Cut Chemist Works Backwards

Cut Chemist Works Backwards
With a listen to Cut Chemist’s free-wheeling, globe-trotting solo debut, The Audience’s Listening, one phrase comes to mind: off the cuff. That’s not to say it sounds rushed, but as Cut Chemist skips (seemingly) effortlessly from the smoky-smooth Brazilian beauty of "The Garden” to "My 1st Big Break,” with its surf guitar skittering across a wave of textured scratching and a bottom-heavy beat, he flaunts a diversity that is almost always associated with the tossed-off meanderings of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. In other words, this album seems imbued with the type of exuberance that perspective and reflection can only inhibit. As it turns out, all this spontaneity came at a steep price.

"That’s the part that took forever,” Cut Chemist says, and he’s not exaggerating much.

The Los Angeles-based DJ came up with the United Committee in the early ’90s, a group that would merge with the Rebels of Rhythm to create the Jurassic 5. Cut Chemist produced the entirety of J5’s classic self-titled debut EP and stayed with the group as they jumped to a major. Meanwhile, he was involved in Latin funk group Ozomatli, released a one-off with Shortkut and performed live shows with DJ Shadow, leading to the circulation of difficult-to-find bootlegs.

In late 2004, Cut Chemist left Jurassic 5 so he could focus on finishing The Audience’s Listening, a record he had already been working on for two years. He spent the following 18 months working exclusively on the album. It’s hard to imagine that such a buoyant album was crafted so meticulously, but make no mistake: Cut Chemist has poured over every scratch, snare and stab.

"I’m very sensitive to art being overdone, I just can’t stand it,” he says. "I’m a visual artist as well, and so the way I make drawings or paintings is that I put too much stuff in there and take away. That’s really the only way I know that I’ve utilised every option and come up with the best solution. It’s almost like I’m working backwards to make a song.”

He stacked sample over sample onto tracks and then removed the ones that didn’t work, one by one. He tested tracks during his DJ sets and tried to gauge crowd reaction, which helped him to sequence the record and to eliminate certain songs altogether. Ultimately, a track only stayed if Cut Chemist could put his finger on why it was unique to his other work.

"If it was something like, ‘Oh, I’ve done that before,’ I wouldn’t keep it. I don’t think there’s anything that has the same texture as what I used to do.”

The record, while diverse, is still undeniably hip-hop. But Cut Chemist draws from a very rich palette, repeatedly working with various flavoured guitars, trad-ethnic influences and retro futuristic soundscapes. The Audience’s Listening is bursting at the seams with details, reflecting the time and attention Cut Chemist spent with it. But it also poses an obvious problem.

"The more challenging thing is: What do I do now? Because I’ve exhausted all these options now that I’ve done them.”

He says he’d like to get away from sample-based music (clearing samples for The Audience’s Listening was a lengthy ordeal), do more work with vocalists, experiment with pop, work on a full-length project with Hymnal, and sometime down the road work again with Jurassic 5 (he’s absent from their upcoming album and won’t be performing on their tour). But, when pressed, he can give a clearer answer for his future plans and, even, a tentative timeframe for release.

"I wanna do this same record except bigger.

It’ll probably take another ten years.”