A Candid Interview with DJ Cut Chemist
By Kyle Eustice
Cut Chemist (real name Lucas MacFadden) is a DJ, producer, member of Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli, and an all-around innovative artist. He even played a high school chemistry teacher in the movie Juno. In fact, his resumé is so thick, it’s difficult to sum up just how prolific he is. Some of his most interesting work involves his collaboration with fellow turntablist DJ Shadow. In 2008, the pair went on a worldwide tour in support of their joint album, The Hard Sell. In 2010, he released a solo album, The Sound of Da Police, and more recently, put out the song “Outro” featuring Blackbird. However, with the announcement of Jurassic 5’s reunion, Cut Chemist has been busier than ever. Along with Chali 2na, DJ Nu-Mark, Akil, Zaakir (Soup), and Mark 7even, he’s touring again, spreading his musical prowess around the world. Sadly, the closest they got to Omaha was Wednesday, July 23 in Kansas City. If you get the chance, check them out in a city near you. Cut Chemist took some time to talk record digging, MCA and jail time.
What was one of the best DJs and producers doing in jail?
[Laughs] It was just like being a knucklehead. It was nothing crazy. I just got caught up in some crap and then, yeah, that’s pretty much all I can divulge right now.
How long were you there?
I’m sorry to hear that. That’s never fun.
Actually, it wasn’t that bad.
Did you take a break and just sleep?
Quite a bit, actually. I mean, it wasn’t great, but, fortunately, I had some guards that were fans.
Yeah. Turns out they were either Jurassic 5 or Ozomatli fans. So they’d come up to me and be like ‘oh I was at the show in ’99 and it was awesome. They could have been really, really awful. It’s jail. That’s what their job is.
Your single, “Outro (ft. Blackbird),” sounds like the ideal background to a skateboard video. What was your inspiration for this song?
It was pretty much the Blackbird lyrics. He had come out with a version of the song in 2005. So that’s why I called it “Outro Revisited” because it already exists in another form. It’s a lot more straight ahead hip-hop. We were just kind of fucking around, or messing around [laughs]. I don’t want to put it out there like I’m a big potty mouth.
That’s ok. It’s Hip-Hop Gods. We are familiar with bad words.
So we were recording a song and then finally I was like, ‘you know, I’ve been thinking about this song “Outro” and I want to do another version of it, kind of like a rock version or a punk rock version. So he laid down some verses over a drum beat then we left it alone for awhile. Then I just kind of worked on it here and there. It was kind of about the experience being locked up and stuff like that. That definitely helped. He has similar experiences being in jail. It kind of fueled the fire for being passionate about the song and I could connect with it on a personal level.
Well, it’s a lot different from 2010’s Sound of the Police. That’s also a little ironic if you consider the title.
[Laughs] It was called Sound of the Police partly because I was going to jail also. That CD was released the day I went in.
Damn Lucas. I didn’t know you were such a troublemaker [laughs].
No, no I’m not. It was the same jail. It’s not like I went back. But the Sound of the Police has a bunch of different meanings. One, the Ethiopian band were military personnel. But yeah, also because, I was hearing the sound of the police and I was going to be taken in. It turns out it was on the release date. I remember calling my distributor while I was being driven to jail and going ‘ok here’s the game plan. You’re not going to hear from me for awhile so I want to make sure everything is straight.’
I didn’t know that. I have the copy you signed for me sitting right here and I had no idea all this was going on.
Yeah it’s quite different. Cut Chemist is known for a polite, funky world and “Outro” kind of destroys all of that. That’s kind of what I wanted to do. After Jurassic 5, which kind of holds a similar tradition in the DJing approach, I wanted to do something fresh and new. That’s why it’s called Die Cut. When you have a sophomore effort, as an artist, you’ll find that the sophomore record tries to do that.
Yeah, then people don’t peg you as the same thing. Saying that, I do think I use music in similar ways. I use sample-based beats with live instruments. It’s just what I’m sampling and playing that’s different.
You don’t seem to tour a lot, and I’m glad to know it’s not because you’re always in jail. Is there any particular reason for that?
[Laughs] Yeah- let’s see- why don’t I tour a lot? I do tour a lot, it’s just overseas. I don’t really tour that much in the U.S.
Why is that?
I’m not sure. Maybe I just pick and choose the types of shows I like to do. Maybe I feel like unless I have a record out, they want me to play dubstep, shit like that. Rather than play what I want. I am not going to play upon request. A lot of people just want DJs to play what they want to hear, unless I’m promoting an album. I kind of burned it down with audiences listening and stuff. I did a little bit of touring in the U.S. for Sound of the Police, but only in select markets because it was African music. That’s kind of tough to lay on people unless it’s a real niche crowd. That’s not easy to do. I had to pick and choose those shows. After touring that for a year and a half, it started to take off. I still get calls about Sound of the Police, to play in places like Brazil. I think the word is getting around that one turntable, African music is what’s up.
How do your U.S. shows go then? I saw you in Denver and there was a huge crowd.
Yeah, that was cool. I mean, it depends. Sometimes I play a festival and there’s already a built-in crowd or I’m trying to do myself as a headliner. That’s a lot of fun. I did a tour called Tunnel Vision and I put it together myself. It was Edon, Mr. Lif and myself. The L.A. show featured Blackbird. It was kind of a bunch of emcees I’ve worked with over the course of my career. It was touching.
What was your reaction to hearing about the death of MCA?
Oh man I was really bummed. I almost couldn’t move when I found out. Beyond just losing a great hip-hop figure, activist and an all around peaceful mild-mannered human being, once that set in, I realized there’s no more Beastie Boys.
Yeah, it’s the death of the Beastie Boys, too.
It is. I cannot fathom making music without them in existence. They were pivotal role models of invention, you know? They always do something new. I mean, you talk about me making left turns. They invented that. They were punk rockers. Then they did a rap record and then they did a jazz record where they picked up live instruments.
Then they did In Sound From the Way Out, a whole instrumental record.
Yeah. I probably wouldn’t feel compelled to write songs like “Outro” and change so much had they not existed. I wouldn’t feel as comfortable doing it if they hadn’t paved the way to take those kinds of chances and make it work, which made them the biggest band on Earth.
I met them when I was 15 and it is still one of the best days of my life. I had a huge Check Your Head poster signed by them and MCA was skating around on his deck and they were all polite, believe it or not. I was blessed to have had that experience. Did you work with them on a professional level?
I bought their first record when I was 12 and MCA’s voice was the first voice where I was like ‘wow that’s a really great voice.’ I thought he was a great rapper. So flash forward, when they moved to L.A., they had their studio with Grand Royal Records. They signed Abstract Rude and I remember I was invited into the studio with him and some of the big guys like Myka 9 and Aceyalone were all recording. MCA was playing upright bass on the song. I think that’s when I first met him. I never had the pleasure of working with them on a song. The closest I got was remixing “Lee Majors” with Daft Punk for DJ Hero.
I’ve actually played that on DJ Hero.
Oh cool. I think they actually wanted to release it, but it never happened. But I never got to sit down with them and actually map out a song. I did do a lot of festival tours with Jurassic 5 and Beastie Boys were often headliners, too. I think we caught their attention because they were big fans of the old school hip-hop.
I was surprised he passed away because I thought he had beat it, but then when they said he wasn’t going to make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions, I thought, ‘Uh-oh. Something’s wrong.’
Yeah I just heard the announcement that he had it a few years ago and then I didn’t hear anything for a long time. And I thought no news was good news and then all of a sudden he was gone. It was a sucker punch to me. I didn’t expect it. I thought he was going to be ok. I don’t know the specifics, but I think when something like that is around your lymph systems, it’s pretty bad.
It’s a significant loss, but he made a huge impact during the short time he was here, which is everlasting so we’re lucky to have that.