B+: Kicks, Snares And B-Boy Glares
Despite the music they make, there's nothing laid back in the DVD footage captured by Brian "B+" Cross and Eric Coleman of DJ Dusk's legendary Soundclashes. Crate-digging stalwarts Madlib and Cut Chemist set the tradition off over five years ago, in a friendly game of sonic baseball, where the Stones Throw producer and Jurassic 5 mixmaster battled over four rounds, with vastly different techniques.
In the years to follow, The Rootdown club in Los Angeles played host to several other clashes. A People Under The Stairs' Thes One on the comeup met Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am defending his B-boy bravado in an emotionally charged battle, that still comes as controversial. Lastly, rising stars Exile and Oh No! squared off to honor Dusk shortly before the great deejay and host died tragically.
Author of It's Not About A Salary, the famed Hip Hop photographer and videographer B+ spoke with HipHopDX about an unsung hero of the wild west, as well as brings significance to the recently-released Soundclash DVD. The interview may be just as close as some of us ever get to Madlib, and the scholar and culturalist explains why some of his friends are just so unbelievably dope behind the boards, with or without an audience.
HipHopDX: Tell me about how Soundclash, as we see it on this DVD, came to be?
B+: We just found out about it like anybody else at that time. There was quite a buzz in L.A. about it. The new kid on the block was Madlib, and Cut [Chemist] had kind of been the stalwart, especially in the scene around The Rootdown for a very long time. We had heard talk that Miles [Tackett] and [DJ] Dusk from The Rootdown were organizing a soundclash. Nobody could even believe that it was going to go down when it went down. It was like a super big deal locally. At that point, Cut had a national reputation, but not anything like what he has now. And Madlib was known through heads, but certainly not anything close to the way he's known now, internationally.
There was no formal discussion between us and Rootdown at the time. It was me and Eric [Coleman], and we had just been commissioned to do a music video in Japan. So we had bought these cameras, that at the time were a really big deal - now they're like five generations. At the time, they were like super hot shit, fully manual, single-chip cameras. We were like, "Let's bring the cameras." So we did it, and we shot.
To be honest with you, the battle itself blew everybody's mind and there was plenty of discussion afterwards as to who won, who came with the iller music and everything. But when myself and Eric went home after that, we put the two cameras on the floor, and were watching. The first thing that struck us was, whoa, we weren't communicating at all during the battle, but if he was on close, I'd be on wide, or if he was on Cut, I'd be on Madlib. It seemed like we totally had walkie-talkies or something. It was telekinetic. So we brought them to the next one.
We never thought we'd do anything with it. It was just something that the homies would come over and want to watch. It was so improvised, so state of the moment. There's technical issues, like sound was never recorded. But there was always something about the moment that was captured that was compelling. Really, to be honest with you, it wasn't until Dusk passed tragically really [that we thought we'd release it].
DX: You're a Los Angeles Hip Hop historian. What was Rootdown, before Soundclash, and what did Dusk bring to Rootdown?
B+: Rootdown started as a club called The Breaks. In the early '90s, you were likely to see Eazy-E standing next to The Pharcyde [click to read] at the club. As radio got involved and everything became monumentally commercial, the scene changed. One of those things that changed for the better was we started to really have concrete, good clubs with cats like Cut, Dusk, Miles could come and play a more roots-orientated Hip Hop. A lot of music that was sampled would be played. A lot of the hard Funk would be played. It was more of an expansive view of listening to Hip Hop. It was the first generation of clubs to do that. As you see in the video, it's not a jiggy spot; it's pretty run down. Every week, there's Madlib, there's Cut, whoever was in town would be there.
What Dusk brought to it was he was the figurehead of it. He was the one that would always be on the mic. He was the one who'd tell you it was time for last call. He was always the one who was bigging up who was walking in. As you can see in the packaging, he had all his catch-phrasing. He was the consumate host and a damn good deejay as well. Miles, on the other side, was with The Breakestra. The Breakestra was like the house band. It was like The Good Life [click to read] before it.
DX: The sound on the DVD is so good. You said you didn't have sound...
B+: Well, it's the sound from those little Sony PC-100's, man. We helped it a little bit, but that's pretty much how we got. When we did Brasilintime, we mixed it on 48 tracks. This, we really only had two, from two little condenser mics on the [camera].
DX: You said how debated that first battle on here, Cut Chemist vs. Madlib was. Their techniques are so different. These are both friends of yours, but who do you think won?
B+: At the time, I thought Cut got it. Not because the music he played was better, but because he pulled the old deejay battling trick of dissing homeboy in the last round where he doesn't really have a chance to come back at you. Stratetically, as far as the performance, I think Cut took it. To flip it the other way, if the measure of it is who brought the most new music to the table and who just dropped super, super bombs, Otis [Madlib] took it. [Sighs] It's a hard one. I love 'em both.
I think that what's interesting about it is, in most people's crates, Cut Chemist and Madlib live side by side. And you don't really think about them as different, unless people like you and me sit down and really think about how different they really are. They are profoundly different - opposing, really, in terms of the way they work. Cut is notorious - he did a remix for us and he remastered it like six times. Madlib doesn't go to his mastering sessions. The great thing about those soundclashes is you had a chance to really understand what's different about these guys, like Thes One and will.i.am [click to read]. It developed its own internal [pecking order]. If Cut was the "king," then Thes One was going to be the "baron." I don't know if that's obvious, but in Thes' mind, that what he was referencing. It's all on the night. That night Cut had a better strategy. In the bigger picture, Otis was opening up a new door. That was the first time a lot of that [Yesterday's New Quintet] stuff got played out. A lot of those beats ended up being hits for Wildchild, M.E.D. and people like that. It's just crazy to see it in its raw form. We've been talking about doing a tour around these, and [these guys today] are like, "We don't to battle." [Laughs] If we work it out right, I think it's possible.
DX: I'm so impressed with the will.i.am vs. Thes One battle...
B+: To be honest, that one was more controversial in my mind...
DX: Which is what I want to ask you. At that point, in 2002, Will was up against a wall with those heads with some of The Black Eyed Peas' direction. To some extent, I'm sure Will is returning to his roots. This battle translates to one with a lot of passion. Yes, these gentlemen have respect for each other, but this is a B-boy battle...
B+: It's a battle. Completely! They are not pullin' no punches. It was serious. It was heavy.
DX: What happens when everybody's turning off their equipment? With Cut Chemist and Madlib, they're playing with each other. With Thes and Will, it's pretty intense...
B+: I remember photographing Madlib and Cut together afterwards, the night of the battle. They were arm in arm, like, "Yeah, we did it!" I don't remember it being that kind of moment with Thes and Will. I'm sure they were cool, and they shook hands on stage, and definitely, it's a respect thing. Again, you realize that these aren't practices that exist in a vacuum. There is a real reason to why Will is will.i.am and why Thes is Thes One. Will is successful, and Thes is successful too. Thes is able to live from his music. Maybe he doesn't live at the standard of living Will does, but he's good. And he's able to do exactly the kind of music he wants to do, and that's a success. It's a trip, man.
DX: Five years ago, Oh No! and Exile went at it. What's wild to me is that in the last year or so, both of these guys have truly arrived in the national Hip Hop consciousness. Is that last battle a passing of the torch, from the Cuts and Madlibs to the next generation?
B+: Yeah. For sure. To me, it was definitely a generational shift from Cut and Otis through Thes and Will, moving forward, to cats who are little younger - and I don't mean younger in terms of age, but in terms of where cats started to get their shine, to Exile and Oh No!. They had all been on the scene, except for Madlib, because he was from Oxnard, but he'd been on an [Alkaholiks] [click to read] record ["Turn Tha Party Out"]. Will's on the same [plain], 'cause Will's been around a fuckin' long time, dude! People don't give him any credit, but I'd seen him win rappin' battles at the Hip Hop Shop out here in like '91. Will is an incredible success story, for all the bullshit people give him. From making it out of the projects of East L.A. to - I was fuckin' with him at [The Democratic National Convention], and in this presidency, [Black Eyed Peas] [click to read] is one of the groups, which is pretty far out. The funny thing is, he did end up writing "Where Is The Love?" [click to read] that night in the studio with Justin Timberlake. He makes a joke [in the DVD] too, saying, "I'm gonna play this beat. If this beat doesn't do it for you, I gotta go, 'cause I've got to be in the studio with Justin Timberlake." And people started booing.
DX: So that joke was serious?
B+: That's completely serious. When we finished the first version of the DVD, we sent it out. He watched it and hit me back like, "Oh shit! That really was the night that we wrote 'Where Is The Love!' I'm so happy you guys captured that shit. That just feels like it needed to be captured."
DX: I joke with his publicist often that I'll likely get to interview Dr. Dre before I interview Madlib. He's so evasive. You're one of the people that's truly documented him. Why is he this way, and for those of us curious, what's he really like?
B+: To me, it's hard to speak about Otis. The context in which we think about him gets bigger every year. I remember when we first started paying attention to his process, I was like, "He's kind of like Lee 'Scratch' Perry right now." He's recording over his own tapes. He's got this arc, where he's collecting sonic examples of what we need to get us through this, and making us paying attention. He gives you a new set of ears. That's the gift to me.
You can make comparisons. [Thelonious] Monk. Sun Ra. Lee Scratch. It just goes on. I think what distinguishes those kind of people is that they just make hear music in new [ways]. He can do that with anything. He goes on phases. Sometimes it comes across when plays out. I've seen him play a 25 minute drum solo in front of a Hip Hop crowd in Brazil. People didn't know how to deal with it. It was like a proper backpack crowd, and he played drums for 25 minutes. We had just put [J Dilla] on an emergency air flight to come home. It was a super spiritual vibe. Just to see him get that open in front of people was super heavy. I got a lot of love for that guy. He's really inspired me and a lot of people. He's got a work ethic that smokes everybody. It's not about hours, because that's finite. It's about a commitment to those hours. He does not play. He goes and makes music rigorously, every day of his life. I don't take photographs or make videos like that, and I work hard!
People meet him and he's super quiet and people mistake that for [naivety]. No. He's not. He's super, completely connected to what's going on. I have a lot of respect for him. You can find a reason to dislike any one of his records, if you really want to. What you can't take away from him is the amount of music that he makes. I go back and play people the [Shades of Blue] record, and they're just blown away. That's six years ago. How many records has he done in the meantime?
DX: As somebody who's made Los Angeles Hip Hop culture so accessible to so many people, where are we at right now?
B+: In some weird way, I feel like we're in a really good place right now. In the strictest sense of the word, if it means we're gonna have more multi-platinum records, I'm not sure. In terms of the strength and scale of things that we're able to pull off out here, we're just getting bigger and better, and that's good for everybody. Mochilla, we're about to do a series of concerts in '09 with Arthur Verocai, Carlos Nino and Miguel Atwood-Fergusson, David Axelrod and Mulatu Astatke. Four years ago, I couldn't have imagined that. It feels big, like a lot of positive things are going on. Bilal is out here working. Count Bass-D is out here working. They're feeling L.A. right now. I ran into The Game [click to read] at the airport; he seemed like he was in good form.