Mixing Up Modern Culture
When can you tell that an artistic movement has reached maturity? The more jaded (and perhaps realistic) among us might argue that commercial success and widespread imitation ushers in cultural adulthood. Optimistic onlookers might argue that maturity is reached when members of the movement start thinking of themselves as “artists” without a hint of irony or sarcasm. The philosopher anthropologists in the crowd might say that the apex of any movement is when self-sustaining communities sprout up around the movement’s chief purveyors, making them microcosms of civilization itself.
Then there are those who could care less—the consumer masses who aren’t as concerned with meaning and social significance as they are with pure satisfaction. Here we are now, entertain us. They’re the ones you see telling the long-winded jackass on stage to “Shut up and play something!” They’re the people who will respond to an unfamiliar jam by going to take a leak. They know what they want, and if you don’t give it to them, they’ll exercise their capitalist freedom to stop patronizing you and your wares.
For the most part, underground hip-hop DJs—as artistic movement, cultural movement or booty-shakin’ movement, take your pick—have kept the underground masses off the hook by keeping it as simple as a sneeze: beats, rhymes and scratches. There are many variations, but the building blocks remain the same, which is why even the most hardened fan can tire of hearing LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells” or that Jeru the Damaja rhyme where he pumps “I get freaky, freaky, freaky” when they head out to see the DJ shows.
Fortunately for you, me, the entire “care less” world, there is DJ Z-Trip, a man whose instrument of choice is turntables. It’s an instrument for which few can match not only his technical proficiency, but his raw creativity. Calling him a turntable virtuoso would be an understatement. It’d also be a ridiculous intellectualization of a man who at his core is an entertainer. He’s P.T. Barnum. He’s George Lucas. He’s James friggin’ Brown. He is the product of a 500-channels-and-a-remote-control, information-overloaded, style-over-substance, pop-culture-as-high-art society that has yet to realize the ideal of full artistic equality and integration. Maybe if more people listened to Uneasy Listening, (Against the Grain, Vol. 1), we’d be closer to that ideal.
Z-Trip is from Arizona; his deck partner on Uneasy Listening, DJ P, is from Central Missouri. In such outposts of pop music, let alone hip-hop, it’s necessary to cast your inspirational net broader than if you grew up in Brooklyn or L.A., since it’s unlikely there were any block parties in Oklahoma and Arizona in the ‘80s where “Planet Rock” was a mainstay and freestyle rap jams were easily accessible, let alone accessible at all. These are guys who from the sounds of it listened to a lot of radio, a lot of mom and dad’s vinyl collections, and watched a lot of TV. And they somehow seemed to absorb and catalogue every minute of it.
Everyone from Puff Daddy to Cut Chemist mixes funk beats with samples from recognizable songs. But when a CD starts with the quick transition of “Rhinestone Cowboy” into Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell”, cued by the former’s lyric “And offers coming over the phone” and the latter’s sample of an international phone call not going through—with a classic beatbox stomp-and-clap holding the whole mess together—you know the next 70 minutes are going to be interesting. (So interesting, in fact, that only 1,000 copies of Uneasy Listening have been printed, likely because the roster of recognizable songs would never be approved for wide release in the litigious real world.)
There are so many things going on here that it’s hard to explain it all without resorting to bullet points, charts, graphs, timelines and full-color slides. This is music as collage, mix tape as epic tale, house party as history lesson. Uneasy Listening is Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge in reverse: a thematic exploration of pop music and mass culture over the past four decades told through an astounding build-and-collapse of songs and soundbites we’ve all heard a million times, but never like this. And with everything that’s going on, there’s still nary a lapse that would clear a dancefloor, even for a second.
This is no musical world you’ve ever heard, a world where both “Yesterday” and the Star Wars overture are given a wicked backbeat, where Phil Collins and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien come together like they were made for each other, where Pat Benatar unwittingly lends herself to a schoolyard rap. It’s a world where Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” falls into an old-time revival, which falls into Depeche Mode’s “Condemnation”, which falls into Bruce Hornsby and Run DMC splitting time between the piano man’s “The Way It Is” and the rap forefathers’ “It’s Like That”, which falls into the inexplicable layering of Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning” with Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. There you have it: salvation, rebirth, condemnation, resignation, fire and death—all in less than 10 minutes. It’s enough symbolism to make any graduate film student blush, and this isn’t even celluloid.
At this point some of you are undoubtedly thinking that a mix of the most overplayed songs of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s isn’t what you’re looking for, to which all I can say is, “You gotta hear it for yourself.” Hear it for the themes. Hear it for the technical mastery of live mixing. Hear it for how two, three, even four songs of disparate genres miraculously, repeatedly become one. Hip-hop and new wave fit together like peas and carrots. Top 40 schmaltz and hardcore rap go down smoother than honey on cornbread.
Hear it for how Z-Trip and P can take songs that have absolutely no cojones and negative levels of hip-hop potential, and make them infectiously catchy. For the sensitive guy masterpiece “Dust in the Wind”, it’s a simple shuffle beat set in sync with the lilting acoustic guitar and pensive strings that does the trick. Sting’s “Walking in Your Footsteps”, a song based on the inspirational poem that launched a million motivational posters (!), is given a bendy pipe drone that merges perfectly with the synthesized barrel drums as Sting croons. And the meaty bass punches that bolster Tears for Fears’ sappy “Woman in Chains” is nothing short of sublime.
Being body rockers above all else, Z-Trip and P keep the best for last. After another pitch-perfect fusion—this time the Tubes’ “She’s a Beauty” finds solace in Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”—the Public Enemy classic “Bring the Noise” is given the instrumental to Naked Eyes’ “Promises Promises”. How such dainty fare is perfect for such visceral vocals is a mystery, but rest assured that after exactly two listens, you’ll forget what the original of either ever sounded like.
Uneasy Listening rises and falls a couple more times before it’s over, but by this time the repeated amazement has been replaced with sustained euphoria. You hear Astrid Gilberto, Cyndi Lauper, Ratt, even Martin Luther King Jr. warming up for the Eurythmics, but nothing’s shocking anymore.
The fact that nothing’s shocking is yet another symbolic testament to what makes Uneasy Listening an incredible document of its time. There are complaints that we’re throwing so many disparate images at kids these days that there’s no way they can absorb them all, but Z-Trip and P seem to come awfully close. What they’ve created is so unique in its delivery that it may take away the stigma of that ultimate hyphenated buzzword of modern society: multi-tasking. In the face of too many choices, Uneasy Listening tells us we don’t have to make choices. Just pick everything and let these mad professors of vinyl sort it out.
Which brings us back to the question we started with. Maybe the real answer to what makes an artistic movement mature is “all of the above”, in which case Z-Trip and P are in top hip-hop form because they’re everything to everyone. To eggheads they’re technical wizards, to culture vultures they’re prolific pop life chroniclers, to headz they’re turntable heroes, and to the tequila-shooting crowd they’re that friend with the awesome record collection who always brings the house down. In other words, they’re the smart guys who understand the importance of getting stoopid.