RETURN OF THE DJ is a series (two so far, with a third shortly on its way) of scratchadelic hip-hop albums on Bay Area-based indie label Bomb Hip-Hop featuring the turntablist underground's biggest names: Q-Bert and Mix Master Mike of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, DJ Babu, Kid Koala, Rob Swift. It's also the most blatant declaration of intent of any album title since the release in 1958 of Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz. Where Free Jazz birthed and named a subgenre, the Bomb series is a chicken-or-egg proposition: Did the first Return, from 1995, inspire the flurry of high-profile activity that has followed in its wake, or was it merely an early warning of the damage to come?
DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist
ARO.space, Wednesday, October 13
It hardly matters now: Even if turntablism never produces a mall-recognizable star on the order of Fatboy Slim or the Chemical Brothers, it has, at the very least, ingrained itself as a widely respected avant-pop style with room for growth. But even if Mix Master Mike's arena-rocking stint with the Beastie Boys last summer turned on the next generation of stylus-wreckers, chances are he won't be breaking pop anytime soon: His debut album, 1998's Anti-Theft Device, is so noisy it could induce a headache even in those who listen to Einstrzende Neubauten for relaxation.
Not going pop may be the point: Any underground worth knowing about prides itself on its exclusivity. But purism only goes so far—too often, it curdles, becoming reflexively self-protective and boring—which is one reason the sonic constructions of San Francisco DJ Lucas McFadden, a.k.a. Cut Chemist, are so refreshing. For one thing, he plays in a pair of relatively traditional bands—Afro-Latin-funk ensemble Ozomatli and old-school hip-hop revivalists the Jurassic 5. For another, the grooves themselves tend to avoid the aggressive avant-gardism (like that of rough minimalist PhonosycographDISK) or wild-assed abandon (such as Q-Bert's) favored by many of McFadden's turntablist cohorts. His music isn't moody or gonzo, it's sly and goofy and open-hearted. Like the more fussed-about DJ Shadow, he's as interested in creating smart, headphone-friendly sonic set-pieces as he is in turntable trickery. And while he's as conceptually minded as any of his peers, he leaves his concepts out in the open for those who aren't particularly interested in deciphering hidden meanings.
That may be why "Lesson 6: the Lecture" (available on both the Jurassic 5's self-titled EP—recently reissued on Interscope—and Deep Concentration, Florida indie Om's fine 1997 turntablist/underground hip-hop survey) is the most deeply pleasurable piece of music yet to emerge from the turntablism camp. Hooking on a series of nerdy science professor samples (one of which goes, "Compound: a substance composed of two or more elements chemically combined in definite proportions by weight"), the track's jazzy stand-up bass and hollow-toned drum samples whomp as agreeably as anything hip-hop has coughed up since De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising; the jokey spoken asides ("This is the mark of a professional" says one prof before Chemist scratches in another beat) recall nothing so much as that album's between-song skits. This knack for screwy, uncluttered funk also shows up in tracks like "Lesson 4: the Radio," from the first Return of the DJ, and "S.N.T. (Live at Peacepipe)," a collaboration with guitarist/bassist/cellist Miles Tackett on Loosegroove's new hip-hop compilation, The Funky Precedent.
Cut Chemist's talents extend further than his studio skills. He's equally impressive in the mix, as evidenced on last year's Live from the Future Primitive Soundsession Version 1.0 (Future Primitive), a live-on-four-tables collaboration with fellow San Franciscan Shortkut. Like Chemist's production work, Soundsession is relaxed without being laid back or lazy. It features plenty of Chemist and Shortkut's extensive but not overdemonstrative scratching skills. And it includes healthy chunks of Chemist's own tracks, in addition to choice hip-hop rarities like Double Dee & Steinski's Lesson Mixes EP, the three-part aural-collage "history of hip-hop" that remains a cut-and-paste benchmark and that inspired Chemist's own "Lesson" tracks. It's a tribute to both the originators and their brightest pupil that everything fits together seamlessly.