Return of the Turntable
It's easy to forget in the current climate that the DJ, not the rapper, was the progenitor of hip-hop. In New York in the mid-70s, party DJs like Kool DJ Herc, DJ Hollywood, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, and Pete DJ Jones laid the foundation for the genre, not only in the records they chose to play--funk and soul over ubiquitous disco--but in the way they played them, accenting the funkiest drum breaks, or breakbeats, and often cutting between two copies of the same record on separate turntables to extend crowd-pleasing sections. By the early 80s DJs like Grandmixer D.ST, Jazzy Jay, Jam Master Jay, and Cut Creator were fashioning complete works from just those bits and pieces, importing bass lines and textures and, of course, scratching the hell outta all of it.
But as hip-hop became a commodity, its priorities changed. Rappers, easier to sell than DJs, naturally stepped into the foreground, and with the advent of affordable computer sampling technology, talented DJs like Eric B, Coldcut, Public Enemy's Terminator X, and Gang Starr's DJ Premier became better known as producers. A run down Billboard's R & B chart reminds us that the original turntable aesthetic is a rarity in the most popular hip-hop of the day: looping a recognizable Police riff as Puff Daddy does in "I'll Be Missing You" just isn't the same as building an original piece of music out of seemingly insignificant parts of obscure records. Even rappers who still use DJs in the studio tend to replace them with digital audio tape for live performances--DAT machines don't ask for per diems and they're not likely to upstage you with quick-draw acrobatics.
Fortunately for anyone who was ever intrigued by the art of the DJ, there's a rebellion afoot. A number of terrific compilations in the last few years have both energized and publicized a thriving hip-hop underground that, while wildly diverse, revolves around the turntables. Foremost among them are the two volumes of Return of the DJ (Bomb Hip-hop), which update old-school techniques; the Bill Laswell-produced Altered Beats (Axiom), which brings in live musicians; and most recently Deep Concentration (Om), from which three DJs--California producers and scratch whizzes Cut Chemist and Peanut Butter Wolf and Orlando collage artist Q-Burn's Abstract Message--appear in a showcase at Smart Bar this Sunday.
While this event and the compilations are good starting points for exploring the DJ renaissance, a few other new records by individual artists further illustrate the possibilities of turntable art:
DJ Shadow's 1996 debut Endtroducing...(Mo' Wax/ffrr) remains the quintessential hip-hop collage album, a virtual turntable-and-sample symphony. But earlier this year, under the name Directions, Chicagoan Bundy K. Brown released a single called "Echoes" (on the British Soul Static Sound label) that achieved a similar depth using only records by jazz bassist Johnny Dyani and trumpeter Don Cherry.
Originally released last year on the indie WordSound label, Psychoanalysis (What Is It?), a twisted, theatrical sound journey "conducted" by veteran hip-hop producer Prince Paul, has just been reissued by Tommy Boy. Best known for the tracks he's assembled for De La Soul and Stetsasonic, here Prince Paul (who also has a track on Deep Concentration) unleashes his disturbingly vulgar sense of humor on a musical landscape that embraces rapping, scratching, drum programming, and samples from spoken-word records and soul and funk obscurities. Parts of the album take aim at 2 Live Crew, Schoolly D, Mad Professor, and Dr. Octagon, among others, but Prince Paul's universe is so topsy-turvy it's hard to tell whether he's poking fun or paying tribute. On the opposite end of the spectrum but equally compelling is the forthcoming Milight (Mo' Wax/ffrr) from Tokyo's DJ Krush. On the relatively spartan record, he strings together lean beats and bass lines for a variety of guest rappers.
For pure DJ skill, nothing beats the recently released debut album by the X-ecutioners (formerly the X-Men), a four-man DJ crew from New York. Although there are a few rappers on X-pressions (Asphodel), most of the cuts are instrumental, and they're pieced together entirely on the wheels of steel, using low-tech innovations like sticking tape across a record's grooves to maintain a certain beat. Perhaps because they have worked with a variety of top-notch underground rappers (Common, Artifacts, Organized Konfusion, Large Professor), the X-ecutioners tend to focus on a musical, coherent end product and not on the moves along the way. That gives them an advantage over their better-known peers, the Invisible Scratch Pickles: on the recent single "Invisbl Skratch Piklz vs. da Klamz uv Deth" the San Franciscans can spin heads with their superathletic scratching, but the side-length cut doesn't hold up as a piece of music.
Reich and Wrong
In a shrill critique of jazz programming at the new Symphony Center last Friday, Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich reproached CSO president Henry Fogel for not assembling some kind of jazz repertory orchestra. But it seems to me the preservation of jazz's past isn't nearly as pressing an issue as the current suppression of its development. Although its bookings are hardly the most adventurous in town, this season Symphony Center is presenting important newer talents like Joe Lovano, Roy Hargrove, Cyrus Chestnut, and Cassandra Wilson--artists with far more potential than a house big band that could deliver historically accurate performances of Duke Ellington's music.
In the same piece Reich also noted that "Orchestra Hall has been presenting jazz concerts since the 1910s," which seems highly unlikely since jazz wasn't born until the following decade. While this (as-yet uncorrected) goof was most likely a typo, it's not Reich's only recent boner: In a review of Ornette Coleman's concerts at Lincoln Center this summer, he called the saxophonist's important musical system, harmolodics, "harmolody." Worse, in a September review of a performance by the Peter Brštzmann Tentet, Reich referred to the title of "Old Bottles, No Wine," a composition by Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, as "cryptic." Anyone who considers himself knowledgeable enough to slam the free, not-for-profit Chicago Jazz Fest for not measuring up to admission-charging ventures like San Francisco's festival, as Reich did a few months ago, should probably know the title refers to the Gil Evans album New Bottle, Old Wine.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Cut Chemist photo by Krischelle.