“I don’t know anything about that jigga jigga stuff – you play that and I’ll play this!” – Paul Humphrey
What happens when the original old school beat makers meet the new school of hip-hop beat jugglers? Renowned hiphop photographer B+ set the wheels in motion with the inspired idea of bringing together the most revered and notable LA session drummers for a photo shoot. In February 2000, Earl Palmer, Paul Humphrey and James Gadson gathered to discuss old times and old records. They were joined by DJs Babu and Jrocc of the Beat Junkies and Jurassic 5’s Cut Chemist, the best turntablists in Los Angeles, as well as seasoned beat diggers. This saw the start of the Keepintime films and an exploration of music and memory.
DN: How did the idea for Keepintime: Talking Drums and Whispering Vinyl develop?
B+: I’ve been a hip-hop photographer for many years, collecting records at the same time. I’m from Limerick, Ireland so when I moved out to Los Angeles I didn’t have too much knowledge of the pre-music of hip-hop. I heard Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock before I ever heard Lyn Collins, and A Tribe Called Quest before I heard Roy Ayers, but then, just by being an avid fan of the music, I started to put these links together. I started paying attention to people’s names and by the mid-90s, through just being a photographer, hanging out in the scene here and knowing different people, I started to find out that a lot of these old drummers were still around.
At that time I was commissioned to make the first DJ Shadow video (Midnight in a Perfect World). I’d gone to see Earl Palmer drumming at this local club and it was kind of a sad scene. He’s played on so many records that have been sampled, but there wasn’t a single person under 60 in the room there to see him. We had a part in the video for somebody to play an authority figure, so I suggested we use Earl Palmer instead of the older character actors our producer had found. After some initial resistance they agreed and we called Earl and got him down, and he was great. He’s such a remarkable character and his stories are just amazing.
After that I was like, “I’ve gotta find a way to do something with these guys beyond this video, and if I can find the right way to get this to the audience that I already have access to, then I’d have done something really cool.” So I wrote it up as a photo story and hit all the music magazines that I was already working for, from Vibe to The Source, but no one was interested. They were all like, “What records do they have out now?” Well fuck, there aren’t too many hip-hop records out right now that they’re NOT on, let’s put it that way! But people still weren’t catching it, until this Japanese magazine called Tokion got back to me (this took a few years) and said, “We’re down, we’ll put up the money to pay these guys to go in the room together and you take the photos.”
What we wanted was for them to have a conversation about some of the famous sessions we knew. Of course, what we came to realise is that they didn’t remember playing on half the records we were talking about because they’d played on so many. Then I thought the best way to remind them is by playing the records then letting them talk about them. When I thought about it I was like, that’s retarded! Why am I playing the records when I could have some of the top DJs, Babu, or Cut Chemist do it? And so it went to the next level, but at this point I still didn’t know they were all gonna play together.
So we put the session drummers in a room and started doing portraits. It was a trip for them too because, even though they knew each other, they’d never all sat down together. Then when the DJs came in, the drummers were like, “What the hell? Where do people listen to this?” and I’m like, “at the club” and they’re like, “Oh come on!” Earl and the guys are legends in their own era but they didn’t understand that these hip-hop DJs are also really famous to us too in a different way. But as soon as they started to understand that DJing wasn’t just something machine-like and it did have its own manual aspect, they started to see that the turntable could be a percussive instrument too. The next thing: BOOM! They’re playing together. I remember feeling the hairs standing up on the back of my neck and going, “Oh fuck, this is really some history!” and that’s how it happened.
It was kind of an organic thing. It wasn’t as if I had this master plan. I went through a period in my photography where, as opposed to thinking, ‘come up with the perfect master plan that’s gonna work’ and then poke people into doing it and make the perfect picture that way, I reversed it and said, ‘whatever happens is the perfect picture already, it’s just a matter of me taking good photographs of it.’ And that facilitated being able to just let it happen on its own, and that’s kinda how it’s been ever since.
DN: Did being a stills photographer help when it came to shooting *Keepintime: Talking Drums and Whispering Vinyl*?
B+: I shot the stills but I mainly directed. The guy that I work with all the time, Eric Coleman, shot most of it and we understand each other really well creatively, so he knew what I wanted and I knew what I could get. We shot Keepintime: Talking Drums and Whispering Vinyl on borrowed Sony PC100s. The budget for that short was $1,000, which was to pay the drummers; everything else was favours.
DN: How did the evolution from the initial short to Keepintime: A Live Recording and now the series of experimental documentaries (beginning with Brasilintime: Batucada com Discos happen?
Well, after we did the short there was such a strong response to it among people that we knew that we were like, “OK, we should have a party to premiere it before we send it off to festivals so all the homies can see it.” The magazine Tokion asked if there was any chance of the drummers playing at the event and they agreed. So we’re in a little rinky dink club with these total legends of drumming and these totally great DJs; it was one of those things where you want it to be crowded but you don’t have any idea that there’s going to be 1000 people outside who can’t get in! After that we started to get offers and we reached a point where we did it at The Getty and 5,000 people showed up, which was really magical, so I thought, we gotta make a film of this ’cause it was the next step, and I wanted to make a proper concert film. So that’s when the plans started getting laid to do the film/gig at The El Rey Theatre. Before that took place though, we got an offer to go to Brazil.
When we went to Brazil we hadn’t made the film at the El Rey yet so we didn’t have anything to show them. People were asking what kind of music it was, and it’s like “err, I don’t know? It’s anything, it’s jazz one minute, it’s disco the next minute, it’s hip-hop the next! I don’t know, it’s music.” It was difficult to even book a club and stuff, but it’s becoming easier. I want to stress that Brazilintime isn’t a concert film. It’s more of an experimental documentary. It’s the first in a series of films about music and memory and how memory functions in music and how hip-hop in its relationship to remembering has kind of really flipped everything on its head in a really interesting kind of way. Somehow, adding Brazil into the mix is like a kind of cultural remembering across continents. I’m trying to get into understanding how the exchange happens between say soul music here and samba there. That’s what it’s about. It’s experimental documentary so it’s gonna be some Chris Marker (La Jetee, Sans Soleil) kinda thing: lots of different narratives happening at the same time.
DN: Any firm plans for future films or live performances?
B+: Well we have to take into account where we’re wanted / needed. That’s obviously gonna play an important part. I have ideas to take it on from here both within and outside of the US. There was talk of us playing the Royal Festival Hall in London last year but it never came to fruition. We’re in the process of getting distribution for the DVD in Europe, so it would be up to a UK distributor to bring us out there, but I think it’s possible and it’s something I’d really like to do. I’d love to bring it to Ireland as well.
The short Keepintime: Talking Drums and Whispering Vinyl has screened at several festivals, including Digi Dance at the Sundance Film Festival, the Edinburgh Film Festival and the DFilm Festival in Seattle, where it won the Audience Award. It was also shown by DJ Shadow as part of his 18 city US / European tour, where 100,000 people saw it, leading to the instant sellout of its limited video run.
The Keepintime: A Live Recording DVD contains The El Rey Theatre Show, the original Keepintime: Talking Drums and Whispering Vinyl short film, as well as several extras and the bonus CD Keepintime: the Remixes.
For further information visit Mochilla.
– Originally published in Showreel, Issue 4 (Summer 2004)