Quality and quality control are the first words that come to mind when contemplating what sums up Oakland visionary and producer DJ Fresh. And that’s what makes his work so vital to the people in his community. While his career thus far has seen him man the wheels for Nas and Common on tour, produce for Kool G Rap and Raekwon, and compose an entire album for The Grouch of Living Legends, the Baltimore-born musician’s most important work to date has been his Tonite Show album series and the platform it gives young, aspiring Oakland rappers to be heard and seen in the best possible light. Southern Hospitality talked music with the man who has singlehandedly soundtracked a city…
You were born in Baltimore but now reside in and represent for the Bay Area. What’s the story behind your move out west?
My mama brought us out here originally.
You’ve famously DJ’d for Common and Nas, and are now fully entrenched in the Oakland independent rap scene. Are there any glaring cultural differences between the two regional hip-hop communities? As in their approach to music.
Yes, on the east coast it seems like a little more unity is there amongst niggas. And the overall vibe is much differant in the creative process over there. It’s a real traditional love for hip-hop. But in the west coast there’s some very passionate artists. Artists that take pride in living their lyrics and a do-it-yourself distribution and manufacturing mentality. Me personally, I draw inspiration from both coasts. And both coasts are in me.
There’s a sense that in providing, a lot of the time free, beats to young artists in your neighbourhood in Oakland, you’re actually feeding the underprivileged, and giving them a lifeline. Do you see it that way?
I see it like doing music with some artists can save them. An artist that’s recording with me on a late night, getting some work done, is a better situation when maybe he or she could have been out doing something else destructive.
Is giving away free beats a constant dilemma for you?
No. not anymore. It used to be. In this business you have to decide when you’re gonna start recognising your worth and take to it.
Who comprises your The Whole Shabang production team? What aspects of the process are you involved in and what do they all individually bring to the table?
We all draw inspiration from each other. Jamon Dru [“A Where The White Women At?!”] handles the majority of the mixing and mastering. Mr Tower does the graphics. Thoroflix does the photo-shoots. Sneaky Mike, Face The Music and Mike Rimzo will add their beats and Young Gully will bust on most of the projects as well. But we all make beats except for Thoroflix. We a one-stop shop.
Describe the creative process you usually go through from starting a beat from scratch until you have a finished product.
Usually it doesn’t take that long. The real catchy ones happen quick. Once the artist lays their part I go and do post-production. It brings the song more to life.
What do you think your productions have that your competitors’ don’t?
A real knowledge of the history of music and the game. And havin a good circle around me.
Since it’s easier for people to make beats these days with relatively cheap equipment and little experience, do you feel the quality in rap music has suffered as a result?
Absolutely, but at the same time the real motherfuckas always get past the test of time and come out on top.
Your Tonite Show artist-focused album series is now both a strong brand and regional icon – in fact two of them, the D-Lo and the Young Gully made Southern Hospitality’s Top Albums Of 2009 list. Who has been your favourite Tonite Show artist to work with and why?
My favourite Tonite Show albums are with D-Lo and with Gully because doing the D-Lo project the chemistry we have together flowed real natural and D-Lo is a young artist who isn’t afraid to try new things. I would tell him what I wanted him to get on and 10 times out of 10 he was feelin’ it. Young Gully is also the same way and he is hungry and very passionate about his craft. He gets better everytime I hear him and he can do any type of track. He’s real 360 – well rounded.
What does it mean to you to see artists you’ve helped come up, J. Stalin being the best example, becoming label bosses and representing what we feel is a new Pac in the flesh in terms of spirit and grit.
Oh it’s dope and I’m glad we all have good solid business with each other and this is just the beginning. We just gettin started.
D-Lo. Does he have a classic album in him?
Most definitely. D-Lo is dope. He’s maturing in his songs, he knows how to make catchy radio songs and dope street singles. I think he has what it takes to sky-rocket.
Which producers are you feeling at the moment, both locally and anywhere else in the world?
Outside my camp I’m feelin Tha Mekanix, Roblo, Rick Rock and there’s more. I get something from every producer that I hear.
Who would be your ideal artist to work with right now?
Jay Z, Gucci Mane, E-40 and Tech N9ne.
What is your favourite DJ Fresh production and why?
The Real World West Oakland Part 1 and also The Grouch – 3 Eyes Off The Time. That J. Stalin project is like the birth of the 80s style that I have in me. The Grouch’s new album because the level of the quality control in that project and the time and effort and the way it came out is phenomenal. People love it.
What’s next for DJ Fresh?
‘The Tonite Show With Yukmouth’, ‘The Tonite Show: The Album Part 2’ and ‘The Real World West Oakland Part 3 With J. Stalin (Solo)’.
Any last words/shout outs?
Shouts To PTB/Livewire/TheWholeShabang/Clear Label/Living Legends.