Grounded In Sound: DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, Kid Koala

Touching vinyl is a guilty pleasure,” L.A. DJ heavyweight Cut Chemist tells me by phone from the Chicago hotel room where he’s chilling before sound check for the Hard Sell Tour, his hat-trick collaboration with NorCal’s equally storied DJ Shadow. “What can I say? Shadow and I like to buy records.”

They’re not alone. In 1998, when turntablism was at its zenith, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist — or Josh Davis and Lucas McFadden, as they are known to their mothers — merged their love of lost funk and soul 45s into an improvised two-mix set called Brainfreeze, which went on not just to become a collector’s item but to set the bar so high for scratch fiends that it has yet to be matched. By anyone besides the two, that is, who reunited in 2001 for a similar affair called Product Placement. Like its predecessor, it was mashed live on the spot with no edits or do-overs and immortalized in a limited pressing, and soon became a collector’s staple as well. Product Placement upped the ante on Brainfreeze with a national tour that took Cut and Shadow’s turntablist skills straight to the people.

And now they’re doing it again on the Hard Sell Tour, which launched in Toronto on January 30 and winds up its American throw-down on February 15 at the Wiltern, before jetting across the pond to the U.K., France, Germany and parts outward. Kicking off with a hilarious explanatory video created by Meat Beat Manifesto’s Ben Stokes (a.k.a. Tino), which apes the educational films of the 1950s, Shadow and Cut’s third iteration has been given a serious upgrade.

“They’re [now] using eight turntables, whereas I think they were using four,” explains talented Canadian DJ, graphic novelist and indie filmmaker Kid Koala by phone from what he describes as “the dungeon of a dollar store.” Cut and Shadow asked Koala, whose birth name is Eric San, to come along on their magic vinyl ride, and being that he’s a scratch fiend himself, there was no way he could say no. “They called me on New Year’s Eve and asked me what I was doing for the next couple of months. I said, ‘Not much, just shoveling the snow outside of the house.’”

San confirms that Shadow and Cut “are way busier this time around. They’ve mastered the craft of layering, using all these original source materials, and this time it’s not as genre-specific. They’ve broadened its musical horizons and scope.”

They have also added two loop pedals, which “give us the capability to manipulate tracks more,” Cut Chemist adds. And they’ve employed an echo box to go along with four mixers, which helps to stretch and loop sound together more seamlessly and comes in handy considering they’ve doubled both the amount of turntables and their workload. Watching Shadow and Cut slice and dice onstage with no net is like watching two surgeons build a Frankenstein out of body parts. It’s fascinating, even if it has deviated somewhat from the almost purposeful obscurity of their Brainfreeze and Product Placement experiments. That is, you will recognize tracks from Pharcyde, De La Soul and others, with a major difference.

“We’re using all-original source material,” Cut elaborates. “We’re not playing rap songs, but remaking them. And it’s weird, because even though we’re doing things that are more likely to be recognized, we still play more obscure stuff than before. One feeds into the other. We felt like we earned our right to use more recognizable funk records. We’re giving the people a bone, because they’ve earned it. There are moments when we take them into outer space, so now we give them sounds to ground them.”

And not just the sounds Cut and Shadow have brought with them, but also those they’ve picked up along the way. Both are committed vinyl collectors themselves, and they spend a good amount of time on tour driving to the middle of nowhere to find, as Koala explains, “the Trekkies of the vinyl world.”

“Every day,” he says, “these guys have two or three connections in each city, whether it’s online sources, someone’s basement, or Ali Baba’s cave of records. They’re still hungry and out digging for new gems. They’re driving an hour out into the sticks to check out some guy’s garage which holds 50,000 records. They’ll get up at the crack of dawn, and I’m like, ‘Why don’t you guys call me later?’ I haven’t been on a tour like this before. I found a crate-and-a-half [of records] already and we’ve only done six shows. It’s pretty heavy; both of them have this amazingly encyclopedic knowledge.”

“The tour is so long that it never hurts to find spares,” Cut clarifies, “but also it’s good to find stuff for the collection.”

Their sizable — and growing — stashes are ground zero for the sonic collages that make up Brainfreeze, Product Placement and now The Hard Sell, which, like its predecessors, will be released in CD/DVD form following the end of the tour. Those who see the tour will likely find early versions of these future collector’s items on a table somewhere near the entrance, and might even land a few minutes with their creators, who have been known to mix with the people after they’re done spinning. They are, after all, just like their audiences: Beat junkies with a collective love of vinyl who spend their lives digging through the dustbin of musical history. Consider then, if you will, the Hard Sell Tour as a gathering of fellow revolutionaries keeping the dual promises of turntablism and historiography alive.

As Koala says, “It’s got that activism.”

This article appeared in LA Weekly

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