Q&A with DJ A-What from the Pirate Signal
Because of his outsized persona, Yonnas Abraham is the face that most people generally associate with the Pirate Signal. If you look over dude's shoulder, though, there's another cat that cuts an equally impressive figure in his own right on the ones and twos. That distinguished chap's name? Alejandro Martinez, or DJ A-What, as he's better known in hip-hop circles. We finally had the chance to chop it up with the turntable technician in an effort to find out what, ahem, makes him tick. Turns out, in addition to deejaying for the Pirate Signal and working at Twist & Shout, the co-founding L.I.F.E. Crew member is a burgeoning entreprenuer. This August together with Josh MacCurdy, he'll be opening a lifestyle store on 29th and Larimer called the Strategy Room. Read the entire transcript after the jump.
Westword (Dave Herrera): So tell me your story, where you're from, where you grew up?
A-What: I'm a native of Denver, grew up in the Northside, graduated from Poudre High School in Fort Collins - I ended up leaving Denver for minute during the last year of high school. Pretty much, as far as hip-hop goes, I was kind of born into this shit. My cousins that are older than I am, that I grew up with, were part of Dancer's Unique, which was a pretty big B-boy crew. So as far as that goes, I was pretty much born into Colorado hip-hop.
WW: So how did you end up at Poudre in Fort Collins?
A-W: Basically because of family stuff. At the time, my mom got remarried, so I left Denver, and we moved up there.
WW: Where did you go to school before that?
A-W: George Washington. I met Mane[Rok from ManeLine] there our sophomore year; that's where we met. And then, pretty much around that same time, I'd say a couple years later, we started L.I.F.E. Crew. The ones that started it were, like, me, Mane, Jolt, this dude Skape and this other guy Theme. Around '98 or so, after I graduated, that's when we started Ideal Ideologies.
WW: What inspired you to start deejaying?
A-W: Basically, my inspiration came from just people that I was around. But my main inspiration just came from watching Juice. I was a little younger and that's what got me started deejaying. I didn't really have my own set up until about '98, after I graduated high school. But before then, I had started buying records in, like, '96, and I'd go up to Boulder because I was kicking a lot, at the time, with this dude Juaquin, who used to deejay really heavily. He used to go by "DJ Variable." He's from Boulder, but I just kind of met him around the way. Anyway, I would just spend my weekends around that time, from '96 to '98, going up to Boulder and crashing out at his crib. We just spend time deejaying all weekend. You know what I'm saying? And I would just get loose on his setup or whatever.
WW: Who were your main influences?
A-W: Music wise?
A--W: I would say, like everybody else's at the time, I was a big fan of Pharcyde, Wu Tang, Tribe Called Quest, all the Native Tongues' crew - you know, like, Tribe, De La Soul. And I definitely listened to a lot of West Coast stuff, too. You know, Dr. Dre, Snoop, just kind of a mixture, more or less.
WW: Who were your influences on the turntables?
A-W: My immediate influences were my crew. As far as music wise, I've always been a fan of Rob Swift. Definitely been a big fan of his from the X-ecutioners, always. So, him, Q-Bert, J-Rock of the Beat Junkies. And I'm definitely influenced by other DJs, not just turntablists, like Premier. Just the way he rocks it on stage. Like when him and Guru used to do a lot of Gangstarr stuff, just the way he embodied just, like, that idea of still being a DJ but still being able to rock the crowd vocally, as well with tracks and cutting and stuff.
WW: That's a lot of what you do in the Pirate Signal. Is that where you're drawing inspiration from?
A-W: As far as the Pirate Signal, my goal, personally, is to be able to...I'm a very energetic person, and I kind of feel like a DJ not only needs to be skilled on the turntables, but he should also be able to talk to the crowd and engage them vocally by doing backups or to be able to be there for the MC vocally as well. I think that's what makes us a group, that we're both very loud and animated on stage.
WW: Yonnas said when you joined the Pirate Signal, you basically just hit him up with the idea of deejaying just for him solo.
A-W: Basically, as the story goes, him and Ben were in the group, and at the time, I was deejaying for three groups in L.I.F.E. Crew at the time. It was Ideal Ideologies, Prana - which was Deca and Ichiban - and the Pirate Signal, which was Yonnas and Ben. Not to take anything away from Ben, but I wasn't really a big fan of his. I really liked Yonnas as an MC; I liked his energy, and when we first met, we really connected musically with the type of stuff we liked and what we wanted to make, as far as music. So what happened is that I just told Yonnas, 'Yo, I'm down to deejay, but if you do some solo stuff, I'm really down to deejay for you.' At the time they were going through a lot of deejays. They just couldn't find anybody, I think, that was willing to commmit, and on top of that, Yonnas is a pretty hard guy to work with.
WW: In what way?
A-W: He's very meticulous. You've got to make sure if you're going to do something, you've got to do it right. And you've got to do it right every time. I think that's just a part of dedication. And the problem then was that he didn't mean anybody yet that was that dedicated and really wanted to do it. A lot of cats just taking as a hobby, but for me, deejyaing is my life.
WW: What do you bring to the table in terms of your skills to the Pirate Signal?
A-W: In terms of my skills, obviously there's the deejay side of it. On top of that, I think just my knowledge of music, period. A lot of the samples and a lot of the musicality of the songs you hear are stuff that I've come up with, as far as samples and stuff. That's kind of how, more or less, we build songs is, like, I give a lot of stuff to Yonnas. I'm usually there -- I wouldn't say all the time but most of the time -- for the creation of the tracks.
WW: So with regard to the samples, I'm assuming you're an avid crate digger; is that the case?
WW: You work at Twist & Shout, don't you? Does that play into your crate digging proclivities?
A-W: Oh, definitely, but I've also been digging ever since I started deejaying.
WW: What are some of your best finds?
A-W: [laughs mischeviously] Off hand, just some obscure soul stuff. Like, for instance, there's this group called New York City; it's an old, soul, '70s group, pretty rare stuff. I found that.
WW: So how do you go about finding your best stuff?
A-W: You know, it's just digging, really, and listening. You've just got to be really patient. Most of the time, the artwork on the outside plays a lot into what the music's going to sound like. So sometimes I'll grab a bunch of stuff that I think looks cool. Whether or not it actually sounds cool, you don't know that offhand. As far as that, I just kind of pay attention to the players, the drummers and the musicians that are on these records. I also follow labels, as well, a lot of labels that are known for putting out dope music.
WW: What labels come to mind?
A-W: For example, ECM. It's like a free jazz label. If you're looking for really open strings or melodies, all of it is really open. Curtis Mayfield's label, Curtom. Curtis Mayfield had a label for a while, his own, and he put out a lot of really dope soul shit on that.
WW: Do you have any plans of putting out a solo record at some point?
A-W: Yeah. I definitely have been doing some production. Me and Yonnas talked about putting out a record where it's, like, I invite a lot of MCs and artists that I like personally. I've already been working on an instrumental album, but I don't really have any time frame of when that's going to be put out.
WW: How far are you into the record at this point?
A-W: It's really premature, just a couple of tracks.
WW: Is it taking a particular direction, like is it more trip-hop oriented?
A-W: No, it's definitely a lot more in a soulful hip-hop direction. It's a little more my style, definitely some abstract beat type shit. I like grimy shit and heavy, dark shit. There's a lot of cats that I draw my inspiration from now that started this what they call new beat movement, cats like Flying Lotus, No Such Thing. There's this cat overseas named Rusty that I really get into a lot. It's all this mixture of instrumental hip-hop mixed with the crunk aspect mixed with trip-hop mixed with traditonal boom-bap style hip-hop. There's this other cat Onra, this Japanese cat, and he really makes this really sick ass instrumental shit. Like I said, they call it new beat or glitch crunk is another name for it.