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Plan B

After Running Into A Legal Road Block, Mash-Up Pioneer Dj Z-Trip Shifts Gears For His Major-Label Debut

CUSTOM BLEND: Foiled by legalities, Dj Z-Trip went ahead and made his solo debut from scratch.

By Craig Smith | Posted 5/11/2005

Simultaneously spinning vinyl slabs of disparate artists like Janis Joplin and DJ Shadow was a sonic calling card that landed DJ Z-Trip oodles of live gigs and a Hollywood Records contract. But with his stellar big-league debut—the fantastically varied head-nodder Shifting Gears—you’ll find none of the intriguing blends that made him one of the globe’s most popular turntablists and a modern-day mash-up trendsetter.

Instead, the freshman set Z-Trip (born Zach Sciacca) wanted to concoct evolved into a nightmare for his label’s legal department. It was to be a revision of his benchmark 2001 collaboration with DJ P, Uneasy Listening. That unlicensed mix dazzled critics and fans by impeccably commingling conflicting tracks like Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” and pulsating hip-hop breakbeats. While most underground hip-hop spinners laced mix discs with a trendy Mos Def joint, Z-Trip and P experimented.

“The idea of me and P doing the CD together was we wanted to figure out a different way to present mixing to people,” Z-Trip recalls on the phone from Chicago’s House of Blues.

The disc landed them into an unexpected critical spotlight and gained Hollywood’s attention. (Adding to Z-Trip’s rep was a host of remix work and oodles of hype-filled live gigs that transfixed crowds internationally.) Freshly signed in 2002, Z-Trip’s plan was two-pronged: First, hit his audience with an album brimming with unorthodox blends, à la Uneasy Listening. Then, follow with a more traditional, self-produced hip-hop album. For a year, the Los Angeles-based DJ toiled away, but he was regularly rebuffed by lawyers and artists who weren’t interested in having entire songs sampled for blends.

“The legal team in the music industry didn’t know how to make it work,” Z-Trip says. “Therefore, every time I would try to submit something, you were dealing with an artist that had a huge catalog that didn’t necessarily need your involvement—like a Kansas. They didn’t need my work in their eyes, because they’re fine. But in my eyes, they needed me, because I had these young kids coming up to me at shows handing me Kansas records.”

Although Z-Trip claims to be rejuvenating Kansas’ fan base, the band from Topeka wouldn’t budge. Sting was one of the few willing to get his tunes cleared but, for God’s sake, he also gave the green light to P. Diddy. “For everyone that [got it], there were 20 people that didn’t get it,” Z-Trip laments. “And didn’t care to get it. Because they didn’t look at it as a lucrative thing. It was too new to them.”

After Hollywood’s legal team exhausted most of its options and Z-Trip nearly went bonkers, he put the kibosh on the album. For the man who regularly joined Joan Jett and Lynyrd Skynyrd with hip-hop tracks, major-label plans for his mash-ups were smashed up. However, Z-Trip flipped his script and shifted his opening missive to the masses. The result is Shifting Gears, a cohesive album spanning hip-hop’s history in a way that mirrors Z-Trip’s own musical upbringing. It begins with call-and-response hip-hop party joints with Soup from Jurassic 5 and veteran old-school Bronx rhymer Whipper Whip. Near its end, there’s more current fare, such as “Walking Dead” with nü-metal superhero Chester Bennington of Linkin Park.

The impetus to use pioneers such as Whipper Whip and also Grandmaster Caz in a spoken-word piece—“He wrote the rhymes to ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and never got any credit,” Z-Trip implores about Caz—came from his early years. Z-Trip’s first experiences with wax was as a Phoenix, Ariz., youngster who regularly rifled through his big brother’s rock vinyl collection. Z-Trip noticed jams from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin played nicely with, say, cuts he was already spinning from rap duo EPMD. While playing those rock joints initially cleared dance floors, they’ve become outrageously popular. Today, he likens his combos to the boundary-free sets spun decades ago by DJs such as Afrika Bambaataa.

“Those guys were taking rock records and mixing them in, and it made perfect sense for them,” he says. “But when I found it on my own, I didn’t necessarily know that that’s where they got some of the samples. Realizing after I found it that it was something that was natural and already been done before . . . made me feel like I was on the right path.”

After making his name in Phoenix with frequent DJ gigs and sporadic rap-act production work, he moved to Los Angeles and scored some of the choicest live slots a turntablist could ever garner, including a pair of Bonnaroo festival dates and a spot at 2003’s SARS benefit show in Toronto. In front of nearly a half-million folks out to eradicate SARS, Z-Trip spun between bands he himself often played in his own sets, like the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and Rush.

“It’s pretty weird, man,” he recalls of his time in command of a gargantuan audience. “You only hold it for a moment, but for that moment you feel like you’re the king of the world.”

Z-Trip’s unpredictable vinyl blends are flawless and always done live (no computerized syncing devices), but he’s also gained popularity from his voice. While he’s no Jay-Z, he’s mighty chatty at gigs, to the crowd’s delight.

“I’ve always felt that a DJ should be able to do all that shit,” he says. “Whether he’s cutting, scratching, talking, mixing, or directing a crowd—that whole interaction thing is crucial to hip-hop.”

For Z-Trip, what’s not crucial to hip-hop is lack of innovation. Since he and P helped elevate the blend, loads of amateur imitators have oversaturated the market and infuriated Z-Trip in the process. “What’s happening is, it’s devolving, it’s dissolving,” he says. “Now you have a lot of people who aren’t necessarily being creative. You get a lot of people who are playing, ‘Back in Black’ or ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ or ‘I Love Rock ’N Roll,’ but they’re not really doing anything clever. They’re not introducing new ways of doing it.” For the record, Z-Trip calls his mixes “blends” and tags the computerized pairings done with less effort “mash-ups.”

Launching something fresh, Z-Trip’s self-produced major-label bow is devoid of his trendy blends, but flooded with exhilarating jams. The track with Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, even for the anti-LP camp, is an entrancingly morbid ride. Lest folks think Z-Trip’s taking things too seriously, there’s an entire tune lovingly devoted to Saturday morning cartoons and sugar-blanketed cereal from guest MCs Murs and Supernatural. Later, Chuck D raps over a loop from German rockers Scorpions in “Shock and Awe,” a tune that Z-Trip is giddy over—mostly because the Public Enemy frontman calls out his name.

“It’s the coolest thing in the world. It’s like getting a brand-new bike for Christmas,” he says of the shout-out. “I’m going to scratch my name all the time with Chuck D saying it.”

While Shifting Gears might not have been his first choice, the in-demand DJ who one day hopes to produce rock albums might just add a new title to his arsenal of accolades—musician. “It was about me going, ‘Hey, guys, I can rock a party, but I can also make music.’”

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