On Tuesday evening November 25 at the beautiful Fox Theater in Oakland, California, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist wrapped up the Renegades of Rhythm tour, a notable moment for hip-hop and DJ culture. The tour launched in early September in New York out of an idea: before retiring Afrika Bambaataa's monumental record collection to Cornell University's archives, Shadow and Cut would take the vinyl relics for one last spin.
With Bambaataa's blessing and guidance, the two DJs—really legends of the game themselves—laid out a trip through time spoken through six turntables playing the funk, disco, soca, calypso, West Indian, West African, electro, and early techno and hip-hop classics that not only spawned a million samples but also propelled a cultural phenomenon around the world.
That night the sky above the Fox carried the constant buzz of police helicopter traffic, and a generous street patrol kept tabs on the hundreds, perhaps thousands of protesters marching in disapproval of a Mississippi grand jury's decision to not indict a police officer for the killing of Michael Brown. The air inside the theater was thick with that vague sense that we were living out a historical moment, as well as that vaguely legal smoke that three out of five Oaklanders love. (It's science).
Addressing the crowd after an opening salvo of scratching, DJ Shadow expressed solidarity with the protestors and encouraged the crowd to celebrate all the more for Bambaataa's legacy. The theater full of hip-hop heads needed no further nudging; they ate up every minute of Shadow and Cut Chemist's thoughtfully choreographed interplay, as they deftly slipped between seemingly well-planned track lists and bouts of furious turntablist freestyling.
The original-issue records, some approaching 40 years old, often sounded a bit muddy from their wear and tear, but that only served to feed the mood of joyous nostalgia. The duo moved through classics like "Rapper's Delight," Chic's "Good Times," Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache," Kraftwerk's "Tran-Europe Express" and "Tour de France" and of course Bambaataa's own "Planet Rock," as well as obscure tracks much better known for being sampled in the Beastie Boys' "Hold it Now" or Tom-Tom Club's "Genius of Love."
Cut Chemist even expertly dropped "Owner of a Lonely Heart" by Yes, and then got on the mic to say, "by the way, this is a hip-hop record!"
However, the biggest ovation by far came when the boys deviated from their scratch routines for a couple of minutes. Cut Chemist took to an ancient drum pad machine of some sort, while Shadow proved that he's a seriously funky drummer when laying sticks to a drum pad device of some kind, and the two launched a frenetic beat session that sent the crowd on a bullet train to cray town.
After two full sets—accompanied by mesmerizing footage of breakdancers, album covers and other found B-roll of New York City's hip-hop heyday—the DJs, like a fireworks finale, let rip one last blast of feverish finger work on the turntables for a thunderous roar of approval. It occurred to me that as some DJs were busy doing photo shoots for their endorsement deals, these two artists were rehearsing a fully realized, collaborative show and actually performing music on what—even after 30-40 years—is still a new-ish instrument.
Closing the show on the mic, Shadow urged the younger generation to research Afrika Bambaataa and the Universal Zulu Nation. "Bambaataa's message that he spread worldwide was using music as a weapon for peace," he said. "That's a message I think we all can relate to right about now." –Markkus Rovito