy Esquire’s flyer collection, through, again, Johan Kugelberg.

(These are) important pieces of contemporary, not even just contemporary, but important pieces of history. Bambaataa’s collection being a very important piece to contemporary music culture, Kugelberg felt it should be archived, and what better place than Cornell University.

Kugelberg called us up and asked us if we would be interested in doing a mix, because Shadow and I have a long history of doing mixes together that are celebrated, and so we said, first of all, it would be a huge honor for both of us, because not only for myself, but DJ Shadow, Bambaataa’s a huge inspiration, and it would be a chance to actually look through the collection that I consider to be ground zero of hip-hop.

Adam Bernard: When you started looking through it did anything surprise you?

Cut Chemist: Knowing about how Bambaataa celebrated all genres, I went in with a complete open mind, and I didn’t think I was gonna be surprised by anything, but I actually was surprised by something, and that was the fact the he had records that I did. I was blown away by that. He had Jurassic 5 records in there, he had Ozomatli records in there. It just felt incredibly validating to live in that collection. That was the thing that surprised me the most.

You have the calypso, the punk, the new wave, all of that, I knew all that was gonna be in there, but to see a Cut Chemist record in there? I was like, no way! It was really pleasing.

Adam Bernard: Is there any paranoia, or extra precaution, regarding traveling with Bam’s records?

Cut Chemist: Of course, but we keep them close to our person. Everything is carried on when there’s a flight, and now that we’re rolling on a bus, everything’s ground travel, and they’re always in plain sight.

Adam Bernard: From what I understand the set covers three unique aspects of Bam; Bam as a thinker, visionary, and artist. Without giving away the entire show, how are you going about telling those stories?

Cut Chemist: Chronologically, we found, is the best arrangement. The beginning, his heroes, who he looked up to, what maybe shaped his social angle in music. James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, music from the 60s, Farrakhan, Martin Luther King, all make an appearance in the intro. We move from that to the different types of sounds, calypso, New York Latin, bringing that a little bit into the mix as far as him bringing in different cultures.

We move from that into how hip-hop progresses, because it’s not only a narrative about Bambaataa, but it’s also about the history of hip-hop through the music that he chose to play, that other DJs played because he was playing it. We go through that kind of taste-making process. Then him as a producer in the studio, and records that were inspired by that.

We then really focus on the hits, and go back to the records that spawned those records, finishing with a set of the timeless breaks that he would play, and ending it with variations of “Planet Rock.”

Adam Bernard: That’s an incredible amount to fit into what 90, or 120 minutes?

Cut Chemist: One hundred minutes, and it was heartbreaking because at the end of us putting together the set we were like, there were important records that we didn’t get to play. There just isn’t the time. We’re sitting there with thousands of records, and we’re looking through them like, “Man, we didn’t even get a chance to play ‘Cars’ by Gary Numan.” He loved “Cars.” It’s one of his all-time favorites.

The records we did choose are important to us, and again, you have to remember, we’re telling the legacy through our filters, so of course we have to bring our tastes to the table. We think this is important because this tells a story that’s kind of connected to him, and to both of us, also. That factored into the decision making process when we chose what we chose, and how we play it, as well.

Adam Bernard: In hip-hop we have a lot of rappers who celebrate other rappers, but we rarely see DJs celebrating other DJs. What do you think a tour like this says about where we are as a culture?

Cut Chemist: I think hip-hop is starting to get to the point now where DJs from the old school are getting rid of their records, digitizing, maybe they’re at an age now where they’re retiring, so it’s kind of an official, to me it seems like an official passing of the torch. New people will acquire these records in one way or another. Bambaataa chose to archive them, which I think was smart, and Cornell is now letting us share his music with the world.

It’s a first step in the right direction as far as a way to teach new people about not only the history of hip-hop, but Bambaataa, and people like Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash. They will go on doing that at Cornell. I think Bambaataa will even teach courses there. I don’t know all the details, but I’ve heard something to that effect.

It’s a huge history lesson, and I think it’s important that this happens. I’m just really glad to be a part of it.

Adam Bernard: You’re currently on the road, and you’ve toured the world numerous times, so let’s get to some fun stuff. What’s been the wildest, or most interesting, thing you’ve seen, or experienced, while on the road?

Cut Chemist: An experience I had DJing, and it was frightening, but I had been asked to open up for Shakira on her European tour, where I played hockey stadiums, because it’s Shakira. It was just me and her. It wasn’t like I was warming up before doors, or anything like that. It was just me and her. I remember the first show in Hamburg, there were 15,000 Germans, and they all booed me.

Adam Bernard: Why?

Cut Chemist: Because they didn’t want to see some DJ noodling around on his mixer, they wanted to see a sexy, hips don’t lie shakin woman singing her hits.

I’d never heard 15,000 boos at once, and it is horrific, it’s frightening. I (initially) couldn’t tell what it was, and I turned to my visual guy, who was doing visuals for me on stage, and I go, “What is that? Is that some kind of German thing?” And he goes, “No, I think they’re boing us.” {laughs}

I stuck it out. I just went through the boos. It was a 45 minute set.

Adam Bernard: In German the boos have to be even scarier.

Cut Chemist: It was a lot deeper. It was like a revving. It sounded like a world was being destroyed. My world was being destroyed, actually, but I got through it, and I figured out a way to make a set that could appease both that audience, and my artistic integrity at the same time.

It was actually a huge right of passage for me as an artist, and as a performer. It turned out to be a good experience. It was a three month tour, and I did all three months, but I was like, Jesus Christ, in all my life I’d never experienced anything like that.

Adam Bernard: Did you have any Rammstein to throw on to placate them?

Cut Chemist: It was a weird process where I went for like three shows going, “Alright, I need to play ‘Hung Up’ by Madonna.” It was early 2007, and I remember my manager was like, “Play some Sly and the Family Stone. That’ll get ‘em!” I’m like, you’re fired. That’s not gonna get ‘em!

I figured out a nice sweet spot of things that I could play, and beat juggle, that they would recognize, so they could see what I was doing with music that they were familiar with. I was happy because I was doing what I do with something that they wanted to hear, and then I put on my own music, because I had just put out an album at that time, so it all worked out. Everybody was happy.

Adam Bernard: Did Shakira attempt to give you a pep talk after the German show?

Cut Chemist: After the German show they called me into the office. They were like, “I don’t think this is gonna work out.” I was like, “Give me another shot. I’ll dial it in, just give me a minute, we can work this out.” But yeah, I almost got canned.

Adam Bernard: On the first night?

Cut Chemist: On the first night.

Interview originally ran on Arena.com.


posted by Adam Bernard @ 3:00 PM  
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