Photos by: Emily Brie Equi (Audible Imagery)
Story by: Johnny Jones
The world of electronic music is, at times, plagued by unoriginality. Many DJs get paid tens of thousands of dollars to slap together generic sets packed with overplayed Top 40 songs. They plan out their shows in advance and let software automix tracks together.
Two of the world’s finest turntablists brought a special treat to Denver’s Ogden Theatre last month: an all vinyl set featuring the records of legendary DJ and producer Afrika Bambaataa. No, not the records he made - well, some of those too - but the actual records he has been spinning since the early 1970s. It was an honor to even be in the presence of the very 45s (that’s a type of record for all you youngsters out there) that laid the foundation for hip-hop, but to hear DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist use three turntables each to turn them into an audio history lesson was almost too cool to handle.
The phrase “take you to school” is common in the hip-hop community. It’s usually used as an insult when a rapper verbally schools an opponent in battle, but the Ogden audience was gladly taken to school by Shadow and Chemist all night. Bambaataa’s collection covers a broad musical spectrum from James Brown to The Beatles to Chic to the Sugar Hill Gang. Shadow and Chemist crafted a set that included hip-hop, funk, disco, soul, salsa, West African music and everything in between.
During the show, DJ Shadow got on the mic and told the audience about who he considers to be the founding fathers of hip-hop: Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc. He acknowledged that all of them, and Bambaataa in particular, were some of the first people to use DJing as a way to make a statement about who they were as artists. Bambaataa is perhaps best known for his album Planet Rock, whose title track and “Looking For The Perfect Beat” are more than seminal. If you have any familiarity with early hip-hop culture, the chances you’ve heard one or both of these songs is extremely high. You may also know him from this Nike commercial from 2001. The influence that he continues to have on modern music, especially electronic music, is undeniable (just listen to any of Gramatik’s Street Bangerz mixtapes if you don’t believe me).
The whole stage was decked out to look like New York where hip-hop really took root. Grey cut outs of the city skyline sprawled across the front of the stage. A projection screen showed stylized images of Bambaataa’s record collection. One visual highlight was a CGI subway tunnel covered in graffiti that appeared right as DJ Shadow threw Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” on the decks (you can see it in this clip from their stop in Philadelphia on September 6). Bambaataa sampled this song to use for the “Planet Rock” beat and to see Shadow pay tribute to its origins was perfect.
I arrived at the Ogden expecting a Cut Chemist set followed by a DJ Shadow set, but I was wrong. They simultaneously alternated between their collective six turntables, a collaboration that went above and beyond a traditional B2B set. DJ Shadow would scratch the hell out of a record then point to Cut Chemist who would do the same. They would go back and forth seamlessly blending songs together with flawless precision. I kept looking for some type of cord that directly linked their brains together but couldn't find one. Turns out that when you DJ with someone for over 15 years, you get to know each other’s tendencies like the back of your hand (check out this documentary released in 2000 that highlights one of their shows in Los Angeles).
As if an exclusive look into the record collection of one of hip-hop’s most iconic producers wasn’t special enough (including an unreleased acid remix of “Looking For The Perfect Beat”), the DJ duo unveiled a 1967 drum machine and a beat box percussion instrument used by Grandmaster Flash. “You can’t even find these anymore,” DJ Shadow reminded us.
The crowd was all smiles and head bobs that night as we witnessed two masters of the game display their freakishly immaculate skills. DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist assembled a truly complete performance. It was a refreshing reminder that there are still DJs out there capable of scratching up a storm.
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