Photo by Brian CrossWHETHER ETCHED IN VINYL, SHELLAC OR digital disc, every record tells a story -- where the music began, who recorded it, how it traveled across the world, and who bought and treasured it. For funk collectors, no item holds more remarkable tales than the 7-inch single. While a lot of record collectors border on the obsessive, seekers of 45s are an especially intense breed, scouring dusty bins in garages and backyard shacks for the most elusive, obscure 7-inches. As L.A.'s DJ Cut Chemist puts it, "If you find them, they're all one-of-a-kind. When you get a good 45, you just kind of go, 'Wow, that's deep,' and pat yourself on the back."
Adds the Bay Area's DJ Shadow, one of the world's foremost collectors of the funk 45, "There's a million different trainspotting reasons why I like to have the original 45. It has to do with notes that people write on the actual labels. It's reading the labels, and the great label designs and the colors. And the sheer history of it. There's so much lore."
Shadow and Cut should know. When the two teamed up to create the ultimate tribute to the funk 7-inch, a mix CD called Brainfreeze, they unwittingly scrawled a new chapter in the book of 45 yarns. Released in the fall of 1999, Brainfreeze was simply meant to put some of the best funk you never heard onto an album, lovingly mixed by two of hip-hop's most inventive minds. From there, though, the story of Brainfreeze has grown to include everything from exploitation to deception, setbacks to paybacks. All over a little CD that was originally meant to be sold next to the Slim Jim rack at your local 7-Eleven.
This strange journey comes full circle on Tuesday, January 18, when Cut Chemist and Shadow throw "Brainfreeze: Dance the Slurp -- The Last Show" at El Rey Theater. Almost a year after its first public demonstration, Brainfreeze will get put to bed permanently, yet the urban legend it spawned promises to live on far longer.
THE FIRST SLURP
Brainfreeze began life when Shadow and Cut learned of an unusual 7-inch called "Dance the Slurp." Released by the 7-Eleven corporation in the '70s as part of a promotion for its Slurpee drinks, the 45 actually had a drum breakdown on it, making it instantly interesting to the two funk aficionados. Wielding their extensive collecting resources, the pair eventually acquired their own copies of "Dance the Slurp" and began to experiment with an all-funk 45 mix using the song as a centerpiece.
When San Francisco's Future Primitive Sound Sessions, a 3-year-old turntablist exhibition series, invited Cut and Shadow to perform, Brainfreeze began to take shape. They spent a week preparing and practicing with different 45s. Says Cut, "We thought it might be something cool to put out, to get away from the whole corporate structure we had been held prisoner by. We wanted to get back to the roots of putting out underground stuff."
The original Brainfreeze mix debuted at a February 1999 Future Primitive show where Cut and Shadow actually brought in Slurpees. Sound Sessions founder Mark Herlihy recalls, "Before they dropped the Slurpee song, Cut came on and passed out Slurpees to the whole crowd, and got on the mike, saying, 'Hey, it's Slurpee time!'" For Herlihy, seeing the two join forces for an hour was a revelation. "What they achieved there with 7-inches, juggling them, scratching them . . . it was mind-blowing."
BUILDING A MYSTERY
Cut and Shadow assembled the recorded version of Brainfreeze from their favorite practice takes, using two uninterrupted half-hour sets as the basis for the album. When it came time to design the cover art for the disc, they hooked up with L.A.'s Brian Cross, a.k.a. B+, one of hip-hop's most prolific photographers. They wanted to stay with the Slurpee theme, so they took a few shots in a local 7-Eleven, and almost got arrested for their trouble. "The first one we went to was really shady, and they called security on us," remembers Cut. "The next one we went to was right near where I grew up -- I used to play Asteroids there as a kid. I figured, hey, I've been going there for years, they owed me one. And the guy there said, 'Sure, borrow my costume.'"
In fact, Cut liked the 7-Eleven concept so much that he wanted to stock the album in 7-Eleven stores. "I just thought that would have been so boss, to go into a 7-Eleven and see that CD next to the doughnuts . . . my lawyer advised me against it." Eventually, he and Shadow decided to press 1,000 copies of Brainfreeze, but demand was so overwhelming that both agreed to a second pressing of another 1,000. The album's limited availability has caused both DJs no end of misery and complaints, especially from fans who've never had the opportunity to see either artist at a show -- basically, anybody outside of the West Coast and New York. The criticism has some validity -- after all, why create an incredible product only to limit its sale?
Shadow says the initial meager pressing was the safest way to go. While it seems hard to fathom in hindsight, he says, "The reason we made 1,000 at first was because we weren't sure who would be into it. Funk lovers are generally conservative -- they don't want to hear a bunch of scratching. And maybe it was too soul-oriented for a lot of turntablists."
What was intentional was the pair's decision to sell the CD almost exclusively at live performances. Shadow pushed this idea early on: "I always try to put myself in the mind of the music fan, because that's what I still consider myself to be, first and foremost. I just wanted something special for people who came to the shows. If I saw Alanis Morissette and I was a huge fan, if I went to the merchant booth, I wouldn't want to see the same shirt I could buy online. As a fan, I'd want to represent."
The Brainfreeze album has taken on the life of a rare 45 -- desired, treasured, eagerly traded for, etc. The parallel has not escaped Cut and Shadow. "It's a CD about 45s being treated like a 45," says Cut. "I used to laugh at people who collected CDs, but not this one. If I was a fan and if it was only available on CD, I'd be like, 'I want that, I need that.'"
THE EBAY CONSPIRACY
Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow's desire to sell strictly in person was further motivated by the relentless hoarding of Brainfreeze whenever it ended up in record stores. When Cut provided Aron's Records with several copies, one zealous fan bought multiple copies and put them up for sale on eBay, the Internet trading site.
Indeed, eBay, the new, unofficial authority of the pop signification, has become a furtive gray market for Brainfreeze sales. Besides the dozen or so copies cached from Aron's, many more have popped up on the site, with fervid buyers willing to pay $30 and up for a CD that costs $20 at Cut and Shadow's shows. In one insane bidding war, a Brainfreeze CD sold for over $100 in late November. A copy of the original "Dance the Slurp" 45 recently sold for $31.
Countless fans have made Cut and Shadow aware of the eBay phenomenon, and at one point a rumor circulated that itã was the two DJs selling their own product online. Muses Shadow, "I had to write a sarcastic note on my unofficial fan site saying, 'That's right, you guys caught us. We've got nothing better to do, no bigger fish to fry, than to sit around and sell CDs on eBay.' That was sort of amusing."
Cut, however, used the rumor to play an elaborate practical joke. Tracking down the collector who'd bought out all the copies of Brainfreeze at Aron's and sold them on eBay, he e-mailed the offender anonymously, saying, "I think you're Cut Chemist or DJ Shadow, and I think it's disgusting that you'd put your own stuff on eBay. That's self-exploitation. I used to be a fan, and now I hate you." The culprit's reply is now immortalized on the fliers for the "Last Show" event: "I'm not DJ Shadow or Cut Chemist . . . Please don't dislike either DJ. The only thing they are guilty of is not pressing more than 1,000 copies of this CD." His eBay ID, getupkid, is now etched in infamy.
THE GREAT CRATE CAPER
Yet the craziness didn't end with the eBay affair. Cut and Shadow decided to take Brainfreeze on the road for half a dozen select dates of the DJ Shadow Goodwill Tour across the West Coast, plus a New York stop. (The L.A. show marks the end of this limited tour.) After a gig in Portland, Cut had all of his 45s stolen, though neither he nor Shadow realized the theft until they reached the next leg of the tour in New York. Cut immediately took off to find Shadow, running over a dozen blocks through midtown Manhattan. "Ten blocks up, I'm running through Manhattan, somebody stops me and asks, 'Are you Cut Chemist?'" Cut apologized to his fan and suggested that it was perhaps not the best time to chat.
Eventually, the two DJs donned their sleuth caps and traced the theft back to the Portland venue. Numerous phone calls brought a wave of confusing, contradictory statements, a fat dose of straight deception and many failed promises. Cut and his manager spared no effort in putting pressure on the parties involved. "We were really playing tough guy, and this kid wasn't going to get away with it, whoever he was," he says. "They had two choices, either to give the records back or have their name dragged through the mud forever." When booking agents, sympathetic to Cut's plight, started to take shows away from the promoter, the guilty parties cracked and returned Cut's missing 45s, not a one missing or damaged.
Despite the initial trauma of the theft, Cut remains karmically wistful about the experience -- he even plans to make a mix tape out of the whole ordeal. "I'm going to call it The Great Crate Caper," he says, laughing. "In trying to find out details of the theft, I recorded people on tape. I've got all this footage of me breathing down necks, me and my manager playing good cop/bad cop routines. Class A stuff."
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While "The Last Show" marks the end of Brainfreeze's incredible trek, look for another Cut 'n Shadow adventure to start up shortly. Brainfreeze 2 is in the works for later in 2000, and the duo is using another unusual 45 as the project's inspirational cornerstone. "It's a milk 45, a funk track, and it's so incredible," says Cut. "Shadow and I are going to pull out all the stops, using anything that has to do with any kind of commercial product. We're going to promote everything this time. If we can find a Wrangler Jeans 45, it's on."
"Brainfreeze" happens at El Rey Theater, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Tuesday, January 18, 9 p.m.; $20, tickets at Fat Beats and Aron's Records; 21 and over. (323) 692-8080.