Tuesday, May 5, 2009
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF DJ SIGNIFY
Talking Shop With One of the Most Gifted and Underrated Beatmakers in Underground Hip-Hop
Story: Ron Hart
It is indeed true that all good things come to those who wait. IRT sent some email questions to Brooklyn-based beatminer DJ Signify back in February in lieu of the release of his amazing new album, Of Cities. Well, it took him a hot minute to get back to us, but we are happy to present you with the results of our e-conversation. Of Cities, yet another display of Signify's post-RZA science on the old SP-1200 that features some stellar cameo work from Aesop Rock on a couple of tracks, is available at better record shops in your area and on iTunes.
IRT: Where is that gas station on the cover of Of Cities and what is it about that particular station that inspired you to make it your cover?
Signify: The gas station is in Seattle, but it looks like it could be anywhere and that's part of why I picked it. It also gives off a particular loneliness and a kind of late-night dread that I felt fit perfectly with what I was going for with this record.
IRT: How did you first break into DJing? What was your first gig like?
Signify: When I was a freshman at Hobart College, one of the first things I did was apply (and get) a radio show. Being six hours upstate of NYC, I made it my mission to play all the undergound joints just like NY radio favorites Stretch and Bobbito, Underground Railroad and Red Alert to name a few. Back then (mid-late '80's/ early '90s) NYC radio was incredible, especially for hip-hop. Anyway, while I did that show, I started getting all this free vinyl. In my sophomore year I became music director of the station as well, and the free vinyl doubled. Naturally I had to do something with all those records.My first gig is something I'll never forget because I had no idea what I was doing. Do you know those huge, heavy rubber mats that come with Technique turntables? Well, I didn't even know I was supposed to take those off. It was a party at Hobart and I was nervous--and although there were some skips and some horrific transitions, the party turned out alright. In particular, I remember I learned a very early, very valuable DJ lesson--once you get play Dance Hall--stay with it for a long time, cause women love it, it's easy to mix, and it's arguably the best club music ever.
IRT: Where are you from in New York? Brooklyn? What are your thoughts of the changing landscape of both NYC and BK?
Signify: I am from Brooklyn (Parkside & Flatbush also Bronx 236th street---parents divorced at age of 6). As far as the "changing landscape" - in general New York is a lot safer, which is a good thing, but it's had to sacrifice a lot of its personality to get there.
IRT: Second part to question 3, is there any particular shuttered club that you miss the most? Which one and why?
Signify: Back in the late 90's, I used to do a weekly at this bar in the east village (I forget the name--I'm sorry but I'm terrible with names). The spot was intimate and people were generally open minded. I remember I got a chance to mix a lot of underground unknown shit with classics. I miss that club but moreover I miss that era. I also gotta say, I played a few (but saw way more) shows at the Knitting Factory, and it's shocking that that club is gone.
IRT: Is there any particular record shop that closed down that you miss the most?
Signify: There were some small record stores in both Manhatten and Brooklyn that are long gone but for the life of me I can't remember their names. I miss them cause they were "my" secret spots where you could find dope shit cheap. By the way, I've gotta mention my favorite record store in New York---- hands down---Academy Records---I highly recommend their Brooklyn store.
IRT: As a DJ, what are your thoughts on the future of little record shops? Doomed for extinction or they'll stay alive as long as guys like us are still walking the earth?
Signify: I think there is always going to be a future for used records--one could even argue that they are even more important in this age. But small record shops selling new music--that's proving to be tough.
IRT: Tell me about Bully Records. Is this your label? How much flexibility do you have in terms of creating and releasing music on Bully?
Signify: Bully Records is not my label, but I have A&R'd a couple of records for it. It's a small Canadian independent label run by a friend of mine, Marco. I have released a bunch of records with him over the years and he's proven to be really open about releasing music of mine.
IRT: Why the long wait between the LEX album, Sleep No More, and Of Cities? Were you creating music during that period?
Signify: Yes, I did release a bunch of 7's, mixes, tour only CD's, and collaborations. But the real reason for the wait was I lost my record in a Pro-Tools nightmare and basically had to start from scratch and re-make it. By that point, my taste had changed so much that I mostly scraped the whole thing and made an entirely new album.
IRT: How is the website coming along? Will you be using the website as a means of getting more music out there to your fans a la Deerhunter's blog? Music that is exclusive to people who visit your website?
Signify: To be honest, at one point I had big plans for my website, but it somehow got fucked and I ended up putting it on hold. I have to admit, I kinda resent the whole notion that artists somehow owe the public free music when most everyone is stealing it anyway... but I'm not beyond doing it. I probably should.
IRT: As a big fan of your Teach the Children mixtape, do you still make mixes? If so, is there a place where you make them available? You have a lot of great artists tagged on your MySpace page: Sun Ra, Television, Suicide, Pole, Modern Lovers, etc. Have you ever made a non-hip-hop or beat-oriented mix?
Signify: I love mixtapes. The first mixes I sold were beat-oriented and early on I put out two mix tapes called Signifyn' Breaks and Mixed Messages (both composed completely of old vinyl) . They really got this whole music shit started for me. At that time ('96-2000) I was obsessed with mixtapes but slowly, especially as I got into production and that wack mashup fad started going down, I lost interest in putting them out. I still make mixes (mostly non-hip-hop) for myself all the time, though.
IRT: How did you first meet Aesop Rock? You guys seem to have such a great chemistry. Has there ever been talk about doing a full album together?
Signify: Thanks. I met Aesop opening for him on tour with Blockhead. As far as a full length, no, we never talked about it.
IRT: Please tell me more about Nobody's Smiling, your project with Blockhead. Will there be a full-length coming soon from you guys?
Signify: I've been touring with Blockhead for something like six years now. When we did the "Nobody Smiling" record it was right before a long tour, and even though we sold that 45 in stores we made it mainly to sell as a merch item. We worked quickly but I really liked the way it came out, that's why I re-EQ'ed the two songs and put them on Of Cities. I don't know about a full length but Blockhead and I are working on a new project right now.
IRT: What are your thoughts on the state of NY underground hip-hop? Is there any young cats coming up that give you hope for a brighter tomorrow?
Signify: No--------------but you never know.
IRT: Do you play any instruments? If so, how much live instrumentation to youincorporate into your compositions and are there plans for such work in future releases?
Signify: I'm in no way formally trained whatsoever, but I've been messin' around with my ol' Korg ms20 keyboard and I've been integrating that more and more lately.
IRT: What's the most annoying thing about NYC to you these days and why?
Signify: Annoying---------ummm---------the MTA's really annoying me at the moment. It seems weird that they're about to increase the price (which is already really high) and at the same time cutback service which is getting noticeably slower. The Knicks still stink, which for some ungodly reason I still deeply care about------- oh, and the overall high cost of living---that's a little annoying as well. I'll go with that.
Video for "Migrane" from DJ Signify's Sleep No More album: