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Music DVD Review: DJ Shadow & Cut Chemist – The Hard Sell at the Hollywood Bowl

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The Hard Sell is a fairly apt title for a DJ release. There's a misconception about the craft, because the term "DJ" is often confusingly used in various settings. The guys scratching in the background at a hip hop show are called DJs. The hosts on the radio are called DJs. The guys keeping an eye on their iPod playlists at wedding receptions are called DJs. DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist are called DJs.

The Hard Sell at the Hollywood Bowl offers almost as much education as it does entertainment of the art form. The set begins with a tongue-in-cheek, '50s style educational film about what it is they'll actually be doing. What that is consists of playing, manipulating, montaging, mashing up, and obscuring crates full of 45-rpm records in order to create their own unique set. Two DJs, eight turntables, boxes of 45s spanning five decades of music, creating something in between new creation and music history lesson.

The music selection for this particular show consists of a dizzying spread of popular music, songs, and styles from throughout the 45-rpm era. Everything from '50s bubblegum pop to '80s hip hop, '70s disco to '90s trip-hop, '60s psychedelia to movie themes to smooth jazz to punk rock to… whatever else was ever pressed onto a 45.

The first half of the show comprises the bulk of the time (roughly two-thirds), and also contains the most interesting content. Musically, it is all over the place, but retains a very melodic and populist approach. Popular forms of radio fare from the '50s on up through the '90s are presented – although the weight is given to earlier decades – and then mangled and reprocessed with a slew of other samples and effects. This is the party half of the show, and although it does dip down into slower sections at times, it's just flat out fun. The selection of tracks is great, and even those who might not guess that they would be into a DJ show would most likely be grooving along and dancing around the entire time. It literally contains something for everyone.

The second half is not only shorter, but a bit weaker. It's a little more experimental, and that doesn't always work. Although it shows their ability to mine and recompile, convincingly, some disparate sources, it almost comes off as a proof of concept of what can be done as opposed to what should be done (to serve a crowd). It's certainly not bad, but it does lose the party vibe that was built so steadily over the first half. And the dueling mobile DJs at the end just brings the whole set to an abrubt and odd close. Mostly the entire concert is quite entertaining, but it does fade a bit there at the end.

On a technical level, the disc is not overwhelming but still well presented. Given the nature of what they're doing, don't expect a 5.1 surround mix. The makers of 45-rpm records hadn't really thought that far ahead. Camera work for the show is certainly interesting, if a bit lo-tech. There are a myriad of camera angles, from side-stage to back of the bowl to mounts on the DJ stand, and even some clever cams mounted to the wrists of Shadow and Chemist. Intercut into the DVD presentation are visuals created for the stage backdrop, which are all well done and add to the overall experience. In short, you are able to view the execution from every possible angle and vantage point.

There is also a booklet included in the packaging, which is a very lengthy and thorough chronology of both DJs, as well as cut-'n-paste and collage hip hop in general. It's a great complement to the video and audio experience, and provides amble background material on both the scene and this particular set.

The bonus features for the disc are on the shorter side, but interesting. In addition to trailers for some other related DVDs, there are two main bonus items. The first is a making-of featurette about the set and the Hollywood Bowl setup. It offers a great glimpse into what went into the technical production, as well as just their process of collaboration in general. And it also gives generous time to their fascinatingly eccentric semi-host for the DVD, Mr. Kim Fowley. The other bonus feature shows a prior live performance clip of a portion of the Hard Sell set. It's brief, but enjoyable.

The Hard Sell isn't the perfect set, but it is still immensely entertaining and masterfully performed. A couple of very slight technical glitches aside, you're able to watch two peak performers in the scene put on a unique and expertly done concert. The intro film to the main show is meant to dispell any misconceptions that real DJ-ing "just" consists of guys playing some records. Shadow and Chemist aren't just playing records; they're using records, with an eye towards their source and to the past, to create an experience entirely different from what came before.

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About David R Perry