DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist know better. They've never needed laser shows, a troupe of twerking dancers or ironic mash-ups to get their point across. These guys are collectors and old-school diggers—hip-hop historians and ambassadors of their genre.
They're also aware that it's impossible to tell the story of an entire musical culture in a single evening. But that isn't going to stop them from trying.
Armed exclusively with albums from hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa's 41,000- piece record collection, the preeminent turntablists are back on the road together for the 28-date "Renegades of Rhythm" tour.
Over the years, the two have occasionally taken a break from other projects to record and tour with each other, but this is something that has exceeded their wildest expectations. While they were initially invited to create a mix using Bambaataa's massive stockpile, Shadow (Josh Davis) and Chemist (Lucas MacFadden) quickly realized the new endeavor demanded far more.
"It's not a small thing," Davis tells CityBeat. "It's actually been somewhat of a burden to reflect Bambaataa properly and do him justice. He's been such a hero for us. We want to pay him, and the entire culture, due respect. To play Bambaataa's collection is to tell the story of hip-hop."
"It's been incredibly humbling," he says.
"These things have transcended being records and have become artifacts. I mean, we're just not playing any records. These were the ones played at the park jams and clubs before the culture was even solidified, while hip-hop was still forming. The hands that have touched these copies and the stories they could tell—it just emanates energy."
That energy was working in their favor even before the two knew they'd be involved. Bambaataa (Kevin Donovan) donated his mammoth collection to Cornell University in 2013. By chance, the curator of the collection was McFadden's longtime friend Johan Kugelberg.
Although permission from the former Matador Records executive and gallery owner was all the DJs needed, both insisted that Donovan give his blessing, as well.
"Cornell owns the records," Davis says, "but we wanted to get Bam's blessing out of respect. We felt it was a necessary step. There was no way we were going to do this without it."
Their respect runs deep. As cultural icon, trailblazer and legendary founder of hip-hop-awareness group Zulu Nation, Afrika Bambaataa is admired worldwide. But for torchbearers like Davis and McFadden, he not only represents the origins of hip-hop, but also the origins of their own careers.
"There's a lot of emotional attachment for me on this one," MacFadden says. "We're telling the story of hip-hop through the story of Bambaataa, but we're also telling a story about ourselves. He inspired us as DJs when we discovered these records."
"It's ground zero for the cultural explosion that set the course for our own lives," Davis adds. "And not just for Cut and me, but for hundreds of thousands of people around the world. I honestly don't know what you could compare it to. It's as important as it gets. And I think it's safe to say that without Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, hip-hop wouldn't sound the way it sounds today."
With Donovan signing off, the next move was to start looking through the records. It wasn't an easy task. Before landing at Cornell, the collection was housed in three different storage facilities in three different zip codes. Although it had been put in a sort of rough order, the daunting task was made more intimidating by a staggering amount of jackets and labels covered with masking tape to prevent rival DJs from nicking selections for their own sets. Acetates and test pressings were set aside, and difficult decisions were made. But with only 90 to 100 minutes of performance time each night, finalizing the set list seemed next to impossible.
"It was difficult," MacFadden says. "It was heartbreaking to pass on a lot of the things we wanted to play. This is a story that could be told over four days straight. But we finally came to our senses and decided to go from classic to classic to classic. It's perfect for celebrating how hip-hop has been shaped by Bambaataa's tastes. He's one of the major reasons we're all here today."
They'll play Bambaataa's iconic breaks in tandem on six different turntables using real-time effects— sometimes even sampling the record that's being played. Accompanying visuals are provided by longtime Davis collaborator Ben Stokes, and images of the fledgling scene, album covers and important Bambaataa moments will combine with the music. Davis and MacFadden want none of this to get lost in translation, so they'll also narrate a good portion of each show— something they didn't initially foresee.
"We expect a large part of each audience won't know why we're doing this," MacFadden says. "So we think it's important that we explain why we're here. It's a big deal to us."
But Davis believes that just being given the opportunity has already made the entire undertaking a success.
"So few of the old-school guys kept their collections intact," he says. "In most cases, collections were lost, sold, cherry-picked or ravaged. In some ways, it's a miracle that the collection is as intact as it is.
"With it, we can represent him not only as a DJ, but as a recording artist and a peacemaker who had a broader vision beyond just DJing," Davis continues. "He was someone who wanted to improve the condition of his community and people all over the world.
"He's bigger than the culture itself."
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