Philly DJ legend King Britt gets to play alongside his childhood icon

WXPN’s Chuck van Zyl will open Britt’s show at Johnny Brenda’s.

King Britt (Fhloston Paradigm) live on STAR'S END/WXPN on 30 July 2017 broadcast

King Britt (Fhloston Paradigm) live on STAR'S END/WXPN on 30 July 2017 broadcast

Courtesy Chuck van Zyl

Philly-based DJ/producer King Britt has played plenty of shows at Johnny Brenda’s. But this week’s gig is special.

This week, the 49-year-old trip-hop connoisseur gets to perform with a childhood icon. The man he grew up listening to. One of the voices that inspired him to get into music in the first place.

That man is Chuck van Zyl, longtime host of Star’s End, the five-hour chillout program that has floated over the WXPN airwaves during the wee hours on Sundays for the past four decades.

Britt grew up during the 1970s and ‘80s happily bingeing on sci-fi movies and TV, things like Battlestar Galatica and Blade Runner. He thrived on their aesthetic, melded with the jazz and funk music that pervaded his home (legendary Afrofuturist musician Sun Ra was friends with his mom).

By the time Britt was a teenager, van Zyl’s “far out” show was exactly his style, and he remembers winding down many a Saturday night by tuning in.

“It was the perfect soundtrack to get lost in and stay out of trouble,” Britt told Billy Penn. “I was heavy into new wave and industrial at the time, so this was a nice departure with the same sonic palette.”

In the ‘90s, Britt began his own career. He started spinning at Silk City and Revival, deejayed on tour for Digable Planets, and started Ovum Records with collaborator Josh Wink. He moved into creating music for film and TV — Miami Vice was an early client — and curating musical events for orgs like MoMA and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

King Britt's Sun Ra tribute at FringeArts 2014

He actually crossed paths with van Zyl by chance during the summer of 1993 at Third Story Recording, a West Philly studio. Britt was there working with his musical partner Josh Wink when van Zyl, who’d been invited by a friend to check out the space, showed up.

“I was just trying to keep quiet and stay in the background,” van Zyl remembered. When Britt follwed their introduction by saying, “I know who you are. I’ve been listening to you for years,” he was stunned.

“I never expect anybody to know about the radio show,” van Zyl said. “It made me realize how many people listen, [and] not just weird white guys.”

In 2010, Britt launched the band Fhloston Paradigm (a name inspired by sci-fi flick The Fifth Element) to plunge into the world of avant-garde ambient space music — not far from the type he was accustomed to hearing to on Star’s End.

Last summer, Britt contacted van Zyl to suggest doing a live set on Star’s End to promote the latest Fhloston Paradigm album, “After…,: and that’s when a real relationship took root. As the two men talked details over a lunch at Northern Liberties’ Cafe La Maude, they hit it off. Their shared geeky passion for sound’s endless possibilities made them a match created in sonic heaven.

Van Zyl at his studio in 2016

Van Zyl at his studio in 2016

Courtesy Chuck van Zyl

“I’d never heard an album like ‘After…’ before, and that’s hard to do,” van Zyl said. “It’s truly a unique artistic expression. He made an album that’s very ethereal but is highly arranged and composed. It’s not just some sprawling endless experiment.”

So onto Star’s End Britt went. And killed it. His July 2017 set went so well that it was just released as its own album.

The Johnny Brenda’s show on Jan. 25 will be similar to what Britt did last summer in the XPN studio. But before fans embark on that avant garde journey there will be a rare musical appearance by none other than the Star’s End host himself.

Van Zyl offered the type of caveat only made by someone whose genre of music is known for its obscurity:

“This music is a good experience for your brain. It opens up new neural pathways in your mind. But it’s unconventional, and maybe isn’t for everybody.”

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