Cut Chemist: The Audience’s Listening

[11 July 2006]

By Jeff Vrabel

The proper debut disc from Cut Chemist opens with one of those endearingly emotionless ‘50s military-training-film voices that DJs seem to be able to regularly locate with absolutely no trouble whatsoever. “The DJ of the future is going to be a respected member of the community,” drones what I imagine is Ward Cleaver with a buzz-cut and members of the topmost levels of the post-WWII military-industrial complex staring down at him through a forest of unforgiving floodlights. “Motivate people to get out… and buy… or try… or use.”

Sure, the synthetic, creepily optimistic voice-from-the-horrible-future-that-the-human-race-couldn’t-stop-from-coming-to-pass is one of the oldest tricks in the DJs handbook, but in the case of the longtime Jurassic 5 tablemeister, it’s a consciously applied head-fake. Jurassic 5 (and Chemist’s other part-time employer Ozomatli) are the opposite of synthetic. Both are bands grounded in the work-together aesthetic, and there’s an organic ingredient to their verse-swapping old-schoolery that approaches… warmth? Approachability? Whatever, but it’s none of the cold, calculating detachment of techno, or the blank uhm-tiss of club tracks, or the consciously designed iciness of the average anonymous DJ. J5 seem like nice guys down at the park, and Chemist someone who would love to show you off his wares, as long as you don’t get them all scratchy or anything.

Much of that sound is due to Chemist (and J5’s other co-resident DJ Nu-Mark), who laid down beats hard enough to rock the streets, but plenty rubbery enough to nod your head to. As much as he slyly sneaks little voice samples into “My 1st Big Break” about “robot music”—smirkingly hinting, of course, that the music you’re currently enjoying is a soulless pastiche of machine-born blips and bloodles any monkey could staple together—he keeps his sense of natural rhythm front and center. What tends to kill DJ music for me is the dehumanizing anonymity to it all; in a fairly sad irony there’s little funk to it.  Chemist knows the foundation of hip-hop lies in the smash, the bash, the big brother beat.

Hence The Audience’s Listening is as accomplished and approachable a CD as Cut Chemist (Lucas McFadden, to his mom) could have hoped to make. “My 1st Big Break” owes a fat bit of debt to Fatboy Slim, with its big, booming snares, its skip-to-my-lou melody, pleasing stops-and-starts, and its danceable shuffle. The Brazilian boogie-inspired “The Garden” threatens to blast open from a sole riff, and then lovingly sprinkles a sweet female vocal over capitalizable beats: Boom BAP, boom boom BAP. “What’s The Altitude”, featuring a guest rap from Hymnal, strips things down even more, finding the long sought-after middle ground because surf-pop and big beats. By way of driving the mood up and down, of course, Chemist takes a “Metrorail Thru Space” to chill things out, brings in tongue-twisting underground all-star Mr. Lif for a typically busy “Storm”, and supplies a hypnotic hook on “Storm” enough to lull you into a pleasant little nap state.

Bottom line: Chemist knows what he’s doing, and he knows his history. The Audience’s Listening is a DJ record in that old Brooklyn-park vibe, free of trendy mash-ups or bobbing and weaves. Except for a few of the samples it’s not inconceivable this could have come out in the early ‘90s, or the late ‘80s. Big old beats peppered occasionally with nonsensical, vaguely looming proclamations like “The robots are coming…” or my favorite, “in the face of nuclear attack, the protection of records is essential.” It’s DJ music for the casual fan, something you don’t need to be a knob-twiddler or connoisseur of the break beat to appreciate or enjoy. May it play at many a summer barbecue this year.

DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, DJ Nu-Mark - Pushing Buttons: the DJs mix up some live music using only samplers

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