Are we gonna talk about the album? Or are we gonna talk about college, man?
Madison, WI Bureau Chief Hastings Cameron writes:
This site has already run a rather magnanimous review of Defari’s Street Music. Feel free to check that out before proceeding.
Duane Johnson Jr. received his “Teaching of Social Studies” M.A. from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College in 1994, but would probably rather you not mention it. I made the mistake of bringing up Berkeley and Columbia at the beginning of this interview—intending to ask about his interaction with the Bay and NYC hip-hop scenes while in school. I might as well have asked him to sign a crate of Sad Clown Bad Dub tapes, so I threw out most of my serious questions and inquired about steroid use, R. Kelly, High Times Records. I have rearranged the chronology and cut a bunch of material for the sake of Phonte’s marriage (kidding—Defari’s not a snitch).
What’s the difference between working with Evidence as opposed to Babu—as far as how you put a track together?
Well they got two different ears, you know, for music. Pretty much they both are open to what I want to accomplish. They’re parallel in that way, but their tracks are always gonna be two total different sounds.
Because one has more of a production background and the other’s coming from a DJ/Producer angle?
Definitely, that’s got somethin’ to do with it, and you know, upbringing: what they listened to as kids, all kinda factors.
What did you listen to as a kid?
A lot of r&b, soul, funk, soul, jazz, reggae—black music.
You’ve said you started off as a DJ. What was the first record you scratched?
Man, the first record I ever scratched was “Atomic Dog”—George Clinton. And the record that made want to start scratchin’ was Beat Street—the soundtrack to Beat Street.
And Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” when D.S.T. was scratchin’. But Beat Street was the first record that I was like tryin’ to emulate the scratching. I got the record after I saw the movie—I remember just sittin’ at the theater like over and over—the movie would go off, and I would just go get some popcorn, and go back in, check it out again.
Did you have that Sinatra sample in mind, or was that the producer’s idea?
Yeah, it’s produced by Superstar Quamallah, so he picked it.
You talk a little shit about R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” on that—
What was your first reaction to that series of videos?
Man, that shit was some of the worst musical stuff I’ve ever seen.
What did you think about the video concept—as opposed to the music?
I thought R. Kelly was trippin’, man [laughs]
Could you ever see yourself doing something like that, 10 videos—
A soap opera? Nah--
What would the story line be?
Nah, I couldn’t see myself doin’ that man.
I saw something on your MySpace blog about how you couldn’t get into Canada [while on tour w/ Dilated and LB]—could you give the backstory on that?
Well, the promoters, you know, they weren’t professional enough to have all the business squared away for me to get in.
Did you need a work visa or something?
Yeah, I needed a work visa, and probably would’ve had to pay a fine or something—but the promoters were--you know how you have A-movies, B-movies and C-movies, and sometimes you even have D movies? Well they were like D-promoters, man.
What was the name of that promotion company?
I don’t even know, man—I don’t even bother remembering. I’ve dealt with so many promoters in my life—it’s very rare that I remember them.
How did you end back up with ABB for this release?
Well we had did the Likwit Junkies—and you know, after that record, myself and them had discussed my third album, and you know, here it is, it’s Street Music. We’re getting a really phenomenal response from the most important people, and that’s the consumer.
What’s it like dealing with them as opposed to when you had that High Times deal?
Well High Times was never a label, you know? It was just me and Devin [Horwitz] doin’ everything—he’s over at Nature Sounds now, bein’ pretty successful over there. But High Times was a fictitious imprint, it was something that never existed.
So they just said, here’s some money, do what you can?
You know, they was just like—they put out a couple of releases and got excited. Then we did my project and some other other stuff. But it was really DEVIN doing all of that. And there was this guy Mike Esterson, who was basically a criminal, you know? You can quote me on that.
How so—like what did he do?
He’s just a sleaze-bucket, you know—just somebody I shouldn’t have been in business with.
On this record and a bunch of the older stuff, you frequently talk about doing pull-ups and dips and stuff like that—
Yeah, I would be out there right now if I wasn’t talkin’ to you.
Sorry if I’m keeping you from that—
Yeah, you guys are cuttin’ into my WORK-OUT, man! [laughs].
What do you think about rappers who look like they’re on steroids?
[laughs]Well you figure, “hey, if pro athletes can do it, why can’t rappers?”
Do you think that fucks with their ability to stay level-headed?
Like ‘roid rage and shit like that.
[laughs] [incredulous] ‘ROID Rage? I don’t think steroids have anything to do with their ability to keep a clear head. You know—myself, it’s all natural man—it’s all real work and desire. No ‘roids. No juice. No Barry Bonds.
What do you think about him falling apart this year?
Who, Barry? Did he fall apart this year? I thought he was doing well this year.
Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention after the first few months.
Yeah he didn’t hit a home run in the beginning, but he came around—that’s Barry Bonds man, he’s like the greatest home run hitter ever.
What was your time in the Bay like? Did you end up picking up slang? When you say “spittery” that sounds kind of like a Bay thing—
[indignant]Where are you from?
Yeah—so how would you know?
I guess my first reference to that is probably an E-40 record.
Spittery? hold on—[phone beeps a few times, presumably his publicist cut in]
Ok. That’s where you heard spittery. On what record did you hear that?
I honestly can’t remember [E:40 “Flamboastin’”]—not saying I know the exact date the record was released....
[Laughs] I’ve never heard him say that.
He’s called himself “Spittery 40 Yay”—like Sidney Poitier
I don’t know that one—don’t know that one man, but my time in the Bay was good—I had a blast.
Did you first start rapping, seriously, professionally—after you quit your job teaching—or was that ongoing—
Nah. I was professional in—I put my first release out in ’95, and then I was still workin’ during all of that, during my first singles.
Did your students come up to you and ask about it?
The ones that were in tune to the hip-hop stuff did—who like, listened to the Wake Up Show. ‘Cause I’d be on the radio and stuff a lot. But the majority of students—nah, they never even knew. You know, I was on some mild-mannered Clark Kent stuff when I was at Inglewood.
How much of a transformation was there when you left work each day?
Well you know, I was teaching in the inner city—like anyone who’s a professional you try not to take the job home with you, so it was back to my personal life, you know?
Did you find it was easier to reach kids who were into hip-hop?
Not really bro—I got a natural knack at reaching kids, no matter what they listen to.
You said the job was pretty frustrating—what do you think’s the biggest problem with the public school system?
Well, I’ve never once said the job was frustrating. I just said I didn’t like it.
What was the thing about it you didn’t like the most?
I just didn’t like the gig—I loved the kids, but I didn’t like the gig. I didn’t like bein’ in front of—bein’ on blast every day, you know what I mean? So, that was pretty much the extent of it. Plus, I was headed in the direction to be a principal—like by now I would’ve been an assistant superintendent or something like that.
Did you just not want to end up becoming a bureaucrat?
Nah, I just didn’t want to—I didn’t like teaching, man.
I mean—you silly, you a silly dude—I thought we was going to talk about my album, man.
We did talk about some tracks from the album.
Nah man, we ain't really talked about my album, man? You just been havin' a—you just been askin' me a bunch of silliness, man.
Ok, so what’s the one thing you’d want people to know about the album—beyond the stuff that’s in the press release…
I mean—it’s my best effort, dog. And it’s probably the most bangin’ hip-hop album that’s out right now. And, umm [extended pause] And it’s a must-have, you know? And like, even though this interview has been silly, my album is not about no silliness. It’s about some real hip-hop for true hip-hop lovers, you know?