Producer Spotlight: Waajeed
Producer Spotlight: WaajeedMay 18, 2023
“We were used to tools,” says DJ and producer Waajeed. “My dad was a carpenter; most of my family had guns. We knew that a tool could serve a purpose.” Before his involvement with the hip hop group Slum Village, alongside fellow Detroit natives J Dilla and Baatin, Waajeed’s attitude towards tools would come in useful through his formative musical experiences with another local figure: the singer and keyboardist Amp Fiddler.
“Amp Fiddler graciously allowed us, not just myself but other young people, inside of his basement. In our neighborhood, there was this great tension happening from crack cocaine being introduced to our block. There was turmoil in the streets, and Amp’s basement offered a refuge for most of us. To be able to come into his basement, cut off everything that was happening on the block and focus on the drum machine or to be able to share this kinship of sharing music with your friends was just a moment for us.”
“What we found was that these MPCs, and these drum machines, that was a tool as well. And that was a tool that could actually serve to get us out of our neighborhood, and for us to do better for our community.”
These experiences in the basement set in motion the careers of Waajeed and other Detroit luminaries, and his early exposure to sampling is clear in his new Beatport Sounds sample pack, Dirt Tech Reck.
“That moment eventually turned into what would later form to be Slum Village where my crew – myself and Baatin joined T3, QD and Dilla – formed this group collectively. Together, we all went down inside of that basement and learned how to use that drum machine.”
Let’s go back even further. What sparked your musical mind from childhood and how did it help you take those first steps?
My earliest memories of music are surrounded by my dad. He had a huge vinyl collection, and oddly enough, he considered himself a DJ. He sucked, but he considered himself a DJ. He used to play Miles Davis, Kraftwerk. Funkadelic… anything that Mojo was playing – electrifying Mojo, who was a real DJ in our family’s opinion – he used to play that for backyard parties.
I was a DJ first, because I had access to my dad’s record collection. It was the thing that made the most sense and was the most accessible. As Slum Village eventually grew and developed, that’s when I started to step into the production side of my career.
I took high school band class like most Detroit public high school students. And that was our vision of music: clarinet, flute, trombone, saxophone… But to enter Amp’s basement – and he had an MPC 60 in his basement – was colossal. It was mindblowing to see this drum machine in that basement. And to think about how everything that was in our band class could be consolidated inside of this machine. Orchs had been orchestrated and arranged and produced and mixed and balanced. It was just mindblowing. To see him actually use that drum machine. So you not only learn from someone slicing and dicing but someone who actually had musicality. And to know that with his blessing, we could use it too.
When you stepped back out of that basement, how did the rest of Detroit feel?
There was so much happening at that time: there was an infusion of techno music being played on the streets. Hip hop was coming of age inside of our neighborhood, because we used to watch Yo! MTV Raps every day. But we also watched [Detroit local TV show] The Scene every day at six o’clock. And The Scene was middle class black people dancing to techno music. So we all had this huge influx of… I would say, non-denominational music.
There’s a boldness that comes with the Detroit sound, because we’ve won. Most of us have escaped poverty, most of us have made it past our 20s and not planned on it. Most of us have made it through a city, a war-torn city, and escaped.
We live in a space where you fly to do a show someplace, and you’re in a five star hotel. And then you come back to a city that has no art programs for kids. Because there’s not enough money, or, you know, like abandoned houses are abundant: “house-field-field-field-house.” So, sometimes a win is not always a physical thing; sometimes it’s just feeling a certain level of safety in between those two speakers.
And when your scope got wider than Detroit, how did you adapt to the music industry as a whole?
And once we left Amp Fiddler’s basement. Let me tell you, there was an array of experiences out there waiting for us. I mean, shifty characters, bad business, people that were not encouraging, people that were just snakes, and people that embodied a large part of the business that we were meant to go into.
And the greatest thing about our neighbourhood is that it taught us intuition. You can smell it before it happens, you can see it before it happens, you can feel it before it happens. The question is, how will you interpret this information? And what will you do? Will you become like your enemy? Or will you become like the people who actually built you?
Let’s talk about the new sample pack, Dirt Tech Reck – how was the process of creating it?
To be honest with you, I really had to fight myself to think about doing a sound pack. And it’s because of the mis-usage of sound packs in the past. Once you guys reached out to me about doing the sound pack, I was like, “Man, I don’t know about this thing. I don’t know if I should do this, like, where does this land?” I’m always having this conversation about uniqueness. Am I contributing to people just “taking the easy way out” – quote, unquote – by doing the sound pack?
I reached out to Black Milk, another Detroit native producer, who’s one of my favourites. I called Black and I said, “Man, what do you think about the soundpack stuff?” And he was like, “Man, I think it’s a great idea.” Part of what I implemented in the pack was just emptying my hands. Now my hands are free, and I can go gather more information and start thinking about new workflows.
After that conversation with Black Milk, I was so inspired to think about how I would approach this pack, and I started to think about ways. I wanted to identify what was out there first, and then in knowing the conversations that are already being had, I can now start thinking about what I can do to be on the total opposite end of that spectrum.
It was pretty intricate. I’ve thought about the sounds meticulously. I’ve thought about these loops and what they were going through.
What’s the philosophy behind the pack?
What I learned [from listening to other packs] is that I wasn’t seeing lots of very soulful texts out there. And as a native of Detroit, and with UMA [Underground Music Academy, Waajeed’s educational facility] literally five miles down the street from Motown, it only made sense to kind of incorporate some of this warmth, some of this analog tone, some of this great soul music, feeling, and funk feeling inside of this pack.
So I started to think about loops. And I started to think about processes where I could keep it connected to my experience. Not just sonically acknowledging my experiences, but to spiritually acknowledge them as well. When Dilla passed, I inherited tons of his equipment. So all of these stabs are like, straight from the MPC, or through the board that I bought from Dilla. And aesthetically, this is the sound I came up on, this is what it sounds like, this is what it felt like. And that’s why it was important to pass the sounds to those sound boards and some of the equipment that I had from that point.