By Jacob Katel
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Isaac DeLima, the local turntablist whiz kid known as DJ I-Dee, is a little worried about his generation's response to his art form. "It's very endangered. Its high points were maybe six or seven years ago, but it was still in its hybrid stages then, and no one was really able to solidify it, and since then, it's just slowly been going down," he says matter-of-factly. "With [new technology], everyone in Hollywood becomes a DJ overnight, you know? The art form itself is kind of dying."
That's a rather sour approach for someone who's only 21 years old and an established master of that art form. As a teenager, he won a string of big-deal national DJ competitions: among them the USA DMC Supremacy, Gong Supremacy, and Scribble Jam. By age 19, he retired from the official battle circuit, but he has continued an on-and-off schedule of whirlwind international travel, busting out party-rocking sets from San Francisco to Shanghai.
During his off time, he simply can't abandon the art of manipulating vinyl; after all, it gave him entrée into the musical world. In his spartanly clean apartment on South Beach, he almost compulsively busts out new routines. And in recent months, he has stretched his limits and buckled down to create his own music.
So here comes the first official product of this intense creative period, an original full-length album, Solitude, recently released on Roc Raida's imprint, Adair Cor. With just 10 tracks, it's a succinct effort, but one that displays the real possibility of the new layered combinations wrought through physical scratching and digital innovation. Its title alone reflects I-Dee's monklike dedication to his craft, when the Virginia native is home in his pad in a quiet residential pocket of SoBe. "I found myself in solitude while recording this," he says. "I was able to reflect a lot on myself and kind of learn from a lot of mistakes, both on the album and personally, with life in general." Proof of this extreme dedication: The entire thing was recorded in that apartment, including guest vocals from hip-hop luminaries such as Royce da 5'9" and C-Rayz Walz.
The record also represents a joint experiment with Roc Raida, who previously used the label only for his own releases. "At the time that I was growing up, in the late Nineties and early 2000s, I was getting a lot of inspiration from him and his generation," DeLima says. "But with technology and everything kind of progressing, you're not getting the same inspiration that I once did. So [the album] was a moral responsibility on my part, for my love of turntablism."
Still, DeLima is far from a Luddite. He's a rabid devotee of YouTube and all the major social networking sites. Solitude is, of course, available digitally through iTunes and Amazon.com. And although it also exists in physical form as a CD, there is, a bit surprisingly, no vinyl version.
The music also demonstrates an exciting tug between old-school and new.
While most of the tracks are based on original sounds (DeLima is a longtime saxophone player and a self-taught piano dabbler), there are a few choice samples buried deep in the mix. A cheerful, irony-free postmodernist, DeLima has a soft spot for obsolete technology, especially videogames. So yes, that is in fact a tune from the old F Zero in the down-tempo "1991." "The portion I took it from is when you're playing the game and then you lose and you crash.... It kind of was something that always stuck with me," he says. "Fast-forward 16 years. I start hooking up my Super Nintendo to the computer and start sampling the sounds, and kind of figuring out how I can make a beat out of it, and trying to make it funky. I hope that some people who have gone through the same thing as me have a sense of nostalgia when they hear something like that."
Other tracks are built on more "serious," but no less boundary-stretching, bases. I-Dee's longtime followers will recognize "Eclectic Dreams," a clanging, moody collaboration with D.C.-area industrial act Rites of Ash, whose long-form videos became YouTube favorites. "Explosion" takes creepy outer-space robotic funk and marries it to the grimy, gravelly, very of-the-Earth flows of I-Dee buddy Tamu, as well as the aforementioned underground stars C-Rayz Walz and Royce da 5'9". (Yes, they really spit in I-Dee's living room, after he hung up some blankets for better acoustics.)
The heart of it all is, of course, his beloved scratching, its sinewy, scraping cuts melding into the rhythms, becoming a real percussive element instead of a discordant platform for show-ponying. It's a reminder of the heady days of eight or so years ago, when Raida and the X-Ecutioners recorded with Linkin Park, and it seemed turntablism was poised for a mainstream breakthrough.
It didn't happen that way, but I-Dee is convinced he can stretch the genre beyond its wicky-wicky stereotype and into a larger body of original compositions. With Solitude still minty-fresh, DeLima already has plans for a 2009 followup. He hopes to snag the attention of music lovers his age by going after a collaboration wish list featuring the likes of MURS, Wale, and the Cool Kids. "This is the album I wanted to make," he says, "but there's a lot of good stuff that didn't make it onto the album this time. I'm really clenching down right now and trying to take it to the next level."