July 17, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Zeph builds organic new sounds from a firm vinyl foundation.
By Dave Pehling
WHEN HIP- hop burst into mainstream American consciousness during the late '70s and early '80s through chart hits like "Rapper's Delight" and "Rockit" and the boom of breaksploitation flicks that followed in the wake of Flashdance, seeds were planted in young minds across the nation. Santa Cruz might seem an unlikely place for a kid to become immersed in such a decidedly urban phenomenon, but that's where an eight-year-old break-dancer named Zephaniah White first moonwalked into a culture that continues to define his life. Following the dusty-fingered path of Diamond D, Gang Starr's Premier, DJ Shadow, and Jurassic 5's Cut Chemist and Numark, local sonic alchemist DJ Zeph can count himself among the ever shrinking number of hip-hop producers who meticulously mine underground beats from predominantly vinyl sources. Drawing equally on his knowledge as a crate-digger and his skills at the turntable to construct compelling original music, he is living proof of Rakim's oft-repeated maxim, "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at."
While many budding b-boys in that seaside town eventually abandoned hip-hop (along with their multizippered, red-vinyl pants) as a passing fad, Zeph's early interest in breaking soon led him toward the musical aspect of the culture. As a sixth grader, he heard a then-teenage Kutmaster Kurt rocking the turntables during his weekly hip-hop show at community radio station KUSP-FM. Realizing the sounds were actually being broadcast from his neighborhood, he resolved to do more than simply listen to the program. "My mom walked me down the street to where the station was," Zeph recalls, "and I just asked if it was OK to hang out and watch what was going on." Before long Kutmaster Kurt took the fledgling DJ under his wing, eventually inviting him into the control booth. "I still have tapes of me talking and cutting on the air as a kid," the former Boy Wonder (his original DJ moniker) says with a laugh.
Armed with turntables he purchased as a high school freshman, Zeph relocated north from his childhood home to pursue a degree in audio production at San Francisco State in 1992. As one of the city's many party-rockin' mixmasters, he gradually developed a far broader palette than the average hip-hop DJ. "Between 1986 and 1992, buying hip-hop records was all about the budget," he says. "If you had $100, you could spend it all and still leave a store without everything you wanted to buy that day. Once the golden era ended and quality hip-hop became scarcer, I had to widen my scope to find new sounds." Incorporating breaks from jazz, reggae, rock, and soundtrack albums into his sets while elevating his scratching and mixing techniques to a new level, Zeph cultivated deep crates and an arranger's ear for how eclectic vinyl elements could be brought together to make something entirely new.
After graduation Zeph bounced back and forth between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, DJing gigs and getting involved with his earliest serious recording projects in both cities. Zeph's style continued to develop under the influence of two diverse scenes. His production work on L'Roneous Da Versifier's Ocean Floor Records debut, Imaginarium, in 1997 brought his first wide recognition in the hip-hop underground. The album's loping acoustic bass lines and intricately layered atmospheres would have made for an engaging listen even without L'Ron's cerebral new-school rhymes. His crafty use of classic-rock staples subtly brought snatches of Hendrix, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd into the mix without resorting to heavy-handed, "look what I sampled" flamboyance. Two self-released mix CDs with fellow Central Coast vinyl junkie Imperial (Breakbuilders in '99 and Electrospective in 2000) followed, along with beat construction for former Spearhead MC Azeem and contributions to comps issued by Mark Herlihy's Future Primitive Sound imprint and Stray Records. Not surprisingly, turntable-science advocate Herlihy had a hand in connecting Zeph with his current creative home, Wide Hive Studios.
"We were looking for a DJ to work on a project with Calvin [Keys, an Oakland-based guitarist who recorded extensively for the Black Jazz label in the '70s], and Zeph was one of the first people that Mark brought up," Wide Hive owner Gregory Howe says. A one-off live gig with Keys and Broun Fellinis drummer Kevin Carnes impressed Howe enough to invite Zeph back to participate in recording sessions for Keys's Wide Hive debut. The independent label's aim to recapture the analog warmth that has become nearly extinct in the modern recording era nicely paralleled the DJ's gravitation toward organic sounds. A fruitful partnership soon formed. After a number of jam sessions, Zeph was made a full-fledged member of Wide Hive's all-star groove collective V.U., an outfit that also features ex-Tower of Power drummer Ron E. Beck, Mission:/Crown City Rockers keyboardist Kat Ouano, and a number of other talented locals. In addition to recruiting Zeph as turntablist for the group, Howe offered the DJ a chance to put together a collection of original music.
DJ Zeph's eponymous album from last year ended up being one of the more deftly executed displays of beat chemistry released locally in 2001. Far more sophisticated than the frenzied scratch workouts so commonly put out by turntablists, the album shows Zeph drawing from a varied range of records to construct a truly well-rounded effort. Eschewing the use of computer-based drum programs, the DJ plumbed the depths of his crates to meticulously craft most of the beats on the album exclusively from vinyl. "Except for a couple of the tracks that had guest producers, a majority of the beats [on the record] were wax generated," Zeph says with a hint of pride. Where many producers simply find dope funk tunes and jack them wholesale, Zeph often blended an array of individual elements (a dubbed-out bass drum here, a funk snare crack there, a chopped jazz fill over there) to stitch together remarkably cohesive and natural-sounding beats. The deftly layered samples often overlap with such precision that it's difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends.
While the foundation of his already ample musical ideas was solidly rooted in the grooves of the vinyl that fueled his album, Zeph's association with Wide Hive opened his sonic vistas even further. "Basically, Gregory said, 'OK. You have access to these musicians, this studio, all these great microphones ... ' And I'd always kind of gravitated toward the idea of a live-instrument fusion," Zeph explains. Bringing completed beats and skeletal song concepts to Wide Hive, he was able to mine the talent of the studio's stable of players. The collaboration at the studio provided raw sonic material to loop, edit, and incorporate into tunes as well as whole performances that would accompany Zeph's beats. Blurring the line between intact live tracks and rearranged, reimagined samples from jam sessions, Zeph's well-crafted songs revealed a unique sense of how the worlds of vinyl manipulation and live instrumentation can be seamlessly brought together.
It's this innate musicality that has made him such a valuable asset to V.U. On the group's recently released album, Seven Grain, Zeph more than holds his own alongside his dauntingly talented bandmates. Taking the live-band-meets-turntablist concept in a different direction than the free-flowing pure-sound improv of fellow sonic explorers Live Human, V.U. draws on its members' jazz and funk backgrounds for a more structured approach. "Live Human has already been done; I can't try to do what they do, because it would just end up being a lesser version of the same thing," Zeph says. "My strong point is my record selection; I'm more apt to drop interesting sounds and beats in the middle of what the band is doing. It's on me to incorporate myself with the band, to be involved with the arrangements and not just be frosting."
As the tightly coiled tunes on the album duly attest, Zeph is far from relegated to the background in V.U. Shifting easily from scratching rhythmic accompaniment to trading melodic counterpoint with Ouano's tasty Fender Rhodes, he consistently makes his presence felt in the mix. Between live gigs with the band promoting the new release, work on his second Wide Hive album, and the completion of another volume of Breakbuilders this summer, DJ Zeph looks to be keeping his hands gritty with heavy beat construction for a long time to come.
DJ Zeph plays with Philly DJ Rich Medina at the grand opening of the Mahogany Boutique monthly Fri/26, 10 p.m., 330 Ritch, S.F. $15, $10 before 10 p.m. (415) 541-9574; and Aug. 9, opening for DJ Logic, Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, S.F. Call for price. (415) 552-7788.