DJ Chief Interview
Originally from West Palm Beach, Florida, DJ CHiEF started mixing music on dual cassette decks in the late 1980s, and began making beats in the mid 1990s, working mostly with turntables and an early sampler built into a Gemini DJ mixer.
DJ CHiEF’s first gigs were at his high school, Palm Beach Gardens Community High, the 45th St. Flea Market in West Palm Beach, Planet Ice in Palm Beach Gardens, and Atlantis Skateway in Lake Worth. DJ CHiEF is a writer, producer, and DJ from South Florida, and a curator for Bboysounds. He’s music has been featured at the biggest Bboy events around the world including Red Bull BC One, Battle of the Year, Silverback Open, Miami Pro-Am & more. With two top-selling albums available online and countless singles over the years, DJ CHiEF’s music is a staple at international Bboy battles.
First things first how and when did your love for music start more specifically your introduction into hip hop?
I was really into music from a very young age. I had a small Casio keyboard with some built-in percussion rhythms that I used to record “Scratch,” my first album (which was an exclusive, one-copy cassette that I kept to myself) at the age of 8 or 9 or so. I remember trying to drag the point of a metal staple across the magnetic cassette tape’s surface to see if it would sound like record scratching. It did not. I used any equipment I could get my hands on, including a dual cassette deck meant for copying tapes, to make remixes by hand, using the classic pause-record editing technique. I started offering collections of these home-spun remixes to my 5th grade classmates but another student was drinking haterade and called me out to the teacher in the middle of class for “selling illegal tapes.”But a defining moment was the school talent show when I was eight or nine years old, roughly 1991. A group of girls did a dance routine to “Doo Doo Brown” by 2 Hyped Brothers and a Dog and the beat seriously blew my mind. I bought the cassette single at the local Sam Goody and listened to it hundreds of times. I totally geeked when I actually found the original vinyl single in the mid 2000s, and today it’s one of like 15 records that always stay in my DJ bag, even though I’m almost always using Serato.
Give us insight of the scene at the time as a teen and your earliest influences?
I really liked Onyx. Their beats were so solid and they had such a unified sound across the MCs. Later I got into Camp Lo, the Bad Boy bunch, Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Nas, etc. but it was really a few rap groups and of course, the Miami bass artists like Luke and 2 Live Crew, DJ Laz, DJ Uncle Al were constantly putting out the party music. I bought my first DJ mixer, a Gemini 19-inch with the built-in sampler, in 1997 and my turntables a few months later, and started taking DJ jobs at age 15, a couple parties and a Friday night at the ice skating rink. At the time, I was really limited as far as music because I could only play records, and the closest record store was a 1.5-hour ride on the Palm Tran city bus. That said, I took that ride a lot, directly from my high school as soon as we got out, and grabbed whatever I thought I could use at the record store. My first few records included D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar,” Camp Lo’s “Uptown Saturday Night,” “Cold World” by GZA, and “Hay” by Crucial Conflict. I also used a remote CD player whenever I could, and on CD I was really into Outkast, Fugees, Wu-Tang Clan of course, and some R&B as well. But musically, I think I’m most heavily influenced by the Miami sound. Something in my soul wakes up when I hear those beats from 2 Live Crew, DJ Laz, 95 South, etc. I learned later how heavily that sound was influenced by Afrika Bambaataa, Disco, and lots of classic bboy music.
What was the defining moment where you went, ‘This is what I want to do…’
I think I decided I would have to be a DJ after watching “Juice” and seeing Omar Epps preparing his mixtape and battling. I’d also visit my cousin in north New Jersey in the summer and catching Funk Master Flex’s show on Hot 97 was always amazing. I had cassette recordings of a few episodes, along with some of dancehall on Bobby Konders Sunday night show. I liked Flex’s DJing so much that I even bought his “driving shoe” once or twice in the early 2000s. Hearing him blast a new track with some crazy juggling and the bomb sound effect was insane. One summer, it was The Beatnuts’ “Off the Books” that was getting the Flex treatment and it embedded that track as an instant hit for me.
Why and when did you get into production?
I’ve been putting music together as far back as I can remember, in one form or another. I played alto and tenor saxophone and some percussion in the middle school bands and that’s where I got any sort of “classic” music education. Between age 14 to 16, I did a number of remixes, recording them as I did the remix live, on turntables. I bought a cheap keyboard with “step editing” (ability to sort of program a beat) at Best Buy during my senior year in high school and I started getting familiar with the process of programming music. When I moved to Orlando at age 17, I finally set up a semi-formal recording software and started producing beats and recording tracks with my room mates and others, but I was recording every element via the headphone output, leaving the sound quality quite horrible. It was really amateur. But for the next few years, I made hundreds of tracks, even performing a few live in Orlando at The Social and AKA Lounge over the years. In early 2009, some amazing friends invited me to their studio and told me my music was alright but the recording was bad. They taught me about midi, showed me Logic, and completely changed my life. I spent a few years learning and producing lots of tracks, and only in the recent years did I feel confident enough in what I’m doing to really put stuff out there.
What was your production setup when you came up and what’s your current setup?
Before 2000, I was just using a keyboard and recording onto cassette, and then when I moved to Orlando, I started with a very limited recording program that I basically just used to record tracks one by one from the headphone output of my keyboard. So high hats, kicks, snares, etc. one by one, with all the background hum and feedback added on each layer. It was bad. But once I got into Logic years later, I basically just used Logic and a midi keyboard to control it, and that’s what I’m still doing today. I’ll use an acoustic guitar or hand percussion from time to time, but usually, everything I need is inside the computer. Of course, the turntables are always a couple feet away for recording scratches. I did recently pick up a decent keyboard with hammer-style keys, mimicking a piano, and I use that a lot just to play through new ideas and get to know new melodies and chords as they show up in my melon. I try to record every idea I get in one form or another, so I have a long list of melodies and rhythms to get to.
Describe to us the thought process that goes into making a DJ Chief break beat?
I always record new melody or chord ideas onto my phone and sometimes I’ll start with one of those. Other times, I have a drum rhythm in mind and that will drive the bus the whole time. Still other times, I’ll have a sample in mind and everything will grow from that. There are a lot of times that I’ll try to get started and it will just be impossible, and I have to step away and come back later or another day.Once in a while though, a track will just come together quickly. With “B-Murder” back in February of this year, I had the idea in the morning and put the track together through the afternoon, using it for the finals that night at Breakapalooza 2 in Lake Worth, and it was insane. Because I knew the samples that I wanted to use really well, I could see the whole track in advance and I was confident to drop it and know it would get a dope response.
But whenever possible, I aim to build the whole track from scratch with minimal sampling. I try to build my drums so that they sound like they might be sampled from a classic break, but most often I’ve built the rhythm from individual drum sounds.
Tell us about your label, how it started and your releases and how your music has been received?
The label is Bboysounds Black Label Breaks. Back in 2010, I had just started working at a political news company. It was an office job, which I swore I never would do, but I needed health insurance and it was the only option, as the restaurant I was working at was dropping me from their insurance.Within a short time, I knew I had to start building elsewhere so I would be able to eventually leave the desk job. I started building Bboysounds with my longtime homie, Sway Beats. We did a series of podcasts, built a few versions of the website, wrote a lot of articles, and did a few interviews. Eventually, we created Black Label Breaks as the label for us to publish original music, and as a component of the overall Bboysounds brand.
I put out a few random tracks in 2013 and 2014, and then put out my first EP in early 2015, called “Instant Cipher.” It featured a couple of my tracks that had been getting great response when I DJ’d bboy events, including “Rhythm Blunt” and “Love to the Breaks.” DJ Kid Stretch sent me a video of him using “Love to the Breaks” for Bootuz’s showcase at BC One in Greece when Bootuz apparently requested the song. Seeing a few of my other tracks at battles around the world on YouTube made me get much more serious and it inspires me to this day. I feel like for the most part, my stuff is received well, but I anticipate that some people don’t like it too, and that’s cool. I don’t mind earning my place and taking my time to get some seriously dope tracks out there. I’ve gotten a little bit of saltiness from some prominent people in the genre, but I understand where they’re at, and I get crabby too sometimes if I don’t get enough sleep or eat breakfast.I do love getting messages from people using my music for their mixtapes or videos, and sometimes hearing from people who really dig the music. You have to stop and appreciate that somebody on the other side of the planet is jamming to something you created. I try to give that back as much as I can, to inspire other people the same way they’ve done for me.
What are you currently working on?
Right now I have a lot of tracks up in the air, and I love most of them, but sometimes I’ll spend an hour or so on a new track and export it to listen in my jalopy, and it’s just trash garbage, and I start questioning my whole life. My most often, I’m my own fan. I really like remixing viral videos or memes because people at the events I DJ always get a kick out of it. So if some funny, stupid, viral video comes up on a Monday, I’ll try to make a dope battle track somehow sampling it for the battles that weekend. That happened with the “Beans Greens” viral video at iPhlow 4 in 2016 at Catalyst Miami. Here is the video: https://www.instagram.com/p/BNsmKGghtPY/
I’m trying to wrap up a new bboy-centric album but I’m not sure when it will be ready. I think it will my best work yet, and I’m looking forward to publishing it. I’m also messing around with some House beats and Dancehall as well.
Do you consider yourself a ‘breaks’ DJ or just DJ and why?
Not necessarily a Breaks DJ. Through my time DJing, I’ve considered myself a Hip-Hop DJ, a Dancehall DJ, a club DJ, whatever… But these days, I probably enjoy the bboy jams most of all, because that’s where you can just get down, mixing, scratching, doing something dope with the music. And if you do your homework and prepare with some dope selections (and of course, some brand new original joints if possible) you can really set it off.
But to make cheese, I also take DJ jobs at fancy restaurants and hotels and parties and what not, where I end up playing Top 40 music by necessity. That means very little scratching or improvisation, compared to a bboy jam. I enjoy that stuff too though if the crowd is fun, but definitely not as enjoyable as bboy events, from the DJ’s perspective.
In Palm Beach, I had an old lady throw ice at me once at a fancy hotel on New Year’s Eve and another guy stand next to me repeating “you suck” because I wouldn’t play Aerosmith for his wench, who had been needling me for a half hour. I’ve never had that happen at a bboy event, but years ago, I had been booed or dissed by a dancer battling for my song choice. But I feel like if that hasn’t happened to you, you haven’t played enough jams.
As a DJ who has been playing on the BBoy circuit for over two decades what is the connection between the music, DJ and dancer in your opinion?
First of all, no matter which side of the turntables you’re on, you must dig the music. With respect to all-styles and the wide range of music a DJ can play at an all-styles event (literally anything), you don’t want to fuck up the music at a bboy event, and I say that as someone who has fucked up the music at a bboy event. The first time I DJ’d for bboys was at the now-legendary AKA Lounge Monday nights in Orlando, Florida circa 2004, 2005. At that point, I probably would have considered myself a party DJ and I thought everything I did was really, really dope by default (it wasn’t). After blowing it a few times by dropping Dancehall songs and obscure, un-funky Disco joints and getting boo’s from the dancers in the cypher, I did a lot more homework and started cultivating the sound more and more. It also affected my own production, which at the time was definitely “indie” but probably also “wack” by plenty standards. By 2006 or so, I had produced a couple bboy-style tracks and at a Hip-Hop showcase at The Social with the brothers Eyecue, I performed one of my bboy-esque productions called “Make Believe” and I was accompanied on stage by Crazy C and and Ynot of BackYard Funk and Lito of Soul Family. I hadn’t seen any other Hip-Hop acts in Orlando incorporating bboys and bgirls into their performance, and I thought that was dope. I was partly drunk, so my memory of my performance might be way grander than reality.
Who is some of your favorite BBoy breaks DJs/producers?
I’m 100% inspired by a lot of the musicians, DJs, and producers on the international bboy scene. There’s something unique about Hip-Hop that lets anyone, anywhere create something, from a simple edit to a completely original track and if it’s dope, it’s dope. But there are also some artists that are really serious about their music, making some truly original and innovative sounds. I don’t even want to start listing individuals, because there are so many that I would have to mention, but I love hearing new tracks and adding a few to my own crates that are like “I have to play this at the next jam, no matter what.” I try to listen to everything I can, any time I see that someone put out a new track or album or mixtape, and everything people send me through my website, Soundcloud, or whatever.
I really like DJs that are active on the turntables, juggling and cutting and scratching, building the music they’re playing into something even bigger and doper. Likewise, the selection has to be especially dope, and you can tell when a DJ has done their homework. I’m lucky enough to play with people like Will Stylez, Magic, Seamstar, and JRK somewhat often in West Palm Beach and Miami, and they just have sooo many dope tracks that are new to me a lot of the time. I also got to play with Felix at Breakin Convention Miami, and he has such a dope collection of original Fusik and Fenoms music that I seriously admire.
Famous last words….
My involvement with Hip-Hop and Bboy culture has connected me with people all over the world, in places I never expected to visit or know anyone, let alone have friends there, and it transcends borders, language, politics, and everything that used to dictate the life we live and the people we meet. It’s a universal nation that gives people connected across cultures the power to unite, regardless of language and nationality, and it should be an example for the whole world. Plus, if we started solving conflicts with dance battles instead of weapons, the battle beats would have to be seriously epic, and that would be dope.
Peace, love, unity, and having fun to the whole world!