Interview with DJ Sabzi
I’m good. It’s the season for the sun to come out. We came out of the rain and we’re happy.
Your new album Bayani is out. Are you happy with the way the album came out?
Absolutely. I’m definitely very happy with the way it came out. It definitely came out the way we wanted it to. We developed artistically very quickly. I’m ready to try new concepts and new sounds with another record in the future. But for this one, in 2007, I think it really captures where we’re at. I definitely think that it’s a unique sound and I think that the content is very appropriate, lyrically.
How have you grown since your self-titled debut?
I would say that the beats are a lot better, overall. I think that this record has a theme that the previous records did not. The previous records were more like a collection of songs, which is good in itself. But on this one, the title of the record and the lyrical content really blend together to form one cohesive idea.
Was that a challenge?
Yeah. Is it harder than making one song? I guess so. It’s more work, but that’s the way albums used to be. We’re in our mid-20s, so we came up listening to records that had a flow to it. We’re trying to move away from what has become the underground hip-hop formula of making a collection of singles and gathering beats from all different kinds of folks. You have your club songs and your songs for the ladies and your features…This is a different task and I like this a lot better.
You guys embrace a blue collar mentality on Bayani. Is there a place for regular people in hip-hop today?
We’ll see. Ordinary people, that’s what the world is made of. We reject the idea of embracing an over-glamorized, materialistic lifestyle because that’s not where our value comes from.
“50,000 Deep” is about WTO protests that took place in Seattle in 1999. What inspired you to make a song about that?
When the WTO uprising happened, the news only covered it from a certain perspective. They tried to paint the protestors as a bunch of unruly idiots. They didn’t really connect it to the underlying economic conditions that sparked that. They also didn’t show how the police were responsible for a lot of the violence around it. I made the beat where it sounds like folks marching and then Geo wrote to the song.
How do you and partner Geologic work together?
Well, with this record, we talked about it at great length before we even got to working on any of the music. We talked about the concepts and ideas that we wanted to put forth. I went to work on the beats. The way it usually works is I work on instrumentals and then I pass them off to him. We decide what the songs should be about. He goes and writes to them and then we go back and forth on the song, like adjusting the cadence or delivery.
Does it get easier to work together each time?
Absolutely. With practice comes growth. It’s evolving to a point where he’s starting to pick out samples and I’m a lot more involved with coming up with the concepts for the songs.
When making the beats for Bayani, did you try to have a consistent vibe?
Do you think that there is a consistent vibe in the record?
I felt like the beats were diverse enough, but I could see how they blend into each other.
That’s what we tried to do. No song is like the others, but they all definitely share something in common. There’s definitely a sadness that tries to get communicated through most of the songs, but at the same time, there’s also a hopeful element there.
Can you take us through the making of a DJ Sabzi beat?
Well, I listen to a lot of different music, anywhere from old jazz to Bob Dylan’s catalog to classic producers like Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Diamond D. Usually I work on drums first, then I look for samples and chop them up.
What equipment do you use?
Right now, actually I use a computer and I use Acid to assemble everything. And I also have a synthesizer, Technics and a vinyl collection.
You’re also a classically-trained jazz pianist. How does that help you when making beats?
Studying jazz was a means by which I learned music theory in general. Musical principles are the same across all genres across the world. So understanding how a song flows and knowing chord progressions, that makes me feel like I’m empowered with knowing what to dig for and what’s going to match with what. That’s mainly it. And then I have some mild keyboard skills too that are present on the record as well.
You’re also a fan of indie ska and punk. How does that affect your music?
A lot of that actually has a big influence on the way we use our music on the community. In the underground punk rock scene, I really got the sense of what independent music is. I don’t know if “underground” is the word to use, because that relates more to the industry scene. But to see the way the music was and the intimacy of the shows and how the music is shared, that’s the way I feel music should be. That’s the way we approach our performance career.
And from that experience, I have a high standard for performance. It’s not okay to just see an MC get up there, hit the “play” button and just rap. That’s cool sometimes, but I’m trying to see a show.
How would you describe your live show?
Some people think our live show is even better than the record. We don’t just perform cuts from the record. We blend songs together and have a lot of interaction. There's a lot of interaction between me and Geo on stage.
Seattle has some great producers and up-and-coming artists. Where do the Blue Scholars fit into the Seattle scene?
We’re just one of a group of artists that are trying to put the Northwest on blast, I guess you could say. We’re trying to give shine to our town. In a way, it’s challenging because nationally, Seattle is not known for its hip-hop, but in a way, it’s a blessing because we have a clean slate and we can define it the way we want to. It gives us more freedom and confidence to really pioneer a new sound.
Will the Northwest ever be taken seriously for hip-hop?
I definitely see it growing. I think that the Northwest and western Washington, in general, has the potential to be as big as the Bay. Maybe not in the next couple of years, but down the road, definitely. A lot of it has to do with local folks here paying attention to what’s going on in their own backyard and all the artists out here that are doing it now, we’re not going to have to wait too long to have a lot of people take notice. We’re really just getting started. We have a lot of potential to really blow up.
Will we see you doing more outside production in the future?
I’m open to that, but right now, I’m really focusing on doing whole albums. I like doing whole albums. I don’t know how I feel about just slanging one beat here and one beat there. Right now I’m just focusing on Northwest artists and putting folks on up here, but I’m open to working with anybody.
How are you gauging the success of Bayani?
We’re really a lot more concerned with how the people are going to react. Having record sales and economic support is great. It’s important to sustain a career and to be able to keep making music for the people who listen to you. It really is about the music and having people hear it and hearing what you have to say.
What’s next for the Blue Scholars?
We have a lot of travel plans for the summer. We’re going to tour the western states with our Massline labelmates, and then we’ll be touring the rest of the country most likely throughout June, July and August. In the meantime, we’ll be doing a lot here in Seattle to try and build up the scene.
What do you want to say to everybody?
Take a listen to Bayani and let us know what you think.