You’ve said in the past that The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: was the first record you ever bought and that it taught you the true meaning of hip-hop–to challenge the very notion of genres by mixing up everything from disco singles to children’s records. What were some other seminal records that helped shape your sound and sense of self early on?
A partial list of huge records for me: “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambataa & the Soul Sonic Force, “Buffalo Gals” by Malcolm McClaren & Worlds Famous Supreme Team, “Beat Box” by Art Of Noise, “One For The Treble” by Davy DMX, and on and on. On all of these, the programming and interplay between (sparse) lyrics and a plethora of sounds are paramount. A scratch comes in here, a trumpet there…an intricate drum fill followed by complicated synth lines. A “cut and paste” sense of arrangement.
What is it about vinyl that made you fall in love with that format in particular? Did you become a pretty rabid digger soon after grabbing that Grandmaster Flash record?
No, no…for one thing, vinyl was the only format then. No self-respecting DJ was using cassettes, they just sat there. CD’s weren’t around yet. I was always seeking new rap records for my collection, but I only had whatever money I was given on birthdays and holidays, and later with my paper route money. It wasn’t until I started selling my baseball cards and comic books, around ’87, that I started focusing on original soul and funk records. They were plentiful and cheap on the West Coast.
What are one or two hip-hop verses that especially apply to the point in your career that you’re currently in?
“When you sell out to appeal to the masses, you have to go back and enroll in some classes”- Guru
I don’t anticipate ever feeling so all-knowing that I could justify leaving the classroom. There’s too much knowledge to glean from others. To stop learning is to perish creatively.
What’s one record you really love that would surprise people?
“Against All Odds” by Phil Collins. I’m dead serious. He could write fantastic relationship songs. But then again, I detest his faux-Motown mode.
What’s one song that practically brings you to tears every single time and why?
Without getting into specifics, there are many…sometimes it’s not necessarily because of the subject matter, but because of the back-story…the behind-the-scenes struggles of the artist. And other times it’s because of the sheer awesome power of what was achieved. I get the same emotional response at the end of a near-perfect motion picture. When you turn to your friend and say, “that was fucking amazing.” Same thing with music for me. My admiration for another artist’s accomplishments can bring me to tears.
Your earliest recordings were done on a four-track and recently reissued. Do you feel like you wouldn’t be the producer you are today if you had grown up in this generation instead; a generation that can create dense multi-track recordings in their own bedrooms easily and cheaply?
I guess it’s impossible to know, but I have always felt that cutting my teeth on an imperfect and exacting machine toughened me up for my chosen instrument, the sampler. Sort of like long-distance runners in Kenya. When you don’t have fancy training facilities or sports drinks, you don’t know any better, all you know is that you have to run and run hard; there’s no shortcuts.
Cali-Tex has always been a labor of love, but as life gets more complicated it becomes harder for me to find the time to dedicate to it. The passion is still there of course, but when you’re only selling 500 copies, you have to pick your battles pretty carefully.
Speaking of, do you feel like The Private Press is your dark horse record in a lot of ways? It has some of your best songs (“Blood On the Motorway,” “Six Days,” “You Can’t Go Home Again”), but people rarely bring it up when talking about your career.
I know what you mean. I definitely thought it was far more sophisticated than Endtroducing…, but I would concede that it perhaps didn’t hang together as cohesively as its predecessor. I think it had better songs, for sure.