Needle and the Spin
Every DJ is a junkie -- a record junkie, that is. Digging through moldy piles of used vinyl and lining your crates with rare sides isn't just a means to an end for a DJ, but a sheer rush in and of itself. Dusty fingers, bleary eyes, dog-eared want lists . . .they're all part of the buzz. And for those who produce records as well as spin them, crate digging serves an even greater purpose: Providing the raw material to sample and sculpt into new music, new forms, new sounds.
San Diego's Andreas Stevens, aka DJ Greyboy, is renowned the world over as both a selector and a producer of funk, soul, acid jazz and hip-hop, an architect as well as an archeologist of beats. As such, he's also an addict of the highest order. Just ask him.
"In '87 or so, I started getting really intrigued by how people were taking bits and piece of old records that I had never heard of and making new shit out of them," Greyboy recalls. "So that started my whole thing of becoming a record junkie, as far as digging. My parents weren't really into music. My mom listened to Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. That's good music, but it was nothing that was influencing me.
"What got me into deejaying and hip-hop," he goes on, "was the original electro stuff. In L.A. there was this weird scene with Egyptian Lover and a group called Uncle Jamm's Army. There was a label out of Hollywood called Techno Hop Records that put out some electro stuff. That type of hip-hop didn't last for very long, but that was what got me really sparked. I remember listening to Mantronix and Knights of the Turntables and thinking, 'This is some next shit.' There was something about it that appealed to me. It was kind of dark, and there were no organic instruments or sounds in it at all."
Ironically, the genre that Greyboy would become most closely associated with -- acid jazz -- could not have been farther away from the synthesized, coldly robotic tones of electro. Acid jazz rose to prominence in England at the dawn of the '90s as a revival of '70s funk-jazz fusion, a warm and organic sound that emphasized live instrumentation and earthy melody. In fact, the original style is the source of the lion's share of beats and breaks that hip-hop producers have sampled over the years -- which is why it resonated so deeply with Greyboy, who in the late '80s was struggling to make a name for himself as a DJ on the West Coast.
"Hip-hop deejaying in the early days, it was like pulling teeth," Greyboy says. "The underground scene was just starting to happen. People had just started opening clubs and having DJs that played underground music. But you'd get sweated for not playing popular stuff. I'd be, like, 'Fuck you. This is what's going down.' I would force-feed the people this music. There was very little coverage. I remember, even in '87 -- we're talking the golden era of the music -- you could go up to somebody on the street and say the words ';hip-hop' or 'rap music' to them, and they'd say, 'What are you talking about?' That's unreal. But that's what was cool about it, too. It was just a small group of people trying to do some shit that was new."
After a record-digging expedition to London in 1988 during which he was first exposed to the nascent sounds of acid jazz and house music, Greyboy's thoughts turned from spinning records to laying down tracks. At age twenty, he bought his first sampler and devoted himself to learning how to program, sequence and engineer his own songs. He was obsessed, as he puts it, with "making something original out of pieces of other shit." But one minor detail held him back from creating rap records: no rappers.
"I didn't have any MCs to work with, at least nobody that I thought was good," he explains. "I don't live in the Bronx or Queens. I live in Southern California. There just weren't a lot of good MCs out here. I'd rather have no MC than a lame MC, you know? So I was, like, 'Fuck it -- I'm going to make beats, and I'll just have instruments instead of vocals. I'm going to get the illest sax player and just create melodies with him.'"
That sax player turned out to be Karl Denson, then a sideman in Lenny Kravitz's band and now the head of the funk/jam powerhouse, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. Greyboy was blown away by Denson's performance at a show and approached him afterward, hoping to enlist him in his new project. Denson, though, didn't warm up right away to the unorthodox idea.
"I told Karl that I was a DJ and that I wanted to do some music that incorporated sax over hip-hop beats. He had no idea what I was talking about," Greyboy says with a laugh. "As a matter of fact, I had to call him four times and beg him to come down before he ever showed up. He thought I was bullshitting or crazy or something."
Within months, though, Denson had quit Kravitz's group and finished working on Greyboy's debut album, 1994's Freestylin'. Success came swiftly as the record took off in the U.S. and abroad, especially in England, where it was fanatically embraced by legions of acid-jazz fans. The duo soon assembled an entire ensemble -- including keyboardist Robert Walter, whose current outfit, 20th Congress, has achieved its own level of popularity -- and dubbed it the Greyboy Allstars. Greyboy provided beats, arrangements, structure and the overall concept; the group threw down the funk. The Allstars whipped out three full-lengths over the next few years and backed Greyboy up on his sophomore solo disc, 1996's Land of the Lost. When the Allstars finally succumbed to inter-band tension, Greyboy saw it as an opportunity to shed his acid-jazz skin and reconnect with his roots.
"I've always wanted to produce hip-hop more than anything else," he admits. "But it had to be gritty. I love hip-hop, the real shit, not Black Eyed Peas. I didn't want to make radio hip-hop." And he was good to his word; 1998 and 2000 saw the release of Unda-Pendent Hip-hop and Unda Attack, two volumes of pure underground rap produced by Greyboy and emceed by various up-and-coming crews around the country. Soon after, he unleashed Mastered the Art, his most ambitious and diverse work to date. A refocusing of his previous work through a lens of soundtrack music, sitars, vibes and even electro, it gathered up and integrated almost every facet of the Greyboy spectrum.
But Mastered was just a prelude to Greyboy's brand-new studio album, Soul Mosaic. With vibrant melodies, tightly-laced grooves and guest vocals by suave crooner Bart Davenport and deep-fried diva Sharon Jones, it's retro minus the kitsch and forward-looking without pretension. In addition to Mosaic, Greyboy has just dropped Shades of Grey, one of his rare forays into the format of the mix CD. "It's just one continuous mix, like if you were to go to hear me spin on this tour," says Greyboy. "It's just a lot of music that I like that has influenced me in one way or another.
"In the end," he confesses, "I'm not trying to break any new ground. There's really no new ground to be broken. Everybody's done everything, and now everything's just a recycled version of something else. At this point, I think it's more important to just make some good music, something that people won't want to sell out of their collection. I don't want to make disposable music. It doesn't matter that you sell a million copies if no one wants to keep it."
He should know. As an obsessive exhumer of secondhand wax, he's seen his fair share of castoff records. But even DJ Greyboy will admit that, after a decade and a half of digging and sampling, even his mom's cheesy old collection is starting to look pretty tempting.
"Steely Dan? That shit's dope," he enthuses. "Of course, electro was my first music, and I still love hip-hop. I love soul. I love funk and jazz and soundtracks and ethnic music. That's the reason my music sounds the way it does: I collect any kind of record now. I don't care, as long as there's something dope on it."
Spoken like a true junkie.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.