Various Artists

Return of the DJ Volume II

(Bomb Hip-hop Records)

By Jon Dolan

In the 70s rap pioneer Afrika Bambaataa used to ask Bronx party people, “Would you ever dance to the Beatles?” When they shook their sweaty heads smugly he’d smile back, just as smug: “Well,” he’d say, “you did tonight.” He’d go on to collaborate with nonrap artists as far apart as James Brown and Bill Laswell, John Lydon and George Clinton, but 20 years later the DJ culture is mutating at a rate even he couldn’t possibly have anticipated. Art-hop (DJ Shadow), illbient (DJ Spooky), hyperminimalism (RZA), and a dozen other descendant styles have exploded so fast and wide that Yo! MTV Raps may never figure out how to collect them into a neat package.

In 1995 David Paul, former editor of the Bay Area hip-hop zine Bomb, issued Return of the DJ Volume I, a compilation of superintense funk collages strung together by some of the country’s most proficient turntable wizards. Its aim was obvious from the opening lines of the first track: “Here in 1995, selfishness and greed has forced some to neglect those on the wheels of steels,” lectures Kool DJ E.Q., bringing about “the death of true hip-hop.”

Return of the DJ Volume I was a great record, if only because in reintroducing hip-hop to its roots it brought forth a few new faces, most prominently Q-Bert, whose remixes of the art-hop landmark album Dr. Octagon vaulted his Bay Area collective, Invisible Scratch Pickles, to celebrity status in hipper hip-hop circles. But while its retro feel was in a sense revolutionary, it was also a knee-jerk reaction to MC- and MTV-dominated hip-hop. At times the album felt more like a testosterone-saturated DJ competition than a pop record. Though its furious scratchers were all unknowably skilled, the more mediocre material often stank of the turntablist equivalent of guitar wank.

Technically smart, lyrically fluid, and humorously sick, Return’s follow-up is amazingly sweet-sounding when set against its predecessor. Album openers Beyond There (of London) nod to old-school antecedents (Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, Red Alert) and sample Boogie Down Productions’ classic “The Bridge Is Over,” all over a sublime, futuristic-soundscape groove, creating a clash between history and innovation so vivid you can almost see it. Cooler still is the very next cut, by Mr Dibbs/1200 Hobos (from the unlikely hip-hop mecca Cincinnati), who conflate Nintendo skills and cross-fader prowess by playing a sample of Mortal Kombat off a sample of Jeru the Damaja singing about mortal combat. Is this a statement about the effects of video games on youngsters’ minds? Probably not.

But for social commentary Return of the DJ Volume II has Tommy Tee (representing funky funky Oslo), whose atmospheric “Aerosoul” draws a strong, if obvious, parallel between hip-hop and graffiti writing, only to upend its momentum with a sample of KRS-One mocking a siren to warn all painters and rappers: “Wooo! Wooo! / That’s the sound of the police!” What’s a Norwegian doing preaching the history of New York street art? Well, he’s fudging, for starters. But he’s also in love with the culture and the music, very possibly in that order.

In fact, this edition of Return of the DJ isn’t only about DJing as hip-hop fundament; it’s also about hip-hop’s increasing ability to resonate outside the boundaries of Afro-American culture. French hip-hop (frog-hop?) specialists LF Peee string together airy flutes, Cypress Hill, and a silly guitar-drum freak-out to create the record’s wildest pop moment. Finland’s Pepe Deluxe relax on their own syrupy, tuneful groove as mean jazz-funk trap drums and a jubilant cowbell actually take the emphasis off the DJ.

Two of the most obviously accessible cuts come from a land as foreign to the funk as Finland and France put together: Phoenix. Volume I veteran Z-Trip bookends an obscenely wanky scratch session with the album’s most memorable nonmusical samples–one prurient (“Hey little girl I just bought a super new camera”) and one puritanical (“There are lots of people who touch us, but they shouldn’t touch our private parts”). It won’t change any musical worldviews, but its simplicity is as classically pumpable as Volume II gets. Then there’s the album-ending Z-Trip solo joint, “Rockstar,” which finds room to reinvent Van Halen’s “Eruption” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and “War Pigs,” and most potently AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock We Salute You.” The result is a Bambaataa-style coup d’etat. Hip-hop headz, would you dance to Ozzy? Metalheads, would you air-guitar over a breakbeat? Well, you did tonight.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.