Heads up: DJ Z-Trip will be back for the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival for his second silent film event, this time with Harold Lloyd's 1923 classic Safety Last!, on Sunday, April 17, at 7:00 p.m. Buy tickets here.
Crazy question: If silent film star Harold Lloyd were alive today, would he be a fan of Q-Tip’s music? Or, an equally wild question: Would he be able to name Boogie Down Productions’ resident MC without having to consult Wikipedia?
In theory, yes, those questions are silly, but in reality, and thanks to the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, they can also now be legitimately asked. In a risky and audacious bit of TFF 2015 programming, the world-renown DJ Z-Trip was invited to the festival to do something that had never been done before: spin a live set along with Harold Lloyd’s classic silent movie Speedy (1928), in which his title character has a wild New York City misadventure while trying to preserve the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar. It’s a delightful little NYC time capsule, complete with a cameo from New York Yankees great Babe Ruth, but due to modern audiences’ unfortunate lack of interest in old, black-and-white, sound-free cinema, it’s been relegated to film’s history books, save for a new DVD edition that’s on deck from The Criterion Collection.
Zach “Z-Trip” Sciacca is here to change that. The 20-year veteran has worked with top-tier rappers like Public Enemy, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, and Talib Kweli; he’s also played every major music festival, released official studio albums, and won several prestigious DJ competitions. But providing a self-curated score for a movie, let alone a silent one? That's new ground for any DJ, yet Z-Trip rose to the challenge. On April 22, inside Spring Studios, he performed a live behind-the-booth set as Criterion’s newly restored digital Speedy print played on the big screen. Z-Trip accentuated Lloyd’s expressively comedic acting and the film’s old-timey, feel-good vibes with hip-hop classics, turntable scratches, and meticulously timed sound cues.
And just like that, Harold Lloyd finally earned some hip-hop/street cred, and silent cinema became something even today’s younger movie lovers—i.e., the teens who probably saw Avengers: Age of Ultron three times last weekend—could appreciate. "I’d love to be the gateway for some 18-year-old or 25-year-old who sees my name, checks out something like this out of curiosity, and walks away going, ‘Okay, that was an awesome show, but now I have this whole new appreciation for this art-form I knew nothing about,'" says Z-Trip.
To get a sample of TFF’s Speedy event, check out the video clip above, exclusively put together by Z-Trip himself. In the scene, which is the film's massive fight sequence that basically includes all of New York City in WWE mode, you'll hear a snippet from The Warriors and the horns from Pete Rock and CL Smooth's "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)" along with the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right" and dead prez's "Hip Hop."
Below, Z-Trip reflects on what he fondly calls “one of the most incredible” experiences of his career.
A New Frontier for DJs
“When I first signed on to do this, I thought, ‘Yeah, this will be cool,’ but once I really got into it, I realized that this could really be revolutionary and next-level. I don’t know any DJ who’s ever done anything like this, to this degree. I know some who’ve played while movies were playing in the background in clubs, but this was me syncing to a silent movie and making sure I hit every cue. If somebody gets hit over the head with a sledgehammer, you’re hearing the noise in real time coupled with the music underneath. It wasn’t just me playing some songs—it was me composing the right song for the scene and also having it all ebb and flow together.”
“This was really uncharted territory. For me, ultimately, as a DJ, to be able to flex my creative muscle in this capacity was really great. I’ve been doing this for 20-plus years now, and I’ve pretty much played in front of every crowd and done pretty much the majority of stuff DJs do, whether it’s performing at Coachella or Lollapalooza, or opening up for the Rolling Stones, or a super-technical set for a DJ competition. But I’ve never done anything like this. It was really amazing to be able to say I pulled it off, but also to see the response it got.”
New York, Where Hip-Hop and Speedy Live
“It was all about keeping it regional. I was born and raised in New York, so it was great to actually go back and see what New York used to look like; some of the film’s wide-pan scenes and footage gave me a real appreciation for Old New York. It was easy to keep things New York-centric because so much of Speedy is rooted in things like Babe Ruth, Coney Island, and the Yankees, so it was all in there for me to play around with sonically.”
“I wanted to use some recognizable points of reference for New York hip-hop fans, like A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Award Tour,’ where Q-Tip has the line where he says, ‘Ludicrously speedy,’ which made perfect sense for this. At the beginning of the film I ended up using the line ‘New York, New York, big city of dreams, but everything in New York ain’t always what it seems,’ from Grandmaster Flash. There are a bunch of scenes where cops show up, so I ended up using KRS-One’s ‘Sound of Da Police,’ where KRS is like, ‘Whoop, whoop, that’s the sound of the po-lice!’ and I threw that ‘whoop, whoop’ chant on any time a cop would enter a scene.”
Diggin’ in Cinema’s Crates
“There were also things I wanted to work in for the complete nerds. I wanted to keep it true to movie buffs and people who would actually give a shit about something like this, so things like the ‘Wilhelm scream,’ for instance. That’s this sound effect of a guy screaming that’s one of the earliest recorded sound effects, and it’s been used in everything from old black-and-white westerns to Star Wars, and there’s probably one in The Avengers.”
“It’s become a good luck charm to throw this sound effect into a movie—when you hear it, it’s a very obvious and recognizable sound. I put that into the movie for film buffs obsessed with movie lore, in Speedy’s fight scene; there might have been one-and-a-half people who recognized it. [Laughs.] But it’s the crate digger in me that tries to put little pieces like that into something like this.”
A Different Kind of Emotion
“Once I was knee-deep in this thing, I asked myself, ‘How do I not just play a beat but actually get the emotions out?’ With actors in silent films, the facial expressions and the body language are doing about 80% of the work, and I’m trying to enhance that or overemphasize it.”
“There’s one scene, in particular, where Speedy and his girlfriend are ready to leave Coney Island but they don’t have any money to take the train back home. They happen to see one of their buddies who has a moving truck and ask him for a lift, and he tells them to hop in the back; somebody’s moving their home from one place to another, so there’s all this furniture in the back of this truck. They sit down and it’s like, ‘Oh, hey, let me flip this couch over,’ and, ‘Let me light this candle,’ and before you know it, they’ve set up this scene that feels like what their home could be like if they got married. It’s a scene of connection and growth, of, ‘It’d be awesome if we could be together and have a home.’ To help convey that, I put in the song ‘Our House’ by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. It fits the tone so perfectly because it’s this really heartfelt tune that draws some of the scene’s emotion out.”
“If you watch that scene with the music they’d already made for it, that will be on The Criterion Collection’s DVD release, you’ll be like, ‘Cool, I get it,’ but if you watch it with the composition I put into it, I think it puts extra pressure on that point and touches the heartstrings. It becomes a real ‘Aww!’ moment.”
Making Silent Films Cool Again…or For the First Time
“We’re talking about potentially doing this once on the West Coast, and there’s potential to do even more beyond that. Harold Lloyd’s whole estate was blown away, and they were like, ‘You know, we’ve got some other stuff you should look into.’ I’ve also been talking with The Criterion Collection and other people involved with this area of movies that, for the most part, has been forgotten.”
“This opens up a whole chamber for younger people being exposed to that sort of stuff. If I can be one of the conduits who allows that to happen, that will be amazing. It’s doing what I love to do as a DJ, which is bridge the old to the new. Whenever I’m playing a festival or a club, I’m playing the newest, most cutting-edge music that’s coming out but I’m also simultaneously throwing in some old-school hip-hop track, in the hopes that somebody goes, ‘Oh, who was that? The Wu-Tang Clan? I didn’t know about them—I gotta check their stuff out.’ That’s very much the future-primitive kind of thing I wanted to do with Speedy.”
Check out a clip from DJ Z-Trip's Speedy mash-up below: