I chatted with DJ Abilities after his last tour about new projects, his evolving style, and his secrets to success. It has been seven years since Eyedea’s abrupt death and Abilities has been hard at work: DJing for Atmosphere and Aesop Rock and touring his own music. He is set to finish his first solo record later this year.
Adam Alloy: Thank you for comin talking to me today. I want to preface this interview by saying there was a time in my life when I was very depressed and I was really losing my mind. I was 18 years old and First Born was instrumental in getting me through that period of my life. It has a very special place in my heart, as do all Eyedea and Abilities albums.
A: My first question is, why haven’t you seriously produced for another rapper since Eyedea died? Your beats were the cornerstone of some of the greatest hip hop I’ve ever heard.
DJ Abilties: Thank you very much. There’s different reasons. When he passed away that wasn’t on my mind. As time went on I got more into DJing. I always DJ’ed: I produced and I scratched but I didn’t “DJ” like traditionally DJing. I got into that. I made two mixes that you can get on my Soundcloud that I spent A LOT of time on, that are basically the basis of how I perform live by myself… which I had to figured out how to do as well. How to put on my own show. But now, for going on three years I’ve [been] working on a solo record of original production. I miss beats and I feel what you’re saying as well [but] I’ve enjoyed DJing and I like what I’ve been doing the last couple years. It’s helped me grow. It’s been really instrumental in my live show, but there is something about creating music from the ground up. This specific record I didn’t even use samples. I played everything myself. I have never had a solo record so I really wanted to push myself. I don’t have any guest appearances in part because I never had a solo record before. Out of respect for Eyedea this is going to have no rappers on it whatsoever. On my next record, after this one gets released and I establish what I sound like by myself, on my next record I will have a lot of talented people on it. I think there are people who would like to hear vocalists on top of my production, myself included. I already have some cool ways I think I’m going to wind up doing it: with the live setting and the visuals. I want to do it in a really cool and unique way, forcing me to grow. I don’t want to just do what I’ve done with Mikey, I’ve got to figure out a way to do something different. Something like that’ll be special in it’s own right, as opposed to just trying doing a version of what he and I already did.
A: That’s cool. When do you think that’s going to be out?
DJ: I want to finish it this year. It took a long time because I had never made a solo record. I always had Mikey. Obviously I always knew he was talented, but as I was making this record it was even more so [apparent] how huge of an impact [he had]. Like ok I make the beat. Then you just have this brilliant person taking up so much of the space and carrying it in such a wonderful way. I conditioned myself to make beats to leave space open to have him on them. I was making these tracks and I was really stuck for a lot of them. I didn’t know where to go: it’s a dope beat… but it needs vocals on it. So I thought about having other vocalists on the record, but for reasons I already stated I was like ‘nah i don’t want to do that.’ I’m gonna grow. I wound up taking about 3 years on it. I think I’m gonna finish it this year. One problem is I keep getting booked. I have a lot of gigs. I guess it’s a good problem to have. When I have a lot of shows I have to be prepared for my live shows and that throws me back to DJing and scratch practicing. I get good momentum [on the record] and then I have to stop, then I get good momentum and I have to stop. I have to be prepared for my shows. I do think this year I’ll complete it and therefore [it’ll be out] probably spring of next year. I thought it could be spring of this year, haha, but there’s no rush… particularly because this is going to be my first one. Next one won’t take nearly as long. Half the time on this was figuring out how I’m going to do it. Even something as simple as I used to do everything on a MVC and now I do everything on Ableton. A lot of that time was figuring out how to use Ableton the right way… Or at least the way I want to use it. There is no right or wrong way making art.
A: I’m definitely looking forward to that.
DJ: Thanks man I’m really looking forward to that. I obviously want people to like it but it’s kind of the old cliche: “if you do your best, it’s fine.” I put so much effort into this. I already know there’s people who aren’t going to like it, nobody likes everything. Obviously, it’s the way of the world. I put so much time into this that if people don’t like it I don’t care.
A: Because you like it.
DJ: I know that this is what I was capable of and I think it’s good. And I genuinely do believe that E&A fans are gonna like it. I think i found a really cool way to bridge that production style with the contemporary sound that I like. I’m not making straight up EDM but I’m not making a throwback instrumental hip hop or a turntablist record record either. I think I hit this really genuine sweet spot of the places where I come from, the places where I’m at, and the places where I want to go. I’m excited to see what people think. It’s a long time coming. Now that I’m getting towards the end it’s almost surreal. This is kind of out of the loop, I still perform a lot but it’s not the same thing as having a release and everything that comes with that. I just sit and think sometimes that my life is going to be so different, again. By The Throat [the last Eyedea & Abilities album] that was like eight years ago! It’s been so long since I’ve had a release I think this is going to be wild. It’s not going to be another eight years [after this]. One thing I’ve learned is that you’ve got to be consistent. I’m looking to have another [record] by a year or two years tops, and keep on hitting them every year or two years for at least five or six years. Obviously they will be different, they won’t be the same. The next one I’ll have more vocalists. At some point I make a record with one emcee or one singer or a band. I’ll do different things but I want to make sure I’m always putting something out.
A: And making different stuff that is pushing you in newer directions instead of remaking the same thing.
DJ: Otherwise it’s like, “why even do it?”
A: I’ve always felt like the albums you’ve made are cohesive piece of music. I normally listen to them all the way through unless I’m in a very particular mood, like I’m in a mood when I need to listen to “The Dive” over and over again then I’ll do that… but otherwise I’ve always listened to them as cohesive pieces of music. Is that how you approach making them?
DJ: Yeah. I’m happy to hear you say that. The way I’ve always made music is I don’t work on one song at a time. I’ll work on something and I’ll get like the core of it, the main part, [that] something which makes [it] special. And it’s usually like the basic drums and the main melody. I’ll get enough of those. Let’s say I have three beats that are all like 74 BPM or something. None of them are complete though! I’ll know how they feel. On that 4th one I’ll be aiming for like a 100 or I’ll want it to be different. I do that because of what you’re saying. I’ll look at it in terms of creating one piece of music. Even though they’re individual songs, I do create records as a scope of one thing. So, the short answer is I create it all at the same time so that may be why it feels that you want to listen to it all at the same time.
A: I feel like, in terms of how we digest music now, especially in terms of things like Spotify and YouTube, that a lot more artists are focusing on making a three to four minute song bite.
DJ: Without question. Look at the whole EDM scene, even though you never want to say “the whole”. Those dudes, you’ll see a whole lot of big names, and they’ll just drop like one song. They’ll be like “boom” I got a hit, I’m gonna drop this one hit. Or you’ll see a lot of EPs, the EDM scene has a lot of EPs. They want to drop it and have it come out quick and be current.
DJ: And there’s something to be said about that, I may want to explore that in the future, but for each action there’s going to be an equal and opposite reaction. It’s like when people talk to me about turntables and say people don’t use turntables anymore. I’m just an optimistic person so for me, my response is always: “ok it would be great if more people used turntables” but then I also kind like that they don’t because when you see me perform turntables it’s cooler. It’s more unique. I’m choosing to look at it half full. Since everyone is just looking to make “the one song” since everyone is just going to buy “the one song” off of iTunes or Spotify, the streaming services etcetera etcetera… I feel like there’s going to be artists [moving back to longer cohesive releases], and if we sit and think about it we can see it already happened. Particularly with vinyl having such a strong comeback people are looking at making full length records. It’s like fashion, it’s a pendulum. Everything is on a pendulum, everything swings back and forth, and it’s never going to be exactly the same as like the 60s or 70s but we don’t want to relive the same thing.
A: You never want anything to be the exactly the same, you want to take in new influences and mix them into new stuff.
DJ: Of course. And I like the fact that I can just go and buy new stuff. Buy the one song that I like. As a DJ I’m super picky, I normally only like one or two songs anyways. [I say] I can probably figure out a way to fix it and incorporate it into my set, maybe only one song and maybe only twenty bars of that one song, because it’s all got to work and fit and work together. And I like the fact that I don’t have to drop 14 bones to only have, possibly, that minimal amount of music I can use. As a creator of content I definitely look as it all as one big piece and I like listening to albums like that.
A: I saw you on the Family Sign tour, which was shortly after Eyedea died, and I saw you in Berkeley and between sets you were coming out at spinning and some of the stuff that you spun was regional bay area hip hop and it was a lot less remixed than your set I just saw, which really drove everyone on the dance floor. How would you say your style has evolved?
DJ: Like I said, before Mikey had passed I didn’t really play by myself all that much. I was the producer and then I was the turntablist, so for a performance setting I played my beats then I would scratch. How I DJ’d then to how I DJ now is different. I basically have what I’m going to do [down] because everything is very quick. I play a lot of my own remixes with a lot of my own scratching. It’s work. It’s hours and hours and hours to figure out how every song works with every other thing… whereas back then it was a little bit more off the cuff. I realized, for better or for worse, that people who come to see me they really want to be wowed. I remember when I first started DJing that I would just kind of DJ. I’m gonna play some jams and people are going to rock out. And it wasn’t bad but I realize that people really wanted to be like “YO!” and they were like “Show me, I know you can do some crazy stuff”. That’s the E&A aspect. I was like, alright. [Chuckles]. You gotta be careful what you wish for. I still remember, it was in Deluth, I played one of my first solo shows in this time period. And I had a couple parts that were my favorite parts, and they went so well, and everything else was sort of ok. I remember the set being kind of underwhelming and I was like ‘ugh’ my whole set is going to be those parts which took me sooooo long.
DJ: At the end of the day I really love performing. I think that I will always create music on some level but the reason why I still do it professionally is that I really like performing. The interaction with the crowd, you saw it, it feels so good. It’s such a honest human experience. And the thing about it is you can’t buy it, you have to earn it. And I really like that a lot. Even when I have a show that’s not good [chuckles], it will bum me out a little, thankfully it doesn’t happen very frequently. I know I’m my own worst critic. There are times that I’m a little underprepared, or not headlining, or what I do doesn’t line up exactly as I would like, but me being a glass half full guy I look at that as a learning opportunity. Like “why didn’t that part work”. I feel like, sometimes, when [play to fans] there’s maybe some stuff isn’t as good as I think it is because they’re just happy to be there, that they give me a little bit [more]. It’s like playing your home crowd, you’re own field. Like the officials give you a few more calls because you’re the home team. [Chuckles].
A: There’s always more energy there.
DJ: But on the flip side sometimes it’s really awesome to play a crowd that doesn’t really know you because they’re like “what the fuck, who is this guy?”. Have you ever heard of the band OK Go?
A: Yeah, they have the crazy music videos.
DJ: Their bass player and their drummer started a side project, a production thing, at this club in Milwaukee. They headlined the show because OK Go was playing Summerfest… which is a huge festival in Milwaukee. I opened for them and [the guys] loved me but they didn’t know who I was. They saw me and they were like “this is nuts”. They stayed in touch, we became friends, and now they’re playing a big show in Chicago next week and I’m going to be direct support for them. It’s like, if I only did headlining shows I wouldn’t have that opportunity.
A: To just wow a crowd that has no idea who you are.
DJ: And wow a person too! You never even know who’s watching. Even though that show was a really good show, sometimes I play smaller shows. I remember I played a really small show in Philadelphia. I have a motto, ten or ten thousand, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes the smaller the better. You have to really be killing it to make a small crowd be really hype. If it’s packed, all you have to do is not fuck up because people are already happy to be there. It’s like some kind of human psyche thing. I don’t understand why it works that way, but it does. As long as it’s packed it’s going to go over well. But you have kind of a half empty room you’re not going to kill it unless you’re absolutely killing it. To get to my point, the article about that show came online somewhere and the opening line was “chances are you weren’t at that show… but you should have been.”
DJ: He went on to write me one of the best reviews I’ve ever had. It was very positive towards validating my approach to things. That kind of stuff happens all the time. You’ve always got to be open. First and foremost you should be creating art because you want to do it [not the] ulterior motive. Of course people want to have money, of course people want to make people happy, or get girls, or blah blah blah. But if you actually don’t enjoy the creation process itself then you shouldn’t do it. I still enjoy making music. I’m getting older, I like what I’ve done… I feel like I’ve done some significant things. And I can’t lie, there’s times where I’m like should I do something else? I feel like I’ve contributed. And I’m like, nah no, I still like making stuff. I still like to perform.
A: The most important thing is definitely that you’re creating something that you enjoy. You’re your harshest critic because you’re the one who is also going to deriving the most satisfaction from what you are doing.
DJ: You know what it comes down to, not to be cliche, but be real. [Chuckles]. If you’re making music or your painting or whatever, be real. Are you doing this for an actual purpose. Do you need to do this? Do you love doing this? Does this mean something to you? Does this have genuine meaning? And if it doesn’t just make room for someone who does care about it then. There’s too many artists to not have artists who really care about it and take it seriously. Of course you want to be popular. Of course you want to do bigger shows, but those things help motivate, it can’t be the basis. At least in my mind.
A: I want to talk about The World Has No Eyedea for a second. I messaged Brandon [the Director] on Facebook before he came to Austin trying to get him to come out here with the movie. He said that he had been bringing you and Carnage on tour with a lot of the stops it was making. When it finally came my tire blew out when I was driving over there so I arrived late and the theatre was so packed I couldn’t even sit! I had to stand in the back of the movie theatre. What’s the reception for that movie been like on stops that you made?
DJ: I think the reception has been very similar to your experience. People seem to really enjoy it. The ones that I’ve been part of people seem to really enjoy it but it’s been very bittersweet for me. I can’t speak for others obviously. I go onstage to perform and you just watched the movie and you’re pumped on this dude. You’re reminded how brilliant [Eyedea] was. I perform and you’re reminded he’s gone. Was there celebration was their positivity [about him]? Without question. But there’s also the cold hard reality of “oh yeah we can’t ever see this guy again. He’ll never create again.” So i feel like, in a way, it’s better when the movie was just playing on it’s own. It’s just about the movie and that’s all it is. Not that I didn’t enjoy the performances with the movie, especially in certain cities it did go over really well, but there always was this sadness. How could there not be?
A: When you put it that way, I feel sad right now… I know that you performed at Scribble Jam a few times. What happened to Scribble Jam? It seemed like a huge and important competition and it stopped.
DJ: I think what wound up happening with Scribble Jam, and again I’m not behind the scenes so I don’t definitively know, but no matter what anything will get redundant. When it first started [it was] emcee battles, DJ battles, all these different people. It’s ill. It got bigger and bigger, more people and different regions, it got iller and iller. I think it apexed and went into peaks and valleys. I think the logistics of putting the thing on, it’s so expensive! Putting those kind of things on is a giant headache. I have to imagine it wasn’t quite as exciting for the people who put it on. There was a certain level of, we’ve already done it. This has been done. I know they talked about bringing it back, and I think that bringing it back would work because it’s been gone so long. But I don’t put on those festivals, I don’t know what it entails. So… talk to Dibs.
A: Maybe someday, on a chance encounter. How old’s your kid? Has he seen you performing before?
DJ: Yeah, it’s cool. He actually got to see me at the Rhymesayers 20 Year in Minneapolis. Normally if you have twenty thousand or so people it’s at a festival. Usually those festivals are going to have a lot of different styles and acts to generate all those different people coming to them. The Rhymesayers 20 thing was really cool because it had a festival size but it all Rhymesayers acts. My son got to see me perform there, which was really cool because I’m not [normally] playing for twenty thousand people who particularly care what I’m doing. Most people don’t. That’s why it was so cool having that, because it was this cool sweet spot. It had this First Avenue show feeling, but it had the numbers of a festival. And usually there’s a tradeoff there, usually festivals they’re fun but not everyone is there for the same person
A: I feel like at a festival people play different material that at a show where they’re headlining.
DJ: Exactly, at least from my perspective, you’re playing stuff with more movement. We’re playing to people who haven’t heard of our music. You’re always going to do you, you’re never going to not be true to yourself, but if you have 40 songs you pick 10 that are more likely to work for these different kids so you can get new fans. They’re still your songs. But when you’re headlining show you can play deeper cuts, you can go a little more introspective or take a left turn because everybody knows what you’re doing or there’s a much greater probability that they’re gonna know the songs. Like E&A, when we performed at a festival, it would be waaaaay more upbeat we had most of our upbeat songs. Then we’d throw something in there like “Birth of a Fish” or heavy stuff because it’s inevitable that we are going to play some heavy songs but when we play headlining we could go way deeper because it was our fans.
A: That’s what they’re there to see.
DJ: They embrace the whole cattle. You gotta think if somebody has never heard you before what’s going to convince them to buy your record.
A: Especially because the stuff y’all made… it took me awhile to get into. It’s not the most accessible music.
DJ: No. And dude you gotta think of the whole psychology of a festival. It’s long. It’s hot. People are tired. You want to play stuff that’s gonna get people up a little bit. Prop em up a little bit because it’s so demanding. There’s a reason all those kids are like 16-22. Just to have the physical fortitude to stand that long and be in that heat and be in that mass of all those people. That’s why you don’t ever see 30+ year olds up in there.
A: Do you have any advice for people who are starting out?
DJ: Today’s day and age there’s so much music that really your best bet is making really really really good stuff. Now obviously the advice of “make a hit” is easier said than done. Just make a hit song everybody likes [haha]! But that is the best thing you can possibly do. I think the reality of the situation is that people making music, or any of those sought after professions: I’m an athlete, a doctor, a lawyer, a musician, stuff like that… the average person may not know how much it actually takes to do that. I think sometimes people, particularly with music, and with sports too [people underestimate the amount of time and energy it takes]. I think people get you have to go to school for a long time to become a doctor. But with athletics and music people have a tendency to belittle it because people are like “oh you’re hella talented, oh you can just run hella fast, oh melodies come out of nowhere.” NO! It’s not the case If you want to be a musician really the best advice I can give is work at it, over and over and over and over again. When you start working an extreme amount you start realizing how shitty your stuff actually is!
DJ: I’m serious. You only make beats once or twice a week you’ll be like this beat is hot! Because you’re not used to it and it is kind of hot. Cool. But if you’re making beats every single day and you’re sitting there for hours on end you’ll [take the same song] and be like this isn’t good enough. I feel like you go to the gym, you go to the gym once a week and hit the treadmill for twenty minutes you’ll be like “whooo that was a good workout” but what are you talking about! You’re not even remotely close to in shape! But to the person who is not in shape it feels good! Nah nah. You have to really fine tune yourself. If I haven’t made music in a while, let’s say I’m on the road and I come back, it usually takes me a little while before I even make something that’s good. It’s like I have to get my shitty ideas out first. All this crap that I’m just like, get this out of the way, all your frustrations and why isn’t it working! You just have to get realigned with the sheer amount of hours it’s gonna take. You just have to sit there for hours like “here it goes”. Here’s what I’m doing today. And you might come up with one thing, one little baby thing. Some days it will be a lot of things. Just to even recognize that it’s not gonna come right away. Like now, hey maybe I made that beat in like 10 minutes. But how many other days have I made nothing, or only found like a good snare sample or something.
DJ: Another thing that I say too: I’m a big exercise guy and I’m a big health guy. Music isn’t just like carpentry, where after eight hours you’re going to have eight hours worth of tables. It’s inspiration based. I realize, not only do I need to put in the time, which was obviously very important, but I want that time to be valuable time. If I am healthy and I am clear and I am in a good mood and my apartment is clean I can just zone in. Chances are that time, two hours of that time is going to be better than eight hours of being flustered or doing this half asleep. You know what I mean? Find your sweet spot. That’s different for everybody. Some people like to get high and make music. I’ve gone through phases where I’m like that and it’s been good for me and then sometimes it wasn’t. I mean drinking, I made the basis of Smile when I was drunk on Jack Daniels! That doesn’t mean I should get drunk every time I make beats. The point is, we should be focusing on the work thing. You have to have that strong foundation if you’re gonna have that chance. My biggest advice is gonna be work harder than you think you need to. Another thing that will happen if you start working on your craft a lot is that other things will start to become more clean. I’ll be like, oh maybe I should work with this person. Or I should try to get a show here. You just become more serious and more clear. It’s taking so much more of your life that it means more.
A: You said earlier that working creatively requires inspiration But I feel like a lot of times people just sit around and wait for inspiration.
DJ: Exactly. And there’s this saying, inspiration comes but it has to find you when you’re at work. For me, I’ve noticed that when I get up, I exercise, everything’s taken care of, I eat, that I feel very calm. Everything is in order. When my life becomes like a blank canvas than I feel like I am usually creating good stuff. I’m not carrying around any type of baggage and I feel good and I feel nourished. But that works for me! Some people probably thrive on anger!
A: On a strong emotional state.
DJ: That’s my specific advice, and I think that’s why I tried to pull it back a little. You just have to work. I don’t want somebody to do what I do and be like – oh that didn’t work. Don’t necessarily do what I do but one thing you have to do is flat out put the time in. If you don’t then it will never come, unless you wind up hitting some crazy viral thing. You make something that’s real clever and boom! Good for you. I feel like a hobbiest could make a hit, I’m sure it’s happened.
A: Probably more and more with the way the internet works.
DJ: But will those people keep making hits? No. They’re not going to stay around. If you want to be a legitimate artist then you need to create art. At the beginning of this interview, you said to me, you look at me as somebody who creates art. If I was just a hobbiest and I made one song that you like in the summer of your senior year of high school then you wouldn’t look at me in the same way.
A: It wouldn’t have the same impact and power. Having a large body of very well produced work is going to be a lot more likely to create emotional states in people, especially when they need something specific.
DJ: It comes down to what are you looking for. For me, I like THAT. You know? More power to people with whatever they want to do. The last thing I want to be like is, that’s right and that’s wrong. Blah blah blah. All I can say is what works for me, what’s worked for me, and how I like to look at it.
A: My last question is just something I haven’t been able to find out on the Internet, which is more of just a personal question for me, what did Eyedea overdose on?
DJ: He didn’t actually overdose. People think that he died from drugs but he didn’t. He just died in his sleep. That’s what Kathy tells me and I don’t see why she’d be lying to me. The reality of the situation is, he did do drugs, so I think that it had a hand in it. I think if he was super healthy he wouldn’t have passed away in his sleep the way that he did, but he didn’t definitely overdose, which I think a lot of people think is the case.
A: Just having a weakened body from doing drugs, not taking a huge dose.
A: I do want to say that you told me about your mixes and I checked one out, I think it’s called, Now That’s What I Call Fuck Off. I thought it was dope.
DJ: You’ve got to check out the Blends though, the Blends is the newer one.
A: I’ll check it out. I thought the last one was great. I really, really appreciate you taking the time out today to come and talk to me.
DJ: Yeah no problem.
Check out both of his mixes here.