Sermon on the Wax | Music | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Sermon on the Wax 

Caffeinated and unfiltered, Mixmaster Mike is preaching the good word of turntablism.

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There’s a certain point where drugs have to factor in. Mike Schwartz hasn’t hit that wall yet—unless the gallons of Coke (as in Cola) he mainlines per day counts. But he’s damn close. Schwartz, otherwise known as turntable guru Mixmaster Mike, is basically being drawn and quartered, working on so much crap it’s hard to focus. There are live gigs, his third solo record to attend to, guest appearances on virtually every album currently being released. Oh, and don’t forget those tracks for the new Beastie Boys record. It’s enough to make anyone crack like a fault line.


“Thank God I have my caffeine,” he laughs. “Without it, I would just have to split my brain into four pieces. But it’s always been this way. You get used to it. The hardest part is trying to maintain your life.”


That’s why Mike has just picked up a new weekly show on L.A.’s KROQ—more quality time at home. Then again, who could turn down a chance to inject a pure dose of hip-hop into America’s airborne alt-rock Mecca? He’s been given free reign, allowed to spin anything he wants for a few hours every Friday night, an unheard-of thing in the current corporate playlist climate of radio. “I couldn’t be on radio if they didn’t let me do what I want,” he says.


The show is also a perfect way for Mixmaster Mike to preach the true hip-hop credo to more than scratch junkies. Since DJing has become the trendiest thing since Seattle heroine chic—“Turntables outsell guitars in Japan; can you believe that?” he laughs—Mike has taken it upon himself to teach the world what real turntablism is supposed to sound like. It’s not an easy task. DJing has been reduced to a joke in Disney flicks. Even Heineken is taking jabs at all the bad scratching in the world, recently releasing a commercial that claims the whole phenom came about because of a spilled beer.


“That’s just bullshit,” Mike says. “That really hurts the art. There’s already enough people not doing it right. And then for Heineken to come out with something like that, it just makes it harder to make people understand what the art form is really about.”


Ten years ago, there wasn’t really an art form. Sure, since Grandmaster Flash cut up his first record at a New York block party, hip-hop DJs had been throwing a few scratches down on tracks. And as underground battles started to become more prevalent in the late ’80s, some show had started to leak into a few spinners’ sets. But true turntablism—a cortex-tweaking array of scratches, samples and finger-tip tricks that elevates two needles and some wax to the level of instrument—was still just an idea.


Mixmaster Mike changed that. Working the wheels like an ADD octopus, Mike was one of the first to start building beat symphonies out of a few random platters. He could make squeaks and squeals flow like spray paint from his needle, blasting a huge sonic tag on anyone who stood in his way. By the early ’90s, he was so good that, after winning DMC championship (think DJing’s version of the Olympics) a few years in a row, he and partner Q-Bert were asked to never compete again; no one else could even fantasize about toppling them.


Yet while Mike oozed underground cred, it took the Beastie Boys to make him a turntable hero. After he met Adam Yauch at a party in 1994, Mixmaster Mike started leaving bizarre scratch sequences on his answering machine. Three years later, Beastie’s producer Mario C. finally caved and hired Mike to do some work on the band’s new record, Hello Nasty. Within a week, he was the group’s official DJ, helping to flesh out the retro-junk feel of tracks like “Three MCs and One DJ.” By the end of the session, it was obvious that, like Paul’s Boutique before it, Hello Nasty was going to quietly change hip-hop, challenging the world to take turntablism seriously as a legit art form.


“To tell you the truth, I knew that record would change things,” Mike says. “But that’s always been the point: to further the art. And it’s continuing to happen. I just let the gods run through me and just let my hands go.”


Schwartz is hoping the gods keep smiling on him. He’s got high hopes for his new as-yet-untitled solo disc. Unlike last year’s Spin Psycle, a mix album that featured more guest appearances than a P. Diddy party in the Hamptons, the new album is going to be nothing more than Mike and his record collection. It’s risky; names like Gang Starr and Deltron 3030 sell discs. But, like always, Mike wants to serve up the unfiltered stuff.


“It’s going to be all this psychedelic space-funk stuff,” he says enthusiastically. “Every time I go in the studio, I come out with something new and more bizarre. It’s like Legos and shit. It’s limitless what you can do when you start putting things together. I just want to make sure people understand that.”

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Jeff Inman

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