The Eternal Optimist: An Interview With DJ Abilities

DJ Abilities

I like to think of hip hop in religious terms–how the ancient Greeks might have viewed it–with each of its pillars having their own deity and accompanying throng. A god for the B-Boys with a pair of heavenly Air Force Ones.  A god for the Graffitos, yawning aerosol at the cathedral walls. If in the beginning of turntablism there was the record, DJ Kool Herc reached from the Bronx’s Sistine and found its break. Our Fathers Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizzard Theodore followed by moving mountains with the scratch. Of those left we have our patron saints, the true of heart who carry tradition and strive for perfection through our modern desert of indifference.

When I refer to Gregory Keltgen AKA DJ Abilities as a patron saint of turntablism, he laughs in his infectious, good-humored way. “It’s not something I think about,” says the Minnesota-born DJ, whose mythic ability to speak through turntables has earned him accolades and the respect of his peers since the age of 17. Known primarily as the production half of Eyedea and Abilities, one of underground hip hop’s most dynamic acts, he along with childhood friend and partner Michael Larsen produced some of the genre’s most endearing and creative classics.

Completing their raw, philosophical debut First Born in their early 20’s for Rhymesayers Entertainment, the duo’s skills and confidence went supernova on 2003’s follow-up E&A, where the classic interaction between MC and DJ took on a modern and bullying sense of flare that gave unquestionable credence to the album’s boasts of being the “Kingpin bigshots of this underground shit.” Steering into more experimental terrain with 2009’s By The Throat, tragedy befell the group and the entire hip hop community shortly after the album’s release when Larsen died in his sleep of an accidental drug overdose. Since then, Abilities has had a lot more to think about then his place in hip hop’s mythology–mourning the death of a friend, taking on the responsibility of fatherhood, and learning to make music and tour solo for the very first time.

Catching him by phone one afternoon while preparing for his upcoming tour with rapper/producers Jel, Sole, and Serengeti (coming to the High Noon Saloon on Friday, September 20), I was surprised to find a vinyl idol in repose, speaking at length without his hands.

I read awhile back that a collaboration between you and Jel was in the works. Now that you’re touring with each other, has there been any more talk about it? Is it still in the works?

It is, but it’s one of those things where it’s difficult because we don’t live in the same city. I feel like if we lived in the same city, or even close enough to drive back and forth to collaborate more frequently, then it’d be much more likely to see the light of day. When Jel came out here [to Minnesota] for three days, we knocked out all kinds of stuff. We worked from morning ‘til night. Our chemistry is there, and we were making really cool stuff that we’re both excited about. But being able to sit in the same room to just do it…I’ve definitely thought about creating a Kickstarter or something, just because it would tie our hands to the project, you know what I’m saying? People would give us the money so that we could fly back and forth to get whatever equipment we needed, and because these people are funding us, we’d have to do it. But we just haven’t been able to delve into it. Jel’s been trying to finish up his own record–which he just did–and that’s what this tour is promoting. And I’m just finishing up my new mix, which should be done any week now. I have the last little bits but I’m totally procrastinating. [laughs] I feel like later in the tour, around November or so, that collaboration is something that’s going to take care of itself. We’re either gonna be live and really hard, and it’s gonna be dope and we’ll set the plan; or it’ll just be like, “You’re doing your thing, I’m doing mine. The timing isn’t right, so maybe another day.

I’ve been fortunate to talk to a lot of artists who’ve either known or collaborated with you, and they all describe you as someone who likes to get in the studio and stay there while the music evolves. You “live it” in a sense. Is that still true?

Yeah, I don’t like sending files. I think it’s awesome that people are capable of doing that nowadays, where you can send me something to listen to and work on and then I’ll send it back. In theory it’s awesome, and kudos to anyone who can do it. But I don’t like it. It feels like homework to me. Basically, if I’m going to sit here by myself and make music, then I’m going to make music for myself and it’s going to be my album. To me, what makes the process of working with someone exciting is being in the room with them. You come up with things that you’d never come up with otherwise. It’s an enjoyable process. That’s why I feel it’s imperative that you like the person you’re working with. It brings something out of you. So for me, working with someone and not doing it in the same room with a collaborative vibe is taking something away from the art of it. Especially if you’re making music from the ground up. That’s how I like to work the most. That’s not to say that in the future I won’t make beats and send them off to people to rhyme on. But going back to the three days with Jel, there were so many things that would not have happened had we not been in the same room. Probably the majority of it, realistically. I just enjoy the process. I’m not really someone who goes out very often, a bar person or what not. I like to exercise and work on music. I’m a homebody in a lot of ways. When I go on tour is when I go out. So I like a social aspect when I’m making music.

Not to mention the wait you have to endure with a long-distance collaboration. It sorta screws with that initial spark that all artists are trying to catch and hold onto.

It is. When it comes to making music, if you’re going to do it by yourself, why not do it by yourself? Outside of working with lyricists, that is. That works a little differently. The music is basically done, you send it off, and I can’t collaborate with what an MC is going to write. Me and Mikey [Larsen] kind of did that. We were kind of a hybrid. The music would be done, but we would collaborate on it, and then he’d do some layering by himself and vice versa, where I’d suggest he try a particular cadence. Our relationship was very unique, and I don’t see myself ever having a relationship with a vocalist quite like that again. That came from growing up together since we were sixteen and sharing all these memories, and those are the kinds of things that you just can’t recreate. That’s not to say I won’t have a great relationship with another vocalist, but it’ll never be like that one.

Eyedea himself was actually the one who told me about your studio habits. He said that people always gave him crap for being a workhorse and branching out to try new things, and then when I asked how that translated to his work with you, he stopped cold and said: “Bro–I’m the one who has to tell him to stop! Otherwise we’d never get anything released!”

[Laughs] It’s true. I’m a victim of possibility. I’ve learned I have to limit myself, otherwise I’ll be like, “Well, let’s go here! Let’s take it there!” Like “Junk” for example [off of By The Throat]. “Junk” had this huge bridge in the middle where the bass dropped, and it was sick, really really sick. But it started evolving into this whole different thing. And to Mike I’d be like, “It’s changing!” and start to play with it more. And he’d be like, “Yeah, it’s cool, but we already have the song and it’s dope the way it is.” So that’s why I’ve started to try and rein my mind in where I think I can make things better. Because I’m very very picky. I’m stupid picky. So now I just ask myself: “Does this work?” not “Can I make this better?” or whatever. “Does this work?” If I don’t think it works, then it’s terrible. Not to say I’m fine with bullshit, but if it does work, then it’s good enough. I have such high standards, so I get caught in these places where I’m like, “Well, let me try this here…let me try…” I’d keep going and going and never finish anything. That method is something to use after the initial stages of creation. Get to the meat and potatoes of it, get to the point of the song, and then you can add all the extra stuff. But at some point, you don’t need to describe the room anymore. No more character development is needed.

That sounds like the artist’s eternal struggle. You work on something and then five or ten years later you look back and always wish you’d done things differently.

But you know what? I don’t feel that way that often. Not to say my stuff is super great or anything like that, but through the maturity of my stuff, I look back at my work and think that’s how it should be. Maybe it’s a “C”, grade wise, but I don’t think about how it could have become an “A.” I see it as a “C.” This is somewhat related, but that’s the reason why I’ve never done remixes of Eyedea and Abilities stuff, because I can’t even think about how to approach it differently. Which is also hard when I try incorporating E&A stuff into my live set, because if you’ve been to one of my shows, I play really fast, and I stack stuff. It’s almost like pixels in a way. I’m using a lot of fast, little pixels to create something bigger. Like you know those Bob Marley posters where you look close and you see its made up of a bunch of little pictures of Bob Marley? I can dissect other people’s songs and string it together, but with me and Eyedea’s stuff, I can’t do it. I like it the way it is! I can’t even think of it in terms of not being how it is. It’d feel wrong. I use some of the instrumental stuff sometimes, but it still feels wrong.

I think that’s a fairly healthy place to be, to look back at your work and appreciate it for what it is. I remember an interview with Incubus where an audience member brought up their first album Fungus Amungus, and they all got embarrassed and said something along the lines of re-listening to the album was like looking at a drawing they did when they were in pre-school.

You know what it is though, dude? So much of life–and I’m even going to expand this to all of life–is this question: Do you want to be a pessimist or an optimist? I could look at old stuff and be like,  “Aw, man, there’s definitely stuff that could have been done differently.”  Particularly when I look at First Born stuff, where Eyedea and I were sixteen when we made it. That’s pretty damn young to be putting out records when you hadn’t been making music for very long. I can hear the simplicity in those tracks, but instead of sitting here thinking to myself “This is too simple, I should have done more of this or that,” I can also hear the reason why people dig it so much, which is because it is simple and clear. The feeling of it, it sounds like what it is. There is no best in my mind. There’s no way to say at 35 you’re the best, or at 18 you’re the best. Every age range and genre has an angle that it’s best at, and the key is to maximize that. Not to pick on people, but if you have these older women who desperately want to be young, you want to just tell them, “You’re not young anymore! You look foolish!” Just work out and maximize what it’s like to be an elegant, 45-year-old woman or something. [laughs] A very odd metaphor, but do you know what I’m saying?

I live in California now, so yes, it’s something I’m aware of.

It’s hideous! Because not only does it look bad, but people begin to not even look human anymore. Worse than the physical aspect of it is the mental aspect of it. It’s like, not only do you just look fucked up because you look fucked up, but your spirit is corrupt. That goes for men, women, whatever. I shouldn’t be joking like this, but this has made me keep thinking about back when I was 20, and I just feel much more aware, self-confident and overall happy now. I’m sorry, I’m going all over the place here. [laughs]

Bastardized remixes are in a sense the music version of plastic surgery gone wrong. What was that Michael Jackson remix album that came out a few years ago, where people like Kanye West and will.i.am just molested his catologue? It’s like, what was the point?

There has to be a point! It’s like, why would I ever listen to this remix as opposed to the original version? It has to have something about it that makes you want to listen to the remix rather than the original version. This is funny, because I was actually talking to a friend of mine about remixes just last week, and we both agreed: you have to SMASH it! Otherwise, what’s the point of having a lesser song than the original? And even then, it has to be different. Those are the best remixes to me. Take a stand and make it something no one would have thought of. Take an aggressive song and turn it into a party song. At least change the feel of it. That’s the Mash-Up Theory, where you can take two things and realize, “Wow, these sound dope together. Who would have thought?” But it’s tricky.

I think another cardinal sin an artist or producer can make is to not only butcher the music of a song with a bad remix, but to then overlay a horrible remixed verse over a classic song. Case in point: Lil Wayne, a repeat offender of this, has a remix on his new Dedication 5 mixtape where he uses “C.R.E.A.M.” to debut some of his newest similes describing cunnilingus.

Wait the fuck up! Are you talking about “C.R.E.A.M.” the Wu-Tang “C.R.E.A.M.” or the band Cream?

Wu-Tang!

[Long period of laughter] That’s so funny, though. But see! This is me being an optimist again! I had another argument with my friend the other day, and my friend is an insanely talented producer, so I take his opinions very seriously. But he doesn’t like Prince! And I’m just like, “What do you mean you don’t like Prince?” He doesn’t like that Prince has an ego. And I was like, Okay, okay, but take it for what it is. Like this Lil’ Wayne thing you just told me about. That’s funny to me. In a way, I’m happy that’s happening because it’s fucking hilarious! It’s a better attitude to have than sitting here and bitching about how terrible it is and asking how someone could disgrace a Wu-Tang song. Whereas I’m grateful for the entertainment because there’s absolutely no way that it’s good! [laughs] I mean, I haven’t heard it, so I don’t know if it’s good…

It’s not.

But damn does that sound entertaining. And Prince to me is a little different. Because when he came out, he was the original Diva Dude, you know? He had an angle. And the fact that he made his name into a symbol and shit? It’s interesting to me. I think his persona is interesting, and I think he’s got the talent to back it up. And he’s got the originality! It’s not like he came out yesterday. He crafted that lane! His name is Prince! He’d go up to people and say, “I’m Prince!” [laughs] So his style and the way he approaches things, I let it go, because I just don’t take it seriously. There’s too many variables in people’s personalities to use that to judge someone’s music. I try not to delve too much into people’s personal politics. Unless they’re just straight up evil. But that’s something else, I guess.

I follow what I call the B-Movie Principle. Despite the production value of any work of art, no matter how aesthetically bad something might be, if it’s entertaining then there’s no reason to get mad about it.

You definitely don’t need to be pissed about it. What I’m getting at is that art and music, in a sense, is luxury. You shouldn’t get mad at something like that when there’s real tragedy going on in the world. When I became a father, it really changed my perspective of myself as DJ Abilities. I didn’t care nearly as much about it anymore, because the persona was just a manifestation of myself. I didn’t need to do it because I could do something else like be a father and be just as happy. I prefer this style the best, and definitely am a creative person, but there are more important things to get caught up in than the blah blah blah of getting upset about music. It’s putting too much weight on something that isn’t even in your immediate surroundings. “I hate this song, I love this song.” You don’t even know that person! You have more connection to these external things than you do to your actual friends and family! It’s almost recreational in a sense.

I’m thinking here about the worldwide attention to Miley Cyrus.

Exactly! It’s like…who…why…does anyone give a shit about that? It serves no purpose. If you’re going to choose to get upset, there’s a lot better things to get upset about. If you really want to embrace the dark side of anger, at least funnel that shit to something worthwhile. Shoot an arrow! How about war? How about child molestation?

“This is Katie Couric, with more on Syria after a special report on Miley Cyrus twerking.”

Anyways, I’m trying to stay positive. I’m trying to create stuff for people that will enhance their lives. That’s the whole point of the show–to be enjoyable. You leave, and you’re like, “Damn, that was fresh!” It’s like a Pay It Forward kind of thing. You leave, now you’re in a good mood. You wake up feeling good, you’re good to your friends. That’s the purpose of my show–to be creative and create movement. I’m not going to bog people down with my emotions. I’m simplistic. I think about it in terms of this: You’ve got this guy and this girl, right? Most of the time, girls will always dance. The dudes I know–myself included–don’t really dance. So if you’ve got a couple coming–and again, we’re talking about love, they’re going to a show together–I want my set to be something for the girls to dance to if they want and the guys can just hang back and think the scratching is dope or whatever. That’s the usual scenario. So it’ll be enjoyable for people either way. When you see a DJ, you get to see a zillion different hits and genres, which is the beauty of DJs over bands. But many DJs lack musicianship because they’re just playing other people’s songs. That’s why I still try to stay very sharp when it comes to my scratching. Scratching is the guitar solo every couple of minutes, so to speak. But I know that one good show can lighten up a person’s month and help them get through the bullshit. I’m sorry again, man. I’m the king of long answers. [laughs] I do this every single interview.

You laughed at this, but I don’t think its an exaggeration to say you’re in a way one of our last patron saints of turntablism. Do you think turntablism is something that’s fallen to the wayside in popular music?

Honestly, I don’t think you’ve heard turntablism in popular music ever! Given the right opportunity, that’s something I’d love to make happen. I’m talking mainstream stuff. It’d be amazing to hear really intricate, turntablism-style scratching on a legitimate MTV hit that’s not cheesy or generic. Obviously, the stars have to align for that to happen, and I’m not actively thinking to myself “I need to make a hit!” because I think that’s fucking cheesy. But I do think there’s a glaring hole, to the point that I’m actually stunned that there hasn’t been a song where scratching has played a prominent role. Maybe I missed it. I’m probably offending someone right now, so it’s possible. Can you think of anything with relevant scratching, where it’s an integral part of the song? Like in “Now” [off E&A] for example?

I could offer some smartass responses like Sugar Ray or that Executioners/Linkin Park collaboration, but I honestly can’t really think of anything. Which is why I loved the E&A album in particular. Whenever I listen to it, I imagine a guy interacting with this Teddy Ruxpin-like robot who happens to contain within himself a cassette tape of the world’s entire hip hop catalogue. So you have this conversation between MC and DJ, where you are always finding the perfect sample to respond to what Eyedea is saying.

On specific songs, definitely. I’ve always liked the DJ…Give me a second here. The Teddy Ruxpin thing…I’ve never been compared to Teddy Ruxpin, and that’s pretty hilarious. But I see where you’re coming from. [laughs] I like the DJ-speaking-with-the-hands thing. I saw Kid Capri one time a long time ago, and he was on the mic a lot for a DJ and he was really good, really engaging people with his voice. There was a time where I tried that and would play back-up vocals to Mike, but that’s not really me. I’ve noticed what works better for me is the “Snake Eyes” thing. I’m the dude that doesn’t talk. I only talk with my hands. Sometimes I’ve tried to get on the mic and it always backfires. I’m not bad, but I’ve realized sometimes less is more. People have asked me if I want to be an announcer at shows and I’ve said no. Just let me go up there and get ‘em.

I’m always judging and grading stage banter. Most musicians should take a community college course on the subject. Or just shut up.

Some people are very charismatic and can do it. Buck 65, for example. He’s so interesting, and is one of the coolest people I’ve met in the industry. He’s a communicator, man. When you sit down with him to have a conversation, he’s always so pleasurable to be around. He’s an elegant dude. A gentleman with a style to how he talks. So when he talks on stage, his voice can pleasantly link the music he plays. But then there’s other people who are drunk and you just want them to play their song. I’ve fallen victim to that, too. I’ve noticed it just almost always works better if I don’t say anything at all. I don’t need to tell people when or when not to make noise. They know what’s up. If anything, I’ll use hand gestures. [laughs] That’s the biggest high I get when I’m performing, is when the crowd starts to chant and I haven’t told them to do anything. They just feel what’s going on and engage collectively.

So you’re in this place of positivity with life and work. Could you tell me about the new mixtape you’re working on? 

It’s almost done, and it’s basically what I do live. A lot of classic rap stuff, obviously, because that’s where my roots are. But then there’s dub stuff, trap stuff, a lot of mash-ups and stacking. I’ve been producing basically as long as I’ve been DJing, so I have the mindset where my brain doesn’t think about the spinning of one record to another. Some people destroy that style, and there is a definitive ethic to it. But I think more in terms of a producer. I think, “Let me take this drum break, and let me take this bassline from White Zombie, and then the drums from this, and then scratch some Aesop Rock over it.” That’s what I like, so that’s what the mix is. It’s been quite a process. Obviously, I’ve been with an MC for the majority of my career. So in a sense, I’ve had to start over. I feel like I’m in my early 20’s again. I remember feeling this way, not knowing what’s going to work or what I want to do. I’ve only been headlining shows by myself for a couple years now, so its getting to the point where I feel confident again and everything feels purposeful. So the mix is a culmination of the past couple years and figuring that stuff out. I just need to finish it. I’m really inspired to do beats right now, so it’s hard for me to finish the mix because I don’t really want to work on it right now. [laughs] What I really want to do is original production again. As soon as the mix comes out, I don’t want to have long gaps between releases anymore. I definitely learned the hard way that you don’t want to wait that long. I want to constantly be creating, regardless of what it is. It’d be interesting to be able to work with other individuals again. There are very few vocalists I’ve worked with, and I think a few people would be interested in that.

Not to tickle your balls, but you are DJ Abilities. I’d say more than a few people would be interested in seeing that happen.

That’s nice to hear. [laughs]

Is there a tentative title for the mix?

There is a tentative title. I feel like it’s going to be called Appreciation. It just dawned on me the other day when I was getting closer to finishing the mix. I’ve been through a lot of shit in my life. Obviously, recently, Eyedea’s passing being the biggest thing. But I’m just grateful to be still doing this. I found music at 17, I’m about to be 34 years old, so for half my life music has always been there. I’ve always had it. I recently went through a pretty devastating break-up as well, and that was really hard. But the music is still here, and I appreciate every moment of it.

–interview by Austin Duerst

One Response

  1. Amazing piece, Austin. Just awesome.

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