The electronic-music boom of the mid-'90s was especially unkind to American alt-hip-hop DJs like Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow. Major labels keen to cash in on the popularity of DJs and their raver/backpacker audiences never quite understood that DJs traffic in other people's music and are better at mixing up other people's records than making their own.
Cut Chemist had a respectable career in Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli; Shadow wowed the world with 1996's Endtroducing . . . and his work on the first UNKLE record, but after that, sales and record-company relations dipped as indie rock came back and it became clear DJs don't sell records, they mix them. Endtroducing . . . sold almost 250,000 copies; 1998's singles compilation Preemptive Strike didn't break 150,000. Likewise, Cut Chemist had a lone record with Warner Bros. (2006's The Audience's Listening) that didn't lead to a sequel.
No matter. Chemist and Shadow are back to what they do best-being record nerds capable of turntable alchemy that can be as party-rocking as it is musical, as experimental as it is composerly. All inspired by, of all things, the Slurpee.
See, back in '99, underground-DJ mixes reached a whole new level: Average music fans were hearing bootleg compositions of unlicensed songs and uncleared samples on discs labeled "For Promotional Use Only," and huge DJs were releasing them.
DJ P and Z-Trip made the proto-mash-up classic Uneasy Listening, Volume 1, which mixed Pharcyde with Pat Benatar and Naked Eyes with Public Enemy to great, often comic, effect. And Chemist and Shadow put out Brainfreeze, inspired by a rare 7-Eleven promotional 7-inch dedicated to the Slurpee called "Do the Slurp." Chem and Shadow seized on the novelty of a 7-inch, the most populist form of recorded music, and released a mix comprising ultra-rare funk, soul, and hip-hop break singles. The Chem/Shadow collab drew the best out of each jock. In the 2002 documentary Scratch, Shadow was the moody poet and Cut Chemist the Gene Wilder of deejaying; Brainfreeze got Shadow back to party-rocking and led Chem to be more the mad scientist. Brainfreeze inspired a live show, which inspired a tour, all devoted to mixing and party-rocking from the 7-inch single format (djshadow.com now sells the Freeze DVD chronicling it.)
Product Placement followed in 2001; it wasn't as groundbreaking as its predecessor, but the cycle continued, as Chem and Shadow toured on nothing but 7-inches. The current incarnation, Hard Sell, is a continuation of a Hollywood Bowl show last summer, at which Chem and Shadow mixed 7-inches on eight turntables through four mixers, abetted only by some guitar effects and looping technology. The tour's become something of a guerrilla DJ experiment, with no publicity and no CD to support.
While Hard Sell has drawn mixed reviews-its bold, experimental passages of making new songs out of slivers and loops of others has more in common with Shadow's lukewarm 2002 The Private Press than the Brainfreeze free-for-alls of old—it is, in its own way, even more revolutionary. Because most DJs today—especially hip-hop DJs—may be using turntables, but not vinyl.
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Digital-to-vinyl computer interfaces such as Serato and Final Scratch turn a blank but grooved record and needle into an MP3 player, which is why most mega-DJs working today, especially mash-up kings such as DJ AM, only play two actual records all night; they just mix between MP3s from their computer on the turntables. (A notable exception is Vegas' DJ P, who still uses vinyl.)
So for Chem and Shadow to use not only all real vinyl, but also obscure 7-inches at that, it is a strong statement against the current state of deejaying, with its punch-line mash-ups, and an even bigger statement against the music industry, where music is, like the 7-inch, increasingly more about singles but meant to be immediately digested in digital form. Chem and Shadow delving beyond faves-of-funk playlists and back into the real business of music-making is a bold step. They're taking deejaying back to its first incarnation, when it was more like jazz improvisation than trying to turn a DJ's idea of what works on a dance floor into a lukewarm production for which some record company can charge $17.99.
And even if Chem and Shadow's Hard Sell is hardly selling anything, opener Kid Koala is the kind of one-man funhouse you may want Chem and Shadow to be. Remember, Koala turned the thankless task of opening for Radiohead into a highlight of the evening on the Amnesiac tour in 2001; the Hard Sell Tour might just be, for better or for worse, the Amnesiac DJ tour of 2008.
The Hard Sell Tour with DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist and Kid Koala at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-BLUE; www.hob.com. Thurs., Feb. 14, 8 p.m. $27.50-$30.