It’s difficult to come up with a serious discussion of a major turntablist release without asking the question of whether turntablism is art. It’s a silly question, really, when you consider that the garbage collage is becoming a viable genre in the modern visual arts—if one can use cast-off artifacts to put together a legitimate piece of art in a visual medium, why not in an aural one? Mix Master Mike’s instruments of choice are two turntables (no microphone) and a seemingly unlimited supply of vinyl, records that he somehow manages to mash together to create interesting, coherent, danceable textures. So sure, it’s art.
The real difficulty for the turntablist trying to create an album is that of transferring what is essentially a live display of technical prowess into something that people are going to want to listen to over and over again. Turntablism is largely an improvisational art, but there is no improvisation in digital media. How can an artist manipulate the turntables to create something that’s going to be worth listening to more than once?
Answer: Make sure you can dance to it.
Bangzilla is an incredibly entertaining release, especially considering that the recipe for any one of its thirteen tracks is just about identical to that of its twelve brethren: Start with a sample from a B-movie. Lay down a chunky dance beat with one turntable. On the other turntable, find creepy melodies or movie samples to mesh with said chunky dance beat. Insert mad crazy scratch solo. Repeat. How all of this manages to not get old is beyond me, especially given that the tempo of the tracks is remarkably similar—it’s as if Mike simply has no interest in beats that aren’t his ideal speed of about 120 BPM. Of course, when you consider that not too many of the tracks even break the three-minute mark, and every single track makes you uncontrollably nod your head, it suddenly doesn’t seem like much of a mystery anymore.
Part of Bangzilla‘s appeal also lies in the library of sounds that Mike has at his disposal. Pop culture enthusiasts could play a wicked game of “Name That Sample” using it as source material; Superman, The Jetsons, Godzilla, and The Chemical Brothers coexist in perfect harmony, together as if they were always meant to be that way. It’s a beautiful thing, really, a melting pot of cultural diversity that some of our governmental leaders could likely learn a thing or two from if they were so metaphorically inclined.
Picking out standout tracks on this album would be a bit like picking your favorite of Warhol’s soup cans—a pointless, fruitless exercise. There are, however, some fantastic moments that manifest themselves over the entirety of Bangzilla. There are at least two truly amazing scratch solos over the course of “Tranzmission”, and the incredible, rhythmic scratching that opens “Skanner 13” is a display of the Mix Master’s skills at their most virtuosic. Mike’s beat transitions in “Marvel” are absolutely seamless and make for honest-to-goodness mood changes over the course of the track, even if the speed never changes. The samples that give a voice to “Shamen’s Lamp” are nothing if not educational. The faster-than-usual beat in “MJ-12 Strike” is a pleasant diversion toward the end of the disc.
Really, any active listener could find a number of things to like in any of the short tracks presented on Bangzilla, and that is its greatest success; while the hardcore turntablists admire the album for the substantial amount of skill that Mix Master Mike routinely puts on display, a casual listener (say, a Beastie Boys fan who’s looking for some good beats) is bound to enjoy it as well. Because the beats are tight. Because the samples do keep it interesting. Mix Master Mike has made the rare play for the mainstream that doesn’t compromise his art, and the sheer scarcity of musicians who manage to tread that line successfully make hearing this one essential. Bangzilla might not change your life, ‘tis true, but damn if it ain’t a bangin’ way to spend a half-hour.
// Notes from the Road
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