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The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue

Life After Turntablism

Photo courtesy TBD Records
Photo courtesy TBD Records

Some Cold Rock Stuf
(Stones Throw)

A couple of years ago, two music-collective filmmakers invited a handful of like-minded electronic/experimental/hip-hop producers to participate in a rather tightly governed documentary film and record project. Secondhand Sureshots chronicles minimal beatmaking from the ground up—for the project, the artists were directed to build a track using only five dollar-bin records, effects, and their samplers.

In the film, J-Rocc, a demonstrably sheepish and non-discriminating producer/DJ, digs for vinyl in neighborhood thrift stores and scoops up the shittiest-looking picks within the confines of his zip code. Back at his home studio, where copious wooden crates of albums line the walls, he edits down a two-and-a-half-second saccharine piano and string bit from a Barbra Streisand album, and it subsequently plays an integral role in the glitchy, knocking beat he turns in for the project.

“If you look, you’ll find anything,” he tells the filmmakers. “It’s just all about looking.”

Before turning out a slew of eclectic mixes and acing scratch DJ gigs for friends/collaborators Madlib and J Dilla, West Coast selector J-Rocc and his DJ crew the Beat Junkies earned sterling reputations for their contribution to turntablism, a musical art form that positions little more than turntables and organized crates of records front and center. Back in the early ’90s, competitors in the era’s DJ battles had to perfect an alien sense of timing and rhythm to ensure that their continuous routines of manually looped drums, sound effects, and hyper-fast scratching flowed uninterrupted from one deck to the next. A blur of hands worked mixers and vinyl, with DJs frantically stitching together small snippets to construct a symphony of repurposed material.

J-Rocc’s long-anticipated debut album Some Cold Rock Stuf doesn’t sound like turntablism’s flashy moments, such as the scratch exercises that underpin the debut from NYC’s the X-Ecutioners or Q-Bert’s Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik. Instead, J’s record is artful in a different fashion, with mere nods at the once-bustling DJ battle circuit in sporadic tricks and cuts.

Those nostalgic for crossfader workouts will sulk in the corner after hearing Some Cold Rock Stuf, as the scratching on the album is a comparatively minor allusion to J-Rocc’s turntablist past; the bigger story is in the ever-varying sample material that makes up the LP’s foundation. Some Cold bears the mark of an undiscerning record-store drifter, one who’d rather lie down in traffic than pass up the chance to waste a summer afternoon pillaging barely playable Latin, rock, or disco obscurities from an overstock of vinyl at the Salvation Army outlet. While the album references the spirit of J’s in-demand mixes and the weird records he hunts down to serve ’em up, Some Cold is really a finished collection of his own productions, loaded with dizzying spells plundered from the ample boxes of vinyl that fill the artist’s Los Angeles home.

With Some Cold Rock Stuf, J-Rocc builds on his legacy of mix CDs—the often fastidiously matched streams of crackling, thrift store–bin records, singled out for their tasteless 1970s cover art or cheesy organ parts. Batches of low-slung grooves like those dealt by Muggs or DJ Shadow are chopped and rolled backward on J’s debut, while choir samples and sour strings are paired with combinations of organic percussion and kick drums. Malcolm Catto, the Heliocentrics’ skins man, chimes in for “Malcolm Was Here (Part 1 + 2),” which plays like the Blue Note mix J did a few years back. (On that release, J blended a bunch of tracks from the jazz label’s hallowed catalog with beats from artists like A Tribe Called Quest and Pete Rock, who have cribbed Blue Note textures for their own work.) The second half of “Malcolm” is nothing like that. It creeps. Somber and slow, “Malcolm Was Here (Part 2)” packs grumbling bass, brass skwonks, and drums that ultimately collapse or just peter out entirely. But no coda is larger than the sinister, sweeping violins that run through “The Truth,” where J affirms that his proficiency with sample manipulation and arrangements extends miles past clipping drum solos from J.B.’s 45s.

The clever instrumental hip-hop production and dusty dance music on Some Cold Rock Stuf spans two LPs/CDs—the album is accompanied by an unmarked, party mix-driven “Mystery Disc,” of which three different versions were manufactured to supplement presses of the album. The Mystery Disc I have is frenzied and loose; when Bollywood strings and hand percussion aren’t firing its turbulent bottom, it’s hard-funk drum loops à la Premier’s beat for Gang Starr’s “The Place Where We Dwell.” Along those lines, “Stay Fresh,” on the official release, is upbeat, but it’s as gloomy as all hell. J-Rocc peppers a hi-hat-heavy drum loop with scratches here and there, but they’re relegated to the background. The bass line is murky, with a simple progression that peers back at the harder rap of the mid-1990s. While no one is here to steal the producer’s shine, it’s as if one of those underground-but-unfriendly Stones Throw mainstays is pacing offstage, fixing to step in with a stick-up story or two for their man’s beat. No way, though: This is all J-Rocc’s show, and it’s masterfully construed without anyone having to utter a word.


Dominic Umile

Dominic Umile lives, writes, and drinks in Greenpoint.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

All Issues