ver the past few years Z-Trip has built a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most exciting live DJs around. His ability to mix styles and sounds allows him to do the unexpected during his sets. His only true recorded output so far, though, has been 2001's Uneasy Listening, Vol. 1, a mix created and self-released with DJ P. Only a small number of these discs were pressed, but they circulated quickly and became easily available. The mixes of funk, classic rock, and tight beats made Z-Trip an artist to watch. And then he didn't release anything for five years.
But he's here now, with his first official album, Shifting Gears. He's kind of done with the whole mash-up thing, so the appropriately-titled album marks his new direction. One thing that hasn't changed is Z-Trip's understanding of sequence. He put this disc together like a strong set, with each song transitioning smoothly from the one before it, and the album adding up to a cohesive statement over the course of its 70 minutes.
Shifting Gears begins with the feel of an old-school party album. After a quick intro, Soup of Jurassic 5 and Whipper Whip rhyme of Z-Trip's funk-based samples. Their flows wouldn't have felt out of place 15 or 20 years ago, but Z-Trip updates his role, especially in "Listen to the DJ" with smooth breaks and unexpected, fluid changes. The disc has quite a few talented guest MC's on it (Busdriver is a highlight on "Take Two Copies"), but Shifting Gears never fails to be a DJ's album first.
On the 14 true tracks, Z-Trip performs four instrumental numbers. "About Face" features percussion, and sounds like a remix of a marching band's drumline (but way cooler). The disc closes with "Revolution (STR parts 1 + 2)," a 15-minute track that broods, then turns hopeful, and finally moves into a speech by the underappreciated Grandmaster Caz on what hip-hop truly is and where it came from. In a sense, it's Z-Trip's definitive statement. Music can be dark or hopeful, and while there's always time to party, there's also a need to get to the heart of things, because it all ties in to the bigger picture. Caz gets choked up, even as he jokes, but he's 100% sincere and devoted, despite his lack of fame or commercial success. It's a tribute to Z-Trip's past and his influences, even as he begins to look toward a new sound. The speech is tacked on to the end of the disc, so it's likely you'll stop before getting to it, but you need to hear at least once. Then go back and listen again.
It makes sense to close the album with something as sonically serious as "Revolution." Shifting Gears began as a party album, but it gradually changed into something else. "Bury Me Standing," with memorable vocals from Luke Sick, marks the shift just past the midway point, as the party people start to become defiant—not political exactly, but intense. After Murs & Supernatural lighten the mood with "Breakfast Club," a song about cereal and Saturday morning cartoons, we get a series of serious meditations, climaxing with Chuck D's clarion-like appearance on "Shock and Awe." Z-Trip's beat is a demanding and militant as anything backing Chuck D should be, and the world suddenly stops and gets cold while that big voice tells us how it is. Call me a stereotypical suburban white boy, but Chuck D still hits as hard as any MC around: "They praying to God while they preying on you / While you playing a god, they're playing with you / Fight the power for gin and juice / In three years, y'all saw the devil get loose."
Shifting Gears starts as a party, grows as serious as a late night talk, and turns into a political (but generally applicable) rant. Z-Trip uses his first album to show that he's more than a party DJ, but he can be exactly that, too. I'm glad he's out there DJing, but this album really shows that he needs to get off the road and get some more studio time.