Cassette Culture

with Stretch Armstrong

Stretch Armstrong
Oct 25, 2014 · 13 min read

One of the biggest eureka moments for me as a music-obsessed teen was learning about multi-track recording. It explained so much. Could Alex Van Halen’s hands be so fast that they could hit two drums almost at the same time? I never actually believed that, but how else could he play rolls on his toms while simultaneously playing a beat with kick, snare, hi-hat and cymbals on “Hot For Teacher?” Mystery solved.

My curiosity about recording techniques and technology coincided with my discovering DJing, and shortly after picking up my first grey market Technics SL-1200, I got my hands on a Tascam cassette 4-track recorder. Without a sampler, I experimented with records and my drums. What ensued was a mixed bag, from the unlistenable — pre-Beastie Boy raps with two friends from high-school—to the almost prophetic, at least I’d like to think so—megamixes with acapellas from rap and house records over music from a variety of disco, new wave and rock records.

Fast forward several years to when DJing became the center of my life—along with related activities like spending all day in record shops (and all my money), then spending all night absorbing the sounds of new music. Through some luck and a little bit of grit, I landed a time slot on Columbia University’s radio station, the venerable WKCR, and asked my new friend, Bobbito Garcia, whom I met on a promo record run at Def Jam where he was employed, to join me on the show. I would DJ; he would host. From jump, we offered something that was unique and vital, and in short time gained the best kind of notoriety, first in NYC and then spreading farther and wider over time, thanks to the countless cassette recordings of our show that were copied and mailed to D.C., Chicago, Seattle, The Bay Area, Los Angeles, and everywhere in between. We were getting written about in newspapers and fanzines, and were nominated for College/Community Rap Show of The Year by the Gavin Report, a now-defunct radio trade publication based in San Francisco. That meant that our show was buzzing nationally and the industry was taking note.

At some time in 1991, I flew to San Francisco for the Gavin Convention because in addition to the radio show, I was also a newly-hired Director of A&R for NYC indie label Big Beat Records, where I had interned two years prior. It was no secret that where there were radio DJs, there were unsigned artists looking to “get on,” so my reason for going was two-fold: to mingle with other radio people (not thrilling) and look for talent. Joining me was my friend and fellow employee, Rob “Reef” Tewlow, who had come from The Source magazine where he was one of the original members of the ominous-sounding Mind Squad. We were going to wing this trip, with the exception of one contact that was given to us by our friend and A&R superstar Dante Ross, who told us to look up his man Domino who was working with a crew of young MCs and beat-makers that were down with Ice Cube’s cousin Del the Funkee Homosapien.

Within fifteen minutes of arriving at the hotel where the convention was taking place, we found ourselves in a stairwell where we witnessed of one of the more profoundly ill displays of hip-hop freshness ever.

I don’t know if it was because we represented a record label or that I was a radio DJ—a New York radio DJ—or both, but this crew of young guns, whom the world would come to know as The Hieroglyphics, put on a lyrical demonstration that I will never forget. With blunts being rolled and passed around, they stood in a cypher (I swore I would never use this word), seamlessly taking turns spitting unwritten rhymes with so much dexterity, aplomb and humor that I really couldn’t believe what I was taking in. I knew in that moment that I had a front row seat to something truly great. I wondered to myself “was this an everyday thing out here?” Rob and I looked at each other wide-eyed, as if to say “My MAN! Can you believe this?! We need to talk.” After, we exchanged pounds and chopped it up with Domino, who handed us The Souls of Mischief demo tape. Then, some time between leaving the stairwell and checking in, we also met, most likely through a local DJ friend, a young, unassuming DJ/producer/record collector named Josh Davis who donned a backpack and a baseball hat pulled low. As a rabid hip-hop fan, he knew who I was, and wanted to share some of his music. He handed me a cassette.

Josh Davis aka DJ Shadow in 1998

Back in the confines of my room, Rob and I listened to the two tapes we had in hand, and even without the perspective of time, realized that we were in possession of something special—very special. The Souls of Mischief demo was as impressive as the stairwell performance they and their crew gave. It was the first draft of their now-classic 93 ‘til Infinity album which would be released two years later. The other tape, by DJ Shadow (Josh’s stage name), which had a hand-illustrated j-card that included the flattering, though completely unnecessary, “for Stretch Armstrong.” It was an hour and a half of dense, though fluidly arranged, breakbeats—many quite obscure—drum samples, loops from an array of soul, funk, jazz, psychedelic and rock recordings, choice rap records and perfect scratches, all arranged with dexterity and executed with total finesse.

What made this incredible tape even more impressive was that 1. DJ Shadow was virtually unknown; 2. He was from the other side of the country doing something that at the time seemed very New York; 3. He made this tape using only turntables and a four track recorder, exclusively. He didn’t even have a sampler. I learned shortly after that not only did Shadow make these early tapes without the use of digital samplers, but that he also didn’t possess direct drive turntables like Technics 1200s. His were the nearly impossible-to-control, super sensitive belt-driven variety, yet his beats were perfectly on-time and his cuts were pristine and funky.

Total mastery in every aspect. Beat digging: Shadow had records, he wasn’t regurgitating Ultimate Breaks and Beats. Taste: it wasn’t something he needed to develop. He had it. Skill: this guy had put in the hours, weeks and years required to be able to manipulate turntables and cross-faders like that. My own experience as a bedroom four-track DJ from years before only intensified my appreciation for what I was hearing.

Shadow and I hung out later that weekend and got into a conversation about samplers. Getting one was the logical next step for him. I suggested he pick up the new Akai MPC-60, which he did, and with that in his hands, he turned his collection of obscure records into one of the most important and enduring albums of the 90s, Endtroducing. It was the first album ever made using nothing but samples. Sparse and hypnotic, it was almost entirely instrumental, yet conveyed so much emotion. With this album, Shadow became the progenitor of trip-hop, a term for alternative, mostly instrumental hip-hop coined in the U.K. However you want to label it, this album was Josh Davis’ version of hip-hop, the logical progression from the cassette megamixes he was painstakingly putting together in ’90 and ’91.

Press play and read on!

Tale of the Tape

DJ Shadow, Four-Track Mix, 1991

Immediately after a raucous introductory horn section and drum fill, expecting the first selection to be something to snap your neck, Shadow goes left, repeating a section of the moody and mellow “Sad Sad Simba” by O’Donel Levy. It’s clear from the jump that the next ninety minutes will be anything but predictable. After letting the loop ride naked, he brings in some drums on top of it, and then uses another section of “Sad Sad Simba,” soon after returning to the original section.

At 2:57, Shadow speaks with his hands, scratching a “huh” from one record panned right and a “hah” from another panned left, making a head-knodding “huh-hah!” for several bars, and then bringing back the original music loop. Shadow has essentially arranged an instrumental song with the two loops serving as verse and chorus and the cuts as a bridge. He will do this throughout the tape, foreshadowing his ability to isolate and arrange samples in a way that would be so expressive in spite of the absence of lyrics. At 4:14 he cuts in MC Serch proclaiming “they makin’ mills, but what about the hood?” from “Portrait of the Artist as a Hood” by 3rd Bass, followed by a brief moment of silence which is punctured by a line from Big Daddy Kane’s “Mr. Pitiful“now I send this out to my brother Biz Markie.” It’s another tease that in a short time will make sense. Instead of hearing Biz, Shadow drops the droopy-but-funky “Get Thy Bearings by Donovan. He alternates two sections of the song and then on top of it, at 5:25, adds some simple-but-slick wah-wah guitar cuts. Then at 6:03, Shadow drops Biz’s “I Told You,” which samples the Donovan record. Thematically, it’s the same record as the classic “The Vapors,” both pointing a finger at everyone who doubted that The Diabolical would make it in music.

At 7:57, after a quick snippet of a stoner saying “that’s some good shit,” Shadow drops “That’s the Way It Is by Powerule, with drums sampled from U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky and music from Lenny Kravitz’ “Freedom Train.” At 9:22 Shadow leaves his mark on this song, taking the drum-less intro piece, playing it out and pulling it back, dissecting it with the crossfader. At 9:54, he raises the bar, taking the famous siren from Mantonix’s “King of the Beats,” alternating on the cross-fader between straight and syncopated 16th and 32nd notes and fading out with absurdly long sustained 32nd notes that sound digitally processed, but were not.

At 10:22 Shadow drops the drum break from Monk Higgins “One Man Band,” cutting on top of it the vocal intro from “Here Comes the Judge by Shorty Long. After eight bars, Shadow goes straight into Lord Finesse’s “Fuck ‘Em,” another record aimed at the non-believers. He extends the instrumental section of the Finesse track, adds a psychedelic loop on top of it and then fades in the classic drums from Dexter Wansel’s “Theme from the Planets.” With the beat still going, at 14:00 we hear the fat, analog bass from Original Concept’s “Knowledge Me.” Twenty seconds later, very low in the mix, Shadow cuts in the drum solo from Queen’s funky “Dragon Attack which leads into an Original Concept 808 snare fill, taking us into a record from Digital Undergound member Money B’s Raw Fusion, “Hip Hip Stylee Expression,” a quirky combination of pseudo-Jamaican chat and Bay Area synths. Over the final chorus, Shadow introduces, one after the other, up to five cutting elements, gradually increasing in volume like some kind of scratch symphony.

DJ Shadow performs on the Renegades Of Rhythm tour in 2014 | photo by Joe Conzo

At 17:02 Shadow loops up the funky flute loop from Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” adding stabs and a fitting drum loop. The drums change at 17:51, a pitched down loop of Lightnin’ Rod’s “Sport,” laying the bed for some cuts—“who am I, DJ Shadow / Cut the beat up for me”—segueing smoothly into Sen Dog’s solo rap from Cypress Hill’s “Latin Lingo,” followed by “Manslaughter,” one of EPMD’s toughest offerings from their Def Jam debut, Business as Usual. Mixed in next is several un-looped bars from Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Hydra where we get to hear the saxophonist do his thing, soloing until Shadow takes us into a Nice-N-Smooth instrumental tribute, starting at 23:25 with “Ooh Child followed by the piano intro from “No Delayin.” He brings in the drum loop originally sampled from “Hihache by the Lafayette Afro Rock Band and starts chopping up the line “here is something you can’t understand!” followed by “DJ Shadow…I’m back!” Next up is Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “Mecca and the Soul Brother and Hijack’s “Style Wars,” before some more layering of subtle cuts that lead into more rap records, like the classic, politically incorrect, “Talk Like Sex by Kool G. Rap, produced by Marley Marl.

At 35:37 Shadow drops a heavy rock drum break and uses it as the glue for several different rock elements that he arranges into a cohesive, continuous medley with cuts thrown on top. It fades out at 40:40, as if to suggest that with this section, he was making a statement, however open to interpretation that statement might be. Supporting this idea is the sound of a small crowd clapping at the start of the next section at 41:05. Underneath that clapping, Shadow brings in the funky 45 “I Gotta Stand for Something” by Professor and the Efficiency Experts. He fades it out at 44:00 and brings in another funky classic, “Hook & Sling by Eddie Bo, which he also fades out to end the first side of the tape.

With the tape flipped, we hear the crackling of an old record and the voice, perhaps from a soundtrack, of a man laughing, then asking “who am I? I’m the record. Why, I can do anything. Oh, you don’t think so? Well I’ll prove it.” This is, of course, Shadow speaking to us. He drops a few more funny sound bites under the eerie sounds from the intro to ESG’s “UFO” and then at 46:22 layers the drums from “We Will Rock You” by Queen and “The Hand Clapping Song” by The Meters, while cutting up “like this” from the beginning of “La Di Da Di.”

At 47:14 Shadow brings in “Audience Pleasers by Organized Konfusion, but before letting the rhymes come in, changes the music, over which he gives a turntable homage to the group and their label, Hollywood Basic, the entity started by Dave Funkenklein, also home to Raw Fusion and Lifer’s Group. It was the first label to recognize Shadow’s value as a producer. He finally drops Organized’s “The Rough Side of Town at 48:40. After a Kool & The Gang excursion, Shadow continues the Hollywood Basic focus with Raw Fusion’s “Throw Your Hands In The Air followed by his own remix of Lifers Group’s “Real Deal,” some more breaks, bits and pieces put together deftly, and finally, another Organized Konfusion classic “Prisoners of War,” augmented with so many layers of drums and cuts that it is, essentially, a remix.

At 58:06 Shadow breaks things up with “Maggot Brain by Funkadelic—“Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time. For y’all have knocked her up…”—and hits us with the break from Isaac Hayes’ “Joy.” We hear more of the record, on top of which Shadow adds the “Bouncy Lady break by Pleasure, followed by “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby by Barry White. When the piano section of the song comes in, Shadow starts cutting the acapella of Latee’s “Wake Up,” which he blends with White. He then combines elements of “Bubble Gum by 9th Creation, Gil-Scott Heron, an Ice Cube skit, and Funk Inc., ending with a loop of “Godzilla by Blue Oyster Cult.

He fades it out and then comes back with another naked drum loop and then reprises the loop from “Bubble Gum,” this time sped up significantly. After that fades out, Shadow takes another left turn, at 1:10:08 dropping the the folk-rock “A Horse with No Name by America. He layers a beat on top of it, but to make it fit, instead of speeding it up, he drops the pitch in half, giving it that slow, droopy effect, way before drum-n-bass producers would in their productions, and over two decades before mainstream hip-hop and R&B producers would. He presents some more short musical passages, including a re-working of Wilson Pickett’s “Engine No. 9" at 1:12:38.

Shortly after 1:13:00 we hear the familiar sounds of “Back Door Man by The Doors which is anchored by additional drums and peppered with subtle vocal cuts. At 1:14:47 Shadow drops Billy Squier’s “Big Beat and shortly after adds the break from “Rock Music by Jefferson Starship over a new rock guitar element, appropriately adding the vocal cut “it’s a rhythmic war.” It really does sound like drum battle.

The section comes to an end with Just-Ice saying “now, you do all that other shit,” which seems to be Shadow’s way of reminding us that all these unexpected samples, at least the way he’s arranging them, are hip-hop too.

At 1:15:21 he plays, unadorned, the entire Dyke & The Blazer’s version of “It’s My Thing.” After the fade, he then plays, again untouched, “Sing Sing by The Incredible Bongo Band, in its entirety. At 1:22:04 he lays down the heavy “Go On With Your Bad Self” by Consumer Report, letting it play from top to bottom.

From the beginning of this tape, Shadow showcased the incredibly sophisticated way he can layer sounds and make elements from different records work so well to create feeling. Adding these songs, in full and untouched, was not because he was lazy. Rather, it was an extension of his ethos of surprise, and the ultimate in restraint, considering how much exquisite damage he was capable of wreaking on turntables. With this tape and the remix work he did for Hollywood Basic, I wondered what would happen once Shadow had access to his own sampler. The answer would be Entroducing, an album that let the world know how evocative and captivating beat-driven, sampled instrumental music could be.

Follow Stretch Armstrong on Twitter @StretchArmy.
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Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

    Stretch Armstrong

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    Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

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