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.
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