Legendary DJ Z-Trip will play a special set at The Dirty Monkey in Lahaina on Saturday, October 5. Before his show, MauiTime had an opportunity to talk story with the artist, who’s been called “America’s Best DJ,” “The Godfather of Mash-ups,” and “Young Rick Rubin.” The list of Z-Trip’s collaborations is a who’s who of hip-hop royalty, and includes Nas, Rakim, Public Enemy, Talib Kweli, and more. Hear him talk about his upcoming trip to Maui, his early DJ years and career, what it’s like being a world famous DJ, what he’d suggest to an up-and-coming DJ, and more. See you at the show!
MauiTime Weekly: Aloha Zach, Z-Trip, aka “Young Rick Rubin.”
Z-Trip: Aloha! Yeah, someone once referred to me as that, I found it a huge compliment as he’s had a big influence on my career.
MTW: I know you’ve played on Maui before. What are you most looking forward to for your upcoming trip to Maui?
Z-Trip: Just being on the island is all I need. It’s such a powerful place and I have the utmost respect for it and the people who live in Hawai‘i. I’m always open to learning the local ways and experiencing those things when I visit. I’m also grateful and humbled by all the love I’ve received over the years.
MTW: Last year, you played two shows on Maui – the first night was all digital and the second night was all 7-inch vinyl. What kind of set will you be playing at The Dirty Monkey on Saturday, October 5?
Z-Trip: I never really plan exactly what I’m going to play. I mean, I usually have an idea, but I’m a huge believer in feeling out the vibe and working around that as I go. Shows tend to pop off more when you let the vibe be the guide and build on top of it.
MTW: What is it like for you to play a show in a smaller community? It must be such a different experience than playing for 20,000 people at a huge festival, or 450,000 people at a Rolling Stones event! Do you prefer one or the other?
Z-Trip: There is definitely a difference. Each has something the other doesn’t and I love being able to do and experience both. Smaller shows allow me to show off things with a bit more nuance, while bigger shows allow for showcasing bigger impactful dynamics. Think of a magician performing for a huge audience versus them doing the up-close sleight of hand stuff. Both are equally amazing and magical to me.
MTW: Do you feel like playing a smaller show makes you feel closer to your roots?
Z-Trip: It definitely does. Playing stadiums is dope, but there’s nothing quite like a small, packed bar with people going off; that just reconnects me to why I got into this in the first place. When I can see the joy in their eyes, and it’s because of something I’ve put together, there’s nothing else like that. People connecting through music is a powerful thing. Intimate shows magnify that.
MTW: What’s your favorite thing about the Maui dance-music community?
Z-Trip: I love that people dance to everything and are so open-minded musically. It’s so dope when a crowd trusts me to take them on a musical journey. It allows me to cover a lot of ground. Hip-hop, reggae, funk, drum and bass, house, oldies, rock, metal… I can really stretch out and the set possibilities are just endless.
MTW: Where are you headed after you leave Maui?
Z-Trip: I believe an Asia run is in the works. However, if I’m not on the road, I’m in the studio. I have a bunch of projects I’m finishing up.
MTW: Back in the day, when you moved from New York to Arizona as a teenager, did you encounter any challenges being the kid from Queens?
Z-Trip: It was a culture shock for sure. I had to learn how to adapt to a completely different scene and climate. I think it’s what gave me my edge though. That’s where I really learned how to mix and balance all styles. I studied music and practiced a lot without much outside influence. Being in a new environment forced me to experiment, and those experiments became my formula.
MTW: On the other hand, did moving have an upside that motivated you to continue on your path?
Z-Trip: Yeah. Because of that move, I was able to develop my unique style. It really helped me stand out, all while still blending in with the scene I was into.
MTW: How did you start DJing?
Z-Trip: I used to listen to the mix shows on NY radio. Marley Marl and DJ Red Alert were the first DJs I really studied. I didn’t have anyone to teach me, so I listened, and with trial and error I somehow figured it all out. I used whatever I could find gear-wise until I eventually worked a summer job at a gas station to get money to buy my very own turntables. After that, I never looked back.
MTW: Growing up in the city in SF, I knew exactly who the Bombshelter DJs were. Everyone did! What was it like touring in those early years?
Z-Trip: Man, The Bay was the place to be around at that time! Such an amazing scene, all styles were bubbling. I remember playing Future Primitive shows and then doing after-hours gigs the same night spinning house records, or rocking reggae sets. People were open to it all. Touring was tough though: carrying all those damn records and sleeping on couches. I was so stoked to be able to travel the world and do what I loved, but it wasn’t close to what the industry is like now. Back then we were just making enough money to eat and buy more records.
MTW: What prompted people to call you the “Godfather of Mash-ups?”
Z-Trip: When the “Uneasy Listening” mix came out, it blew the door down. Napster was popping at the time, so it got passed around like crazy. Some people had already heard of me prior, but that was the one that took it over the top. We didn’t even call that style of mixing “mash-ups,” we just called it “blending.” Once people understood what was happening, they needed a term to call it, so that’s how it came to be. I think the “godfather” thing was something somebody said in an article; it got used a few times after that and just stuck.
MTW: I have childhood memories of my parents dancing to Donna Summer in the kitchen, and playing EPs of all types of music. For me, they’re some of my favorite childhood memories. Do you have a memory that’s similar, that may have influenced your musical style?
Z-Trip: My family always had music playing around the house, I heard and got into all styles, whether it was records or someone playing an instrument. My mom sang and played guitar and piano, my sister sang, my brother on guitar, and I played the drums. As a kid I never really looked at music as genres, it was just good or bad – stuff I liked or didn’t like.
MTW: What do you listen for in a track that makes you want to remix it, juggle it, scratch it up, cut it up?
Z-Trip: Space. I look for beats that have a lot of open space for me to add scratches or vocals over top. But more importantly, it has to make me move first. Drums always play a huge factor. I look for things that are really drum heavy, or the opposite and have very little drums so I can add my own beats.
MTW: How do you know when it’s time to back off a track?
Z-Trip: That’s just a feeling. It’s usually something you feel as the pace of the night goes.
MTW: Are you a Serato or Traktor guy?
Z-Trip: I use Serato 90 percent of the time, but I have Traktor and use it, too.
MTW: How has the transition from vinyl to digital affected the way you play? What are the differences in how you play, in terms of what you’ve done with vinyl versus now with digital?
Z-Trip: I love both for different reasons. Digital allows me to get more creative with my performance: I can manipulate music faster and do more with it. I love the limitations vinyl gives me; it forces me to conform to it and there’s something cool about trying to push it as far as it can go. For a performance though, digital wins. There are so many cool things coming out now that are helping push the artform forward. I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had spinning because of that.
MTW: How did the opportunity present itself for you to do the soundtrack for the Madden Series of video games? Did EA Sports open the door for Activision’s DJ Hero series?
Z-Trip: I remember EA came to my studio and I played them a bunch of stuff, and we just hit it off. I did a bunch of stuff with them over the years like Madden, SSX, and Skate to name a few. The DJ Hero series was equally as cool. I did a bunch of production, remixes, and consulting for both of the DJ Hero games. It was crazy to not only see myself as an avatar in the game, but to be me, playing me, in a DJ game! It was wild.
MTW: Last question: If you had any advice for an up and coming DJ, what would it be?
Z-Trip: Say yes to everything. DJ anywhere you can. Put yourself in uncomfortable DJ situations as often as possible. Learn from your mistakes. Be open to constructive criticism. Study and become familiar with all styles of music, not just the ones you like. Practice and develop your style so you can stand out. Be fearless in your sound, don’t get discouraged if people haven’t found you yet; they’ll come, you just have to stay at it… And always, always wear ear protection!
MTW: Thank you so much for your time! We are all looking forward to seeing and hearing you on Maui soon!
Z-Trip: Same… Mahalo!
The Dirty Monkey
844 Front St., Lahaina
Saturday, Oct. 5. 9pm. 21+
$25-$35. Tickets on Eventbrite.com