To commemorate their 30th anniversary, SummerStage put together an unforgettable lineup of today’s most well-respected DJs to perform for a lively crowd at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park on August 8.
Quantic, a DJ/producer from Worcestershire in the UK who has now relocated to Brooklyn, started things off with some soulful Caribbean sounds.
Next up, Gilles Peterson of BBC Radio 1 fame, turned up the tempo, throwing down everything from Sun Ra to Roni Size and everything in between, pausing between nearly every track to share the artist’s name with spirited showgoers.
To close out the evening, Afrika Bambaataa and his entourage took to the stage, which included two energetic emcees and a dancer who gave us all a lesson in the history of hip-hop dance. At one point, he brought out a group of dancers that exemplified the mission of the Universal Zulu Nation to encompass people, regardless of race and then proceeded to drop his timeless classic, “Planet Rock” to close out the evening.
Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble was able to get interviews with each of the DJs to find out more about their experiences in the music industry, as well as their individual relationship with the SummerStage legacy.
Do you remember the first record you ever purchased?
The first record I ever purchased was, which I guess was a purchase, was in a Rice Krispies packet. It was back in the day when you could send off the proof of purchase on the side of the packet, and you would kind of send off nine in an envelope, and you would get a record back. Me and my sisters all sent off, and we got three 45s back, and I think mine was “Come On Eileen,” but by that time, our house was full of records anyway. So, they were all jumbled together. But that was the first record that I felt directly was something that I had acquired myself.
That’s amazing. Over here, we’d only get cheap plastic toys with those. Speaking of your house full of records, I read that you grew up in a musical household. Did that have a huge influence on how you got into DJing and producing?
Yeah, I think so. Definitely looking back at it, it was a house full of music and musical equipment and records and instruments and stuff like that. Both my mother and father were very proactive in getting me to concerts. Whether it was conscious or not, I was being educated at the time and getting into music.
Outside of family, were there any artists that inspired you to get involved with music?
I went through several different phases. So, when I was in my early teens, I was really into heavy metal, and then I got into a lot of American bands like Fugazi and Shellac and figures like Steve Albini, a producer who was influential at that time.
And then…getting into jungle with producers like Goldie and Tricky and Massive Attack and that kind of era. So, there was lots of different phases, I guess, of influence. And then I got into DJ Krush, a Japanese producer.
Would you say that those artists influenced your style, or were you more into creating your own style?
Towards the end of the 90s, early 2000s, I was starting to make computer music and basically just stockpiling lots of beats that I was making every evening. I guess people like DJ Krush showed me that there were different ways to make instrumental hip-hop and also a lot of atmospheric downtempo at that time.
Yeah, that had a direct influence on what I was creating, and that was the basis of why I started making computer music at least. From there, I got more into funk and soul and producing live music and kind of got out of the computer thing a little bit.
Your debut album The Fifth Exotic dropped back in 2001. How do you feel your sound has evolved between then and now with the release of your latest album, Quantic Presents The Western Transient: A New Constellation?
I think during those years, you know, I started very much in a sampling kind of world, and that was kind of what was going on at the time, but I’ve always had the ability of kind of interpreting music live and working with musicians, and I think that ability has grown. And now, I can direct a band and articulate how I want sounds to happen and getting more now into arrangement and composing, and so that’s a big part of how I’ve grown and evolved.
Photo Credit: Christina Jorro
Speaking of your band, how did you go about choosing the band members to accompany you on the album?
Well, this album was important because I wanted to kind of get the sound….I’ve been getting very much back into this era of funk and soul records from the 70s, so a lot of Blue Note Records and Impulse and Prestige and this sound that was very experimental, but at the same time kind of had a groove and very listenable aspect, which I feel sometimes is lost in jazz, if not sometimes quite hard to listen to.
Not that I wanted to make an easy listening record either, but I just wanted something that would be kind of soulful and pleasing to the ear. The musicians involved on the record, it’s kind of a hodgepodge ‘cause there are musicians that I’ve worked with from Colombia.
So, Wilson Viveros who’s on drums, I’ve worked with on several records in Colombia and Cali. He now lives in the States. And then, there’s also a lot of musicians that I’ve been meaning to work with in L.A. like Gabe Boel and Brandon [Coleman] on keys.
But anyway, in general, it’s just a compilation of people I’ve been playing with over the last year in a live band and various live shows in L.A. I had always left L.A. going, “Oh, God. I wish I had just record with these guys. They’re so good.” And this is the one time I did it.
Do you feel the digital revolution had any effect on your style or your choice of vintage studio equipment that you’re known for?
It’s weird because I feel like I was probably from the last generation of producers and musicians that automatically had their music released on vinyl. Like when I was getting into music, that was it. I did a song, and if it was going to be a single, it would come out on a 12” or a 7” and was very much born into this kind of music single world.
And now, I see that’s a completely different thing because it’s a privilege to have your music released on vinyl, and it takes quite a lot of money and effort and time, especially with pressing times these days. It’s taking maybe up to six months to wait for your product to come.
So, I’m glad that we’re still concentrating on analog and concentrating on that format. I definitely see it as a privilege. Also, I feel like maybe there’s a lot of different ways to listen to music. Vinyl is definitely a slower way. You take time. When I buy records, certainly I come back and take time to listen to it and read the notes and kind of like having it in my hands.
So, I appreciate that there are people who want to listen to music like that still. I take a lot of time in making a record that sounds good in that format, and it’s enjoyable. It’s a different way of recording to a tape machine, and the approach is a little slower. And it requires a lot better musicianship than if you were just doing it digitally.
It’s a lot warmer.
Yeah and also, you get the chance to really hear all the other players too.
That’s a good question. I don’t really know. But they sent me the invite. I played one of the SummerStage events last year and found it enjoyable and have been a big fan of SummerStage. I’ve been to many of the events, and I’m also a big fan of Giant Step as well.
I don’t know, but I’m glad to have the invite, and I’m going to do my best to represent them. I’m a big fan of the organization. I was actually at the SummerStage event last night on the East River.
I spoke with Erika Elliott prior to when SummerStage kicked off this year, and she told me each of you were being assigned specific eras, and Gilles told me yesterday that he has ’96-2005. Which one were you given?
I was given 2005 onwards.
Are you pleased with that?
Well, yeah, I think so. I tend to play music in my DJ sets from all different eras. I would tend to steer towards playing a lot of 60s, 70s styles, a lot of Caribbean music and stuff like that. It’ll be a cool test for me to kind of look at that era.
I was thinking about it earlier this week, and I guess I’m from that era, really, musically speaking. I guess that’s when I got into the industry. So, it’s kind of fitting, and I guess Gilles got into music in the 90s with his label, so it does make sense.
Do you have an idea of what your set will be tomorrow?
I tend not to map out any DJ sets, which makes me rely more on the vibe from the audience. Often when you don’t plan something, you kind of need some sort of inspiration in the moment. But I think it will be okay. Normally it is. But I have an idea. It always kind of comes together.
Can you recall the first record you ever purchased?
Oh, okay. Well, we’re going back in time. Hello! We’re going back in time, of course, to the early 80s probably. Yeah, well, even earlier, late 70s, actually. Yeah because there was funk in ’76, and I was buying a bit of that.
And I was buying things like The Specials and Madness. I don’t think it’s the first one I bought, but I remember buying Blondie…“Denis” by Blondie on 7”. And that was probably one of the first, and it’s kind of a New York record! There you go. Let’s make it that one.
Who or what motivated you to start DJing?
Well, for me, it was kind of a sudden discovery of pirate radio. I don’t know really how it must have come about because I didn’t come from a musical background or anything like that. I was just going through probably my teenage years, and I was looking for something I hadn’t yet found, and fiddling about with my radio.
I discovered a pirate radio station in London called Radio Invicta, which was, apparently, the first black music station in the UK. It used to broadcast on a Sunday afternoon for a few hours, and I just became hooked. I’d wake up on a Sunday and just do whatever I could to kind of get the signal, and eventually, I ended up working on there because I set up my own pirate radio station after a couple of years of being a fan and getting my decks and building up a small record collection.
And then I bought a transmitter, and my dad used to help me broadcast from a part of London called Epsom where they have the horse racing. It’s kind of a high point in South London. And, as it happened, the people who built my transmitter also built the transmitter for Radio Invicta, and they got busted one weekend. And they’d heard there was this young boy who had a transmitter, so they contacted me, and they said, “You know, can we borrow your transmitter?” And I said, “Of course, as long as you give me a show.” So, that’s how I got my break, actually.
So, when did you realize that you wanted to make it a full-time gig?
I think I kind of realized that it was going to be a full-time gig in my mid-twenties really. From the age of sixteen, I sort of flunked my exams, and I was going into a world that, you know…fortunately, for me, it kind of engulfed me. I was so caught up in that, you know. It was early days then. There was no industry as such like there is now: a DJ scene, worldwide kind of network.
It took me a few years before I set up a few record labels and did some compilations and stuff, and then probably by my mid-twenties when I was running my third record label Talkin’ Loud that I thought, “Yeah, this is probably going to be it now. So, I don’t have to worry about a secondary job or a secondary education.” So, yeah, I’ve managed to survive ever since.
How did growing up in South London affect your style and your sound?
I think it was critical, really. I was brought up, actually, as a French boy in London ‘cause I went to the French lycée for the first part of my education. And then, the moment I went to English school at the age twelve, I realized that you needed to belong to some kind of movement, I suppose, you know.
So, I became a soul boy or a casual, and so I’d wear kind of…you know, what you wore, where you shopped and where you went was vital to your identity. So, it was critical.
I think that’s one of the things that I really appreciate, growing up at a time when punk was happening, and you had the underground soul scene happening, and, you know, I had my hair kind of wedge, and I used to wear pegged leather trousers, and I used to wear these shoes called pods. And that was my look, you know. That was the look. That was my uniform.
And I think that’s one of the most important parts of why British music culture is such an influential scene around the world because it’s very much a culture rather than just listening to music. So, you belong to something, and you believe in it passionately, whether that’s being a mod or whether that’s being a skinhead or whether that’s being, you know, a soul boy. So, I suppose I brought that passion and its intensity with me all the way along.
What can you tell readers about your BBC Radio 6 show?
It’s been wonderful for me. I very luckily got involved in the new station, Radio 6, which was the digital station of the BBC a few years ago. I had been on Radio 1 for quite a while, and I was probably outgrowing it in terms of my age and the direction of the station, as being a very youth-oriented station.
So, when 6 approached me and said, “Do you want to make the switch?” and had given me a daytime show, it was wonderful. So, I re-found my audience, I suppose, and I love it. I feel very privileged to be on such a globally respected network, and I hopefully, you know, represent it and take my responsibility seriously as a sort of presenter/tastemaker.
You continue to be one of the most sought after DJs. To what do you attribute such a successful career in the music industry?
I think really it’s about passion for what you do, you know. I think that it’s a young person’s job in a way, being a DJ. And I always said to myself when I was in my twenties and thirties that I didn’t think I’d be DJing when I was forty.
And now I’m ten years later than that, and, in fact, I’m probably appreciating it and enjoying it more than I’ve ever done. So, it’s interesting. I mean, I’ve been very lucky to grow up in a time when the whole club culture movement is growing, and I’ve been able to sow my seeds all over the world as a DJ from France to Japan to various places. And so, I can kind of travel and celebrate music that I’m pushing. Being a DJ is a wonderful privilege, and I enjoy it very much.
As someone who was playing to crowds before the dawn of the digital revolution, what are your thoughts on the new technology?
I love it. I love everything that you can take advantage of if it allows the music to get heard. And if it allows me…for example, tonight I’m DJing in a couple of hours, and there’s a few songs I suddenly thought about in my head that I wanted. I just found them, you know, online really quickly.
In terms of how I play, I’ll play vinyl, I’ll play USB, and I’ll play whatever format is going really because each format has its own advantages. I find that playing vinyl is lovely sometimes because you still don’t quite get that quality of sound that you might get.
The warmth is not really there.
Well, it can be now because you can just get the bigger files and stuff, but I wouldn’t play unless there really was no other options like the thin, kind of iTunes bought, you know, 256 [kbps].
But generally, it’s just a great way of getting the music: a lot of music from around the world, a lot of tropical stuff, and a lot of music from Ethiopia or Cameroon or Thailand or whatever. You can get it at the touch of a button now, so it’s wonderful.
As a DJ, I find that it’s still nice to play records because it still allows me to be more traditional in my selection methods, and I don’t feel that I’m controlled by a file in my computer, which can sometimes kind of make you a little bit lazy. So, I find that playing records is still a test, and it still keeps me on point as a DJ, I think.
What can fans expect from your set at Output tonight?
Oh, wow. Well, you know, I’m playing for six hours, and I’ll play everything from, you know, a new Koreless record on Young Turks to an old 1950s Brazilian track to some spaced out Sun Ra to some classic disco to a bit of funk to some House, Techno, Latin, you know, where the crowd takes me. That’s really what my thing is really – to try and make people dance to music they might not otherwise be moving to.
So, it’s a lovely challenge, and people are really open-minded these days about how they listen to music and what they listen to. So, it’s made it a lot easier for DJs like me to enjoy our jobs.
Well, I’ve done SummerStage a couple of times before, and they invited me over this weekend. And, of course, it’s a wonderful environment, a wonderful place to perform and it’s a free party, as well. I love that. I love the fact that people can just come along.
And for me to be able to play alongside someone as iconic as Afrika Bambaataa, it’s like playing next to someone like Sun Ra or someone like that. So, it’s great. I can’t wait. It’s a different thing, and people are loving these sort of parties. And I think the weather will be nice.
I interviewed Erika [Elliott], and she mentioned that the three of you would be assigned eras. Do you already know which one you’re doing?
Yeah, I’m in the middle of Quantic and Afrika Bambaataa. I’m doing the 96-2005 period, which is a really good time. That was when I was doing Talkin’ Loud, and I was releasing records by people like Roni Size and Nuyorican Soul and all the broken beat [BRUK] music and the UK garage scene and the drum ‘n’ bass, and it’s the golden period.
Is there anything else you want to add or promote?
No, I just enjoy coming here. I love being able to share the music with everybody, and I hope everyone’s going to have a great time.
What’s your earliest memory of hip-hop?
My earliest memory of hip-hop is helping to create it with my other great brothers like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Soulsonic Force, The Cosmic Force, Funky Four, Disco King Mario, the Chuck Chuck City Crew. All of us having a good time, [Grandmixer] D.S.T. You know, bringing along the music and just doing something in the street.
Well, being in The Black Spades under the leadership of my chapter, the first division, first chapter, under Kool DJ Dee, who’s famous in his own right, when he was one of the first to bring out DJ equipment and learning from him and all the other DJs that came before doing the radio stations. It was great to change my way of thinking and wanted to, you know, give up some good music for the people.
How has the Universal Zulu Nation’s mission changed over the years since its inception?
It’s changing now to include everybody on our great planet that we call Earth. We did forty years of hip-hop, and now we’re looking for land and buildings. We want people to help us to build a Universal Zulu Nation cultural dome center of the universe. Something that would be like a United Nations of the streets.
This way people could come, or youth, and speak about their problems, whereas United Nations, you have all the politicians speaking. Well, now, we’ll have something for anybody having problems in the streets around the world to come to this place and sit down and talk to each other.
As one of the earliest proponents of the use of drum machines and computers in creating music, what are your thoughts on the digital revolution and the shift from analog over to digital?
It’s definitely funky, and I still ride with people who use both analog or digital. It’s definitely very interesting. We are definitely in the age of the alien technology since Roswell and all that. So, you see a big jump after the Roswell incident, and we gotta just get ready for the future because the matrix is almost upon us.
The only thing that’s nervous with the technology age is these drones and robots that might be taking away a lot of people’s jobs, which is starting to happen, and the privacy. And people now are protesting against the robot.
Even Stephen Hawking, he’s talking about this being the end of mankind. So, now you’re seeing things starting to look close to what The Matrix movies and all those Terminator movies are starting to come about. So, we must be very careful on how we deal with machines and technologies and computers.
Why do you believe “Planet Rock” has such a wide influence across genres of music even to this day?
Because it definitely was something that was taking what was the techno-pop and mixing with the funk, which would create the electrofunk, and from the electrofunk would come all your Miami bass, your freestyle, your hip-house, your jungle and all the techno/electro and all the different styles that started coming from that.
So, it’s a vibration and many people are still feeling that frequency from “Planet Rock,” and it’s definitely going to be the sound as we start becoming intergalactic human beings going from planet to planet.
So, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist honored you with the Renegades of Rhythm Tour last year. Do you feel it helped bring more awareness to your legacy and influence on hip-hop culture?
Oh, yes. It was definitely great what my two brothers did with the turntables, the style and the vibrations. They did a great job. I enjoyed the show, and more DJs need to do certain things like that and make it funky for the people.
Why did you choose Cornell as the home of your more than 40,000 deep record collection?
Well, we tried to get the great New York City…the hope was to decide to build a hip-hop museum or get some type of strength in our city of New York, but they didn’t jump at it. It’s a shame, even in the Bronx.
Cornell is the first to open the doors, and so many of the people who’s involved with the early days of hip-hop are starting to give their collections to Cornell because they know how to really keep archives.
How did you get involved with SummerStage this year?
They called for me again. I did SummerStage, I think, probably three or four times throughout different years. And they asked me to come be part of their anniversary.
So, it was their idea to kind of have you each do a different era of music?
Yeah, it’s hard for me to do one era. I like jumping back and forth. I’m gonna try. (Laughs) But, you know, it’s always good to display all styles of different music.
What can fans expect from your set tonight?
Just playing some good music. Like Sly & The Family Stone said, “Dance to the music.” We don’t want no wallflowers. We don’t need people just standing there and just holding their phones and just trying to film for some YouTube. You come here to let yourself go.
Let down that guard in your body and say, “I’m tired of this crap that’s going on in the planet. I just want to change the paradigm and dance the evilness away.”
Is there anything else that you want to add or promote?
Definitely, if anybody is looking for any Afrika Bambaataa or any of his group’s music, they can get it digitally online and also to respect our planet Mother Earth. We’re part of this great Earth that’s part of the universe, and if you don’t respect the Mother Earth, then get ready for the future shock of more tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes and all type of these ‘eases’ and diseases.