Djing with Z-Trip
Los Angeles, California
Two Italian boys having a conversation, a composition right on beat about what should be most important to those pursuing a career in music. Z-Trip, one of the most well rounded DJs in the world, instinctively knows how to move a crowd. Each show is better than the last as he experiments with live drums, video, and crowd participation. All mixed with precision because he is so in tune with the way different types of music and generosity can inspire. So willing to give his music and time to others because that interaction and connection with people is what really matters to him. Breaking down the steps he has taken to get where he is today, offering advice on self promotion, discussing the difficulties and rewards of his profession, Z-Trip reminds us that there are still some people making music for all the right reasons.
*This interview contains explicit content.*
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to be a DJ?
Z-Trip: I was probably around 15, 16. I always wanted to learn how to scratch because I thought that was incredible but I played drums and I was into music before all of that. It got to a point where people were saying things like, “You’ve got all these records why don’t you come over to my house party and play some records?” I had this ability I guess you would say to play all the right records that would make people dance and have a good time. And that came so second nature to me that I realized that I should probably turn this into a career, I should turn this into something. Back then it was like I could make forty bucks at this next house party, but that sparked me making mix-tapes. Me giving away all the mix-tapes, not really making any money on the first three or four mix-tapes I made. I just made them to get them out there so people could have my stuff to listen to.
CCB: How did you learn about DJing?
Z-Trip: I would say I’m pretty self taught. One of the big influences on me when I was listening to DJs mix was Marley Marl in New York. He was on WBLS back when I was listening to him and Mr. Magic. You had Red Alert on Kiss FM and I think those were the people that influenced my style of DJing. It was just all curiosity that led me to the next step. I’d stay in the house and try and figure out how to scratch or how are you supposed to weigh your needles so they don’t skip. I used to take a magnifying glass to old Cash Money and Jazzy Jeff records to look at their turntables that were in the pictures to see how they had them set. All that shit was stuff I had to learn at my house off of the little bit of information that I had access to. Like occasionally you would see LL Cool J on Saturday Night Live and you’d have to watch the DJs that he had.
I would go downtown. I would go to the swap meet and maybe I would see some guy spinning records and I would just sit and watch him. It wasn’t like I was able to go to all these clubs and shit either because I went from New York to Arizona and sort of back and forth around that time because my parents were divorced. So you tried to soak it up wherever you could and that was the thing I think that really made my style the way it is now because it wasn’t handed to me on a platter. I had to really do a lot of soul searching and finding out what I liked and what worked for me and that whole process which is really very introverted. At the end of the day it definitely helped make me who I am.
CCB: Your album Shifting Gears has a very old school feel to it. You have break beats and people like Whipper Whip and Grandmaster Caz on it. Does that have any connection to you growing up in New York?
Z-Trip: Most definitely. The record to me starts out very much on some b-boy shit, like some old school party rocking. Then over the course of the album it sort of ends up being very futuristic and going anywhere. The first record had to be a hip-hop record. There’s no way it could have not been. I felt like if I was going to make the first record it had to be an ode to where I came from and very much not for everybody to get, not a full record for everybody to wrap their head around but just a record that really meant a lot to me. The Beastie Boys is a great example, they came out with their first record and it was everything that they were about. They’re youth, they’re punk, they’re everything hip-hop all wrapped up into one. That allowed them to branch out to Paul’s Boutique which is more introverted and funky, a completely different album than the first one. And I feel like because they had Licensed to Ill as their first record they’ll always be able to go anywhere. That’s what I felt Shifting Gears was. The ability for me to anchor with that record and now I can turn around and make the rock funk cover record or a fucking all instrumental string quartet record. I can sort of go anywhere but having that be my first record to me artistically was the only choice I had really.
CCB: Do you mind me asking what equipment you use to produce your beats?
Z-Trip: Oh yeah, not at all. At the end of the day it all came down to Pro Tools at the very last stages but at the early stages it was an Ensoniq ASR-10. It’s sort of my drum machine of choice I guess you’d say. You know turntables, mixer, CDJ, that kind of stuff and then I had some live musicians come in and play some guitar parts and bass parts and stuff like that. But I think the next record I’m going to sit down and record some live drums. I’ve got a couple of really dope drummers that I want to get down with.
CCB: When you produce your albums do you get on there and play the drums? Do you play any other instruments as well?
Z-Trip: I play the keyboard a bit just sort of melody style, nothing fancy. I’m no piano-man or anything like that. But on the next record that I make I’m definitely gonna get on the kit at some point.
CCB: Is there anything to look forward to concert-wise?
Z-Trip: Well, DJ Qbert and I have been talking about doing a tour together. We’ve been talking about it and figuring out the bits and pieces to it. I’m thinking that it might be a combo of my last big tour that I did with all the bells and whistles and maybe some of what he’s got as well. Make it really cohesive and a good hour and forty five minutes of just non-stop boom boom boom boom. We’re talking about doing like twenty dates over the States, we just don’t necessarily know where. We’re going to hit all the major markets I think and I’m really excited about that because that’s a big project for me.
(*Editor's Note: Since this interview took place I had the pleasure of seeing Z-Trip in concert again in New York City. I saw Z-Trip in the midst of his All Pro Tour promoting his soundtrack to the new video game from 2KSports. There was an opening act DJ playing when all of a sudden Z-Trip casually walked on stage, no introduction, and started playing a drum beat that went perfectly with the song playing. What an entrance! His drums were only one of the highlights of the show, he had visual images complementing every song he played, and then shared the stage with hip-hop legend Rakim. He always builds momentum during his shows, skillfully creating unique mixes and blending songs together that you would have never imagined could work so well. Afterwards he spent hours talking to anyone who wanted to say hello. He told us that he will be working on an instrumental album with a buddy of his named Pete, a live band project with both of them on the drums. He is currently doing a lot of music for video games, and recently did some songs exclusively for the new EA Sports game Skate out now for Xbox 360 and PS3.)
CCB: What qualities do you think somebody needs to succeed as a DJ?
Z-Trip: I think they have to be humble. They have to be extremely humble and they have to have a shit-load of passion. On top of that even more dedication and at the very end of the day they need to have no expectations. My philosophy that worked for me is plan for the worst but hope for the best. If you plan to have five hours worth of a set versus an hour, if you just over plan and plan for fuckin’ the worst scenario chances are when you get there it will be smooth sailing. I take this more seriously than anything. Like this is it. Like if I break my hands I’m fucked. If my hearing goes out I’m fucked. If I have a bad performance at the wrong place at the wrong time I’m fucked. So, its like you have to have your guard up and you have to be digging constantly. You have to be keeping an eye on trends and cultures and knowing what music works in which region. There are so many different aspects of keeping it together, that it’s a lot of hard work, man. It’s definitely obtainable and possible but you’ve got to cut a lot of shit out of your life. To a degree you’ve got to cut out a certain amount of chicks, a certain amount of responsibility to all your friends and family and even physically yourself. If you want it bad enough you’ll do it. You’ve got to practice and overcome shit. You’ve got to look back from time to time and sort of gauge if you’ve been progressing or not because you have to evolve. It has to evolve and get better because your fan-base is going to want to see that, people are going to want to see that, you’re going to want to see that. So you’ve got to be good and always getting better on one hand and then the rest is all the other things I said, dedication on and on and on.
CCB: Do you consider yourself a mix-tape DJ, a turntablist, or a little bit of both?
Z-Trip: I feel like I can wear each hat a bit. I can’t say I’m the best turntablist so to speak. A guy who can do a little bit of everything really well and certain times I really excel in certain things and certain times I’m not as good as other guys. I tend to see myself as just a well rounded hip-hop DJ really.
CCB: How did you go about promoting yourself and your music so that people could hear it? Was it a lot of internet, was it radio, and do you have any advice for other people as far as promoting themselves and getting their names out there?
Z-Trip: I think myspace is probably the best fucking thing for anybody because people can just go right to it. I mean I think the biggest thing for me I would have to say that helps is word of mouth. The best form of promotion is always word of mouth. It’s better to have other people promoting you than to have you promoting you. It’s always going to work out that way because when it’s coming from you it’s genuine in its own right but it’s just not as genuine as somebody randomly bringing it up to another person. I’ve always been more receptive to that.
When I first started out making things I always just gave them away because it’s sort of the idea that if you give enough away a certain amount of people are going to start digging it and they’re going to pass it on to other people. I’m not really afraid of people making personal copies of my stuff and handing it to their friends. I was always sort of a fan of that actually because I do it. Ultimately I think that’s led to me having a bigger fan-base because people come to my shows. That’s where really the heart of this whole thing is seeing me play, seeing me do what I do. I’ve got to say I’m really blessed and really fortunate to be able to have that but it’s really all because I took my time with it. I was in no hurry. Record labels and all these people always want first week sales and that’s bullshit. A record might come out and I might have been fucking busy with life. Life might have just been busy for me and I never got a chance to go down to the record store and pick it up. But, I still have the curiosity and want to and eventually one day I’ll stumble across it and if I love it I’ll love it for the rest of my life. Fuck first week sales. I want something that’s timeless and classic. But to me that is the way a lot of the industry is geared and I think if you want to promote yourself you’ve got to distance yourself from that because that mentality does not ultimately work. It’s like throwing gasoline on the fire. BOOM, it’s a huge explosion but then what happens when it all goes out? It’s like trying to start a fucking charcoal grill. It’s a slow burn, you’ve got to get that shit burning slow and it will, burning all night.
CCB: I read a little bit on your Web site about how you left Hollywood Records. Are you going to try and be independent?
Z-Trip: I’m sort of having fun being independent at the moment. I’m definitely having fun because to me it’s allowing me to be who I was originally before I got involved with anybody else and I like that. Although I definitely want to get involved with somebody else I just don’t know who and I don’t know to what capacity yet. It’s sort of like when you’re new and you fall in love and you get your heart broken. The next time you fall in love you’re a little more gun shy and you’re a little more let me take it slow, let’s just date for a while.
CCB: Do they own your music now? Do they own Shifting Gears?
Z-Trip: Yeah that’s their album so…
CCB: That’s so sad. You put so much in to that.
Z-Trip: But the thing is like at the end of the day I can still do what I want to do with that music theoretically I mean. I can’t necessarily put it on a soundtrack or if somebody wants to use it for a commercial or something I can’t just go use it. It has to go through them and they want to make money off the record still because they paid me in advance. So, they’re probably still going to want to work that record, but chances are they’re not going to work that record like I’m going to work that record. If I’m still out there hustling that record and something happens from it and a track gets licensed for a TV show or whatever technically we still both win. It’s not like I don’t have access to my music to do what I want to do with it. It’s just one of those things where they have ownership of it.
CCB: There’s a featurette on the movie Scratch that you did called How to Rock a Party where you explain the basics of DJing. Are you interested in educating and helping other people learn more about DJing?
Z-Trip: I’m a huge fan of teaching and giving back. I just don’t get to do it as often as I’d like. If people ask me I’m always down to give them whatever sort of advice I can whether it be physically showing them something or giving them my heads up on the industry and just how I rolled with the punches. I think that’s crucial because I didn’t really have that and had I had that coming up I think it might have made me better.
CCB: Well you and Qbert are my heroes and one thing I really appreciate is the way that you guys stick around after a show. Could you speak a little bit about the importance of that? I’ve never seen anyone do it the way you do it where you literally set up a little camp and hang out and wait as long as the last person coming to say hello to you.
Z-Trip: That is super fucking important for me to connect with the people that my music has touched because that is what all of this is about. It’s about relating to people and communicating with people and interacting with people. It’s like once an artist makes something and releases it in to the world people latch on to it and it becomes a part of their DNA. It becomes a part of who they are and it’s the coolest thing to see how that stuff unfolds and how your music or your mix-tape or your energy can branch out and hit somebody up over in Czechoslovakia or whatever. Anytime I get to meet up with people at the end of a show and get to swap stories and just share some of that energy it’s great. It’s recharging too because there’s days and times where you’re sitting there and you’re trying to make that one thing work or you’re trying to make it happen and you’re coming up empty handed. Sometimes some of those people who just jump out to say I think you’re great or I dig what you do is that little bit of push that you need to keep doing it. Every DJ here at one point has stopped and said I might have to give this up. We keep the worst hours. We eat fucking the worst diet, our hearings are all fucked, our relationships are all scattered. This isn’t the most ideal mental and physical thing so I think at any point someone has had the idea of going I may just cash in my chips. When you get somebody who comes up to you and says what you did really changed the way I looked at mixing and changed who I am, that’s huge. To know that I have done that makes me want to do it again and again and again and I think Qbert is the same way. When you sit and you meet somebody, we need those fans as much as they need us. It’s a healthy relationship and you’ve got to spend the time and put in the work and to me I don’t mind. It’s real to me. It’s honest.
CCB: Can you discuss the importance of using vinyl and being able to do all this stuff live? Do you kind of frown upon Rane Serato and CD turntables?
Z-Trip: I’m always going to bring vinyl to the shows so I think it’s going to be one of those things where I’ll always be sort of middle of the road but I never was a hater. But, now that I’ve tried it (Serato) and they’ve worked all the bugs out too, it really is the thing to use and it’s sort of like I used to use CDJs to be the icing on my cake. Now I can just use Serato and have it be the icing on my cake and that’s kind of fresh you know.
CCB: Do you enjoy touring? How important is that to your career and do you have any advice for others on it?
Z-Trip: The advice on touring, well in order to get known you’ve got to do it. Also if you want to make a little bit of money you’ve got to do it because that’s really where artists make their money is on the road. I mean I enjoy it. There’s part of me that loves it and then there’s a part of me that fucking hates it. I’m hit and miss. But it’s an evil necessity. You have no choice. You have to be a part of it. You have to embrace it and you should, you should want to embrace it.
CCB: So what is coming next?
Z-Trip: I kind of want this next record to be everything that the first record wasn’t. Because I felt like I limited myself to a certain sound and feel that I had to capture. I had to put that down and now I feel like I don’t know what I want to do and that’s when I’m at my most creative. I think having the ability to do that will allow me to have that record evolve into what its going to be and right now it’s very much like I’m just drafting up plans. I want to really explore and have fun with and really go off on, and in whatever direction it takes me. I could come out with a fucking new age record all of a sudden or some smooth jazz record. But for me I feel like it’s always going to be rooted in having a very funky very boom bap sort of appeal to anything I do. It’s going to always have breaks and beats and cuts to it but I might not even do a record with any emcees. This next record might just be all instrumental. Who knows? I don’t know.
* Interview conducted by Michael Maniaci
Keep in tune with what Z-Trip is doing on his official web site: djztrip.com