10 Fingers: DJ Rasta Root

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First and foremost, happy birthday Rasta Root! Second-most, This incredible entrepreneur – and human being – was very patient with all of my questions and shenanigans before, during, and after this incredibly long interview and he deserves a pat on the back and hug if you ever see him.

We met in Chicago during the video shoot for Dear Dilla, Phife‘s new single, of which Rasta Root produced the instrumental. I heard on Twitter four days before filming that they needed extras for the video, and after double checking that it was for real, I cancelled all my weekend plans, rescheduled work, and drove to Chicago by myself. I just couldn’t understand why anyone from southeast Michigan, Dilla territory, would not do whatever they could, to hang around Phife all day and be able to listen to a song dedicated to Jay Dee. So, after shooting, I meet-and-greeted with Rasta Root and Phife and did my best to represent the mitten and all that Detroit Motor City love. I had to get Phife to give a shout out to our blog’s co-founder, Emily Fredrickson, and he willingly obliged so THANK YOU MISTER PHIFE!

The video debuted first in Atlanta, and then the next day at Dilla Day Detroit in the Fillmore on February 7th, Dilla’s birthday. Rasta Root and I met up after the Fillmore show and rapped about a few things. Pun definitely intended.

Ella Campbell: What are you listening to right now? What did you listen to today?
DJ Rasta Root: You know it’s weird you say that. Because I didn’t. I didn’t listen to anything on my own. I mean, I was at the show and everything but I didn’t listen to anything else. Sometimes I need to take breaks. Oh! Okay no I did listen to something. I listened to De La Soul, “Trying People” when I was waiting.
EC: What else do you have in rotation right now?
RR: Lately, this group called The Internet. That’s my music for being at home and relaxing. I don’t always listen to hip-hop, sometimes my ears need a break so I reset them with totally different genres of music. They’re kind based in hip hop but it’s kind of experimental Bjork-meets-Portishead. It’s cool, it’s stuff that takes the edge off me and allows me to relax. It’s something where I’m not so into it that I’m bobbing my head or anything, I can just listen. If I had an elevator in my house, that’d be the music in it.
EC: Did you have a song stuck in your head today?
RR: No. I can deliberately close myself off from music, especially when I need a break. I’m very um. Well. Not a control freak, but, things like that: repetition, or things that suck you into your psyche I try to minimize.

EC: What was the first album you bought that you couldn’t put down?
RR: The first album I bought that I couldn’t stop listening to was Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill, I remember when that first came out in 1986. Over and over and over.
EC: What’s your favorite song from that album?
RR: It’s a tie between Brass Monkey and Paul Revere.

EC: What music did you grow up listening to?
RR: I grew up listening to a lot of music that my parents played, so a lot of soca, calypso, and reggae. Back then it was like, Blue Boy, Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, and Crazy. You  know, a lot of older calypso artists. We’d travel to Trinidad every year for Carnival, and we’d bring back cassettes. Then we’d just listen to those until our next trip.

EC: Are there any musical or cultural traditions that you try to follow in your music?
RR: From what I grew up on? Um, not necessarily because then I was more-so a listener of music not a creator. Back then I wasn’t trying to figure out how things were composed or “how did they do this? how did they do that?” I just took the music in and listened to it, and either felt it or didn’t feel it. Now I kind of naturally dissect. You know when you hear a snare hit: how it smacks. How did they get it to sound like that?

EC: What other people could listen to in order to understand your production style a bit better?
RR: I would say, I always find myself picking little pieces of people’s different styles of production. Um, so I’d say growing up as a DJ, DJ Premier influenced my scratch hooks or composing scratch hooks or finding —
EC: What does composing scratch hooks mean?
RR: It’s called phrasing. Where you find a capellas like the end of the Dear Dilla. You piece parts of songs together loosely based on different sounds and different word-play. From maybe six different records or so. So if you listen to it, there’s 6 or 8 different pieces I used to make one phrase.
[I interrupted to get him to start explaining again.] [He pulled out his iPod and started playing Dear Dilla]

RR: So I find different things people say, that kind of coincide in some way, and piece them together.
EC: I can’t imagine how many…
RR: It takes forever. It sucks. But I love it.
EC: In a previous interview of yours, I heard you say “I believe if you enjoy doing something, it’s going to show in your work.” Has your work ever been hard for you? Did you and your work ever have a “falling out” or has it always been enjoyable for you?
RR: Um, you know, you have falling outs. You try something, and it doesn’t work, or you try what you heard in your head and then when you put it out it’s like “oof that sounds horrible.” So you leave it. I’m really good at leaving stuff. I’ll go do something else. Like, this song? It took me… literally… a long time. To do it. Over the course of 10 months, pretty much. I just had “Jay Dee flip another beat for me” back to back, and I started seeing the redundancy in it and I had to do something else, so I added all of those scratch hooks. I don’t rush into anything.
Or, with something like this, [pulls out iPod again] I listen to the rapper’s lyrics:

RR: So, if he’s bragging, I find other bragging phrases. If they’re talking about something else, you have to find things that match that.
EC: Wait. I can’t imagine the physical way of achieving this though. I mean it’s not like you have six records lined up on turntables.
RR: “Oh, it’s on ProTools. I record one scratch on one track, then I go,” he held his fingers up as if he was scrolling down a computer screen, “and I add one lyric.”

EC: What first inspired you to pick up the turntables?
RR: Honestly? Well. It’s an interesting story. Growing up the way we did, we would have a lot of house parties. They were like, expat parties, so everyone who was a foreigner living in Spain would get together for Christmas and we’d create these cassettes where it’d be like a song, with a weird blend, because it was a double cassette recorder, and a voice-over mic, and you just make your mixes. There was no blending, it was just, whatever. So I’ve always been exposed to that. Then when we moved to Brazil in ‘85, our place was right off of Copacabana beach, and you can tell whoever lived there before us was, well, not a pimp but, disco-y like, everything had a shiny metallic finish. It was horrible.
EC: Sounds killin’
RR: I mean it was … cool … It was dated. Anyway, it had this setup of two turntables, a mixer, and cassette. I mean, it was a DJ setup. … Were there speakers? I think we had our own speakers. So that was my first experience spinning.
EC: How old were you?
RR: I was 14 or 15. I never took it seriously. I’d just blend the fader back and forth. Nothing that musically made sense. Then I went to college a couple years later, four years later, in ‘89. My roommates were DJs.
EC: Was that by design, or was that by happenstance?
RR: Nah I don’t know. It’s just what black people did. [laughs] It just happened to be that way. It was weird. And I noticed you know, I’m a loner in a sense, I’d go places and just be in my own space. So it was a good way to meet people, and meet DJs. There was a club on campus that we’d go to and we’d DJ there. I just kinda fell in love with it. At first I did it to meet people, but after a while I just couldn’t stop. I became… not obsessed, but whatever is the illness before obsession? [laughs] I had that.
EC: I would always hijack iPods at parties. I’d hide by the speakers and try not to talk to anyone. Then I’d finagle a way to fade between two if just one didn’t have the “right” music on it. Then at one point, one of my buddies told me I should be a DJ and I was like “You know. You’re really right about that.” And now, I’m a terrible DJ!
RR: Are you really terrible?
EC: Well, I’m not that good.
RR: Don’t worry, you’ll get it.
EC: Do you teach?
RR: I’m very much into being a mentor, especially with DJ culture. I think it’s something that needs to be passed on, and you can only learn so much on your own. You definitely need guidance, and assistance with some of those questions that you can’t get past. I don’t teach as much as I used to, but I did teach courses for Scratch Academy in New York and I’ve done private lessons for friends and people who are just interested in seeing what it’s like to be a DJ.
EC: What is something you always tell your students?
RR: Practice hard. Practice every day. Do it over and over until you get it right. That’s very key.
EC: You wanna come to Ann Arbor tomorrow and give me a DJ lesson?
RR: Oh so thaaaat’s why you asked about if I taught DJ lessons.

I threw him an Aziz Ansari face:
C1ZTqGe
RR: … Why is your mouth still open.
EC: I’m waiting for you to say “Yeah let’s do it, let’s go to Ann Arbor tomorrow!”
RR: I have meetings all day so I can’t, I would though. I could give you a theory class. That’s always fun.
EC: I could give YOU a theory class.
RR: Yeah but, YOU wanna DJ.
EC: Yeah. True. … Would you like to be a jazz musician?
RR: No.
EC: Okay, I’ll give you saxophone lessons.
RR: I’m good. But I appreciate it.
EC: I’ll teach you how to do your nails.
RR: No no. We’re good. I think I’ll just give you a theory class.
EC: What type of theory are we talking?
RR: DJ theory.
EC: What does that mean?
RR: How to do it right. How to not do what you do.
EC: YOU HAVEN’T EVEN HEARD ME.
RR: What kind of interview is this?
EC: The best kind.
RR: Theory class is fun. Counting. You’ll do fine because you do music. It’s still a feeling thing too though.
EC: I want to know! I mean, I can tell when I do it wrong.
RR: Yeah, the world can tell. We all can tell.

EC: What is something a mentor has said to you that stuck with you?
RR: I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t had any music mentors. I’ve chosen people as mentors, but they have not communicated with me. I just watched their movements.
EC: Like who?
RR: I mean, it changes a lot, and I don’t think I’d answer this the same way twice, but I’m heavily influenced by DJ Premier. Heavy heavy in the ‘90s. Some great Chicago house DJs. Watching how they mixed records together, and music, and all those things that make their mixes so perfect. I’d take pieces of that as my own, and that’s the type of mentorship, or the role they’ve played in my life. But they don’t know that. Even sitting with Premier today, he has no idea …. I mean, you can look up a video I have where I re-did the Mass Appeal scratches. I learned them from listening to them so much. [Check out Rasta Root’s interpretation here.]
EC: There’s something I’m trying to copy of DJ Dummy’s. It’s where he has the same record on both turntables and then he’ll just repeat the same measure again and again. Then it’ll just be two beats. Then he’ll pause at every beat and make it in half time.
RR: Right, that’s called backspin and strobing. If you want to see who invented that, it might have been DJ Shortkut. When he does it, it’s so sick. [he laughed] I met him in Japan in ‘95. Man, the records he chose? If you look at some old DMC tapes, he does it on there. You go taptap, taptap, and you mix it, and it sounds like it’s stuttering.
EC: I can hear in my head what you’re explaining but it’s not quite that either.
RR: What song was he using?
EC: Shit. I can’t remember. I have to hear it in my head. I can’t hear it. All I can hear is doop doop, DOOP DOOP. The bassline. From Dear Dilla. It’s all I can hear right now. [We both laughed]
RR: Why is that?
EC: Man, I don’t know. It’s literally all I can hear.
RR: Why?
EC: I don’t know. I keep trying to shut it off and trying to hear the freakin’ song DJ Dummy used AUGH. It’s a song everybody knows. [pause] I WANNA ROCK RIGHT NOW, DNN DA DAAA DNN DNN DNN”
RR: Oh yeah! OKAY. So what does he do?
EC: He goes “I wanna rock right now. I wanna- I wanna rock right now.” But THEN he goes “i [pause] wan’ [pause] rock [pause] right [pause] now.”
RR: Ah! Yeah, that’s called … Wait. It’s not walking it’s, walking the… Not walking the dog.. but It’s something like that.
EC: I just call it half time. When he does it, it’s super clean. It’s in time. When I do it, I’ll go a little bit too far back and it’ll slow down the time. Or I won’t go back far enough and it’ll sound like it’s speeding up. I’m doing it on a BALLAD right now because I can’t use a normal, more up tempo dance song. I’m not fast enough.
RR: That’s crazy. What song is it?
EC: Say it Through Love” AND one of my copies of it is warped so if I’m too heavy handed then the needle bounces out. But. Hey. When I do, get it, I GET IT. I get it once every 50 times, and it’s awesome. Someday I won’t have to do it on a ballad…. It won’t be on warped records…
RR: So you have to buy two records with the same tracks?
EC: Yeah I don’t have anything to hook my turntables up to my computer.
RR: A workman always blames his tools…
EC: I’m not blaming my tools!
RR: You’re not! That’s what I’m saying!
EC: What the heck were we talking about?
RR: I don’t know. What the heck WERE we talking about? You know, my friend said he saw someone crying in the crowd.
[I cooed in response]
RR: Yeah, I thought it was very sweet. It was cute.
EC: Yes. That is very cute.

EC:
Anyway. Mentors. Advice. Do you have any one-line piece of advice that is your moral compass or anything?
RR: I’m different in that way. I’ve always said, I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I knew who I wanted to be. From a very young age. So, even as a kid, I still had serious goals. It wasn’t anything like “I want to be a doctor or a lawyer” but I was very detailed about how I was going to live my life. I think my mother had a lot to do with that. She raised me to be very independent. Peer pressure and things like that never really affected me because I wasn’t afraid to be my own person. I believe in taking little pieces from people. Things you might say … I know a lot of people that put everything into what one person says, and that’s how they might live their life. But I see a lot of different ways to live, and observe and create. He might have something good to say. And you might have something good to say, and so might she. Just gather what you think is going to work for you. It doesn’t work for everybody, what works for you might not work for me, so it’s hard for me to put pressure on someone to be a mentor. Then they’re responsible for what you do in life. Isn’t that crazy?

EC: What role do your friends and family play in your music?
RR: I don’t think they play so much a role in the creation of the music, and even when they hear it, it may not move them. I mean, my mom is 71, and she came to the premiere but I think she likes it because I like it. Or my sister says “I can tell you did that because it sounds like a beat you’d make: it’s got your vibe. Your feel.” It’s connected in some way, though. Them knowing that I am doing something I love and that makes me happy, and it’s music, in whatever capacity, keeps us connected. When my mom came to the premiere, she stood up and they introduced her and everything. That was out of her normal world, outside of her everyday being, but she enjoyed seeing someone say “Oh look, you’ve raised such a nice son.” It makes her proud to hear my peers talk about me in a positive way

EC: How old were you when you moved to Atlanta? Where did you live before then?
RR: I was probably 25, and I had moved back from Japan where I was living for 3 years. I also lived in Guatemala, Canada, Brazil, England, Spain, Abu Dhabi and Japan.
EC: Why?
RR: My dad’s job. He worked for an oil company so every few years they would send him to a different place and we would go with him.  He would travel in the neighboring countries while we stayed in one place.

EC: What advice do you have for musicians who are moving to a new city, who want to become comfortable in that city’s musical culture?
RR: Get around. Get out. Go snoop around and see who’s doing what. Don’t be scared to just walk into someplace and start asking questions. You gotta see who runs the place. Cause, somebody runs the place. Somebody runs the city and you need their blessing. Kind of. Otherwise you’ll be ostracized.

EC: How did That Hot Joint Vol. 1 help you?
RR: This was my first move from cassettes to CDs. It was when I moved from Japan to Atlanta, and it was my first production CD to get gigs. I didn’t deliberately make it for that but, well kinda. So, CDs weren’t even popular for DJs to be using back then. In ‘97 the ability to make your own CD was just starting to happen so it was pretty expensive. It was like making an album. You’d have to go through Disc Makers or something. I made the mix and I think it’s the mix that introduced me to Atlanta. It’s special to me. In the photoshoot I had a cassette, and the sticker on the cassette was on fire. And headphones were on fire. That’s Hot Joint. Because it was hot. Fire hot!  Back then I was mixing it live. I was just recording straight through as opposed to tracking it out. Busta Rhymes & Lord Have Mercy, Lord Have Mercy says, “Who the fuck you be?” is the question, and in the other blend, Mase from Puffy says “I be the young black …” or something like that, and even though it was a small moment it made perfect sense because it made it a conversation. There should be some cohesion between songs you mix. I love stuff like that. How do you tell a good story even if you only have three minutes?

EC: How did you become a manager?
RR: I fell into that working with Phife on his solo project. When I first met him, he had a manager. I’ve always been business oriented and organized in that sense. Always aware of what makes things work. So anyway, I just sort of fell in it. Our friendship grew and our trust grew and that’s how it’s been since 2002. But my first tour was with a young Dwele with cornrows and a baby face.
EC: Which artists work with your management?
RR: I’m more into branding and marketing. That’s where my joy comes from. But I enjoy seeing what we can do with Phife’s stuff. And I road manage for Dwele. And my own shit.
EC: What does being an artist’s manager entail?
RR: Imagine if you get hired as a manager at The Gap. It’s everything in that store that you’re responsible for. When it opens when it closes. When you have to delegate. You’re responsible for every detail of their career and even personal stuff.

EC: What was your first international tour experience like? How did that shape your skill set? Although I guess the international side of it wasn’t a “thing” to you.
RR: Well, what was a “thing” was, “now I’m traveling and getting paid to do it.” The first international tour I did was when Phife had his first solo album. We did 6 or 7 dates in Germany. That was my first experience. You learn how to grind. You learn how to budget your money, make sure your bills at home are paid.

EC: What is the mission of Riddim Kidz Productions? What has been the process of putting together that project?
RR: Riddim Kidz is what Phife brought from his Tribe days. One of his first skits was produced by Riddim Kidz. That was his contribution to Tribe, and he took that with him. We decided we were going to take that idea and give it back to kids. Teach kids how to make music and rap. We decided to name it that because it’s also building a little tribe of kids who are becoming adults.

EC: Was Smokin’ Needles Records your brainchild or the brainchild of a few people?
RR: It was a few of us. It was my friend Mark-T. He was half Japanese. Third generation Japanese that lives in Brazil. He and I rounded up for our mixtapes. It was really Smokin’ Needles crew. You could battle other people or whatever. Then any mix I’d put out would be under “Smokin’ Needles Records” but it really wasn’t a label per se. It wasn’t really a label until Phife called me one day and was like “I really like that name, I’d like to be a part of that.” That was ‘99 or 2000.
EC: Had you known him before then?
RR: Yep I was already DJing for him.

EC:How did Smokin’ Shells come about?
RR: That was a mistake done good. DJ head shells are black for the most part. DJs would sometimes customize them and paint them. I painted mine blue but I bought the wrong paint. So with grease or smoke or whatever, it started peeling. So I sanded it down and got rid of all the paint I could and then I said to myself “wow it’d be cool if these were shiny.” So I went to this chrome shop that bikers go to and took a few shells with me and said I wanted to get them chromed, can that happen? He said, no, because it has plastic here and there and you have to dip it in a solution. He took one shell anyway and when he brought it back the top was just, mirror-shiny. And i was like “that’s it!” It was just right. My friend DJ Lord and I did a show in Houston and he wanted to know where to get these shells. I said I didn’t know because you gotta buy the shell and strip it down. He gave me some shells, and I did it, and I started seeing that I could take the shell apart and get the plastic off. Totally break it down. That took about a week to figure out. Then the idea started going that other DJs would like this idea. Next thing, it wasn’t a mistake.

EC: What advice do you have for other musically inclined entrepreneurial spirits?
RR: Know when to the musician hat on and know when to put the business man hat on. Even with “Dear Dilla,” at some point, I had to remove myself as the producer and go into the role of marketer and manager. If you don’t do that, you’ll hold onto the song and it won’t do anything because you’ll never think it’s finished, or it’s so dear to you that you don’t want people to hear it. You have to know when to let that go. You have to know when you have the product. You have to have good balance, knowing when to transition into those roles.

EC: What have you learned from touring?
RR: Trust your gut. Trust your instinct. If your gut says don’t do something. Just don’t do it. I was in South Africa with Slum in 2008 or 2009. We were working with some folks that were pretty conniving. They contacted me to book Q-Tip but they couldn’t book him so they got Slum. They promised them a lot of money, T3 told me it’s the most they’ve made. They came up short on the money, but before that I felt a weird vibe so I set up a camera in my room when the man was going to drop the money off. I was road managing for them and I was responsible for them so I recorded it just in case. We were counting the money and he was pacing around. We only got the money because the promoter’s mother, who I had met, paid up. The stress of that trip was crazy.
EC: I can tell, because you’re holding your arms crossed in front of you very tensely.
RR: Yeah, the memory is crazy. I have some bad memories with promoters and people lying. They take advantage. But I’ve let go: there! [He uncrossed his arms] You have it!
EC: I’m here now. You can put it on my shoulders.

EC: What do you never travel without?
RR: I never travel without my laptop.

EC: If you could see any five musicians perform live, who would they be?
RR: If I had a choice, I’d love to see Sade perform with Notorious B.I.G., and Bob Marley. And Jimi Hendrix. Wait I want to add more drums to it. Bernard Purdie, the Funky Drummer. The Purdie Shuffle! What an amazing drummer.

EC: What’s your favorite music to dance to?
RR: I like to dance to reggae music. Or dance hall. But reggae. I had a friend, we went to the after party, two nights ago? whenever it was? The Atlanta one. The DJ was playing and she really wanted me to dance and I said “but I only dance to reggae. If they play reggae, I’ll dance to it.” … And they did. So we danced. Otherwise I’m a head-nodder. I hold the wall up.
EC: … I get that answer a lot.

EC: Who are some young musicians we should be looking out for?
RR: I haven’t found any that aren’t discovered. I don’t know if I could answer that. I’d still say the Internet again. But they’re known. I just like their stuff a lot. But there’s a female Canadian, based in Atlanta, Ruby Velle, who does jazzy soul, with a splash of whatever Amy Winehouse was doing.

EC: What were some of your most influential moments on tour?
RR: One of the coolest moments I had was this summer. It was in, I think it was, Switzerland. It was a moment where Phife, Tip, Ali, Run and DMC were there. They were just kickin’ it. Tip was quoting old 80s rap.

I threw him the Aziz Ansari face again.
C1ZTqGe

RR: Stop. What are you doing? Stop that.
EC: Did you know I love Q-Tip? Do you have a recording of that?
RR: Yeah I have a video. … Stop. What are you doing. Why do you look like that. I should just stop talking. I matter not to you.
EC: Keep telling your story.
RR: I can’t. I gotta find this shit for you. You’re squirming. You’re like “Can.. you…Did. you. Bruh.reh.reh. re.cord. it?” [laughs] I better find this shit for you.
EC: It’s okay. Finish your story.
RR: That is my story. It was just a moment for me where I was witnessing hip-hop greatness. I’m sitting and watching history unfold and they don’t even know it. I felt bad recording it but I had to. Okay okay I’ll show you the video.
EC: You can just send it to me later.
RR: I can do nothing.

[I watched the video three times.]

RR: That was, you know, “holy shit. that’s happening. right there.”

[I watched the video again]

RR: It was old. It was new. It was hip-hop. It was hip-hop right there in front of me.

Until next time,
Nod sisters, nod.
Ella