DJ Shadow & Cut Chemist Return To Planet Rock
Time travel thru Afrika Bambaataa’s treasured vinyl collection with two masterful technicians
Over the summer, a friend brought me a small care package from New York: a 12-inch of remixes of Britney Spears songs. It was a joke of sorts since my friend knows that, under any other circumstance, that 12-inch would have been destined for snack bowl status. However, he pointed at a sticker on the corner of the cover:
That would be Afrika Bambaataa, the South Bronx gang leader-turned-DJ-turned-founder of the Zulu Nation. Alongside Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc, Bam is universally recognized as one of hip-hop’s key architects. Earlier this year, he donated 40,000 of his own records to the Cornell Hip-Hop Collection. Before all that vinyl arrived in Ithaca, it made a pit stop at a Greenwich Village gallery called Enterprise, where anyone could walk in, flip through hundreds of boxes, and lay their hands on Bambaataa’s soon-to-be-former records. The gallery also had permission to sell off duplicate copies of records already cataloged, including the aforementioned Spears 12-inch. For all I know, Bam never did anything with the single, except maybe to have a Zulu Nation intern slap the sticker on. But even for a joke gift, the idea that Bam might have played it tickles the imagination. As with wine and organic produce, so it is with records: provenance has power.
That fact wasn’t lost on the Bay Area’s DJ Shadow and L.A.’s Cut Chemist. These two also got to crate-dig through the Bambaataa collection—except they were allowed to borrow whatever they wanted from it to use as a basis for a new mix and tour they call Renegades of Rhythm. The tour ends in late November, after hitting up 30+ cities. This is the fourth time in fifteen years that the pair has created a live mix together but Renegades feels particularly special. Cut Chemist and Shadow return full-circle to not just their own roots as hip-hop DJs, but along the way highlight the unique role of the DJ in creating the very idea of hip-hop itself.
A DJ tour built on playing another DJ’s personal records may seem like an odd concept, but it makes sense when you consider this is Afrika Bambaataa’s collection we’re talking about. Within the pantheon of hip-hop’s forefathers, Bam was neither the original innovator—that would be Herc—nor was he a technical stylist in the vein of Flash. What Bambaataa had going for him was a sprawling collection of records and a willingness to play anything and everything from it. In other words, Bambaataa was a selector supreme.
At a time when most of his contemporaries were primarily spinning funk records, Bam pushed audiences to open themselves to music from across the sonic spectrum. As DJ historian Frank Broughton put it, Bambaataa was hip-hop’s “most adventurous musical explorer… As ‘Master of Records,’ he was a voracious DJ, searching for danceable breaks in the most unlikely of tunes.” Nuyorican salsa? Sure. Downtown disco? Of course. The Beatles? Ringo’s drums hit hard for Bam’s crowd. German electronic prog-rock? Why not?
Bam’s expansive and eclectic tastes weren’t just musical but philosophical at their core. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop author Jeff Chang writes that the ex-gangleader was “making himself open to the good in everything,” not just on the turntables but also in the inclusive, peace-making spirit he sought to instill amongst formerly warring Bronx youth. With each record he played, Bam wasn’t only telling a story, he was also building an argument for what an infant hip-hop sensibility could and should promote. Bam’s sets were living manifestations of the Zulu Nation’s famous motto: peace, love, unity, and, of course, having fun.
Renegades of Rhythm clearly embraces this ethos. DJs Cut Chemist and Shadow organize the mix around a loose chronology meant to mirror Bambaataa’s own musical evolution over the 70s through early 80s. They begin with James Brown’s rhythmic revolutions, and nearly two hours later, climax with the electro-funk bomb of Bambaataa’s own “Planet Rock.” In between, the pair pay historical homage to the sounds of New York’s proto-hip-hop era: funk, disco, Latin, rock, and new wave.
Unlike their first two live mixes of mostly funk 45s—Brainfreeze and Product Placement—Renegades isn’t premised on obscurity. In Bambaataa’s heyday, many of these records would have been new but unknown as he and other early DJs were notorious for obfuscating artist names and titles to dissuade others from stealing their secret dancefloor weapons. Forty years later, most of those songs have been endlessly reissued, especially on the seminal Ultimate Beats and Breaks series. The goal with Renegades doesn’t lie in surprising the audience with songs they’ve never heard before, it’s in reworking that familiarity into something novel and exhilarating.
For example, I was completely thrown off by one part of the mix where an impossibly fast Latin percussion track kept percolating. I couldn’t place what it was until a friend pointed out they were probably playing the 33 1/3 rpm version of Herman Kelly’s classic “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” sped up to 45 rpm. Similar reconstructions bubble up throughout the mix. The DJs cut up the raucous drums that begin “Shaft In Africa.” They play with the vocal bridge on a cover of “Sing a Simple Song” by the all-Pinoy band, Please. They tease the opening synth chords from Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” in all their unnatural glory.
All this makes Renegades the most accessible mix Cut and Shadow have assembled to date, a stark contrast to the more challenging, conceptual conceits of their last collaboration, 2007’s The Hard Sell. Again, given the context of their raw material—“Bambaataa’s own records!” as they reminded people often—it’s hard to imagine how Renegades could be anything beside crowd-pleasing. The live show, which I saw at Los Angeles’s Palladium theater, attempted to capture and represent the heady energy of early New York hip-hop parties in the parks and clubs, complete with a large, Manhattan skyline-inspired set, and an elaborate video accompaniment by Ben Stokes that includes record scans, photos of Bam and a virtual trip through the NYC subway system.
However, “inspired by” isn’t the same as a deliberate recreation. Even if Cut and Shadow are giving a history lesson, it’s on their terms. Beginning with 1999’s Brainfreeze, their collaboration has always been one that pairs encyclopedic record knowledge with world-class turntablist abilities, and Renegades allows them to unleash their full arsenal of technical skills. I counted six turntables, three or four mixers, and a slew of effects processors, all of which went into creating a frenetically furious mix that may be 1973 in spirit but was felt 2073 in execution. Unexpectedly, the most conventional section of the show was near the end when Shadow and Cut give it up for the dancers with a 10-minute set devoted to all the b-boy/girl classics, including Jimmy Castor’s “It’s Just Begun,” Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican” and of course, the all-time b-boy anthem, The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache.”
My favorite part of the live show didn’t even involve records. It’s when Cut Chemist powered up an ancient drum machine, the Vox Percussion King—better known as Grandmaster Flash’s “beat box” that would bump during the late 70s club shows he’d throw with the Furious Five. As Cut began to jam out on the Percussion King, Shadow joined in with a pair of drumsticks, banging on a new-ish Yamaha DTX 12. The two traded electronic drum solos on the fly before doubling up to create a thunderous crescendo. In that moment, it didn’t matter if they were using Bambaataa’s records or not. The tribute lay not in the medium but in the spirit of their rhythmic improv, a beat-banged salute to the creative legacy of Afrika Bambaataa and his generation of originators.