DJs cutting, MCS that could rhyme, /
Even though it was a battle, everyone had a good time, /
Was it all about fun? Oh, hell yes, /
You see all the hands waving in the air?
—Whipper Whip, “All About the Music”
Sometimes you have to return to the past to bring something to the present.
—Supernatural, “For My People”
If you cut DJ Z-Trip, he will bleed hip-hop. Although he knows his way around the worlds of rock and dance music, he brings it all back to hip-hop, just like the old-school DJs who invented the music by splicing loops from funk and rock records under party MCs. Hip-hop is, or at least it should be, something very eclectic, something full of energy and dynamism and fun. It isn’t all the morbid ramblings of the bling-obsessed, or even the melancholy musings of the perpetually portentous. Sometimes hip-hop is about cold rockin’ a party, and that’s where Z-Trip comes in.
Z-Trip has been working hard in the shadow of the mainstream for almost a decade. His first high-profile appearance was on the soundtrack for the forgettable 1998 kiddie flick Small Soldiers, remixing Rush’s classic “Tom Sawyer”. I first came across him during the 2001 Coachella festival, as he was playing one of the peripheral tents during the early afternoon, just before the Detroit Grand Pooh-Bahs (remember them?). It was early in the afternoon and the tent was almost empty, but those who were there heard something strange and magical, as Z-Trip blended AC/DC’s “Back in Black” with the a capella of Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle”. This was four years ago—no one outside of Britain had ever heard of a “mash-up”, and even there it was still a very small and isolated phenomena which had yet to gain the later recognition it would achieve. We were quite simply amazed, because it was like nothing we had ever heard before.
Fast forward another year to the 2002 Coachella festival. Z-Trip is promoted from a tiny tent in the early afternoon to one of the bigger tents during prime-time. He’s got a huge crowd. The concept of the mash-up has worked it’s way through the hoi polloi. The spectacle of someone mixing Tool with Jay-Z is no longer quite so radical, but it is still very cool. Z-Trip has been able to trade on the rapidly growing word-of-mouth and the wildfire digital dissemination of his highly enjoyable Uneasy Listening mix disc to create an unmistakable and priceless buzz. The proof of this comes during the final moments of his set, when Beck rushes onstage to deliver an impromptu performance of “Where It’s At”, backed by Z-Trip on the ones-and-twos, and to the ecstatic roar of the crowd. The moment has arrived, and after years of hard work, he has finally managed to make his name as one of the most exciting, unique and talented DJs on the planet. The inevitable major label bidding war ensues, and then everybody lives happily ever after.
Er, not quite.
After the bidding war ended, silence fell over the Z-Trip camp for almost three years. The problem was that the concept with which Z-Trip had made his name—the mash-up—was anathematic to the major labels with whom he was now forced to work. He tried for the bulk of those lost years to negotiate an above-ground release for Uneasy Listening, or at least some reasonable facsimile thereof, but ultimately there was simply no way the album, or anything close to it, could ever be released. The people who actually worked for the record companies admitted, off the record, to enjoying and appreciating what Z-Trip was trying to do, but their hands were tied. Publishing royalties are an inexorable bitch, and Z-Trip learned this lesson the hard way: you can’t fight city hall, and you don’t sample the Beatles.
So, a sadder-but-wiser Z-Trip is back for the very first time, with an album of original compositions studded with a handful of celebrity guest appearances and a slew of lesser-known but no-less-worthy underground MCs. What we have here is an insanely ambitious attempt to encompass everything great about hip-hop throughout it’s entire history onto one shiny plastic disc. Sometimes it works better than others, but even when Z-Trip overreaches, the result is never less than consistently fun. When it does hit, however, Shifting Gears achieves something quite sublime.
The album is split into roughly three parts, representing three different “moods” of hip-hop. The first, featuring the old-school triple threat of “Listen to the DJ” (with Jurassic 5’s Soup), “All About the Music” (with Bronx-based Whipper Whip) and “The Get Down” (with current underground sensation Lyrics Born), conjures the mood and sensation of the “Golden Era” of hip-hop, both in the lyrical content the funky beats. Soup seems to be channeling Rakim on “Listen to the DJ”, delivering a fiery manifesto for the album in the form of a barrage of tongue-twisting boasts that seriously bring to mind the very best of Paid in Full:
” - It ain’t about me, /
“It’s about the kid that I know, /
“That’s one of the illest primal spinners across vinyl, /
“Best at blending the rare and taking you there, /
“And holding you down and making sure you’re feeling it now.”
This is high praise, indeed, from someone whose group includes the superlative Cut Chemist, and who presumably knows from good DJs. “All About the Music” even starts with a “Yes, yes y’all”. The spirit of Kurtis Blow is summoned on “The Get Down”, which features the tight, slightly Latin electro rhythms of early breakdancing tunes like “The Breaks”.
But Z-Trip is too peripatetic a talent to be confined by mere homage—on many of these tracks, the impulse towards simplicity is undercut by a looming density similar to that of the Bomb Squad’s later work or even Meat Beat Manifesto. “Listen To the DJ” ends with a solid minute of increasingly complex and intricate beats, not merely the customary two measures required for most DJs to mix out of a club track. The album is quite simply never boring, and even when the mood falters the beats never give up.
The first third of the album is followed by two instrumentals. “About Face” is built around a single marching band snare sample, unfolding into a virtuoso performance as Z-Trip creates a dizzyingly complex structure out of something deceptively simple—you would think he was conducting an actual drum corps and not simply manipulating two turntables and a fader (I’ll assume for the sake of his rep that no Pro Tools were harmed in the making of this recording). “Furious” is a b-boy track seemingly constructed out of a marriage of Afrika Baambaataa and the C+C Music Factory, with all the frenetic cheese that such an unholy hybrid implies.
“Take Two Copies” (featuring LA MC Busdriver) begins the second distinct thematic section of the album, as the lyrical content moves into more modern modes, bringing to mind the consciousness-expanding work of artists on the Def Jux label as well as more humorous MCs such as Del and J-Zone. The track is structured atop the kind of frenetic, muscular breakbeat that brings to mind early Chemical Brothers or mid-era Orbital—definitely faster than your average hip-hop joint. While Busdriver attempts to break land-speed records with his exhaustively dense flow, Z-Trip gradually morphs the beat, revealing the source of the funky sample: Jethro Tull’s instantly recognizable “Teacher”. The DJ is at the height of his powers here, playing the sample like a magician slowly revealing a complicated trick to a stunned audience.
“For My People (featuring Supernatural) is an homage to Toddy T’s “Battle Ram”, and definitely sounds like a 1980s electro throwback, with deep 808 bass kicks and even slightly cheesy synthesizer vamps. Bay Area-based rapper Luke Sick gives “Bury Me Standing” a wrathful cast, and his refrain of “Bury me standing ‘cause I won’t lay down” is a perfect match for the ominous electric blues-rock riff that carries throughout the track. It’s a heavy track, reminiscent in mood (although not in sound) of some of Eightball and MJG’s more strident anthems.
“Breakfast Club” (featuring a second appearance by Supernatural in addition to Murs), is an anomaly, coming as it does between such a heavy track as “Bury Me Standing” and the later, darker songs that populate the album’s final third. It’s a fun track, celebrating the joys of watching cartoons and eating cereal “back in the day”, but it breaks the mood and reveals the album’s only major flaw: despite the fact that none of the individual tracks are less than good, the album itself overreaches in wanting to say everything about hip-hop. It’s all well and good to want to do a party anthem and a battle rap and a conscience-elevating rap and a funny rap and a ballad and even a rock track, but at some point it begins to seem like too much of a good thing. Obviously Z-Trip has enough ideas to last a career, and he doesn’t need to be in such a hurry to showcase every last one of them.
The last third of the album veers suddenly from the silly “Breakfast Club” into the melancholy downtempo acid-jazz of “3rd Gear”, a track that reminds me very pleasantly of Kruder & Dorfmeister, with perhaps a bit of Air’s jazzy insouciance thrown in for good measure, in the form of a funky Hammond organ solo. “Everything Changes” is the most ambitious track on the album, with Aceyalone and Mystic rapping and singing (respectively) over an off-kilter piano sample, on the subject of lost romance. These are emotions rarely discussed in the world of hip-hop, and the trick here is to introduce the melancholy R&B elements without watering down the rap. Amazingly, Z-Trip gets the balance just about right, with the emotions split evenly between the anger and regret of the rap offset by the wistful sadness and sensuality of the singing.
Chester Bennington of Linkin Park makes an appearance on “Walking Dead”, and the result is something similar to late-era Depeche Mode. It’s not a bad track, and I don’t have any dislike for Bennington’s voice, but for some reason it never really seems to take off in the same way that his contributions to the second Handsome Boy Modeling School disc did, or even that goofy Jay-Z collaboration. The track reminds me dimly of pop-goth like Stabbing Westward—hardly the most inspiring comparison.
“Shock and Awe” is the album’s climactic track, a violent hybrid between Chuck D’s visceral hardcore delivery and the most terrifying sludge-metal groove imaginable. It’s an inspired performance from D, and more than enough to make you regret, in these politically-charged times, that he has not yet delivered the promised follow-up to 2002’s Revolverlution. The album fades out with the first part of “Revolution”, a spooky, meditative instrumental that begins with what seems to be a loop from Coldplay’s “In My Place” (you know, the intro with the booming drums) and eventually incorporates the kind of spooky synth sounds you would have heard in a Nightmare on Elm Street Movie circa 1986, as well as a particularly plaintive bit of 70s rock. It would be a morbid and melancholy note to go out in…
... if it weren’t for the fact that the second part of “Revolution” kicks in after three minutes of silence. This is the most affecting track on the album, even if it’s just a recording of a speech made by Grandmaster Caz at a house party.
“... So if you do anything, remember that hip-hop is not just about the music, I mean, it’s about a way of life, and our whole culture, and it didn’t start with the Sugarhill Gang, and as much as I love Jam Master Jay it didn’t start with Run DMC.”
Caz then starts on a long rhyming sermon on the history of hip-hop and the universality of hip-hop culture—despite occasional bowdlerizations. It’s an emotional and moving speech which I won’t attempt to encapsulate here, save to say that it lies at the heart of Shifting Gears, and says as much about Z-Trip’s connection to the world of hip-hop as any of his better tracks.
There are two basic types of musicians: those who don’t have enough to say, and those who have too much. DJ Z-Trip falls very firmly into the latter category, and although Shifting Gears is a good album, it falters when it tries to accomplish too much. I sense a small bit of frustration here, as Z-Trip’s long inability to release material despite his breathless enthusiasm has resulted in an album that tries to please everyone at the expense of its focus. Mash-ups, after all, take their power from making concentrated and concise statements of juxtaposition into sublime moments of synergy. If Z-Trip wants to take his bridging-the-gap ethos to the apex of hip-hop, he would do well to learn to take it one track at a time.