"Listening to music while stoned is a whole new world . . . Grass will change your musical habits for the better," intones a voice on "Till Suns in Your Eyes," the opening track on DJ Vadim's latest album, U.S.S.R.: The Art of Listening. Ironically, though Vadim thinks drugs have been crucial to many musical masterpieces, the man is too busy to indulge himself; this Anglo-Russian turntablist, producer, label owner (Jazz Fudge), and BBC radio host has a work ethic rivaled by few artists.
In the midst of a 52-date jaunt through North America with his Russian Percussion crew (world-class decknician DJ First Rate and sensual diva Yarah Bravo), the hardest-working man in underground hip-hop admits that such grueling tours are great, "apart from the headaches, constant tiredness, and endless amount of dirty clothes." But seriously, London-based Vadim Peare believes that bringing his music to Americans is worth all the hassles -- even dodging a flying beer can in Portland and dealing with customs. "Getting into America is impossibly hard -- and we're British," Vadim says, alluding to his country's status as Dubya's staunchest ally in the war with Iraq. "We needed to get visas, fingerprinted; they go through your school records, criminal records."
It's all a small price to pay to do some serious record shopping on these shores, however. On this trip, Vadim has already scored some 200 albums, from which he will compose future tracks. Besides the vinyl bonanza such excursions inevitably bring, Vadim relishes the chance to visit so many countries and meet a wide variety of folks, some of whom may appear on his upcoming releases. Ever resourceful, Vadim uses his tours to recruit people for future projects as well as to accumulate the odd great demo and records for sample plundering. (He's hellbent on getting Wisconsin's YoungBlood Brass Band to lend some crucial sousaphone to his next album, and a Letta Mbulu LP he bought in New York has him stoked to collaborate with the obscure South African vocalist.)
This willingness to experiment has long set Vadim apart from so many of his peers. Blending ultraminimalist beats and ambient breaks with brusque rhymes from a bevy of soon-to-be-big-name MCs, Vadim's seminal 1996 full-length debut, U.S.S.R.: Repertoire, and his classics A New Rap Language and The Isolationist (under the Andre Gurov moniker) expanded hip-hop's sonic vocabulary with a severely stripped-down feel and sinister darkness. Not content to loop beats ad infinitum like so many hip-hop producers, Vadim painstakingly builds his tracks with as many as 150 minuscule samples per cut, often from vinyl found in dollar bins -- the wax most crate-diggers skip by (sleep on those Australian funk and Chinese easy-listening records at your own peril, beat junkies).
Though he crafts cuts with the meticulousness of a music obsessive, Vadim wasn't much interested in becoming a DJ as a youth, and he didn't score his first turntables until 1990, at age 17. The young Vad channeled his energy primarily into tennis and was determined to go pro, until serious injuries sidetracked him. "If you'd have asked me 10 years ago, would I be traveling around the world as a DJ, I'd say you must be joking," Vadim says. But when his tennis partner got some decks and they started hanging out with a popular hip-hop DJ in southwest London, Vadim caught the music bug. Seeing a London concert with Run D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, Whodini, and LL Cool J in 1986 further spurred Vad's interest in the art.
Born in the former Soviet Union and raised in England, Vadim feels allegiance to neither nation. "I've always felt more international than anything," he says. "The only reason I got to where I am now is through hard work. I've never been given that lucky break, where suddenly after one interview, everyone's on [my music]. Half the reason I'm [in the U.S.] is to get people to listen to the new album. Coming here, I'm going to increase my sales by 30 to 40 percent. Without mass marketing, adverts, billboards, cross sponsorship, and synergy with MasterCard, it's extremely difficult for people to hear your music. Unless you're gonna hit the Top 40, the chain stores don't want to take a risk buying your CD. I feel it's a crying shame to make the best music I can, and no one's going to hear it."
Many people had at least heard of Vadim when his provocative collaboration with poet/activist Sarah Jones, "Your Revolution," fell afoul of the FCC in 1999. Portland, Oregon station KBOO received a $7,000 fine for airing the song, which condemns misogyny in hip-hop and R&B with allusions to sexual innuendo, but without using any of radio's seven forbidden words. The controversy brought greater exposure to Vadim's work, of course, revealing the potential follies of censorship once again (the ruling was reversed earlier this year). "To be honest, it did more good than bad," Vadim says. "But it's sad that it takes a record to be banned [to get people to] listen. I think it was a very good song before it was banned. It's got a very good message to it."
Ninja Tune released Vadim's latest album, U.S.S.R.: The Art of Listening, in October of last year, and it's sold over 45,000 copies worldwide -- his best showing yet. The disc is Vadim's most accessible. As he did on 1999's U.S.S.R.: Life on the Other Side, Vadim employs an excellent, diverse array of MCs and singers, as well as various musical styles -- though some critics may think the new album's overabundance of guest rhymers and hit-or-miss track selection lack the focus of earlier Vadim works.
Whatever you think of the disc, though, you can't fault his attention to detail. "I can't overstate how much I work to find original sounds," Vadim says. "The actual sound and groove of the drums is so important; I can try maybe 100 snares, 100 kick drums, 100 hi-hats, whereas most people wouldn't care. I'm sampling from different records, trying different combinations, seeing what sounds good and then adding bass samples, other atmospheric sounds, keyboards, strings. It's very complex, like a small orchestra. I want to create something that goes beyond the genre. I don't want to sound like anyone else."
Vadim also seeks uniqueness in the MCs with whom he works. He's shown an uncanny knack for selecting artists early in their careers who go on to be important players in the genre (e.g., Antipop Consortium, Company Flow, Dilated Peoples, and Swollen Members). "I try to find people who have an individual voice and are hungry."
After eight years of recording, countless gigs in dozens of countries, and marathon hours bent over record bins, Vadim remains as hungry and hard-working as ever. As we end the interview, an hour before he's due to go onstage in Seattle, he excuses himself. "I've got to update my website," he explains.