Friday, March 21, 2008
Q & A: DJ Eli Escobar
*(Interview was origianlly conducted in June 2007)*
It has been over 10 years since DJ Eli Escobar began spinning professionally.
Since the early eighties he has fallen in love with Hip Hop culture, formed a friendship with the iconic Street-culture aficionado – Bobbito Garcia, whom Eli lists as a great help when he was starting out (both unknowingly at first, grew up in the same building), gotten his name out through a slew of dope beats on the defunct Fondle Em' Hip Hop based record label, been asked to stand in for one of his idols Stretch Armstrong on radio (an experience he lists as one of the most memorable experiences in all the time he has been doing music) and through many hours of hard work perfecting his craft, gone on to become one of the most recognized and respected club deejays, rocking parties across the states and abroad.
Having amassed much vinyl since his childhood, been responsible for a smorgasbord of very tasty remixes and edits and produced tracks for everyone from Ill Bill to Pase Rock, he has seen countless changes in music, venues, crowds and mediums. While some times frustrating, he would never trade the life for anything.
He is genuinely interested in bringing good music to the masses. On his site Outside Broadcast he regularly drops knowledge on a whole bunch of great records that you would otherwise most probably not have known.
While, on the decks whether in the club or on radio he is determined to be one of the deejays bringing originality, style and track selection back. It was an honor to catch up with him for the following conversation.
O: What were your memories of growing up in NY? What borough do you hail from?
Eli: I grew up on 97th street in Manhattan on the Upper West Side. I am eternally grateful that I grew up where I did.
It was, at the time, kind of an encapsulation of everything New York had to offer with in a 3-4 - block radius.
The projects were across the street and the huge beautiful old apt buildings were 2 avenues down. It was about as ethnically, economically and culturally diverse as a neighborhood can get. Most of my childhood memories involve just running around the neighborhood, skateboarding, buying comics, doing graffiti, breaking, buying music, playing music, etc.
O: As you pointed out a month back in one of your Outside Broadcast posts, Wings - was the spot. Can you expand on why it was the place to be at that stage in your life?
Eli: I (like many other kids in New York during the early 80's), fell in love with Hip Hop, I suppose right around the Run – D.M.C., Fat Boys era. The thing is, most of the kids around my neighborhood were way more into the dancing, graffiti and fashion than rap music. So, Wings was the one stop shop for everything related to what we were into - Puma's, Adidas, Lee's, fat laces and the store customized t -shirts and sweaters. They were really - hot back then. I certainly spent way more time browsing in there than I ever did buying anything though because my mom was pretty stubborn when it came to dishing out the bucks.
O: Watching Beat Street for the first time on a friend's television when it first came out must be one of those moments you'll never forget?
Eli: The first time I saw it was in the theater actually, but yeah my mom was really cool in a lot of ways, she got a VCR from someone and showed Beat Street at my birthday party. It was a big deal, I think and I remember feeling like the man at the time.
O: You must have felt gutted when you learnt who really sung Freeze's I.O.U back in the day? Your vision of a cute Puerto Rican girl shattered.
Eli: I don't know when I actually figured that out. I was probably more just kind of shocked.
O: Well before I discovered Outside Broadcast, I used to see your name on numerous Hip Hop 12's in the production credits particularly in the late nineties / early thousands.
People who aren't into independent Hip Hop, music and culture may not be familiar with your name. Expand on when you saw your interest in music take over what you were into beforehand, what you've achieved, the beats you've done and relay your most memorable experiences during that period?
Eli: Drawing was the only thing I was ever really into on the same level as music. I was that kid in school that everyone thought of as 'the artist'. Mostly I drew comic book influenced pictures and graffiti - characters. I used art to get into every school I ever went to. Once I got to college, I discovered the music department and they had an Akai S950 in one of the rooms. So, I instantly tried out for music, got in and switched my major. But I had already been deejaying for about a year at this point and had built up a pretty huge record collection so the timing was right.
While I was in college, I met Bobbito and we realized, we grew up in the same building and really hit it off. He gave me a job at his store Footwork. I started to meet and become friends with a lot of people in the underground rap scene like Cage, MF Doom, MF Grimm and the Juggaknots and my beats were decent so I put out some records here and there.
By far my most memorable experiences around this time, was being on the radio, filling in for Stretch Armstrong on 89.9 and HOT 97. This was a huge deal for me because the show (and Stretch as a DJ), were both huge influences for me. It was like getting a call from Paul McCartney asking me if I could fill in for John Lennon or something. I feel so lucky that I got to be a part of that show for a few years. Bob really looked out for me in those days as far as really making people aware of whom I was.
Other than that I would have to say I found that scene to be kind of suffocating and somewhat limiting. I think, as far as rap goes, most of the great records from the 80's that hold up to this day were put out by independent labels so when the mid 90's hit and a lot of independents started coming out again, it wasn't such a big deal. But for a lot of people, it became this prerequisite for deciding whether a record was hot or not and that struck me as just silly. I also felt like a lot of people involved in the scene had these really rigid, conservative ideas about how hip hop should sound and I really couldn't relate to that. I thought a lot of terrible music was beginning to get released and I just lost interest.
O: Are you bored with the majority of Hip Hop music right now?
Eli: I think that it's really tough if you are of a certain age group and you can remember what it was like to hear Public Enemy Number 1 or Sucker M.C.'s or even Protect Ya Neck for the first time. I mean, records that when they came out sounded like nothing you had ever heard before. I am not really bored with Hip Hop music. I think I just tend to gravitate towards new, edgier things. But that being said, I do like a lot crunk music, I still love Jay - Z and of course Kanye (West) is great. And although I wasn't crazy about the last three Outkast records, I pretty much think they are the best rap group ever. Then you have people like Kid Sister, Spank Rock and Pase Rock who are putting a different spin on rap and I think it's pretty exciting. Also, Ne-Yo rules!
O: What it is about the music that's been such a big part of your life over the years that you're finding - stale in the releases that have dropped more recently?
Eli: If you are referring to rap, then mostly I think, personality. In the 80's there weren't that many artists in general, so EPMD had their thing, Public Enemy, Beasties (Beastie Boys), L.L. (Cool J) they all had their own personalities and stood apart from one another. Now that rap is basically the music of choice for everybody, it is completely impossible for it to maintain the sense of identity it once had.
As far as other music, I am not finding anything stale at all really. You've got people like Claude Von Stroke, Green Velvet, Metro Area and Erol Alkan coming out with innovative, powerful music. I think there's always great, exciting music being made but I think it's up to the listeners and consumers to go find out what it is and get a hold of it.
O: Can you remember that point when the music just wasn't hitting like it once was?
Eli: Again, if you're referring to Rap, I'm not really sure but I think around the Bad Boy era I started noticing people's standards dropping. One thing I always loved about rap was how critical the audience was of it. When an artist fell off everyone knew it and it would be a wrap for that artist or if someone came out with the same beat as someone else, we weren't trying to hear it. Also, people were just so anti-pop back then, like if you liked Young MC or something you would get clowned. These attitudes seem a little dated now I guess but back then it was serious! I just clearly remember being puzzled by how much people liked Big Poppa cause I just thought it was so inferior to the Bonita Applebum remix which used the same sample 5 years earlier. Now of course I loved Biggie's album (Ready To Die), I just think that time was a turning point and some of the Hip Hop rules got thrown out the window.
O: Your boy J-Zone had a really good article he wrote on Hip Hop music and its current state. Did you get a chance to read it?
Eli: I did. I think it's real important not to get caught up in complaining about why so and so sucks, or how this or that used to be better, etc. So, I think J did a great job looking at it from a very intelligent and logical perspective. I think everything that a lot of people miss about rap he still delivers on his albums. They are entertaining in a cinematic way almost, like the first few Ice Cube records.
O: What are some of the times you were deejaying out that you remember most fondly since when you began spinning in clubs?
Eli: So many great nights, one example was just a few weeks ago, I played with Stretch (Armstrong), DJ AM, A-TRAK and Steve Aoki and we just tore the roof off the place. It was great to see people dancing so intently to underground dance music. I also got to DJ with Kool Herc in Rotterdam (Netherlands) a few years ago, which was exciting.
One night I'll never forget was at this club Halo where I used to do a great Sunday night party. It was the weekend Jam Master Jay had died, and I did a tribute set and just put everything I had into it. People lost their minds, and to songs like Beats to the Rhyme that you don't really hear in clubs. It was pretty emotional actually and everyone seemed to kind of be on the same page... grieving but also celebrating the incredible music that changed all of our lives.
I also did a lot in college during the mid 90's; we used to have crazy parties in the on campus houses. My friend Shan just recently told me he can remember when (Jeru The Damaja's) Come Clean used to come on and you could feel the house shake!
O: Have the crowds changed in the venues you have residencies / DJ regularly at? What do you put this down to?
Eli: Absolutely. The club scene in New York has become strikingly segregated. Manhattan is a very wealthy place and cash rules everything now. The club scene at this point seems to me to be made up almost exclusively of transplant New Yorkers. I feel like they have brought bar culture along with them. The idea of a bunch of frat boy yuppies pumping their fists to (Bon Jovi's) Living on a Prayer in a nightclub even 7 years ago would've seemed ludicrous. Now it's an almost guaranteed nightly experience. It's tough because I have been doing this so long and want to make a good living at it, so I am basically trapped in this scene playing for these crowds. I don't know where all the cool people went.
O: Who were some of the tape editors that blew you away when you were getting into club / dance-floor orientated music? What influence did they have you?
Eli: Danny Krivit is definitely the one. His edits are the blueprint. What really appealed to me about his work was it spanned so many different genres. Anything funky would get the Danny K treatment.
O: From your recent experiences deejaying do you find that with so many DJ's, so much access to records, tracks, label / artist information, mp3's, history, reissues, techniques, Serato that this is of benefit to the art-form or actually hindering creativity for the most part cause all the above are available so easily and readily now, where as it wasn't when you and a lot of others were cutting their teeth, putting in the hours to build their name and reputation?
Eli: I think most people are aware that it's a double -edged sword. I do not think it's hindering creativity. It's having the opposite effect. The idea of spinning with records at this point seems very restrictive. I could not do eighty percent of the things I do on a regular night without Serato. I'm certainly glad I spent the years I did building up my record collection and in the process educating myself about club music, but who would I be to tell some kid he had to do the same. There are plenty of ways to educate yourself on the music you are interested in and if you are so inclined, you'll take those steps.
Check out Eli's awesome blog - Outside Broadcast
You can catch DJ Eli in Sydney, when he spins at Oxford Art Factory on May 3rd. Tickets available from Moshtix
For Bookings visit Eli's My Space