As a hip-hop DJ, Z-Trip was born with two strikes against him. He's white and from Arizona. The only things that saved him were his skills, which are mad like the Hatter. When Z-Trip's at battle stations, the pyrotechnical sorcery, most famously his scratching, reaches Jedi mind-trick levels.
Less celebrated but equally crucial to Z-Trip's essence are his unorthodox tastes. His track "Rock Star," a dark-horse hit on last year's Bomb Records compilation Return of the DJs Vol. II, mixed old-school, Run-D.M.C.-era breakbeats with Eddie Van Halen's searing electric-guitar solo on "Eruption," AC/DC's "For Those About to Rock" and classic lyric samples from Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and "War Pigs." One Rolling Stone critic wrote that the track "hands rock its head on a vinyl platter," but really it's a peacemaker. In Z-Trip's universe, dirt heads can body rock and b-boys can bang their heads. It's all good.
The same ethos drives the Bombshelter DJs, a collective founded by Z-Trip and his close friend Emile Ananian (Coda, June 19). As Bombshelter, Emile, Z-Trip and Z-Trip's protege Radar perform radically freestyle 3x6 sets (three DJs spinning simultaneously on six turntables). They rove from 80 to 180 beats per minute, and change styles like a kung-fu flick--hip-hop, trance, jungle, breaks, metal, New Wave, disco, funk. Sometimes, the Bombshelter DJs paint a bizarre, beautiful mosaic of music without barriers. Sometimes, like their recent spot on the Compton Terrace stop of the Electric Highway Tour, they're s six-car pileup.
The consensus in the Valley's underground dance culture is the Bombshelter DJs, and particularly Z-Trip, spun a wack set that night. Many believe it was on purpose. Shortly before the crew went on, Z-Trip got into a heated, onstage conflict with Icee, an out-of-town headliner, during Icee's prime-time set. At one point, Z-Trip actually stopped Icee's record with his finger, screeching the music to a halt. Then, after Icee completed his set, Z-Trip got on the mike and challenged him to a turntable battle, then and there, which, considering Icee is strictly a rave DJ, was sort of like a gunslinger challenging a skeet shooter to prove who's faster on the draw.
Instantly infamous, Z-Trip's hothead move was probably in part because of a long-simmering frustration with the respect--or relative lack thereof--he's afforded in his hometown.
Here's the truth: Z-Trip is big-league. He's internationally known. He signs autographs in other cities. He has tracks on several major compilations, with another--Audio Alchemy II: Directions in Sound Manipulation (Ubiquity)--due on the streets September 22. Last year, URB magazine honored him as one of the world's Top 100 DJs to watch.
Maybe it's because URB knew him when he was nothing, or maybe it's because he whored himself out for years as resident DJ at Jetz and Stixx, a gig he finally quit three weeks ago. But for whatever reason, Z-Trip says, he gets no more love than a local when it comes to props and table time.
"I will always represent as a DJ from Arizona, but I am not just an Arizona DJ," Z-Trip said in a recent interview. Z-Trip spun records almost constantly during a 90-minute interview at his Tempe studio last Thursday. He'd just returned from San Francisco, and was scheduled to fly back the next day to host an international DJ competition. From there, he was to leave directly for a three-week tour of Europe--club gigs in London, Rome, Oslo, Zurich and then Frankfurt to spin the "Battle of the Year," a b-boy conference and breakdancing competition.
Six years ago, Public Enemy condemned Arizona in the court of hip-hop with "By the Time I Get to Arizona" on the Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black album. Now, if you set aside the made-for-radio drivel of Nastyboy Klick, Z-Trip is AZ's best hope for redemption.
New Times: Let's get the bio out of the way. How'd you start spinning records?
Z-Trip: Well, my parents were divorced, so I grew up alternating between New York and Phoenix. I was a graffiti artist before I was a DJ, and I used to do graffiti listening to the mix shows out of NYC, and I'd be like, "Where can I get that extended version?" and the answer was, "Only on vinyl." So I started collecting records, and a backpack became a crate, and a crate became me getting turntables. I'm self-taught. Nobody taught me how to mix, what equipment to buy, how to weigh my needles, that sort of thing. It was all me looking at Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money album covers with a magnifying glass, trying to see what kind of needles they were using. And of course, like every other DJ, I fucked up my mom's turntables a couple times learning to scratch.
NT: What was it like trying to break as a white kid from Arizona?
Z: It was a stigmatism. I had no clout. I had to battle the whole way. All the time, knuckleheads would come up to me at parties, and they'd look at me and be like, "Look at this white-boy DJ. What does he know?" And I'd just be playing a couple records or whatever, and one of them would step to me and be like, "Yo, let my man scratch." And I'd go, "Well, okay," and he'd get on and scratch a little something, and his boys would be like, "Oooooo! Yeah, he served that white kid," and I'd be like, "Well, hold on a second," and then I'd get back on the tables and just fucking get sick, and this guy who had supposedly just served me, his boys would be like, "Daaamn."
NT: Now, how are you treated when you play in other cities, compared to here?
Z: Well, when I go to Frisco, I've got kids coming up saying, "Yo, man, would you sign my record for me?" And I'm very humble, so doing autographs is weird for me, but I come back here, and there are people here who . . . (pause) Maybe if I was a big ego snot about it, walking around, saying, "I'm going to Europe, hah, hah," it might probably piss off a lot of people, but I'd be looked at with more recognition. Maybe I don't get the status of a heavy-hitter because I'm low-key. I consider myself to be very levelheaded and very approachable and cool, and I pride myself on that. Still, I just want people to know I'm not the same fucking guy who's spinning at the same clubs here and there anymore. I'm actually doing shit for myself. And for Arizona. And they need to at least recognize that. They need to check my stats, because a lot of other people in other places are getting with it. I mean, I can do a bunch of dates in Europe, then come home and have problems getting a prime-time slot in my own town.
Like this thing with Icee at Electric Highway. People were like, "Hey, Icee's a national act, he should get treatment," and I was like, "What am I? I'm doing just as much shit as that guy. I'm hustling. I'm on I don't know how many national compilations. I'm flying out of the country. I'm selling records. In other states I'm a national act. But here I'm still a local, and I should bow down to Icee, the big national DJ." Fuck that.
NT: Do you regret putting your finger on that record?
Z: No, I don't regret any of that shit.
NT: Don't you think it was a little unfair to challenge Icee to a battle? I mean, he's a rave DJ. They don't battle much.
Z: Well, maybe I'm just such an old-school hip-hop DJ that if someone's going to grab their dick at me in my hometown, when I've done nothing to them, then, motherfucker, you're going to back that shit up. People should know the story behind the story before they pass judgment. We were supposed to play another stage at Electric Highway the same time as Icee, but it wasn't covered, and it started to rain. So the promoters told us we'd go on right after Icee on the stage he was playing, which was covered, and to set up while he was playing. So we carted all our equipment one stage to the other, and started setting up so we could start up right when he was done, and I accidentally bumped him, and he turned around, and before I could tell him what was up, he grabbed his crotch and flipped me off and said, "Fuck you," and turned back around.
Well, if you do that to me, we're either going to fight, or we're going to handle it a more peaceful way. And that's hip-hop--transferring negativity to positivity. When I got on the mike and said, "Hey, I want to battle this kid, anytime, anywhere." I did that because I didn't want to punch him for flipping me off for no reason. I was trying to turn my negative to a positive, and everybody just took me wrong. I mean, thank God I'm not some knucklehead who just happens to be a really good DJ, because if I was, he would have got bum-rushed right off the stage with all his gear. I could have broken his nose. That would have got his attention, just like putting my finger on the record, but I was trying to be positive.
NT: So what's the concept behind the Bombshelter DJs?
Z: Basically to just turn people on to multiple styles of music. In the old raves out here, kids would play techno music, then drop down to hip-hop for a while, then go to house, then funk, all on the same set of turntables throughout the night, and everyone was digging it. Everyone was feeling everything. Then the scene started to separate, and I got caught up in that for a little while. I rolled in a crew for a while, where I was just trying to uplift only hip-hop, you know, nothing but b-boying and graf and MCs. But I realized that was wrong, and got heavy into Bombshelter. A lot of people label us a breakbeat group, but really, we play whatever we want. And that's my personal approach to music. I'm a hip-hop DJ in most people's eyes, but the Bombshelter concept is where my heart lies. Ideally, in a set, I'll spin some techno and some abstract funk shit, then turn around and spin the deepest hip-hop on the streets, shit no one's heard before. Because most of the best hip-hop records in the country, you can't buy them at Tower. Only at underground events. Like the Cut Chemist. He's a genius DJ, and nobody knows about him. But everybody knows about Puff Daddy and fucking Nastyboy Klick.
NT: What's your opinion of Nastyboy Klick?
Z: It's not something I play. It's not something you'll find me bumping in my car. I don't find that much intelligence in their music, in terms of getting really deep in lyric content. They've paid their dues, and now they're making some money, so that's good, I guess. I mean, I'll dis the music, but I can't dis them. They're representing Arizona, and I commend them for that. "Make a little trip to the AZ side." How can I dis that?
NT: But you're comfortable talking smack about Puff Daddy?
Z: Oh, hell, yeah. To me, Puff Daddy is not a hip-hop artist. He is a rap producer. He's a formula man, a money grabber. He's all over Power 92. "The Home Where Hip-Hop Lives." Bullshit. It's the home of rap music. You never hear any real, raw hip-hop there. Hip-hop was never about playing the same song with a sample from "Every Breath You Take" over and over for three months. Hip-hop is experimental. It's about always reaching for the new, not emulating whatever flavor makes money that month. In my opinion, no song should stay on the radio for more than a month, so we keep making room for the new stuff coming up from the streets.
But that doesn't happen, because America is sleepwalking. Most of the public are dead to the real music that's going on. They're just eating shit food, working a shit job, watching shit TV, listening to shit music. And they get paid shit money to do it all over again every day. I just thank God I had the music and skills to break free of that realm.
Party pick for September: Simple #1, Saturday, September 27. SF hard-house maestro Mark E. Quark headlines. Locals RC Lair, Anton, Lego also on tap, plus Groovetribe, a live, improvisational, multi-instrumental ambient, techno and acid-jazz group. Info line: 720.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.