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45 KINGS: dj shadow and cut chemist fall into the big hole in the middle at sonar.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 1/30/2008

Lovers of vinyl have to tip their hats to DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. Their "Hard Sell" tour makes a noble argument for its survival in the face of, well, every medium that's come since. If the execution is technically confounding, the idea behind it is simple: eight turntables (with four mixers and a delay pedal), two DJs, and a couple of crates of old 45s, the little seven-inch guys with the big hole in the middle. Now 45s are pressed mainly for collectors and fetishists, but they were once pressed because they were a dominant form of distributing music.

And because Chemist and Shadow's collection is mostly old 45s dug out of crates over the duo's combined 30 years of turntablism, they might not be the best argument, at least not in Sonar's large room with its booming sound system. Maybe it was the low-quality of record pressing decades ago, or maybe these records were just played to shit-or some combination of the two-but the 45s sounded near-awful compared to newly pressed vinyl or, heaven forbid, digital music. For DJs known best for spinning hip-hop and soundscape-y downtempo music, the old records played were skewed so painfully toward shrill high frequencies that the PA must have felt downright embarrassed. Given that, the night felt more like a defense of crate-digging than vinyl itself, which has plenty of other arguments in its favor that don't include nostalgia.

It was hard to get past the evening's hyperbole: eight turntables? What was being used/mixed was hard to discern. Cameras were trained on the tables and the goings-on were projected, sometimes, behind the stage, but the remote camerawork was hard to follow. And it sure didn't sound like more than three records were ever being mixed, and for a long stretch in the middle of the roughly 90-minute set it sounded like there was only one record-think '70s funk/soul collector's items-spinning at a time, with some scratching . And scratching notably tears vinyl to hell.

The records themselves weren't terribly remarkable: old De La Soul, a Doors track, an exceptionally cool mix between the Gilligan's Island theme and "Stairway to Heaven." The highlight was, hands down, a mind-boggling mix-up of the communication tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Beyond that, once you got past the DJs' deft scratch skills, the set-and the crowd-just got boring. An encore consisting of Cut Chemist and Shadow battling it out with some kind of wearable-as in, strapped to their bodies-turntables and mixers like a hair-metal riff duel was funny, albeit in that way where you weren't really sure if they totally got the joke.

And DJ Shadow looks lost enough as it is. His last record, The Outsider, was utterly incoherent, flailing in a way that made it sound like he'd suddenly realized he'd lost touch with contemporary music and needed to prove to the world he hadn't. The "Hard Sell" itself isn't a new idea. The duo did essentially the same thing with 1999's fantastic live mix record Brain Freeze, making last week's performance somewhat less convincing. For an artist who's made a couple of the best DJ records ever, that's a very depressing thing.

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