“Most of you look too young to know about Bambaataa.”
DJ Shadow feigned that jab at the elephant in the room with a knowing smile and Cut Chemist chuckled along, both of them squinting out against the houselights at an admittedly fresh-faced audience. The two deities of DJ lore were readying battle stations, four hands groping six wheels of steel and I didn’t count how many crates of wax, all of them carrying the weight of an entire movement built with music—Afrika Bambaataa’s record collection. Shadow was quick to poke fun at a kid in the front row too glued to his phone to notice, but he doubled back and apologized, still joking.
“Maybe he’s a reporter. Maybe he’s documenting everything I say.”
The kid’s thumbs looked more Candy Crush than Notepad so I have my doubts. That’s my job anyway. But maybe those that laughed and pointed (and maybe had a gray hair or two) had every reason to join in on the hazing. This night was meant for the celebration of everything analog. Of bringing the party to the party. Those thin black donuts turn a DJ manic and nimble behind the turntables, otherwise it’s the same face illuminated by the same pale glow of a MacBook loaded with the same timecoded playlists of tracks you won’t hear next year.
There’s performance and sweat and showmanship, and it’s hard to think of two bigger vinyl nerds embodying those qualities than DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. I like the way they work, just lying dormant for years, cooking up some marvelous shit, then out of nowhere announce a tour or just drop a meticulously curated and predictably dope mix on you e.g. Brainfreeze, the Hard Sell, and Product Placement.
They pair together and geek out as each other’s perfect foil for two hours straight. You can tell they’re having more fun than you the entire time and you’re a little jealous. Case in point: their getup, these black T-shirts with big white blockletters spelling out “SURE SHOT.” Shadow was the SURE. Chemist was the SHOT. Another case in point: the slow ascent into an atmosphere comfortable enough to dance in.
Funny thing is, these records are made to dance and shake and flail to, but so many bodies were squeezed into the gutted theatre that restricted most dances to a clipped sway. Real live actual irony. I’m getting yelled at for standing in front of the sound man who needs to see the show too, man. The night progressed and the alcohol and weed and the funk and breaks did what they do. I was standing behind a 6’7” black metal giant of a man that finally broke character when those familiar opening synth flutters of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” leaked out from the speakers. It was a beautiful thing.
One of the best parts about the night was watching faces light up when a familiar riff or drum beat sparked nostalgia for a song they’ll love forever. The set was a sample spotter’s wet dream, laced with damn near all submitted and accepted entries to hip-hop canon.
Everything your favorite break record strip mined, every bass line filtered by Q-Tip and Dilla, every lick sampled by your favorite De La and Gang Starr and Redman cuts. We heard what seemed like every loop that captivated a producer making beats during the ’80s and ’90s. Hip-hop’s history in stereo.
It was all so on point I can’t help but think of the whole affair as Malcolm Gladwell’d-out; 10,000 hours put into each juggle and scratch and transition. Yet, Shadow and Chemist still rocked with the energy of two kids that got asked to fill in for Bambaataa when he was sick, spontaneous and practiced all the same, with the same amount of gratitude. During an applause break, Shadow lifted up a handful of tattered LP sleeves and grabbed the stage mic to big up the godfather for not the first nor last time of the night:
“Just bear in mind these aren’t our properties,” he said, waving the sleeves and grinning. “These are the original properties. They played at parties in the Bronx. Not just any copies. Bambaataa’s copies.”
The crowd roared and then roared more when Shadow set to work on a sampler and playing a break straight off Endtroducing and Chemist joined in on a beatbox built in ’67 that still cranked a crisp drum kit like new. The final snare hit of the routine produced the night’s loudest cheer, with the energy of an encore plea, and then Shadow announces we’re only halfway through this motherfucker. “Can’t stop, won’t stop” was the motto while videos of end-to-end burners mingling with a rainbow of route lines snaking across the subway map. It was all Bronx everything.
At some point, I heard the “uh.. UH.. HAHAAA” from Treacherous Three’s “Feel the Heartbeat” while boxcars covered in wild style pieces roll across the projector screen and I start to notice that under the fog and the blue lights the entire scene looks a bit like the amphitheater scene from Style Wars. Rap nerd heaven on earth aside, everything felt right.
Even the technical difficulties were a spectacle, with the sound crew swooping in and swapping out a mixer that died in the middle of the set. Vinyl old enough to be my grandfather had outlived a modern mixer, and I started to wonder if the sweat condensing on the walls and ceilings had something to do with it. Like every good posse cut the show ended with a round of shout outs and the waxmasters saved the proverbial best for last. The guest of honor there with us in spirit: Bam Bam. The Godfather.
“Give it up for Afrika Bambaataa,“ Shadow said, stretching his arms out to give the crowd a sweat-soaked hug. “Without him, we would not be standing here. And that’s no hyperbole.”