By: Gus Navarro
Last week I was in New York City visiting a friend and was able to sit down with Michigan native DJ Soko, a current resident of Brooklyn. Soko has been involved in hip-hop for over ten years but his emergence onto the scene as an artist is still relatively recent. That being said, he has been extremely active on the 1’s and 2’s between DJ’ing at parties and for MC’s such as Journalist 103 and Kopelli. In 2010 he teamed up with Journalist 103 and Apollo Brown to form The Left. The trio put out Gas Mask, one of the most critically acclaimed hip-hop albums of the past five years. Soko is somebody that is very proud of where he is from and the particular sound and image that is associated with the Detroit hip-hop scene. On top of that, he is an artist that loves what he does and cares deeply for the integrity of his craft. It was a true honor to have the chance to sit down and talk with him about his experiences and passion for hip-hop.
This interview was taken on December 16th, 2013…
Bonus Cut (BC): What’s your story?
Soko (DJ Soko): I started DJ’ing when I was 15 years old. I’m 28 now. I got my first set of turntables when I was 15, and got my first set of records from an older friend of mine. It was a small stack of records that I just started with. I’ve been DJ’ing professionally for the past two and half to three years. I live in New York now, I DJ in town and in certain spots outta town. I actually DJ a lot more outta town than I do in town. I’m holdin’ down a day job as well.
BC: What sparked your interest in hip-hop?
Soko: I first got into rap music a little bit later than most people. I got into rap music around the fifth grade and I started buying rap albums around that time. I bought Notorious B.I.G’s Ready To Die and OutKast’s ATLiens on the same day. I was aware of rap music and then became aware of breakdancing, DJ’ing, MC’ing and graffiti. I became aware of the other elements of hip-hop later on but I was a fan of rap music first. The first introduction I had to DJ’ing was off the scratch hooks, primarily from DJ Premier and just listening to his records. At first I didn’t know what that was from. I thought maybe it was something computerized or some manipulation of soundbytes. I didn’t know that it was somebody doing it by hand on a record. When I learned that it was somebody who was doing that, I decided I wanted to learn how to scratch records. I borrowed some money from my dad to pay for a set of turntables. I worked at a catering company in high school to pay all the money back. After I paid the money back, I stayed at the catering company to have money to buy records and whatever a high schooler needs to buy like a bag of weed or to go out with friends. That’s how I got into rap music and then into DJ’ing. I didn’t really start getting into the scene as an artist until later in my life. When I started getting into adulthood that’s when I started going out to hip-hop shows and presenting myself as a DJ rather than casually going as a fan. I remember going to shows in high school with friends to places like The Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. When I got into my sophomore year of college I was still going to shows as a fan. I went to Wayne State so I’d go to Alvin’s and I’d see Proof occasionally hosting open mics or I’d see DJ HouseShoes DJ’ing. I’d see all these different artists. I’d see T-3 go through there and they were all people that I would never think to speak to. I was such a huge fan of them and at that point I didn’t really see myself as anything but a bedroom DJ. I was just a fan of music, a concert-goer. My junior and senior year of college is when I started going to shows to network with people and present myself as a DJ and that’s how I met Journalist. I actually met Journalist through another Detroit MC named Mu who was signed to Proof’s Iron Fist Records. I think the original roster was Mu, Fat Killers and Journalist. I started DJ’ing for Journalist, Black Milk’s cousin Name Tag and a MC from Cold Men Young named Kopelli. I was sharing duties DJ’ing for these three different MCs and the only MC I DJ for today is Journalist. He met Apollo Brown and they along with me formed a group called The Left and we put out Gas Mask. That was kinda like my small role that introduced me to the rest of the hip-hop world. Then I put out the seven-inch vinyl with Mello Music Group and now I’m working on a full compilation. I think I’m doing a pretty good job of branding myself as a DJ out in New York as well as doing things in Detroit. I’ll be going home for the holidays and doing a party at Division Gallery. I’m just trying not to be stagnant. I’m doing a full-length compilation but at the same time I’m trying to get more gigs in New York so more people know who I am. It’s funny because New York is different from Detroit but it’s also very similar. It’s easier for a Detroit artist in Detroit to get a gig out of town that pays decent and with accommodations that are taken care of. I’m finding that living in New York, it’s easier to get booked in Canada or Maryland. I haven’t been back to Europe yet but it would be easier for me to get booked in Europe than in New York just because in places that are further away, you’re more appreciated. I live here now, so I would probably get a better paying show somewhere that I don’t live.
BC: Why do you think that is?
Soko: I don’t think you can just point to one reason. In terms of Detroit, it’s probably because the hip-hop circle is kind of small and the rest of the circle is just casual fans that aren’t exactly aware that certain shit exists. It’s maybe following trends and following what others are doing rather than innovating. The hip-hop circle that is aware of what Detroit hip-hop sounds like or is supposed to sound like come out and support. At the same time, the city as a whole doesn’t know what’s going on. Eminem didn’t get embraced until he blew up nationally and then everybody welcomed him with open arms. It’s the same thing with Big Sean. I’m not going to downplay what he was doing and I’m not going to say that nobody knew who he was but after he blew up nationally, I’m sure that anybody that had anything negative to say embraced him. I think it just has to do with being underappreciated because you’re so accessible. For example, If I live in the D and do a show that’s three or four miles away from where I live, people are just going to look at me as local. I’m going to be viewed as a local artist and people aren’t going to embrace it. New York artists complain about the same thing as far as not being embraced. I think it’s about being from out of town and not being caught up in the local politics. If I go to Maryland to do a show, nobody is wrapped up in any of the bullshit politics that I may be involved with in New York.
BC: Is it also that you represent something from a different place?
Soko: Yeah, I think so. We definitely have a distinct sound to the point that people steal from it to a huge extent.
BC: Can you give me an example?
Soko: I don’t want to put anybody on blast. I’m just saying, if you really pay attention and know what’s going on, you’ll be able to hear it. The way a sample is chopped or certain drums sounding like Dilla’s. If you really pay attention, you can tell who’s stealing shit from us.
BC: What’s the fine line between stealing and paying tribute?
Soko: Well first of all, if you’re paying tribute you gotta acknowledge that this isn’t your shit. In my opinion, if you’re paying tribute to Detroit hip-hop, just make good music. All that tribue shit… I feel a certain way about that. Sometimes it can be good but other times it comes off as corny. Not even to say there’s a right or wrong way to pay tribute. I just feel that sometimes it comes off as kind of corny. A lot of the MC’s that had nothing to do with Dilla’s career or Dilla when he was alive put out mixtapes with all Dilla beats and just rap over them. They say they’re paying tribute, but that’s just corny. But to go back to your other question about why you might be more respected in other places, not just domestically but internationally in places like Europe and Asia, all these places embrace not just Detroit hip-hop but hip-hop in general. I think it’s because they’re not over-saturated with it. As far as New York, New York gets flooded with shows and I don’t think that happens overseas. At the same time, the economy in Europe is doing very well compared to the U.S. and the people who follow hip-hop in Europe can afford internet. They can afford to dig for music. I don’t think it’s something as cut and dry as saying, “Oh, Americans are stupid.” But If you think about all the people who like rap music, you’d probably be surprised at the percentage of those people who don’t have internet. That’s where we live. We live on blogs, the internet and Europe has access to all of it. I also think they’re not as swept up in the MTV, VH1 and reality show shit. Any person who I’ve talked to and formed a relationship with that lives in Europe doesn’t care or isn’t caught up in any of that.
BC: So it’s not culturally relevant?
Soko: Yeah I think culturally, the things I value are almost considered mainstream. The music I value, my train of thought. It’s really weird, it was almost like those were just mainstream things over there, that’s the impression I got.
BC: Can you expand on what that is, your ideology?
Soko: It’s not really a specific ideology. I think reality shows are fucking stupid. I think this country is still a very racist, violent and narrow-minded place. I’m speaking in very general terms here but a lot of the things that should be common sense here, aren’t. A lot of the things that I find to be common sense actually are over there. They actually listen to good music and don’t go around shooting each other. They don’t have as violent of a culture. People are sensible and reasonable. That’s not to say that Americans aren’t, because they definitely are, just not all of them obviously. There are certain hypocrisies that are just so clear and cut and dry here. In Europe, they don’t seem to have as many. It’s like that kid that got probation for drunk driving and killing four people.
BC: If you’re talking about Europe and the United States, they both come from a background of colonization. In your experiences going to Europe can you pinpoint how the common sense comes into the European mindset?
Soko: I don’t really know. I’m sure there are plenty of places in the continent of Europe that are racist as shit. Like I heard certain parts of Russia, although that’s not really EU, were very racist in terms of certain artists I know who have gone there and experienced it. And I experienced a little bit of racism while I was in France too. So I’m not saying that they’re perfect and we’re scumbags. I’m just saying, the general consensus that I’ve heard is that it just feels way more relaxed over there, and I felt way more relaxed. The only country where I really didn’t feel at ease was France. I felt like everywhere we went I felt like we were being judged. I don’t want to throw it out there too much, it’s just a general statement, but that’s just what my experience was. But yeah, I don’t really know how that happens, because you have Nazi Germany, and Europeans have this history, like you said, of being colonizers. It’s like, you have a continent that in all terms of history has been racist as shit, but then when I went over there everyone was really cool. I think maybe that might be a generational thing. I think in a lot of ways [Europe] is similar to the States in the sense that you have people who are assholes and people who are open-minded, but it just felt like in general that was more of a popular stance that people had over there being open-minded and being decent people and thinking intelligently, and they don’t have fucking WorldStar over there. I’m sure they have internet access to WorldStar, but you don’t see people in Germany going around pulling their camera phones out yelling “WorldStar” when somebody’s getting their ass beat. It’s a lot of weird differences, but also a lot of weird similarities.
BC: When did you move to New York City? What are the differences in hip-hop within Detroit and New York?
Soko: I moved to New York in April, 2012. So I’ve lived here almost two years. Some of the differences I’ve seen is, I don’t know, I feel bad saying this because I really don’t wanna shit on the scene. New York has a great hip-hop scene, but if I had to compare it to Detroit, Detroit’s just much more unified. Not to say that there’s not any unity in New York, because you have people like Roc Marciano, Mayhem Lauren, AG Da Coroner, Statik Selektah, a lot of people that stick together and have a united front, and Joey Bada$$ and a lot of people who are interconnected to each other, and have been interconnected for years that support each other and are unified, but I feel like there are much more amounts of artists that aren’t unified in New York. If you compare it to Detroit I just feel like everybody’s a little more unifed as far as-not necessarily hands across America like “Kumbaya” and shit-they seem to just have their eyes on the prize a little more. At the same time that’s not to say the New York scene doesn’t. I fucking love living here, and I love New York hip-hop, but I just feel Detroit is a little more unified.
BC: What was your decision to move out here?
Soko: I had finished college in 2010, and I couldn’t really find a fucking job to be honest. I found a job out here, and I’ve always wanted to live here, I have family that lives out here, I have an older brother who lives here, and some of the opportunities in Detroit were kind of running out. I needed a break. I needed to have a fresh start, see some new things, experience some new things. I also had a decent support system of acquaintances out here as well. I decided, I’m still young I might as well do it, I don’t want to live in Michigan for the rest of my life. I’m probably gonna end up coming back eventually, but for now this has been a good experience. It’s an expensive experience definitely. New York ain’t no fucking joke for anyone thinking of moving here.
BC: How do you see the role of a DJ? What is your job?
Soko: It depends who you ask, but it also depends on why you’re on stage. Am I onstage DJ’ing for another MC, am I backing somebody up? Am I doing a party? It just depends. If I’m DJ’ing for an MC, my goal is to not fuck up their set. My goal is to do everything that we went over in rehearsal, make everything flow smoothly. If I’m DJ’ing at a party, that’s also my goal as well, to make sure everything transitions smoothly, and play some good records. When I’m DJ’ing I like to play some records that I think fit the demographic that I’m DJ’ing for. Everything I play is shit that I like. I’m a fan of every song that I play if I’m DJ’ing. I’ll play stuff that people are familiar with, but also play some records that I know you’ve never heard but I think you’ll like. There’s been a few different DJ’s who’ve been vocal about having an educational stance with DJ’ing, like HouseShoes has had a very vocal stance, and I’m of that school of thought. It’s my job to entertain you, but at the same time it’s also my job to educate you, because there’s not enough good music that’s being pushed out here that people are spreading the word about. So if I put you up onto something, then you’re probably going to spread the word to your friends and that’ll be kind of helping the paradigm shift of music, cause music is getting dumb as fuck. Obviously not the stuff we listen to, but me educating people, it helps push towards the paradigm shift. And I’m going to play stuff I’m sure you’re familiar with too, but if I’m DJ’ing out somewhere I don’t give a fuck about the crowd. I’m here and I got hired to do what I do, fuck your requests, I’m going to play the stuff that I like that I think you’ll get down to, and also stuff that you’ll get educated to. That’s what it’s about. That’s what DJ’s are supposed to do. They’re supposed to break records. Obviously, we break records that we like, but that’s one of the things that we’re supposed to do, that’s one of our roles. I don’t know where and who started this trend of putting in a request to the DJ, it probably came from the radio stations, but still, that trend needs to die. There’s no reason why you should be coming up to me and putting in a request for a song. If it fits in line with what I’m playing, I’ll be nice and I’ll probably play it because I like it, but I ignore 99.9% of the requests that I get because it’s not my job to play what you want to hear. You’re one person out of how many that are at a party? And I’m not a fucking jukebox. And that’s another thing: people who put in requests that’s just radio shit. If you wanted to listen to the radio all night, you should have just had your friends over and had a fucking party at your house and put the radio on. Don’t get pissed at me because I won’t play a song that you already hear 1500 times a week or so.
BC: Do you have a go-to song?
Soko: No I really don’t. I mean, if you see me DJ like six times, you’ll probably hear a few of the same songs, but I don’t have any particular go-to song. I mean, maybe I do, as far as the song I play at every party that I DJ probably “Nas is Like.” I probably play that everytime I DJ because it’s a great song.
BC: As far as compilations go, do you have a particular theme you’re going for on each one? How does one get created?
Soko: I didn’t have a particular theme for the whole compilation. I had particular themes for some of the songs, and then other songs are kinda where the artist takes them. It doesn’t have a particular set theme. I was inspired to do this based off mixtape culture and different compilations and things like that. You have like Tony Touch The Piece Maker. That was one of my favorite hip-hop compilations, it still is. I don’t really feel like you catch a full theme the way you do with full length albums, but you’ll be able to pick up on certain common patterns and themes.
BC: You work with youth right?
Soko: I work at an afterschool program a few days a week, and I used to do a DJ class there. Right now I just supervise them during their afterschool activities like doing homework and doing educationally based activities and sports and rec, stuff like that. It’s nothing special but it’s a paycheck and it’s rewarding in a lot of ways to give back. I work in a low income community, and a lot of the things that most Americans take for granted, these kids don’t really have access to. So it’s just good to kind of do my part to contribute, to giving back.
BC: Are you guys going to bring back the DJ class?
Soko: Probably not. I enjoy DJ’ing more than I enjoy teaching it to be honest. It’s kind of a fucking headache to teach it to be completely candid about it. Due to budget cuts-we get our budget from Mayor Bloomberg-if something gets cut we can’t afford to fund it.
BC: Within your experience in hip-hop culture, what does hip-hop mean to you?
Soko: Hip-hop gave me a job, it gave me a purpose, it gave me fuel as far as having passion. There’s nothing in this world I have more passion for than hip-hop music and hip-hop culture. Other than my family and friends that’s all I really care about. As far as having 110% passion about something, that’s like the only thing I really have that much extra passion about, hip-hop music and culture.
Listen to The Left’s Gas Mask!