Concerts / Hip Hop / Interviews / Music / Pop Culture

Mix Master Mike – Riding the Wheelz of Steel with the Beasties and Travis

Mix Master Mike

Mix Master Mike

Riding the Wheelz of Steel with the Beasties and Travis

By Jay S. Jacobs

It’s not the background you’d expect from a DJ.  Mix Master Mike (born Michael Schwartz) was a half-German Jewish, half-Filipino kid from San Fran when he broke out in the world of DJ battles.

However, even as a little boy, Michael Schwartz was seduced by hip hop.  The first record he ever bought was Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” 12-inch single.  It was a big deal for the little boy, so much that he literally scraped together every penny he could, walking up to the counter and paying for the record with 499 pennies.

Not much later, he saw a gig by legendary turntablist Grand Mixer DXT (who also sometimes went by Grand Mixer D. ST), who – amongst many other important credits –  helped to popularize the art form by providing the atmospheric background for Herbie Hancock’s breakthrough 1983 jazz/hip hop fusion single “Rockit.”

“It was the first person I’d ever seen scratch and move the record back and forth,” Mix Master Mike said when he recently called to me from the road on a tour with Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker.  “That’s where I got inspired.  I was like, yo, I want to do the same thing.  So I got turntables and kinda developed my own style.”

Of course, MMM struck a different look than was expected in the hip hop world, which meant that from day one he was having to prove his street cred.

“Yeah, no doubt [I had to prove myself],” Mix Master Mike said.  “I started battling in garage parties and stuff like that.  Then competing on a local level.  Then it moved up, on to state championships, which I won.  Then World Championships, which I won three times.  It was all a progression.”

Those championships included the 1992 DJ Battle for World Supremacy and the World DJ Championships.  This led to more wins, and the eventual ascension to the judging table because he had won so often.  Mix Master Mike had arisen from his humble beginnings to the top of the underground turntable world.

“Oh, man, it’s a surreal feeling,” Mix Master Mike said.  “The love I have for the art is so deep.  With battling, you’re battling all the best in the world.  To come out on top, three times, it’s overwhelming.  I won once by myself and then I won with [DJ] Qbert.  It’s just an overwhelming experience that you are the best in the world at what you do.”

Of course the battles were just the first step for Mike.  DJing live was great, but he also was determined to create music for people all over the world.  Early on, he worked a lot with DJ Qbert – who was an early opponent-turned-ally in the competitions.  They also merged their talents and formed a group called the Invisibl Skratch Pickles.

“We were always compared to the greats, like Miles Davis, Coltrane, Hendrix,” Mike said.  “We always thought of being like those guys and playing our instrument with the same passion those guys did.  So, we were kind of like offsprings of those artists and to combine two styles, we thought, was unstoppable.”

Mix Master Mike

Mix Master Mike also became known on the scene for his innovations in turntable work – creating such musical styles for the wheelz of steel as the tweek scratch.

“I liken myself as a sound archeologist,” Mix Master Mike explained.  “I’m infatuated with sounds.  I customize my own sounds.  All the stuff I scratch is actual sounds that I make now.  Back in the day, I was digging for sounds – records and whatever.  Now, it’s become more of an art, of making your own music and making your own sounds to scratch.  It just makes everything much more original.”

In fact, over the years, Mix Master Mike has often blurred to borders when it comes to rap and rock.  He has worked with rockers like Rob Zombie, Ozzy Osbourne, Tommy Lee and most recently Travis Barker, with whom he has been touring and performed on the album Give the Drummer Some.

“Back in the day, when I first started, I was mashing rock with hip hop.  I was mixing Slayer.  I was mixing Mercyful Fate.  Mixing Black Sabbath.  With hip hop beats.  When people talk about mash-ups these days, I was doing that in the ‘80s,” Mike laughed.  “They’re nothing new, really.”

Still, it took a bit of perseverance on his part to get what turned out to be his ultimate gig.  In 1997, Mix Master Mike became the official DJ for the legendary rap collective the Beastie Boys – a position that he holds to this day.

“I’d been a fan for years, growing up,” Mix Master Mike recalled.  “The Beastie Boys were my favorite group ever in hip hop history.  I felt like I had something that they were missing.  I got Adam [MCA] Yauch’s number in New York City on the Rock Steady Anniversary [an annual Brooklyn concert/block party/benefit put on by the old school rap group The Rock Steady Crew].

“After that, in ’97, I was leaving these messages on his answering machine.  Like putting the phone up to the speaker and scratching.  Literally scratching on his answering machine.  Saying, ‘Yo, Adam, check it out.  This is the tweak scratch.  This is the reverse laser scratch.’  Or, whatever.  I left like four different messages.  Then I got a call back.  That was the call that they wanted me to fly to New York and record with them.  That was pretty much a defining moment, of me hooking up with the B-Boys.  Kind of like a dream come true.  It’s an American dream.”

He was only the fourth DJ to achieve that prime spot, and at this point he has been at it longer than anyone ever has.  This longevity is no accident.  It is a matter of chemistry.

Mix Master Mike

“You get somebody who is good at one thing and another person who is good at one thing, and they come together – then it’s on,” Mike said.  “It’s a formula.  It’s like we were meant to be together.  The sound we create together is next level stuff.  We’re thinking and hearing the same things together as we are creating.  It’s a perfect fit.”

Mix Master Mike laughs.  “I don’t know how to explain it.  They put full trust in me.  When we are doing live shows, I orchestrate the live shows and everything that comes out of the turntables.  They leave full trust in me in making the set lists for shows and stuff on the records, too.  It’s a trust thing: things are going to come out right if it’s in my hands.”

It’s tough to have staying power for a long time in hip hop, yet the Beasties have been going strong for over 25 years now.  Mix Master Mike thinks he has an idea why they have lasted when so many other classic rap groups sort of faded away.

“You know what it is?” Mix Master Mike asked.  “It’s the relationship that we all have together.  As brothers.  As a unit.  There are no egos.  We all share the same love for the music.  We all like making music.  It’s our love.  It’s our passion.  We all get along doing it.  That’s the difference.”

In May, The Beastie Boys will be releasing Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2 (another disk called Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 1 is also in the works, but is not ready so it is being held for later release).  The first single from the album, “Make Some Noise,” was leaked to the internet in early April.  The band pushed up the single’s release, which has become the Beasties’ biggest hit in years.

It is the Mix Master Mike’s third album with the Beasties – not including a remix album and a two-disk hits compilation.  He is excited about the new release, but he played it a little close to the vest on describing the new musical direction of the album.

“You know, they’re all different,” Mix Master Mike said.  “There’s going to be a lot of hip hop.  But, I don’t want to give away any secrets.  It’s hip hop and it’s another extension of what they created.”

While he is waiting for the album and the tour which will undoubtedly follow, Mix Master Mike has been keeping busy touring with Blink-182 drummer/reality show star Travis Barker.  The connection came through the overdose death of one of Mix Master Mike’s best friends, DJ AM (nee Adam Michael Goldstein).  DJ AM had been close with Barker for years – in fact the two of them had been the only survivors of a chartered plane crash in 2008 when they were returning from a South Carolina show.  Four others on the plane were killed.  After DJ AM died a year later, Barker contacted Mix Master Mike.

Mix Master Mike

“DJ AM was a really, really good friend of mine,” Mix Master Mike said.  “My manager introduced me to him.  When he passed, it kind of left a… I don’t know, not a hole in the DJ culture, but it was a tough time.  [Particularly] for me, being that he was my close friend.

“Travis reached out, he gave me a call.  He was like, ‘I can’t think of any other DJ to come out on the road with me but you.’  He asked me and it was like, wow!  It was a heavy situation for me, you know?  I had no aspirations of filling the gap.  They’ve created something already.  Me and Travis talked, we talked about how if we do hook up, we needed to do something totally different.  We have.  We created live remixing.  No one has done that.  It’s good.  You get two fierce musicians up there that are passionate about what they do, there’s bound to be some activity.”

Fierce musicianship comes naturally to Mix Master Mike, a fact which has not gone unnoticed by the music world.  Beyond the Beastie Boys and Barker, MMM has been approached by such varied artists as Zombie, Osbourne, Joss Stone and Fela Kuti to share his talents.

“It’s awesome,” he said.  “Music is a universal language.  I’m not just into one music and [all the different types of artists wanting to work with me] shows that.  I think that’s my key to longevity.  I study all different types of music.  I grew up to jazz, classic rock, not just hip hop but just everything other than that, and mastered my study in all these different genres of music.  That’s how when these projects fall into my hands, I immediately know what to do with it.”

Another recent collaboration is in an innovative new internet group with DJ Muggs and Rahzel

“It’s called the Elements Project and it’s electronic hip hop based.  It’s on this website called, where we leave our stems on the website for bands to download and think of parts and create the album with us.  It’s been an amazing thing as it’s evolved and making a record with you.”

Mix Master Mike is also staying in our face by appearing on the kids’ show Yo Gabba Gabba and stalking the interwebs with his own shorts series called MMMTV (Triple-M TV).

Mix Master Mike

“Triple-M TV is just little clips of me practicing in my studio,” Mix Master Mike said.  “Little two to three minute clips.  Putting it out on YouTube, just for the fans to watch it and enjoy.  It’s basically just practice sessions.”

In the meantime, he is starting his own cottage industry by creating a series of DJ products, including a DJ bag and an app.

“[The bag is] called Mix Master Mike’s Space Case.  There hasn’t been a backpack/DJ bag that has been the perfect one.  You get some, the zippers break or there’s not enough compartments, or it’s too small.  This one is going to be an all in one, everything you dreamed of, gadget/DJ bag.

“The new app, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s the best DJ app that’s out on the Apple Store right now.  Pick it up, it’s amazing.  It’s two turntables and a mixer in your pocket, with all the features.  It’s something I’m very proud of.  I’ve gotten good reviews and responses.  It’s called ‘Mix Master Mike Wheelz of Steel.’  It’s sure to change the evolution of DJing.  You could actually DJ with this thing in your pocket.”

In the meantime, when he has a free moment – which is rather rare – Mix Master Mike is working on his own music.  He has done a few solo albums and recently finished his latest EP.  And as always, he is thinking outside of the box in getting it out to the people.

“It’s called Plasma Rifle,” Mix Master Mike explained “If you’ve heard any of my previous records, they are like psychedelic, instrumental hip hop, big beats.  It’s kind of the same formula, but more refined.  That record, I have some new headphones out by Skull Candy, called the Mix Master Mike edition headphones, and the Plasma Rifle record will be marketed with the headphones.  If you buy the headphones, you get the EP.  Kind of like a double dip.”

Photo Credits:
#1 © 2009. Courtesy of Mix Master Mike. All rights reserved.
#2 © 2009. Courtesy of Mix Master Mike. All rights reserved.
#3 © 2009. Courtesy of Mix Master Mike. All rights reserved.
#4 © 2009. Courtesy of Mix Master Mike. All rights reserved.
#5 © 2009. Courtesy of Mix Master Mike. All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2011  All rights reserved.  Posted: April 20, 2011.

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