How deep is your crate?’ DJ Cut Chemist digs down on ‘Die Cut’

Mike Mettler
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Scott Schiller/Flickr

“Being someone who samples already-existing material, I always pined to be that artist who creates something out of thin air.”

David Bowie nailed it when he said, “I am a DJ, I am what I play.” Yes, he was talking about radio disc jockeys in that classic track from 1979, but that same mantra can be applied to today’s top turntablists — the ones who have forged their own international brand IDs based on how the sound and vibe of the records they spin, mix, sample, and create become synonymous with their names.

One DJ who’s long been atop the spinners heap is Cut Chemist, who first made his bones with the smoking hot Latin band Ozomatli and the alternative hip-hop collective Jurassic 5. Cut Chemist also perfected the DJ template with his innovative 2006 solo debut, The Audience’s Listening. It’s since taken the ace DJ a little over a decade to follow up that masterpiece with the 17-track genre-busting stunner Die Cut, due out not long after the calendar turns to 2018 (Die Cut is now available for preorder).

Ahead of that epic release, Cut Chemist just dropped the Madman EP, which gives listeners a tantalizing taste of things to come. With this release, the master sampler has turned things up another notch by capturing galvanizing live-in-studio performances onto wax.

“I’d say I’m employing the same sort of style I always had — I’m just expressing it differently,” Cut Chemist confirmed to Digital Trends. “I’m approaching things differently through found sounds and newly created sounds, all blended together” (that, in fact, may be the understatement of the year).

Digital Trends got on the line with Cut Chemist (real name: Lucas McFadden) before he got down to prepping his new material for some live dates in early December. He discussed the art of mixing samples with live musicians, why a certain drummer’s studio performance changed the direction of his production goals, and which pioneering tracks belong in a sample-based Smithsonian.

Digital Trends: You’ve said your M.O. for Die Cut was to focus more on artist collaboration and less on sampling. Do you feel you succeeded in reaching that goal?

Cut Chemist: I think so, yeah. I made a template of sample-based music for the beginning stages of this project, and I brought that to a friend of mine I took on as an associate producer, who suggested getting all these musicians involved [including tune-yards, Farmer Dave Scher, and Dexter Story]. At the time I was like, “Yeah, OK, I’m up for that. Let’s try it.”

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I mean, I worked with live musicians on my last album, and that worked out really well. And I like working with live musicians, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to put this together, because one thing I do take issue with is when you put DJ music together with live music — sometimes it’s OK, and sometimes, it’s not really for me.

Why is that? Is it because something happens in the mix that you don’t connect with, or … ?

I grew up with hip-hop music coming out of drum machines, turntables, and all these inanimate objects. I think there’s a certain life to the synthetic I really enjoy about hip-hop music as an alternative to live music. When you put the two together, it has to be done in a way where it’s almost seamless, to where it’s going to make sense. The live music has to sound like a sample. You can’t blur the lines. You can’t know which is which. I like it when that happens.

We did a lot of sessions with various musicians, and it was blended in a way where it has respect to the sample, and the sample has respect to the live musician to the point where they interact with one another more than just laying something on top of the other.

So you were looking to create that seamless effect where the listener can’t tell “what’s live, and what’s Memorex,” to modify a classic line.

Yeah yeah, that’s it. You want to feel the live performance from the musicians take the lead, and that’s what definitely happens, for sure.

When did you know you had that blend on lock for what you were doing for Die Cut?

It was during the first session with Deantoni Parks [of KUDU, The Mars Volta, and Bosnian Rainbows fame] on drums. I’d never heard anybody drum like this before! I call him the human drum machine. (chuckles)

Just the rhythms he was doing over my established drum templates were amazing. That’s where I went, “OK, I’m not just going to sample his drum sounds or take them out of context of what he did in the studio; that would be an injustice.” His performance was so stellar.

That also gave you a good backbone for the tracks you wound up building on, then. It’s a pretty solid spine to begin with, so why mess with it?

Right. And it was interesting, because I already had drum tracks and I kept adding to them, but I wasn’t sure which one was going to play the lead — whether it was going to be the sample drum tracks, or Deantoni. I found out pretty quickly they had to be both. He wasn’t just sitting in the background drumming along to things; he was the guy whose performance you wanted to hear because it was so unique, and so amazing.

It took me a really long time to be able to dial in the balance of where the drums sat and where my music template sat, but that was the first inkling of how I wanted musicians to live on this record.

Would you say that working with live musicians like that was refreshing, new territory for you as an artist?

Well, it was the first time I truly felt like a songwriter. Being someone who samples already-existing material, I always pined to be that artist who creates something out of thin air. Now, I don’t invalidate sample-based art — it’s what I choose to do for a living, because I love it.

It is its own artform, true. You’re like an archivist creating something new from found sounds, as you’ve put it.

There are so many factors that go into sample-based art. The art of selection, and where your sources come from — I put a lot of stress on that, like, “How deep is your crate? How good are you at sourcing material other people may not be able to?”

That’s a factor that goes into sample-based music a lot of people overlook. And that’s a lot of what makes people like DJ Shadow so alluring — just the fact that you’re almost looked at as a musicologist and as somebody who’s a scientist of music.

Would you consider going onstage without any sampling options and do a fully live set with only a band there with you? Would you be up for that?

Well, (pauses) that’s something I’ve thought about. I did play guitar on my record, but am I good enough to play live? Hmmm. I sure hope so. Then there’s the thing of, are my vocalists good enough to pull off live what we did in the studio? It’s all up to the rehearsals. Ideally, I’d like to do that. I’m trying to get there.

Is there one example of sample-based art that you’d consider belongs in the “sample museum,” the best example of somebody mastering that art perfectly?

Ummm, geez, that’s a perfectly good question. And it’s tough. There are several, but I’ll tell you right off the bat — the first thing I really like about sample-based art is something that kind of carbon-dates me, because it’s from the early-’90s mentality. And that is, I don’t get as much pleasure out of anything as when I hear two loops on top of each other that were meant to be together, coming from different sources.

audiophile cut chemist

One of the first records I heard do that was by Main Source on Breaking Atoms (1991), led by an incredible producer and MC named Large Professor. What they did was layer Bam Bam, a reggae song by Sisters Nancy, with a Gwen McCrae song called 90 Percent of Me Is You, for a song called Just Hangin’ Out. They didn’t chop those records in a way where they became unrecognizable — they just looped them, and put those two together. It created a kind of musical bliss for me where I went, “Wow — they’re in key, they’re in time; it’s magic! They were married. They were meant to be together, and somebody finally introduced them,” you know?

I guess we’d have to call that an arranged marriage.

A sampled arranged marriage, for sure! (both chuckle) That album is riddled with them, a whole number of combinations.

And from there, I started to collaborate with a guy named Mumbles, who produced a famously underground rap record called A Book of Human Language for Aceyalone [in 1998]. He was the master — and still is the master — of putting two loops together that create a new sound. I would say his work is something I would put in the Smithsonian sample archive.

I would agree with that. Now, let’s make that an even harder question — what from your own body of work would you submit for inclusion in the sample archive?

Well, I would say Lesson 6. That’s my claim to fame — the one where I might even think, “I don’t know if I can do it any better than this.” Just for the simple fact that there’s some music theory attached to it, and there’s time-signature changes. It’s like a study of music theory for DJs.

I did it in ’96, but it came out in early ’97. I spent two years making the song — just getting it right, and learning more about music just to make it. It’s not really so much about playing samples in key with each other — though that is there — it was more about putting things together that change tempo, and change time signature.

With your approach to Die Cut, you’re embracing somewhat of a punk/DIY aesthetic by trying something new that you aren’t a master of yet.

Yes, and that also creates kinds of a punk/DIY naivete to it, which begs the question: “Should Cut Chemist pick up a guitar, because he can’t play it?” But sometimes — a very minute fraction of the time — that works where skills don’t pay the bills, you know? A lot of my favorite records are from people where you can’t quite figure out what they’re doing, where there’s this really cool in-between. And hopefully, that comes across in this record. I mean, I’m no Stevie Ray Vaughan on the guitar …

Right — but, then again, you could sample some Stevie into your mix, and who would know?

I know, I could! (both chuckle) But I am playing the chords and getting the ideas across. The melodies are in there and nothing’s too atonal, and I hope everything checks out. That’s where it gets interesting, where you can’t quite tell: “Should this happen, or shouldn’t it?” And I’m not quite sure yet — but I kinda like it being that way.

It will be interesting to see where this new skill set takes you in, say, 2019. No pressure or anything …

Oh, trust me — no one puts more pressure on me than me. I do not think about what the next step is for me. I’ll think about that when this campaign is over, and I’ll figure out how to express myself after this.

It can go one of two ways. Being a DJ, I’m exposed to so much contemporary music —

and I love it — but I could just go back to complete aesthetics and follow the side of me that tends to like instruments. (pauses) I think I’ll keep going in that direction.