Afrika Bambaataa's vinyl collection is a hiphop mother lode. The 40,000 records, now archived at Cornell University, house a musical history. For their Renegades of Rhythm Tour, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist (Jurassic 5) were given Bambaataa's blessing and permission to pull from the collection and take it around the country. Shadow and Cut will spin 650 pieces of vinyl on six turntables backed by visuals, telling the story of how hiphop began in New York in the early '70s. The audience is taken through hiphop's many modes and eras—the audible cultural stimuli that grew vines into graffiti art, fashion, punk, funk, and Bambaataa's influences of rap, soul, salsa, calypso, dancehall, and dub. This tour is a banging archeological adventure dig through music's crown jewels of vinyl, spun by two of the truest turntablists around. Hear ye, hear ye! The master-of-records' records are upon us. DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist spoke from New York.
Bambaataa's collection is a holy relic of sound. What are some of your favorite finds within?
DJ Shadow: There are unreleased acetates by Funky Four Plus One, and some really important old-school rap that's never been heard by the public. The collection is so significant because it's intact. As record nerds, that was exciting for us. It was cool to see certain rarities we'd been trying to find for a long time. But we put that to the side because our mission was to represent him well, not just from a personal bias. We wanted to reflect who he was as a DJ, a recording artist. And who he was as a DJ with a vision to use music for positive change. We didn't prioritize a record just because it was rare, it had to be relevant to his narrative.
What's an interesting segue or transition you all do in the show? Something that shouldn't work, but works perfectly.
DJ Shadow: We were stuck when we were building the set at this one point, trying to figure how to get out of Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express." At the same time, we were looking at these go-go records, because we needed to get into some go-go, or else we were going to lose the moment—not only in our set list, but where we were at chronologically with the music we were playing. So Cut just kind of snapped his fingers and grabbed this Trouble Funk record where they actually play the same notes as "Trans-Europe Express." Once we were out of that spot, I knew the rest of the set was going to flow, and it did. "Trans-Europe Express" is also the inspiration for Bambaataa's "Planet Rock." But Kraftwerk into go-go? That shouldn't make sense, but it does when you hear it.
How did you two get involved with doing this tour?
Cut Chemist: Cornell University decided to buy Afrika Bambaataa's records and archive them. The guy that brokered the whole deal, Johan Kugelberg, asked Shadow and I to do an event to commemorate this archiving of what I consider to be the ground zero of hiphop. We just wanted to make sure we got Bambaataa's blessing. So much great contemporary music points back to Bambaataa—his vision to bring people together, and the social awareness that he had, inspired such conscious, creative cross-pollinations of music and culture.
Those records are such artifacts. It's like when a museum sends King Tut's sarcophagus out on a tour. It's an extremely sacred entity. Except you all have King Tut's blessing.
Cut Chemist: Or like Van Gogh paintings traveling around. This tour is definitely a traveling art exhibit.
Are you all on the hook if the records get damaged? Was Cornell like, "You boys be careful with these, they're artifacts. No Frisbee tossing."
DJ Shadow: [Laughs] Lots of them were already damaged from years and years of use and love. One record we're playing, Funkadelic's first LP, has two holes in it. Some others are a little warped, some skip in certain places. Of course we're taking care of them as best we can. They trust us. Cut and I both DJ out with expensive records, so I think that might have helped them choose us. Yeah, no Frisbee tossing with Bambaataa's vinyl.
Are you all syncing and doubling up on each other at points?
Cut Chemist: The hardest thing I think we do is when we're synchronized DJing—where he's doubling up on a break, and I'm doubling up on a break over him doubling up on that break. It's tough to keep 'em in time with each other. Those are the moments that scare the shit out of me. They're both drum breaks, so they're flamming all over the place. I go back and forth one bar, eight times, then we do it together. It's a lot to remember [laughs]. If you slip up a little bit, it's a train wreck.
What are the drum breaks you're syncing on?
Cut Chemist: He's using "Shangri La" by La Pregunta, which is a famous disco break, and I'm using "I Can't Stop" by John Davis. They both start with disco stabs, like [mimics the sound] "Beeawrrr, chkah-chkah-chkah-chuka."
What's an example of songs in the set informing each other?
Cut Chemist: "Message from a Black Man" by the Temptations. That was in Bambaataa's "Renegades of Funk." No matter how hard you try, you can't stop us now. That chant comes from the Temptations. And in the beginning of our set, we play that. We play a cover version as a backdrop for all this dialogue from Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King. Then I come in with the Temptations version over the cover version, which is by Mickey and the Soul Generation, which actually, DJ Shadow put out. It was in Bambaataa's collection. So there's all kinds of karmic value to it.
After actively engaging Bambaataa's collection for this tour, what do you know about hiphop or music now that you didn't know before?
DJ Shadow: It's interesting, I've been listening to breakbeats and music built on breakbeats for the majority of my life, and I never put two and two together until I went through Bam's collection—the formula for a breakbeat that Bam seemed to love is drums plus sound effects. Time and time again, we would play a break and we'd be like, "Yep, he chose this and played it because it has a weird sound, plus a drum break." One would have a telephone ringing, one would have a radio playing, or laser sounds, or spaced-out percussion sounds.
Cut Chemist: I can't really speak about hiphop and how it's evolved or devolved, or changed course, or stayed on what course. What Bambaataa's message was and is still rings true in who I am as an artist and a person, and someone who is interested in social impact and awareness of different cultures. Whether people consider hiphop dead, or if hiphop has changed into rap that has shock value, or if it's about bitches and money, and drugs, and ghetto celebrities, or whatever. All that's fine, there's a place for all of it. But there will also always be a place for the ethics of Bambaataa and the forefathers of hiphop: Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, keeping the party conscious. Fads or trends may come and go, but groups like Public Enemy will always have a lasting impact. I think that's important for people to know.
Of all the samples you've used and found, from the deepest, darkest basement finds, what's the strangest way you've ever arrived at one?
DJ Shadow: The vocal on "Six Days" was an accident. I had the instrumental track playing in my studio, and it just so happens that the record is very stereo. It was recorded at a time when people were experimenting with panning, putting vocals all on one side. I only had one side of my headphones on, and could just hear the vocals because they were panned to that side. So I heard what they sounded like with the instrumental in the background. I was like, "Wait a minute, what's happening?" I had the pitch a certain place, and it was in tune with the music. It was so serendipitous, and I liked it.
How will working with Bambaataa's collection affect the way you make music in the future?
DJ Shadow: I view every project I do as a calibration. And I like to constantly shift gears. Having the opportunity to do this, where I'm breaking bread with the culture that gave me everything I have, and identify with—it means a lot. I think what it will allow me to do next is do something completely different.
Your next album is going to be some sort of speed-metal hybrid of polka, drum 'n' bass, and hyphy-waltz using only Eddie Hazel samples. Or a Molly Hatchet/spank-rock thing. 'Cause you're a huge Molly Hatchet fan. No one really knows how big a Molly Hatchet fan you are.
DJ Shadow: [Laughs] You're being funny now, right?