By Benjamin Leatherman
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By Brian Palmer
It feels like it was just weeks ago that I was touring the West Coast with DJ Z-Trip, the Phoenix native who became known as king of the mash-ups before turning his back on the subgenre he helped launch. But really, it was 2001, and I was helping lug Z-Trip's massive record crates from airports to hotel rooms to venues, from Anchorage, Alaska (my hometown), where we watched pods of humpback whales migrate through the Cook Inlet, to Portland, Oregon, to San Bernardino, California, where he played between acts like Cypress Hill, Limp Bizkit, and Gang Starr at the Smokeout festival.
Actually, it's been some time since I, or the rest of the world at large, have heard from Z-Trip, a.k.a. Zach Sciacca. He moved to Los Angeles about two and a half years ago to catapult his career beyond what could be accomplished from the 'Nix, and signed a recording contract with Hollywood Records. The plan was to release a mix album in the vein of DJ P's and his Uneasy Listening Vol. 1 record, and then drop a wholly original self-produced LP afterward. Thus far, neither has seen the light of day, and Z-Trip's once murderous touring schedule has slowed to a trickle.
Z-Trip's making a couple of rare appearances in Phoenix this weekend, Friday night at Axis/Radius and Saturday night at the Brickhouse, so I thought it would be a good time to call him up and see where the hell he disappeared to, and when we'll finally hear what the mad scientist of turntablism's been cooking up in his lab.
I call about 10:30 in the morning L.A. time, and catch him still sleeping. "Gimme like 20 minutes to wake up, man," he says. I comply, but when I call back he's obviously still in bed, having hit snooze on my phone call. He's facing a remix deadline, so I'm not surprised that he's exhausted. "I'm about 80 percent done," he says between yawns. The project in question is a remix for Motown Records of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," a major score in that it meant Z-Trip got his hands on the master tapes of the original multi-tracks. "That's the coolest shit in the world, y'know?" he says, emerging from his post-sleep fog.
For the most part, Z-Trip says he's been lying low, sticking to his home studio to finish work on the upcoming new record on Hollywood, which will be titled Switching Gears. "My life is filled with trying to give birth to this album," he says. "I've been working on it forever, and finally it's done, but I'm still waiting on a couple different people to clear samples, a couple different mixes that need to be sorted, so it's like the last minute, if you will."
As I mentioned, a mix album was supposed to precede Switching Gears, something akin to the underground classic Uneasy Listening Vol. 1, which mashed together tunes by artists like Pat Benatar, Midnight Oil, Kansas, and Metallica with hip-hop tracks. Unfortunately for Z-Trip and his fans, as that particular style exploded in popularity, he found it was simply impossible to do that on a legitimate level because of copyright law.
"Being on a major [label] at this point, any time you try and do any sort of move, it's gotta be planned out and cleared and everything's gotta be well calculated 'cause it's a bigger deal. You're a bigger liability, so to speak," he says.
"It's definitely made me realize how much I enjoy putting things out on a street level and doing underground releases. There needs to be a lot more of that, and will be a lot more of that coming out of my camp after this album, 'cause it's like, I wanna do the legit route, but at the same time so much art is getting suppressed based on these laws and these things that are there, and I understand them and I respect them to a degree, but at the same time, it's like, there's fucking great art that I make and that I do and that a lot of people should be hearing because the art is worthy of that."
So rather than the sort of mash-up album that people have come to expect from Z-Trip, Switching Gears, which he expects will be out next spring, will find him doing exactly that, producing all the tracks himself with little use of samples. After another huge yawn, he explains, "I'm trying to get out of the 'Zach is a DJ' sort of thing, and more into me as an artist, like a producer. It's me trying to go into a whole new world in production, which I've done, but I don't think anyone's ever really recognized me for that."
He's coy about what guest appearances we'll hear on Switching Gears. Legalities are still being sorted out. But at this moment, he's simply glad to have the labor pains of birthing this record mostly behind him, and he's ready to get it out to his ravenous fan base. "To a degree, it's already there, it's already away from me, done; but to another degree, for me it's done, for the rest of the world it's just starting."
Now Z-Trip's free to get out on the road rocking shows again, something he's held back on for a while now, discounting the Halloween show he did at the Hollywood Palladium a few weeks ago. Besides playing here this weekend, he's got two back-to-back New Year's shows booked in Seattle and Vancouver, and an upcoming two-week Australian tour with the Lifesavas. The king is back.
As for me, I'll be optimistically hitting the gym, working on my arm strength -- Australia's a long way to carry Z-Trip's record crates.