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Phoenix native DJ Z-Trip has a trademark sound that's been forged by experimentation – as well as by an unbreakable will to do things his own way. So, at 31, he doesn't mince words when he talks about his ability to shake up hip-hop.
"Where am I going? To the fuckin' top," says Z-Trip, who now lives in Los Angeles, from a cell phone, making his case in the early moments of an interview. "I think that nobody has the balls to do some of the things that I do. And then, second, nobody has the full-on knowledge to pull it off.
"We're talking not just knowledge in general, because that would come off sounding kind of pompous. You've got to have knowledge of rock music, for example, or reggae music, or blues. You've got to not just know about blues; you've got to research that shit."
Pompous or not, Z-Trip has newfound success to back him up. First things first: The DJ, who with Bombshelter DJ partners Radar and Emile lit up the Valley electronic scene for years, has an as-yet-untitled album slated for release on Hollywood Records. He also has several remixes in the works, one of which is a re-envisioning of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1973 hit "Sweet Home Alabama." The remix, commissioned by Lynyrd Skynyrd's "people," gives Z-Trip creative reign over the song.
"It really warrants a song or an artist for me to work with a [track]. I'm not just taking work because the economy is fuckin' bad," he says. "I'm taking work that affects me somehow and has somehow over the years affected me."
The recording for Hollywood Records is still incomplete, in part because getting permission to use the samples that make up Z-Trip's assemblage of sound has not been easy: Whereas most DJs readily sample the work of others, Z-Trip is hitting up record labels and publishers that have no idea who he is or what he's doing.
"Certain labels are coming to me, going, We dig it and here it is; knock yourself out.' They get it, because they realize that it's profitable for them, and it's profitable for me because it expands my repertoire. But then on the flip side, you've got these people who don't want to release anything. Honestly, that is the climate of the record industry now, as it is. Nobody out there wants to let go of shit. Back when I wasn't signed to [Hollywood Records] and I didn't have anything, I would call up record labels and say, Can you send me the newest hottest shit,' and they'd be like, No problem. We'll send it out to you, and you can tell us how it's doing.' So they would send me these records for free. And now I say to a record label, Hey, can I sample this record? Can I pay you for it?' And I'm getting, No.'"
Before Z-Trip was living the good life in Southern California, he had a home in Tempe basement clubs and bars, playing alongside other casualties of the genre wars. Z-Trip, Emile and Radar were part of a defiant collective of hip-hop DJs who mixed together whatever the fuck they felt like. As with Z-Trip, Radar went on to garner national attention. When he was 21, PBS filmed Radar performing "Concerto for Turntable," on which he and CPR Orchestra bandleader Raul Yanez oversaw a symphony orchestra as it weaved symphonic sounds and scratching. Radar was guided only by his own "sheet music." Classically trained on piano and drums, he developed a scratch notation system for hip-hop DJs, the main objective of which was to prove that the turntable is a legitimate instrument.
Artists like Z-Trip and Radar have made a good case for the validity of the turntable. In fact, it's the only instrument really suited to the creative compositions and bold musical challenges Z-Trip tackles. He has managed, however, to parlay his research of outside genres into a fruitful body of work. He's become a favorite go-to guy of rock artists, a producer who's remixed everything from Tupac Shakur's "Better Dayz" to Rush's "Tom Sawyer." At last year's Bonnaroo Festival, he performed a set sandwiched between Phil Lesh and Friends and Trey Anastasio; he also appeared before thousands on a recent tour with Linkin Park. Beck joined Z-Trip onstage during the 2002 Coachella fest for a performance of "Where It's At," with the DJ on Technics and Beck on vocals.
Z-Trip added a new phrase to the hip-hop lexicon when he perfected the "mash up," in which a DJ layers a vocal track over an old a cappella sample or vice versa. Variations on the technique have been in play for years; everyone from the Orb to the Beastie Boys mixes beats in with samples from recognizable songs. But Z-Trip aims to "tear the envelope to pieces," as he states in the liner notes to his 2001 release, Uneasy Listening Vol. 1, by splicing, say, the Tubes' "She's a Beauty" with Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," or Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" with an instrumental version of Naked Eyes' "Promises, Promises."
"My dream project would be to work on something with Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or somebody that would just give [the album] to me and let me do what I could with it," he says. "They'd give me the budget to go in and reinterpret it. You know, one of my favorite albums. An album that changed my whole life and my whole world. [They'd] give me access to that and let me do it on an unlimited budget, on an unlimited schedule. I'd crank out some of the best shit you'll ever hear."
However, before he can do that, he'll have to overcome a few obstacles, none of which have to do with music. Welcome to the big top, maestro.
"The music in my life with Hollywood Records has become about lawyers and paperwork, and not about what it should be about, which is music – so I'm a little frustrated with that," Z-Trip says. "[But] you can achieve perfection. You've just got to work."