Thursday, November 5, 2009
Crate Cookies V2 - The Mixtape Roundtable V1 ( Smooth Denali, Showtime, Lazy K )
It’s a warm afternoon in August and above the press of traffic on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, a new generation is learning how to mix and scratch. In a large room at Scratch DJ Academy, a group of aspiring turntablists is making noise that can only be called organized confusion, but this represents the hope for a whole future of DJs who will possess the skills necessary to keep the art alive. In a culture that is increasingly dependent on technology and gadgetry to perform tasks that otherwise required manual skill, our aim today is to find out if survival of the mixtape DJ is possible, and how that survival can be accomplished without selling out everything that the original DJs stood for…
A few hours later, Smooth Denali, DJ Showtime and DJ Lazy K are sitting in couches and chairs in the middle of the young DJ’s classroom. It is now empty and quiet, the platters have stopped spinning, and no one is perfecting beat matching or crab scratching. Smooth, Showtime and Lazy K are the masters of the craft, and they could probably teach most other DJs a thing or two about scratching and mixing, but today, they are here to talk. Tapemasta ‘s here too, helping to facilitate the discussion, and he’s explaining the reason for today’s event and why everyone involved in mixtapes and hip-hop should be concerned about the DJ’s craft.
“Like Premier said, there are some people that mix and there are some that are on some other shit.” Showtime starts the conversation off with this line. Everyone sitting around nods agreement, partly because Premier’s word still carries weight in a microwave culture, but also because Showtime is no slouch either. His pedigree is flawless. He is a self-described creator of classic works who went head to head with Kid Capri in the golden era of mixtapes, describing his days coming up as filled with competition.
He laments the state of the game today, and by his own admission, he has fallen back from the mixtape scene, partly because of the lack of talent that is rampant today, but also because the game is no longer based on skills or knowledge.
“Everybody in here, we know our history, we know records. We three could take on three quarters of the mixtape game and they’ll be walking out crying.”
And that’s why we’re all sitting here today. Why is it that the era of great tapes seems to have faded slowly with the legacy of TDK and Maxell cassettes, and what can be done to try to restore the art to its rightful place, to bring the creativity back?
Smooth Denali’s got a formula that he believes is the key to success for him, and he attacks the dilemma from his own unique angle.
“The biggest problem now is that there aren’t mixtape DJs anymore…there are only mixtape dudes.” Mixtape dudes, indeed. From the bloggers putting out compilations to the kids who are putting together their mixtapes in Acid Pro or Pro Tools and not even attempting to stamp their product with personality or originality beyond a drop done by that guy who does the movie preview voiceovers, it’s a sad state of affairs.
Smooth’s answer to the problem is to continually put out mixtapes that are old school concepts, but mixed and blended properly. For him, “old school” is a fluid concept, not a fixed period of time. He deals with intervals that are roughly a decade behind the current year, so the old school for him now runs all the way up to 1997 or 1998. It’s a good strategy to stay in touch with a market that still loves hip-hop, but may not have a taste for the newer flavor cats are bringing.
“Most of my fans aren’t gonna be the 15 year olds, but I’ve got a lot of 30 year old fans out there.” And Smooth is moving units and keeping his name out there, believe that. One of the advantages of catering to a 30-year old audience is that they probably have a little bit more disposable income to play with than a 15 year old, and the nostalgia factor can be a powerful factor in consumer choice.
Lazy K has a slightly different approach to staying relevant in the game. She may have left the intricate intros and stunning transitions behind some time ago, but when she recently pulled out a box of old cassettes that featured her at the peak of her mixing and scratching days, she admits to being inspired. That inspiration expresses itself in many ways.
She helps out at a school for DJs where kids are learning the rudiments of the craft. “If I can teach the new kids how to DJ, it’s a pleasure,” she says. More than a pleasure, she knows that by transmitting the knowledge that she has, she is helping to ensure her legacy, and the legacy of all the other DJs who made the sacrifices to perfect their skills. But she isn’t stuck on the past, either.
“I personally think it’s the technology that has changed the game,” says Lazy K. “There’s no more exclusives anymore.”
In order for Lazy K to have an exclusive record, like the old days, she explains that she gets artist, producer and engineer in the studio together and masterminds the record herself. “I’m your record deal,” she says. “Now its not DJ Lazy K, its Lazy K productions.”
The real question at hand, though, is whether or not the real style can come back. Scratching, mixing, and putting your personality on a tape isn’t old school, its true school. For the slouch DJs who don’t even make the effort, the three DJs sitting in this room have little time for you. But it goes deeper than just a fight over what the art is; the industry itself has changed.
Technology is one force of change, as Lazy K pointed out. Showtime talks about the transition from live DJ to DAT and ADAT tape onstage, but the change is even more insidious than that. There is a real conspiracy by record labels to weed out the DJs who aren’t team players. Those who refuse to wear a corporate brand or ride with a label have gotten increasingly short shrift.
In response, Lazy insists that “mixtapes are the new record labels”, and Showtime and Smooth nod agreement. Mixtapes may be the new record labels, but a single DJ does not have the type of corporate money behind him or her that a major label does. Luckily, that doesn’t seem to count as much anymore these days, when the labels are hesitant to allocate promotion dollars to anyone but the biggest names.
So it makes sense for a DJ to go back to the traditional route, pairing up with an artist to try to make greater gains together than alone. Lazy K has had great success recently with Harlem rapper Max B, but her brand and name was well established even before the two paired up, because of the work that she put in all those years as a working mixtape DJ.
Showtime’s got particularly strong feelings about DJs who try to make a name behind an artist without doing the hard work to get up on their own: “To all you cats out there, if an artist is not coming to you and asking you to work with them, get the fuck up off your knees and stop sucking their dicks to get them to host your tapes.”
For someone like Smooth Denali who isn’t necessarily dependent on the labels for new music anymore, the game has still taken a downhill slide. He talks about DJs coming into the game, wanting to do old school tapes and keep the classic material alive, “but they get the names wrong, like it’ll say ‘Biggie Smalls feat. Various Artists’… they don’t even know the names of the artists or songs!”
So it would seem that the game has taken a downturn because of many factors, some of which are entirely out of the control of the DJs. However, it seems that if there’s one thing that Lazy K, Showtime and Smooth Denali agree on, it’s that new DJs do not take the time or make the effort to educate themselves. This equates to a lack of respect. Properly educating oneself about the history and background of one’s culture is part of carrying it forward responsibly, and all three of these DJs have their stories about coming up and learning their craft from scratch.
But the situation does not seem hopeless, as these three are all quick to point out. There is still something to be said for new DJs who come into the game and try their hand at making mixtapes. But as Showtime says: “Find the cat who came before you. Study him. Pick his brain. Then go out and do your thing.”