As far as I know, Kid Koala, who was born Eric San in Vancouver 27 years ago, is the first hip-hop DJ ever to play a jazz standard on his turntables. Wait a minute, that doesn't sound right. After all, hip-hop was invented when DJs started joining together the best bits from lots of different records, and there were almost always jazz records in the mix.
What I mean is that he's the first DJ who's had the necessary dexterity, imagination and patience to play a jazz record not on his turntables but with them - that is, using them as an instrument. The first single to be released from his new album, Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs, is his version of the Dixieland standard "Basin Street Blues".
"I have, like, 18 million versions of it," he tells me. "But I wanted to hear what it would sound like if I did a hand-cut version, because I had no idea." After seven months spent painstakingly splicing together notes taken from literally hundreds of different records (none of them versions of "Basin Street Blues"), Kid Koala found out: "It kind of sounds like a Dixieland band, but there's something a bit demented about it. That's the charm of the turntable." Each drum hit and bass note in the track is taken from a different piece of vinyl - "it's a bit like making an animated film," he says. But for all the impressively intricate beat surgery of the track's rhythm section, it's as the clarinet and trumpet players that Kid Koala sounds his most distinctive and virtuosic. Taking a record that featured an isolated trumpet note sustained for a couple of beats (classical recordings are apparently best for this kind of thing), in one take, he manually stretched, bent and shaped that note into a four-minute trumpet solo every bit as exuberant and expressive as, say, Louis Armstrong's, although a little more woozy and wiggly. "That was the fun bit," he grins.
Turntablism has often been likened to modern jazz. Both evolved from straightforward dance music into more abstract and rhythmically complex listening music, both value improvisation and virtuosity, and also, let's be honest, to the uninitiated, both can appear geeky, humourless, arcane and cacophonous. But, demonstrating the freshness and uniqueness that is so prized within the hip-hop battle community, Kid Koala has introduced two welcome innovations to his scratch music: tunes and a sense of humour. He learnt the former from playing in a band; the latter from The Muppet Show.
For most bands, the turntables are either a percussion instrument, or confined to an instrumental fill. (As an example, listen to Kid Koala's scratching on the Gorillaz album.) But for a decade, he has also been a part of the Montreal-based funk/ hip-hop combo Bullfrog, during which time he found new ways to contribute to a song. "If we were doing a ballad then a crazy battle cut wouldn't always be appropriate, so I had to explore the range of the instrument, which meant experimenting with ambient noise and with pitch and melody."
He's also a cartoonist and the two branches of his work intertwine (his graphic novel came with a soundtrack, while his new album comes with a 50-page cartoon). In order to tell stories and develop characters, he stacks up a pile of spoken-word records on each turntable, which he can flip through to assemble bizarre cut-ups and surreal conversations.
"The idea isn't always to make songs, or even music," he explains. "It's like The Muppet Show, where there'd be a musical number but then it would be followed by a sketch about the Swedish chef doing some crazy breakdance with a bunch of chickens or something." On his first album, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (named after the repetitive strain injury of the wrist that scratch DJs are notoriously prone to suffer from), Kid Koala scratched with the sound of chickens clucking. Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs includes stand-up routines, sketches and the sound of people sneezing on each other in an elevator. "I don't consciously use those shows as a template," he says, "but I was raised on Sesame Street and The Muppets and their kind of logic just makes sense to me."
Kermit influencing Koala. Who'd have thought it?
'Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs' is released tomorrow on Ninja TuneReuse content