DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist channel Afrika Bambaataa and take his record collection on the road
by Kyle Eustice
DJ Shadow (real name Josh Davis) talks about records like a veteran surgeon talks about anatomy. With precision and finesse, he dissects the bones of the album piece by piece to paint a full picture of the lush soundscape he hears. In 2013, Shadow and Cut Chemist (real name Lucas Macfadden) were asked to fly to New York to take a look at the Holy Grail of record collections—belonging to hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. There are currently 40,000 of Bambaataa’s records housed in a permanent archive at Cornell University. For Cut Chemist and Shadow, it was a no-brainer.
“Of all the people within hip-hop that came before me making the music and writing the culture as it went, Bambaataa has always been referred to as the godfather,” Shadow says. “I discovered it in ’81. I wasn’t even sure who he was yet. Within New York, the culture and original core of people who invented the culture, Bambaataa was called ‘the Master of Records’ even back then. As I began to buy more records and see people thank him, or read articles about the culture and books like Rap Attack by David Toop, all roads would lead back to him as somebody who helped define the culture based on his taste as a DJ.
“To fast-forward to 2013 when we were asked to do this by Cornell, I couldn’t think of any other DJ I was more curious about in terms of what their collection would hold,” he continues. “That’s why when we were asked to do it, our first concerns were we wanted to take a look to make sure the collection was intact, and we also needed his blessing. I have too much respect for Bambaataa as a thinker and person who is so directly responsible for what defines hip-hop music. There was no way I could do it without his blessing and participation.”
With Bambaataa’s blessing, Shadow and Cut Chemist moved forward with the overwhelming task of sorting, selecting, and shipping hundreds of Bambaataa’s most precious commodities. After countless hours of research, they put together a set that would eventually become the Renegades of Rhythm Tour. Using only records found in Bambaataa’s collection, their set tells the story of hip-hop’s evolution. They discovered many albums that Bambaataa would refer to as “sure shots,” which he kept like a private arsenal; albums that nobody knew he was using or what they were called.
“From the first moment we saw his name on the record sleeves and realized the first 1800 records or so were all numbered with his name on them, we thought it was like a recipe for the very fist hip-hop dish—all the classic breakbeats,” Shadow says. “There were acetates of old-school rap records that never came out that are genuinely historical. It gets no closer to the core than that. We found sure shots he covered up that are disco records we had never seen or heard before with these outrageous breakbeats. We’ve been doing this a long time, and we were put in that state of like, ‘Wow, this guy was ahead of his time.’ Even as a digger and sample seeker, he still had stuff to show us. It was hugely humbling.”
There were a lot of breakbeats that other DJs never caught on to in Bambaataa’s collection; selections Shadow and Cut Chemist didn’t even expect.
“We are working on a sample of the set with a record that says on the cover ‘Zulu Nation Sure Shot,’ and actually it’s a Public Image, Ltd. record,” Shadow says. “That goes to show you how broad he was thinking even in 1981.”
Shadow and Cut Chemist weren’t exactly looking for the rarest records in Bambaataa’s collection. They pulled selections that would help define the essence of hip-hop.
“We think of the record’s musical merit and our perceived relevance to Bambaataa,” he says. “If we were to put together a set of just his rarest records, we don’t think it would be as compelling as the broader narrative, which is not only telling his story, but also on a parallel plane, telling the story of the beginnings of hip-hop and the evolution of hip-hop itself. We want it to be fun and entertaining, not a science lesson.
“It comes down to certain records are automatic musts like Shaft in Africa and the Truck Turner soundtrack by Isaac Hayes,” he adds. “To be honest, there are a lot of cases where we pulled two copies, but one of them skipped or one was cracked. One of the things that Bambaataa did as a collector that I thought was so amazing was he tried to always include different versions of the same record. For example, we play a famous breakbeat called “Sing, Sing” by Gaz, and it’s a well-loved disco break. Instead of having two copies of the 12-inch, he tries to have the 12-inch and the full album. One of my favorite parts of the set so far is we do this blend where I have to rock doubles of Isaac Hayes’s Truck Turner soundtrack and the break is called “The Breakthrough.” It just sounds really good in this blend we came up with. I’m always excited about that.”
With the Renegades of Rhythm Tour officially in progress, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist are slowly making their way across the world with Bambaataa’s legacy in tow. Cut Chemist talked to Wax Poetics about his favorite selections from Bambaataa’s impressive collection and shed some light on what the entire process was like.
What made you want to do this project?
Cut Chemist: Our ethic towards DJing and music comes from Bambaataa and his whole methodology. Hip-hop isn’t just one type of music. It’s all types and how you present it. We admire his vision for the culture. We tried to figure out the best approach. We thought it would be a lot of fun for Shadow and me, because we haven’t done anything since The Hard Sell seven years ago. We wanted to come up with something we could tour. We brought it to them and asked if we could do something with it that involves touring. They said we can use his actual records. So we were like, “We’re there!” We flew to New York and went through the records. They let us go through them all. Even if it didn’t happen, just to look through what I consider ground zero of hip-hop was a big deal for me and I know it was for Josh; just to touch it and be near it. So we did and they let us pull whatever. They’d just catalog it and when we were done, we’d just give it back.
We took about twelve big boxes. Maybe it was like a thousand records or something. That’s a lot. We’re still siphoning through them. Initially we over-pulled to make sure we grabbed enough stuff. A few months ago, we sent a bunch back because some of them were so messed up we couldn’t play them or the wrong record was in the jacket. By the time we went through that filtering process, we ended up sending back four boxes. We also have another box that’s full to send back. Now that we’ve built the set, things we want to go in the set still won’t make it due to the logistics of time and choices of arrangement. We want to make it ninety minutes and want it to have a certain flow. Things we can’t play will break our hearts, but we’ll be like, “This is it.” By the time we start the tour, I’m sure another box or two boxes will go back. I don’t know how many records we will end up with on the road, but it will probably be a small fraction of what we pulled from the beginning.
How much time did it take to put the set together?
Most of the time putting together the set wasn’t putting together the set. It was looking through the records. We had to closely consider everything, and it took tons of time. We didn’t listen to every record in his collection, but we listened to every record we pulled. It was one of those situations where it was like, “Oh, we’re sorry. We thought the storage place closed this time, but it really closes at this time so you only have three hours to go through 40,000 records.” It was ridiculous. I remember like the last half hour, it was like Speed Racer going through these records. We were like, “Okay, we have ten minutes to load the truck with Bambaataa’s sure shots.” [laughs]
Cut Chemist’s Record Rundown:
Johnny Pate Shaft in Africa (ABC Records) 1973
It’s a classic. A lot of these I’m going to mention are staples and breakbeats from hip-hop history. It being a soundtrack of the Shaft series, it’s dramatic, funky, and danceable. It’s got a lot of things going for it. I think it got a lot of play because it was pretty messed up. That’s another thing I’ll probably factor into the decision-making is the fact that these records I’m choosing were loved by him and played by him a lot, and used heavily.
There’s a song on there called “The Lovomaniacs” and it’s also called “Talks Like Sex” because of the chorus. That’s another classic and he had doubles of it in one jacket, just stuffed in a 12-inch sleeve somewhere, all beat to hell. I believe it was a sure shot. He covers up the label if it’s a sure shot, which is his “secret weapon.” When he’d play out, he’d cover up the label so nobody would know what it was. I believe this may have been one of them. This is another breakbeat classic.
That is for sure a sure shot because you can’t even read the label. It has electrical tape over it. It’s got a hell of a breakbeat that sounds good at any speed. A lot of people played it at 45 because it’s really slow. It sounds good on 33, 45, depends on the tempo. It’s one of my favorite beats. It’s really steady and the drummer is on it, almost like drum-machine timing. It’s an amazing beat and an amazing song actually.
We learned something about this album we didn’t know before. There were two different labels, and I knew that, but I thought they were two different pressings. The song is called “Gangster Boogie,” which is the classic hip-hop break. The two pressings are two completely different versions of the song, and we were blown away. The solid green label was not even the same version. We listen to a lot of records and we have a lot of information, so to get new information on something that was such a hip-hop staple for so many years blew us away. Besides that little tidbit, it’s a great piece of hip-hop history, and again, he played it a lot. I just love it because it’s so iconic.
We got geeked when we saw our own records in his collection. It was really validating. I saw “Unified Rebelution.” I saw “Cut Chemist Suite” by Ozomatli. So I would have to say “Unified Rebelution” by Jurassic 5. We would like to incorporate it into our set. If that doesn’t make it, I’ll be really heartbroken. We haven’t figured that out yet if we’re going to mention ourselves, but yeah, we plan on it. If I can cut my name Cut Chemist from the Bambaataa collection, yeah, that’s gotta happen. To find it right next to Jungle Brothers’ first album, one of my favorite hip-hop records, it was like, “Hell yeah.” Then you start questioning it like, “Did he buy this record? Was he given this record? Did he choose to buy the record?’ You come up with all of these scenarios like, “Did he like to play this record? Did he play it a lot?” Oh trust me. [laughs] I was checking it out like, “Is the spine damaged?”
Candido Drum Fever (Polydor) 1973
It hasn’t made it in the set yet, but it’s a really cool record and I just love cutting it up. There’s this one song on there called “Soulwanco,” and it’s just congas going crazy over a drum beat. It’s awesome. 1973. It seems he was particular to 1973 and 1974.
M.D.S. Production “Because I’m a Pro” (Universal Sound Productions) 1988
In the mid-school rap, “random rap” world, we pulled some cool ones. One of them was a track called “Because I’m a Pro” by M.D.S. Production. That was from ’88. I love that year. My favorite year of hip-hop is ’87 to ’88. To represent that era, it felt like the torch had been passed down to a whole other world. It was becoming sample-based. Records were coming out. It wasn’t live anymore. We moved on to a music industry. This was a time when the music industry and rap were still very independent, but at the same time, New York radio was still playing independent music, especially on the DJ Red Alert show, who was one of the members of Zulu Nation and one of Bambaataa’s fellow DJs back in the day. Red Alert broke that record and him having ties to Bambaataa, it just kind of made sense to me. It bridged the gap pre-’80s, park jam era to the foundations of hip-hop to radio to the record industry. Red Alert broke a lot of music while he was on KISS-FM in New York.
Wabiné Martian’s Visit (Wabiné Productions) 1978
It’s a crazy, long disco break. It’s very chunky—just killer and relatively obscure.
Jimmy Castor It’s Just Begun (RCA Victor) 1972
To pull that from Bambaataa’s collection, you know, it means so much because that is quintessential hip-hop. The first time I saw anything hip-hop was in Flashdance in 1983, and that’s what got me hooked. I saw that and I was like, “I’m down with this. What is this?” They were dancing to Jimmy Castor. That is the foundation of hip-hop—that and “Apache.” To pull that from the godfather of hip-hop’s collection, it was like, “I bet this record could talk and tell a lot of stories.”
Incredible Bongo Band Bongo Rock (Pride) 1973
That’s a big one. He had the bootleg 12-inches [of “Apache.”]
Babe Ruth First Base (Harvest) 1972
Again, I was talking to Josh about this. To me, you have your breakbeat classics or Ultimate Breaks & Beats, you have your jam, dance, and disco classics that helped shape hip-hop, but to me there are three big b-boy songs. You hear those and the Rock Steady Crew hits the floor. [laughs] They are “Apache,” “It’s Just Begun,” and [Babe Ruth’s] “The Mexican.”
Kraftwerk “Trans-Europe Express” 12-inch [from Trans-Europe Express (Capitol Records) 1977]
It’s on my list because of the fact that it’s the birth of “Planet Rock.” He listened to it and was inspired by them. To pull it from his collection was such an honor. We were wondering if it was the first copy he listened to. There were several copies of it, and I’m pretty sure we pulled them all. You listen to his copy and you kind of transplant yourself to the ’70s, and you’re like, “Okay, I’m Bambaataa, I’m listening to it, and I’m blown away by it. I have this vision to turn it into something that’s going to change the world.” And it did.
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