DJ Z-Trip loves the purity of real DJing. He grew up admiring Kool DJ Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, how they would mix material of different musical genres into a seamless flow.
Today, Z-Trip is credited as one of the original mash-up DJs. Fresh off his Austin and Red Bull Thre3Style performances, DJ Z-Trip explains what it was like being an aspiring DJ growing up in Arizona, what he dislikes about modern DJs and where the future of turntablism might be heading.
LL Cool J was a surprise performer at your Austin show. What was it like being his DJ for his performance and what did you learn from him?
It was extremely comfortable, almost felt like we'd done it many times before. It just flowed. I think we both come from a place where we know this music and how to arrange it and perform it, so it all came naturally. LL is real open-minded too, so it made for an even better collaboration.
The Red Bull Thre3Style events focus on the DJ. What impact do you think they have on the DJ scene around the world?
I think they are bringing the art of mixing back. In the past, a lot of DJ competitions mainly focused on the five-minute routine, which almost always focused on scratching and beat juggling. A DJ wouldn’t have much of a chance to show off their mixing skills. With the Thre3Style event, it’s a 15-minute competition, so it allows for that, as well as still allowing the other skills to shine, too. On top of that, it also asks for a DJ to dig deeper into other styles of music, which is a great thing.
I’ve always felt Arizona DJ’s are some of the best out there.
Your appearance at the Red Bull Thre3Style event in Arizona is a homecoming of sorts, since you grew up in Arizona. How do you think the up-and-coming DJs in Arizona are different from other DJs you come across?
Glad you asked. I’ve always felt Arizona DJ’s are some of the best out there. There are a couple reasons for that. First, DJ’s like myself, and a few others, set the standard from the start. If you wanted to enter the arena, you had to be good or better than us, period. Second, you have to understand that early on, we had very few artists/DJ’s coming through town. We weren't really a major city for Hip Hop/Electronic shows, so there wasn't much of an outside influence. Out of necessity, we had to throw our own shows, form our own record stores and labels, and over time we just developed our own sound and style.
So what was the DJ scene like in Arizona when you were coming up?
It was there, but you had to really search for it. Again, we didn't have big radio shows to hear new stuff. The mixtape game was pretty much how you got put up on brand new stuff, or you would go to parties and after hours clubs to hear other DJ’s. We were small and on our own. Everyone knew each other. We were all friends. All styles of music, too. The scene was so small that we embraced what we had. I think that also helped us to keep open minds to all styles of music.
What made DJing something that appealed to you as a kid coming up in Arizona?
I actually grew up between New York and Arizona, as my parents were divorced. So I got to experience it all from a unique perspective. I got turned on to Hip Hop and DJing in New York, I bought a lot of my records there and would come back to Arizona and play ‘em for people. These were really specific records at the time, some you just couldn’t get in Arizona because hip-hop was such a regional thing back then. So I would have all these exclusive tunes. I loved the idea of bringing music to people who might not have heard it otherwise. There were other DJs in Arizona who were doing the same thing with California records. But when it came to New York stuff, I had a leg up.
Our scene was small but it was dope. We were smashing the "country, way out west" stereotype most people had when they thought of Arizona.
What was the atmosphere like when rappers would tour in Arizona when you were just a fan? Did you go to all the shows? Were they packed? Who impressed you? Who disappointed you?
Eventually we started getting artists to come through more often. I would say a huge reason for that was due to a friend, Ty Carter of TMC Presents. He realized there was a market for it, and eventually became the go to guy for Hip Hop shows in Arizona. He'd always have me DJ the shows too, so it allowed me to connect with lots of artists. I remember a few groups coming through for sound check and have the attitude of "WTF am I doing in Arizona?" Then I would see them after the show with their heads blown. Our scene was small but it was dope. We were smashing the "country, way out west" stereotype most people had when they thought of Arizona.
Public Enemy famously had the song "By The Time I Get To Arizona," which discussed the state's refusing to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What was your reaction to the song and to that situation?
For every step forward our scene was making, we’d have some dumb shit like that happen that would smash everyone’s perspective. I was happy Public Enemy addressed it, ‘cause it needed addressing no doubt. Our Governor at the time was just a moron. I was pissed because that sort of ignorance was representing the place I called home. It’s sad because there are still people in power in Arizona who make it really difficult for everyone else. They keep the stereotype alive and well, and it's a shame.
You were one of the early modern-day practitioners of what would become the mash-up scene. What did you learn from some of the early hip-hop DJs that played multiple genres of music in their sets, such as Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and DJ Jazzy Jay?
Those dudes are the blueprint for what I do. I took what they did and just tried to expand on it. It’s a simple rule, though: incorporate all styles of music. It’s funny how at one point we got far away from that. I’m just happy to see it all come back around again. I’m hearing more and more people trying different things these days.
Why do you think music become so segregated, where people only liked one sound or style of music?
I think it was due to people getting exposed to something and liking it so much, that they turned off the other receptors to everything else. Eventually over time, people get bored with that one thing and start to experiment again. It was only a matter of time before their minds were open again.
How does your love of a wide range of music impact your work as a producer?
It allows me to draw from anywhere. My creative palate is huge from knowing, studying and playing different styles of music. The time signatures, the melodies, it all plays a part. The bigger my knowledge of all styles of music, and the cultures they come from, only helps me expand on any direction I take.
What did you learn about making music and the music business with your Uneasy Listening and Shifting Gears albums?
It’s always better to do it yourself. Independence is priceless. Trust your gut, and put out music for the sake of it being heard, and all else will follow. I’ve found labels tend to get in the way of the process.
As for stuff I listen to on my off time, it's mostly always dub music and reggae or heavy metal. It depends on my mood.
What is your favorite music to play while you’re doing a set and what is your favorite music to listen to when you want to relax or chill?
I’ve always gravitated to mid- to down-tempo instrumental beats that have a lot of bass in them. As for stuff I listen to on my off time, it's mostly always dub music and reggae or heavy metal. It depends on my mood.
Serato revolutionized the DJ game a few years ago. What were the positive and negative impacts of Serato on the DJ world?
Positive: Well, the obvious not having to carry four record crates to every show definitely helps! But the biggest thing is having access to all of your music at any time. Being able to play things you’ve made or been given instantly is also a plus. Having good clean digital copies of tunes that were once on very scratchy records is great, too. But sometimes I do miss the sound of vinyl, not gonna lie.
Negative: The biggest downside in my opinion is it’s made lazy DJs even lazier. A lot of people are letting the technology do all the work. It's also made a lot of DJs sound the same. There is also the fact that anybody can be a “DJ” now, and play out in public sooner than someone who, back in the day, was slowly putting there sound and record arsenal together. A trained ear can tell the difference between a real DJ and a beginner, or a fake, but for most that line is blurred. And it’s lowering the overall “quality” due to the learning curve that is happening in the club versus the bedroom. Eventually I think it will level off, but right now it's a little off balance.
How do you see turntablism evolving in the next few years?
I think it will continue to evolve as long as people take chances on everything. Embrace new technology, music, etc. I’d like to think that skill will still play a huge roll in performance though, but I’m not sure. It’s real easy for people to do all the hard work in the studio these days, and do minimal work on stage. It’s crazy to think how much technology has played a role in DJing, though. Who would have thought 10 years ago we’d all be DJing with computers, right? Crazy. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that I think “vinyl only” nights will be the next big thing.
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