Earning an honorable mention in URB‘s 2003 “next best” list, DJ Zeph may finally be getting the recognition he so rightfully deserves. On Sunset Scavenger, his latest effort, Zeph offers a selection of masterfully constructed instrumentals alongside a host of cuts he produced for a handful of underground emcees. This compilation accomplishes both its intended purposes: it highlights the under-the-radar talent enlisted by Zeph, but it also exudes confidence from the man behind the decks, a man whom we should all get to know a little better.
In 2001, DJ Zeph dropped a warmly received twelve-inch on Wide Hive Records in San Francisco. The beat-making skills and turntablism efforts that Zeph showcased on his self-titled debut were honed under the counsel of remix raconteur and Kool Keith collaborator Kut Masta Kurt. Kurt pointed him in the direction of developing his DJ talent and Zeph eventually earned a degree in production at San Francisco State University. He’d seen action on some compilations and a couple of mixtapes with Santa Cruz’s DJ Imperial, but when Zeph teamed up with Bay Area emcee Azeem, the DJ’s 2001 LP bounced even Jay-Z off the CMJ charts. On Sunset Scavenger, DJ Zeph works alongside Azeem again for one of the album’s most effective tracks.
On “Frogs”, a crusty snare and guitar sample loops around some frog sounds and a snippet from Gang Starr’s “Just to Get a Rep” for its searing backdrop. Zeph works the tables in a manner most crafty, allowing additional tribal drums and percussion clinks to slip in and out virtually unnoticed. As far as the foreground, Azeem’s rapid flow throws back to Tribe a bit, but his wordplay and alliteration are otherworldly: “Slowly I creep through the world of deceit and grief / On my feet everything seen disintegrates like silhouettes / Cinnamon mints, smoke from cigarettes, LSD trips”. The fragmented verse is decipherable only after the third listen, as Azeem competes with both the buzzing funk guitar riff and time itself, filling every second with syllable after blazing syllable. This is definitely on the top shelf of the record, credit going equally to Zeph’s beats and Azeem’s dizzying rhymes. The emcee cheerlessly remarks, “Take the dilemma somewhere else”, and Zeph’s heat backs off, leaving us with only a minute to bask in its jittery trail.
Sunset Scavenger‘s instrumental pieces are as stride-stopping as the vocal parts and the album’s opener is no exception. “Unsubtractable” may travel into DJ Shadow territory somewhat, but it’s as good an introductory track as any on the recent Ninja Tune retro comps. It’s layered with hypnotic electro rhythms and a horror film piano piece, with some help from DJ Quest, a fellow SF Weekly award winner and prolific Bay Area DJ. The ghostly scratching enters after a minute or so, and exits and re-enters sporadically throughout, as the beat follows suit. “Unsubtractable” does not, however, set any kind of formula in place for how the rest of the record will work. Zeph drops his needle on nearly any groove, not excluding the warm organ-laced ‘70s breaks that appear on “Midnight Crewsade”, or the Middle Eastern fanfare that scores “Underscore” on track 6.
Of the emcee partnerships on Sunset Scavenger, Zeph backs Lyrics Born, Vursatyl from Quannum’s Life Savas crew, and some others in an attempt to incorporate vocal tracks in between his turntable-based numbers. Azeem’s is the most memorable venture of the vocal lot, next to “Shake it on Down”, a bass-heavy crime yarn led by Boots Riley of The Coup fame. The other outings are occasionally filler, whetting appetites for the next interim of instrumental electricity.
Zeph’s instrumentals are not without well-placed samples, and the most poignant follows track 14, illustrating the narrow border between whimsical record collector frailties and unhealthy obsession. It’s the bit from Diner, where Daniel Stern’s manic shortcomings surface in a shouting match with his wife about keeping his records orderly. Zeph’s collection is as messy as this; only he’s intentionally digging in a non-linear fashion, playing things according to his own intricate and very successful game plan.