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Three-Headed Monster: Ollietwisto is one-third of the beat-digging DJ crew Skrunchface Projects. Not pictures: Jazwel and Rohm.

Steal This Beat

Give Skrunchface Projects your tired, discarded records, and they'll make a hot beat

By Todd Inoue

TO CALL Skrunchface Projects--DJs and graphic artists Ollietwisto, Jazwel and Rohm--audio animators would not be far off the mark. The San Jose-based DJ crew stitches disparate sounds together with the patience of an old-school cel animator. The resulting pastiche of dub, down-tempo and instrumental hip-hop songs collected on its independent CD 3-Headed Monster yields some of the most potent, smoke-out/chill-out/late-night painting session soundtracks for miles around.

Skrunchface work painstakingly hard to make sure every nuance is just right. They refuse to use break records and never sample entire bars. They don't download MP3s. They don't own a traditional sampler--just turntables, vinyl, a Tascam USB 428 audio workstation and computer programs like Cool Edit Pro, Acid Pro and Cubase. Sounds are logged, tweaked and layered in dramatic format similar to other shoegazing beat makers on Warp or Ninjatune labels. And because of the access to cheap Silicon Valley technology, Skrunchface make it sound just as clean.

Skrunchface fear no lawyers; each sample they use is completely retooled, flipped, chopped and frapped beyond recognition. They work by an unspoken rule: if someone can recognize the sample source, the track is immediately scrapped. "Death to the track," Rohm says, flatly. "Out the window."

"Which makes it fun, because we can take anything we like, and it would always sound original, because we chopped it up so much," adds Jazwel.

It's a form of cut and paste that producers like DJ Shadow, Prefuse '73 and Dan "The Automator" Nakamura have perfected and made high art. Skrunchface are direct offspring of these production gods' studio advancements, yet remain highly original in their own execution. "Re-Movement" is a shape-shifting orgy of greasy funk, psychedelic guitar transported to an Amsterdam hash bar. A passing cloud of sticky dub smoothes out the evil, sinister feel of "Pimperstein."

The bass line in "Treasure Map Dub Stop" feels like an outtake from some scrapped Lee Perry session, but it's not. The three-headed production crew sampled an obscure blues bass lick, slowed it down and chopped it up. Now the bass line sprouts dreads and anchors a lanky drum beat that itself is made up from almost a dozen different sources. The drums are syncopated in cut-and-paste fills that result in a bumpy, abstract terrain, similar to Shadow's "Monosylabik" or "Scatterbrain." "Dub Stop" fooled one of Jazwel's relatives, a music professor in the Philippines, who commented on the drummer's talent.

"Every track--the drum beat you hear is not a loop," says Ollietwisto. "Everything is built from different sources. Every time you hear a drumkit in there, there's five to 10 drumkits combined in teeny snippets--different high hat, fill, snare, kick. We don't want to steal drum loops, we want to make new drum loops to enjoy. It goes back to our unspoken rule: Don't take anything familiar."

To find sample material, Skrunchface scour dollar bins and, like chefs, use all parts of music, throwing no genre away. Once, Jazwell pulled a handful of cheap records from Rasputin's for $3 and made a vicious beat. "We are the lowest-budget producers," states Ollietwisto. "Anything with the craziest album covers. I've tried to sample swing stuff, add chopped-up Charlie Mingus bass lines, with weird submarine noises. It was total underground hip-hop idealism; everyone wanted to be the most different."

Jazwel and Ollietwisto met five years ago as animation students at Cogswell College. Ollietwisto was studying character animation and Jazwel was in computer video imaging. They shared an interest in hip-hop culture, animation and beat digging. They practiced scratching together and recruited Ollietwisto's younger brother, Rohm, who has a background in piano and knowledge of musical composition and progression.

The three would gather for Sunday beat sessions, where they would spill a week's worth of records and moods onto the desktop. The sounds that came out of the past three months were combined and put together to make 3-Headed Monster. The members point to "Re-movement" as the beginning of the Skrunchface progressive beat-making aesthetic.

"Most beats and MCs deal with a 'who' question," says Ollietwisto. "'Who am I?' 'I'm this and that.' 'I'll do this to you.' Some producers have a niche sound: 'This is Cam; this is me.' We're not focused on us, we want to take you to a 'where.' Classical music takes you to a place, a 'where.' We're trying to apply that to our funky stuff."

The name "Skrunchface" is derived from the involuntary spasm the body produces when exposed to art, sounds, a sick B-boy spin, whatever stimuli that force the arm up and waving in ecstasy. It's the desired reaction they want their listeners to experience. "You're inspired, in awe and confused all at once; it makes your face contort," explains Ollietwisto. "Other people say it's orgasm face, take-a-shit face or R&B-singer face, but those are good experiences too! Those things apply to the passion of whatever you're doing."

Skrunchface aren't confined to their bedroom or art studios (besides making music, Ollietwisto and Jazwel create street art and are residents at Red Ink in Santana Row). The group regularly plays out, scratching live at art galleries, underground functions and B-boy battles. All the scratching serves as a welcome release to all the intensive hours spent cutting and pasting. Free from the lab, they up the tempo and check in with their inner party rocker.

The Red Ink Studios show on Nov. 13 is officially a showcase of resident artists' works, with graffiti artist David Choe being the featured artist of the night. Skrunchface will have a four-turntable setup with live drums played by Choe. Sixteen-year-old scratch prodigy DJ Idea will fill the fourth turntable. As Choe lays the backbeat, Skrunchface provides improvisational vinyl one-upmanship. One lays down bass lines, another adds vibes, scratches, the other contributes kicks, snares, effects--anything to get each other's faces scrunched up.

"We don't prepare; we just bring our arsenal and try to vibe," says Jazwel. "He'll throw a bass line down, and I'll go, 'Oh, I got a vibes sample for that.' We don't know what other people have in their bags."

"We'll tell each other what we're bringing," corrects Ollietwisto. "Then, all of a sudden while we're scratching, a new noise will come in. We'll look over and go, 'Oh! He's got secrets!' Well, I got secrets too. We always try to surprise each other."

Skrunchface Projects and David Choe will debut new works and perform live from 6 to 10pm on Thursday (Nov. 13) at Red Ink Studios, 356 Santana Row, Suite 2000, San Jose. (408.260.9153)

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From the November 6-12, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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