We caught up with the ex-Beastie Boys DJ fresh from a gig in front of 100,000 metalheads
What's your proudest achievement as a DJ so far?
Depending on where your career's at, we're guessing that might be playing out for the first time, getting your first residency or having your first track signed; or it might be having your last EP go to #1 on Beatport, or headlining a festival stage in front of 20,000 people. Whatever your proudest achievement is, though, we'd be willing to bet you thought of it in about half a second.
It's a good job, on the other hand, that we didn't put that question to Mix Master Mike - he's just got too many damn achievements to choose from! He's a three-time DMC World Championship winner (1992-94), a co-founder of legendary turntablist outfit Invisibl Skratch Piklz, and the proud recipient of the Grand Wizard Theodore Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Turntablist Federation. Then there's the small matter of the 14 years he spent as the 'fourth Beastie Boy', DJing behind the trio at all their live gigs from 1998 until the death of Adam 'MCA' Yauch (and their subsequent disbanding) in 2012, and contributing to the production of their albums from Hello Nasty onwards.
Oh yeah, and he's also won a Grammy, invented the Tweak scratch, been inducted into the Rock N' Roll Hall Of Fame, featured in the PlayStation game SSX Tricky as a secret character, and DJ'd for President Obama at the White House. Basically, DJing is Mike's world - we just live in it.
But he's not resting on his laurels just yet. Instead, he's just released what's being billed as the world's first VR album, The Magma Chamber, and is currently on a world tour with metal legends Metallica.
We caught up with him halfway through the tour to find out how it's all been going...
Let's start with the Metallica tour. How's that been going?
"We just wrapped up the second leg, and there's four legs in the US so we're halfway through. It's been incredible. We're going out there and doing stadiums, it's a different stadium every night and we're going out there in front of 50, 60, 70,000 people. We just did 100,000 at the Cowboys stadium which was just amazing, a dream come true. One of those moments where I'm just trying to take it all in. Trying to enjoy it and trying to soak up all of the wonderful blessings."
I was going to ask about that Dallas gig... is 100K a lot even for you these days, or is it all in a day's work for you now?
"Well, as far as my career goes... I see it as these are all just chapters. It's an amazing thing, what can I say? I've been blessed throughout my career, and these are just moments that I guess, through my power of intention, it's still working for me. I visualised this, y'know? I visualised everything that's happening, so I guess you transmit your thought and things come out of it, you know what I mean?
"For me it's all about integrity, it's about persistence and it's about not compromising who you are as an artist. And Lars and those guys got that, that's why they took me on the road with them, and it's working out well. It's awesome. What a stage, what a platform! So I have to use this platform to take my art and take it over the bridge, right? I'm creating a bridge, bringing together two genres. So it's definitely a blessing."
When you get up there, though - in front of 100,000 people - do the nerves set in, even at this stage of your career?
"The nerves set in when I'm backstage, in my dressing room thinking about it. But once I get out there, I know it's go time! I look at it as, y'know, whether it's a 500-1,000 capacity crowd or 100,000 I'm going to perform the same.
"But then you have to take into consideration that it's a sea of people, so you wanna… I focus on what's coming out of those speakers. Because those people are not up on stage with me, they can't really see my hands up close - I mean I do have cameras and stuff, but it's more just taking everyone's energy. I weigh 175 pounds, I'm five foot nine, and it's just me up there. It's not like there's a band, so I have to get my point across as an individual, and draw those people in. And it takes a lot of confidence and it takes being in a Zen-ful space, you know what I mean? Being okay with everything."
You're playing rock and metal records on this tour, but are you doing turntablist stuff with them? I couldn't find any clips on YouTube…
"Yes, to a point. It's not full turntablist stuff, it's more about rocking the stadium. I'm playing stadium crushers, so it's aggressive, and it's me remixing and refining the metal songs that they do know, and then the stuff that they don't know. There's a balance, because there's a lot of Metallica fans out there that don't know what a turntablist is! You don't want to go up there and give them something they don't understand, so it's a balance. I'll scratch here and there but it's all about entertaining the crowd. Giving them what they know, and then giving them something that they don't know that they need."
Whereas we've seen successful turntablists clear floors, because they don't get that what's right for a battle isn't necessarily right for the club...
"For me, I'm a shape-shifter. I get in the environment and automatically I know what to do. There's different gears that you shift to. You can't play an entire set for yourself, it's about entertainment and making people feel at home. But at the same time it's about not compromising who you are as an artist. So a lot of these turntablists, they don't know when to make that transition into making people have a good time. You've got to figure, you know, there's women, there's kids, so you have to cater for those situations."
"There's a time and a place for turntablism, and for me, from what I've learned throughout my career... I study all the legends, Miles Davis, Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the best thing I learned from Miles Davis was using silence as a key weapon. Knowing when one thing gets too much, and knowing when to lay off shit. I'm a vibe person, so it's all about transmitting vibes. and it's about peaks and valleys during your set, because you want to reach that climax at the perfect time, which should be your ending. It's a story - I'm telling a story."
How long are you playing for at these gigs?
"I'm doing two sets. I do one intro set, to warm up the crowd, and then I do the 45-minute power set right before Metallica come on stage. I never play any Metallica records, though. My job is to play them some shit that'll get them amped up, and then let Metallica play the Metallica catalogue! I take care of the rest."
You made your name in hip-hop, and you're currently playing rock records on a Metallica tour. Do you think that kind of versatility is something that's kind of been lost in modern DJ culture?
"No doubt. That comes from my upbringing: I was raised in a humble background, and I was listening to everything. I was listening to Slayer, I was listening to Metallica, I was listening to Led Zeppelin... and I was mixing those records! I'll go out on a limb and say I was one of the first to be mashing up hip-hop and metal. So I'm groomed for all this - I'm a chameleon, I can play anything.
"There's not enough intuition these days. You can't teach intuition, but you can show the kids different musics. I was raised listening to jazz, listening to soul, listening to metal, and that's definitely come in handy for me to be able to play in all kinds of settings, from clubs to arenas to stadiums. But you're right, I think that's been lost in the shuffle for a lot of new DJs, so I hope and pray that the new generation has good parents!"
One thing we tell people is to take those wedding gigs, corporate bookings and so on, because it'll help them develop that kind of versatility...
"Exactly. When I came up, that was the norm. And of course it was all vinyl then, which meant we had records and we'd really study them, we'd read the liner notes saying who played what and who'd produced it. It was a different day and age, y'know? And now we're in a different age of technology and you have different DJs for different areas of music. Like, you have the EDM world, and a lot of that stuff for me sounds a little dumbed-down. I don't want to come across like I'm talking shit about anyone but it seems to me back then we had to use our brains a bit more.
"It was more about the art and the culture, and I'm trying to figure out what people's perception of art actually is, with the Millennial generation. I'm into art, I like paintings, I love Basquiat, I love Banksy, I love performance art, I like to see shit done live. That's just me. I like my shit to be thought-provoking, because that's what art is. For me, I'm a musician before I'm a DJ."
Speaking of technology, what equipment are you using on the Metallica tour?
"I'm using Serato and my laptop, but I play real records as well. And when I do I'll show people the records - I'll hold them up to the camera so they can see them on the big screen. That always gets a big response, because then people know they're not being duped. They're not seeing someone just press Play and then twist a filter knob, it's actually going down! Sometimes the wind will blow the needle off the record, and I think that's awesome, because it's suspenseful when you do it like that. There's a level of... there's a punk rock element."
Moving away from Metallica a moment, did we hear that Invisibl Skratch Picklz will be playing together again later this year?
"Yes. It's been a while. Well, of course we have D-Stylez in our crew as well, and Q-Bert, Shortcut and D-Stylez have been doing shows as Invisibl Skatch Picklz, which is great because it keeps the name alive. And me and Q-Bert started a crew called Channel Zektar, which is a whole other thing, and I have a single coming out from my new album called Channel Zektar as well, which is me and Q-Bert. So as a crew we're still functional, doing our thing, but we come in different forms. Like I say, we're shapeshifters!"
So what should we expect from the single? As a DJ you play everything from hip-hop to metal, but a lot of your own productions have been more in a dubstep, bass music-type vein. So what's the single like?
"Stylistically, it's hip-hop - raw turntable hip-hop. The people that have come to know us understand that we like to push the envelope in terms of using the turntable as an instrument, and this single showcases that.
"So be on the lookout for that, and I'm also doing a virtual reality album called Magma Chamber, which you can follow on Instagram. It's a full-on virtual reality, 360° experience. The first track we did was Magma Chamber, and we've just done another one called Moonbase Invasion."
How does that work, then?
"You can find it on Littlestarvr, or at Mettle.com. The first one, Magma Chamber, is me and my motion graphics artist and my artist who does all my album illustrations, we've created our own environments in animated form, and I'm there doing my thing in these environments, showcasing what I do on the turntables. It's a first-of-its-kind project, and we've already won five or six international awards and been accepted to the Cannes Film Festival. It's the first ever virtual reality album, and I'm proud to be spearheading that."
To sum up, then... three DMC championships. A Grammy. You've basically been in the Beastie Boys and Metallica, you've played for Barack Obama at the White House, you've just done the first VR album. What mountains are left for you to climb?
"I don't know. You know what it is? It's passion - I'm addicted to the art, to the creative process. And I'm always thinking about what's next after what I'm doing at the moment. My two key things are doing it with integrity, and not compromising. Not looking at what's 'in' but actually trailblazing new paths. That's my purpose. I don't look back, I just keep going. I'm still learning about myself and about my capabilities as a creative. I'm still learning, and I look forward to seeing what's next."
Words: Russell Deeks