If youíve never heard of DJ Z-Trip, chances are youíve heard a bit of his record collection, even if you donít own a record collection yourself. Mirroring moments from pop culture, Z-Trip is prone to spin Star Wars sound effects alongside clips from 70ís bygone movies like Warriors. Heíll make unlikely pairings like Del tha Funkee Homosapien with Phil Collins or even Bruce Hornsby with Run-D.M.C – all atop a little Madonna, Kansas and Metallica clips. Sure the thought of a Hornsby piano solo over a scratching record might make you run for your earplugs, but Z-Trip has found a way through presentation, selection and buildup to win crowds over. By fashioning his style of spinning after the concepts of Afrika Bambaattaa, Kool Herc and early forefathers of the movement like Jazzy Jay, Z-Trip is rooted in the past as well as in the present.
Z-Trip ‘s big spark came when Uneasylistening, Vol. 1, showed up in 2001. The sample heavy mix became an instant classic, and even more so now that itís illegal to own or distribute due to copyright laws. Z-Trip spent a year with a full time employee trying to get Uneasylistening released, but to no avail. Yet instead of lying down dead, he signed to a major label and reinvented himself – releasing less sample heavy tracks with the aptly titled, Shifting Gears. Released on Hollywood Records, the album featured guest artists Murs, Aceyalone, Chester Bennington, and Soup from the Jurassic 5. Other than including an obvious nod to Jethro Tullís ďTeacher,Ē Z-Trip shifts to a more do-it-yourself approach this time around.
Following some major appearances the past couple of years, including Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, next up for Z-Trip is a headlining tour with Black Sheep. Glide caught up with him via phone in L.A before he heads out on the road.
Along with the record release, you also have an upcoming tour, so you’ve got a busy fall ahead.
[Yeah] Iím headlining on this record for Shifting Gears and Iíve got Black Sheep opening and this other DJ Ė Golden Child of the Fingerbangerz. So thatís sort of what Iíve been working on, and there is sort of a lot to the tour thatís been taking my time, so Iím really excited to hit the road again.
Did you hand-pick Black Sheep?
Yeah, it was one of those things where the name came up and I was like “yo-man, this is exactly what I would like to happen.”
Your latest album Ė Shifting Gears- itís a lot less sample heavy than some of your other releases like Uneasylistening. Do you see this as coming full circle? What hip-hop can achieve without resorting to sampling?
Itís interesting, as a DJ, in theory it was hard to make a record that was coming from a DJ perspective, because I play other peopleís records. So, to sit down and actually make a record took on a whole other perspective. I had to become a producer, but from a DJís perspective which is something Iíve always found interesting because most DJís who make records make them pretty interesting. They pay attention to stuff other people normally wouldnít pay attention to so that was sort of my goal in making this record. So I guess it was kind of a testament as to where hip-hop can go and more so where a DJ can go who spins hip-hop. I didnít want to lean on just one sound, I wanted to lean on the sound of stuff that I have throughout my whole career. I listen to everything and am open to all kinds of music. Definitely on mix records where people have heard me mix thatís one thing, but to make a record, I kind of wanted to reflect that same sound.
One thing that stands out about your work is that you arenít afraid to throw certain music down that most DJ’s probably wouldn’t play. But it always goes down pretty well Ė what do you attribute that to?
I think it has to do with two things. The first thing is your selection. You really have to believe in it. A lot of people play it really safe and only play songs they have heard on the radio or songs they know will work and donít take chances and play songs that may not work. If you feel it and you really dig it, chances are itís going to work. So the first thing is selection. And the second thing is presentation – how you present it to the people. If you present it in a way that they can digest it, and they are into it, it may take them a second to get there. The biggest key is to always inject something new and give people a twist on whatever it is so youíre not sounding like the next DJ. I pride myself on taking chances and doing things that normally wouldnít work or that people would be ďI canít do that, that would ruin everything.Ē Have the complete opposite thing happen and have it be the most successful thing in your set.
You talked about your music, but what goes into your presentation?
How you physically mix the songs together, how you get from one point to another. Not just physically the mix, but the momentum you have going. If you start at one spot and you try to end up in another spot, it might take you fifteen minutes to get there, but if you can get there successfully and keep all those people together, the payoff is going to be that much better.
How much of your presentation is totally improvisational and how much is sticking to a dozen records and building off those?
Itís sometimes a bit of both. I try and keep some of the stuff planned, but I also try to keep a lot of it, most of it, unpredictable because that way it allows me to be in the moment. Thatís really the biggest part thatís getting lost in a lot of DJ sets, when you can tell itís a bit contrived, it doesnít come off as genuine because at that point youíre sort of going through the motions. There are some parts of my routine that are sort of ďthe routineĒ so to speak, but in doing that, like I said, if I donít have a moment to see if I can do better than what I did. And for a majority of the time it does work, where I try something that is a little bit different and it ends up being the best thing of the night. If I donít have the ability to do that, then I feel like Iím sort of choking myself out a bit and itís not as fun. Itís like when someone gives you fifteen minutes to spend and that happens from time to time, chances are youíre going to grab your best fifteen minutes and go on. But if you have an hour and a half to two hours, there is a lot more to fuck around and try things. And that is my favorite time, once you got the crowd where you want them, and then you got another half hour to mess around, thatís when I start to have the most fun.
So once you’ve got the crowd where you want them, what kind of records or genres do you go through to hold them there?
It really depends on the party. One record that works at one party doesnít always work at the other party, [so] there’s a lot of that to be taken into consideration. Itís sort of like when youíre mixing it, once you find the groove, once you find your connection with those people, thatís when you start to lean on that a little bit. If itís a funk thing, you lean on the funk thing and you lean on a it a bit harder till they had their fill, they dig it and you can go somewhere else and not freak them out. There is a lot of massaging that goes on in the first fifteen minutes of every DJ set.
Do you take any pleasure in kicking out an old 80ís pop tune from Men at Work, Naked Eyes, Tina Turner or Bruce Hornsby in your sets? Some of these songs people havenít heard in twenty years.
Well, yeah, the best thing is to have the crowd go, Ēooooohhhh!Ē (laughs) Thatís the best. When you have the crowd doing that, you canít lose. Some of that stuff, I try and throw that out to people sometimes, the things that I know will get the instant reaction. But more than anything what Iím trying to do now, is push my own boundaries. Because I feel like the crowd that is coming out to see me, although they get the pop stuff and it is fun, I think they kind of want to see something different and I also want to do something different. So Iím trying to dig a bit deeper and that still has the same sort of reaction but they are more interested and more like ďwhat is that, itís really interesting and I like it and I canít figure it out?, versus ďooooohhh.Ē It’s the same reaction, one is internal and one is external.
With your new album, the only sample that really sticks out is ďTeacherĒ from Jethro Tull. Was that a riff youíve been waiting awhile to toy with?
There are a lot of riffs I want to toy with, but that one in particular just fit in with the track, so I threw it in there. My biggest reward and I’m feeling great about this, is that Ian Anderson and those guys had to hear it to sign off on it, so thatís really one of the biggest rewards to know that I used their song, they heard it, they dug it and we were able to move forward with it. And thatís really the coolest thing, I didnít use it in a really obnoxious way. I think when people sample things, they really cross that line a bit and itís almost like gluttony.
On your other album, Uneasy Listening, you spent almost a full year with a full time employee getting permission from publishers for the songs that you used to get the album released. It doesnít sound like you got very far with that, how did you avoid becoming discouraged?
The thing is I just realized, one thing needs to just stay underground and stay at shows and surface when it can and when it should. The other one needs to be overground. If anybody got into me via Uneasy Listening or sets or whatever it was, I didnít want to give them the same thing again, because that would have been a waste of an opportunity. Although it could have worked and been wonderful, I think that would have really pigeonholed me and thatís what Iím against. Iím against being labeled as this guy or that guy. I wasnít as upset about it as I think people might have thought. It was totally disheartening, donít get me wrong, but at the same time, it was sort of one of those things where I wasnít that upset about it. I was just like, “these things will come out in my live show.”
In some ways, itís good that they have some rules over what can and canít be sampled. Otherwise it would be total nonsense.
I think so. But the funny thing is, itís actually turning into total nonsense. People are taking it upon themselves to lean on that stuff a little too hard and some of itís really done a little too bad. Thereís a way of doing it creative, when I hear people sampling and doing it in a creative way, I always think “this is really good.”
And there are a lot of people who are just sort of like – especially with this whole mash-up thatís become the craze now – You have a lot of people that are mixing things together because itís new. ďOh itís the new Green Day, oh itís the new Coldplay, weíll call it Coldday, weíll call it Greenplay.Ē You put the two together and the keys donít match and the sounds donít match, but yet everybody is like,Ē Ooh, itís cool, lets check it out.Ē
To me the art is getting totally lost in the hype on a lot of this and itís a shame. When you hear someone sample or flip something up really well, you appreciate it and get the art. But when you hear somebody doing it [poorly] and hasnít studied the art of it, it ends up sounding like shit and itís a bad thing.
How would you like to see the art or DJ culture go if you were like the President of all DJs?
“Everybody must have my record in their crate every day!” (laughs) No, honestly I donít know. I would like to see people experiment a bit more and not be afraid to do so. People need to experiment and only put out and let the good things come to the light. Thatís something that a lot of DJs have a hard time editing themselves, editing the music, editing their scratching, editing the amount of ďthemĒ they put into the mix and a little bit goes a long way sometimes, and I think people need to realize that. If youíre eager or if youíre over eager and it comes across in your mix and comes across in your blend or selection, people are going to notice it. The crowd is like a dog and theyíll smell it. And I think itís really important for people to work on things at home and really work it out before they take it out to the public. Something you may dig this week, you listen to it, next week and youíre like, “you know what, that sucks.Ē But the minute you were making it, you were like ďthis is the best thing ever.Ē Itís really good to bounce it off a couple people before you get it out there.
I would imagine DJing, more than any other musician, has a harder time separating ego from what really should be played.
I think itís very hard to do that. Any DJ who says they havenít had this struggle is full of shit. The whole fucking thing about DJing is youíre playing other peopleís music, so you have to put the music before you and if you get so caught up in, you before the music, it will damage shit. Itís important to select, itís important to practice and more than anything, itís important to self-edit yourself and only put your best foot forward. And thatís really hard to do, especially with all the technology and all the stuff thatís out there.
How much do you think the media puts an unfair emphasis on the drug culture intertwined with the DJ culture, and in particular the use of Ecstasy? Itís pretty hard for any DJ to get a club gig at 8pm.
That is true. The thing is, I always think the media is going to gravitate towards the controversy. Here is the bottom line though Ė drugs have always been a part of the DJ culture. Thatís what it was based upon, partying, and when people go out to party, they like to drink and do drugs. Thereís a book called Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and there is a line in there where one of the early disco DJs was talking about how he would roll into the club and the owner or promoter would be there and he would say, ďok, give me what everybody is on,Ē so he can get on their level. I donít condone going overboard, but I think a decent amount of drug use can always enhance the situation. Whether it be just a couple tokes of a joint or a couple drinks or whatever it is, that can always make it work. But I think what ends up happening is a lot of people just go overboard and then you read about the deaths at the rave or whatever and that to me is just people who are going to be lost whether they are at a club, whether they are around a DJ or whether they are home, thatís just their lifestyle. Itís sort of a shame that a lot of the time people are like ďthe DJ world and the drug worldĒ and they milk it and turn it into something that really isnít any more than going out to a nightclub is or going to see a rock show or going to whatever. Itís the same equivalent of someone going to see the opera and they drink wine, well youíre going to have a person that drinks a lot more wine than the other person.
Itís interesting that you hold the whole eveningís experience for the people in your hands. If you come down, so do they.
I think itís also important, and it goes to what I was saying about the person who does a little bit of something gets in the pocket. Iíll never DJ fucked up. Iíve done it in the past. Let me rephrase that. Iíll never go into DJing a set fucked up. At the end of the set, I may be fucked up but itís only after Iíve done the work and the groundwork to getting people where they needed to be, but if you just go into the situation just wasted…you have to read the crowd and figure the crowd out before you can get that. Sometimes a couple drinks or whatever doesnít hurt. I know there are some DJs that canít spin unless theyíre fucked up. I donít know, some people can pull it off, but for me personally, I always feel like you have to go in with a clear head and end up getting a little wasted at the end of the night where you can party with people at the ďafterĒ party verses ďthe party.Ē
On a final note, what is the longest youíve ever spun for continually?
I remember I used to have to spin for like eleven or twelve hours. There was a club where it was a bar/nightclub and I had to do the happy hour all the way through the end of the night. I was working with another guy who had another shift and he called in sick so I had to DJ his shift as well, so it was like the whole day, it was basically bathroom breaks whenever I had a long song to run to the bathroom. This was a longtime ago, before I was known as Z-Trip. That was a lot of having to play a lot of records.