Cut Chemist's 'Die Cut' Asks You To Listen Closely

Apr 5, 2018
Originally published on April 6, 2018 11:44 pm

For over 25 years, Los Angeles' Lucas MacFadden, better known as Cut Chemist, has carved out a reputation as a gifted DJ, influential tastemaker and adventurous explorer of musical styles from around the world. His latest album, Die Cut, out now, puts some of those influences into his spin cycle. The album gives nod to everything from new wave synth rock to ethereal pop to the twang of country.

When Cut Chemist first emerged out of L.A.'s hip-hop underground, he was already a sampling savant and purveyor of pastiche. Through his music one can trace a lineage back to the musique concrète composers of post-war Europe who experimented with tape loops and synthesized sound up through the pioneering rap remixers of the 1980s like Coldcut and Double Dee & Steinski. The creative philosophy uniting these generations was simple: all sounds in the world exist to be atomized, amalgamated and alchemized.

This cut-and-paste pedigree continues to be at the heart of Cut Chemist's craft, though he's gotten far more sophisticated at hiding the seams. On Die Cut, he's still working with samples, but he's also collaborating with musicians, rappers and singers to explore an expansive range of sonic textures and moods.

He invites avant-garde drummer Deantoni Parks to join him in a raucous, polyrhythmic pairing on the record's title track, "Die Cut (Theme)." No less striking is hearing one of Cut's favorite emcee partners, Hymnal, warbling over electrified steel guitar on "Plain Jane." Cut Chemist also layers a dense burble of beats under indie-pop singer Laura Darlington's melancholic vocals on "Home Away From Home."

In this NPR premiere, the visual for "Home Away From Home" is just as much of a glorious sensory overload. The camera scales sprawling mountaintops and sees life from the perspective of one of the world's smallest creatures.

The album isn't meant to work at middle distance. This isn't background music. It's an album that rewards close attention, just to pick up on all of the minute details that Cut Chemist works into every given moment.

There's a dynamic momentum that sweeps through Die Cut, where small, rhythmic patterns, instruments and sound effects burst into frame, exiting just as quickly. It's a mercurial, at times turbulent experience, but like staring at ocean droplets under a microscope, the deeper you go, the more you find teeming with life.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For more than 25 years Lucas McFadden of Los Angeles, better known as Cut Chemist, has carved out a reputation as a gifted deejay and adventurous explorer of musical styles from around the world. His latest album "Die Cut" puts some of those influences into his spin cycle. Reviewer Oliver Wang says this is one musical experience where it pays to listen closely.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUT CHEMIST SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Ladies and gentlemen.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: When Cut Chemist first emerged out of LA's hip-hop underground, he was already sampling savant and a purveyor of pastiche.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUT CHEMIST SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hold it a minute, folks. Are you familiar with a jam called...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Radio.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So if it's great jam you're after, try this one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: One, two, three and...

WANG: Through his music you can trace a lineage back to the musique concrete composers of postwar Europe who experimented with tape loops and synthesized sound up through the pioneering rap remixers of the 1980s like Coldcut and Double Dee & Steinski. The creative philosophy uniting these generations was simple - all sounds in the world exist to be atomized, amalgamated, alchemized.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOTTA WEAPON")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I mean, I felt like vomiting. I felt like laughing. I felt like crying.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You shouldn't be here. Get out of here, you hippie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: He's saying...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Beat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Beat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Beat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Beat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Kicking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Stepping.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: People get ready.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: I got a weapon.

WANG: This cut-and-paste pedigree continues to be at the heart of Cut Chemist's craft, though he's gotten far more sophisticated at hiding the scenes. On "Die Cut," he's still working with samples, but he's also collaborating with musicians, rappers and singers to explore an expansive range of sonic textures and moods.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIE CUT")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: And if I die, if I D-Y-E, will I be buried?

WANG: Here he invites avant garde drummer Deantoni Parks to join him in a raucous polyrhythmic pairing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIE CUT")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: Too much pleasure (ph), too much pleasure, too much pleasure. Kill me (ph).

WANG: No less striking is hearing one of Cut's favorite emcee partners, Hymnal, warbling over electrified steel guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLANE JANE")

HYMNAL AND UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Sunshine and rain, plain Jane...

HYMNAL: (Singing) Skipping by and gone like rocks across a lake.

HYMNAL AND UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Plain Jane, fed up with the same, forever remained in my picture frame.

HYMNAL: (Unintelligible).

WANG: Cut Chemist also layers a dense burble of beats under indie pop singer Laura Darlington's melancholy vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME AWAY FROM HOME")

LAURA DARLINGTON: (Singing) Called away from home, my mama under heaven's door. You told me always share until I run out of air.

WANG: The album isn't meant to work at the middle distance. This isn't background music. Rather, it's an album that rewards close attention just to pick up on all the minute details that Cut Chemist works into any given moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHYTHM METHOD")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: Breathe.

WANG: There's a dynamic momentum that sweeps through "Die Cut" where small rhythmic patterns, instruments and sound effects burst into frame and then exit just as quickly. It's a mercurial, at times turbulent experience. But like staring at ocean droplets under a microscope, the deeper you go, the more you find teeming with life.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUT CHEMIST FEAT. MYKA 9 SONG, "RHYTHM METHOD")

CORNISH: Our reviewer Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach. He co-hosts the music podcast Heat Rocks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUT CHEMIST SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Rain... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.