If you ever took the time to plot out a flowchart depicting Phoenix's vastly interconnected DJ/dance scene, its incredibly likely that the name Zach Sciacca, better known as Z-Trip, would be at its heart.
Practically every turntablist, mixmaster, or knob-twister in the Valley has some sort of connection to Sciacca, either because they were inspired by the local legend, partied alongside him, emulated his mixing style, or followed in his footsteps. It's been more than a decade since Z-Trip left Phoenix, and the cat still casts a large shadow.
Before getting a taste of superstardom - which includes getting mad love in the pages of Rolling Stone, opening for the actual Rolling Stones, hanging with Shepard Fairey, or a million other claims to fame, Sciacca worked clubs like Nita's Hideaway, was a part of the seminal Bombshelter DJs (along with Radar and Emile), and helped lay the groundwork for the current scene.
He still keeps tabs on his old stomping grounds and even returns for a hometown gigs now and again, much like he'll do this weekend when he headlines the Merry X-Ray benefit for his old friend Benjamin "Mr. Puma MC" Walker on Christmas night at the Crescent Ballroom.
Your career got started in Phoenix back in the '90s. What was it like DJing in those days?
It was a great time. You had to do things out of necessity, like finding your own records, which I think helped spawn our sound and laid the groundwork for everything that followed. The connection that I had with other DJs around town and how, back then, the scene was small enough that everyone was friendly and there wasn't much rivalries so to speak. There was friendly competition, like you'd have with anything, but there was more of a bond. We had to stick together.
We were creating our own thing that was very organic and specific to our region because we were all dealing with the same pitfalls and trying to be DJs in a town that didn't really have the biggest support group for DJs. We didn't really have a radio station rally behind. We didn't really have national acts coming through town. We had to create our own clubs, we had to create our own record stores. We had to create our own everything, so it made us into who we are today and that's something I'm really, really happy for. I was bummed as fuck about it really early on because it was super difficult. We forged our own way and created our own sound and I think that all the DJs that have come afterwards that might have been inspired by what we all did in that era. All the DJs like Tricky T, Element, and M2s that all came after. All those dudes are all an extension of what groundwork was laid. I'm happy to be part of that.
Do you consider yourself a godfather to the Phoenix DJ scene?
I guess that's for others to decide. If it wasn't me, it was definitely a collected group of all of us from that era. For certain things I feel completely responsible, for other things I feel like I was just there doing what any DJ would do at the time. That's a very modest answer, but I do look at other people who were in the Phoenix scene at the time. I couldn't have done it without people like Pete Salaz or Eddie Amador. Those are guys who all helped out. I couldn't have done it without Russ [Ramirez] from Swell. I could go on and on. There's a million people that I could name that were all components to the scene back them. I think we were all doing our part.
Are you a fan of any other Valley DJs?
The person I really need to shout out to is Johnny D. When I met that guy, he was like one of the dudes who's been another forefather of DJing in Phoenix. He's the guy who was pushing funk and that kinda stuff early on when I was living in Arizona. I met him much later randomly and then found out his background. Anything related to funk in Arizona, this guy knows it. Not only funk but he knows everything collectively and really champions Arizona music. There's people like him that need recognition.
He'll blow your mind probably with everything that came before. He's the man and the whole crew that he rolls with -- Smite and Djentrification -- those guys have their own sound and they're doing great things. I remember when Smite was playing cumbias in those days. All those Arizona guys, I want to shout them out because they're all so dope and they all have their own sound and collectively I feel like [Phoenix] is on par or better than some of these other towns out there because of them. I'll go on the record and say that.
Do you tell people you're from L.A. or do you still mention your Phoenix roots with pride?
When people ask, "Where are you from?" I always say, "L.A. by way of Arizona by way of New York." I can't rep just one city, I can rep all three now. It's because any time you spent 10 years in a town, like I did in Phoenix, a part of you latches onto the city. Phoenix is still in my blood. My youth was in New York, my adolescence was in Arizona, and my adult years are in L.A. Who knows, maybe I'll move to fuckin' Switzerland? I'll start saying, "Switzerland by way of L.A. by way of Arizona by way of New York." It's funny, my life's been a total pilgrimage from east to west.
How did growing up in Phoenix influence you?
Had I just lived in New York, I don't know if I would have taken as many chances musically as I did later on because of the influence I got in Arizona. [To be] a little petty about it, I think a big reason why I'm the way I am because I grew up with all this music in New York. Then I moved to Arizona, to this complete desert, and I was dealing with country music and rock music and complete void of funk and hip-hop.
Although they were a little odd and strange, all the country and rock were definitely influences. Riding on the school bus ever morning -- which was an hour-long commute because I lived way out in the middle of nowhere -- with the bus driver bumping country music religiously. But I inevitably found three or four old tunes and would work them into other songs.
I've looked at my current style I go, "I get it, I understand why I mix the records together the way I do." It came from my family being into all this different music, and then me grasping onto New York hip-hop, and then being in the desert in high school. Being exposed to the country and rock in major ways and also trying to graft hip-hop into it. It was a blueprint for my style of mixing. It was like I grew up with all these different sounds around me, I was just trying to make sense of them all and find the common thread between it all.
In many ways, Phoenix has seemed to be second class compared to other any cities. Do you think its finally coming into its own?
Yeah, definitely. We were always second fiddle by default. That's always been the case. How do you compete with an L.A., New York, Chicago, Miami, or wherever? It's like we were just this little town that by the grace of god we were able to get a collective group of people with open-minded ideas that weren't infighting and that all supported each other.
There's still a lot of uncharted territory, musically, culturally. And those things are still there in Phoenix, I think. I could be wrong, I haven't been there in forever to notice, but I still don't think that we ever really got a proper radio station or a proper outlet for people to pull up other artists. There was never really a forum for that. Maybe there is now. But the things like that, there was always still all this uncharted territory that I've liked about Phoenix.
Old school cats like Pickster One and M2 have said that DJing is a lost art. Do you agree?
Yeah. It's a double-edged sword that technology has brought forth. It made it easier to travel, it made it easier to obtain music, it made it easier to mix it together and make edits of your own stuff. Technology has given people the ability to do all these great things, but I think it's made a lot of DJs lazy. It's also given the ability for DJs to get extremely creative. The sad thing, it's few and far between that I'm seeing that DJs are really taking the initiative to do really interesting stuff.
I think most people just jump right in and, "Okay, I'm a DJ." Everyone's a DJ now. All you need is a laptop, a hard drive and a certain amount of hours logged on the Internet and maybe a crash course on how to mix records loosely. There's DJ services out there that lay out the beat for you so that you can paint by numbers. And then with Serato it's almost like training wheels where you can literally DJ by numbers. Anyone can fake their way through. And then you have on top of that the other people who gravitate towards it and use their celebrity to get a DJ gig when clearly they're only a year or two into it.
It's like a DJ in a box.
Or it's like the gold rush, except everybody's running out and getting a computer. Everybody wanted to be a DJ who ever thought they could do it or didn't have the time to go digging or gather or build their collection. Now they can have it all in a month's time. At the same time I don't want to come off as an old jaded guy, it's just what I see but for all those negative things there's so many good benefits about it, about us being in the digital age now. I feel like it also gave me a second wave of inspiration. Just when I thought I had the old style mapped out and I was doing great, all of a sudden this new technology came and you had to get on board.
Do you still do much crate digging these days?
Anytime I can. I dig everyday online. That's become the new digging for a DJ. You hit all the blogs and trade stuff with friends to keep a leg up. There's a therapy for digging in record stores and trying to find things that you wouldn't normally find online or things that no one's ever digitized. And to find stuff that's real specific that I've been looking for. If I ever pass by a record store and I have a minute, I'll poke my head in there and sniff around. You gotta spend time sniffing around and maybe you'll find that certain thing you might sample or some song that inspires you.
I have all these different styles of things that I'm always hunting: Heavy metal records, blues records, spoken word, whatever. Any weird abstract thing that isn't in my collection. The best thing is finding the one or two things that you weren't really searching for and they turn out to be really cool staples for your collections. It's something in my brain that I don't think I can ever turn off.
How else do you find samples?
I'm always keeping an ear out for a sample, whether it's at dinner with a friend and all of a sudden something comes on over the stereo they're playing in the background. "Wait a second, I need to jot down a note to myself and go digging for that later." That's what I think keeps a good DJ on top, he's always keen for new stuff or old stuff, or just anything that's uncharted territory.
What's it like performing with your old Bombshelter partner Radar these days?
It's like an old punk band getting back together. Does everybody still have their chops? Does everybody still remember their chords? Can we pull this off versus a band that never broke up and never stopped? More important than that, what's better is I feel like we've all gone our own ways and when we get together again we still have that chemistry as friends and that's bigger and stronger and more important to me than if we ever share a stage again. The fact that we are all good friends and whenever we get together its the best time ever. And that's really what it's all about. Coming together with old friends.
Which old school Phoenix club do you miss the most?
I would have to say Nita's Hideaway or The Green Room. Nita's had its thing and the Green Room had its thing. It was the same crowd and it was such a good time. We were bringing out artists and guests that were our peers or our friends that we'd be honored to have them. There was that coupled with us having six turntables every week, me and Radar and Emile and just playing and having the most fun. Sometimes I'd open, sometimes they'd open. We'd just play electro music all night, or another night it would be all hip-hop. Sometimes we'd have rappers and emcees come out like Mr. Puma. Whatever we felt like doing it was a blank piece of paper for every single time because again we were the only game in town at the time. We could do whatever we wanted. That's the thing I miss.
What else do you miss most about Phoenix?
I miss the Mexican food. There's a couple spots I used to visit religiously that had that certain taste and I've always gone back and tried to hit them. Oddly enough, it took me some time to find the right Mexican spots in L.A. I also miss the weather, believe it or not. Obviously when it's 122 degrees, I don't miss that, but there's a certain thing that I've really loved about Arizona: A happy medium that's between that really dry heat and the monsoon time. Whenever a desert rain would come through and the whole place would have this smell you can't really describe, and its something that I'll only get out there.
Z-Trip is scheduled to perform on Sunday, December 25, during "Merry X-Ray" at Crescent Ballroom. Click here for ticket info.
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