When Z-Trip, the Phoenix-raised turntablist who co-authored 2002's groundbreaking Uneasy Listening, couldn't manage to make an officially licensed mash-up compilation on Hollywood Records -- despite the army of Disney-funded lawyers at his disposal -- this sounded the sub-genre's commercial death knell. Sadly, it's safe to say that no major-label CD will ever pair Sting with Nas or Phil Collins with Del the Funky Homosapien. (DJ P, Z-Trip's '80s-obsessed, Springfield, Missouri-based cohort, arranged both of those Uneasy marriages.)
Unable to reprise the endlessly bootlegged Uneasy Listening, of which only 2,000 hard copies exist, Z-Trip began work on the aptly titled Shifting Gears, released in April. Armed with a few solid -- and cleared -- samples from his classic-rock-stocked crates (a drum break from Jethro Tull's "Teacher," a minor-key riff from the Scorpions' "Animal Magnetism"), he recruited live MCs to rhyme over the beats. "Teacher" became "Take Two Copies," a party jam with playful quick-spitter Busdriver, while the Scorpions' portentous guitars were harnessed to beef up the Chuck D tirade "Shock and Awe."
Public Enemy's best-known song, "Fight the Power," opens with Chuck D dramatically bellowing "1989," the year the song was recorded, but Z-Trip asked his guest not to use specific dates or names this time around, taking a tip from A Tribe Called Quest. (On "The Chase Part Two," Q-Tip raps, "I won't say the year, 'cuz it's for eternity.")
"It was a guideline, but at the same time, it's like, 'Who am I?' You're Chuck D, so do whatever the hell you want to do," Z-Trip says. "It's my one and only protest song, and I want to keep it timeless."
Like vintage Public Enemy albums, which shoehorned Flavor Flav's stream-of-consciousness spazz-outs between musically claustrophobic conspiracy theories, and Z-Trip tour mate Black Sheep's quirky A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, Shifting Gears alternates between socially conscious lyrics and lighthearted goofs. On the silliest song, freestyle heavyweights Murs and Supernatural name-drop cereal brands and Saturday-morning cartoons over a bouncy Bobby McFerrin beat. It doesn't get much less hardcore than eating King Vitamin and watching Care Bears, which is pretty much the point.
"If you can't relate to this song," Murs says during the tune's prelude, "you're taking this shit way too serious. It's hip-hop, man, it's fuckin' fun."
And departing from the posturing in hip-hop is what Z-Trip is all about.
"There are whole albums about rims," Z-Trip says of contemporary rap. "The beats might be cool, but that's not the type of music that I want to hear, or that people who appreciate this culture and who have been here since day one want to hear."
Paying more than lip service to hip-hop's old-school pioneers, Z-Trip devotes a track on Gears to Bronx veteran Whipper Whip (of the Fantastic Five) and ends the album with a poignant spoken-word piece from "Rapper's Delight" author Grandmaster Caz. He also sequences the disc for the benefit of fellow vinyl junkies, leaving open drum breaks for mixing purposes. But he's no slave to tradition, as best indicated on "Waking Life," a dark-wave dance number, featuring Linkin Park's Chester Bennington on vocals.
"We said, 'Let's make something that no one is going to expect from us,'" Z-Trip explains. "He's pigeonholed as this screaming rock guy, and I'm known as the mash-up guy, so we put together a song with no screaming and minimal scratching."
On Z-Trip's upcoming tour, few of the aforementioned artists will recreate their cameos live, but each concert will feature at least a few surprises, Z-Trip promises.
"It's a revolving-door policy, which keeps me on my toes," he says. "The MCs show up without rehearsal, and we pull it out of our asses. It was like when I played with Beck at Coachella -- I met him three minutes before I went onstage."
Still, Z-Trip does have some guidelines when performing live these days -- namely, that all Uneasy Listening tracks are off-limits, Z-Trip and DJ P having put that landmark to bed with two sold-out shows in California. For P, the aftermath cuts deep.
"That album did nothing but piss me off," P says. "I got screwed. Z-Trip took all the publicity, and I'm sick of hearing about it. He could have pushed my name more."
"It's a fucked-up situation," Z-Trip responds. "A lot of writers came at me, because I was hustling way harder than he was at the time." (Z-Trip's high-profile gigs include opening for the Rolling Stones and the Dave Matthews Band.) "I would bring his name up, but he would get lost in the shuffle. He got a little bummed, and it threw a little rift between us. But I would say, 'Me and P did this thing,' and the writer would put 'Z-Trip's Uneasy Listening.' I can't control it."
Z-Trip's press clippings back his story, though it's easy to understand P's frustration. Longer Z-Trip features take the time to mention his partner, while blurbs often erase P's part. For example, Rolling Stone's four-star review of Shifting Gears attributes Uneasy Listening solely to Z-Trip, adding insult to injury by citing its use of Kansas' "Dust in the Wind," the brainchild of P.
By no longer revisiting Uneasy Listening live, Z-Trip will be leaving some of his best-known material out of his shows, which could alienate some longtime fans. But Z-Trip doesn't seem worried about potentially pissing off the diehards, preferring to look forward, rather than into the past.
"I've been guilty of milking my mixes, but this time, I'm not revisiting my old staples," he says of his current tour. "It's on some futuristic shit."