By Noah Hubbell
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DJ Vadim takes pride in exporting the revolutionary idea that hip-hop knows no borders. Like a musical Karl Marx, the British turntablist gained his street knowledge from the polyglot culture of London, where a new vanguard of B-boys breakdance and play music in the city's subterranean Tube system and its sprawling rap underground. Once he nailed his style, Vadim got moving.
"There is hip-hop everywhere," he says. "You could do shows in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka. It's really a question of where there isn't hip-hop. You could go to the deepest parts of Siberia, the jungles of Africa and into the most deprived areas of South Africa and Indonesia and still find hip-hop and people who love it just as much as people living in Brooklyn."
Vadim's latest record, U.S.S.R.: The Art of Listening, supports his theory. It's a fifteen-track tour through hip-hop's global village that exposes Stateside audiences to killer rap rhyme-slayers from the United Kingdom (Phi Life Cypher, Yarah Bravo), France (TTC) and Spain (Mucho Mu), as well as to North American voices both familiar and unknown. Motion Man, Vakill, Blackalicious's Gift of Gab and Slug all make appearances alongside artists from more far-flung locales.
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"It's an extremely international lineup," Vadim says from London. "I worked with musicians from Mozambique, Nigeria, Morocco, Israel, India, Japan, Brazil, Cuba, the United States, Canada, Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and the U.K.
"When I first started, if I was told that I was going to work with all the people that eventually ended up on the album, I wouldn't have believed it," he continues. "The people on there helped me on my soundscape: You can go out and buy a Miles Davis album -- you've got other people on there playing drums or double bass, but it will still be a Miles Davis album. Likewise, I've enrolled people to help me in my quest to get my DJ Vadim album. The whole album is like a little seed, and it grew into a tree."
The growth was spurred by Vadim's involvement with Around the World in Eight Relays, a celebrated BBC radio program that aired in 2001. As a correspondent for the show, he traveled to various countries to interview and collaborate with local musicians.
"We'd talk about the history of their instruments. We went to Burkina Faso, Morocco, Mozambique, India, Japan, Brazil, New York," Vadim says of the project, which inspired him to expand his sonic arsenal. "I don't often go around and just get African drummers at my house. I had never worked with African drummers. So it's crazy when you meet these people and they're so talented. People like that, that I met on that program, ended up being on the album. We've got loads of people playing different things, from people playing thump piano to the Japanese shakuhachi flute to rapping to singing. It's all kinds of different elements thrown into the pot."
Though Vadim relied primarily on sampling in his previous work -- which leaned toward ambient breakbeats as much as rap -- he utilized live instrumentation on U.S.S.R.: The Art of Listening, a project that took him three years to craft. The collection's standout tracks include "That Which Is Coming," highlighted by Indian-style violin playing, and "She Who Is Tested," which features cello. Interesting collaborations abound in the gumbo, including the pairing of British beatbox master Killa Kela with Polish songstress Urszula Dudziak, whose ethereal vocal phrasings color "Revelations Well Expounded": Think of a down-tempo, jazzy Stereolab with Scratch from the Roots working the beats and Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker supplying the horns.
Despite the wide array of guest artists that appear on The Art of Listening, Vadim is its real creative force. The record illuminates the importance of the producer in hip-hop. "People talk about the four elements of hip-hop being breaking, graffiti, deejaying and emceeing," he says. "When people say producing isn't an element, is that saying DJ Premier isn't an element of hip-hop, or Alchemist, Dre or the Neptunes? For me, production is very much an art form."
While in the lab, Vadim works to differentiate himself from hack knob-twisters. He doesn't do loops, and you won't hear the hip sample of the moment popping up in his tracks (as you might with, say, Mariah or Cam'ron, both of whom recently used the same Rose Royce samples for their hip-pop hits). When digging through the crates, Vadim goes for the cuts that he knows others won't touch. No David Axelrod. No Roy Ayers. No P-Funk.
"You can't still be sampling Parliament in 2003. That was done to death by Dr. Dre ten years ago," Vadim says, laughing. "I look for the crates that people don't look in. I look in the cheapie bargain bin, the spoken-word bins, at children's records, novelty records, crappy 1940s easy-listening records. I'm just trying to find samples that other people aren't using. That's why when you hear a DJ Vadim album, you're not going to hear the same sample on fifteen other records that have been out that month."
When Vadim does score a sample -- be it West African drummers or a musician busking in the Tube playing a didjeridoo -- he slices it beyond recognition. "It doesn't matter if I take it from a record or if I have musicians in the studio. I chop sounds up and put them in the mix," he says. "I really try and sample into the smallest fragments of notes. There might be over a hundred samples -- plus live bits on there, as well -- on just one track, which is a lot of stuff."