His Vinyl Weighs a Ton: An Interview with Cut Chemist

Cosmo Lee

Owner of over 30,000 records, staunch defender of Star Wars, and composer of a new solo album, Cut Chemist brings the fun(k).

Until recently, Cut Chemist's name has rarely appeared by itself. His career includes a formidable array of remixes (including his classic rework of DJ Shadow's "The Number Song"), production for the hip-hop group Jurassic 5 and Latin alternative band Ozomatli, and collaborations with others, including the legendary Brainfreeze, and Product Placement tours with DJ Shadow in which they played entire sets using only old 45s. He's one of a dying breed of sample-based hip-hop producers, the kind who scour record stores for obscure beats and sounds to stitch together into funky, organic collages.

However, on The Audience's Listening, Cut Chemist has gone it alone. He left Jurassic 5 in 2004 and spent time "in the lab" (as they say in hip-hop) to concoct his first solo opus. The album is a lush, diverse, and unpredictable journey through downtempo, rock, electro, Brazilian sounds, and, of course, sample-based hip-hop. His DJ sets reflect a similar, anything-goes-if-it's-fun(ky) ethic. A renowned Star Wars geek, Cut Chemist has occasionally been known to unveil a full-size model of R2D2 onstage during his DJ sets, with ensuing comedic interaction. In short, Cut Chemist means "good times", which this interview definitely was.

Your album took a while to get released because of sample clearance issues. What's the story behind that?

Well, there were a lot of samples. I like to sample obscure stuff, so it was harder to find people, and sometimes it was harder to negotiate. But it wasn't too bad; it took, like, a year.

Can you describe the process of sample clearance?

You find whoever owns the music, and then you ask them for permission [to use] the physical recording. And then you find who owns the publishing [for the lyrics], and you ask them if it's OK to use their material. And then you negotiate a price.

To clear a sample, does the label put up the money, or does it come out of your advance?

The label puts it up.

What's it like working with a major label?

It's cool. You get a little lost because there are so many acts that they handle in so many different genres. Their spectrum, is, like, popular music, so it's harder to get noticed when you're doing something as unique as a project like this. But it's been good. I've been surprised at how supportive they've been. I've never seen as much support [from] any major label for this kind of thing.

For Mo' Wax a few years ago, you did a remix on which you used "49 records, an old school tape, and a homeboy of mine." Can you talk about that?

I was a big fan of that mix Major Force did, "The Re-Return of the Original Art-Form". So James Lavelle asked me because I was really active in doing Mo' Wax remixes -- I did the Liquid Liquid ("Cavern") and I did the [DJ] Shadow ("The Number Song"). So he thought [that] this [would be] right up my alley because it's got loads of breaks and it's kind of like digging. I said, "Yeah," but if I'm going to do an instrumental remix, it's pretty much going to be all-new records. So that's what I did. I pretty much used their arrangement, but used different records -- and even records that even sounded like the records they used. And then I recorded my homie and did an old-school shout-out at the end.

So this was a remix that actually didn't use anything from the original.

It used, like, one scratch that they did, and that was it.

How many records do you have?

I don't know. I stopped counting after 30,000.

If your house were on fire and you could only rescue three records, what would they be?

Fucking hell ... Probably The Invaders' Spacing Out. East of Underground -- it's like an army band record. Man, that's a tough one. God, do I save the [Jean-Michel] Basquiat "Beat Bop", or do I save the "It's Yours" test pressing with Rick Rubin's home number on it? Probably that.

Why did you leave Jurassic 5?

Because I had to finish my album, and I couldn't do that being in J5. They were always touring, you know what I mean?

So they're actually a "5" now. [With Cut Chemist, the group had six members.]

Yeah, right? [Laughs] It's a better look. I saw a [new] promo picture of the group, and I was like, "I was just holding things up." Looking at me in the [old] pictures, it was like, "Yo, man, who let the boom operator in the picture?"

Don't be so hard on yourself.

No, it was, like, five clean-cut dudes, and then one shaggy white dude who needs a shave. I don't know how permanent [my departure] is. We may reconvene and make more music later.

Up until now, you've been known mostly for remixes and collaborations. What was it like to work solo?

It was more difficult because there was nobody to bounce ideas off of.

You didn't feel freer?

I did, but freedom can be a very scary thing. People want it, but I don't know if anybody's really ready for it. It means [that there are] no rules, and it becomes a little [like] anarchy. I was like, "How do I know what the boundaries are between what's good and what isn't?" That's also what took a long time, to become comfortable with myself as an artist.

What's the process of making a Cut Chemist track?

It would involve hearing a record. And if I found a part that I liked -- usually it's a loop, like a two or four-bar [loop], and seeing if I can build on that. Usually I start with something musical, not a drum beat. And then I figure out if I want to replay it, to have somebody remake it, stuff like that. Then I find a drum beat that goes with it. Then I start to think of a rapper -- if so, who? A singer -- if so, who? If not, then [I] find other sounds to make a proper arrangement in a song.

What kind of machines are you using?

Well, the turntable would be a Technics 1200. But it would [all] just be on computer, on Pro Tools.

No MPC [a popular hip-hop production tool]?

No, I used to, but not anymore. But I figured it would be easier to plug [everything] right into Pro Tools.

Are you trained in music production?

No, not formally.

A lot of the production [on the album] is really layered, and it seems like you'd need a bit of know-how to put all that together without clashing or muddying up frequencies.

I did have an engineer help me with a lot of that stuff. It was mixed by me and another guy, and when things did get muddy and I couldn't figure it out, somebody did step in, [someone] more professional than me, [someone] that did go to school and have some formal training, to help me out with frequencies and things like that.

DJ Shadow was the first to make it big in instrumental hip-hop. When you were making this album, did you feel any pressure from Shadow's, um, shadow?

No, no, because it was so long ago. I think instrumental hip-hop has changed to the point where it's not really a big thing anymore. So the pressure wasn't really on to match it, because even if it matched or surpassed it, I don't think people would even recognize it, because [instrumental hip-hop] is not in anybody's consciousness right now.

You think it's faded?


There are people out there now like RJD2 and Blockhead.

But aren't they working with MC's and stuff?

Yes, but they also have their instrumental tracks.

Yeah, I don't know, I don't think [instrumental hip-hop] is quite a phenomenon as it was. It's not as new. I didn't feel any pressure from [DJ Shadow's precedent]. The only pressure I felt was from people expecting me to do something, and having to deliver.

For your debut, was there any general theme or vibe you tried to get across?

It's got some political overtones to it, like about formulaic music and ideas in general, and how people shouldn't have to feel like they have to do anything.

I think that comes across. It's a very "free" album.


I was struck by how free the song structures were. Thing go from A to C, but not necessarily through B.

Right, right. I took classes on music composition, and it was like ABA or ABABAB and stuff like that. I was like, "That's all great and everything, but let's do, like, ZQA Delta 4".

So when you make these songs with strange structures, how much are you thinking of dancefloor reaction?

A lot, [dancefloor reaction is] everything. I am a DJ, and I try to make [people] dance. There is a pop element to the record, I think. Even "My 1st Big Break" -- it's very danceable, but there is that bridge where it veers off into progressive music theory land for a second, and then it comes back. I think a lot of the record has that feel to it, but most of it is supposed to [have] a real loose, dance-y, fun vibe.

You recorded hundreds of tracks for this album. The ones that didn't make it on to the album -- what are they like, and will you release them elsewhere?

They're no good. This is over a course of four years, so some of them are completely played. Some of them, I'll keep the titles and the concepts and put new music to them. Some I just won't use at all. And others will be B-sides for singles and stuff like that.

"Metrorail Thru Space" has an electronic vibe that's not typical for you. Can you talk about what's going on in that song?

Yeah, it's pretty much my ode to electro, because I grew up in that era, like '84, '85. I wanted to make a track like that, and I thought [that] using an organic drumbeat to make [the song] sound electro would be a challenge and something cool. That's what I set out to do, and I think it worked.

The synth sounds in the song -- are they things you played or things you sampled?

They are things that I played.

How do you feel about popular hip-hop's shift from samples to synths?

I think it's cool if it's used well. I'm huge into the Neptunes and Timbaland, I think they're really dope.

When one hears a DJ set of yours, it usually doesn't include sounds like that.

Yeah, I’m more of a sample-based artist, so it's kind of a stretch for me to do stuff like that. But I want to get more into that, because how long can you stay a sample-based artist, you know what I mean? Especially because that's not the look these days, no one really wants it. It's kind of an archaic, dying artform. But that's cool. I had to put it down at least once. I think this album may hopefully bring back the idea of sample-based music being cool. Because I think there's this notion of how it's not cool, not hip. Maybe that's the climate, maybe I'm just tripping, but that's the vibe I get.

You'd think that with all the hip-hop MP3 blogs out there that are dedicated to digging...

I know. But I don't think [the appeal]'s the sample. Record collecting is a whole different ball of wax than making music. Most of those guys don't make any music at all. They're just collecting records because, I don't know, somebody probably told them it was cool. Even now, with the records I try to collect, I don't really sample. I buy records to collect, I buy records to sample, and I buy records to play out, so it is very separate.

You're a well-known Stars Wars fanatic. What's the appeal of Stars Wars for you?

It's a good concept, it was a great story. Speaking [about] the first one, it was just a great movie.

So you're talking about Episode IV. What did you think about I through III?

I liked them, too. I thought those were good films. I think everything after Star Wars was not as good, and I think the first one was the best. Anybody who says Empire [Strikes Back] is better is trippin'. I mean, please. Not even close. Stars Wars was so classic. It was almost like an opera. There were so many moments where it was just music and images. There was hardly any dialogue in the damn movie. The whole first half of the movie is mostly scenery; it was a friggin' music video. That was just so cool, you know? That's what I like. I like music, and I like scenery. And the dialogue that was [there], even though it was sparing, was great. It was written way better than any movie that preceded it. So Star Wars gets the fuckin' crown, and Empire doesn't.

Let it be known that Cut Chemist prefers Stars Wars to Empire Strikes Back.

[Laughs] I think the popular vote is the reverse.

Right, that Empire Strikes Back is "the dark one".

"'Cause it's dark" [derisively]. Well, so what? [Laughs] Can we talk some more about this? No, never mind, I'm just kidding.

Speaking of scenery, you've used some technological gadgets when you DJ. Have you ever thought of working visuals into your set?

I'm doing it right now, actually. I'm working with a visual guy, trying to come up with something. Normally I didn't because I wanted to maintain the focus on me, to see if I could captivate the audience on my own. But there's this guy in LA; he's pretty much the equivalent for movies of what I do for records. He's the ultimate movie digger. I thought it would be cool to bridge the two and make some crazy stuff up.

You've jammed with live instrumentalists like Miles Tackett and Bernard Purdie. What kind of records do you bring to such a jam, and what's your mindset going in?

There is no mindset. When it comes to live [situations], you just have to throw yourself into this world of improvisation. In order to do that, you can't premeditate anything. It's got to be purely from the hip.

What's going through your head when that happens? You're not playing an instrument, so are you thinking, "I need a sax sound here, or maybe I should scratch the 'fresh' sample"?

Not an instrument, the hell you say. You get, like, a sax sound, or a drum beat, drum rolls ... What does [DJ] Nu-Mark say -- the turntable is the infinite instrument? He's kind of right, because you can play any instrument on it.

What would you like to see next in DJ'ing technology?

Man, I don't know, I’m always so surprised ... There's this new virtual Hewlett-Packard thing [the DJammer], have you seen that? It's this new thing where you wave your hands in mid-air, and it's like virtual turntables. It creates a wireless signal to something where ... it's all really super hi-tech and abstract. Once I saw that, I was like, "Alright, I'm out, I'm done." I mean, there's no records. I think you hold this little device and move your hand. It's almost like Minority Report, where he's moving the pictures around on the wall with his hand.

I saw you in San Francisco when you pulled out R2D2. That was a great show.

I'm glad you appreciated the R2, man. I got the feeling that people were like, "What's going on here? Why did he bring a robot?"

Star Wars has the Bay Area connection, you know that.

I know that, but I just didn't feel the love. I didn't feel the love in the house. But I'm glad you caught it. I want to try to bring him out to more shows, because I have a whole routine worked out with him now.

I can totally imagine you sitting on a plane with R2 next to you.

Yeah, working out some scratch dialogue?

He's good at the "chirps", you know? [Chirps are a variety of turntable scratching]

Totally. [Laughs] That should be a skit. [We'd be] going over the intricacies of our set. [Makes beeping noises] "No, no, you come in here, on the second bar. Right, right, just like that." "Then I come in with 'ah'. Then what do you do? [Makes whirring noise] "Perfect".

Sounds like a video. I'm looking forward to that, so make it happen.

Alright, cool, man, I will.

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