If It's Good Music, It's Good Music

An Interview with DJ Z-Trip

by Tim O'Neil

He's not just that DJ that mashes up rock, and now Z-Trip explains how he shifted gears.

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

Z-Trip is a rising star in the world of hip-hop, a white DJ who rose to prominence on the strength of his effortless ability to rock a party, as well as his acumen as one of the very first—if not the first—American DJs to specialize in mash-ups. While mash-ups have slowly permeated their way through every layer of music culture in the last two years, Z-Trip holds the exalted position of earliest adopter in a field of self-appointed mavens.

After three years of waiting, Z-Trip’s major label debut, Shifting Gears, was finally released on April 26. Z-Trip was generous enough to take a few moments out of his busy promotion schedule to speak with Popmatters, and he was as gregarious and articulate in person as anyone familiar with his endlessly entertaining records and remixes might expect.

PopMatters: I first saw you back in 2001 at the Coachella Music & Arts festival. You were playing in the early afternoon to an almost empty tent, and I remember you playing AC/DC (“Back in Black”) with Christina Aguilera (“Genie In A Bottle”). There were maybe fifty people there and they didn’t know what the heck was going on. Fast forward a year into the future—2002. You’re playing in prime time, in a packed tent, to a bunch of people who obviously know who you are, and not only that but you [also] have a guest appearance by none other than Beck. Obviously in that intervening year quite a bit changed in your life, and I’m interested in hearing the story of all that.

Z-Trip: There’s many stories—I wish it were just one story ... “I get on the bus and this happened.” It’s just all the hard work I’d been doing over the years finally started to pay off. I know it’s pretty cliched, but I DJed fucking everywhere. I did as many mix tapes as I could, I did as many remixes as I could. I opened for every band that I could. I took the shit slots, I did whatever work I could do, just to get into more of the mainstream’s eyes. I had a pretty good [underground following], I was making money, and I was having a great career already happening, DJing for B-Boy events and DJing all these different things. I’d have to say that a lot of it was due to the Uneasy Listening mix CD that I did with DJ P. We put that thing out just as a goof—just a thousand copies. “Here, guys, you’ll get a kick out of this.” And it fucking spread like wildfire. It caught on to the point where SPIN and Rolling Stone [were putting it] on their 2002 Top Ten lists. It was crazy—we were just two DJs who were doing it for kicks. All these things started to happen, and they all just happened at the same time. The Scratch movie came out, I happened to be in that, and that was a real blessing. None of this was planned. It isn’t like we sat down and said, “OK, in 2001 we’re gonna do this.” It just was very organic. Then I ended up getting signed, and here I am putting out my first album. Never along the way [did I ever say] “This is what’s going to happen,” it’s just been, literally, taking phone calls and busting my ass. If somebody wanted me to DJ at their show, I was doing it. It just paid off. It paid off, too, because I was able to [do it] in my style. Every DJ gig that I’d ever been to where there was a line-up of other DJs, I noticed that to a degree a lot of them sounded similar. I really wanted to make sure that I didn’t sound like them. I figured that the best way to do that was to dig deeper into my crates and to go for music that was good music but that didn’t fit into the mold, because so many people had set up catagories—“This is drum & bass, this is rock, this is funk.” I’ve always been a believer that if it’s good music, it’s good music, period. If you go over to somebody’s house and look at their CD collection, you might see James Taylor sitting next to Megadeth. That just happens to be as wide a pallette as they might have. If everybody’s collection is like that, to a degree, why should everyone be dancing to one style of something all the time? It’s insane.

PM: We have a copy of Uneasy Listening, and let me tell you, this is one of those CDs that pretty much everyone who hears it tries to steal, at some point in time ... When we heard that you were first signed to a major label, we were extremely happy but it caused us a little consternation when we were thinking about it, because we didn’t know how well the approach we had seen live, and on the first Uneasy Listening CD would translate to an actual—how shall we say?—legal recording. Obviously you would have to have amended that philosophy to record anything for official release, so maybe you can talk a little bit about [the mindset] of having to change your style.

Z-Trip: Originally I wanted to put out a sort-of “photo caption” of my live sets, because that was what I was getting most of the notoriety from, and people knew me from [word of mouth]: “Oh, you gotta go see this guy, he mixes all these different things, it’s really fun, we have the best time.” [Those were] the reactions I was getting. I was DJing these parties, going, “Wow, that was fucking over the top, one of the best parties I’ve ever spun,” and I said I would really love to record this, and be able to put it out, and have people go and buy it at Best Buy. That’s what the label and I both took a chance on—“Hey, let’s give it a shot and see if we can do it.” For about a year we tried, we tried and we barked up a lot of trees, and we knocked on a lot of doors, and it just never happened. Nobody got it—[or rather], musically they got it, but they didn’t get it financially—they couldn’t figure it out. “How do we dice up the publishing, how do we dice up the royalties, if he’s using 70% of this song and 10% of this song and 30% of that song?” It was a nightmare to try and figure out how to clear everything.

PM: I can see situations where you’d end up owing 200% of the profits on certain tracks.

Z-Trip: Exactly. It got to the point where, when nothing was happening, about halfway through I said, “You know what, guys, I don’t fucking want any of the money, give them all the publishing, fuck it.” I just want to be able to have the right to say, “Here, buy it, it’s legal, come to a show,” because the discs were always cool and good to listen to but the show has always been where it’s at. That’s it. That’s it in it rawest form. But over the course of a year and not being able to do that, I stopped and said I have just got to produce this record, I’ve just got to make my own songs and do it. That was something that I always had wanted to do, but it just got to the point where I didn’t want to do it as a first record, because I really wanted to come with a legitimate mix album. But I was up against a rock and a hard place, and time was ticking. [But then] I started to do Shifting Gears, and that’s what it turned into. It was [about], let me see if I can capture some of those party tracks, or some of the feel ... the texture of the things I do live, in songs with MCs that I would like to make songs with. It came out being as much as ... the club or the show as I could make it be in song. I’m really happy that it worked out the way it worked out, because halfway through the project I started to realize that Uneasy Listening technically was that first album. Whether it was legitimate or not, it reached all the people that I wanted it to reach, had I came with the same style of mix. It would have been a great thing to have, but Uneasy Listening had served that purpose, whether I liked it or not, because of how many people downloaded it, bootlegged it, copied it ... It’s been spread around so many times that people, whether they bought it or not, or however they got it—beg, borrowed, or stole—it’s there, and it’ll always be there, and it is technically the first thing that a lot of people know me [for]. I figured it was just time to step up and make that artist album which was a little bit more of a gamble because I’m giving a lot of people ... not so much what they wanted, but I feel I’m giving them what I think they’ve needed for a long time. It’s also to show people that I’m not just a guy who mixes AC/DC with whatever at this point, there’s a lot more to it and there’s a lot more history involved. It’s much more of a bold statement, but it’s not like I’m trying my hardest to shove it in people’s faces. It’s just that I can always do another Uneasy Listening, or I can always do another show. At this point it’s more important to show the versatility, and then maybe go back to [the mixes]. Also, a lot of people are doing it now, which ... nobody was fucking doing it then, or people were doing it, but they weren’t doing it to the degree that I think I was doing it.

PM: Well, up until about 2003 it was still an extremely underground phenomenon. It was bigger in Britain but it hadn’t really crossed the pond at all.

Z-Trip: Exactly. That’s one of those things where me doing it ... at the time it was fun, but now, to a degree, even playing “Back in Black” is a little bit played, or “Sweet Home Alabama”. They’ve just become so commonplace that ... it was at a point where it was [in excited voice] “Oh, whoa, he’s doing this.” Now it’s more like [in calm voice] “Oh OK, ‘Back in Black.’” Anytime that happens in a crowd of people, it’s time to go back ... and maybe it’s time to play a different AC/DC song. Because that will still evoke the same response, but at least I’m not sounding like all the other guys. That was the whole point of it in the first place, and now that you have all these other guys trying to not sound like the other guys, they’re all sounding like the other guys—whether they like it or not. I’m trying my damnedest to push my own boundaries musically, as I see a lot of people are starting to do what I was doing then—which is very flattering, but I just wish that more people would play more random album cuts ... Or at least that they’d play things that they were really into themselves. I can tell that a lot of these people ... you can hear it in their mix ... I can read a lot by a person’s mix. You can hear that they never bought an AC/DC record, or even liked it for that matter, but they were like, “Oh, ‘Back in Black’, I need to run out and get that record.” If you don’t feel it and you don’t know it, and it wasn’t music that you dug in the first place, it’s not so genuine if you’re playing it just to get a reaction. It’s a little canned, like a canned audience on a sitcom.

PM: Yeah, but it’s important to point out that you still never got your waffle.

Z-Trip: No, never did ... That’s the funniest thing, man, the waffle thing has taken on a cult life of its own.

PM: I’d be remiss in my duties as an interviewer if I didn’t ask you about the actual upcoming album. It looks like you’re primarily working with—I don’t recognize a few of these names—but it looks like you’re working primarily with hip-hop MCs here, correct?

Z-Trip: Right.

PM: The interesting thing is that during your live show you very freely mix between the worlds of hip-hop, rock and dance music—blurring all these different genres. I’m assuming, just from talking to you, that that same kind of eclecticism still carries through on the album?

Z-Trip: Yeah. Have you heard it yet?

PM: I have not heard it yet. [Note: The review was conducted before advance copies of the album were available.]

Z-Trip: The aesthetic of what I was doing [for my] live set is there—it’s very danceable, it’s very likeable, it’s very comfortable. It’s unfamiliar, but it’s sort of the unfamiliarity in a certain way where, say you were at the show, and you heard a rock thing that you did recognize, and you liked it, but then you heard me mix another rock thing that you didn’t recognize, but you did recognize it as something you liked, you just didn’t know what the fuck it was. You’re like, “What the hell was that? But I like it…” That’s what I’ve tried to base this album on. You may not know some of the things you’re hearing, but you’ll know that you like them because their very [easy to like] songs. I used my filter as the best sort of means to do that. For instance, when I choose songs to play when I play out live, I try and choose songs that I know I know I dig, and I know will translate. That’s sort of the same thing that [I did with] this album. There’s a couple things that I sampled that are obvious, there’s a couple rock things that you’ll hear in there and go, “What is that? I kinda know that.” I guess if you read the liner notes you’ll see who I sampled because I had to clear it. But like I said, the feel of the album is very much like my sets. I had to take it a step further and go a little bit off the deep end. Too a degree, I think I may lose some people. The people who came there just to hear Tool or AC/DC are going to hear it and go, “Uh, OK, where’s the AC/DC and the Tool?” But the people who came to have a good time, and came to hear new music and new sounds and are into pushing boundaries are going to hear it and I think ... if they don’t love it, at least they’ll like it and they’ll take something away from it. That, to me, is what I’m hoping will happen. Again, anyone who is a fan of what I do, I think will dig it, because I didn’t try to alienate anybody, or go off [on a tangent]: “OK everybody, this is going to be four-on-the-floor Euro-sounding stuff, and that’s it,” or “This is going to be drum & bass, and that’s it.” I tried my hardest to be as eclectic, but use everything from a hip-hop standpoint. Real true hip-hop music is the most eclectic music, because it takes from everything.

PM: It seems like a lot of people—at least coming up nowadays don’t appreciate that because they’ve grown up with a very myopic view of what hip-hop music represents. They don’t realize that, historically, hip-hop encompasses house music, funk music, disco ... Now, it looks like the most recognizable name, the one that most people reading this site might recognize, is Chester Bennington from Linkin Park [on the track “Walking Dead”]. Talk a minute about how that came about.

Z-Trip: He and I actually met each other on the road—I’d opened for them three times on three separate tours. We’ve spent quite a bit of time together. I’m friends with the band, we’re all homies. They’ve always looked out for me and I try my damnedest to look out for them. I think they’re real genuine people, and I dig where they’re coming from. It was just one of those things [where] I’d always wanted to do something with Chester, not even so much because he’s Chester from Linkin Park—that’s obvious. I wasn’t really that excited about that aspect, as much as I was about this [other] aspect, which is the bigger thing which I think is a shame because I don’t think a lot of people are going to know—but he’s from Phoenix and I’m from Phoenix. There’s a karmic element there for me with that song. You’ve got two guys who came from nothing and have made something for themselves, and that was the thing I was trying my hardest to make happen, and see happen. Just two guys making music. Z-Trip and Linkin Park aside, it was Zack and Chester. “Hey, what do you want to do? Let’s make a song.”

PM: Representin’ the A.Z.

Z-Trip: Basically. If I could call the song “Representing Arizona”, that’s what I would call it, but it just wouldn’t have the same ring to it. But really, that was it. It helps that he’s a recognizable name, and he’s obviously a big draw, but as much as he’s a draw into my world I hope that I’m a draw into his world. There’s a lot of people in my world that are very super-critical about music, that have written Linkin Park off as being a pop band, or whatever. Just like I got written off for being the DJ who mixed rock records. It’s the concept that I think he and I both strive to smash, which is that you may think you have us pidgeonholed or figured out, but we’ve got a lot more to offer. It’s a very dark track, it’s getting a lot of play on the radio right now.

PM: Traditional hip-hop radio, or crossing over into rock?

Z-Trip: Modern rock radio. Which is kinda cool. Think about it: I’m a hip-hop DJ and I’m getting played on modern rock radio. Obviously it’s through the help of Chester, but again, it’s more about bridging gaps, versus trying to cross-over. If he and I had sat down and tried to cross-over, it wouldn’t have come off as genuine. We sat down, literally looked at each and said, “What kind of song do you want to make? Let’s make something dark, let’s go more of a Depeche Mode or Nine Inch Nails dark song” [sound of writer’s wife whooping in the background]. He and I said, “Yeah, let’s do it, cool.” It wasn’t like we had an agenda to do anything, it was real organic, and that’s why I think it works so well. It’s real.

PM: My wife is sorry for whooping in the background.

Z-Trip: Don’t sweat it—I’m stoked that she’s excited. That warms me up.

PM: We’ve been waiting to hear something official from you since we first saw you back in the day, and we first saw that you obviously had something that a slew of other DJs didn’t have. You had something original, something charismatic, and obviously we didn’t know how well it would translate to the major label system, but we did know that if you were able to jump through all those hoops that you’d probably be able to do something pretty spectacular.

Z-Trip: It’s definitely been a long journey. The funny thing is, every time I feel that I’ve conquered a goal and I can go, “Wow, that’s it, I can set my hat down,” another thing happens and it opens up more doors. The more that I can keep pushing it, and the more that the doors continue to open, the more that I’ll continue to do what I do. I’m really fortunate and thankful that that’s happening. There’s not a day that I don’t wake up, look up to the sky [and say], “Thanks for giving me the ability to do this.” Really, to a degree I get choked up thinking about it, because I never thought it would go this far. It’s a blessing. I’m incredibly thankful to the support that people have given me. Shit, I’m a DJ. At the very basis of who I am and what I am, I’m a hip-hop DJ, and I’ve been able to cross a lot of these boundaries as that, not having to be the hip-hop DJ who strips and takes his shirt off and shows his tits. I’m really doing it on skills and merits, and it’s taken a long fucking time, but it’s real. I’m really happy to not have had to compromise too much.

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