DJ Enki: Break It Down

Posted on 03 Aug 14 Mixes, What's Goin' On? | No Comments
beak it down cover

DJ Enki of the Oakland Faders has long been one of the more respected DJs in the Bay Area. His emphasis on the original aspects of DJing and his facility with actual vinyl are two of the many reasons he stands out in today’s scene. 

In addition to being a founder and original resident at The 45 Sessions and a great amount of production work, Enki releases some pretty mind blowing mixes as well. We caught up for a short interview about Break It Down, an amazing sonic voyage that is remarkably reminiscent of the music that is constantly floating through my mind subconsciously. Check out the mix itself on Mixcrate and read the interview below for more insight.

What was the process of making this? How long did it take??

It definitely took me a while–it was a serious labor of love. I like to have my mixes more or less planned out before I Vinyl recordsstart recording them, and the planning stage took much longer than usual…several months, I think. And then the recording/editing process took another few months. I think I spent a good 6 months on it, all told, maybe even more.

For the planning part, I started off with some self-imposed rules. First of all, strictly OG vinyl—no reissues, no comps, none of that. That’s that digger mentality and wanting to flex your crates. Second of all, nothing that was on Ultimate Breaks & Beats or had otherwise been repeatedly reissued. Third of all, steer clear of well-known samples. Of course, I kind of broke that last rule with the very first break on the mix because Kanye has sampled those drums to death. And there are a few things on there that I knew had been sampled: There’s a loop on there that my man DJ Zeph put me up on because he had used it on the Zeph & Azeem Rise Up album, so I put it in the mix as sort of a shoutout to Zeph, I have a drum loop on there that Muggs has used, and I do scratch the horn riff that Stezo used for “Getting Paid.” But in the big picture, I didn’t want this to be a known-samples mix, I wanted it to be lesser-exposed material.

I also didn’t want this to be a typical breaks mix where you cut up two copies of a break, then cut up two copies of another break, then another, and so on so it’s just one break at a time and you kind of jump from one to the next. I wanted this to be more fluid, more intricate, and more reflective of the kind of loop-stacking mentality that my own beatmaking is based on. And I felt like this would make for a better listening experience, too: Instead of abrupt transitions, it would constantly have elements coming and going so the music and the grooves are shifting and changing but in a way that kept listeners engaged instead of jerking them around.

Once I had the rules and the concept in place, I just started going through breaks, cataloging them, and then grouping them based on similar BPMs. Then I could start putting them together. In some cases, I already knew that this break and that break would go together well, but there was also plenty of experimentation, taking a couple breaks that were close together tempo-wise and seeing if they worked well together. I spent a lot of time doing that, finding those good combinations where the rhythms complemented each other. And I would just build from there—get a good combination, then see how I could move from that combination to the next combination by gradually dropping out elements and bringing in new ones. I wanted things to progress and kind of morph in a smooth, natural way, and I wanted the music to be constantly evolving instead of just jumping from one loop/stack of loops to the next without having something tying them together. And it was definitely a challenge figuring out how to arrange everything and deciding which elements would come in and go out when so that I could get from combination to combination in a way that made sense and wasn’t too abrupt.

As far as construction goes, the one big rule I had was that I wanted to stay away from chopping as much as I possibly could. I wanted to strictly loop things (or, in the case of the longer breaks, just let them play from beginning to end) without rearranging them. There are two or three places where I did some very subtle chopping in order to create a loop that didn’t really exist on the record, but other than that, the whole thing is straight-up loops.  Obviously, as I was stacking the loops up, I might nudge the snare in loop A over a bit so that it locked up with the snare in loop B, but I didn’t really get into reprogramming things because I felt like that would be a whole different kind of recording, more of a production showcase or a beat tape than a mix.

You mention in the notes that all the tunes & breaks are taken from the original pressings of the vinyl. How difficult was it to find original pressings of all these tunes? Are there a few tunes that you searched for for years?

Well, I didn’t really go seek out specific breaks for the mix, like “Oh, I should get such-and-such break on there, lemme go try to find that record.” It was pretty much just using what I already had (though the whole time I was making it, I was still digging, so I would incorporate stuff I was finding with things already in my collection). I’ve been digging for a long time, so I’ve built up a pretty good arsenal of breaks and samples over the years, and some of the stuff on there was definitely tough to find, though there’s a fair amount of straight-up dollar bin stuff on there as well. And a bunch of the breaks I have I didn’t know about until I actually bought the record—you know, something looks interesting while you’re digging, so you take a chance on it, and it turns out to have a nice break on it.

I know I inherited my addiction to vinyl from my father (luckily I got his jazz collection, too). When did you get bit by the vinyl bug?

Not until I started DJing, really, which was around 1994. Neither of my parents had a record collection to speak of. I had bought some records when I was a kid, but I very quickly moved on to buying tapes, mostly so I could play them in my Walkman and have music with me at all times. But DJing requires digging (or at least it did back then), and I very quickly threw myself into that. A great DJ needs a great arsenal, right? And I just went wild with the whole concept of finding something I’d never heard before, constantly looking for that next thing that was gonna blow my mind. It’s a real thrill.

Since you’re clearly an accomplished digger, do you have a few favorite spots to find the good stuff?

Groove Merchant in SF is legendary around the world for having the good stuff, but a boutique shop like that is sort of its own thing and not really “digging.” Cool Chris does all the legwork for you; all you have to do is walk in the store, and he’ll have ridiculous heat sitting there waiting for you—you don’t have to flip through rack after rack to find something good. Groove Merchant provides a tremendous service, and I’m definitely in there on the regular. And right down the street from Groove Merchant is Rooky Ricardo’s, and that place has been very good to me over the years as far as digging goes. And of course, whenever I’m traveling, I keep an eye out for flea markets, thrift stores, yard sales, whatever. You never know where your next come-up is going to happen.

I was listening to the mix in my office after school, and four junior high girls start dancing and saying that it “slap.” What is it about these breaks that is so timeless?

First of all, I think it is incredibly cool that junior-high girls are dancing to this mix and calling it the slap. I never would’ve thought that this mix would appeal to junior-high girls at all, but I guess it’s like you say: These breaks are timeless. And I’m really not sure what it is about them that makes them timeless. Maybe it’s the way they’re played, maybe it’s the way they’re recorded, maybe it’s the fact that I looped them up (a lot of times music takes on a different feel if it’s looped). It’s really hard to say what, exactly, makes them so timeless, but they all move me in some way. Sometimes I’ll find a record with some open drums or something, but they just don’t move me. It’s like, “OK, here’s a break, but…meh.” If it has good sounds, good playing, good rhythm, it’s going to move me. And that’s the biggest key right there. I wish I could say definitively what it is that makes them timeless so that I could help make more of them!

Hip hop has moved away from using breaks as samples because of their price and the difficulty of getting samples cleared. Beyond the basic beat making, do you think this move away from samples has changed hip hop?

It’s definitely changed hip-hop. Today’s aesthetic is much more pristine-clean, shiny, and drum-machiney, which sounds cold and a bit sterile to me for the most part. There are times when people really freak a sample and mix it with drum machine sounds and do it really well (the way Bangladesh flipped the Harry Belafonte sample for Li’l Wayne’s “6 Foot 7 Foot” is really fresh), and in the hands of a genius like Mannie Fresh, keyboard sounds and stock drum machine sounds can be used to make incredible things. There’s definitely good stuff out there in this clean, polished aesthetic, but generally speaking, I prefer samples, grit, dirt, that rugged and raw sound, all of that

Large ProfessorAnd beyond just the sound difference of sampled vinyl vs. keyboards, I feel like the move away from samples reflects a change the outlook of hip-hop. I remember a Large Professor quote where he referred to the “bandito mentality” that was prevalent back in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. It was that whole B-boy element–it’s renegade, underground, and all about taking these bits and piece of discarded music and making something great out of them. Hip-hop isn’t quite so rebellious these days because it’s a much, much bigger money maker now than it was back then, and like you say, sample clearance has become a big financial issue. When hip-hop wasn’t such a money-maker and people didn’t really look at sample clearance as a revenue stream, producers could throw as many samples as they wanted into a song and not really worry about it. But the parameters are different these days, and after those first few big sample-clearance lawsuits, people started stripping down their sound (and their song arrangements, it’s worth mentioning), using fewer samples per song, doing sample replays, and even moving away from sampling altogether so they didn’t have to deal with the cost and the hassle of clearance. Correlation is not causation, of course, but it does seem like heavy-duty sampling fell out of favor a bit as hip-hop expanded into the mainstream. But that’s just the mainstream. There’s still a vibrant underground that couldn’t care less about that stuff and just does its own thing–that’s where you can still find that bandito mentality Large Professor was talking about, still being expressed in tons of different ways.

DJing has also moved from digging for vinyl to downloading MP3s. Has this had any positive effect or has it simply flooded the market with DJs who haven’t earned their stripes?

It’s had some positive effect–putting a hard-to-find track in the hands of a talented, skilled DJ who might not have otherwise gotten it is a great thing. And it is cool to be able to bring thousands of songs with you to a gig so you’re prepared for anything. But even that has a flip side: I’ve talked with a bunch of DJs who say that having 10,000 songs can be overwhelming so they find themselves kind of retreating to the same few songs. Like, you’ve got so many options that it just overloads your brain and you go with those few safe things you already know.

But by far the biggest negative is just like you said: The market is flooded with DJs who haven’t earned their stripes. There’s little to no dues-paying anymore. You don’t have to spend the time learning the craft and amassing you collection. You can just get Serato, download a bunch of popular MP3s, and you’re set. It’s even getting to the point where using turntables at all is considered antiquated. It’s unfortunate.

You have a great opportunity to play some of these classics at your monthly residency at the 45 Sessions—what is your favorite event or type of event to play?

My favorite type of event is one in which I have some real freedom to play what I want to play, which is to say the freedom to play “old music,” whether that’s funk, older hip-hop, breaks, whatever. I absolutely love that, and I get to do that at the 45 Sessions, which is why it’s easily my favorite gig these days.

I’m not as clubby as I used to be because I find the typical club a bit constricting–people want to hear what they already know, and if you deviate from that, then they get upset. Plus, I’m about to turn 36, and the typical clubgoer is not my age, but is a good 10 years younger than me, so we have very different frames of reference as far as music goes. The club is largely a young man’s game, and I’m not a young man anymore. But I do still play some club gigs, and I find ways to fit in regardless. At these electronic music events, for example, I can get over by playing Miami bass, older Baltimore club, and classic electro stuff, cutting it up, doing live blends, scratching, all of that. So I set myself apart, I still get to do what I like to do, but I’m giving the crowds the tempos, the energy, and the low-end they want to hear, so it works out well.

Lastly, the extra nerdy question: What kind of equipment do you have in your studio, and what did you use to record this mix?

I always love the nerdy questions. As you’ve probably noticed, I’m much more old-school than futuristic in my sp1200 frontsensibility, and my studio is the same way. I use an old version of Pro Tools–6.4 LE (I think they’re up to Pro Tools 9 now, but I’m riding 6.4 until the wheels fall off!)–and I have the greatest sampler of all time, the SP1200. And I have my record collection. That’s it. Everything I make beatwise is made out of records–I don’t own any keyboards or anything like that. For this mix, I did the whole thing in Pro Tools–all recording and arranging.

There’s somewhere between 150 and 200 breaks on the mix; some of the stuff on there is secret squirrels I don’t want to give up, and some of the stuff I forget the name of, quite frankly. But I’ve been asked about that very first drumbeat a couple times–it’s “Doggone” by Love–and so that I give you an even 10 names, here are nine more: “Getting Down” by Eugene Blacknell, “Overtime” by Roger Glenn, “Tomorrow’s People” by McDonald & Giles, “Rainmaker” by Tipton, “Funky, But?” by the Howard Roberts Orchestra, “Dead” by Carolyn Sullivan, “Spinning Wheel” by Peggy Lee, “Handy Man” by The Commotions, and “Raindance” by Electric Indian.

As for upcoming gigs, I definitely have to plug the 45 Sessions, happening the third Friday of every month at the Legionnaire Saloon in Oakland. Like I said, it’s my favorite gig these days because it’s nothing but good music–and if it ain’t on a 45, it ain’t getting played.