Music Spotlight: Z-TRIP
Interview and photography by
50mm staff writer
Somebody stuck the chocolate in the peanut butter, and a good thing’s happening. Shit, I love it when the underground rears it’s ugly head and cusses out the squares. It’s worth it just to see the looks on their faces. A great thing happens when you get to see an art form come into it’s own and turn people on. I’ve always admired people who are there to capture the halcyon days of raw, fearless talent like that. It is rare when you stumble on something that no one has found a way to kill yet, an expression that’s not yet been overdone or defined to death. It’s just the artist and their fan-base going over the edge together in a barrel. Hell yeah.
So here goes. The art of Turntablism is garnering a big seat at the table these days. In an age where there are legions bored to tears with what’s on the top 40, the art of DJ-ing is quickly becoming recognized as a musical Altoid. The kids are all right, as they say. I got to chew the proverbial fat with a couple of the scenes biggest hopefuls, DJ Z-Trip and C-Minus. Z-trip is one of the spokesmen for the art. (Just watch Scratch, you’ll see what I’m talking about.) He has a new joint dropping as we speak that is taking the airwaves by storm, so if you don’t know him yet, just wait about five minutes. C-Minus is one of the original champions of new music being heard in Los Angeles. For years, his presence as a DJ on Power 106’s Fantastik Four show, and The Lab has firmly held the door open for what’s next.
JM: What does the album title, Shifting Gears mean?
Z-Trip: For me personally, it represents sort of the whole process of me going through a change; trying to get out of what people perceive me as, which is a Hip Hop DJ, Mash Up guy or what ever. I wanted to get out of that stigma and let people know that I produce and am way more versed than the labels people have come to know me by. The title is apropos because of the fact that I’m trying to get from point A to point B. It also makes sense because for me, I’m all over the place. I’m constantly shifting gears on this record, going from first gear to second gear, third, whatever. It sort of represents the journey from where I was to where I’d like to be. Also, the very feel of the album is very much like shifting gears, like if you’re on a road trip and you’re driving for miles, you gotta go through the steep hill, you gotta go through the rocky road, you gotta hit the straightaway. Every song on this record represents a gear change or a different context in the journey of its construction.
JM: One of the first things I noticed about this record is that for the most part a lot of the artists are mostly known in the underground Hip Hop scene. On a project of this scale you probably could have gotten a lot more commercially successful MC’s. Some would say that’s risky. How do the choices of the artists reflect on your vision for this record?
Z-Trip: You know I thought that maybe I’d grab some more commercial type cats, but the thing is that most of the MC’s that I like, and the people that I feel represent the same things I do in the DJ world are underground MC’s. They are really good at what they do. I mean look at Supernatural; incredible at what he does. Busdriver; incredible at what he does. Murs, Soup… on and on. Everybody on the record is someone I really admire and enjoy for what they bring to the game in their own context. I wanted to have that on my record versus going after something that was the flavor of the month. The artists I chose have more longevity in my world, and that includes people like Whipper Whip and Grandmaster Kaz who are legendary. That completely validates what I’m about and the music I like. I figure if you’re a person in this scene, you’re gonna gravitate towards your MF Doom’s and the LP’s and the Stones Throw roster, or whatever. With this record I feel I’ve established something like that for those kinds of fans of Hip Hop. I feel that that’s the kind of crowd that I’ve come up in with what I do and I didn’t want to give them something that wasn’t me. Using these MC’s on my record is very true to who I am and what I’m about. It’s risky, but at the same time it was very fun. It was a necessity on my first record to put people on that would validate what I’m about.
JM: Did you assemble a list of MC’s for this record?
Z-Trip: I didn’t really have a list; I mean in my head I had a list...
JM: Were their any requirements once they were on board? Did you say: “ I want to have a song about this.” Or did you let them just do their thing?
Z-Trip: It was sort of a little bit of both. Some of the people I stepped to were ones that I had in mind for a particular reason, a certain sound, or whatever. It was like: “This person would flow really well over this. Here’s an idea, roll with it.” Other times I knew that a certain person wrote a certain way so I sort of stacked the tune towards what I knew to be their strengths vocally; especially as far as tempos went. I knew some MC’s really shine at such and such speed. So I gave people a little bit of a guideline, but at the same time I tried not to choke them off too much. I let them do what they do, cause that’s the reason I brought them on board in the first place. I tried my hardest to not be constricting. I’m not a big fan of handing someone a beat tape and going: “Yo man, pick a beat…” It’s like I like to sit down with somebody, in my studio, play ‘em beats and when they go “That’s the one.” Then that’s the one we start working on, versus me giving something to somebody, and them going and writing something and bringing it back. Everybody on the record was somebody I worked very close with. That’s why it’s (the record) is doing what I wanted it to do, which is providing the format that these guys excel in and stretching the boundaries of that format just a little bit further. I think at the end of the day it’s everything you love about that artist or everything you love about me combined and enhanced.
JM: On this record there is quite a political overtone (Chuck-d, the various samples “If peaceful revolution is not possible, then violent revolution is inevitable.”)
|I mean come on, we just went and invaded a country that posed no threat to us. That in and of itself creates more of a threat... -Z-Trip|
Z Trip: when it comes to politics, I definitely want people to be aware of what’s going on around them…
JM: How do you feel?
Z Trip: We’re probably in the worst shape we’ve ever been in. I wish I could say: “The Republicans are this, or Bush is that” but it’s so much more than that. It’s the system that continually lets the people in power get away with so much of what they do. It lets the power hungry (people) and the money hungry (people) and the people that really don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves run things. Things are stacked in their favor. What ends up happening is the middle class gets eliminated and you have a continual widening of the gap between the rich and poor in this country. That’s just at home. Our policies abroad, I mean come on, we just went and invaded a country that posed no threat to us. That in and of itself creates more of a threat because now we’ve legitimately made one for ourselves by creating a seething animosity towards us in an arena that is becoming increasingly anti-American anyway. A lot needs to be done, but I think that the first thing that needs to happen is that people have to be vocal about it. I feel that so many people stay silent. Once there is a voice, there will be action. It’s tough though, I mean the system is so attacked against people. The quote: “If peaceful revolution is not possible, then violent revolution is inevitable” is very scary, but it’s very real. We’re trying to do it in a peaceful manner. We are tying to get out the vote. We are trying to play by the rules but we keep getting lied to, we keep getting shit shoved down our throats. At some point I think a revolution is inevitable, because you can only be held down so much. I just hope it’s not a violent revolution.
JM: I like that there’s a focus back on solid beat making that highlights the skills of what a DJ is historically known for; and that’s to rock the house. As a producer though, how do you assemble your beats/ drum patterns/samples?
Z-trip: I’ve had so many samples that I’ve sort of stored away, earmarking them over the years, hoping to one day use them. Example: the military drum patterns on “About Face” were some that I had for years, but never knew how to flip them. Then one day in the studio I discovered a process that would make it possible to assemble that sample just the way I wanted. A lot of the magic happened that way. I did sit down with all of these ideas way before I contacted any of the artists though, and I sifted through the beats and brought out what I wanted to use. The other thing is with MC’s, you don’t want them to be sitting around while you are trying to figure out how to assemble your song.
JM: As far as the beat making goes though, how do you know when the song is done?
Z-Trip: I think I was just sort of riding this project to see what would turn up. The thing is, I’ll listen to a fuckin’ track 800 times before I make my decision on it. In my head I’m going through all types of different things concerning the track. I’ll take it home; I’ll drive with it; I’ll sleep on it for a couple days then come back to it. After I do that, I start noticing different patterns in my head, like “oh this would work with that” or “how about a double time or a swing here.” Things like that start to form, and at the same time once I get all my ideas in there, its really all about closing my eyes and sort of feeling it. Feeling where it needs to go. There are times where I’ll lay a drum track in and it’ll look good, basically, but it’s not until I turn my back on it and look away that I really get a sense of the impact that his piece of music is making. It’s not until I divert my eyes from anything to do with the track that the realizations become clear. It’s like “Ok, that needs to change” or “this pattern needs to happen sooner.”
JM: Do you second-guess yourself?
Z-trip: Oh man, all the time! It’s probably the thing I hate the fuckin’ most, but at the same time it’s my biggest saving grace. If I didn’t, I don’t think I would be where I’m at.
JM: How do feel about sampling, Especially in an era where clearing samples has become increasingly more difficult?
Z-Trip: I’m always for it. The art of sampling is always getting drowned out by the politics of the music. Because of this, the album I wanted to make versus the album I did make, are two different albums. It’s like, if I had the ability to sample all the things that I had wanted to, the album would hit that much harder.
JM: Did you make that album anyway? Is it stored away somewhere, unable to see the light of day?
Z-Trip: I kind of did, but I didn’t polish it up. I started on some roughs but then I was like, “you know what; I gotta let it go.” Also at the time I started to notice a lot of DJ’s biting some of the same shit that was working on, you know the concepts, or where I may be taking it. Well biting, that may be a little too harsh, but more like I started to see people getting into the sound I was trying to champion and I was like: “You know what; I’m out.”
JM: How do you feel about the new technology/ computer based systems that are becoming so popular with DJ’s compared with the traditional two turn table set up?
Z-Trip: I’m not against the technology, in fact in some instances it lends itself to enhancing the live show. There are situations (live) where you would need and want to use that. However, on the whole I’m the guy who likes to bring records to the show and I’m all for that. I don’t think it’s best so rely on technology wholeheartedly. It’s best to rely on the basics, on the art. I love the analogue of it, and that’s what’s been getting us over for years. The new technology will help us push things forward, but I’m just not that committed to it personally. I don’t knock it, but I also don’t support it just yet.
JM: You are very conscious of the roots of Turntablelism and Hip Hop in general. How do think the graffiti movement fits in with the history of Hip Hop, where it’s been and where it’s going?
Z-Trip: The graff thing to me was there before some of the music. I tended to note that the same cats that were doing graffiti were usually from the same areas as the people that were doing the music. I’ve also seen graff artists and writers that don’t even like rap music or the culture, but they’re incredible artists, they are strictly into it for the art. And that’s ok. Just like you get certain DJ’s that are into just scratching, but don’t really like anything else. There are extremes in every area, but I think hand in hand, its like breaking, graff… All that stuff is essential to the culture being well rounded. I remember there was a time when I was trying to do graff, rap, B-Boy, and DJ all at the same time. It’s like we all were trying to do that because it was how we came up; and if you didn’t do it, at least you respected it and were conscious of it. We always trying to go to the shows or be at places where it was happening because that’s where the energy was really making things pop off.
JM: What do you think of the graff scene? Do you follow it? Who are some of your favorite writers?
Z-Trip: Most of my graff knowledge is from New York, because that’s where I started with it, and then a bit in Arizona. The people that I started to see up out here that I knew of in LA were like, Hex and Slick, and their battle. I used to drive up from Arizona to the Hip Hop Shop back in the day to buy records. You know, Rob (One) was a good friend, so obviously knowing some of the cats in CBS was part of my early LA graff experience. Risky, Mear, Krayone… It was those types of guys that I recognized as being up and putting in work in the early 90’s.
As far as the writers who influenced my graff… I think they’re more New York guys… Grease, Saint, Jesto, Ghost, obviously people like Dondi and Trap were guys that influenced my style. You know Seen, Case, all the Style Wars guys and the Wild Style cats.
|I don’t necessarily feel obligated to take turntablism from one place and bring it to another, for the art, so to speak. I feel like I have an obligation to myself. -Z-Trip|
JM: Is there any graff in your album art?
Z-Trip: Originally I was trying to have Lee and Haze do the cover, but because of time purposes, Lee couldn’t make it happen. It was the type of thing where we spoke to him, flew him out here and discussed it, but it never happened. It was kind of a drag, but Lee and I have connected over the years; I Djay’d for him at a symposium years ago. We’ll probably end up doing something together down the line.
A friend of mine, Jim Mahfood did the layout on the inside of the album. And Haze did my new logo.
JM: You and a handful of other DJ’s have taken Tuntablism to an increasingly more visible level in the public eye. Do you feel you have certain responsibilities to the art while taking something that has traditionally been underground and helping it get more mainstream exposure?
Z-Trip: I don’t necessarily feel obligated to take turntablism from one place and bring it to another, for the art, so to speak. I feel like I have an obligation to myself. It’s really important to me that I’m striving to not be in the same place that I was five years ago. At the same time in what I do, I try to represent the culture as best I can, and represent myself in the same breath. It’s super important for me to acknowledge where it came from, and it’s super important to let people know that I know where it came from. I don’t think it’s right to do that in a forceful manner though. I feel like any time I’ve seen people be aggressive in their manner like: “You need to know this!” It turns people off. I think to a degree I come off preachy in my own manner, but I try my damndest to be true to my upbringing and myself. And if I’m wrong; then admit to being wrong. If I’m right then the trick is to try and stick with what I know to be right.
JM: What is it like touring with bands like Linkin Park, how do rock
Z-Trip: It’s interesting. Some of them are wide open because it’s the coolest thing they’ve seen. Other guys are completely closed-minded. That’s really nothing new to me, cause I’ve been dealing with that from the jump. To a degree it’s like they react in a way that I think they would. I’m a bit more prepared for that, because like I said, I’ve been going through that for a long time. I try and make it palatable for some of those people in those circumstances; in doing rock shows or anything rock based, I try and make it make sense for them. At the same time, it’s a fine line, man, having to open up for bands. It’s really difficult. There are a lot of factors you have to take in and you can’t play one side too hard. I do like bugging people out though, it’s like “Fuck it man, I’m a DJ coming through your area with records, and I’m spinning ‘em whether you like it or not.” Maybe they’ll get it in another year or two. The fact that I’m doing it and it’s happening is sort of a miracle in itself. It’s the fact that I’ve been on tour with Linkin Park, that I’ve been all over the place, doing it with these guys is overwhelming because I know a lot of Hip Hop groups that aren’t even checking for me to come out. So if that’s my avenue, then it’s like “Sure man.” I’ll try my hardest to go through and blow that shit up.
JM: At the time of this interview your album is not even out yet, but the single is blowing up on radio. What do you expect out of this, given that you have had such a warm welcome?
Z-Trip: Honestly, I don’t even know. My theory is, I’ve always been this way. I hope for the best; but expect and plan for the worst, because that way, if it goes great, you’re stoked. But if it doesn’t go great, you’re not let down. If it sells five copies, I’m stoked. If it does above and beyond that, I’m really happy. The fact that the song’s (Walking Dead) on the radio and its been blowing up; number two, three, whatever on KROQ is amazing. Obviously a lot of that has to do with Chester (Linkin Park) being on the record. People gravitate toward him and them, which is wonderful; but at the same time its like I know I made that track and I’m on there. And a lot of people that maybe fronted at those shows may now be fans of that song. It just needed to be introduced (to them) in a certain way. If this is the way it happens, and their open to it, then cool. And if people don’t buy the record and people aren’t into it, then I’m cool with that too. As long as enough people get into it for me to make another record and continue to have a career, I’m pretty content with that. You know the whole Chester thing, it’s like a lot of people will think I hooked up with him because it was the Easy Out. You know the easy way out is to get a real famous rock singer on your song, but that wasn’t even the case with he and I. It was like he’s from Phoenix and I’m from Phoenix, and that was the whole reason we wanted to do a song together. We’re friends and we’re both from the same place, so it seemed only right. It was effortless. We sat down and knocked to out really fast.
JM: You wrote that together then?
Z-Trip: Yeah. Completely.
JM: what about the pressure of being out in front as the ACT when people are used to the DJ being almost like a drummer in a band. How are you going to change people’s minds on the role a DJ can play live as a performer?
Z-trip: I don’t fuckin’ know, man. I feel like I’ve been trying to do that from the jump. Even when I’m out on tour with Linkin Park, a lot of people look at me as just the background guy, but I don’t blame them for that. It (The DJ) has historically been a role that’s been in the back. You know, the guy at the wedding, or when I walk through the airport it’s like: “Oh you’re a DJ, well for what radio station?” There’s so much misconception, especially in the rock world. When you show up with turntables they’re like: “Oh just put ‘em over there…” So yeah, to a degree I’m trying to help break some of those boundaries, but don’t really know how it’s gonna go. As much as I go out in front (on stage) I also like the tucked in the back part. I like being up there and having people’s attention, but I also like people to not necessarily be focusing on me, but to be like closing their eyes and dancing with each other. You know, me being the maestro of the night, but not doing it in a way where it’s like “Hey everybody… Look at Me!” I’m not really much to look at. At the same time though, things are going the route of having to construct a live show. It is entertainment, but that’s why there’s the show and then there’s the club show. It’s two different animals.
JM: Anything you want to add?
Z-Trip: Check out www.djztrip.com