By Jonathan Shecter
Lessons from the Golden Era of hip-hop are rooted deeply in the DNA of DJ Z-Trip, the eclectic turntable talent who recently assumed the high-profile Friday night residency at Rain Nightclub inside the Palms Las Vegas. Z-Trip has big shoes to fill. DJ AM, who, prior to his tragic and untimely death in August, presided over the Friday night Rain residency.
Z-Trip is certainly up to the task. Though he’s known as a pioneer of the “mash-up” or “open format” DJ movement — blending diverse musical genres into a single musical presentation — Z-Trip embodies a certain ideology, a devotion to the funkiness that only a true hip-hop fanatic can summon. In fact, if it weren’t for his hip-hop roots, the art of “playing everything” might have never come about.
My original Z-Trip revelation came 10 years ago when a friend gave me a copy of the now-iconic “Uneasy Listening” CD Z produced with DJ P. The first track blends Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” with a chunky hip-hop beat; my eyes widened. The evocative ballad “Dust In the Wind” by Kansas is mixed with a classic LL Cool J instrumental; a mental shift was occurring. The catchy ’80s pop-electro hit “Jam On It” is joined with Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is;” my ears grasped the musical revolution before them.
Suddenly those of us who were open-minded hip-hop fans didn’t have to pretend that we only liked hip-hop. Now it was OK to publicly display love for rhythms of all kinds. Now it was OK for DJs to blend, scratch and mix pop, rock, house, dance, movie soundtracks, whatever caught their fancy. And the more hip-hop skills they showed in the process, the better.
Z-Trip’s recurring party at Rain is called “Revolution” and the theme is apt — he has carved his space as a genre-bending producer and DJ, playing Nirvana next to Kanye West for audiences around the world and building a massive following that appreciates his open-minded musical outlook. Z-Trip has earned the right to earn the higher fees, releasing numerous mix CDs and several major label albums, appearing in the iconic DJ documentary “Scratch” and, most recently, contributing original mixes and being captured as a playable avatar for the hugely anticipated DJ Hero video game.
Most importantly, Z-Trip is a superbly skilled turntable technician who also understands how to play to a large crowd, an essential balancing act for any DJ who chooses to entertain the mainstream patrons of Las Vegas nightclubs. One of the only other spinners who had mastered this duality was DJ AM.
“Vegas always had this stigma of being the cheesy spot for a DJ,” Z-Trip explains. “But slowly the barriers have been coming down. With all the DJs who push the boundaries, like DJ AM and Mix Master Mike, people are finally embracing open-mindedness here in Las Vegas and everywhere. Call it the influence of the iTunes Shuffle, but variety is coming back in a big way.”
As Z-Trip knows well, this open-mindedness is not something new, but rather a throwback to the earliest days of DJing. “The people that influence me — The Grandmaster Flashes, the Jazzy Jays, the Bambaataas — those guys were pulling music from everywhere, it didn’t matter. Back then saying you were a hip-hop DJ meant your crates ran deep: Incredible Bongo Band, Art Of Noise, ‘Alright Now’ by Free, Deep Purple…”
As a youngster living in Phoenix in the mid ’80s, Zach Sciacca would travel to New York City and record popular hip-hop radio DJs like Marley Marl and Red Alert, taking fresh mixes back home to show off to his friends and “blow peoples’ minds.” Originally drawn to hip-hop culture via graffiti, by 1987 Z-Trip was collecting 12-inch vinyl, had bought his own turntables and began practicing the art of DJing. “But I was horrible,” he remembers with a snicker. “By 1990, I was doing all the parties around my place, and I landed my first nightclub gig before I was 21.”
When the N9NE Group, the management company behind Rain, recently began searching for a new Friday resident, Z-Trip was impressed by their massive Perfecto nights featuring dance music superstar DJ Paul Oakenfold on Saturdays at Rain. And now, based on the strong early turnout and massive buzz around Z-Trip Revolution on Fridays at Rain, it appears N9NE Group has another hit night on its hands.
As he does in his mixes, Z-Trip has no trouble connecting the dots from the past to the present. “At the very root, I’m a hip-hop DJ who is still true to the roots of playing everything.”
Jonathan Shecter, aka Shecky Green, is a media entrepreneur and hip-hop and rock historian residing in Vegas since 2002.