Zach Sciacca wanted to know one thing, and one thing only: "Did that motherfucker just grab his dick at me?"
That motherfucker was big-time raver DJ Icey, and, yes, that motherfucker had, in fact, just grabbed his dick at Sciacca, who was then a fast-rising hip-hop battle DJ and all-around audio alchemist who performed as Z-Trip. It was August 1997, and Icey was headlining the Electric Highway Tour, a massive rave at Compton Terrace, an outdoor venue near Z-Trip's home town of Phoenix, Arizona. Toward the end of Icey's prime-time set on the main stage, Z-Trip, who was going on next, started hauling his record crates on stage, and somehow he accidentally jostled Icey from behind. The prissy capo of the shiny-shirt mafia whirled around, grabbed his junk, mouthed "Fuck you!" over the pounding music, then flipped Z-Trip off, just to make sure the message was clear: "I'm DJ Icey, and you ain't shit."
While Icey returned his attention to cuing his next mix, Z-Trip stared at him for a moment, incredulous, then asked his crew, "Did that motherfucker just grab his dick at me?"
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There were nods all around: Yeah, Z, he did.
Z-Trip later said his first instinct was to bum-rush Icey right off the stage along with his turntables. Instead, he calmly stepped up beside the out-of-towner and stuck his own middle finger on Icey's record, stopping the music. The undulating sea of rave kids on the grass of Compton Terrace suddenly flatlined. Glow sticks that had been waving in the air drooped and stilled. Z-Trip didn't say a word. But his own message was unmistakable: "That's right. You grabbed your dick at me in my home town, and now I'm standing here in your spotlight with my finger on your record. So what are you going to do about it?"
Icey didn't do a damn thing, and after a few tense seconds, Z-Trip gave the record a little scratch -- wicka wick -- and set it spinning once more, resuming the beat. Shortly thereafter, Icey closed out his set and stalked off as Z-Trip got on the mike and challenged him to a DJ battle, anytime, anywhere, but preferably right there, right then. Nine years later, he's still waiting for Icey's answer. And he's still making audacious moves whenever he feels disrespected beyond his breaking point.
"Real, raw, street hip-hop shit has always been, and will always be, something that artists make happen on their own terms, guided only by their own instincts and knowledge," says Z-Trip from his home in Los Angeles. "Unfortunately, when a lot of hip-hop artists make the jump and sign to a major label, the powers-that-be do not respect their instincts or their knowledge, and they basically strip you of your independence, even though it's your independence that brought you to their attention in the first place. All of a sudden it's decision by committee, and when guys who have no clue what the four elements of hip-hop are start driving the project, it makes it difficult to not just say fuck 'em and start making your own moves again, just because you know what works."
Case in point: the first video shot for a single off Z-Trip's long-anticipated major-label debut album, Shifting Gears, which came out this spring on Hollywood Records. While the single that Hollywood's been using to promote the album since it came out is ŒWalking Dead,' a brooding, experimental track with vocals by Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington, the video filmed in June was for "The Get Down," a straight-up hip-hop cut featuring guest MC Lyrics Born, co-founder (along with DJ Shadow and Blackalicious) of the Bay Area hip-hop collective Solesides. The reason for this glaring promotional disconnect is that Hollywood Records didn't finance the video; Z-Trip did. In fact, he said the day before filming started, the shot-callers at his label not only didn't have any say in the video, they didn't even know it was happening.
"I didn't ask permission; I'm just doing it," he says. "It's my money, and I'm putting it where my mouth is. I've told them again and again that 'Walking Dead' wasn't the track that's closest to my heart, and it's not the one I wanted to put in the spotlight. But when they serviced the album, they decided to go with 'Walking Dead' because it's easily digestible for rock radio. Station managers look at it and say, 'Oh, Chester Bennington. We understand this.'"
But Z-Trip isn't a rock artist, and that rock-radio play isn't working. Shifting Gears came out in early April, notched a four-star review in Rolling Stone, blipped on the charts briefly and then more or less vaporized. There's still a chance it could turn around -- after all, Paul's Boutique flopped at first -- but whatever happens, Z-Trip has discovered the hard way that battling for respect in the big leagues is harder than just sticking out a finger to stop the wheels from spinning.
"It's been hugely frustrating," he says, "and I've finally just decided that I have to get my vision of the record out there, because the clock is ticking. But at the same time I'm trying to work the major-label thing, I'm also trying more and more to get back to my roots. There's a big a part of me that very much misses deejaying for B-boy battles or playing reggae or dancehall or funk for a night if I feel like it."
A prolific creator of mix tapes (which are now selling for between $100 and $200 online), Z-Trip was renowned throughout the mid- to late '90s by underground hip-hop heads in the U.S., Europe and Japan. He first came to wide attention when he was heralded the "King of Mash-ups" in 2001 following the extraordinary success of the independently released Uneasy Listening Vol. One. The album-length tag-team effort with DJ P introduced masses of new fans to the sublime if gimmicky pleasure of listening to DJs with sick mixing skills and broad sensibilities graft classic rock and pop songs such as AC/DC's "Back in Black" and Madonna's "Like a Prayer" onto banging hip-hop beats. Live and on wax, Z-Trip also interjects clever references to sonic cultural icons like the Imperial March from Star Wars and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The latter is mashed on Uneasy Listening with the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)."
Uneasy Listening blew open doors for Z-Trip. He toured with Cypress Hill and Linkin Park, opened a show for the Rolling Stones, was featured in the definitive DJ-culture documentary Scratch, performed with Beck at Coachella, and signed with Hollywood. Initially, the plan was for Z to put out a mash-up album and then ease into writing his own beats for a second effort. (While he's been remixing songs professionally for years, Shifting Gears is his first studio album.)
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"The first record Hollywood wanted me to make for them, and the record I wanted to make first, was basically Uneasy Listening Vol. Two," Z-Trip reveals. "But that was a street record, and it was so fucking street we couldn't put it out, because we couldn't get the samples cleared."
A mash-up album would almost certainly have posted much better initial sales than Shifting Gears, because it would have cashed in on the phenomenon that Uneasy Listening played a huge role in creating. But it also would have further solidified Z-Trip's image as primarily a mash-up DJ, a skin he's already struggling to shed.
"Uneasy Listening provided me with a lot of opportunities," he says, "but it also pigeonholed me. It's been really eye-opening to me in the last year or two to see how people in the industry handle marketing. It's all mouse clicks and demographics, and somewhere in there, people are forgetting that being a good DJ is to just fucking grab a crate of records and go to a party and rock it and cut loose, which, all other bullshit aside, is all I'm really about."