The debate about whether or not a scratch DJ is a "real" musician should be finished by now. It's been more than twenty years since Grandmaster Flash first began working over the instrumental sides of disco twelve-inches at Bronx block parties, a little less than that since Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" first brought scratching to the pop charts, and five years since underground collectives like the Invisibl Skratch Piklz proved it was art, and pop acts started sliding DJ tweaks into their hit-bound productions. Not that it's been an easy climb to credibility, particularly among old-schoolers: In the same way a discombobulated Pete Seeger tried to take an ax to the power supply when Bob Dylan electrified old folk songs at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Run-D.M.C. DJ Jam Master Jay tried to cut off the Piklz's power supply during its "Peter Piper" routine at the 1995 Source Awards.
But times change. A few weeks ago at San Francisco's DJ Expo at the Cathedral Hill Hotel, the Piklz provided a skills showcase for attendees and Jam Master Jay himself was one of many polite onlookers. Carlos Aguilar, a.k.a. DJ Quest, was part of the crowd as well, declining when asked if he might want to come up and spin for the crowd. Like the individual members of the Piklz, Quest's reputation is well established at this point. He began his career as a San Francisco DJ in 1987, and became a member of what's now known as the Bullet Proof Space Travelers, including DJs Cue, Marz, and Eddie Def, as well as MC Eddie K. An earlier configuration, the Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters, released Hamster Breaks Vol. 1 in 1992, and since then Quest has kept busy performing and recording with the Space Travelers, DJ Shadow's Quannum project, the Neo Trio, and the "turntable jazz" group Live Human, featuring bassist Andrew Kushin and drummer Albert Mathias. He also received significant exposure last year for a collaboration with Shadow on "Holy Calamity (Bear Witness II)," a track on Dan Nakamura and Prince Paul's acclaimed Handsome Boy Modeling School album.
All of which should position Quest as a prime booster of the turntable as an instrument and DJing as an art form. Quest himself isn't convinced, however. "It's always been my instrument, but I've never been down with the whole 'turntablism movement,'" he says from his Mission District home and practice space. "That's a term used by most of these DJs who didn't believe in the turntable being an instrument until everybody jumped on the bandwagon. I think it's going to be twenty years before a DJ can get up there and jam with a band and really be on the level of every other musician. The turntable hasn't been developed. Yeah, you can get up there and scratch, fuck it up, come up with new sounds, this and that, but it's still a little baby instrument. I look at this guy at shows and he doesn't need to stop."
"This guy" is Kushin, who like Mathias comes from a background in the Bay Area's avant-jazz realm. "There are a lot of DJs who don't have that sort of talent," says Kushin of Quest. "But in the case of Carlos," he adds flatly, "he's a musician." When the three met in 1996, the Live Human concept wasn't as gimmicky as "jazz musicians meet hip-hop," which isn't a new idea anyway. It's as old as the Last Poets, and began picking up steam in the mid-Nineties, as trip-hop acts and showcase compilations like Mo' Wax's Headz demonstrated that a hip-hop/jazz fusion could sound more intense and creative than the dry fuzak of Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, and their ilk.
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"I think a lot of times, until you see us play live, people think we're a jazz fusion group," says Mathias. "But we're not like that. We don't draw from that too much apart from the instrumentation." For four years the trio has performed around San Francisco, and has recorded an EP, a single, and a full-length album, though until recently, purchasing any of them required overseas connections. Over six days in 1998, the three recorded their first album, Monostereosis: The New Victrola Method; a year ago British label Fat Cat released it exclusively overseas; and two weeks ago the domestic label Hip-Hop Slam finally released the album stateside.
In other words Monostereosis is old; indeed, by the standards of the fast-moving worlds of electronic music and DJ experimentation, it's downright elderly. But it's a good example of how a record that is essentially a collection of breakbeats (all three members of Live Human are rhythm-instrument players) can establish song, mood, and the combination of virtuosity and passion to which all great jazz aspires. Driven by Kushin's stand-up bass lines, the results can be as elementally funky as "Orangebushmonkeyflower" or as loping and drowsy as "Percodan." In its most frenetic moments -- "G. Shroom" or the Quest showcase "Step Up," which comes on like a chamber orchestra in overdrive -- it's more powerful and aggressive than anything else that's come from the trip-hop camp. Kushin claims a great admiration for John Zorn's Naked City project, while Quest is a Kraftwerk booster; somewhere between frenzied jazz skronk and Teutonic electro-chill, Live Human has found an exuberant compromise.
The group's members, however, take pains to point out that the songwriting process isn't calculated. "We're kind of composing in reverse," explains Kushin. "I think the music we create is a sort of snapshot of where we're at at the time. We don't really go in with an idea of what we want to come out with. Most of the way improvisation happens is that we're responding to different sound systems," be it at a live show or in a studio context. Late last year the group signed a three-record deal with New York-based indie-rock label Matador Records, whose representatives caught one live show in San Francisco and called the band the next day. The signing fulfills Live Human's modest goals of being able to make the music it wants and have it available in a record store in the United States. The first result of that deal, Elefish Jellyphant, was recorded in Oakland late last year and comes out this June. "Whenever people ask, 'When's the record coming out?' for the first time I have a release date," notes Quest with some satisfaction, though he also adds that it doesn't matter much to him how successful the record becomes, or even if it becomes successful at all. "I don't care," he says. "I really don't. The only thing I want is to keep playing."
Based on a cursory listen, Elefish won't be an easy sell. More so than Monostereosis, it revels in lush grooves spiked with a variety of treatments that make the entire record sound sinister and intense, but also engaging. For the project Quest, Mathias, and Kushin worked with drum-machine triggers and samples, tinkered with gamelan-type sounds and tablas, and for one song manipulated Chinese opera 78s. The result: Like a good break record, the disc's heart is in the variety of rhythms it presents, but like any worthwhile ambient CD, enough sounds are bubbling underneath to make it interesting repeatedly. "I think of the first record [the live EP Improvisessions] as black and white, the last one as color, and this one being Technicolor," explains Mathias. "We're always just trying to challenge ourselves live and in the studio. It doesn't matter if we sell a million records or not." All of which makes a case for Quest being a jazz musician now, more than simply a member of a DJ collective battling others in competition. But even in that case, he's not interested in straying too far from his beginnings. "I'm always a battle DJ," he says. "Even if I'm just battling myself."