Cut Chemist technically hasn’t released a new “artist album” in over a decade. A founding member of hip-hop royalty, Jurassic 5, Cut Chemist has worked with a multitude of artists, including DJ Shadow and Ozomatli. Luckily, 2018 is the year one of the most influential DJs in the genre releases the follow-up to his excellent debut The Audience’s Listening.
Die Cast is set for a March 2 release and features appearances by Biz Markie, Deantoni Parks, Tune-Yards, Mr. Lif, Edan, DNTEL, Hymnal and more. In addition to premiering the dizzying new video for “Metalstorm,” the album’s lead-off track, we had the opportunity to speak with Cut Chemist about directing the clip, his love of breakdancing culture and maybe a tidbit about Jurassic 5.
The song features rappers Edan and Mr. Lif reprising their roles in “Storm” from The Audience’s Listening. Much like the previous song, “Metalstorm” is a complexly layered piece of music from Cut Chemist. It begins with clattering noise over a persistently funky beat. Once the MCs appear on the scene, rapidly trading verses, the beat subsides to a steady groove. Cut Chemist directed the video for the song, which features the two rappers’ faces given artistic, collage-like treatments amid a shifting sequence of images.
mxdwn: Your new record Die Cut is your first in 12 years but you always have your hands in some kind of project. What was the reason for such a long wait between solo albums?
Cut Chemist: The one thing that people fail to realize is that I’ve put out a bunch of things, but this is the second “artist” record. I like to do different things, like mixed projects, mixed tracks on vinyl and things like that just to get back to my roots. I’ve always liked to do mega-mixes and a lot of people don’t really do that anymore as releases. For things like Sound of the Police, those were a cassette-era mix that I did. But I feel that it was time for me to say something as an artist, something more personal, something that challenged myself and what people are used to me making. I wanted to do all those.
I think it took me a long time, mostly because I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. It took me a little bit of time to put it together and figure out a way to present it. A lot of people might be scratching their heads like “Why did he do this?”, or “Why is he playing guitar?” It makes sense, not on first listen, but if you listen to interviews and stuff, I’ll probably go around and it will make sense. Especially with the videos and the visual representation content I have accompanying it, it’ll all make sense.
mxdwn: We recently had a chance to listen to your new track “Metalstorm.” How did the song and collaboration with Edan and Mr. Lif come together?
CC: It’s actually a sequel to the song “Storm” which appeared on my first record and featured my friends Edan and Lif. It’s the first song on the album, so it picks up where The Audience is Listening left off. Well… maybe not left off, but it certainly gives you something familiar to wet the palette as you dive into this new world of Cut Chemist. It gives you something that is similar but very different. It has the same sample source as the original “Storm” song, which is a French proto-industrial group called Vox Populi!.
I wanted to feature them and feature the same guys to have the same sound, but still doing something different because Edan and Lif are trading verses versus the first song where they had individual verses. Obviously, the music that I sampled from Vox is quite darker, it’s not quite as club ready, more of an apocalyptic take on what “Storm” was, hence the name “Metalstorm.” It was actually the first song that I recorded for the album.
mxdwn: What was the vibe like getting behind the camera and directing the video?
CC: It was very long. It was an idea that I had in college. I graduated from UCLA Arts School with a focus on what they called New Genres which was multi-media, performance, video — everything that isn’t 2D visual art. It was basically just me projecting on different surfaces and filming it and cutting it together to make a video. I always wanted to expand that, so when I shot Edan and Lif in New York, just in front of a white screen, I thought to myself, “How am I gonna make this video interesting?” I thought maybe this is my chance to take that footage that I shot and project it, much like that idea I had in art school.
I asked various editors ‘”How do I make this interesting” and I asked them if they would like to be involved. I got no’s across the board, with a myriad of reason why they didn’t want to do it. So, I was just like, fuck it. I guess I’ll just have to do it. I just started going down this rabbit hole. It took me a long time to figure out how to do it. I had people help me shoot the projections, borrowing cameras from different directors. It took me the better part of a year to put it together.
I realized that I could project on walls that have blemishes on them, project on water with plaster in it, project on smoke, project on whatever weird thing was in front of me. From there I started doing snapshots and stills and Xeroxing each still and then animating that. I would take a still, cut it up, and put it back together, and blow it apart again. The opening scene of the video of Edan is me burning the surface that he is being projected on and then I reversed it so it came together in a flame. It just became fun.
My favorite part is the climax which is the album cover projecting on different album covers. For all the train spotters and diggers out there, you’ll have fun with that last verse. I’m really excited that this was the first video. I don’t know if I am retired as a director but I certainly could be.
mxdwn: You have been DJing for three decades and got started at a very young age. What drove you to want to be a musician, particularly a DJ?
CC: It was really simple, it wasn’t really anything to do with wanting to DJ as an art form. I always thought I wanted to be more into something that had to do with drawing. I probably was going to be a production designer for the movies, which is what I was going for when I was that young. I started DJing because I got into breakdancing. Breakdancing crossed over into the mainstream when I was 12 and I started seeing people spinning on their heads. I saw movies like Breakin’ and I embraced the culture and every element of that culture like breakdancing and graffiti. Even before that I liked to collect records when I was young. I was always buying records.
In 1985/86 I kind of left the breakdancing behind as it phased out from the mainstream and found the passion that I stuck to out of the elements of hip-hop and that was DJing. And graffiti a little bit, because I like to draw still. But I hung onto DJing, because I listened to the radio a lot and learning how to scratch by listening to the radio because you didn’t have tutorial videos back then. I just kept buying records and it was in 1987 that I switched from wanting to just be a DJ to making records.
I became fascinated with groups like The Jungle Brothers. I wasn’t a drum machine guy or a gear guy. I wasn’t into making records that way, but when I saw that you could make records out of old records I said to myself, “I have old records, that sounds like something I could do.” I borrowed my dads’s four track and my friend’s sampler and started making little mixes with samples and old records. I slowly built my arsenal and I met Chali 2na and Marc 7 and we started making demos and that was pretty much it from there.
mxdwn: I’ve always thought that DJs are these great curators of sound. Many DJs are utilizing more computers and software programs to record and perform live. As a DJ in the hip-hop and electronic world where do you see the future of electronic music going?
CC: What people are doing now in the trap world, I dig it because it reminds me of the beats I was spinning back in the mid-’80s, some of that Miami bass stuff, because everything is 808 right now. There is something really familiar about it and I really love it. As far as the rap part of where rap music is going, obviously that’s not very similar to what was going on in the ’80s. But there is some good stuff too. There’s a ton of great underground rap that is going on right now and a lot of forward-thinking stuff. Production-wise it’s very interesting and I’m really excited about it. I love playing new stuff.
mxdwn: You have a radio program called “The Stable Sounds” that you curate. How did the radio program come together?
CC: Producing a radio show was always something that I wanted to do as a kid. I grew up with the Red Alert shows in New York. I loved how it always sounded like a party on the air. Dublab.com internet radio hit me up, they have been doing it since 1998 I believe, and they’re local. They asked me if I wanted to do a show and I said “Let’s do it.” There are tons of music that I want to share with people.
The first show I did was my birthday party on the air. It was a four and a half hour episode with tons of guests that was a party in a box. From there, the second episode, I had Egyptian Lover and I started getting all these guests. My assistant and I, who helps me run the label A Stable Sound, said it was a good look and we would have fun doing it. We feature different artists and guests to talk about their legacy as it pertains to hip-hop and what I was drawn to over the years. It’s still going.
We have different themes; the last one we did was with photographer B+ and his new book Ghost Notes and the music that he dug up on his journeys where he took pictures that appeared in the book. It was almost like an audio journey of the photographs in the book which was a lot of fun.
mxdwn: I can’t in good conscience leave this conversation without asking you about Jurassic 5. You guys last worked together in 2016, is there any new music on the horizon?
CC: I will say this — I have started making new beats for a new Jurassic 5 project… and it’s been a while since I made a rap beat, “Metalstorm” was probably the last one I made. I was a little nervous to see if I could get back on the horse and it was pretty easy and I’m having a lot of fun with it. I’m really excited to get that project off the ground. So… we’re talking about it and people are coming up with some new ideas.
mxdwn: You’re gonna make a lot of people happy with both Die Cut and new Jurassic 5.
CC: It’s funny because I really need both projects. I use the one to feed the other. I need to do weird late-night jam session type shit in order to exist in the world that people know me for, which is funky rap beats. The next Cut Chemist record, who knows, I’m already writing for that one and it’s just gonna get even weirder.
mxdwn: What’s next for Cut Chemist?
CC: Lots of touring. I am hoping to be as busy as possible promoting the Die Cut record. I have a whole bunch of studio sessions that were documented and I have tons more videos to put out, not directed by me, but other people. It should give you a wide palette of visual representation of all this weird music I’m making.