Cut Chemist welcomes us into his home, where we dodge boxes and boxes of the recently delivered mix CD Sound of the Police, his latest release in a genealogy that goes back to his earliest single, the Steinski-indebted “Lessons 4: The Radio,” and also includes his rare, virtuoso sets with DJ Shadow in the late '90s.
The world-class DJ lives on a quiet street in Glendale, north of Griffith Park, in a house full of autographed photos of inspirational figures (Cut Chemist a closet Dylan freak? But of course!), touring memorabilia and an actual-size R2-D2. For this interview, he's wearing a NON T-shirt (Cut Chemist a closet Boyd Rice freak? But of course!).
L.A. WEEKLY: Where does Sound of the Police fit in the context of your other work?
CUT CHEMIST: Everything I try to do, I try to do it different from the last thing I've done, so this is different from the last record, but this isn't really an artist album. It's a mix album that could be compared with Brainfreeze and Product Placement and Hard Sell, the mix CDs that I did with DJ Shadow. Only this is a solo record and this is different from those, which did quite well, because it focuses on African and South American styles of music. Our other mix projects were primarily funk and hip-hop that expanded into other areas like rock, but the core inspiration was always soul and hip-hop. This one, not so much: This is definitely Ethiopian jazz, cumbias, sambas. Not to say that those weren't represented on those other mix projects, but there was no focus on it.
It's also different in the manner in which it's put together, which is one turntable. Not eight or four, which is usually how we do it. I had to use a loop pedal with one turntable — essentially it's like using another turntable. The way I put it together, it's a lot more like building tracks and sampling them, it's like making sample-based songs live with one turntable.
Did you just use one turntable to show off your skills?
[Nods] I kind of got a little … spiteful against the fact that I think everybody's becoming a DJ, and it came from that. Sound of the Police uses all vinyl: I don't use [popular digital vinyl-emulation software] Serato on this. Not to say that I don't use Serato at all, 'cause I do in other sets, but when I do mix CDs I usually try to keep it all vinyl.
And so I said, “OK, if everyone's gonna be a DJ, every house I walk into has two turntables, then I have to set myself apart by using just one.” I thought it would be kind of a fun way to challenge myself and challenge other people. If they wanna emulate what I do, try emulating this.
And they probably … well, maybe they can, and if they do, hats off to them.
You're raising the bar.
In short, that's what I'm doing. You can consolidate that whole paragraph into that statement.
But as a key member of the worldwide DJ community, don't you feel some pride that everyone's got two turntables now? Isn't this like your whole movement growing?
I do. It makes me happy that everybody appreciates DJs enough to wanna be one. Absolutely, that makes me happy. What doesn't make me happy is my perception that people seem to appreciate specific DJs less or are willing to support DJs less because they are themselves one.
Like, “Oh, I don't need to go check him out, or maybe I don't need to hire him because I hired this person to be the DJ.” Or, “I can do it: I'm a DJ.” So, the more DJs there are, the less demand there is. That's just basic supply and demand: The jobs have become less for me now that there are more DJs.
I don't think that's an accident, and it's harder for me to get people to listen to what my niche is because it's very different from what all these other DJs have been doing. You know, I'm not a Top 40 DJ. I consider myself more like a performance artist, and in an age when there are so many DJs, it's harder to recognize a DJ as a performance artist.
Everyone's talking about an expansion of electronic-music events, about how they're no longer the “next big thing” but “the big thing right now.” Have you noticed this in your work?
I have. I've done festivals, I've opened for Shakira, I've played the Hollywood Bowl, I've played arenas. I play big venues, I play really small venues. But I have noticed people respond to a certain thing — it's a lot about frequencies.
People want bass-heavy, something they can plug into and dance to. It's not something they can watch or experience as a visual performance so much, which is something I'm always trying to remind people: You know, this can be a visual performance, but also something that I can do dynamically to capture people's attention. I'm not just behind two decks, but actually making music with different things, performing with different elements, you know, something hopefully captivating.
That's what I've set out to do all my life, and it's just tough because people nowadays are so used to having a DJ just be this one thing that when I come along, they're like, “No, that's not what we expect a DJ to do, we expect you to play some music we can dance to, maybe play some trippy visuals.” But as a performer, or as a DJ as “a band,” which I'd like to think of myself as, people [nowadays] aren't always ready to experience that.
What kinds of performances are the Sound of the Police shows?
There are screens, and there are cameras on my foot [next to the loop pedal] and on my turntable, and you get to see everything that I'm doing and you get to see exactly how this music is being made, right there in front of you. It is captivating to watch, but it's also dance-friendly. That's something I also try to do: When I perform I'm not trying to make something you can only watch. If you wanna turn your head, that's fine. However, there are moments when I'll stop you dead cold in that dance and tell you, “Watch this — you're gonna trip out. This is something to focus your attention on,” and then we'll start dancing again. So it kind of goes back and forth.
How did you get interested in African and Brazilian music?
It all started with Ozomatli, the band that I was in. Being Latin and sensitive to world rhythms, they really turned me on to the culture and what it took to make Latin music. And once I started getting into stuff like [Latin-jazz giant] Ray Barretto and [Nuyorican great] Willie Colón, and really loving that type of music, then they started playing with African rhythms. Ozomatli was great because any rhythm that they didn't know that they found challenging, they would try to implement in their repertoire. I got to witness that and appreciate it as well.
So I took that inspiration and started traveling around the world with Jurassic 5 and having that sensibility when I collected and bought records and having an ear for that type of stuff. I developed an ear for African and Latin music and really started to appreciate it and appreciating people who appreciated it. I became friends with people who were going to Africa, buying that kind of music, and they'd turn me on to this stuff. That's how I built my arsenal of African records.
And then going to Brazil — I bought a lot of records there. I went to samba schools and played with musicians there, really got into it down there. That was a big part of the inspiration for Sound of the Police.
How many records did you use?
Shit — I didn't count this time! Usually I count for all my mixes … mmmm [thinks], I don't know — over 30? Something like that. [See sidebar on the four crucial records that inspired Sound of the Police.]
Have you considered trying to replicate the set with a live band, like Flying Lotus did recently with Cosmogramma?
It's tough to re-create electronic music with a band. I'm most of the time not impressed when bands try to re-create sample-based music. There are exceptions, of course: Connie Price and the Keystones, they backed Big Daddy Kane and they were great. The Rhythm Roots Allstars, they backed De La Soul. Hey, I mean, the Roots! Those are my top band experiences.
You swiped the Police logo for the cut-and-paste-style cover of the CD, right? When I first saw it, I thought it was one of those Starbucks compilations of world-music bands doing Sting covers!
That's good! That's exactly what it should feel like. I'm very much into punk rock, cut-and-paste-looking art. Plus the nature of the CD is like that: It's Third World, cut-and-paste, low-budget, kind of burnt, so I thought it might be fun to rip off the Police logo. I wanted to make it something noticeable.
It's called Sound of the Police for three reasons. In Ethiopia, many of the bands were made out of military personnel. Also, it has an obvious reference to hip-hop culture, the KRS-One song Sound of Da Police, which is not featured at all on this record. Just to let people know, “Hey, I do still recognize hip-hop culture, even if I'm doing this other thing.”
And, I haven't said this in any other interview; I feel that in this realm of DJs, I am the police — I'm here to kind of let you know what's done and what's not. There's so many DJs, I feel I've earned my stripes, so run it by me. I don't go out there saying that, but for five seconds that's how I felt, and that's also what it means.
Are you also the Police of DJs?
Haha. “I am Stewart Copeland!” — that would be a little too egotistical.