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Lucas MacFadden first recognized his instinct to collect things when he was 9 years old and saw a James Bond soundtrack sitting on a record-shop shelf. "I recognized it as a thing to collect—so every time I saw a different one, I'd go, 'Oh, I've never seen this one before; I gotta buy it,'" he says. But he never listened to any of them.
Now, he makes his living by buying music—and performing it live as Cut Chemist.
"I didn't know how to play instruments when I was a kid, so I had no choice but to play records," the LA-bred turntablist says. "I couldn't play guitar or the drums—but I could play every instrument by playing a record."
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He got his start behind the decks for Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli before setting off on a wildly successful solo career. Warner Brothers jumped at the chance to sign him—and he made them wait five years for his 2006 opus, The Audience Is Listening, 12 tracks that catch every corner of the globe with postmodern pastiches borne of old radio ads and classic TV shows and a number of stellar guests (including Hymnal, Mr. Lif and Edan), MCs he continues to collaborate with even now. Since making that record, MacFadden has played shows with artists as diverse as Shakira and Ethio-jazz icon Mulatu Astatke, produced a number of obliterating collaborations with instrumental hip-hop pioneer DJ Shadow, and appeared in director and friend Jason Reitman's Academy Award-nominated films Juno and Up In the Air.
Cut Chemist is a true performance artist, operating with molecular precision as he teaches the world the science of sound. His most recent mixtape, The Sound of the Police, was recorded using only one turntable, one mixer, one loop pedal and a whole lot of rare African records, all original pressings—a lesson in what sample-based music can sound like, as well as a refutation of the limitations that DJs might impose on their own craft.
But these days, it's harder for people to recognize DJs as artists, he says, because there are just too many of them. "That's why I have to do one-turntable, loop-pedal shit," MacFadden says. "I have to work harder to get the attention of people. It forces people such as Shadow to get in a sphere or Kid Koala to put on a koala suit and DJ with no headphones and do his amazing avant-garde jazz turntablism."
He's still working to refocus minds, taking a short break from preparing his next full-length to perform at two OC venues this week. He'll be at the Pacific Festival on Saturday before landing at the House of Blues in Anaheim on Tuesday, day one of a quick West Coast "Tunnel Vision" tour with Edan (see him play a kazoo while strumming an acoustic guitar alongside MC Paten Locke, who's playing a glockenspiel), cerebral rapper Mr. Lif and Cut Chemist video director Tom Fitzgerald.
"We all share the same aesthetic and ethic in music-making and how it should be presented in a performance," he says. "This is what it's all about."
This article appeared in print as "Compelled to Collect: Cut Chemist couldn't play an instrument, so he started deejaying."