I’m a sucker for turntablist albums. That’s not going to surprise anybody given my e-mail address on this website reads “DJ Flash” but I thought you should know that going in. Lest you get the wrong idea though, I was never a turntablist on the level of one Lucas MacFadden, better known to the public as Cut Chemist. In fact comparing what I did as a college radio DJ to the mindbending musical wizardry he displays with turntables and mixers would be like comparing a Little League baseball player to Ichiro Suzuki. Honestly I was never in their league and even if I got back in the game right now with a set of Technics and practiced day and night for ten years I wouldn’t have the talent Cut Chemist has in his left pinky finger.
The thing that’s most impressive about a great turntablist album isn’t merely the ability to perform tricks. I’ve been wowed ever since the first time I heard Grandmaster Flash take us for an adventure on the wheels of steel, and I will never forget the first time Jazzy Jeff did a Transformer scratch and it blew my mind, but at the end of the day a whole album of showing your technique would be like a whole movie of watching Bruce Lee kick mannequins and break boards. You could admire the technical expertise of the skills displayed, but after five minutes that shit would get boring QUICK and you’d want to move on to something else. What sets a turntablist’s album apart isn’t good hands, it’s good EARS. You have to hear the break to catch the break, and you have to recognize which breaks will appeal to a hip-hop aesthetic, which makes the Jamaican title of “selector” for a DJ all the more apt. Bad selections? Bad riddims. The greats of turntablism, from crews like The X-Ecutioners to individual artists like DJ Q-Bert, exhibit the ability to mesh different layers of sound together and create songs from the ground up. At times this blurs the line between what a “DJ” and what a producer is – Premier is clearly both, while nobody would expect Pharrell to scratch a record. Thus the clear standard for a turntablism album has to be more than just DMC World Champion level skills – it has to be beats and in some cases even rhymes that you want to hear along with the tricks.
For my money “The Audience’s Listening” fits the bill. It’s an apt title for an artist who in recent years was perhaps best known for his performances with Jurassic 5. As a group firmly devoted to all the different elements of hip-hop arts, J5 routinely gave Cut Chemist and fellow DJ Nu-Mark both the time and space on their albums and at live shows to cultivate the rapt attention of the listeners. Chemist is a vinyl historian who pays tribute to the seminal work of pioneers from the 70’s and 80’s while still providing futuristic beats that a 21st century audience can relate to. He gets things off to a humorous start on this CD with “Motivational Speaker,” lacing together everything from Rakim samples to folksy banjo twang all while extolling the virtues of what DJ’s offer the world through corny dialogue clearly lifted from educational records – you know, the stuff that always sounds like a black & white Movietone newsreel. Come to think of it why doesn’t somebody do an entire turntablist album made up of great beats, scratches, and Ed Herlihy samples?
I digress. Cut Chemist employs several hip-hop artists throughout this album to give rhymes to his beats; most notably Edan and Mr. Lif on “Storm” and Hymnal on “What’s the Altitude.” These rap performances do enhance the hip-hop presentation as a whole, but thanks to Cut Chemist’s quick hands and sharp ear the record could have easily survived without them. “(My 1st) Big Break” is an amusing pastiche of surf rock guitars and the robot inspired visions of Bruce Haack. Are these names or terms you need to know? Of course not – “(My 1st) Big Break” is just plain fun to listen to. The same can be said for songs where Chemist displays more of his turntablist wizardry such as “The Garden.” Whether or not you recognize Astrud Gilberto or the song “Bermibau” won’t matter, because the sounds are very intoxicating when drunk in the heady mix of Chemist’s scratching and beats. Anybody who can’t enjoy this song would clearly have to BE a robot. Chemist clearly revels in getting ever more obscure with his musical selections at times, but unless you are trying to recreate his crates what do you care? Just dig into “Spoons” and “A Peak in Time” and appreciate them for what they are – funky ass hip-hop jams ranging from slow and spacy to frentic energy.
Rating this album for lyrics is a little shallow given that actual rhyming makes up so little of the content, so the scores here are going to be switched up to a standard more in line with turntablism – Music and Manipulation. On both levels I would say that the audience IS indeed listening – you can enjoy the songs on a musical level but you can appreciate the skill with which Chemist performs the wizardry on the 1’s and 2’s making it all happen. It might be too early to call Cut Chemist’s “The Audience’s Listening” a masterpiece in 2006, let alone in the pantheon of all-time great turntablist albums like “Wave Twisters,” but Cut Chemist defintely proves here that branching out from Jurassic 5 to pursue a solo career was anything but a mistake. Even if he tours solo by himself performing these and other tracks, audiences will still be listening for years to come.