Hip-hop, DJing and the music industry are all at a major crossroads. Remember the glory days of the late '90s when people would go out and see big-name DJs every weekend? Like sheep to the slaughter, they lined up, gleefully paying 40 bucks a pop to get a glimpse of the decade's biggest PR scams. Guitar Center was loudly shouting from the rooftops that turntables were outselling guitars, and everyone wanted to be a DJ. Those days are done. Rock has made a massive comeback, and for many cities, the big-name DJ is a hard sell. It's definitely a good time to ask a handful of key people just where they think all this is going. Coincidentally, it's Guitar Center that brought such a group together under one roof. The GC Spin Off Grand Finals provided the backdrop for a reunion of the West Coast's staple underground hip-hop label, Stones Throw. The label's top artists, including J.Rocc (of the Beat Junkies), Madlib and Peanut Butter Wolf played together as a tribute to the late J Dilla. In addition, A-Trak, Craze, ie.MERG (all DMC World Champions) and Machine Drum rounded out the impressive lineup of talent; Dan the Automator was on hand to judge the competition; and Remix was lucky enough to sit down with everyone for an hour before the show.
If there is one group of people you would expect to be the die-hard troops making a last stand at the vinyl Fort Knox, this would be it — the hardcore turntablists and major hip-hop heads. Throwing around records and digging through crates is the stuff hip-hop dreams are made of. Surely sending the “Digital DJ” columnist down to interview them would be feeding a pig to the wolves, right? Wrong again; everyone was not only fully embracing digital DJing, but a few are even on the bleeding edge. Their enthusiasm and all-around glowing attitude about new technology and the digital revolution gave Remix a little hope for the future of hip-hop and music in general. So what happens when you stick six of the top people in the hip-hop and DJing world together in one room? Do they smoke a lot of blunts and wax poetic about the myriad shapes in Vibe magazine? Hardly. These guys are well-spoken, intelligent and on top of their game. Here are some insightful and sometimes controversial things they had to say about the music industry and the state of DJing today.
Who here is working with digital gear, and what is your preferred system?
Craze: [Stanton] FinalScratch 2. It has way more things you can play with. FinalScratch 1 is crap.
J.Rocc: I've never tried FinalScratch, so I don't know, but I use Serato [Scratch Live].
Dan: I have been using FinalScratch for a while, but I am leaning toward Serato. I just want to get down to the system that I don't have to bring anywhere because it's already there.
Craze: That's why I use both! I just show up with both and say, “What do you have? Okay, I'll use that system tonight.” I don't want to do soundcheck. Serato is the standard; that's what everybody uses, but to me, they feel exactly the same.
Dan: All I know is they both kinda work.
ie.MERG: Locally, I play with vinyl. Overseas, with Serato.
[PBW and A-Trak hadn't settled into the conversation yet, but PBW uses Serato Scratch Live, and A-Trak uses Serato Scratch Live and Ableton Live.]
Do you think digital technology is destroying the rich heritage of DJing?
Dan: I have one thing to say: I was out touring with Bambaataa one year, and he had nine crates of records. He had to have four guys carry his records. Even with that, you only have 400 to 600 records. With the computer, you have 10,000 records.
Craze: You can do whatever you want; you can show up to the gig and say, “Oh, okay, this is the type of crowd.”
Dan: I have ruined so many records, and you can never get [some of] them back again.
ie.MERG: [Digital technology] is not necessarily destroying it but making it less accessible. The vintage romance is still there, but less people are finding out because they are being force-fed the new technology through advertisement. A combination of modern and vintage is ideal.
But what about the process of exploring and looking for music?
Craze: You know what's funny? I have become more of a digger now with MP3s. I used to show up to cities and be like, “I'm too tired.” Now I'm diggin' all the time.
J.Rocc: It ruins that whole digging aspect, that staring at a record while it plays, and you're like, “Ohhhh '76!” On MP3, you're just reading the title.
Dan: People try and pretend like technology does not exist. It does.
J.Rocc: I love it, though. I'm an MP3 digger. I love hanging out and being like, “You got any MP3s?” “Yeah, I got, like, 5 GB.” “Oh shit! Hook me up man!” But then I'm sittin' on too much.
Is there a point where there's too much?
J.Rocc: There is a point.
PBW: Depends on what you're doing.
Craze: I just traded, like, 20 GB with this guy last night. It's the perfect thing for me 'cause I spin drum ‘n’ bass, and if you don't want to press a $40 dub, it's there. A lot of people hate on that in the drum ‘n’ bass scene because you're killing the whole dubplate thing.
Dan: But a dubplate only lasts for like 20 plays anyway.
Craze: Exactly. I was the first one using that shit [in the d 'n' b scene], so I was getting all that hate in the beginning. But I was like, watch, it's gonna catch up, and in a few years, everybody is gonna use it.
Do you think now you're getting less flak and more interest in what you're doing?
Craze: That was the first year. Now everyone knows what you're doing.
J.Rocc: Now everybody just wants to stare at your screen and look at your songs.
PBW: Yeah, but you don't have to put in the song titles if you don't want to. You can go old school and not put in the song titles. One thing I do is write down what songs mix with what, and I don't really want people seeing that.
ie.MERG: It's more of a standard now than five years ago. The house DJs expect you to be using it. The audience just wants to see good tracks cut up. Often, they can't even tell if it's off a computer.
Speaking of staring at the screen, a lot of DJs tend to stare at the computer quite a bit. Do you think that pulls your attention away from the crowd?
J.Rocc: When you're DJing at a club, you still look at the crowd.
Dan: It's like a rearview mirror in the car; it's always there, and you check it as you drive.
ie.MERG: Depends on the performer. Jamie Lidell is a great example of someone who is a great performer who rocks digital gear and makes a great show. The technology is behind him, but it does not get in the way of a set. If you're just playing from iTunes, you're not a DJ anymore. A bad DJ is just a bad DJ, now or 10 years ago.
Are you also incorporating other technologies into your sets?
PBW: I would love to, but I have not started yet.
J.Rocc: I am just using Serato Scratch [Live], but I need to invest in Ableton and a foot pedal, fast!
PBW: I want to start incorporating old-school hip-hop videos on our tour.
Craze: I think technology helps you become a crazier showman.
Dan: I usually roll with the band and video because I don't want to see me DJ. All [the crowd] sees are some hands moving. How interesting of a show is that?
A-Trak, what made you want to restructure the way you DJ and start using Ableton Live to sample on the fly?
J.Rocc: [impersonating A-Trak] “Well, I was sitting with Kanye [West] one day….” [A-Trak is West's touring DJ.]
A-Trak: In the general sense, for a while now, I have been trying to find ways to mesh turntablism and party DJing. I got tired of doing shows and mixing part of the night, then stopping and doing a solo. Also, noticing that my solos were paradigms based on the battle format, I just think there is so much different stuff that we can all be doing with the way we mix. A lot of DJs have access to the same records now. So more than ever, the way that DJs play their records is how they put their stamp on them.
Do you think successful DJs/artists have a social responsibility, or is it okay for music to just be entertainment?
J.Rocc: Depends on who you are; me, I think I do. I grew up on NWA, but there is a point where it's overkill. Does every song have to be about me shakin' my ass in the club?
Dan: I'm more concerned about the quality. I will listen to NWA, but then there will be a million other records that come out with the same lack of message, and I won't listen to them because they're bad. I was watching NWA blow up, and then all of the sudden there were Crips from Denver on Jenny Jones. There are no Crips in Denver; you know what I mean? So it does have ramifications — if you act like that's not true, you're foolin' yourself. On the other hand, a lot of quality work does not have social responsibility.
PBW: I am just more into something that is creative and different. I don't censor my artists.
A-Trak: At the end of the day, for me, style goes over substance. If you do something fresh, that's the main concern. The substance is kind of secondary. If you can marry both, it's even better, but I think Lil' Wayne is the best rapper alive, and he talks about selling drugs all day.
What is one piece of gear that you couldn't do without?
Dan: Pro Tools.
What was the single most epic era in terms of musical output?
Dan:Sympathy for the Devil [Rolling Stones], Beatles, Os Mutantes — that era, in terms of innovation. All of those people were doing all these things within about a four-to-five-year period that were as musically and technically creative as any other period I can think of.
PBW: That's when people started doing drugs.
A-Trak: Late '60s, early '70s.
Merge: '60s, when the radio was playing the most forward-thinking stuff.
Craze: For the music I like, '80s to now.
J.Rocc: I would have to say early '70s funk, soul and disco.
Did disco get a bad rap, or did it actually have something good going on?
Dan:Saturday Night Fever is one of the greatest records ever made.
PBW: That is what got me into hip-hop, Saturday Night Fever.
Would it be safe to say that there might not be any hip-hop if it were not for disco?
J.Rocc: It was the anti-disco movement, but yet…
Dan: …but yet they grabbed onto those records to a big degree.
Do you think copyright laws have gone too far? Are they restricting creative output?
Dan: No man, if someone does their work and does not want you to use it, that's their right. Unfortunately, you won't see records like [Beastie Boys'] Paul's Boutique anymore because people can't afford to do it.
PBW: So how do you feel about covers then? The law says that anybody can do a cover of anybody, and I think that's racist. I think the judges look at hip-hop as something bad, and they don't let you sample, but they're cool with covers. Anybody can do a Beatles cover.
Dan: You only hear about the ones who get caught. You can sample a million things and clear them with a million people for a very reasonable price. I sample on like three songs on an album, and the rest I don't sample. The ones I do sample, I usually make two or three different versions of it so I can go, “Who wants the money?”
PBW: Yeah, you have to let them know that you have a backup.
A-Trak: I am thinking about working with Kanye — how he samples in every song — and watching that stuff come together. It amazes me how much an artist that has a lot of leverage and influence can actually have a say in what samples get cleared. Case in point: “Gold Digger,” where at first they will come back and say, “No, you can't use it.” But because Kanye has a certain influence, he can reach out to the estate of the person, and then they let him use it. But someone like Ghostface Killah, who does not have Kanye's personality or influence in the media, can't. Half the songs have to be cut at the last second because they can't get cleared.
Dan: Make no mistake about it, though: 90 percent of the stuff out there is clearable. The other 10 percent is just a matter of money. It's always a rush to a deadline; you need this for your single, and all of the sudden they are asking you for a million dollars because you've been put in such a position that there is no alternative.
Is the digital distribution revolution an artist's best friend or his worst enemy in disguise?
J.Rocc: It's both. You can buy it or download it, but it gets the word out there.
A-Trak: I'm a consumer; if I hear of something, I will go on LimeWire and get it. But if I really like it, I will go out and buy the 12-inch and the CD. People have such immediate access to music now that you can't really go around it, or people are going to pass you by. But it definitely does not stop you from supporting these artists.
Dan: I think it just weeded out a bunch of crap in the major-label-type setup. Who is really to blame are the record labels for putting out incomplete records and pushing singles like “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé. The single is really hot, but buy the album, and the album's a piece of shit. So why buy the album when I can pay 99 cents to get the one song I really want? It's not actually the artist's fault, so to speak. The labels don't actually like when the album is all good because they can't unify behind it.
PBW: They can't get everyone to push the same song. We put out the Madvillain record. About two weeks before it came out, it was all over the Internet. I am not talking about one song, but the whole album. We thought we were not going to sell any units. But that record is the biggest seller in our catalog.
A-TRAK ON THE FAST TRACK
A-Trak's DJ setup is a case of taking DJing to the next level. The gear chain is simple but effective. He runs Serato Scratch Live and Ableton Live on dual laptops, both fed into a Pioneer DJM-909 mixer with a sidechain running out of Scratch Live into Ableton Live for on-the-fly sampling. A multipedal footswitch connected to Ableton Live triggers record-in and -out points and loads the new loops into their own channels for continuous playback. Using traditional battle techniques, scratches and effect feedback from the Pioneer DJM-909, A-Trak can build a tight little song on the fly in just a few minutes.
The concept is not exactly new, but it was the application of the technique that made it particularly cool for the DJ/hip-hop world. In one sequence at the Spin Off event, A-Trak quickly rebuilt a classic Pharcyde track. By sampling the original records used in the track, he laid down the rhythm section and then began a cool scratch routine with the Pharcyde a cappella. The end result was fun to watch — awfully close to the original song, but with a personal flare.
IE.MERG'S A/V ADVENTURES
For the Spin Off show, ie.MERG collaborated with music partner Machine Drum. Both had M-Audio Trigger Fingers connected to Ableton Live, with the pads triggering drums hits and samples, while the faders were connected to the effect levels for each channel. As Machine Drum laid down a powerful layer of electronic beats freehand, ie.MERG soloed on top using a turntable, Pioneer DVJ-1000 and Ableton Live. For the DVJ, ie.MERG built a scratch sequence in advance from old-school hip-hop videos. Short rhythmic loops and scratch sequences of the video made for great eye candy, but as is often the case when dealing with audio/video, there was a serious synchronization problem once both reached the projectors.
One of the more effective solos involved a simple scratch routine with a little help from technology. Using a battle record with a synth stab from Native Instruments Reaktor, ie.MERG was playing the turntable over an Ableton Live sequence that had been tuned in advance to the stab. Moving the pitch slider from — 8 to 0 and +8, he voiced the sample to create a cool catchy melody line. He then played the record with a very slow attack and added a short echo provided by the Pioneer DJM-909 mixer. The end result was a very authentic-sounding mid-'90s tech-house line that worked wonderfully in a hip-hop context.