Six years after their last tour together, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist team up again—this time, for a very special pursuit. They gained access to over 40,000 vinyl records from Afrika Bambaataa's historic collection (which is in the process of being digitally archived at Cornell University), deemed "the record collection that invented hip-hop" by Assistant Curator of the Cornell Hip-Hop Collection, Ben Ortiz. For their nationwide Renegades of Rhythm tour that kicks off on 1 September 2014, the two DJs will be spinning records pulled straight from the living legend's collection.
The shows, however, certainly won't be a throwback night that hits all the classics. DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist are known for their turntable skills for a reason and, by adding real-time sampling and effects, they'll be narrating a musical retrospective from a modern-day context. We spoke with one-half of the tour, DJ Shadow, who made history himself for his innovative use of sampling with Endtroducing..... in 1996. In our conversation, the experimental musician—who just launched his first imprint, Liquid Amber, accompanied by a free EP with the same name—shares a surprising vinyl find within Bam's collection and his contemplative approach to creating new music.
How long did you spend sifting through Bambaataa's collection?
Initially, when the idea came to us, the first thing we wanted to do is take a look at the collection and make sure it was what we were hoping it would be.
Before saying yes?
Yes, because lots of times—I've been collecting a long time and I'm well aware of stories about a lot of the godfathers of the scene—some of their collections get dispersed or the storage bill isn't paid or somebody gets in and kind of cherry picks it, and [you're] left with the shell of the collection. So we just wanted to make sure—we really didn't know what the collection was going to consist of. It would be better—obviously—if it was kind of untouched and pure.
And so we went and looked at the collection for about a day or so and quickly realized that not only was it intact, it was everything we had hoped for. There were all kinds of acetates of stuff that had never come out—and we were looking at each other like, "This is historical."
The next step was getting Bam's blessing and to actually go through the collection. It was four days—long, 10-hour days. We were on a mission and we wanted to make sure we got through everything.
Were you surprised by some of the vinyls you found there?
Pleasantly surprised. What a lot of people maybe don't understand as much about Bambaataa and the scene back then in the '70s is that it wasn't just funk and soul and early hip-hop that was played at parties. There was a lot of dub, soca, calypso, salsa… It was basically anything that was happening in the city, in the Bronx, in Harlem. There was a lot of different music being played that you'd walk down the street and hear, and Bambaataa really tried to embrace all of that. And you know, he had rock records, he had punk records. That was, I think, his gift to hip-hop: basically saying that any record can be hip-hop in the right context.
What is the driving mission behind the Renegades of Rhythm tour?
There's multiple stories that we're trying to tell. We're just trying to crack the combination to musically tell the best narrative we can with the records that we have.
We're surrounded right now with stacks of records in different categories. Any set as a DJ, you're just trying to find a good mix (that moves, has good variety, is technically sound) that's sound in terms of the narrative and not jumping around and getting mixed up with different things that don't matter as much. You end up having to cut a lot of stuff and that's the painful part. You're just trying to tell the best story that you can and you only have a finite amount of time to be on stage. Some things make the cut and some things don't, but that's what we're hear to do—we have to be editors.
How would you describe your and Cut Chemist's roles on stage?
It's a duet in the sense that we're both performing the whole time. This is like the fourth set we've done together, maybe fifth depending on how you look at it. So we feel like we have a rhythm in a way of working and in a way of being efficient. I think nowadays, a lot of people are used to listening to pretty complicated mixes that were put together digitally. And being aware of that, we want to keep things moving and have as much going on as possible. But, you know, we just last night were talking about the need to make sure that the set breathes, too. We don't want it to be overload.
What inspired you to start your own imprint?
It's just kind of a natural thing to do if you're making music and you're making art, and you want to share it in the way that you want to share it. You want to be able to steer the narrative in the way that you want it steered.
Way back in the early '90s, I kind of co-founded a rap label for the same reason. Mainly because we didn't think anyone else would be interested—and we didn't want to wait for anyone else. It was just like, "Well, we can do this just as well as anyone else can," and so we did—or we tried to. It's the same with this. Every so often, I think it's good to shake the cobwebs off and do something different and try something different.
Will we have to wait until after the tour to hear the next release from Liquid Amber?
Actually, I'm already listening to music and there's a lot of people sending me stuff—mostly people who I've let them know that I like their music. It's very informal, it's not like a big business plan. I'm not trying to take over anything, or have anything huge. It's not really about that. It's mainly just about putting my own stuff out and helping, hopefully, shine some light on some artists who I think are doing some really cool stuff. And hopefully that will provide an opportunity for them to open themselves up and do things with other people.
As someone who's constantly performing and listening to music—do you ever give yourself time to rest your ears and sit in silence every day, and take a break?
Yeah, especially when I'm touring a lot, playing every night in a club or in a venue—even in my early 20s, I wasn't the type of person to do a show and then go in the back of the bus and work on a beat. I definitely need more space than a lot of people I know to kind of consider what's important and how things fit in. If I make music too quickly and put it out too quickly, I personally feel like I need a lot of time to consider exactly what I'm saying; whether it's pertinent, relevant and whether I feel like it occupies a unique space at that time. Because I don't want to just do things that are going to be…
Adding noise to the internet?
Exactly. I want to opt for something unique at any given time; something that has its own shape and its own space. It might be three releases a year, it might be 10. I have no idea yet. It all just comes down to whatever feels right and whatever I can do well—in the sense that making sure the quality control is there and making sure that I'm equally invested in every release, as opposed to, "Oh yeah, we'll just throw this out there."
CH has an ongoing series called "PrivateJam" where we ask notable artists about a guilty pleasure or an especially meaningful song. Do you have one at the moment?
Not to go off-topic, but it's funny because when we were going through Bam's collection, I remember seeing Def Leppard's Pyromania and thinking that there wasn't too much mid-'80s hair metal in his collection but that one stood out. It was funny because, over the last few weeks, I bought a lot of magazines on eBay that had interviews with Bambaataa—part of the research, and also looking for cool photos of him that we could scan and use in the visuals. And he directly mentions in an interview in like '87 that he wanted to do a track with Def Leppard.
So then to go back in the collection and pull out that record and be like, "Wow, this meant a lot to him." The fact that I know that, and the fact that he mentioned it in an interview, directly—it still doesn't make it any easier for me to figure out how to work it into the set [laughs]. Because it's just so different.
I feel like a lot of what of Bambaataa's aesthetic is about, is the same thing as mine or what I aspire to; which is kind of a certain sense of taste. As a consequence of that, you tend to shy away from really mainstream mega rock, mega hits or mega pop. I think that's the best answer I could give you: is that I'm currently trying to reconcile my own sense of a what a guilty pleasure is.
So if we do hear Def Leppard at one of the shows this September, it means you've succeeded in working it into the set.
I guess so—but I can tell you right now, I don't think it's going to go in [laughs]. But in the true sense of a guilty pleasure, I can enjoy it in private here, in the room.
The Renegades of Rhythm tour kicks off 1 September 2014 in Toronto. For a full list of dates and venues, visit DJ Shadow's official website.
Crate digging images courtesy of Joe Conzo, all other images courtesy of Arian Stevens