LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #3 - Brainfreeze - DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist

In a theme not unrelated to that of last week’s entry, I’m going to venture into a description of a piece of music that evokes the memories of a specific time. However, this piece of music doesn’t remind me of any point or event in my own life, or anyone else’s my age. In fact, it doesn’t remind me of anything, because it paints a picture of life in a time long before my own.

It’s the United States of America in the mid-70’s. Funk has dominated the black musical scene in the last decade, and a new musical advent is about to appear – hip-hop. DJ’s in clubs played the latest funk records, looping the drum breaks to rapturous audiences who enjoyed the high-energy, toe-tapping rhythms. Innovators from Queen’s and The Bronx learned to scratch the records, producing a highly distinctive and original sound that became a regular part of the music. Spirits were high, liquor flowed and everybody was feeling the vibe, man. Funk music saturated the air in the city, it wasn’t just something the young African-American population listened to; they lived it, they breathed it. It was a part of their culture. It’s this kind of era, this atmosphere, that is felt when listening to Brainfreeze.

Brainfreeze is an homage, a tribute to these days of the 70’s. Quite simply, it’s a DJ set, mixing rare funk 45’s and scratching in a live, 50 minute set. Its creators, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist, are two white guys from California who have used their encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and extensive record collection to create this unique piece of music.

Okay, I can understand that not everyone is welcome to the idea of a DJ set. Why should two guys get the credit for playing other people’s music? It’s probably true that DJ’ing doesn’t require the same amount of skill as, say, the guitar, in order to play it with a level of confidence. (Although there are many DJ virtuosos whose technique is pretty amazing. Check out DJ QBert as an example) However, DJ’ing requires a huge amount of knowledge, both to know which songs are appropriate to sample, to make sure all the songs are played at the same speed, to know which songs contrast and compliment one another etc. It’s also a very unique art form in that it calls for actual manipulation and destruction of vinyl records – yes, destruction. All that scratching and moving the records obviously wears down the vinyl after a time. The process of scratching and mixing isn’t going to be the same every time, and it can be very different for each performance. Thus a DJ set is a very special thing indeed because it cannot be replicated, due to the finite life of the records.

So a DJ set is a unique experience in itself, we’ve established that. But Brainfreeze is more than just a DJ set. It’s a carefully crafted journey though the 1970’s. Starting with a voice over to a 70’s Kung-Fu film called “Thunder Kick,” we are prepared for the album with the incredibly quotable line: “Are you ready to get your guts kicked out?” After a few hilarious scratches of this narration, the music sets into the groovy “Funky DJ” sample. A perfect introduction to the musical setting is found in the lyrics:
“Outside my window
I can hear a radio
Playing my favourite songs
He comes on every day
In such a groovy way
He’s a funky DJ”
The music seamlessly shifts into another sample – “Superjock,” where again the lyrics describe the joys of the music and how embedded it is in the lifestyle of the musicians:
“When he spins his records
You wanna get on the floor
Don’t worry when the record ends
‘Cause he’s got plenty more.
Nobody listens to tapes in cars when he’s on the radio
Nobody watches television ‘cause he’s got a better show
He’s No. 1; he’s a turntable king
He’s no. 1, when he’s doing his thing”
By using these samples, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist use a cheeky irony that both glorifies these forgone days of disc jockeys playing funk on the radio and also their own DJ’ing talents.

For the next ten minutes or so, the music blends many so many different samples, scratches and snippets of songs that you can’t quite tell where one ends and another begins. However, the music is consistently funky and maintains the same steady beat thanks to the skill of the DJ’s. The sound manages to glorify the radio days of the 70’s while still keeping in touch with the contemporary by the subtle manipulation of the records using modern techniques, such as looping certain phrases in the lyrics and simultaneously scratching. A good example is found near the end of the first part: the lyrics of the sample go along the lines of “So nice, got to do it twice,” but as both DJ’s play and scratch two copies of the record, it sounds like “So nice NICE, got to TO do it IT twice TWICE!” It’s hilarious, it’s clever and it also reminds us that this music is an artificial creation, born of two guys at a turntable who love this old music so much they find new and interesting ways of bringing it to life. The same sample also reminds us of the DJ’s objectives again, albeit with their trademark humour – “I’m itching, I got to scratch!”

Most of the 25-minute first part continues in the same way, of blending funky, soulful samples; some with full instrumental backing and vocals, others simply drum and bass breaks. Yet the whole piece has a consistency, and evokes that same sense of being a part of this funk revolution in the 70’s. You feel like you’re cruising down 7th Avenue in your convertible, the sun is blasting down on you, the radio is up full and you haven’t a care in the world. Even towards the very end of the first part there is a sample that sounds like a police siren, reminding us even of the sounds of the city. The very last sample in the first part contains a voice over which more or less sums up the lifestyle associated with the music, “It’s Saturday Night in L.A., Rockville U.S.A, the strip is jumping! The groupies; Barbara, Dolly, Jen, are making the scene, looking for fun and games to groove all night!”

The second part continues in much the same way, blending drum and bass grooves with lazy horns and outrageously funky vocals: “Woman, you better get yourself in this kitchen and fix me some food!” “Step up!” “I got some, it sure was good yeah!” This second part, however, sees more of a change from the sample based, funky first part into more of a DJ showcase. Extended sections feature scratching over just a drum beat, and towards the end the music focuses on pieces from DJ Shadow’s solo album “Endtroducing,” which is quite annoying to anyone who has heard it because it’s all too familiar. However, the second part, while weaker, does have some very memorable sections. A sample from a surf rock-esque party song called “Dance the Slurp” features some comical chanting of “Slurp slurp!” and some catchy horns and organ, as well as slurping sounds itself. Not only that, but the DJ’s then slow the piece down to half-speed on their turntables, giving it a very psychedelic, trippy sound. Immediately following this there’s a short section of electronic vocal sounds sampled from Kraftwerk before setting into the familiar groove of DJ Shadow’s solo material. After this long period of relative departure from the radio-friendly funk songs that once went before, part two ends on a fade out of a piece called “I Miss Someone,” which suggests the DJ’s fondness for the era and the infiniteness of the music. We miss it after 30 or 40 years, we miss it after hearing it revitalized in 1999 when this mix came out, it’s missed after hearing it in 2011, and we miss it after every repeated playing. Yet the beauty of the music is that it can be played again, that this unique DJ set is available for us to cherish again and again.

Brainfreeze is a marvel for many reasons. The skill of the DJ’s is displayed throughout on this album, and for anyone who doesn’t think that DJ’ing should be taken seriously is likely to have their opinion weakened, if not overturned completely. For me, however, the best part of this recording is DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist’s sensitive and proud treatment of these old, forgotten funk recordings. Rather than manipulate the samples excessively and turn the album into a DJ showcase, the two producers are happy to let the record play for a minute or two and simply let us hear the music for what it is. It’s a great marvel that in the process of digging for samples, the DJ’s have discovered some old artists that would otherwise be confined to the scrap heap of history. The active process of searching for and sampling old records keeps the music living and breathing. And that, for me, is what this album is about. It’s not merely a DJ set, it’s not merely a funk fan’s wet dream – it’s about preserving history and keeping alive the musical tradition of times forgone.

Words - Adam

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