When Jurassic 5 DJ Cut Chemist enters a record store, he heads for the least-crowded corner, and that, he says, has made all the difference. "I was into soul and funk, but then every Tom, Dick and Harry is buying funk 45s, so I start thinking, what else can I look for?" Steering clear of hot items keeps him digging for records that no one wants, so his music is overflowing with obscurities from every genre. The objects of his record fetishes have ranged from Latin beats to disco b-sides, to psychedelic rock and just about anything under the sun.
In live DJ sets and recorded material by Jurassic 5, Latin funk band Ozomatli, and other West Coast-based projects, he weaves multiple retrospective sounds into progressive mixes that drive crowds wild. His investigative scouring has made Cut Chemist a demigod among record-mongers.
"This week," he says, "I'm into middle school hip-hop, obscure albums from the mid-80s to about '91. If it's a small-label thing from Atlanta from '88, I want it."
Since its first studio effort the Jurassic 5 EP appeared in 1997, Los Angeles-based hip-hop crew Jurassic 5 has been labeled old-school revivalists, and that's partially due to the prevalence of Cut Chemist and the crew's other DJ, Nu Mark. As producers for the project, the two DJs used funk, soul and old-school hip-hop to create the soundscape for the crew's four MCs to rap over.
Like other crews from the late-90s West Coast hip-hop movement, Jurassic 5 takes a cue from the early days of hip-hop, when DJs were at least as important as the MCs, and often more prominent. Early DJs like Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash were the focal points, the recognizable names and the stars of hip-hop crews before MCs claimed the spotlight in the mid-80s. "Now, with groups like Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, and Blackalicious," Cut Chemist explains, "the DJs are on the same level as the MCs. It's kind of going back to the way it was in the beginning, except now, there's more cohesion."
Jurassic 5's latest studio effort, Power in Numbers (Interscope), is a product of 20 years of hip-hop refinement, a consolidated effort owing its merits equally to turntable wizardry and MC skills. A departure from Jurassic 5's usual practice of reworking old-school themes, the album displays more original material and crafty R&B style songwriting. The single "Thin Line," featuring vocals by pop diva Nelly Furtado, examines the pros and cons of "crossing the line" with an attractive friend of the opposite sex. The verdict? Don't do it.
J5 lyrics are down-to-earth, yet intelligent and virtually free of typical hip-hop cliché. The group's MCs -- Chali 2na, Akil, Zaakir, and Marc 7 -- offer consistently tight delivery on the album and live on stage. In both situations, the role of the DJ is crucial. For Power in Numbers, Cut Chemist helped create a sonic backdrop that weaves decades of pre-recorded beats and hooks into progressive, dance-inducing tracks that are altogether original.
Jurassic 5 isn't the only outlet for Cut Chemist's aural concoctions. A tireless performer, he's one of the most in-demand DJs of the West Coast contingent that includes DJ Shadow, and Invisible Skratch Piklz members Shortkut and DJ Q-Bert (who coined the term "turntablist" to indicate real musicianship rather than mere record-playing).
A former member of Ozomatli, Cut Chemist also spins solo sets, remixes albums, and collaborates with other DJs on recordings and live shows. A 1999 collaboration with DJ Shadow yielded Brainfreeze, a two-track, 7-inch recording of a tag-team cutting session spun entirely of unheard-of funk and soul 45s. With only 2000 copies released independently, the record became an instant classic that put electronica fiends in rabid pursuit and turned skeptics into turntablism converts.
In live solo DJ sets, Cut Chemist concentrates on creating a mix that keeps the party rolling, but he also enjoys turning people on to new music. "My main focus," he explains, "is to say to the audience, 'Hey, listen to this. You might not know it, but you should like it.'" Pulling out obscure gems at the height of the set, he lets the audience benefit from his compulsive bargain-bin digging. He likens his approach to that of the earliest hip-hop DJs. "Originally, when DJs like [Afrika] Bambaataa were playing records, they weren't just trying to play hits," he says. "They were bringing some more obscure things that they liked, and it was a sharing process."
A true turntablist, Cut Chemist takes risks, rarely resorting to standard disc jockey record-playing. "I'm all about trying things out live," he says. "I've developed a reputation for failing miserably in front of the crowd, but I still fly by the seat of my pants. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, it's still good because I'm creating something right in front of you."