Dateline: Pittsburgh. Time-traveling DJs have landed in the year 2012, and they've come to rid the world of bad music. They go by the names Professor ASAP and JCT 45, and can be found performing in space-y headgear and suit jackets lined with electroluminescent wire, or T-shirts with sound-responsive graphics. They sort of look like a couple of Star Wars rebel fighters who went thrifting on Tatooine.
In reality, Professor ASAP and JCT 45 are the alter-egos of Joe Kennedy and Jordan Taylor, who comprise the duo Tracksploitation. The outfits, while elaborate, are homemade.
"We started the costumes back when we started playing shows out as Tracksploitation," Taylor explains. "A friend of ours suggested that we dress in a manner that separates us from the people coming to see us. I think he was talking about, you know, wear some sunglasses or dress in suits or something like that."
"We basically looked like guys who were just wearin' stuff for a minute," Kennedy adds with a laugh.
With those piecemeal costumes came the personas. According to their in-the-works comic book, Professor ASAP (Kennedy) is from the not-too-distant, post-apocalyptic future. JCT 45 (Taylor) is from some sort of android utopia thousands of years in the future. Coming from different parts of the space-time-continuum, they're here to conquer all of the terrible music currently being blasted in venues around the world.
"Tracksploitation's goal, the reason why they time-travel and play music," Taylor explains, "is because they found out that, around this time in human history, a lot of the music started to suck real bad, and a lot of DJs were just playing the shitty music."
It's an axiom that is echoed by many a DJ these days, but Professor ASAP and JCT 45 decided to do something about it.
"We have to kill all the DJs in all of time, in all of space, in every dimension," Taylor continues, explaining the mythos. "They're bad guys, so we gotta kill 'em all."
One thing is certain: They've carved out a niche, and won't be leaving this dimension anytime soon.
While time-traveling and waging musical war is part of Tracksploitation's fantasy, Kennedy and Taylor are a couple of modest art-school grads and longstanding hip-hop heads. They met back when they were both studying digital-media production at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh; they solidified a creative partnership at AIP house parties of yore. Kennedy would scratch and play cuts to keep up the ever-present cypher — an organically formed cluster of freestyling MCs — while Taylor would jump on the mic and spit whimsical rhymes.
"First rhyme I ever [spat] in a cypher: 'Yo, yo, you step to me cuz, I'm-a have you in danger / Gonna hafta call Chip 'n' Dale's Rescue Rangers.' And everyone lost it," Taylor recalls fondly. "From that point on, I was like, 'Well, I guess that's what people do in cyphers.'"
That goofy nonchalance can be felt at every creative step the pair take, producing a galvanizing energy that has fostered more of an artistic community than a music-scene war zone. While their roots are in hip hop (a genre that today, with its currency of blinged-out braggadocio, looks like it could use a coup d'état), the duo's tastes range from The Doors to acid jazz. They take that hodgepodge of samples and use them like paints on a canvas — never planning, just going with the flow.
"Whatever sounds good, you know what I mean?" says Kennedy. "I remember one time we tried to make sets, like regular DJs, and we were just no good at it. From then we just started freestyling all our shows." Having played gigs all over the city — The Warhol, Brillobox, the Rex Theater and elsewhere — they've become veterans, always able to read a crowd, but still remaining true to their onstage personas.
Flow and camaraderie are the essence of Tracksploitation, and every Thursday they meet with whoever wants to spit rhymes or listen to them team up on beat-fueled sound collages. They call it Throwdown Thursday, and as the cypher has been at Tracksploitation's core from the beginning of its time-traveling fairy tale, it now acts as an epicenter for East End rhymesayers who want to practice — and artists who just want to be surrounded by like-minded people.
One participant is Darrell Kinsel, who was recently named by The New Pittsburgh Courier as one of the city's "Fab 40 Under 40." An artist in his own right, he originally sought out Tracksploitation to book them for his solo art show. He ended up at a Throwdown Thursday with a mic in his hand, rhyming despite his claim that he is not a rapper.
"They don't think they're a big deal, and that's what's refreshing," Kinsel says. "They are a big deal in my mind, 'cause what they're doing is like, new wave-y. And they're just doin' it."
Nowadays, Throwdown Thursdays inhabit Taylor's little Lawrenceville apartment space, atop an antique shop on Butler Street. As Taylor and Kennedy work away on their Abelton Live mixers, patching together a digital barrage of samples, fledgling MCs who take their mic-handling seriously gather around the PA setup.
One MC, who goes by the name Reason, has been going to the cyphers since back in the days when they were in Mount Oliver. He credits the open creative environment for his own advancement as an MC.
"There was always just a really diverse lineup of people who would come through," Reason says. "Sometimes there would be, like, a trumpet player and all these different MCs. People would just come and chill. There's always people coming through, and it's always just a really open atmosphere. Even if you just fuck around and you don't even really rap, you can just start."
As one of the pillars of hip hop, DJing fosters that sort of open-up-and-create atmosphere. And as Kennedy and Taylor move forward with their quest, they'll begin instructing young people in a craft that most have to figure out on their own.
As the program director for the MGR Foundation, which works to foster creativity among youth, Kinsel saw an opportunity for creative outreach in Tracksploitation's open-ended approach. He got the duo into contract talks with the nonprofit; Kennedy and Taylor will now be running a workshop at Arsenal Middle School teaching kids the ropes of Abelton sequencing software and DJing.
"You need someone to connect you," Kinsel says emphatically. "We're working with high-risk, low-income, whatever you wanna label them, where you don't have the money for that. [DJing] is an expensive endeavor. These children are of the digital age, and we are beginning to take more of a focus on how you creatively express yourself through technology as an art form."
They may be comic-book-obsessed music fiends who like to occupy a fantasy world of time-travel and DJ battles. But Tracksploitation has created an environment that fosters learning across the board. Encouraging emerging MCs, teaching kids a craft that they'd otherwise never be exposed to ... it's safe to say that Professor ASAP and JCT 45 came to this dimension in peace.