In the age of algorithms, DJs are the unsung heroes of musical discovery. I don't want to choose all of my own music anymore, and I won't leave it up to Spotify, so I turn it over to trusted experts, artists committed to digging through crates of records, reconfiguring sounds and sequencing them into one- and two-hour sets. Let them do it!
Adam Mathiason, 36, who goes by DJ ChumZilla, works out of a State Street studio in New London called the Danger Room, a space he shares with rappers N.M.E. the Illest, Apathy and Skobie Won. The walls are lined with shelves full of records. Chum often loses track of what he has in his collection.
"This isn't even all of it either," Mathiason says. "Right now, on this side, it's two layers back."
The act of DJing is a spectrum. DJs curate weekly or monthly sets on internet or satellite radio stations, and also play live shows, stringing songs together on the fly, matching beats and tonal centers into thematic, danceable streams.
ChumZilla samples old LPs, adding drums, live instruments or skillful turntable effects as needed. He weaves songs into stand-alone albums or shops tracks out to rappers. He's a composer, of sorts, making new combinations out of found materials, and also knows how to connect with listeners from the neck down.
On July 28, Mathiason officially releases "Get Off the Earth," his second album as ChumZilla, created across four months of listening, sampling, combining and mixing. It's his current response to his life and all of its hardships: love, heartbreak, loneliness, financial distress and, occasionally, happiness. The record comes out on Raw Bar Records, a label Mathiason started with Connecticut hip-hop artist Benn Grim. You can listen to the album below. Mobile users click here.
Using Ableton Live, a popular software program, Chum layers sounds that work together, changing the pitch and tempo, subtly altering the swing.
"I listen for samples," Chum says. "I find a bunch of sh*t that I don't know how to pronounce and listen to it. It's harder for other people to find it. ... You can change the whole structure of it and make it work."
Mathiason, who grew up in Old Lyme and now lives in New London, started DJing as a teenager.
"I got in trouble for messing with my mom's turntable," he says, "just an old '70s component thing with an eight-track player with the switches and a big tuner dial."
He discovered MTV and early hip-hop, and was particularly drawn to Run DMC's Jam Master Jay, who scratched records.
Chum studied hip-hop production styles, on records by EPMD, Gang Starr, the Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest, "anyone with cool-sounding beats and scratching on it," he says. "I wanted to know how things worked, how they were done." He read album liner notes, taking stock of sample lists, drummers and producers, and also started thumbing through The Source, a magazine devoted to hip-hop music and culture.
"The Internet wasn't really a thing yet," he says. "I was like, 'Oh, that's the song my mom used to listen to, but where did those drums come from?' For the longest time, I thought they had people playing this stuff, but that wasn't the case at all."
What followed: digging, collecting, buying and storing records, "a downward spiral for money and space," Chum says, "but an upward spiral for everything else."
Soon, Mathiason DJ-ed parties at friends' houses, learning the intersecting arcs of time and attention.
"I didn't have anyone there to show me how to do it," he says. "I couldn't go on YouTube and learn how to blend a record or match a beat. … It was trial and error, a lot of not doing my homework and being in my bedroom."
Through word of mouth, Chum learned where to find obscure records: Record Express in Groton, antique shops in New London, Tumbleweeds in Niantic. He discovered a trove of Bob James records and bought all of them. "My mom was like, 'Why do you have all of these weird jazz records?' I said, 'Don't worry about it.'"
Chum also bought a Ensoniq ASR-10 sampling keyboard, a device has no built-in sounds; you have to create them yourself.
"It changed everything," he says. "It really made me look for sounds, like an open snare on some record, an open kick or hi-hat. ... I could re-sample them over and over and make them sound completely different."
Still too young to get into a club, Chum landed his first professional DJ gig at Bolero's in Norwich, which later became a punk venue called the Pogo Club, performing for hard-partying 20-somethings. Soon, he met Apathy, who was making a name for himself as a rapper.
"We talked about music," Chum says. "We had all the same albums, all the same influences."
Appearing as Chum the Skrilla Gorilla, Mathiason produced most of "Eastern Philosophy," Apathy's first album, released on Babygrande Records in 2006. Most of the beats were created on Chum's ASR-10. (He also mixed the entire record.)
"It put my name out there," Chum says, "but at the same time, not a lot changed."
Chum worked with Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda, Icon the Mic King ("Mike and the Fat Man") and others. There were additional Apathy projects. "Dance You To Death" Volumes 1 and 2, Chum's first mixtapes, came out in 2009. But in his personal life, Chum took a few hits. "It made me fall back a bit, to collect myself," he says.
His sound became dustier, weirder, more distorted. "I veered away from the traditional-sounding 'boom-bap' rap stuff," he says. Artistically, it was the right move, but he became isolated.
"I don't know exactly what happened, but I don't think it appealed to what the artists I was working with wanted."
Not all of it was a step forward. "Stoopid Animals," a joke-y, sex-and-drugs-filled collection, came out in 2010. ("I ran down the Taco Bell menu for two verses," he says.) Chum and Icon released the playful "Flavorade." "I'd send people beats, and they were like, 'These are crazy, man,'" but not in a good way.
Chum considers "The Earth Man's Curse," from 2015, to be his first real album. It took more than two years to make, and featured verses from Blacastan, Grizzly Grimace, Erik Lamb, Roz Raskin, elsphinx and others.
"Get Off the Earth," Chum's latest, comes out on July 28. It's a dark album; "Puff from a million cigarettes," a disembodied voice from a late-'60s psychedelic rock record croons on "Nobody Cares," the first single, "nobody cares if I live or die." Fuzzed-out guitars and dusty, descending scales compete for space over somber rock beats. Grooves lag and catch up with themselves; Chum's turntable skills and hip-hop-based samples infuse tracks with contemporary sounds.
"I was in a weird space," he says. "It wasn't the best of times, and sometimes that brings out the best of your art."
Chum plays live instruments on the album, but you can't really tell what's what. "That's good engineering," he says. "I beat myself up over mixing. It took me longer to mix the album than to make it."
Lately, when creating new songs, Chum returns to his old record collection, pulling out sounds and recombining them in new ways, sheltering himself from the internet and mass media. Dust and distortion are usually welcome.
"The world felt bigger then: You didn't have everything at your fingertips," Chum says. "You had to go exploring. Now, you don't have to anything other than what you're looking for. Everyone's connected. You don't have to work as hard for those connections."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the publication ChumZilla's "Get Off the Earth."
Press Play is a column by music writer Michael Hamad exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to him at email@example.com.