We’re a long way from turntablism’s halcyon days in the late 90s and early 00s, when stars such as Mix Master Mike and Qbert scratched and picked their way across the globe. The shows were frequently amazing – jaw dropping displays of technique and skill set against the visceral backdrop of rap music – but the hyper-technical sub-genre slowly began to plough a narrower and narrower plot, one with little room for music or music listeners. By the middle of last decade it had disappeared up its own ass completely, taking its most ardent supporters with it.
In that sense, DJ Yoda is something of a survivor. He’s one of the precious few who turned their technicality behind the decks into something that could be listened to away from nerd nights and DMC championships. Over the last decade, demand for the Englishman’s services seems to have snowballed, his penchant for off-the-wall hooks and delirious visual mash-ups making his live show a giddy treat.
That demand stretches well beyond England, and before a recent trip to Australia I connected to Yoda over Skype to chat about turntablism, his recent album Chop Suey, and just exactly what it’s like to work with Michael Winslow (yeah, that Michael Winslow). The interview was originally conducted for a Scene Magazine feature story, but is reproduced in its entirety below for Passion of the Weiss. — Matt Shea
Let’s talk about your album a bit first. Chop Suey – it’s your first for a number of years. How long has this been in the pipeline for?
It’s been six years in the making, which is kind of crazy. The reason it took so long is that firstly, it was not the only thing I was working on. I was touring the whole time, I was releasing mix CDs the whole time. I had all these different collaborative projects going on so really I was finding I was getting one day a week to work on the album, which is not really a good way to get into the flow of it and I think I learned a lot of lessons that way and there’s absolutely no way the next album will take that long. But the flipside of it taking so long is that I’m really happy with it. I just got it to a point where every song I felt totally happy with it. I’ve got no regrets about the way it sounds and I’m really pleased with how it sounds right now.
Talking about the gestation, did it change your creative aims for the record?
There were a couple of issues with that. Quite interestingly, a couple of songs that I started right near the beginning of the process were very influenced by Baltimore club music, which was something that I was playing a lot in the clubs at that point. Then that whole fashion came and went while I was recording it. But at the end of the day, I wanted to make an album that doesn’t sound bang on trend to the point where it’s irrelevant in a year’s time. And I think I got away with that. It sounds like something you could return to in five years’ time or ten years’ time. There are all these sub-genres of dance music that come and go, year by year, and although I like a lot of them I understand that they aren’t necessarily going to last forever.
Well what you do is plugged right into rap music and hip-hop. And I think hip-hop is always a bit more timeless than other genres on the club side of things – particularly the genres and sub-genres that tend to dominate the UK.
Yeah, and the thing is, as I was making it – just the beats, before the vocals arrived – I was thinking to myself, “I don’t know what genre of music that I’m making here. This is like some new thing; it’s a new genre.” But as soon as someone started rapping over the beats I thought, “Oh, it’s hip-hop – I just didn’t realise.” (laughs)
The LP concept’s copped a lot of flak over the last few years, with people predicting its demise. Your interest in things visual makes me wonder in particular: would you describe yourself as a big believer in the album?
Yeah. We all grew up on albums and I don’t think the album concept will disappear. One of the main things I wanted to achieve with this project was that it did sit together as an album and that it’s something you can listen together like that. I’m a realist and appreciate that some people will download two songs off it or will only experience tracks because they’re part of a mix with a load of other songs. That happens and that’s the way I digest music too, but at the same time I want it to all fit together because I know that some people like that.
Michael Winslow: how did you get onto him?
He was the funniest guy. That day recording, the engineer just did not stop pissing himself. He couldn’t keep a straight face, because the guy just doesn’t switch off. He’s making those sounds the whole time. The point at which we finished the session, I went to open the door to leave the studio, and he’s make Star Trek door effects. He just doesn’t switch off; he’s very funny.
I wanted to talk to you about turntablism also. Turntablism’s obviously a long way from its golden era of the late 90s and early 2000s, but would you describe it as being in any kind of good place at all in 2012-2013?
No, It’s virtually dead. And on the one hand it is kind of sad because I do come from that background, but it kind of killed itself. It just got to this ridiculously technical level. I lost interest in it. It was just really over technical and no longer about entertaining people. And for me, the reason I love DJing is that it’s something that’s fun, and I think that level of scratch nerdiness – it lost the fun.
In the mid-90s it almost looked like it would take over certain parts of rap music. Could you ever imagine it making any sort of comeback?
I think that’s a section of history now that’s just happened. Also, the turntable – as sad as it is – the Technics turntable was the foundation, the instrument that people used for turntablism, and that is bit-by-bit dying. I’m even at a point now where I’m starting to do a few gigs without using Technics turntables, which was unthinkable to me ten years ago. But the thing is, the clubs are no longer supporting turntables. There are a few venues I turn up at where the people are like, “I can’t believe you need to use a turntable.” I feel like the last guy out there who’s still using them, which also adds this weird relevance to the name DJ Yoda (laughs).
But on the other hand, I’m not just about pining for the old days, because there’s so much good stuff now to concentrate on. And I’m glad that I have that foundation of turntablism and that skill to use, because when I do play – when I’m playing trap music or something like that – I’ve got that skill that not many out there have, and kids who are starting now are mixing stuff on laptops.
What about the LA beats scene? Is that something that interests you? After all, the man credited with helping to kick it all off – Kutmah – is originally an Englishman.
Yeah, I think it’s fascinating as well to look at the key names of turntablism from around the turn of the century and see what they’re all doing now. Most of them are massive successes, but doing very different stuff. And I think that’s exactly what I was just talking about, because if you’ve got that foundation of skill you rise to the top of anything you choose to do musically. And that’s why I think it’s so important. And a lot of people ask the question to me, “What should I do when I’m starting?” and I’m like, “Learn to mix with records and a mixer. Learn that foundation and build upon that with technology and whatever else you want to use to be creative.” If you have that foundation of understanding DJing on the level it started from, you’re going to have a solidity and background that will make you so much better than everyone else around you.” Look at people like Hudson Mohawke and Craze and A-Trak, and these guys are all scratch nerds. It’s not about scratching now, but they’ve got that background, which raises them above everyone else.
I caught you talking a month or so ago about how in your eyes hip-hop has become good again recently. Which artists are really attracting your attention?
Oh man, it’s exploded. I love it. I could play an all hip-hop set now. I have pretty diverse taste, but guys like Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Evidence and Alchemist and that sort of sound, but also I really like the commercial, proper American sound: Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar’s amazing. There’s tonnes of stuff man – there’s a lot of good new hip-hop. Five years ago, I couldn’t count on one hand the number of good hip-hop artists who were around, and certainly ten years there was just nothing. But that’s my background – straight-up rap music – and from about 2000 to 2010 it went through this really bad period.
And what about British hip-hop? That’s what you grew up on: how is it placed in the modern day, do you think?
That’s really morphed into grime. The British MC sound is very much related to grime now, and it can work over any genre as well. I don’t feel like there’s a UK rap scene anymore, but more a UK MC seen.
What’s your preferred equipment these days? Are you on analogue or digital?
Two turntables with Serato and a Rane mixer, and I use that for the AV shows as well as the DJ shows. It’s a really simple setup. It just allows me to bring the focus right back to the turntables.