DJ DUSK’S ROOT DOWN SOUNDCLASH: THERE IS NOBODY ELSE DOING THIS KIND OF DOCUMENTING
Photographer and DJ B+ helped film a series of beat battles curated by DJ Dusk and Music Man Miles at the Root Down in 2001, 2002, and 2003. The resulting Soundclash DVD catches Madlib, Cut Chemist, Will.i.am, Thes One, Oh No and Exile at a particularly wild intersection in their careers. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
What’s that 45 that they flip to determine who gets to go first at each Soundclash?
B+ (director): It’s a different 45 each day—one with a plug side and a not-plug side.
I haven’t seen those guys throw records around like that.
Well, it’s not that common.
How did the Soundclash start? Was that Dusk’s idea?
It was Dusk’s idea with Miles. And the idea of us filming it just kind of came about on our own. We just brought the cameras the first night. Really it was partly out of surprise about how fucking wild it was turning out, and partially being kinda enamored by the performance and how special it was. I knew what to expect from Cut but I had no idea what Madlib was going to do. And I had no idea about how it was going to play out in front of a crowd. Obviously it was a great night and full of surprises. So it was really cool.
You pan across the stage and see like a hall of fame of L.A. hip-hop—did it feel historic then?
It did amongst us, but like on a national or international scale, it didn’t. I mean, neither of those guys were as big or as important as they are now. I think it’s kind of the apex of a certain kind of underground moment here. At that moment in time, Jurassic wasn’t Jurassic—Jurassic wasn’t nearly as big as it became. Madlib was at the very very beginning of his career. He had only been on Stones Throw a couple of years—he had a few things out but none of the jazz projects, you know? We though of Madlib as only a hip-hop producer but he’s gone on to do all kinds of things. That was the first night—for example—that Yesterday’s New Quintet music was ever played for anybody. And the Will.i.am one—you know he says he’s gonna go into the studio with Justin Timberlake afterwards and everyone starts booing? So he retracts it and says he’s only joking. But in fact, he’s not joking. He did go into the studio that night and he wrote ‘Where Is The Love?’ And that’s kind of an important historical moment as well. It’s one of those situations which is a snapshot of something that happened over a period of three years at the Root Down, which is a small club that largely wasn’t that known out of the scene. Nobody was paying attention to but obviously, they had lot to say and made a big contribution.
What documentation would there have been if you weren’t there filming?
There were a few other people shooting but nobody professional. And they thought they were recording sound but the sound never came out—there was a problem with the lead. I can say for sure that Thes One recorded himself—he didn’t record Will, which is funny. The Oh No and Exile one nobody else recorded or filmed And the Madlib and Cut—some people did film but nobody professional. There are so many other amazing things in the music that wouldn’t have been recorded.
It always shocks me a little bit how fragile just documenting these things can be.
It depends on what you mean by document. If it feels better to you that there are a hundred people standing there with their camera phones—that’s not better to me. I think in terms of the dispersal of resources from the center out, it’s gotten worse if anything. There is less room now for this kind of music and this kind of practice now—there is less room now at MTV and on television. There is plenty of room on Youtube—definitely plenty of places to put your shit. But in terms of a certain standard of documentation? It’s gotten worse.
It’s supposed to be 2008 and ‘everybody can communicate, blah-blah-blah.’
It is 2008 and everybody can communicate—blah-blah-blah—but what does that mean exactly? In general, there has been a huge contraction in this industry. They blame free downloading—they are blaming everything other than themselves. They have spent the past 25 years pulling—if you want to think of in terms of music as a sustainable industry, they have spent absolutely no money making it sustainable. They have spent no money on education, they have spent no money on documentation, no money on the bigger picture in terms of educating a new and more sophisticated audience for this culture. They haven’t done a dime—they haven’t done shit. And that’s the same for MTV as it is for Sony as it is for Universal or however many labels we have left now. So in general as I can say for Keepintime and Brazilintime and all the other projects we are involved with—they only have life by virtue of the desert they live in. Because there is nobody else doing this kind of documenting. You can count it on one hand.
What kinds of things will the diggers of the future want from us now?
There is probably a whole mess of music that will fall through the cracks because it was not available physically—which might be a real issue. Or because it was never distributed properly or whatever. There was so much music that was lost when the recording industry was coming along. When they first introduced microphones, only certain voices were suitable to be recorded. If you had a crazy voice, sometimes that wasn’t recorded. When we go back in look in the history books, those people get lost because we don’t have anyway to measure what their achievements were. In this period, it’s certainly no different. Its not like people are being denied the access to recording. They are totally able to record. But according to how these things are archived, whose paying attention and where they end up—it’ll be just the same. Inevitably it will be people experimenting off to the side that get lost. But hopefully with the little bits and pieces we do and the more supported labels and organizations, this treasure will be available to the people 20 or 30 years from now.
Do you keep good archives?
I’m not the best but I have an extensive archive in various stages of organization. I’m not too sure about Mochilla, but places like Now/Again, Light in the Attic and those kind of labels—sooner or later, the Smithsonian will have to do a deal with them because the Smithsonian says absolutely fuck all music after 1965. And that’s the period—‘65 to ‘75—that those people are most interested in. People like Egon and Cut have records that nobody else has and that are a really important part of the history of the culture of this country. As of right now, this country is too busy not paying attention. So for a lot of different reasons the Smithsonian is radically underfunded. It’s like L.A.—there is no photographic record of hip-hop in L.A. pre 1990, maybe. Hip-hop was vibrant and influential and important here in the ‘80s but there is no visual record of it. Nobody has bothered to do the digging.
Did you see the documentary on early L.A. hip-hop that they showed at the Silent Movie Theater?
Yeah—Breaking And Entering. It was on PBS. Someone with power needs to go to PBS and get that movie and reissue it on DVD—a good clean copy! The guy who produced it is the same guy who did the Martin Lawrence show—he’s around. I can’t do it and Egon can’t do it and sadly there are just too few people actually involved in that kind of practice. And there is not enough money in it. That’s ultimately the problem. This is all very meager. Once we’ve paid everybody who made beats on the film—and to the Root Down and to Dusk’s family—it’s not worth the effort if you are to measure it in those terms. Obviously the rewards are bigger than that. But not everybody is down to sign up for that level of work experience.
What else would you like to see come out?
We have so much fucking stuff. And of people who have passed away, too. We shoot all the time and there hasn’t been of book of my photos since 1993 so that’s something that needs to happen in 2009. But in terms of footage, there is a ton of stuff. Not just from L.A.— we have spread our wings a little bit and have stuff from Colombia and Brazil as well. Boxes and boxes of tapes.
What would happen if you did a rematched Soundclash now?
Aesthetically, people have followed the path. What I think is important about the film is that as a casual listener, you wouldn’t really think that there is a huge different aesthetcially between Madlib and Cut Chemist. But when you see them in this and you really see how their minds work. Philosophically, they are coming from completely different places. Cut’s more like Dr. Dre—everything has to hit exactly right and sonically line up. Madlib is more like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry—‘Fuck it, let’s throw everything against the wall and see what happens!’ ‘Why make one beat when you can make ten beats?’ I think a rematch would be a further extension of that. But the difference now is that they have both musically grown a lot. Cut’s paying a lot more attention to international music now. Madlib is making all kinds of records and collaborating with people from Brazil. When compared to what we considered a hip-hop show in 2000 or 2001, it would be very different. But philosophically they’re in the same place.
Why do you think so many people on this DVD are still active today?
Part of it is credit due to Dusk and Miles curating it so well and picking the right people. And part of it is a testament to the durability of these cats and that music. There is still an audience for all those guys and that’s why they are still doing it. A testament to how good they are at what they do.