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.
"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."
Vadim's production style is, fittingly, eclectic. He can sound as gully as anything that comes out of New York's esteemed D&D studios and as esoteric as Amon Tobin, his Ninja Tune labelmate. He can also be controversial. "Your Revolution," his collabo with poet-performer Sarah Jones, garnered the attention of the FCC in 1999, when a listener called Portland's KBOO radio to complain about its lyrics. The song, which appears on that year's U.S.S.R.: Life on the Other Side, rewrites Gil Scott-Heron's classic "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" as a feminist critique on the exploitation of woman in rap lyrics; originally written as a poem before Vadim took it to the studio, the piece takes on everyone and everything, from LL Cool J to Akinyele's "dream of a six-foot blow-job machine." Full of Vadim's banging beats and Jones's lyrical salvos ("Your revolution will not happen between these thighs," she announces), the tune brought the station a $7,000 fine for indecency.
"It's a pretty crazy situation. For anyone who has heard the track, the controversy is the fact that it was banned," Vadim says. "For me, it's a case of double standards, because with the FCC, it seems it's okay to say that you want a six-foot blow-job machine or you want your hos and bitches in the back seat of your Jeep and you want to put your women down or treat them bad. But if you say you don't want to say that, then you get banned."
Vadim appreciates the irony of a Russian kid weaned on Spoonie Gee and Run DMC growing up to have his records played in Russia but banned in America. Ever since he started producing and releasing music through his own imprint, Jazz Fudge, in 1995, Vadim has had a hard time moving his titles in the States.
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"Don't even get me started," he says of the problems faced by European indies trying to tap North American markets. "I've never seen such a ramshackle set of distributors as you have in America. I don't see any distributors paying any bills. We've been done over so many times. All of them are crooks; it's a lot of shady stuff." According to Vadim, retaining a publicist and paying for advertising and marketing in the U.S. is not financially viable for a small foreign imprint. "I don't want to send 1,000 units to America and not get paid for it, because I'm just losing money. We get e-mails from people in America saying, 'We can't find your records.' You can do business in America, but the way the system is now, it works against the artist and independent labels.
"It's easier for me to sell records in Japan, which is twelve hours away on a flight, or Australia, which is 24 hours away, than it is for me to sell records in New York, which is only six hours away," he adds.
Aligning with the Canada-based Ninja Tune and the cultural cache it claims among progressive hip-hop heads has helped Vadim get his own solo product distributed more widely. But he mostly relies on the Barnum & Bailey method of getting people to see his act: He puts on a damn good show. And through his travels, he has realized that he can take his circus "anywhere there are people and a set of speakers." Touring with the Russian Percussion Group, a revolving assortment of musicians and DJs from around the globe, Vadim won't leave the road for the next six months. His schedule takes him to Japan, Africa, South America and Europe.
"We have to do this, because otherwise people will never get to hear my music," he says. "We don't have videos or mass marketing, so the only way anyone in Santiago or Caracas is going to hear DJ Vadim is if I go there and do shows. Hip-hop is a live music. It started from rocking two turntables in a park. For me, this is about taking this music out on the road and into the streets and giving it to the people."