Valley DJ Z-Trip is effectively at the top of the hip-hop game. He tours incessantly -- recently headlining the International B-Boy Battle of the Year in Hanover, Germany -- rocks raves in the Far East, and performs in different cities across the United States every weekend. Spinnamed Z-Trip's Bombshelter crew (which includes Radar and Emile) the ninth best turntablists in the world. URB Magazine, the bible of electronic music, praised him and Bombshelter in a lengthy profile this past fall.
Z-Trip is a prolific recording artist as well. He regularly puts out original compositions (including "Further Explorations Down the Black Hole," part of the Future Primitive Sound Sessions series) and remixes tracks by other artists (like Rush's "Tom Sawyer" from the Small Soldiers soundtrack, and a 12-inch remix of Divine Styler's "Microphenia"). He's also just completed a full-length CD with DJ P titled Uneasy Listening, where he reshapes familiar lite pop songs like "In the Air Tonight," "Like a Prayer" and "Rhinestone Cowboy," among others.
Z-Trip has a worldwide reputation for his diverse and bombastic mixes, unafraid to throw down any type of music -- from hip-hop, reggae and disco to rock or country. He's shared stages with Kid Rock, the Wu-Tang Clan, the Foo Fighters, At the Drive-In and countless others. In short, there's no better case study (locally, at least) to gauge the current state of DJing than Z-Trip.
In an effort to get a firsthand view of the working life of one of the top hip-hop record spinners, the Sprawl accompanied Z-Trip on a weekend jaunt, first to Portland, Oregon, to headline at a dance hall/hip-hop club, then to Cypress Hill's Smokeout Festival in San Bernardino, California, where Z-Trip shared the stage with a bevy of big-name acts like Limp Bizkit, Gang Starr, Redman and Erick Sermon, and Pennywise. The two shows were a study in contrasts, and illustrate the perpetual ups and downs that are common to the career of a solo artist pursuing his life's obsession. As you'll see, the view from the top isn't quite what you might expect.
Thursday, 12 noon Sitting in a Sky Harbor Airport lounge next to our gate, Z-Trip's spirits are high anticipating the adventures of the next three days. He has his Japanese battery-operated portable turntable on the bar top, gleefully playing 45s, pointing out which ones are sampled on popular hip-hop records. Z-Trip's packing an industrial-size suitcase, which holds his clothes as well as a mixer and sub-mixer, three steel-reinforced record crates that weigh 63.5 pounds each, and two stuffed record bags that tip in at 40 pounds apiece. The airlines charge an extra $40 for each bag over 65 pounds, so the crates' weight is not accidental. Z-Trip is flying Southwest, because it's the only airline that allows three bags and two carry-ons per passenger.
Thursday, 5 p.m. As we arrive in the Portland airport, one record crate is missing from our claimed baggage. I come down with a slight feeling of guilt; just as we were boarding in Phoenix, I asked Z-Trip if the airlines had ever lost his records. He simply knocked on the wooden rail we were leaning on.
We're told there's another flight arriving from Phoenix in a few minutes, but that the missing crate is probably on the 9:15 p.m. flight. So we wait in front of the baggage carousel as Z-Trip plays a Nextmen 12-inch on his portable phonograph.
The early flight's baggage arrives, but the missing crate is nowhere to be found. Z-Trip's overwhelmed by record-loss paranoia; though Southwest has never lost his bags before, he can't shake the anxiety. Thankfully, the crate shows up on the delayed 9:15 flight, which finally arrives sometime after 10. For the trouble, Trip is rewarded with a $50 voucher, which will help next time his luggage is over the weight limit.
Friday, 4:20 p.m. Checking into the Radisson Hotel following a night of hanging out with some of Z-Trip's Portland homeys is a hell of an ordeal; the bell staff can't find a cart for us to transport the 300-plus pounds of luggage up to our room on the seventh floor. Of course, as soon as we walk back down to the lobby, there's a cart sitting there, begging to be used. New crisis: Z-Trip's left his cell phone charger at home. For Z the loss of his cell phone is a crippling blow. We're on a limited time schedule -- we have reservations at the Bombay Cricket Club at 5 p.m. for Indian food with some Phoenician ex-pats -- but several frantic calls are made to Sprint stores in Portland. Unfortunately, the nearest place only has chargers of the car-lighter variety. It'll have to do, so with minutes to spare we drive through rush-hour traffic to the store, Z-Trip yelling out the window at pedestrians, "I gotta get the fuck downtown now!" We arrive, make them look one last time for an AC charger, but it's hopeless. It appears we'll spend the weekend hunting for willing car-lighter donors.
As soon as the charger's plugged in, Z-Trip's phone starts ringing: Canadian promoters are on the line trying to get him to discount his fee for an upcoming rave. Z-Trip gets down to business quickly, telling the man, "Get to the point, talk to me, let's go," then explaining that the numbers issues are their problem; there's no way he's cutting his fee.
Friday, 7 p.m. Inside the venue, Sege's, for sound check, and Z-Trip is as hands-on as they come. He's standing in the middle of the room listening to the system, directing the sound guys, scratching his records from the front side of the tables. This approach extends to every aspect of his career; Z-Trip books his own shows, handles his own PR, and acts as his own tour manager. While he sound-checks, the promoter, Ron Enright, tells me that in his opinion Z-Trip is the finest experimental DJ working today. This from a guy who regularly deals with artists like Biz Markie, Mixmaster Mike, and the X-ecutioners.
After cruising the streets of downtown Portland to kill some time, we return to Sege's, and Z-Trip takes the stage a little before midnight. The club is primarily a dance hall and reggae venue, and Z-Trip spins accordingly. Alongside the Jamaican strains, Z-Trip throws on tracks like "Dust in the Wind," Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle," some AC/DC and a little Van Halen. A crew of hard-core reggae/dance-hall heads in the audience repeatedly request the same songs, causing Z-Trip to turn the music down and take the microphone. "Listen, I play what the fuck I want to play; if you don't like it, there's the door. Feel free to use it." The majority of the crowd roars its approval, while a handful of patrons leave the venue, one girl flipping off Z-Trip as she leaves. He smiles and raises his finger to return the salute. The show's not overwhelmingly packed -- there are about 200 people in attendance -- but the crowd is dancing furiously, and Z-Trip's working the room with a steady stream of smooth segues.
We finally leave the club and get back to the hotel at 4 a.m. Our wake-up call is for 6 in the morning, at which point we haul our exhausted asses and increasingly cumbersome gear back to the Portland airport and board a flight to Ontario, California.
Saturday, 12 noon We arrive at the Ontario airport, but there's no one to pick us up and drive us to the venue in San Bernardino, some 40 miles away. Z-Trip is frantically calling the promoters. He walks out of the terminal and looks at his watch, realizing he'll soon be due on the second stage of the Smokeout. Eventually, an obliging promoter rings back and tells us to call the Radisson Hotel in San Bernardino who'll send a van to get us. We end up at the airport for two hours waiting for the ride. On the drive over, we pass a highway billboard for Starburst candy that depicts a young DJ spinning large slices of fruit -- the turntablist's place in pop culture cemented in a single capitalistic snapshot.
At the hotel, we wait impatiently for another ride, this one to the venue. Z-Trip is supposed to play in between the main stage acts for the first third of the day, but by the time we've made it to the hotel, the show's been going on for a couple hours. Z-Trip assumes that the slots have been switched, with DJ Swamp (Beck's DJ) holding the early shift and Tony Touch, the third main-stage DJ, taking the evening shift. Eventually, a Chevy Rambler stretch limousine shows up, and we're carted off to DJ Hell.
Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Inside the backstage gate of the National Orange Show Fairgrounds, no one knows where we're supposed to go, and it's not easy to go anywhere while carting around several hundred pounds of records and equipment. We're told the DJs are playing in the sound tower situated in the middle of the 50,000-plus crowd. Enlisting a couple workers to grab record crates, we head down a narrow cable-strewn corridor in the center of the crowd, blocked off by barricades and guarded by security hacks every five feet. When we reach the tower, we're directed to an empty plank one level off the ground. The space is completely empty. There's nothing in it except for a bit of leftover pyrotechnic equipment -- no power, no turntables, no monitors, nothing. Apparently, there's been no main-stage DJ thus far, no sign of Swamp anywhere.
Immediately, Z-Trip decides the location won't work and directs one of the staff members to call the stage manager and tell him "no fucking way, it's gotta be on the main stage." This time there's no one to help haul the gear back through the crowd, so Z-Trip loads the two record crates and mixer onto his mini-dolly, I hoist a record bag on each shoulder, plus backpack, with my hands clutching the shoebox containing the sub-mixer as we navigate back toward the main stage. Z-Trip's pulling the dolly, but since we're going over cables and the legs of the barricades, I've gotta keep one hand on the crates as they wobble back and forth. We're almost to the stage stairs when the inevitable happens -- the crates tip and crash. They're heavy duty, so it's not disastrous, but it draws a frustrated "Fuck!" from Z-Trip. We carry the gear up the stairs up onto the main stage and pile them up behind a stack of monitors. I'm asked to guard the items with my life while Z-Trip finds the stage manager and attempts to figure out what's going on.
Saturday, 6 p.m. The turntables are finally set up and plugged in, and Z-Trip hits the wax after Gang Starr's set; there's been no word about Swamp or Tony Touch for quite some time. Z-Trip scratches for a minute, then jumps on the mike, asks the crowd how they're feeling, then inquires, "How many of y'all are high as fuck?" They respond exuberantly to Z-Trip's inquiry.
Next, he throws on a bit of Rage Against the Machine as a churning mosh pit develops in front of the stage. Just as Z-Trip blends Rage into a Dr. Dre track, the stage manager abruptly tells him that Redman's coming on, now, and the set halts.
After Redman finishes, Z-Trip throws on some dance hall, which the kids don't seem especially receptive to -- we're talking about 50,000 white suburban teenagers with backward baseball caps who are really here to see Limp Bizkit. He starts mixing LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out" and the crowd gets moving; the kids up front are a captive audience as they're pressed firmly against the steel barricades. As Z-Trip plays, Pennywise's equipment is wheeled onstage and green laser lights shoot through the dim dusk of the sky. Z-Trip blows the crowd away as he juggles the opening riffs and dog barks of Jane's Addiction's "Been Caught Stealin'," which eventually fades into Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" -- even the crew members onstage are bouncing to the beats. Following the theme of the day, he throws on a country song whose lyric begins "Up in smoke, that's where my money goes," but the crowd can't hear the words because the techs have begun testing the instrument levels.
Eventually, Z-Trip gives up mixing and just lets the records play -- he can't hear anything over the sound check. The stage is cleared, Z-Trip ends his set, and Pennywise comes on. Z-Trip packs the records back up and Tony Touch starts getting his out, but it'll be of little use. After Pennywise finishes, Touch gets to play only a couple of records before being told that the DJ setup's gotta go, we're done.
We get the records and mixers packed, and we're herded to the rear ramp of the stage by overenthusiastic rent-a-thugs eager to clear the way for Limp Bizkit. We don't want anything but to get the hell back to the hotel, eat, and go to sleep, but in the absence of a suitable transport to move our considerable gear, it takes another hour to reach the rear gate.
Once there, we're again confronted with transportation issues. We call the hotel and they promise to send someone soon. Standing just inside the rear gate, we bump into DJ Swamp, who's been here since 9 a.m. and hasn't even set foot on the stage, much less put a record on. He tells Z-Trip about his recent attempts at MCing and offers to bust some rhymes for us. The tall, pale longhair with black nail polish raps a couple songs, reading lyrics off his Palm Pilot. One has a chorus that goes "If God was a DJ/What record would he play?"
After the exhausting, frustrating and sometimes harrowing experiences of the past few days, one thing seems perfectly clear: If there is a God, he ain't no DJ. Front man for a rap/metal combo maybe, but the good Lord's standard of living is too damn high to be a turntablist.