Best known for his roles in hip-hop group Dilated Peoples and the world-champion DJ crew Beat Junkies, DJ Babu has lately been busy crafting his newest album, Duck Season 4. Winning various DJ battles like Vestax World Championships early in his career, and releasing ground-breaking albums like 1996's Super Duck Breaks, his talents transcend the rapidly shifting technological landscape. Babu recently spoke with All Shook Down about whether beat battles are still alive, his initial skepticism about Serato, and his thoughts on the issue of digital versus vinyl. He'll be playing at Eve Lounge this Friday in a surprise performance alongside local DJs Cutso, The Whooligan, and ThatGirl.
You used to be a prominent figure in the world of DJ battles. What was one of your most memorable contests?
It must have been for the ITF (International Turntablist Federation) world championships. I won two individual categories, and my crew took the team category. It was just me and my Beat Junkies crew on top of the world, and next year we defended our title and won it in Amsterdam. Those are my glory days. But it's not even about the battle -- sometimes it's just being on the same stage with my brother Roc Raida, or being able to rub shoulders with these great DJs I've looked up to ... and become friends with. The whole explosion of turntablism in the early and mid '90s was just priceless. I'm so blessed to have dropped in the DJ timeline when I did.
Why do DJ battles seem more of a thing of a past these days? There seems to be an absence of it compared to the '90s.
It's really alive and well, but I think after that explosion in the '90s, DJing hit a lull. There's only so much you can do, going behind your back and spinning around as fast as you can, and it just got a bit played out. But then the X-Men and Qbert came around, and set a whole new level of technical skill that could be achieved. Then it spread like wildfire on the Internet, and then we OD'd again. It was too accessible, and there were too many "how-to" videos. But ultimately, I think it's alive again. It's starting to be more interesting because people are infusing all these new technologies into the DJ battle. It started with a small handful of us really armed with cutting-edge stuff. After it filtered down, all the tools were available to the next generation, and all the DJs got really high. But then there was a huge sea of mediocrity. Not to say they weren't good, but it was just like, everybody was good. At the time when the Junkies and X-men were doing it, we were doing it with these techniques that no one could figure out. As time evolved, the bar and level got raised again. With the flood of turntablism and DJing in the media, battles just became less of a big deal. They are still alive and well, though. I think it's just where the media tends to focus. It all comes in cycles.
Now when you make mixtapes and albums, do you mostly use digital tracks or go with vinyl samples?
When I'm going out and DJing, I'm playing off a laptop for practicality. As far as in the studio, I'm still playing music that's recorded from my record collection. It's a constant work in process digitizing everything you own. As far as making music goes, my style has always been a DJ that makes beats. It still starts with a record and a turntable, and my idea coming from a piece of vinyl. It's like mosaic art; I'm taking bits and pieces from everywhere. Right now, I don't want to limit myself to vinyl. My whole house is recorded to be sampled at any time, whether it is the TV or the radio. It's more the mentality I'm bent on. My vinyl is an addiction and a lifestyle.
I heard you were originally skeptical about the use of Serato. What shifted your opinion?
We've been working with the company that makes Serato, Rane, for years. I think just with any medium, everyone was skeptical of things going from analog to digital. It's also like word processing, starting with the typewriter and going to the computer. It's the same thing with DJing. The Serato people were really genius to make an interface with records and needles. I don't think it was so much me being skeptical of the software or concept, I was more worried about the message I was sending other DJs. When I first played Serato, I would still bring a big crate of records and maybe I'd play 75 percent vinyl and 25 percent digital. I knew it would take over sooner or later. As time passed, it became 50/50, and four years later I feel really comfortable bringing a small stack of vinyl and playing mostly digital. I mean, Serato is not going to tell you what to play next or scratch the song in for you.
After 15 plus years of playing, I embrace everything that's made for my craft. It just seemed like yesterday when everything we did was makeshift and hand-me-down. Now we have Serato, Pro Tools, and Ableton Live. As a DJ, it's part of my job to stay atop of all this technology.
When you first started out your career, there was a slower progression of music coming out. These days, it seems like there's a ton of new tracks to listen to daily. Do you listen to music with the same ear as earlier in your career?
Not at all, but it's funny you ask that, because I've hit a point in my career where I'm trying to use to the ears I had when I was 11 or 12 years old. Even now, I've hit a certain point where I can't hear music without analyzing the shit out of it. I'm caught up in the dogma of making music and losing that essence of hearing something and liking it. That went out the door for a few years, when I was trying to capture my sound as an artist and refining my taste as a DJ. I'm 37 years old and 15 years into my career; I'm back to hearing music move me. I'm throwing the categories and boxes out of there. I'm really just listening to music that's good to my heart and soul. It's almost as if I have had to retrain myself. I can put on those technical ears if I have to, but I've also learned to put on the other ears and just be moved by the song, lyrics, and instrumentation. I've gotten to the point where I think I'm at a good medium again, where I'm half a fan and half a professional ... and it's going to show in my next album.
On The Beat Tape series, you have short tracks that are just one to two minutes, rounding out the tape with 30 or 40 tracks in total. Is it easier for you to get the music across that way?
I think that's the whole point. I already feel like I'm putting myself in a position where I'm making it hard to compete, because it is an instrumental album. First of all, you'll be like, "Goddamn, he has 30-40 tracks on there." You add on top of that how there is no lyrics and dialogue happening. It's part of an experience to me. I don't want to hear a song for four minutes if I can get the idea across in one minute. Part of the message of these instrumental albums is that I want people to listen from the beginning to the end, from the transitions to the interludes. In this day and age, where people are just picking and choosing their favorite one or two tracks off iTunes, it's definitely something that could go over other people's heads. My instrumental series is my calling card to show people my range of production. My whole point of those albums is to give people 60-70 minutes of incredible music and keep it exciting and fresh. But with my Duck Season albums, that's where you can hear a lot of traditional tracks with hooks, MCs, and scratching.
Each of your releases reflects your devotion and knowledge of hip-hop. Do you ever see yourself sampling a house or techno beat in the near future?
As far as my source material goes, I'm limitless. On my newest instrumental I'm sampling Hall and Oates, which would have been taboo a few years ago. I'm not necessarily trying to be Top 40 and make a hit record. If I get there doing what I do, then awesome. I want to make hip-hop. I am interested in dance music just because I'm a DJ, and I want to make people move and dance. But I have to admit, as far as my production goes, I'm still trying to be the next DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Dilla, or whoever you want to call it. I'm trying to carry that torch.
What have you been working on lately?
As of right now, I'm working on my new album, Duck Season 4. It should be coming out the first quarter of 2012. On the grander scheme of things, my group, Dilated Peoples, wanted to get solo things off our chest. Next year you'll finally see the new Dilated record. It's on me right now to finish my part of our promise to ourselves. But I'm always DJing and making beats; it's always one big happy mess to me. I'm blessed and busy, and always working on everything and nothing at the same time.