Cut Chemist at KCRW's Masquerade: Escaping into the live moment
A confession: Rather unfairly, I had forgotten about Cut Chemist. Not on purpose and certainly not with malice, the turntable wizard born with the ordinary moniker Lucas MacFadden had fallen off my radar, despite his live mix CD released this summer, “Sound of the Police,” a titular nod to the KRS-One song. At Saturday night’s Masquerade, a multi-tentacled celebration from KCRW in the resplendent Park Plaza, I was most pleased to make his acquaintance again when I wandered into his set about 20 minutes after he'd kicked it off.
Holding court in the Bronze Room, Cut Chemist, playing with his VJ Tom Fitzgerald in matching orange prison jumpers, kept a crowd of sexy nurses, ghoulish Kim Jong-Ils and raver cat people (you had to see it) steadily dancing with his rousing blend of beat-laden African and South American samples. The show worked on another level as well -- a few screens flashed with Fitzgerald’s colorful visuals, many of them of African children decked out in tribal wear.
The oft-lobbed criticism of the average DJ performance, or really anyone who makes most of their music on a laptop, is that it’s boring to watch. And in many cases, it’s a well-deserved criticism. Too many electronic artists disappear into the music, their faces masks of impenetrable concentration, seemingly unaware of the crowd. Perhaps fearful that they won’t be able to control all the elements in a live setting, they keep the performance as foolproof as possible. Press a button and -- presto! The song comes alive with little or no live manipulation from the artist.
This isn’t the case with MacFadden, a Los Angeles native who’s clocked time as a member of the culture-mashing crews Ozomatli and Jurassic 5. Part of a disappearing elite that includes his sometime-collaborator DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist is a performer through and through. Watching him on Saturday night –- in my shipwrecked orphan girl costume, I crept up close to his table –- reminded me of watching an extraordinary chef in the kitchen. It’s not that the result is so mindblowingly unique -- let’s face it, Cut Chemist isn’t the first guy nor will he be the last to pillage a Fela Kuti record for samples -- but it was so painstakingly constructed that the feat, at least in the live setting, is not neccesarily the final product but the ephemeral fabrication of that product.
MacFadden -- his face glistening with sweat, his hand occasionally raking through his flyaway hair -- was the stern master over two Technics turntables, two CDJs (something like turntables for CDs and MP3s) and a loop pedal on the floor. In real time, he mixed and matched beats and samples, scratching records so fast that the tendons in his arms flexed, his fingers flying over knobs and dials, flicking up, flicking down. He’d pull records from a small select crate behind him -- you had to fight the urge to run up and help him, not because he needed it, per se, but just because it seemed like the polite thing to do.
All of these tasks are part of the ordinary language of electronic performance but they were rendered extraordinary by the effort, by breaking them down bit by bit, flick by flick. One motion led into the next; it all collided to create a song right there, without the familiar pomp and circumstance of guitar, bass and drums.
Though MacFadden was busy, he also engaged with the crowd. At one point, he performed “What’s the Altitude,” from his 2006 album, “The Audience’s Listening” and as the video with MC Hymnal played in the background, McFadden mouthed the lyrics and pointed at the crowd, which was eager to respond in kind. Sometimes -- and you never know when you’re just projecting some of your own stuff on a hapless performer -- it seemed like there was some other ineffable component to MacFadden’s demeanor, something cathartic and relieved.
It turns out that MacFadden’s father, William MacFadden, a retired financial planner for L.A. County, died last Friday of a sudden cardiac arrest; at the start of the show, he dedicated his set to him. According to his manager, he decided not to cancel his KCRW appearance because he felt like his father would’ve wanted him to play. Losing himself in the fast work of creating something that could last only a few moments was probably the best thing he could’ve lost himself in.
-- Margaret Wappler
Photo: Lucas MacFadden performing in the Bronze Room; credit: Gary Leonard