featured interview

DJ JS-1: 'It's a timeless culture, when it's pure.' Few artists embody hip-hop like DJ JS-1. He's a graff writer, DJ, producer and member of the Rock Steady Crew. The New York City resident is worried about the current state of the culture. 'It's all about perception, not reality. Hence 'It Is What It Isn't'. It's the title of his 6th album, which is what it is: boom bap, dope lyrics, scratches, no singing, no over-producing. We talked about the making of his latest effort, his greatest hip-hop memories and what hip-hop should be.

The last time we spoke, you said: "I'm not sure if I wanna deal with that many emcees in making an album again." But you did it again, with even more guests!

Well, I feel like that again. (laughs) I should seriously be sponsored by Excedrin Migraine. Just think of how many artists have trouble putting together one EP. This is my 6th full length album. 'Ground Original', 'Claimstake', 'Audio Technician', 'No Sell Out (Ground Original 2)', 'No One Cares (Ground Original 3)', and the latest, 'It Is What It Isn't (Ground Original 4)'. All the albums have 20 songs and over 35 guest features. It's very, very difficult dealing with everyone's schedule, since many of us tour. Dealing with personalities, opinions, ego's, or just simply irresponsible people, sometimes. If you're recording a track with multiple artists, one person can drag out the process, so you have to be patient. Sometimes an emcee listens to my initial plan, but then does something I didn't want and I have to change the whole song around. It's a long process.

To date, there is not one DJ/producer who has made 6 producer/compilation albums with this many artists. A few did multiple releases, but not 6, and not where they did all the production, concepts, and scratch hooks, and definitely not without any budget. I do every damn thing. I know there's a lot of people who look forward to my albums and I never wanna give up the type of sound we love, so I figured why not give it another shot. I had some songs recorded that didn't make the last album, so I figured why waste them? I started adding new ones, it grew, and now here we are with this new project.

I can honestly say, I really doubt if I will do another one like this. I have worked with most of the artists that I respect and admire. The ones that I've yet to work with, well... there's a reason for that, and those reasons probably won't change. Middle-men and managers who just want to squeeze money out of it, or the artists are just plain irresponsible, etc.. I won't say names, but there has been some really great potential tracks that I was about to do that got messed up by some corny managers who were only looking out for themselves. Sad. So we'll see -- anything's possible, but don't count on another album like this.

You got Fashawn on the album. That's an emcee you really wanted to work with, right? 

Yes, I definitely always liked what Fashawn was doing. We were touring together in Europe for a few shows. Myself and Rahzel were opening up for Rakim along with Fashawn. He's West Coast, but with an East Coast-style, somewhat. We spoke and he had such a huge appreciation for so many East Coast artists. We like a lot of similar music. His show was really on point too. He had crowds rocking, even the ones who didn't know of him. That's always the essence of a true emcee. This time around, he was in town with Murs, I think for Rock The Bells. They had a little free time in between some interviews and doing some other recording, and they came by the studio. We agreed on the beat, and they wrote the song right there with me. I was happy to work with them. I'm also a big fan of Murs. He's always been a great rapper to me. Anyone who says 'Long live the Kane back, fuck cocaine rap' is certainly on the same page with me.

Professor X's resurrection

It seems you try to keep a balance in your guest list: Upcoming Vs. Veterans, East Coast Vs. West, Raw Vs. Left Field, male, female, etc. Do you create this blueprint prior to recording, or is it merely a coincidence once the project's complete?

It's not a coincidence. I definitely try to do that. I love a lot of styles and want to reflect that. Of course the veterans we all love like KRS-One, O.C., Erick Sermon, etc. will be on my projects. I've worked with Kane, and G Rap, etc., but there's also a new wave of emcees that I follow and want to work with.

I also take pride in working with artists that are not just from my home town NY. I had a large cast of West Coast artists on my albums from Casual, Pep Love, Planet Asia, Krondon, Rakaa and Evidence (of Dilated Peoples), Murs and Fashawn, to Midwest artists like Royce da 5'9", Strick, Common and Brother Ali.

Doing an all-female track with female rappers I love was also important to me. I've also been able to put together a few collaborations over the years that are classic. I got KRS and Canibus together for the first time a while back, and I'm also the only person in hip-hop history to get an Ultramagnetic MCs feature from both Kool Keith and Ced Gee. On this new album, I have both Brother J and Professor X (RIP) on a song. I was always a fan of X-Clan and it felt good to hear a song with them both on it. Having Professor X say "thank you for a resurrection..." always bugs me out. I'm happy to give their fans another chance to hear their voices together, it means a lot to me. Rest in paradise, Professor X.

Overall, the one thing I'm most proud of, is always putting the real underground and indie artists on my projects. Others may jump to get the latest 'rapper of the week,' with big names and viral videos, but some of these deejays and producers, I don't remember them even being around when we were helping shape the indie movement at the Nuyorican Cafe, Lyricist Lounge -in the early years-, the original Fat Beats store, Washington Square Park, 88 HipHop, Wetlands, etc. They probably still lived out of town or weren't even into hip-hop yet. (laughs) The emcees that were really in those cyphers like Wordsworth, Punchline, C Rayz, Rise, Pack FM, Percee P, Vast Aire, Aesop, Supernatural, Pumpkinhead, they were all on my albums. They, unfortunately get left off some of these new producer albums in place of some new kid with a lot of Twitter followers, but they are the real deal emcees who were here doing it. I never forget, and always go back to those guys. They are incredible talents. We do this to make what we like, not to hope I can get bigger names, and leave behind the guys I started with. There is a method to everything I do.


We're flooded with music. When making an album, how do you try to make music that stands the test of time, so that it's not forgotten so quickly, and otherwise, disposable?

That's easy -- I don't make music with anything in mind. I just do what I do, what I know. And without sounding corny, 'I am hip-hop'. I've been here my whole life living this. Graf writer since the late '80s, real deejay since the late '80s, been to all the events, and was there for all the moments that mattered, I know everyone, and had in depth conversations with many of the legends. I don't have an agenda or a plan. I'm simply just making songs I like. I don't even use my "best" beats, or the ones that everyone else thinks are the "bangers" - I hate those terms by the way.

I use the beat I want to hear a specific emcee on, because I feel that's how it should sound. I trust my opinion, and just do it. I think that's what people like about my albums. Some may say it sounds like it was made in the '90s or that it's too underground, or that there's too many scratch hooks, or it's "Old School" or whatever idiotic clich? stuff people say, but they're right, and that's how it's supposed to sound. When you try to fit in with the times, you're also changing who listens to your music a lot of the time. I just stick to what I know and love, and keep the people that feel the same happy.

It's a simple formula. Boom bap, dope lyrics, scratches, no singing, no over-producing, I don't use a million plug-ins, I don't mix it too clean like a digital R&B album, and never ever try to make what you think others are doing to be successful, or to follow a trend. 'There's a sign at the door no biting allowed'. Just do what we love, and since we're hip-hop, we just make hip-hop. It's a timeless culture, when it's pure.

Fuck Spotify

You didn't make much promo prior to the weeks/months before this release. What was the reason/motive behind that?

That was intentional. The reason is simple. There is sooo much music being released and attention spans are very, very short. Sites post a feature every damn hour sometimes. I didn't feel like it would make a difference if I played the typical game of releasing the cover art weeks in advance and then the track-listing and then a song, etc. People would see it, sites would post it, and then everyone would forget about it anyway, and sites would tell me that they already posted my stuff. (laughs)

I felt like I should just wait till it's out and then do some promo once it's already available. It's not 'Call of Duty', I'm not getting seven million pre-orders, I can wait till it was available. I rather do a site and press blitz, leak songs, and have people be able to immediately go buy it. To be honest, it worked better this way than last time doing a build-up campaign. Those who know me and want it, will get it. Plus it worked for Beyonc? just dropping everything last minute and then promoting it. Obviously myself and Beyonc? are similar artists and have similar fan bases, so I just followed her lead. (laughs)

And by the way, if I may add: fuck Pandora and Spotify! Those sites are the worst thing. I'd rather you just illegally download my album for yourself than let those thieves stream my music and make ad revenue for themselves. They give artists .002 cents per play. It's legal robbery. Everyone needs to pull their music off their sites like Taylor Swift just did. Four million spins will net you about $145. I saw an article that Aloe Blacc had 168 million plays and made $4,000. If that's not robbery, I don't know what is.. 'it is what it isn't.'

In our last interview, you were pessimistic about vinyl. Does it seem to you like it has changed a bit for the better? You did release a 7" off the album...

No, I'm still pessimistic about vinyl. There is some vinyl being sold but it's mostly 7-inch 45's because that's the trend now, and to be honest, most vinyl collectors don't buy new hip-hop on vinyl. They are always hunting for older hip-hop vinyl, rare and obscure vinyl, and breaks or Soul/Funk stuff. Very rarely do you see the vinyl collectors posting about how excited they are to buy the new Dilated Peoples on vinyl. But they post 800 videos of some weird Latin Jazz record they found. It's cool, but that's not helping hip-hop. It hurts.

You know, one thing that doesn't help is the way songs get produced. Back in the day hip-hop songs were produced with deejays in mind. There was intro's you could cut up, and the end had the beat ride out so you can mix in another record. Today there's sooo many annoying intros with talking, and movie samples, and then the dude comes right in rhyming. They have no clue what deejays really want. Some of these guys rhyme till the last second of the song, or the deejay thinks it's a DJ battle and is scratching 800 miles an hour till the song fades out. Hip-hop deejays want to be able to cut up and mix your songs.

So honestly, a lot of newer stuff isn't worth buying on vinyl anyways. I loved when it was only vinyl singles because it was a vetting process and eliminated all the fakers and demo makers because you either needed a deal, a pressing and distribution deal, or had to spend a lot of money to make it happen. It prevented the clowns that can now just e-mail dozens of half-ass songs a month. There's still some quality stuff being made, but it's all about these collector item records, or packaging a t-shirt or USB drive or some nonsense with your 7-inch. It's not what it was, and will never be.

I sold almost 20,000 copies of one of my vinyl singles 12 years ago. Now, I would be charting on billboard with the top artists in the country from just those type of vinyl sales, but that is long gone. (laughs) Never again -- but we'll still keep pressing some vinyl anyway for those who do appreciate it. At this point, there isn't really that many stores that carry vinyl, so even if we press it, it's hard to sell, and not everyone wants to buy off the internet and pay shipping fees on top of the sales price.

Hip-hop turns 40 this year. Now, the older hip-hop becomes, the more nostalgic people become. J-Zone says the following about the aging of the culture: "Nostalgia totally fucks up the way we look at music. You can't relive the '80s without crack and Jheri Curl activator, so if you want an artist to sound in 2014 like they did in '88, go smoke yourself a Woolie blunt. Our feelings about music are 90% nostalgia, 10% music." What's your take on that?

Well, he's right about the reason music sounds a certain way. For instance, look at the early '90s into the mid '90s. Everyone was rocking camouflage, Timbo's, everything was rough rugged-n-raw; 'Throw Ya Gunz', 'Just To Get a Rep' etc. You walked around Bushwick or Harlem and the music matched the vibe of the neighbourhood. Now everything is soft, singing dudes, pretty and fancy, dance and pop, or stripper music.

And society shows it. Bushwick has vegan-kale shake cafes and less crack spots or weed spots. If you wear camouflage, people look at you like a maniac, while tapered leg jeans and colourful glasses are cool. Black kids have Mohawks and ride skateboards. (laughs)

The music is soft. These kids grew up on Kanye and Timbaland making pop, drum 'n bass stuff, not Beatminerz hard drums and 'Protect Ya Neck' singles, and the style reflects the music and/or the music reflects the society we live in. Violence is down, NY is safe, rent is $3,000 a month, and people are riding bikes in funny outfits talking about "street art" and the light show in Dumbo.

So how can you expect the music being made here by the newer generation to be hardcore or talk about how it's hard in the hood when Madonna just opened a restaurant in the hood? The vibe is just totally different. However, there is still some of us that make what we know and what we grew up doing. I still rock real graffiti pieces all over the city, even though the hipsters love taking pics of a stencilled owl or some clich? Marilyn Monroe stencil because they think Banksy is legit. So it's cool, let the new kids sing love songs and make stripper music for the 15 year old twerkers, but that doesn't mean everyone has to do it.

It doesn't mean it's nostalgic to make boom bap music. Rock music still has guitars and drums. Blues is still the same chords and it's still good. So I definitely agree that what is going on in society, in a given era, is directly reflected in the music, but that doesn't mean you have to change your formula and "sound." Maybe you just change a lil bit of what you speak on. It's heroin and pills now, not crack, but it's still drugs. By the way: J-Zone's 'Root For the Villain' book is dope, buy it.

Jazzy Jeff's comeback

We know this is a loaded question, but what are some of the most memorable 'Hip-hop moments' for you if you dig through history?

In general, I will always remember being a kid and seeing GrandMixer DST with Herbie Hancock on the American Music Awards. Watched it at my grandmother's house and for whatever reason I will always remember that. He was just the coolest dude ever making those sounds on a turntable. I remember trying that on my grandfather's stereo turntable and thinking how the hell did he just make it sound like that?!?!

Seeing 'Style Wars' and 'Wild Style' for the first time was really important. Seeing legends like Seen or the Rock Steady Crew on a major film was what opened my eyes to them. I didn't live by them, I was in Queens. The first time I heard Public Enemy, and then specifically, the first time I heard their second album, 'It Takes a Nation of Millions'. Nothing ever sounded like that, and nothing ever will. To this day that is my favorite album. It's the one album no one will ever duplicate.

Being at the New Music Seminar and seeing Craig G and Supernatural battle the first time was very memorable to me. That was when battles were actually emcee battles without judges, with beats, and not an a capella mother-jokes contest. I was also at their second battle at Wetlands, and also at the WakeUp Show anniversary in Cali when Supernat battled Juice. Incredible, real battles.

The first time I deejayed for KRS-ONE and performed on stage with him was very memorable personally. He is the epitome of an emcee, and it was an honor. Definitely unforgettable. I remember walking into a club in Nottingham, England one time, and Afrika Bambaataa was playing one of my records. That was awesome. Touring with Mix Master Mike of the Skratch Piklz and Beastie Boys was also a personal moment. He is my favorite all-around deejay, and becoming friends with him and having him help me and appreciate what I do was special for me.

Unfortunately, I'll never forget when Guru passed away. In talking to Premier, we always speak about people we loved who passed away. He was very kind to me when my mom passed, and a good friend Ajile died on his motorcycle in Brooklyn. We went to Roc Raida's funeral together. So after having these real-life conversations with him, seeing Guru pass away, and speaking to him about everything that was going on was very memorable. Those two guys helped shape my life. Gang Starr is a religion to many of us, which I'm sure you can understand. They are what it is... I've listened to Guru sooo much. Those moments and conversations were real, and I'll never forget some of the things I felt and learned, especially when my mom passed, and icons who I looked up to like Preem were there to say kind things and helped me through it. That meant a lot.

Being able to appear on several television shows from MTV, to BET, to ABC with Regis and Kelly, overseas television, The Profit on CNBC, and always keep my integrity and promote the true culture, will always be very memorable and important to me. The day I was inducted into Rock Steady Crew was of course an honor and a day that I'll never forget. It helped validate what I stand for. I once got to spin at a college show after Run DMC performed. Jam Master Jay stayed behind on the side of the stage to see my set and as I was goin' off -- I caught a glimpse of him loving it and he was excited about what I was doing. That was sooo great, I can't explain it, but trust me that defines memorable moments.

It's also the little things I love, like being on stage in Europe with KRS and Rahzel. They allowed me to give them a request. I asked Rahzel to beatbox PE's 'A Rebel Without A Pause' beat, which he hadn't done in public, in almost 15 years or more. And then KRS did Chuck's lyrics -- SOOOO classic!! I wish someone had that on film. I once sat during a flight delay in France and spoke to Grandmaster Flash for hours. He was very cool and open. He spoke about a lot of history and things I never knew. It was really awesome.

I remember the time when Jazzy Jeff heard a mixtape I did with Spinbad in the mid '90s and paged the # on the cassette and invited us down to his house and studio in Philly. We went down there and were surprised he didn't have his turntables set up or a new mixer. We pulled his set out of the flight cases in the closet. He said they were in there since his last show with Will (The Fresh Prince, ed.), which was a few years before that. We pulled out a few records and were cutting with him. He never saw the new Vestax mixer -at that time it was the original grey one- and we went with him to Armand's in Philly where he bought a new mixer and new records. He then went on to the record his mixtape, 'The Vibe I'm On' in front of us the next week. We were showing him flare scratches, etc.. In a sense we inspired Jeff and helped drag out his turntables and get him back into it when he had taken a break to tend to the business side of the industry and run his studio, etc. No one knows that, but it's true. Jeff is an icon and it was a good feeling to see him appreciate us. Since then he has been deejaying all over the planet again.

I remember when I was still a young teenager and being friends with Tone; T-La Rock's younger brother who was signed to Select Records as Style. We would make tracks and I was spinning for him a little bit. T La Rock then helped take me under his wing, and show me around and introduce me to legends in the Bronx. It was incredible. He took me to the Fever, where I met Sweet G. He once took me to a reunion dinner with members of the Crash Crew, Flash, Kangol, etc. It was all these originators, and me. I gained sooo much knowledge from these encounters. I can write two books on all I know, my travels, what I've seen, etc.

But at the end of it all, the main thing was hooking up with Rahzel and becoming his DJ. He is the greatest, and actually the most influential beat boxer on earth. Respect to Doug E, Fat Boys and Biz, but he was light years ahead of them, and held down the crown and the art form for the past 25 years. Being able to go to dozens of countries and hundreds of cities with him to promote the true art of two turntables and a microphone, hip-hop done the right way, was spectacular. He influenced countless young kids from around the world. Beatboxing is huge now, and growing. There's no one that ever performed two hour-sets at major festivals without having to do songs and simply just beatbox and scratch. It's a major honor and achievement to be able to do that, and it means the world to me. We really kicked down doors. We did rock festivals, dance festivals, television, small clubs, big clubs, working with acts from the Beastie Boys to Bjork, Everlast, Oasis, Parliament Funkadelic, etc., all the way on down. The last third of my life I spent with Rahzel doing what we love and promoting the culture we grew up on. Memorable, ooooh yeahhhh.

Is hip-hop what it isn't?

The title of my album has a definite, specific meaning. In today's world it's all about likes, views, and followers, as opposed to when we grew up, it was about doing something live and in person, or just word of mouth. So with all this new technology, allowing anyone and everyone to record songs on their laptop, and release them into the universe via the internet, the battle is on for likes and views. A lot of business is based off your number of followers, likes and views, and with everyone in the race, how do you get more likes and views than everyone else. It has become the era of the artist trying to be the cat that fell off the couch, on YouTube. It's all about doing something silly, with shock value, or something dumb everyone will talk about or want to see.

Your manager's and publicist's advice is 'Try to get a viral video'. So now you hear idiotic stuff like 'Did you see so and so, he has a big beard?' -or- 'This guy ate a bug and threw up in his video you gotta see it' or 'You heard about this rapper who sounds exactly like another rapper? You gotta hear it'. Or 'Did you see his new video? He's wearing a dress and make-up?' or 'I saw this guy rapping, he was really fat with no shirt on.' or 'I went to his show, it was great, he was throwing liquor on everyone and yelling while wearing women's pyjama's instead of 'Is he talented?', 'How are his rhymes? ', 'Is he original?', 'Where did he come from?', 'Did he pay dues?', 'Does he have a deejay?', 'How is his actual album?'.

Basically, it's about everything except what it's supposed to be about, hence 'It Is What It Isn't'. It's all about perception, not reality. How you appear on Instagram is not reality. People go through extensive lengths to show a false reality on social media and hope people get tricked into the nonsense. It really is what it isn't, trust me. It's definitely what it's not. (laughs) Buying likes, followers and views. It Is What It Isn't. Hey, this rappers sounds exactly like another rapper, but it's not that rapper, right.. It Is What It Isn't.

Many of our favorite artists made their own music. They produced their own albums, and when you bought their album, you were getting a glimpse into their lives. They had a style. You would know it was them. And you could become a fan if you felt the same, or could vibe on their vibe. They were who they claimed to be, it was what it was. But now, everything is a compilation of some guy rapping over a bunch of 'Beat CD' producer's beats. You make an album by getting nine different producers and nine featured guest rappers. So how is that your album? You didn't make the music, you just picked "the bangers" from a bunch of other producer's beats. It's a mix of other people's vibes with some lyrics you put over it. That's why sooo many new albums come and go so quickly, especially when it's the same producers on all of them. We know when you just paid Preem some $ and got a beat. We hope they release the instrumental. (laughs) It really 'is what it isn't.'

Gimmicks and nonsense, emulating other emcees is applauded today, where historically it's always shunned. So most of what is popular 'is what it isn't,' but hip-hop will always be hip-hop. That other stuff is just nonsense. Hip-hop is what it is: lyrics from the heart, coming from a place of struggle, and non-conformity, graffiti, beatboxing, B-boys and B-girls, poppers, lockers, deejays on actual turntables cutting up a variety of music, etc. When you see your favorite new rapper perform at an NBA game and he doesn't have a DJ with him, that's not hip-hop anyway, it's pop music. That 'is what it isn't.' So hip-hop is what it is, while most of these dudes calling themselves hip hop really 'is what it isn't' Don't be the cat that fell off the couch!

What's next for you? There's not gonna be a Ground Original 5?

As of right now, I would say it's probably not going to happen. I will be putting out an all-scratching album, some more mixes for free download, and some new songs as singles. Eventually, if I have enough for an album, I guess I will put that out, but there's no plan right now to do this again. It takes a lot of time and dedication, and I'm just not sure if I want to subject myself to this again. I have been focusing on my graffiti right now, and doing tons of pieces, murals and canvases. The money is good, the job offers keep coming in, and I'm having fun doing it, while being able to stay home and not travel. Eventually, I will tour again with Rahzel - around the globe, and drop some new music, but as of now, I'm not ready to tackle the headache that comes with doing a 20 song, 45 emcee project.

For anyone interested in graffiti or seeing dope artwork, and traditional graf, follow my instagram.

Anyone interested in my music can get free mixes (dozens of them) on www.DJJS1.blogspot.com (or buy some of my several albums on iTunes or Google Play)

Thanks for appreciating what I do, doing this interview and helping me promote what we love. It really helps, thank you.


POSTED 11|12|2014
conducted by cpf

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