Life moves in cycles.
Every death yields a rebirth. Every rebirth unfolds into a new life. Cut Chemist can attest. On his long-awaited second full-length solo album Die Cut, the trailblazing DJ and producer underwent a creative birth reflected in its 17 tracks. The artist augments his signature approach famously earmarked by impeccable sample selection, searing scratching, and big-screen worthy arrangements with the inclusion of A-list musicians, “songwriter structure,” and a whole lot of team spirit.
“This is the death of a musical identity and the birth of another,” he affirms. “It isn’t just the cut-and-paste style anymore. I’m collaborating with more musicians and sampling less. Of course, I still scratch. That’s where I came from, and people would throw shit at me if I didn’t (I’d throw shit at me!),” he laughs. “This is different. The content is emotionally heavier, even though it’s still fun. It harks back to the energy you can share with live musicians rather than being a DJ alone on stage. I wanted to capture that with this style of music."
That’s exactly what he did, but it certainly wasn’t easy. Emerging from a period of intense personal turmoil in 2010 that included a 30-day stint in jail for a DUI and a series of deaths in the family within six months, Cut Chemist found himself at a creative standstill.
“A lot of shit happened,” he admits. “I got out of jail, and I faced one death after another. Coming back home, I wasn’t able to drive, and I felt like I was in prison still. I wasn’t feeling artistic at all.”
Enter Carlos Nino. Cut Chemist called his longtime friend to act as associate producer and production coordinator. He holed up in Comp-ny Studios four blocks from home and invited a revolving door of high-profile musicians to contribute such as drum superstar Deantoni Parks [The Mars Volta], rap legend Biz Markie, actress Erika Christensen, tune-yards, Farmer Dave Scher, Dexter Story, and more. They comprised his studio “band”. Between his high-profile reunion with his rap group Jurassic 5 at Coachella 2013, he dedicated nearly two years to arranging “crazy amounts of cutting room material” before starting the mixing process during 2014 with Benjamin Tierney [Kamasi Washington, The Gaslamp Killer Experience] and Andy Kravitz [Billy Joel, The Fugees, Cypress Hill, Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince]. Operating out of The Exchange in London, Mike Marsh completed mastering in 2017 as the final product brought a comprehensive and airtight vision to life.
“I think the reason why it takes me so long to make an album is because I’m not just making individual songs; I’m making one cohesive narrative,” he explains. “Each song contributes to a story. I had more of a poignant story to tell now. I was harder on myself in terms of my production and the flow. It’s like I came out of a tunnel.”
Fittingly, he introduces the album with the cyberpunk rap of “Work My Mind” [feat. Chali 2na and Hymnal]. As glitchy synths squeal, samples shuffle, and scratches scorch, the MCs trade bulletproof bars punctuated by a squelch of sirens that could be likened to HAL 9000 getting exorcism.
“‘Work My Mind’ gets back to the roots, but it’s also blending post-punk, electronic, and a little hip-house,” he says. “It provides a connection to the last album 'The Audiences Listening" with Hymnal and Jurassic 5 with Chali 2na. It captures the new, middle, and old all together as one. Lyrically, I felt it was pretty relevant. There’s so much shit going on with the news. Our minds are getting worked constantly. This battle for our minds and souls has been going on for a long time though. It tackles that IDEA.”
Sampling the French post-punk and industrial outfit, Vox Populi!, the opener “METALSTORM” [feat. Edan and Mr. Lif] represents an important first for Cut Chemist. Driven by a vicious verse volley between Edan and Mr. Lif, our hero makes his directorial debut with the music video.
“This one is a big deal,” he smiles. “‘METAL STORM’ was the first song created for the album. It’s a sequel to the song “Storm” from Audience’s Listening which also featured Edan and Lif. I wanted to make a video art piece for this song since it was my maiden voyage into a new body of music. This song represents the past of where I was, as well as the futre of where I was going musically. I came up with the title behind bars, surrounded by metal.”
The soul piano of “Moonlighting” provides the perfect backdrop for golden era rap icon Biz Markie to kick a freestyle off the top of his head. “DIE CUT (THEME)” tempers breathy industrial with an onslaught of percussive power courtesy of Deantoni. The musical architect also picks up an electric guitar and shreds up a storm for the first time on wax. On “Plane Jane” [feat. Hymnal and the Precious Hectic], he grabs his dad’s old acoustic, transforming a Hymnal idea into “folk rap.” The lead single “Home Away From Home” [feat. Laura Darlington] hints at Die Cut’s expansive scope.
A drone-y and dreamy buzz gives way to Darlington’s ethereal and entrancing delivery as she coos, “Log cabin FEVER dreams, slumber under quarantine, HYBERnation under God, upon our own flag we trod. Asleep…”
“It’s a transition on the album,” he remarks. “It feels like a spring awakening. You’re rising up from the darkness. It’s the trajectory changing.”
Die Cut serves as a natural progression from his now classic 2006 debut, The Audience’s Listening. Gaining cult status, it received praise from A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly, and more as Alternative Press awarded it a rare perfect score upon release. After entering the game in 1987 and enjoying stints in his founding groups, Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli, the record established him as a cultural force. The title track soundtracked an Apple commercial and “What’s The Altitude” went viral. Following a tour with Shakira in Europe, he even made appearances in the Academy® Award-nominated Juno, Jennifer’s Body, and Up In The Air.
2009 saw him seize his place in the pantheon of Los Angeles legends, headlining the Hollywood Bowl alongside DJ Shadow. Switching up his legendary live show yet again, he launched the Sound of the Police tour and acclaimed Mix Set. During the jaunt, he eschewed the typical two turntable setup in favor of just one turntable, a mixer, loop pedal to do live samples, and only original vinyl pressings. It remains a high watermark to this day. At the same time, he upped the ante again with the Tunnel Vision tour. Taking usual suspects such as Edan, Paten Locke, Mr. Lif, Myka 9, and Deantoni along for the ride, he rocked his own festival-style run where each act participated in the other’s sets.
Now, Die Cut signals the start of a new era for Cut Chemist. It’s a rebirth he’s earned.
“I want people to get back into listening to albums and appreciating a narrative from song-to-song,” he leaves off. “At the same time, this is who I am. I loved the name Cut Chemist when my friend’s dad came up with it in 1988, because I dug the alliteration and how a chemist puts together solutions. I still experiment with blending styles and creating genres. That’s what I’ll always do. I can’t just do something down the middle. I like to take a little bit of this and a little bit of that to create something new. I hope that’s what Die Cut is for you.”