Few can say they’ve had a career quite like Z-Trip. A DJ, turntablist and producer, his 20+ year career has allowed him to work with the likes of Chuck D (Public Enemy), Shepard Fairey and Kasabian among others, and currently works as LL Cool J’s resident tour DJ on the road. Also branded as the pioneer of the ‘mashup’ movement, Z-Trip has travelled the world time and time again, rocking crowds with his always evolving approach style. On the brink of his latest Australian tour, we managed to catch up with Z to chat about all things music, the DJ culture past and present, and where he finds himself now after working so long in the game.
I was first introduced to you through the 2001 movie Scratch. In it, you explained how DJs at the time screwed themselves over by not pushing enough boundaries. 15 years later, how has DJ and turntablist culture evolved, and how is it faring?
Back then we had way more people who were interested in the art form, simply because it was new. We were developing a lot of the stuff at that time, we didn’t have as much technology, all the mixers, all the gear, all the endorsements. We were just getting to that stage where people were understanding what we were doing was an art form.
While there is still a huge community who are into it – maybe not the scratching, but what the community stood for – those people would gravitate towards producing and making beats. [Production] opened up and became really prevalent, whereas the turntablist world ended up taking a backseat.
Also, the secrecy and hunting around is gone. Technology has made it easier for people to get the music, or to be able to do what we were doing on vinyl. Now, you can pretty much get everything you need online, and the Internet’s there with a million different tutorials. I could go online and in ten minutes get everything I need to do this, and while that’s amazing, it’s made it accessible to everyone.
I feel because that opened up the doors to everything, turntablists became one branch in a bigger tree, which is figuring out how to manipulate music, how to remix and make music. It didn’t really matter about the turntable or the controller, vinyl or digital, it’s about getting their ideas out and I think that’s awesome because it’s still in the same vein, it’s creative people trying to do creative stuff.
The downside of that is you also have all these people who didn’t really get into the art in the live setting, they’d do it all in the studio. These people end up making great tunes and getting popular and people want to see them then perform and they go on stage and they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. They go up there hit a couple buttons and jump around, and that is the sad thing of it being so accessible, because the learning curve went the way it did.
I do feel like that’s coming back to be honest. People are trying to figure out how to perform, therefore there’s this new wave of people who are just learning how to do this stuff now. In a metaphorical sense, I feel like once Serato [software] started, that’s when ‘babies’ were born. Now, seven or eight years later, people are finally figuring out how to form full sentences, figuring out how to perform in a sense.
Has your personal approach changed over the years with that digital influence?
100 per cent. The things I can do now are light-years ahead of what I was doing then. It’s funny, every so often for a bit of fun we’ll play all 45s or an all-vinyl set, and it’s not until then do you realise all the shit we had to deal with. If the record was warping, if you were outside – I did a show the other day outside and a big gust of wind came and blew the record off and it just sounded like hell – that was the reality. Now you don’t get any of that shit. When was the last time you heard a needle skip? When was the last time you heard someone fuck up a mix?
Do you still dig around? How has it changed?
I’m always digging, but now it’s different. Now I’m digging online, there’s more resources where you can find the thing you’re looking for and it’s not necessarily always vinyl; it could be digital, or movies, even YouTube, there’s so many samples just on that one platform. I might be watching a TV show and be like ‘oh shit, there’s a great sample.’ Back in the day you’d have to have VHS on hand or hopefully catch a re-run.
Digging has become way more accessible, but you never lose the ear, you’re always curious what’s around the corner, the next piece of gear, song, producer that can be introduced into the matrix, because that’s really it. It’s trying to figure out how to sound a little bit different to everybody else, and to do that that means that you have to be pulling things from different sources. If you go to other platforms you do you stand to find more shit, but we’re inundated with stuff. Before you used to have to go and find it, now it finds you.
It seems you have a love hate relationship with the term ‘mashup DJ’. How do you feel about how it’s been adopted into DJing?
It’s ‘love hate’ in that I love that it opened up a lot of doors and exposed a lot of people to me, that was a great moment in my career and in my life. But the problem is, imagine you’re a master musician, you can play any style of music really well, but if someone brands you as a country guy, you’ll never be looked at as the guy who can play reggae or funk or soul.
If I go and do a full bass set somewhere I’m doing any of that style of mixing, and people might not recognise or understand that diversity.
‘Mashup’ was no category, no genre, an open format, but then open format and no genre became the genre. People are always wanting to define what a certain sound or style is, they need labels to navigate it. People are exposed to all styles of music, but I consider myself a DJ, a master selector. When I say I’m a DJ, people ask ‘what kind of music do you play?’, ‘What radio station do you DJ for?’ ‘Oh, so you do weddings?’ When they realise that you play concerts, they’re like ‘so what kind of music do you play? House, Dance, EDM right? EDM?’
I just look at them and go, ‘I play really really good music, like the best music you’ve ever heard’ and they just walk away. It’s the epitome of someone trying to categorise something.
Are you still producing a lot too?
I still do it but I took a break from putting out new projects. I ended up taking a couple of years of not putting anything out, which gave me that minute to take inventory. I moved from Los Angeles to San Diego, and in doing that I realised I had all this stuff in storage from touring for fifteen, twenty years.
I moved everything, built a new studio and have just now started in the last six months spending a lot more time there with a new fresh perspective, start picking up these old projects I was working on and start putting them out.
I also changed a lot of things. I let go of my management after sixteen years, and now I’ve got three or four projects on the horizon. There’s no deadline, but now I’ve got a much better headspace, and I’m super inspired.
The lesson I learnt as a touring artist was if you don’t take those moments to stop and process, you’ll find yourself pretty much on your deathbed wondering how the fuck you got there. I never got to fulfil any other things because I was just constantly working, constantly grinding, not really paying attention to anything else. I missed every birthday from every family member, I missed every important occasion.
What can we expect from your live sets in Australia?
After taking that break and re-evaluating, I’m getting back into what got me into this in the first place – being so inspired by the music and wanting to share that music with people. I would just take whatever music I was really into and I would go out and just play that music.
After performing for a while you get to a point, like Guns ‘N Roses, they’ve gotta play this, this and this, they’ve gotta end with Sweet Child Of Mine, that’s the setlist, the same setlist for however long.
For me it ended up getting a little like that. You want to put on a good show, have that big ending, but what I really enjoyed was the improvisation, having the ability to rely on the instinct of what I’m feeling off that crowd that night. I might have an intro and outro, but everything that’s in the middle of that is really just me vibing off the crowd and seeing what works and what they don’t want, experimenting and taking a chance.
The best way I can equate this is, I started studying comedians a lot, because to me comedians have a lot of similarities between what we do and what they do. We’re both one person up on stage, taking the crowd on a journey, and we have to remind ourselves what we did or played in that market the last time we were there. So I started studying people like George Carlin and Louis C.K. Louis in particular was getting to this point where he was also getting kind of burnt out doing the same set over and over even though the crowd was none the wiser. So what he would do is plant these moments in his set that he could go to, vines he could swing to where he knew there was a new punchline and a bit, but he also knew he could then drift between the two, improvise and come up with really funny things and let his comedic mind just do what it does. In an environment that’s so sink or swim, that’s when you know you’re the fucking master at it; when you can go up there, not know what you’re going to play and smash the motherfucker.
So you’d say you’re now more confident than ever?
You get to a point after all the stuff I’ve done, that you have to challenge yourself, you have to have fun and be innovating. For me the confidence level comes from knowing that at the very least I can go back and play a set that I know works, there’s a safety net in a sense, but I’m really not wanting to pull that out.
There’s these moments, every good DJ knows the feeling, when you’re playing and it’s going good but you don’t know what the fuck you’re going to play next. There’s something about that adrenaline rush when there’s only a minute left of the song and you’re like, ‘I could blow this whole thing right now if I select the wrong tune’.
I have another project that I’ve been doing just like that. I’ve been doing this stuff with silent films. Back in the 1920s or 30s they had a piano player or orchestra play along with the movie because there was no sound. I was approached by Tribeca Films to do just that, to become the music person and compose live in front of an audience, and that sounded fucking amazing.
I’ve now done that three times and it’s incredible because it’s a whole new approach and angle to apply these skills, rather than just going to the club, raging, and then calling it a night. Trying to choose the right song, make sure it ends at the right time, have the right sounds to correlate to the images, it’s really interesting because it’s a completely different angle.
What’s on the cards for you in 2017?
There’s a collaboration project I’ve been working on with another producer, an on and off three year project where we work on stuff, then don’t see each other for another three months, then work on more stuff again. There’s no real deadline but we have like eighteen things that are basically 80-90% done. We’re going to take two weeks and find a studio far away from everywhere, and try and finish this thing. I can’t really go too deep into the details of who it is and what it is but that’s coming.
I’ve got another collaborative mix project as well, and there’s a string of 2017 shows that I still do with LL Cool J. Really it’s just about getting back into the studio and pushing those boundaries.
DJ Z-Trip Tour Dates
21 January – Mona Foma, Hobart
22 January – Faux Mo, Hobart
25 January – Tivoli, Adelaide
26 January – The Laundry Bar, Melbourne
28 January – The Factory, Sydney
Get tickets HERE.