Party Politics: Musical Culture is Safe With DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist and Friends
Though the thorough body search at the entrance to Hollywood’s Knitting Factory might give one the impression that the Product Placement party put on by Cut Chemist, DJ Shadow and their various friends in the hip-hop industry might be a sketchy affair—you know, one with manhood tests, fights here and there, maybe even a drawn weapon—one look at the multiracial, good-natured crowd inside the club would shatter the conventional image of hip-hop concerts as cheap places to buy ringside seats. That was only one of many stereotypes broken by the addictively energetic event; further were to come.
Such as: the assertion that hip-hop DJs aren’t true artists, a fallacy that has been close to fragmenting for over a decade now. Simply put, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist are not so much DJs as they are cultural musicians, mining the history of music for nuggets known and samples unknown to create their hypnotic rhythmic tableaus, riffing off of each other as beautifully as Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk, Pete Townshend and John Entwhistle, or—getting closer to the genre—Chuck D and the Bomb Squad might have. Except Shadow and Cut are using 45s—those small black discs that almost don’t exist anymore—as their instruments. Which is one way of saying the material they are employing for their innovative experiments in musical pastiche may be sometimes close to twenty years old, utterly unknown and even unfairly overlooked.
Placing Product Back Into Culture
Like their previously successful Brainfreeze collaboration, the Product Placement set served a dual purpose: finding unheard-of jams that would serve as a hook for their scratches and turntableship and re-presenting those 45s back into the cultural memory from which they may have—right or wrong—been in danger of erasure. Like soul jazz standout Harold Alexander’s catchy-as-hell classic, “Mama Soul”, from his Sunshine Man LP, one of the artists you won’t be able to find on Amazon these days. Or legendary West Coast bandleader Gerald Wilson’s “California Soul”, which you may be able to actually find on Amazon, but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you did.
That’s not a problem with Shadow and Chemist, who might know that Wilson was Cali’s version of Count Basie and Duke Ellington by the time the 1960s hit America, and who certainly know how to slice-and-dice his gifts seamlessly into their own. And while the Product Placement set might not be as reverential a collage as Shadow’s “Zimbabwe Legit”, “Basic Megamix”, or Cut’s fabulous “Swing Set”—found on Jurassic 5’s Quality Control—its title interpreted differently suggests that both DJs are re-placing the products of gifted artistry nearly ignored back onto the cultural map.
Well, most of the time, anyway. One thing that Shadow and Chemist—as well as their Placement-mates, Z-Trip, Nu-Mark, Marvski, Egon and Skatemaster Nate—possess is a sense of humor. So when it’s not all about beat mining for beats’ sake, it is about having a good time and “not tripping”, as Chemist explained to the Knitting Factory audience during a break between sets. Exhibit A: “Rappin’ with Gas”, an insanely silly Home Economics (probably) rap-by-numbers tune extolling the virtues of gas cooking backed by an old-school UTFO rip-off beat. “Rappin’ With Gas” was one of many moments of light-hearted fun thrown into the mix of Product Placement the concert, as well as the disc, which you may only be lucky enough to pick up at the show. Cut Chemist spending the entirety of the early sets in a baker’s hat and apron was another, as were the free milk and cookies tossed out to the crowd.
This is Called the Show
But the fun really got started when the crowd grew thick—and maybe stoned—enough to jump to Marvski and Egon’s respective sets, both examples of old-school funk and soul that breathed life into an otherwise talkative yet dance-challenged crowd.
Hey, it was still early.
Egon’s set, in particular, was a bombshell of bottom-heavy James Brown classics, which hopefully gave the younger fans in the crowd a lesson on a legend that is still too underground these days. Egon’s James Brown Productions T-shirt blended in nicely with the grainy concert reels of the Godfather of Funk looped on the screen behind him. If you haven’t had a chance to catch Brown in surround sound, Product Placement would definitely do the trick.
Things only got pumping harder when Jurassic 5’s co-DJ (along with Cut Chemist, of course), Nu-Mark, sidled up to his tables to spin the finest hip-hop of the last twenty years, including a particularly slamming Public Enemy trilogy consisting of “Prophets of Rage”, “Night of the Living Baseheads”, and “Fight the Power”. The rousing response from the crowd and the stage prompted Nu-Mark’s fellow DJs to drape a PE jacket across his shoulder a la James Brown, but it was hard to tell if Nu-Mark—his head bobbing incessantly, body seemingly immersed in the music—even noticed. That’s the juice that true hip-hop—the type fans remember coming from the likes of Public Enemy, Slick Rick, Run-DMC, Eric B. and Rakim, among others—can bring to a crowd. By the time Nu-Mark was done with his set, most of the floor was already soaked in sweat, the air filled with applause and shouts.
But the logical musical progression from James Brown to old-school hip-hop pioneers like Public Enemy, et. al. fragmented and split when Z-Trip stepped up to the deck and started his truly diverse turn at the spotlight, a set consisting of old-school and new-school hip-hop, grunge classics, Beatles songcraft, Top 40 throwaways like the Belle Stars’ forgettable, “Iko Iko” (which Z-Trip actually made listenenable again!), and more. Z-Trip fused the DJ’s role as frat party soundtracker and hip-hop historian, splicing songs from artists as different as N.W.A., AC/DC, Parliament, and Nirvana to the point that the floor was shaking with people who couldn’t decide if they’d rather breakdance or slamdance. It was an interesting fusion, one some postmodern theorists would have a field day with, and ultimately one that moved the crowd into critical mass for Shadow and Cut.
“It’s the Real Thing”
By the time Cut removed his hat and apron and Shadow finally came onstage, the crowd was ready to roll and, like the originals that the dynamic duo of sample-based musicianship are, they slowed them down to a crawl. That was one indication that their set would consist of more than just songs that everyone already knew, that it in fact would be a self-contained, self-referential exercise unique to hip-hop.
“We start down here”, Shadow spoke into the mic, pointing low for emphasis, “and take you up to here”, he continued, pointing higher. “Then we bring you back down here again”.
After heckling the VIPs in the room—which included Beck’s DJ, Swamp—Shadow gave props to the groundlings who had been standing for two to four hours awaiting the show’s final installment, before he and Cut took off on their excursions into 45 heaven and “Rappin’ With Gas”. And while the crowd hooted and hollered sporadically—sometimes prodded into it by the hook from Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” or the urging of the other DJs on the side of the stage—the majority of the time they stood still, watching the deft hands of Shadow and Cut trading 45s, loading up their players, or effortlessly scratching.
Either that, or they were unfamiliar with Shadow and Cut’s sessions to the point that they were simply confused by the order of things. Some people simply looked lost, and some pockets of loud talkers started up again, none of which kept the rest of us who were enraptured with the main event from digging into the funky collages and letting the vibe spread.
Whoever wasn’t paying attention woke up when two of Cut’s Jurassic 5 counterparts appeared alongside Marvski for an impromptu version of “The Game” from Quality Control, before Cut and Shadow resumed their operation.
And it was an operation in the full definition of the term, because these guys have hands like surgeons—it’s something else to watch them go to work scratching, blending, or effecting crossovers as smoothly as Allen Iverson. By the time the night wound down with Shadow’s transcendent theme from his score for the documentary Dark Days, I felt like I had just stepped out of a dream.
What a ride.
And what a bargain, too—seven DJs, six hours, free cookies, free milk and enough dancing to get you back to pre-holiday weight. Plus, in true underground hip-hop fashion, almost all of them stuck around after the show to chat up their loyal followers, sign autographs, T-shirts and discs—some of which Egon and Z-Trip tossed freely out into the crowd. It was nice to see the normally reclusive Shadow down on the dance floor, casually chatting up fans, signing one of the only 6000 Product Placement CDs made, a move that might prompt some knuckleheads to make a beeline for eBay. For myself, a chance to get Cut and Shadow’s sigs on a disc that I’ll count as one of my all-time favorite possessions—along with the signed Don DeLillo baseball and the autographed book from David Lynch—was the chance of a lifetime of hip-hop worship.
By the time 2am came and the crowd headed out into the foggy Hollywood evening to make their way home, my ears were ringing and my imagination was firing on all cylinders. Shadow and Cut can do that to you, and if you’re serious about your music, your culture and your ideas, you’ll let them.