Just a few Fridays ago, in the broad lobby of U.S. Airways Center, I, along with another hundred or so other people, got to witness the latest fusion of turntablism and classical instrumentation envisioned by DJ Radar and his longtime composer and collaborator, Raul Yañez.
This time, unlike the Concerto for Turntable that the duo debuted with a full symphony orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York a year ago where they brought the turntable into the realm of classical music they're doing a classical mashup of hip-hop. With Yañez conducting a string quintet from the floor and Radar looming in the background, the ensemble mixes symphonics with urban hits, including a cover of Talib Kweli's "Get By."
It was no less groundbreaking than the Concerto, though with a smaller cast. As the string players integrated dramatic flourishes with Radar's lightning-fast scratching, most of the assembled crowd (who weren't expecting this surprise show, the highlight of Desert Living Magazine's ninth-anniversary party) stood in a semicircle, not sure whether to dance, nod their heads, or just stare in wonderment. One gentleman in a cowboy hat stormed out the front doors, exclaiming, "This isn't music!"
I beg to differ, sir.
Raul Yañez, the force behind the Chicano Power Revival Orchestra and an accomplished pianist, as well as a teacher of Latin jazz at Mesa Community College and Latin jazz summer camps at ASU, has credentials that you just can't fuck with. Radar's reputation as a savant is sealed as well; he's not only an acclaimed hip-hop turntablist, but one whose work in the classical world has made him a complete anomaly.
The hip-hop project with the string quintet is an ongoing project that, unfortunately, won't be exhibited at Yañez and Radar's next local performance, but the pair have a couple of brand-new tricks up their sleeves. Support for the duo's new pieces has come from ASU's special events staff and Dr. Gary Hill, director of music at the Herberger College and the impresario behind SoundRave, ASU's free musical showcase that highlights Native American, Latino, hip-hop, and reggae artists, and where Yañez and Radar have two performances scheduled this year.
Exhibit A for the cowboy who didn't think the U.S. Airways Center performance qualifies as music is Yañez's collaboration with his Chicano Power Revival bandmates and ASU's wind ensemble (and, if the sound check goes as planned, Radar joining the mélange on turntable). The piece is called ¡Sas!, which Yañez explains the definition of by invoking Batman. "It's like 'Pow!' If Batman was a Chicano, his punches would sound '¡Sas!' It's a high energy piece."
Though DJ Radar is the marquee name in their collaborations, Yañez's contributions can't be minimized. One of his works in progress is being able to pull different sheet music and change the composition on the fly, much as Radar's able to read the audience and pull records from his crate spontaneously.
At a recent rehearsal of ¡Sas!, this one sans Radar, Dr. Hill conducted the 40- to 50-musician wind ensemble while Yañez sat behind a grand piano in a third-floor wedge-shaped practice room at Gammage. Yañez and Hill ran the musicians through different bars of the composition. It was enlightening to watch them try passages with the notes stretched out, then attempt them with staccato notes, to see which plays the most dramatically. Dr. Hill was pretty much dancing as he conducted the players with his hands, and Yañez seemed almost in a trance while he sat at the piano listening.
Later in the SoundRave program, which also features a number of other artists, Radar and Yañez are presenting yet another turntable-and-strings collaboration in a piece called "Explorations for Turntable and Strings." From the airport, waiting to catch a plane to New York for a b-boy friend's wedding, Radar explains to me that "Explorations" was written for a chamber ensemble of about 30 string players, though at this point he's not sure how many will perform at SoundRave.
"It's definitely pushing the envelope," he tells me. "It's kind of rock-inspired, and we're hoping to run strings through effects it's crazy. The strings are kind of like the turntable at some parts, which is really fun. We let them interpret scratching, kind of. It's a good tradeoff between turntable and strings."
Though it's not the mind-blowing piece from U.S. Airways Center, it continues Radar's latest concept of bringing classical instruments out of their usual parameters into more avant-garde areas, where musicians can spread their wings.
"The Concerto for Turntable is more towards following the standards, with the respect of the concerto and the form of it," Radar explains. "This one's balls-to-the-wall. It doesn't fit a format, whereas the concerto's been developed over hundreds of years."
Once again, these two are breaking down barriers and serving up unorthodox collaborations involving turntablism and composition. SoundRave is a chance for locals to see another of Radar's rare performances with the classical instruments that have been his muse for the past several years.
You can be sure it'll be like nothing you've heard before, but, I personally guarantee you, this is definitely music.
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