Years ago, young San Franciscan Michael Schwartz, better known as Mix Master Mike, used to return from school to find a house party blasting his uncle's collection of '70s funk LPs, and after a couple hours of grooving and ignoring his mom's pleas to do his homework, Mike finally retreated to his room and settled in with some old Kojak videos and Japanese monster movies. Years later, he has put those influences to work in a master treatise of sampling and scratching titled Bangzilla (Scratch/Immortal, 2004).
But there was another influence that rocked his teen years and figured largely into his music. “In 1984, I was introduced to hip-hop, and it really made me want to be involved,” Mike wrote in his bio for the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. “So I grabbed two tape decks from my uncle's storage room and hooked up some speakers. I put different music on two cassette decks and blended them while using the Pause button to speed up or slow down the tempos in order to keep both on the beat. That's how the mixing started.”
Twenty years later — with his résumé including multiple DMC awards (solo and with the Invisibl Skratch Piklz), radio shows (KROQ's Spin Cycle), solo recordings, video game (EA Sports' SSX, Sony Dreamcast's Jet Grind Radio) and movie (Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop) soundtracks, and his DJ role with Beastie Boys (Mike remixed Rush's “Tom Sawyer” for a recent opening slot) — Mix Master Mike is king of the scratch-DJ hill. The accolades might lead you to believe that Mike is simply a hot scratch head with a talented trigger finger. But with Bangzilla, Mike realizes an ingenious vision that ranks with classics such as Kid Koala's 1997 underground tape, Scratch Scratch Scratch. Using a storytelling approach, Mike combines Kojak's crime surrealism (the bang) with the menace and humor of Godzilla (the zilla). Bangzilla is a leap forward from Spin Psycle (Moonshine, 2001), but Mike doesn't see it that way.
“I have always been in pursuit of making this type of music,” he explains from Miami while attending the MTV Video Music Awards Latin America. “I wanted to make some monster music with a Kojak feel and a little instrumental mayhem. I've always wanted to set myself apart, not just be a DJ who plays other people's records but play the turntable as a percussive instrument and compose music from the turntables. Bangzilla and my previous work show that not only can you scratch, but you can make compositions out of the scratch.”
Describing Bangzilla as “an advanced form of hip-hop instrumental,” Mike used a compact setup to create that instrumental mayhem. “I did everything in Pro Tools out of a Mackie [32•8] 32-track board into an Mbox into the Apple G4 [laptop],” he says. “Generally, I like older hardware 'cause it presents that warmer analog feel. I try to stay away from plug-ins. I just use the compressors inside of the Audio Suite in Pro Tools. The Ensoniq ASR-10 is my drum machine, with a little bit of Reason and a shitload of records. I combine beats from many sources. You could say that I am a human decomposer, taking compositions and decomposing them.”
With its sampling onslaught (also thanks to a Boss SP-202 Dr. Sample) and zany scratching, Bangzilla offers a sense of history that is lacking in many contemporary hip-hop records. Flavor Flav shout-outs, Roland TR-808 bass drums and jam-packed arrangements tie the album into the grand scheme of hip-hop while giving the music a much-needed kick in the ass. Mike divides his sample sources, culled with help from Vestax PDX-2000 turntables and a Rane TTM 56 mixer, by category: “customized records in one spot, white jackets in another, old LPs in one spot, old hip-hop 12-inches in one area, new hip-hop 12-inches in another, then a row of jazz and rock, then a row of new records, which are a bunch of garbage,” he says. Bangzilla's samples seemingly come from everywhere, making you wonder how he cleared all the sources — or did he?
“It is all a game,” Mike says with a laugh. “You got to duck and dodge the sample police. Whatever I use, I have to flip it to where no one can recognize anything that I am using. I have to be like a ninja in the sampling game. I cut up the vocals, actually pressing them onto vinyl and then scratching them, or I will run shit backward. I totally obliterate the piece of music to where I turn it into my own.”
Mike recalls Bangzilla's recording process like it was yesterday. Mention “MJ 12 Strike” and “Full Range Earmuff,” and he laughs like a happy pappy. “The opening voice in ‘MJ 12’ came from when I was in London watching this UFO documentary,” he says. “I hooked up my MiniDisc to the television and sampled it. A lot of little shit like that happened for Bangzilla. I would be in a hotel room somewhere and just grab audio files from different sources. Those timbales and the slide whistle are really a fucked-up beat and some crazy synth noise in the background. I also played some Moog [Minimoog] and the [Clavia] Nord Lead 2 for that alien scratching sound. That guy announcing, ‘Commence primary ignition,’ is something I got from one of my B movies. I slowed down some timbale records for the '80s-sounding tom-tom rolls; then, you hear the breakdown. I wanted to give the listener time to breathe, a little air pocket. ‘Open sesame’? That is taken from a very popular soundtrack from the late '70s. Then, it's Steve Austin and Dolomite.”
“Full Range Earmuff” is even more extreme, a full-on party of Disney-esque proportions: orchestral samples; more Flavor Flav; lounge jazz; AM-radio IDs; and, of course, spoken-word samples. “I wanted that intro to be really dirty and gritty,” Mike says. “I made the beat to be purposely fucked-up and distorted. I played the horns manually on my ASR-10, and then you hear the Flavor Flav drop. ‘Nonstop music’ is off some jingle 45. I took those wobbly jazz drums and the fuzz guitar from one of my dad's calypso records. You hear that tweaked-up snare drum? I got that snare drum by combining three snare drops with a raindrop. Then, I sampled, ‘Blow 'em up with the five fingers of death,’ from an old kung-fu movie. The blues guy in the end singing, ‘I got to keep moving,’ is pretty famous; I can't say who it is. And please don't tell anyone!”
Ultimately, Mix Master Mike is really just a music lover, a fan — a fan with exceptional skills but a fan, nonetheless. “I tell kids to get into the study of music,” Mike advises. “It is hard to get an angle if you are only listening to hip-hop. I grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Led Zeppelin, Public Enemy. To make the leap forward, you have to get into the study of the whole spectrum of music, not just wait for something to come out to remix. In order to know where you are at today, you have got to know where it came from. You can't just get into the game; you have to study your history.
“Me? I don't listen to other DJs. I don't feel I need to. I have developed my own way of composing and developing tricks. It's not about the gear; it's all about the history and knowledge of good music. That is what it is about to me. I am paving my own direction. I am on my own mission.”
“I sample beats from jazz vinyl or whatever and chop them up in Pro Tools,” Mix Master Mike says. “I divide the snare, the bass drum and the hi-hat, then sample each note to separate keys and replay them on a keyboard. There are no loops involved. I will use my custom records and the ASR-10 and play drums over that. Once I know the beat is strong enough to withstand a lot of music, I will start laying stuff over the beat. Sometimes, I will have multiple beats going in one song; it is all a matter of adjusting the levels. I will record one beat at a regular volume, then layer it with a little tiny beat in the background. Then, I will do another beat really subtly over that so that it just creates this big, strong drum track. Then, I might use the PreSonus [BlueMax] compressor. I like [Bangzilla track] ‘Extra Beast’ for the beats; those beats pound really hard.”