When he last checked in with the Straight in November 2003, Z-Trip was trapped in limbo. Widely regarded as the brains behind the mash-up craze, the New York City native was trying his damnedest to clear all the samples for his major-label debut, a process that involved negotiating with dozens of artists, record labels, and music publishers. After spending more than a year working out the legalities, Z-Trip gave up on the project, conceding the impossibility of ever releasing an authorized mash-up mix. Looking back on that maddening process, the producer concedes it might have been a blessing in disguise.
"In the amount of time that went by, the whole window on that mash-up stuff started closing, so in some ways the whole legal mess turned out to my benefit," he says on the line from his Los Angeles home. "When you're in a situation where you've started a trend like that, there's a temptation to milk it until it's dry. I was a little sour when it came apart, but afterwards I saw that it pushed me to make the record that I had to make, a proper artist album."
That disc is called Shifting Gears, a producer's record in the tradition of Hi-Tek's Hi-Teknology (2001) and Jay Dee's Welcome 2 Detroit (2001). Featuring guest appearances by vocalists young (Linkin Park's Chester Bennington) and legendary (Public Enemy's Chuck D), Z-Trip's debut plays like a misty-eyed tribute to the old-school sound, littered with cracking drum samples, giddy scratch routines, and consciousness-raising rhymes. On the surface, Shifting Gears might seem like a narrowly retro-themed affair, but the producer contends there are enough fresh sounds on the album to satisfy hip-hop's forward-facing philosophy.
"Nothing is new in music anymore," says Z-Trip, appearing at Richard's on Richards on Tuesday (August 23). "Even if you look back at a group like Led Zeppelin, they learned the blues and redid them in a rock fashion and made it sick. I feel like that's what hip-hop is based on-taking something old, flipping it, and making it new, but always having a bit of that throwback feel to it. To me, that's better than just jumping on whatever the latest trend is."
Since the release of Shifting Gears, the long-time DJ has been a busy fellow, called upon to remix songs by such disparate bands as Def Leppard, Run-DMC, and the Jackson 5. His take on the latter group's "I Want You Back" (included on the recent Motown Remixed compilation) is the most joyous thing he's ever done, an infectious jam that reflects his excitement at reimagining a classic.
"I'm such a music nerd that hearing those master tapes is like having the best sex ever, and having it in 16 or 24 or 32 different positions, depending on how many tracks they recorded," he explains. "The first masters I ever got were for 'Tom Sawyer' by Rush, and when I pulled the tracks up, the first thing I did was mute everything and just listen to Neil Peart play drums through the whole track. I'm telling you, man, I think I saw God that day."