By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
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The following is a sad story, in a sense. Not for its protagonist, former Valley resident and much-ballyhooed turntable artist DJ Z-Trip, because this is the story of his triumphs. It's a story about the machinations of success in the music industry, the story of a Phoenix boy who moved to Los Angeles and found his part of the American Rock-Star Dream. The sadness is this: It didn't happen here. It couldn't have happened here.
On February 20, Z-Trip returns for one night to appear at America West Arena with Linkin Park and Cypress Hill, groups he's been touring with for the past month on the extremely successful Projekt Revolution tour. It's one hell of a homecoming for Z-Trip, formerly Phoenix's most notorious turntablist, now another jewel in L.A.'s tarnished and battered crown.
Late summer of last year, inside Z-Trip's modest Scottsdale home, crates of records were stacked floor to ceiling in every room, alongside cartons of paperwork, magazines, CDs, and various detritus. The only walking space was around his Mac G4 and its accomplices (samplers, processors, MIDI equipment, twin Technics, Vestax mixer, etc.) in his dining room studio. Days later, all of the above was crammed into two Ryder trucks for the ride to Los Angeles.
L.A. wasn't always Z-Trip's destination. He had long planned to relocate to Portland, Oregon, but advice from management, attorneys and his professional peers convinced him to rethink and steer toward the industry's black hole, the City of Angels.
Shortly after the relocation, in October to be exact, Z-Trip found himself on the road with fellow Angelenos Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow on their Product Placement tour. It was a concept adventure where only 45s dropped onto the wheels, with Chemist and Shadow sharing the stage for their 2X4 set. (A studio version of their set is available on the limited-edition import Product Placement CD, a sequel of sorts to their January 2000 Brainfreeze show and CD.) "That shit was fuckin' gnarly, man," Z-Trip succinctly puts it.
The tour hit Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Glasgow, Manchester, London, and Japan, all dates sold out. Surprisingly, Z-Trip came close to overshadowing the headliners. His party rockin' sets were praised in the press, while Cut Chemist and Shadow's sets were less user-friendly (but phenomenal regardless). Chalk it up to Z's burgeoning status as Rock God; while the main act went for obscure funk and rare grooves stirred together with a saucier's skill, Z-Trip rocked the crowd with mixes the audience could recognize, from the Beatles to Joan Jett to Black Sabbath.
"It's two different things," he explains. "Their stuff went over some people's heads 'cause it's so deep; it's something you've gotta listen to four or five times to figure it out. When you're seeing it for the first time, it's so much skill and information comin' through that you don't get it. And my shit, on the other hand, was on some 'Let's just set this party off and have a good time, rock the house.'"
DJ as rock star? It's happening. If you've heard Z-Trip and DJ P's limited-release CD Uneasy Listening, you know. . . . Pat Benatar mixed with the Pharcyde, Metallica with Midnight Oil, Bruce Hornsby with Run-D.M.C. But these days that's not the half of it; Z-Trip's got a whole new arsenal of familiar but transmogrified favorites.
That sort of trickery isn't the extent of his talents by any means. His scratching makes other DJs sniff, but it's goddamn hard not to feel. That's what earned him Turntablist of the Year in Urb magazine's 2001 Contributor's Poll, and launched Uneasy Listening into the same magazine's Top 20 albums of the year. "Y'know, I paid them 50 bucks and it put me all over that magazine, dude," he laughs. "Went a long way with that 50 bucks, I'm pretty stoked."
If you need more rocker credentials, look no farther than his fan and recent collaborator Tommy Lee. When the new Methods of Mayhem album hits, Hessians worldwide will hear Z-Trip's cuts; when Z-Trip's studio album is released, you'll likely hear Tommy Lee's beats.
All this propulsion has landed Z-Trip exactly where he wanted to be: signed to a major label with a sweetheart deal any artist would envy. After coming within inches of signing with Astralwerks (home to Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers), he inked a five-album deal with Hollywood Records (a Disney subsidiary) for, in his words, "more than I was looking for. Let's just say I'm not eatin' fuckin' ramen noodles anymore."
The package is quite amazing: Z-Trip retains his vinyl rights, and can release vinyl as he sees fit. He's also able to independently release recordings, up to 10,000 copies, with no interference from Hollywood, and as icing on the cake, he gets his own (as-yet-unnamed) label imprint under Hollywood. In a nutshell: Z-Trip not only gets paid Disney money, he gets to pay Disney money to artists he respects and wants to support.
"The first album's gonna be a mix CD," he tells us. "Like Uneasy Listening, but with everything cleared, everything sorted. And then the next album after that is the studio album, which I've been waiting years and years to make. I've had songs done for two, three years that I haven't wanted to put out until I release my album. I just didn't want to do it out of my own pocket." He's enlisted a swarm of big-name talent to assist on the record: Jurassic 5's Chali 2na and Cut Chemist, Cypress Hill's Eric Bobo, Tommy Lee, and DJ Shadow.
With the ink on his contract still drying, Z-Trip secured his spot on the Projekt Revolution tour, DJing before and between sets by Adema, Cypress Hill, and nu-metal rap hotshots Linkin Park. Of the latter, Z-Trip says, "I think they kinda get the hip-hop and rock mix, they really get it. That's why it works well having me on here; the crowd's open to what I'm doing. They're good because they ride the line really well, the fine line. When I very first heard their record I didn't give it as much of a chance as I should have, and the more I listen to it the more I'm like, 'It is good.' I have such a fuckin' filter on hating half the shit that comes out just for the mere fact that it's . . . the companies, the record labels are just pumping the fuckin' airwaves full of shit. Every so often you get a good band or whatever that breaks through like these guys. They broke through, and that's a good thing."
The stadium tour has taken him through America's nether regions, towns like Madison, Wisconsin, and Colorado Springs, towns like Wichita, Kansas. Rocking a Linkin Park crowd in Wichita would be daunting for most any turntablist, but Z-Trip's not on that list. "Because of the crowd I've made it a little more rock based -- rock anthems," he explains. "Big fuckin' rock-style show. If people are comin' to see me play shit like I usually play at my own shows, it's not gonna be the same thing. I'm taking it a different route. The cool thing about this tour is it's opened doors that wouldn't ordinarily be open. Playing in Wichita or wherever, playing to these kids, selling my CDs to them. If I can open up 30 people in each venue to my thing and they spread it on, that opens up more doors.
"A lot of these kids have no fuckin' idea what I'm doing, at all, and I kind of like it like that. I'm almost more down for the challenge of rocking this kind of crowd and pulling it off than I am to do a hip-hop crowd where I know I can pull it off, 'cause I've done it. I don't think anyone's ever heard this kind of flavor, this direct, in places like this. So it's really fun to see reactions of people and hit people over the head that wouldn't normally expect to see a guy mixing Green Day and Dead Prez together."
In a matter of days, Z-Trip will be playing for his hometown crowd, for his friends and his mom and his sister and nephews and niece, which he is, to borrow a phrase, fucking ecstatic about; and you can expect a little nut-grabbing.
"I'm so stoked to be playing back in Phoenix. You know who I want to see that shit? All the fuckin' dickhead managers that I used to work for when I used to work at places like Bobby McGee's and Jets and Stixx; I want them to see me over here, 'cause there's some of those fools that had no clue. I want to sock it to them, a big fat 'fuck you' for holding me down, making me tuck my shirt in, and having to wear a fuckin' tie. I can't wait to just get on the mike and be like, 'Yo, Phoenix, say my name,' whatever. Comin' home is one of the best things."
After the tour concludes, shortly after the Phoenix date, preparations for the new albums begin, and soon Z-Trip will hit the road again with a collection of many of the greatest hip-hop turntablists in America in support of the Doug Pray documentary Scratch, in which he's featured. It's but another notch in the headboard of his career, another accomplishment worth writing home about. For now, his assessment of his relocation is unabashedly emphatic.
"Moving to L.A. is the best move I ever could have made. I'm fuckin' really happy that Phoenix was the birthplace of a lot of shit for me. But growing into what I guess you would call manhood or whatever, it's the best thing I could possibly have done. There are all these people there who are doing shit and would be doing shit regardless, so to get into a bigger pool of people who are doing shit got my juices flowing. It feels like I just fuckin' walked right up into it like, 'Hey guys,' 'Yeah, come on in.'