In search of the 'Oh shit!'
DJ Z-Trip moves past the mash-up that is mash-ups
"DJs across Myspace.com are doing mash-ups," says DJ Z-Trip, lamenting from his Los Angeles home through a series of yawns, "because they all want to make a 'hit single.' I'd rather find a guy doing curveballs with songs that are sick instead of the easy, familiar ones. That shit is tired."
Z-Trip, born Zach Sciacca, is also tired after a night of party rocking. Except the audience is all in his mind. He's groggy after practicing routines nonstop for his current tour, imaging combos and how crowds will react to them. For many years, Z-Trip furthered Afrika Bambaataa's open-ended aesthetic, which culminated in the self-released Uneasy Listening Vol. 1. The limited 1,000 copy set with DJ P was an underground phenomenon, marrying pop-rock breaks and hip-hop beats. Now, after many years gaining momentum among turntabalism fans, Z-Trip is flipping his own script.
Z-Trip is hitting the road with new tools, tunes and tweaks in an attempt to not only strengthen his DJ reputation, but also reintroduce himself as a producer, showcasing material from his recently released Shifting Gears full-length. Much in the way Z-Trip's sets throughout the late '90s blended heavy riffs and vintage uptempo robofunk, Shifting Gears juxtaposes well-known MCs and hip-hop fringe across both politically charged and cartoonish tracks. Just don't tell Z-Trip he's a mash-up DJ.
"I hate that term, 'mash-up,'" says Z-Trip. "It's just blending records, what hip-hop has always been, and not some stupid made-up thing like 'trip-hop.' Now that people have coined this phrase, though, it puts it in a box. But the point was to never be boxed in, to be able to combine anything and everything. I've become disenchanted with what people have done with the format."
To Z-Trip, CDs such as Uneasy Listening (with mix elements including "Rhinestone Cowboy," Kansas, Metallica and Rush) and Danger Mouse's Grey Album (which combined Jay-Z a cappellas with tracks sampled from the Beatles' White Album) are not revolutionary so much as evolutionary.
"Guys like Danger Mouse and myself came up with great concept records, building on what's already been done before," says Z-Trip. "We fucked with people's heads, brought attention to sample issues that affect the form. But for every idea that's fucking clever, there's 30 'Chartreuse' albums. You have to learn how to self-edit yourself, go back to the drawing board, over and over again, if you want to become an artist instead of just emulate another one. That's the only way to get to that 'Oh shit!' moment."
After an initial version of Shifting Gears was impossible to release owing to sample clearance issues, Z-Trip went back into the studio to combine what he had learned about maintaining momentum as a DJ with the "Oh shit" factor of MCs including Chuck D, Murs, Lyrics Born, Aceyalone, Mystic, Linkin Park's Chester Bennington and Busdriver (plus a noticeable Jethro Tull sample).
Mulling over the concept of "sonic real estate," Z-Trip reveals he intentionally pursued his collaborators for their tonal impact, whether "surgical steel" commentary in the case of Chuck D or smoothed-out storytelling in that of Aceyalone. Almost a timeline of Z-Trip's influences, jazzy big Bronx party beats shift gears to stomping diatribes atop combustive percussion. Personally, however, Z-Trip is more about party rocking than polemics, and promises his live show -- spurred on by the recent multimedia miasmas of DJ Shadow and Kid Koala — will deliver not just recognizable yet refashioned album tracks, but the alternative Shifting Gears threaded through block-rockin' standards warped frame-by-frame on demand.
"It's like we were saying earlier about the mash-up 'singles,'" says Z-Trip in conclusion. "I was talking to [Soulsonic Force DJ] Jazzy Jay because I was, like, having frustrations with my set. I didn't want to have to play the new current shit because it was new. And he says, 'I play some of these new things and they may work, but I play it in six months, it will clear the floor. But some of these records I've played for 10 years and they still work, so fuck these agendas, pushing the latest.' Your mix should be a hit for that party, and if it's only that party, never makes it to radio, it's still a hit. And I worked at making an album sequenced like a mini-set through time that would continue to bring the party. It's not just a bunch of tracks. So never lose faith in the DJ, lose faith in the single."