Q&A with Cut Chemist

Cut Chemist is one of the most respected figures in modern hip hop and DJ culture. He has a truly unique and progressive mindset that is often the catalyst for his always amazing projects. He has been a part of, started, and created some of the most memorable moments for DJs around the world and is a true constant in the community that is quickly evolving. It is hard to find someone like Cut Chemist in this era of computer software and digital releases. His hands alone have uncovered some amazing tunes and his crates are said to weigh a literal ton. Vinyl culture was embedded into Cut’s blood at an early age, taking to the decks and performing in his first DJ competition at the age of 12 years old. Constant curiosity led him reverse engineer what his idols were doing on their turntables. He eventually broke it down to a science that he now molds to suit his own needs.

Cutting, chopping, synthesizing and concocting are all synonymous with his moniker. His ear for breaks and elephant-like memory for recorded music history makes him a walking encyclopedia pertaining to all things wax. No stranger to travel, Cut has toured the world multiple times as an original member of Jurassic 5. He even had time to release music as a part of the iconic Latin hip hop/rock group Ozomatli. He also played the world-famous Hollywood Bowl with his good friend and constant collaborative partner DJ Shadow. Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Cut Chemist. We talked about his career, some of his favorite performances and how it felt to get back on the road with Jurassic 5 this summer. I am very excited to share with you, Sound Colour Vibration’s exclusive interview with Cut Chemist.

Nick: I just wanted to say thank you so much again for your time today, we really appreciate it!

Cut Chemist: My pleasure, thank’s for taking an interest!

Nick: Your music selection has always been so diverse. What kind of music were you surrounded by at a young age and what was constantly played around in the house when you were growing up?

Cut Chemist: Everything from Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Johnny Ace [laughs]. You know, a blend of folk, pop-rock, and like 50′s-60′s stuff. And then also classical. We actually had a piano in the house so my mom would play. I remember seeing the sheet music of Mozart and Beethoven and stuff like that. I would learn little Beethoven steps on the piano when I was young. It wasn’t only records, music was actually played in my house. My dad played guitar as well.

Nick: What first drew you to the turntables? Around what age?

Cut Chemist: I was around eleven I guess. Back then it was all hip hop in school. Breakdancing was crossing over so I decided to get involved in every aspect of hip hop. I already liked buying music too. I liked buying records, so the fact that it involved something I already enjoyed using and listening to was probably why I gravitated towards it the most. When I saw somebody scratching or moving the record back and forward I would always go, ‘oh wow, what are they doing?’ It was so insane you know. I would think, ‘it’s ruining the record!’ I would wonder what tools they were using too because I always thought ‘it can’t be a regular turntable making those noises.’ I was just fascinated, I did a lot of investigative work to try to figure out how this is being done. I would think to myself, ‘maybe it was the records were they using’ or ‘maybe they were using a record that was going through some sort of electronic device?’ Even things like, ‘were they using some kind of filter?’ I had so many questions.

Nick: Wow, that sounds fascinating. Do you remember when you started performing? Do you remember your first gig?

Cut Chemist: Hmm [laughs], what was my first gig? It couldn’t have been any earlier than ’86- I started in ’84. I did battle, well battle is a strong word, I entered a competition when I was 12. So that was the first time I DJ’d in front of a public audience.

Nick: Oh wow, the first time was a competition? What was that like?

Cut Chemist: Wow, well there was a store out here called For Breakers Only and there was an event that was sponsored by KDAY- the hip hop station for Los Angeles. It was like, a preliminary competition and there was a final round that went on at a different time. I made it passed the preliminary, but I think that was based on the fact that I was 12 and white [laughs]. I didn’t know how to DJ or scratch that well but I did it good enough for people to be like “oh shit!” [laughs]. I made it passed the first round though and I was all excited. The finals were at Radiotron and I remember it was a lot less forgiving, I remember Arabian Prince was one of the contenders and the novelty factor of being 12 wore off. They didn’t care, so I lost. I don’t even think I really knew how to use a mixer back then, I just knew how to move the record back and forward.

Nick: Can you talk a bit about when you first heard Double Dee and Steinski? What kind of influence were they on you?

Cut Chemist: I heard them on KDAY originally but I didn’t know who they were or what they were doing a the time. I didn’t know if it was old records or new records that were being mixed together. You know, it was just a lot of fun though. They added in movie dialogue and stuff like that. Years later when I was record shopping with a friend of mine, actually it was more like ‘a’ year later- you know how time is, it’s funny like that -he was like: “yo do you have this?” And showed me some Double Dee and Steinski at the record store. I was like, “no I don’t.” He said, “you should get it, it’s good.” And so I bought it. When I went home, I was like “Wow, that’s what I heard on the radio, I can’t believe it!” I was so excited. The “Lessons” and Double Dee and Steinski were a huge influence on me and it was kind of a template for what I do now. Being aware of older records and with breaks and stuff like that. It was the first time I ever heard those records in that context of breaks. I had heard of sampling in the hip hop world but hadn’t heard it like them.

Nick: What was it like to perform the “Lessons” live with Steinski?

Cut Chemist: Oh yeah, it was great! To re-make them with a friend of mine and my idol, it was one of my favorite times DJing!

Nick: One of our other favorite moments on record involved you and Madlib at Soundclash. What was the energy like that night? 

Cut Chemist: That was great. I don’t think people really knew what to expect though because it was the first one. Madlib had already been doing his thing for a bit so people already knew who he was. People also knew who I was so it was definitely a good night. I remember being a little cocky utilizing my skills and scratching and stuff like that, but it was a good competition. We both put up a good fight. We’re both friends so it wasn’t really a battle [laughs], we were just having fun up there. You know people were expecting a lot and I was able to do my scratch thing but it wasn’t crazy like a dance battle, we were just glad to do our little thing up there. I was able to play some new stuff, a couple remixes that hadn’t come out and a bunch of rare things. It was more than fun!

Nick: Another performance I wanted to talk about was “Pushing Buttons” with DJ Shadow and Numark. Can you talk a bit about that and maybe how that idea came to be?

Cut Chemist: Yeah! Shadow wanted to do a routine that could be recorded live for his second album and he wanted to do something with drum machines. He wanted to do it with MPC’s. At that time we had already had a good working relationship so he called me up and asked if I’d be down to do this routine and I said yeah. I responded automatically, it sounded really good to me! We spent like, three days putting together a routine and I was very adamant about doing some kind of melodic, more organic stuff. I wanted to do a salsa section cause that would just be weird on a drum machine. It’s almost blasphemous, we were doing this more organic music style with electronic instruments. So we spent some time chopping up world sounds and some electronic rap stuff and we decided to open it up with a cover version of “Listen to the Bass” by Mantronix, who is an inspiration we all had in common. For that we used all of the original elements so people could get an idea of where we were coming from, then we went in to the other parts and it was just great. It was so much fun and people hadn’t seen anything like it before that. I remember we actually performed it again and that was the one that was actually featured on the album; I think that the one that was made famous is the one on YouTube.

Nick: You have definitely worked a lot with DJ Shadow. More recently you were doing the Hard Sell tour and you guys picked Kid Koala to join you. How did that decision come about and were you very familiar with him before that?

Cut Chemist: I was, I was. He is one of my favorite performing DJ’s, if not my favorite performing Dj. Shadow was asking who we should bring on the road with us on tour and I said we should get Kid Koala, cause he is awesome! He is a great guy and he is a vinyl guy. At the time when Hard Sell was touring, Serato was kind of everywhere so it was harder and harder to find DJ’s that used vinyl. If there was anyone out there who could perform with vinyl and use turntablism with such creativity, it was Kid Koala. I remember the first show- actually it was the second one because we started in Texas, I think it was in Austin or Dallas that this happened -Shadow was watching him do his thing and he said to me, “he is a genius.” I said “I know, I know.” And yeah, that tour lasted forever man. We went all around the world on that.

Nick: Lets talk about another one of your amazing projects, how does it feel being back on tour with Jurassic 5?

Cut Chemist: Awesome. It has just been great. The shows are really good and everybody has been on-point. I don’t even know what more to say. It couldn’t be any better. It is just a dream come true!

Nick: I have to ask. Where did the idea for the giant turntable come from?

Cut Chemist: The giant turntable, [laughs] thank god I am friends with brilliant people. When Numark and I were talking about the DJ section of the show, we knew we wanted to do something that we had never done before- which is something we always try to do. That is actually something I always try to do with whatever I’m doing. He just said flat-out: “I want to scratch on a giant turntable.” I was like, “alright!” [laughs] Then we both said: “how are we gonna make it happen?” That was it.

Nick: It was definitely a nice centerpiece to the show. So was turntable guitar! Did that idea come about the same way?

Cut Chemist: [Laughs] Well we like building weird stuff. We built that big turntable and made this giant record that was controlled through MIDI I was like, “lets keep this going.” I took it even further cause I wanted to do some rock shit. I had been using the Columbia turntable around my neck as a turntable-guitar for a while now but you know, it’s not shaped like a guitar. This time I told myself that I wanted to make it an actual guitar so I had it built. Then I thought ‘well, what would drive the point even further than if I dressed like Angus Young and I ware shorts and converse?’ [Laughs] It worked because we originally wanted to wear suits so I was like, “that’s dope alright. If we’re wearing suits, I’m wearing shorts!”

Nick: Oh wow, that sounds amazing. Since being back with the crew, what has been your favorite show? 

Cut Chemist: You know all of them are good so it is hard to pin-point one of them but I would have to say London in Brixton Academy. It was probably my favorite because it was a headlining show, not a festival show, so we get to play for an hour and a half. The set we have for an hour and a half is great because we do so many old tracks. For some people it might be unexpected because we’re really famous for is stuff like Quality Control and Power in Numbers. It’s a lot of fun to perform those songs though because they are really great. We do several of them in our headlining show. Brixton was good, Coachella was awesome, Dour Festival in Belgium was really good. Yeah, we have done a bunch of shows [laughs].

Nick: As a performer in general, is there any show that tops your list of favorites?

Cut Chemist: My favorite show, well recently, was as Cut Chemist. It was a show I put together, an entire show actually. It was a package called Tunnel Vision and we did a little tour to Seattle, San Francisco, Orange County and Los Angeles. It was Mr. Lif, Edan and then myself, Edan and Mr. Lif performed together. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an Edan show, but it’s just crazy. It’s like one of the craziest hip hop shows I have ever seen. They DJ back and forth, one guy grabs the mic while the other guy is on the turntables, they rap together, beat box, play guitar, then Edan puts on a wig and plays the groove. It’s insane, It’s fucking insane. They would come up and rap during my set cause we have a few songs together. I also brought up Hymnal, Blackbird, Outro and Myka9. I had my full visual routine, I did “Sound of the Police”, it was just everything I could ever want to throw at an audience. It was awesome. Just incredible.

Nick: Looking back at your time as a DJ and record collector, do you have any unique stories you could share about digging?

Cut Chemist: Going record shopping with Biz Markie in my mom’s Caddy. That was fun. The two of us went around town in my moms ’72 Caddy De Ville with burgundy valor seats [laughs]. You know, I don’t know, shopping with that guy; you don’t even have to find anything to still have fun. We have found a bunch of stuff together though. Every time he comes into town, he calls me up and we go trade records or look for records and stuff.

Nick: With the times quickly changing the evolution and growth of hip hop is expanding faster than ever. What advice do you have to the next generation trying to stay true to the original formula and pass the culture on to the next generation?

Cut Chemist: Well, I think the technology is always going to change so it doesn’t matter what the medium is. It could be records, it could be software, I think it’s just important that people learn as much music as they can and listen to as much music as they can. Just know their musical history and share that. Share your discoveries with people and keep educating people with different kinds of music and never stop. That’s the main thing. Always keep digging for more music, whether you’re looking for MP3′s, listening to people’s SoundClouds, it doesn’t matter. Whether you are looking for records in a thrift store, just keep an open mind. Always keep in mind.

Nick: That is such amazing advice. Thank you so much for your time, today we really appreciate it.

Cut Chemist: Any time man! Thanks!