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The Boston Phoenix Turntablist Supreme

Mix Master Mike cuts some wax

By Franklin Soults

AUGUST 24, 1998:  What goes around, comes around, especially with big hunks of today's pop music. Much of the soundscape at the end of the '90s is reminiscent of the middle '70s or the early '80s, or even the first years of the '90s, with LeAnn Rimes standing in for Debbie Boone, Rancid for the Clash, New Orleans gangstas for LA gangstas, Hanson for the Jackson 5 and the Osmonds rolled into one, the Beastie Boys for the Beastie Boys. Even Culture Club are reuniting without a trace of irony. And among the bell bottoms and " '80s weekends" and the general Rhino-ization of America, how are we supposed to get excited by the "turntablist" movement that has brought back the DJ with a vengeance?

Well, why not? Just because history is a great big circle doesn't mean there's nothing new under the sun. Make that circle a wheel and you can see how we actually get places, even on the Wheels of Steel, as Grandmaster Flash once dubbed the turntables that made him the first pop star to play the same instrument as every one of his record-buying fans.

One of those fans was Mike Schwartz, a San Franciscan who grew up to turn those Wheels one rotation further as mixologist and turntablist Mix Master Mike. Until now, this 28-year-old veteran of countless DJ battles and break-a-dawn hip-hop parties was known mostly to denizens of the Bay Area hip-hop underground for his solo work and position in the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, a cutting crew that he organized with his long-time DJ partner, Q-Bert. According to Mike's bio, way back in the early '90s, the pair won the DMC international DJ competition three years in a row, after which they were banned from further participation because they were too untouchably good.

Now, however, Mix Master Mike is getting outside recognition for his modestly amazing new album on Asphodel, Anti-Theft Device. In method, texture, and ambition, it's light years beyond Flash's disco breaks; it also has more reach, personality, and control than the impressive if hyperactive cutting displays on a standard two-volume text of contemporary turntablism, Return of the D.J. (Bomb). Some of its angular whir and funky buzz could even pass as jazz or avant-garde experimental music, though without either form's sense of planned movement. Unlike the grand, symphonic development perfected by fellow Bay Area mixmaster DJ Shadow on his mesmerizing 1996 release Endtroducing (Mo Wax/ffrr), Anti-Theft Device never builds to any conclusion. To stick with the space-age metaphors and dated references beloved by all turntablists: the ever-shifting combination of broken beats, weird sound effects, super-dexterous scratches, and hooks plucked from the cultural ether comes off like moonwalking -- a stunning trick of moving while staying in the same place. In fact, some might see that as the problem.

Maybe it's the nature of the format. Like "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" and every other DJ mix, Anti-Theft Device is made up entirely of old samples; naturally, when you deal in cultural artifacts, history leaves its patina no matter how hard you polish. To his credit, Mike does his best to escape the stain of his materials. For the most part, his samples are either so obscure or so quickly and deftly cut that the history is reduced to mere cultural signposts for '50s sci-fi and the '60s space program, old-school rap battles and new-order industrialism.

Still, there are a few ringers in the hour-long pastiche: Mike Meyers as Dr. Evil intoning "Welcome to my underground lair," Roxanne Shanté rapping tough on an old underground hit, Melle Mel and the Furious Five chanting fragments from "White Lines," and -- most notable of all -- several samples of the aforementioned Beastie Boys. Unlike the other quotes, these aren't homages to the past but rather Mix Master Mike's homage to himself. Most come directly from the cut "Three MCs and One DJ," an old-school throwdown from the Beasties' new Hello Nasty (Grand Royal/Capitol), in which the rappers team up with Mike and reverentially call on him to "rock this place."

The admiration of these cultural icons goes even deeper: on the tour that the Beasties bring to the Worcester Centrum this Tuesday, Mix Master Mike will open the sold-out show and most likely work with the headliners as a "guest member." (You can also catch him at the Middle East this Sunday.) The union makes sense. The Beasties' new album marks them as vanguards of the old guard -- headmasters doing handstands to drill in their hip-hop history lesson; and Mix Master Mike is a giant in a Bay Area underground obsessed with formal achievement as an extension of traditionalism. You might expect their union to underscore their common insular old-school traditionalism, but since they approach it from such different angles (the Beasties' alterna-rock versus Mike's underground hip-hop), that's hardly likely. The thrill of their union is rather the same thrill you get from every track on Anti-Theft Device -- it might be old-school, but you still have no idea what will happen next.


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