Pure Creation : Deconstructing DJ Vadim’s Sound
“And God created the Heaven and the Earth, and the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the Earth, The spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, And God said let there be light, And there was light, And God saw the light, And it was good, And God divided the light from the dark …”
Genesis Chapter One are whispered amongst the slowest beats—so sparse that intense silences fill the spaces where beats normally are—and what sounds like a Vatican address being recorded on reel-to-reel tape that is getting eaten up in the playback process. This is hip-hop as sonic architecture—hip-hop spooked by the Italian renaissance. “Lord Forgive Me,” the track in question, is featured on Russian born, London residing DJ Vadim’s 1996 Ninja Tune label debut, USSR Repertoire. Who’d have the thought the Bible would sound so cool with a slow beat backing?
For further listening, check out his releases under his real name, Andre Gurov, on Jazz Fudge, a label which he runs. The two albums, A New Rap Language and Revelations of Wrath, won’t disappoint. Or, there’s the collaboration with Techno Animal’s Kevin Martin under the name of the Bug, and the resulting Tapping The Conversation album on WordSound. This is an audio reinterpretation of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 paranoid masterpiece, The Conversation, in which Gene Hackman plays a surveillance expert amidst a web of conspiracy. Or else, there’s the wicked remix album—kind of a who’s who of underground abstract hip-hop—released early in 1998 on Ninja Tune.
SAB – When you’re working with the beats, you use it sounds a lot like you’re removing beats from it—the originals are a lot more sparse?
Vadim – Yeah maybe. I like minimal work, and it’s just the way I program beats. It’s like an ice sculptor, when an ice sculptor makes a sculpture, he starts off with this really square block of ice, and out of that he shapes this piece of work. So I start off with a mass of sounds, and I mould those sounds into what I want to create, by chipping away and removing things.
SAB – And do you usually work with cut-and-paste editing?
Vadim – Well, I don’t use these programs. I know they’re quite popular with some people. All my samples are placed, all the sounds that I use, are placed with precision, and they’re meant to be there. I don’t do random sampling, or use random sounds within a structure. I might select sounds from random sound sources, but within a structure or arrangement the sounds occur at a predestined time. So it’s not like cut-and-paste. The cut-and-paste programs I know, where they take a segment of music, and randomly place it wherever that program wants to put it, and you have very limited control. I am the master of the music. I determine what, how, and where it sounds.
SAB – Is that right? I’ve never worked with those cut-and-paste programs. I didn’t know that.
Vadim – Yeah, that’s what Coldcut use. As soon as you start using cut-and-paste, you’re not so much the person who produces the music, but the person who presses the button. You’re the operator. You’re going into different realms then. I’m interested in production, and I’m interested in extracting certain ideas that are in music, and discovering certain things and going down a certain path. I’m not interested in the randomness, and the non-directionless of music or whatever.
SAB – Well, I like the idea of experimenting with randomness to find the good sounds.
Vadim – Don’t get me wrong. A lot of things I’ve found are just from mucking around. I can find a new ways of editing sound, but that has nothing to do with structure, how you arrange the sound. You can be messing around with a sampler, and suddenly think, “Ah, this sound sounds really ill backwards,” or “the way I spliced this sound or timestretched it.” You could say that is a random thing, that you never meant to do it. But it’s not anything really to do with the structure. Well, I don’t know before I start a song how it’s going to end up totally. But I’ve got an idea of what I want to do, and I’m still controlling how it comes out. I could spend days doing it, and not like what I’ve done, and then I change it all. That’s what I’m trying to say. I am the controller of the sound, not the computer, not cut-and-paste
SAB – Something I’ve thought about with recording in non-linear ways is that you can take the beginning and put it at the end.
Vadim – Yeah, I do similar things to that. It’s also important to me how tonally the composition works. One of the things with cut-and-paste is that tone doesn’t matter, that structure doesn’t matter. It’s anything goes. But I’m very much interested in how you use sounds and tones together in combination, how that can evoke atmospheres and visions, and ideas on how you can convey information via music. That’s my area, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
SAB – I always thought before with cut-and-paste. I didn’t know that it was so random.
Vadim – Well, that’s just my knowledge of it. I mean there is good things with the ideology that you can go to a club and hear anything. It’s open, and you hear all kinds of different music, and it’s not stifling. But the problem to being open with all kinds of music across the board in a short period of time is that you’re only paying a token tribute to any one form of music. It’s very difficult to have any form of direction or purpose.
SAB – Yeah, you can’t get thorough.
Vadim – Yeah, you can’t make a thorough selection or a thorough issue out of anything. Yeah, it’s all cool playing a Coltrane track, mixed to Josh Wink, mixed to an old Fleetwood Mac track, mixed to Most Def, mixed to one of my tracks. You know it’s all cool, but you’re never going to explore any one area to any form of depth or shape. And I think it’s important to explore the possibilities within music.
SAB – I always think that every sound on an album should have a reason to be there, and with cut-and-paste I don’t get that feeling. So do you think there should almost be a purity of forms? As opposed to say fusion for starters.
Vadim – Well, I haven’t really thought about this all the way through. For me, the most important thing is to do music the way I like. It’s to do my own thing and try to shine. It’s not about trying to subject myself to the rules of a music form. I am not an advocate of hip-hop. I am not a representative of hip-hop, or house, or jungle, or whatever. I am my own advocate. I am my own representative. I am trying to do my own thing. I don’t want to represent someone else’s music form. Yes, there is a hip-hop culture, and I feel a part of that, and yes my music can be described by that, but I’m trying to do my own thing. I think when we start discussing pure forms, it gets to be a very trainspotter/anorak type thing, where you get subjected to various rules and regulations about what you can and can’t do. And I think the purism, the part I’m interested in, is the vision, the ideas. I think a lot of people get stuck in very retrospective views. Like Afrika Bambaata’s moved on from where he was in 1971, you know what I mean. He can’t still be doing the same thing he was doing twenty years ago. He’s moved on. And the form of hip-hop has moved on as well. So sometimes I think it’s a bit dangerous to get too concerned with being purist.
SAB – It has a lot to do with nostalgia.
Vadim – Yeah, I think there’s a very unhelpful devotion to old, retrospective music. There’s a lot of people trying to sound like 80s hip-hop groups, and lots of house records are doing the same thing. That shit happened 10 years ago, and we’ve got to move on from that. And at the same time, there’s other cats out there, who are making music and they have no respect for where the music and where the artform has come from. You’ve got to respect the past, and take it and combine it with what’s happening now, and take it forward into the future. If no one takes it forward to the future, then music is going to die. It’ll no longer appeal. People will be sitting there playing cyber games.
SAB – Yeah, I think people should sample more respectfully. Cause I think it is basically stealing, but it’s okay if you’re respectful about it.
Vadim – What do I think?
SAB – Yeah, and not just sampling, but when you’re sampling something from a certain style.
Vadim – Yeah, again, you have different people saying different things. At the end of the day, a lot of people have in the past have copied and ripped off, and will do in the future, other people’s music, whether it’s played or whether it’s sampled, whatever. There’s so many that have taken an idea within reggae, within hip-hop, within rock that is just regurgitated, but packaged differently. So I have no respect for that. There’s not very many shepherds, but there’s a helluva lot of sheep. So I have no respect for those artists, whether they were in some famous jazz band in the 70s or whether they’re around now. What I’m trying to do as a sample-based producer is use sounds, use sounds from different records, different eras, and combine them together. But I don’t use loops. I don’t loop anything. I try to take sounds and replay them all together. So I’m doing something no different to what John Coltrane does.
SAB – But if you don’t use loops, doesn’t it take forever to record.
Vadim – But if you use a loop, you’re restrained to the original pattern of the record you’ve sampled.
SAB – But you can use effects.
Vadim – But you’re still limited to the original pattern. I have no respect for people who use samplers, and are looping. There’s a lot of groups that I can mention that still do that, and they talk about how experimental they are. Looping is simply not acceptable. That is stuff that people did ten years ago. Talking about moving forward, it’s time to use isolated sounds, and make you’re own songs. I want my songs to be sampled in five or ten years. In the coming generation, what are people going to sample. Are they going to look at the records in the same way that we look at those dodgy records that came out in the 80s.
SAB – That’s the good thing about time. It’ll separate the good from the bad. One thing I was going to ask you about is the structure at work in your songs. Within your songs, and you can see it against the other artists on the Reconstruction, I think your music has a lot more changes to it, and breaks.
Vadim – It does, but the changes are very subtle. One of the things I try to do is that everytime you listen to my records, I want you to hear something new. My favorite music is often music that when I first hear it, I initially don’t like it, or I don’t have a very good reaction to it, or it’s just okay. And then that music grows on me. Every time I listen to those records, I hear something new. And then there’s other records, which are very immediate, but three months down the road I’m just bored of them. Nothing actually happens within those tracks. They’re very linear, very horizontal type music. Like when you listen to a Company PA track, you can’t digest it all in one sitting, and that’s the same thing I’m after with my own music. People won’t understand it in one or two listens. I want to keep people coming back for me. Music that lasts a long time has an appeal that can transcend fads and short term memories.
SAB – Well, that’s like the difference between pop music—like the style that hits quickly is pop music, and the style that doesn’t isn’t.
Vadim – I’m not going to go at pop music. I think pop music has its role in society and use, and I don’t think all pop music is bad. A lot of people don’t like the word pop music, because it’s popular, but I think there are a lot of bands that make pop music that are very credible and very good.
SAB – Now that I think about it. I don’t agree with what I just said.
Vadim – And there’s lots of groups that claim they are underground, but what they’re about is mass appeal. And there’s lots of pop songs done by very individual people, and they just happen to appeal to a lot of people. I particularily like R.E.M and a lot of Prince’s earlier material, and they are two very popular bands, and they do have a lot of commercial success as well. The thing is there’s lots of artists that make pop music and they openly admit that’s what they’re doing, and fair play to them. If someone came to me and said you can do a bit of singing, take your top off, and make X amount of dollars, and they admit that. But then you get other people talking about how real they are, how they’re representing, but what they’re saying isn’t lived out in their lives. They’re doing something else. It’s obvious that they’re not practicing what they’re preaching, and that’s especially obvious in a lot of the mainstream hip-hop acts. That’s the difference between hip-hop now and six years ago. Back then, everybody knew that Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer were pop, that they didn’t represent hip-hop. They never said that they were real, that they were hardcore, that they were representing the hood. They were just true to themselves, and whether people liked them or not, they didn’t care as long as they sold lots of records. But now, acts like Puff Daddy and Mase and Foxy Brown and Jay-Z and countless other imitations are like, >we’re the realest, we’re hardcore, bla-bla,’ but they’re no different to what MC Hammer is. They’re making a 1997 version of what he did six years ago, but they’re saying they’re real. They’re trying to perpetrate a different role. And that is the problem with hip-hop. You’ve got people doing that. That would have never happened before. Cause before people would have been reprimanded for doing that. The hip-hop community wouldn’t have let people do that. Now people are getting away with that, because it’s crept in through the backdoor. Everybody loves Puff Daddy. Everybody loves Mase. Whatever. They’re doing what they want to do. That’s fine.
SAB – Well, I think on the first track on the Wu-Tang’s Forever they talk about that, about “taking R&B and making that shit hip-hop.”
Vadim – Yeah, but Wu-Tang’s a very interesting example. They say that on one, and then a track later they have a singer singing all over the track. It’s the same with a lot of those groups, like De La Soul talked about putting R&B slappers over hip-hop tracks, and yet they had Jhana on their album, and somebody else. They were collaborating with lots of dubious stuff. Everyone seems to be compromising their position, you know what I mean?
SAB – Is there any one you can think of that is really doing it good?
Vadim – I’m really into DJ Krush. I know him as a person, and I’m really into what he’s doing. I’m really into the Scratch Picklz. I think they’re very underrated. I think they’re amazing. The X-Men are good. I think the whole scratching thing is underrated. I’m really into Company Flow. I’m into groups that I hear in Europe, some of 4-Hero’s stuff. For me, it’s more of the low-key artists I’m into. It’s very easy to get caught up in marketing and money things within recording. It will never change.
SAB – What’s frustrating to me with hip-hop is that, like I’m really into the Wu-Tang Clan, and I think they can make so much better music, but it’s so slow to evolve, so slow to push out.
Vadim – Yeah, I’m really into the Wu-Tang as well. I’ve bought most of their albums, and most of their singles. I think they’re sometimes a little bit lazy about what they do. And I don’t think they really help themselves by not turning up to shows, or only one member in ten shows up, and does a ten minute show, and people over here in England are paying the equivalent of like thirty dollars to see it. Yeah, “I’ve lost my faith in the majority,” like the LP by Company Flow says. I’ve got no faith in Rakim. I’ve got no faith in KRS-One. He’s not the epitome of hip-hop he claims to be. He claims to be hip-hop itself. I don’t have faith in one person to represent the artform. The artform, as you know, is rapping, is DJ-ing, is breakdancing, is graffiti, but I’d also like to say that in 1998, I think, production is also a fifth element. People have never really spoken about producers. People are complaining now about how DJ’s don’t get enough respect, and maybe they don’t, but it’s more than producers. Is Buck Wild not a hip-hop producer? Doesn’t he represent hip-hop? Doesn’t DJ Krush represent hip-hop? Doesn’t Premier represent hip-hop? Isn’t Cut Chemist part of hip-hop? They’re also very important, you know what I mean. In most songs, it’s usually the music that’s good, and that’s why you buy it. If the lyrics are good, it’s a bonus.
SAB – What bothers me with hip-hop albums is that—like, well, Tribe Called Quest a lot of my friends around here like that, but the beats just sound like the dumbest, dullest thing I’ve heard in my life. It sounds like a 4-beat bar going around over and over again for the whole thing.
Vadim – I feel the same, but whatever. That’s Tribe Called Quest. What can I say? All my musical idols, or shall I say heroes, have fallen. Look at what’s happened to Rakim. No one can tell me that now he’s got the same impact as he had ten years ago, eleven years ago. At the end of the day, you can’t stay on the top forever. No one can claim the throne forever. You’re bound to fall off sooner or later. And a lot of those big acts have. They can’t stay sharp forever. But that’s life.
SAB – How do you think hip-hop changes when it gets to England? Does it get more open?
Vadim – I don’t know what it’s like in Vancouver, cause I’ve never been to Canada. But from my experience of going to America, and seeing what happens in London, England’s much more open to various music forms. In America, you can only be into hip-hop, you can only be into rock. There’s not very much cross-pollination of music. The stations are dedicated to one music form or another, which is I think detrimental to the development of any one music form. Cause it limits how it can develop. What’s happened recently is that hip-hop records only sample hip-hop records. They steal other people’s beats, other people’s lyrics, other people’s samples. What kind of shit is that? So I think England is much more open. But we’ve got problems over here as well. Some very interesting things are happening over here. We’ve got these guys called the Scratch Perverts, don’t know if you know them? There’s like five of them, and they’re probably the best DJ’s here in Europe. Tony Vegas was the guy that was the runner-up in the ITF final last year in San Francisco.
SAB – Was that the event that DJ A-Track won?
Vadim – No, he won the DMC. The DMC is a commercial kind of thing. The ITF is the International Turntable Federation, which is a DJ competition run by DJ’s. It’s run by Q-Bert, and the Scratch Picklz, and the X-Men and stuff. This is where the proper DJ’s go and do it. Even though A-Trak is good. The DMC is more well-known, cause it’s a corporation that does merchandising and bla-bla, but the hardcore DJ’s go to the ITF. So, Tony was the runner-up in San Francisco. They’re really hitting the mark here in England.
SAB – So how would you explain the appeal of turntable scratching? Cause to me, I couldn’t tell the faked stuff from the good stuff. How do you know who’s better?
Vadim – It’s like with any art or sport. It’s about your ability, and how do you test someone’s ability at a particular artform or science. Obviously, it’s knowledge about whatever that application is trying to do. The fact of the make-up is, whatever you’re doing, whether science is your knowledge, and how this and that works and how to apply it, bla-bla-bla. With scratching, it’s the amount of styles you have within scratching. You’ve got different types of cuts. You’ve got baby scratches. You’ve got cutting. You’ve got stabbing. You’ve got transforming. You’ve got single-double flick flares. You’ve got crabbing. You’ve got all kinds of single turntable tricks, and stops and stutters and shimmers and flutters and rubs. There’s hundreds of different scratches, and they’re mostly derived from about twenty forms. It’s like the same in kung-fu. There’s twenty forms, but seventy-two styles, or something like that. And so to mark a DJ competition, you would see how many different styles and forms a particular DJ can do. So if someone comes on and just does one style, however well he does that one style, he can’t be as good as someone who comes on afterwards and does all the styles. And sometimes it does become a bit trainspotterish. But to a certain point, a total novice will be able to recognize someone good and someone bad. You will see if you sat down and watched them and observed what they were doing. And audibly. I’m not interested in body tricks or whatever, like doing head spins on the turntable. Audibly, you’ll be able to tell who is a better DJ.
SAB – DJ-ing does get to the point though where it really is a sport. Like to be a good producer, you don’t have to be particularly coordinated or athletic, but with DJ-ing, the hands have to move so fast.
Vadim – Well, it is athletic. But it’s not about doing clown tricks and stuff. I’m not really into that. I’m into what sound you can get out of the turntables not if you can do a gymnastic handstand on the cross fader. It’s like I don’t give a toss if the drummer can stand on his chair and play the drums, you know what I mean.
SAB – Or if he’s playing with one arm.
Vadim – I’m interested in what patterns you can do, and how well you can do them. The speed of a drum fill doesn’t really interest me. That’s just about sheer speed or strength. But I’m interested in the patterns and the continuity and the flow of a drum. Or you can draw some other parallels. Like how well a guitar player smashes his guitar on the stage afterwards doesn’t show how good of a guitar player he is. Though it might look quite good, when Jimi Hendrix used to smash his guitar.