Interview with Cut Chemist

Published On November 13, 2014 | By Kelly Carter | Interviews
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Experimental producers and pioneers DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist have plunged into a nationwide tour to spread awareness and appreciation for Afrika Bambaataa, a revolutionary figure in the music community. On Nov. 14, the city of Pittsburgh will be graced with the presence of DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist; both producers have hand selected a compilation of Bambaataa’s original records to share with the audience. DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist encourage listeners to open their ears and hearts to Bambaataa, and to fully embrace these periodicals of history that solidified the disc-jockey/hip-hop movement.

Former owner and operator of Milk Records, Kelly Carter, recently sat down with Cut Chemist to discuss the tour, the progression of hip-hop as an academic staple of American culture, and what honoring one of the greats truly means to him. Below is what transpired:

The whole concept of this tour is just beautiful. Did Afrika Bambaataa choose you and DJ Shadow or did you approach him with the idea?

A friend of ours, named Johan Kugelberg, helped start the hip hop archive at Cornell University, and their latest acquisition was the Afrika Bambaataa record collection. He asked us  if we wanted to do a mix to commemorate the whole archive and the fact that these artifacts were going into an academic archive. So, we kind of tweaked the idea a little bit and said, well can we go on the road and do a tour? And so everybody was cool with it and here we are, taking the records on the road.

I would think that it’d be fun for him to hear for the first time what you put together. He’d obviously enjoy the music, but it’d be kind of like sitting down to eat a meal that someone prepared from ingredients you stocked in your kitchen. It could go a lot of ways. Was he interested ahead of time or did he want input as far as what records you used? Or did he just kind of let you guys run with it?

The interesting thing about Bambaataa is, he’s had people DJ with his records for years. People like Jazzy Jay, people in his own crew, people like Grand Wizard Theodore have DJ’d with his records at parties where he’s at, where he’d be like “You know, you should play this” and hand it to people like Jazzy Jay and Theodore who were big scratch DJs at the time. He was a great selector, Bambaataa. So he would select things out of his own crate and give it to people who were cutting it up and scratching. So essentially it’s the same thing that’s happening now. So yeah, he was into it, and I think he was really interested to see what two guys outside of his circle, who weren’t in his immediate family or crew from back in the day, could do with his record collection.

We’re from California and we’re from a different generation, so he was like “How do these guys perceive my music and my legacy?” And I think he was pleased. He was at the New York show and, man he was having a good time. I saw what I’d consider a real genuine smile for a good amount of time. I think he was pretty happy.

So, you’ve obviously done a lot and I’m sure you don’t get nervous like you used to and things maybe are a little routine, but did that excite you? Were you nervous about what his reaction would be? I mean, it’s not like something like this is ever going to happen again.

Yeah, I was nervous. And yeah, that comes along once in a lifetime if you’re lucky. And I was nervous, but I gotta say that when we met up at soundcheck, his presence was not intimidating. It actually put me at ease, meeting him first. He’s just a cool guy. He’s a music lover and into culture and history. He’s somebody I can have a conversation with and be on the level with. So, realizing all of those things made the nervousness go away *a little bit*.

When you got to physically touch his records for the first time, were they at his home or at Cornell? How were they organized and what was that like?

We got to them before they got to Cornell. They spent a lot of time organizing them beforehand, so it made it a lot easier. They separated out the acetates and the sure shots, which were his secret weapons that were covered up. A lot of his numbered records that were his personal favorite records were separated out. So it made it more manageable, but it was still a lot of stuff to go through.

Would you say you were familiar with half of his collection or what percentage would you think?

Haha. Man, if I thought I was familiar with half, I’d be pretty dope. It’s hard to say though, I mean, there were so many like, calypso records and latin records that I didn’t know anything about. And there was a lot of disco, and I didn’t know any of that stuff. But sure, there was stuff I knew about as well.

I’ve always thought that to be the kind of DJ that you are – you and Shadow and guys like Kid Koala, you’d have to have a great sense or humor and a quick wit to appreciate the weirdness and humor in the samples. You can tell a lot about someone from their music collection. When you were going through his collection, did you get a sense of what kind of personality he was back then based on the music that he had?

Something that I didn’t realize was that he was a little bit of a funny guy. Like, he would play weird stuff just to joke around. And I never knew that. I never knew him personally, but after talking to people sort of in the peripheral zone of this whole concept, people would say that yeah, “Bam used to go up there and just clown”, and like play stuff just to get people’s attention. You know, he’d play weird commercial records or, like this one famous break is this cover of “Sing a Simple Song” by this Thai group called “Please”. Or maybe they’re from the Philippines. I can’t remember. But anyway, it went on to be regarded as like, this is a cool break that we all take seriously. But actually, Bambaataa always played it as a joke. It was this really corny version of “Sing A Simple Song” and he’d be like “Check that dumb shit out”. And so, it’s funny to know that the song became famous, and he was taking the piss the whole time and people were just like “Oh but Bambaataa’s playing it, so it’s cool”. So, you know, when you hear stories like that you think, you know I like that and I like that story and I like Bambaataa even more. A lot of what my style became, in production in the 90s and stuff, a lot of people gave me credit for using a lot of dialogue records and a lot of weird narration records. That influence came from people like Prince Paul. And Prince Paul directly cites Bambaataa as the influence where he got that stuff from. So, yeah, the quirky records and the quirky sense of humor that we all know Prince Paul for – he got that from Bambaataa. So in a sense, I got that same style from Bambaataa too, and yeah, I didn’t even realize it. You can probably attribute a lot of that same sort of thing to Koala’s stuff too. Everybody was listening to De La Soul and Prince Paul’s stuff. We all were. He was a huge influence on all of us. And that all comes from Bambaataa. So that was a huge deal when I found that out.

It’s obviously pretty encouraging that Bambaataa was appointed visiting scholar at Cornell University. And Harvard now has a hip hop archive.

Harvard has a hip hop archive?? Are you sure?

I think so!

Well, who do I contact to go view that one? I know what’s in the Cornell one. Shit, that’s cool.

It is. So do you think that in our lifetime, hip hop will be a real part of our education system, like at the community level, in the middle schools for example?

Well, as soon as the Ivy League deems it, it’s official. And they did. So now two Ivy League schools are telling the world that hip hop is an academic.

But do you think that we’ll see it become a natural part of education? Like, instead of offering ballroom dancing or ballet, a student can choose breakdancing? Doesn’t it seem like kind of a no brainer way to reach out to kids?

Yeah, who knows. People may stick to the whole argument about not having a way to notate DJing, so then maybe it’s not a real form of music. They could say that. It could just be like “musique concrete”, which is non notate-able, conventional music based in France in the 40s. It could just be stuck in that sort of way. So maybe it’ll be like an extracurricular academic vs something that’s required to graduate high school or anything. But this is a first step to being taken seriously as an art form and as a culture that didn’t just go away. It shaped a lifestyle for decades and will continue to do so for many more decades. Hip hop is not going away. Even if it does, what it affected won’t go away. You can always trace back anything that’s happening now or anything in the future, back to hip hop roots, whether it’s Bambaataa bringing Kraftwerk to the street, thus giving birth to electro, giving birth to techno, giving birth to EDM. And EDM will turn into something else. The family tree’s roots have been set. You can’t deny that. You can’t erase history. And these schools now realize that. The fact that these artifacts are just swimming around in the streets and that they are obtainable, they realize that they better get ’em now as they’re one step away from the dumpster, literally. You know, with flyers and records, people just throw that shit away. And it’s up to the collectors like Shadow and I to go “No. This is a treasure to me. This has historical significance to what we’ve patterned our lives after. The minute you tell this to a school, they’re like “Oh. You mean without this stuff, you mean you wouldn’t be here?” So that may be important to other people too, so let’s collect it and, you know, and put it next to the Gettysburg Address.

DJ Shadow said something in an interview that I thought was really profound. He said that Bambaataa always tried to redirect people’s attention to the culture and not to himself. Do you think that that point has been lost along the way in DJ culture and that’s why things are kind of strange in some realms of DJ culture?

Well, the idea that appealed to people like Shadow and I to become a DJ was about the share. There was no attention on us. We were in the background. It was the MC that was in the spotlight. We wanted to play music for other people and the attention was on the music. At some point the tables turned and yeah, DJ culture now is just the opposite. All the attention is on the DJ – which is ironic. Bambaataa was the type of person who shed light on other people. He was like “Here, let me introduce you to this DJ. He can give you what you want”. And he would put people on. People like D.S.T. and Cold Crush Brothers. Without Bambaataa telling people about these guys, who knows where the culture would be.

*Then we were given one minute to wrap up the interview, so I scrolled down 100 questions to end on something I knew we both loved*

I’m a big Beastie Boys fan and I know that you are too. I think I can guess, but what’s your favorite album? And why are they so important to you?

I am. You know, it’s tough to say just one album because the thing I always appreciated about them as I do Bambaataa is that they always changed. They never stuck with one thing. They always reinvented themselves from album to album. They were hugely inspired by Bambaataa. So when you take “Licensed to Ill”, “Paul’s Boutique”, “Check Your Head”, “Ill Communication”, you’re like “Is this even the same group?” But if I were to pick one, you know, because it’s sample based and I’m this nut record collector, it’s “Paul’s Boutique”. I was just like, “This is revolutionary. This record changed the whole sample based genre, forever.”

Don’t miss your chance to witness this historical endeavor! Tickets are $25 and doors open at 9PM.

Kelly Carter owned and operated Milk Records from 1999-2006. A pioneer of Pittsburgh rave culture in the 90s, Kelly frequently organized raves and events, including the launch of Sauce, a DJ night in Lawrenceville at Ray’s Marlin Beach Grill (now Remedy). She has collected and played many of DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist’s records, often incorporating them into her sets. Kelly currently plays vinyl sets at Meat and Potatoes every third Sunday during brunch, and every third Monday evening at Nightcap.

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