Run Tune: Exclusive interview with DJ Child

Words by DJ Theory

Oakland's DJ Child

DJ Child is the hardest-working man in the reggae biz that you’ve never heard of–if you rely on mainstream channels for your music discovery, that is. As the mind behind Oakland-based Project Groundation, he is a pioneer on several levels; of a new mixtape format that condenses two or three LPs worth of original material into a coherent product with a central theme, of a particular musical vision that combines rasta-inflected reggae (think Sizzla) and fight the power gangster rap (think Dead Prez), and a post-digital DIY indie approach to music that encompasses everything from designing your own graphics to growing your own food. Appropriately, when Child and LARGE UP correspondent and music dude DJ Theory sat down to chop it up, they covered everything from dwarf banana trees to prison documentaries and the reggae scene in Mali.

LU: Describe a typical day in the life of DJ Child…

DJC: Rise early, tend to my garden; weed, propagate, transplant, feed, water, nurture. I have a huge rooftop garden and terraced flatbed garden with over 100 plants—goji berries, riccola mint, dwarf banana tree, dwarf nectarine tree, wild fire lettuce, brussel sprouts, cabbage, pansies, fuschia flowers/berries (white & red), white sage, black cherry tree.

Then I create, whether in the studio constructing audible cultural messages, or in the streets capturing visual history. I stay creating, visualizing, expressing my mind and heart through many mediums, manifesting my own reality by any means necessary.

I’m a worker. I aspire to live by the lessons of Law 9 (of the 48 Laws of Power) “Win through your actions, never through argument: It is much more powerful to get others to agree with you through your actions, without saying a word. Demonstrate, do not explicate.”  This is the premise on which the ‘Massive’ has been built upon. Every unit member of Project Groundation Massive (PGM) lives by an unwritten code of each one, teach one. I am blessed to live and work on a daily basis with such talented peoples. I’m taking advantage of the opportunities I’ve been provided in life—so every day, every night I have no choice but to work, work, work.

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LU: How would you describe PGM’s mission statement in 15 words or less?

DJC: For the peoples, undiluted from industry politics, pushing boundaries. Providing seeds of sound for tomorrow.

LU: I know you’ve been rooted in various regions like Boston, Brooklyn, Philly, Jamaica, what brought you here to Oakland?

DJC: Legal weed and no winter.

LU: Most of your mixtapes are conscious testaments to Rastafari and positive “livity,” yet some are considerably more aggressive and aimed more for the streets. Is there such thing as a “conscious gangster”?

DJC: Those are two words that…I’m really turned off by the stigma of what society has deemed them to be. I’m sure my definition of “conscious” and “gangster” are probably very different from that of the masses. I feel that “conscious” is too often used synonymously with “righteousness.” To me, “consciousness” is to be aware. It’s not just a righteous ideology taken over by a fashion trend of Muslim scarfs, Che shirts & smugness. Conscious does not mean to just focus on the positive and ignore the negative. Living in the Bay Area, which is known for its progressive thinking and political awareness, I have a real problem with this. I come across way too many people who, although they’re into forward movements, wear their “consciousness” like a badge and act above others. I can’t stand that shit.

And as for “gangster” I feel people lump it into the same category as “thug.” In my eyes, to be gangster is to create your own way by any mean necessary, to live by your own rules—not by what society dictates and conditions us to be. So yes, I fully believe there is such a thing as a “conscious gangster.” To me, a farmer is a conscious gangster. A teacher is a conscious gangster. A mother is a conscious gangster. More strength to anyone creating their own way in this world. LOVE!!!

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LU: Aside from all the music and promotional endeavors, you also handle all the graphic design and branding for PGM.  I’ve noticed on your website that you’re getting into more extensive multimedia projects as well with the PGM video series and more. Is visual art something you have a passion for?  I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that you used to write graffiti…

DJC: Me doing graphics and now videos and motion graphics all spawned out of necessity. I never really wanted to do it myself, but I was doing so many projects I didn’t have the money to pay a graphic designer who could keep up with my rate of productivity. Although I am self-taught in Photoshop & Final Cut—Stat 7 (Cory Shaw) of Buildestroy has been instrumental in the development of branding PGM and helping me hone my skills. He was one of Doze Green’s first apprentices and now is one of the top motion graphic animators/designers in the industry. I even hesitate calling him that, cause that is just a small piece of his capabilities. All around he is a visionary in every sense of the word. So from day 1, I’ve been blessed to have Cory in my corner to help forward PGM’s game. Now that we in the year 2023, people’s attention span is shit. Videos are necessary to captivate your audience. So I’m doing my best to stay relevant and blast video after video. I am also working on a documentary of Oakland street artists with my crew Black Diamond Shining (BDS). Chapter 1 featured Ras Terms who is known worldwide for spreading his Ethiopian Angels. Chapter 2 features Safety 1st, who is the founding member of BDS.  I respect them as well as all street artists for beautifying the concrete jungles we are surrounded by.

I love art. Life is art. I’ve just always hesitated pushing myself ‘cause I’ve always been surrounded by masters of the craft–Stat 7, Doze, Terms etc–but once again, these individuals have been very motivational in pushing me to do my own thing—so I’m running with it.

LU: Back when DJs still played records) I remember copping all your “Halflife” remix LP’s at the local record store. Are you still making and distributing vinyl for all the DJ’s out there?

DJC: I wish…RIP Vinyl! But thanks for the support coppin’ my records when they was out.

LU: In addition to your work producing and distributing countless PGM mixtapes, you’re also an original music producer who’s worked with many top artists in the industry.  Can you give us a little background on how you first started producing music and some of the artists and projects you’re currently involved with?

DJC: I’ve been playing music my whole life. It’s been a natural progression for me to move into producing from what I’ve been doing with mixtapes. A lot of my label peers I collaborate with (Lustre Kings, I Grade, the Demolition Men, the RBG Camp) have been really inspirational in motivating me to get back into producing my own music. So I give thanks to them for the push. Iron sharpens iron—and they’ve definitely elevated my musicianship to a higher level than I would ever be able to attain myself.

In the past two years I’ve produced tracks for Dead Prez, Sizzla, Lutan Fyah, Sadat X (Brand Nubian), Capleton, K’naan, Midnite, Jahdan Blakkamoore, Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. and many more. Right now I’m producing M1 from Dead Prez’s entire next solo album. The first few tracks we’ve leaked have gotten a really good response. One of the tracks “I Am I’m Not” was featured in the award-winning documentary Operation Small Axe. M1 & Dead Prez were a huge influence for me musically when I was growing up, so to be working on an entire album with M1 is a real blessing.

I also just completed an album with Umi (RBG Family) called Beyond Bars featuring M1, Mistah FAB, Sadat X, Ness of the A-Alikes, Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. and more. It’s the follow up to our first project I’m Just A Prisoner which featured Dead Prez, The Roots, J Dilla, the Jacka etc. Beyond Bars is a concept album that’s sonically bigger than anything I’ve ever done. I produced the entire album as well. I’m tryin’ to take it back to that Gang Starr shit—one producer, one artist; a cohesive sound & spirit.

I just started a full-length album with Jahdan Blakkamoore, who is hands down one of my favorite artists in the game. Blakkamoore is prolly the most versatile artist I’ve ever worked with and that’s what I’m trying to showcase with the project. It’s definitely going to be a completely different sound than anybody has ever heard from him. We just leaked a video for the first tune “Remember My Name.”

Last summer I placed three tracks in the movie Just Another Day starring Wood Harris (the Wire, Next Day Air) & Jamie Hector (the Wire, Heroes), Trick Daddy, Lil Scrappy, Petey Pablo, Ja Rule, Big Daddy Kane and more. I did the track “Ordinary Day” with Petey Pablo, which in the movie is the new hit on the radio. The movie is doing really well. It was Best Buy and Target’s second best-selling DVD the first week it came out. I also did two tracks for Beanie Sigel & KRS-One for a documentary called Rhyme And Punishment by director Peter Spirer (Beef I-III, Biggie: Bigger Than Life). The documentary will be released later this year.  I’m trying to break down these Hollywood doors—I’ve always dreamed of scoring an entire movie.  Each track I place I’m moving forward step by step to get closer to that goal.  Most recently I placed two tracks in Joshua Leonard’s (my brother’s) film The Lie which will be premiering at Sundance at the end of the month.

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LU: You’re a trained musician as well, correct?

DJC: Nah, I’m self-taught. I used to take guitar lessons for a year when I was 12, but I never learned any theory—we would just sit and figure out Metallica solos.

LU: You’re one of the only stateside DJs I’ve seen taking a vested interest in releasing music from islands in the West Indies other than Jamaica.  Obviously, the Bay doesn’t have a fraction of the Caribbean population of cities like New York or Miami. But would you say the Bay Area has an appreciation for Caribbean culture beyond just reggae?

DJC: You know, I could write a glorious depiction of the mysticism of Northern California’s rolling hills and its inhabitants narrated in its native dialect of Jafakin. But I won’t go that route…this time. The Bay is definitely a unique place. People are real open-minded out here. There is a strong appreciation for Caribbean culture but I wouldn’t necessarily call it an understanding. I’m not trying to act above anybody, judge them, or take anything away from them with that statement (even though that’s what it sounds like)—it’s just an opinion based off of my experiences living in places more dominated by West Indians. I feel that even though the Bay is recognized as being politically and socially conscious—things are very surface level out here compared to the East Coast. It seems like the fashion trend of rasta is way more popular out here than the ideology behind it.

To me, reggae is a pulse, an unspoken universal vibration. It’s not just a Caribbean thing, even though that’s where the sound we’re familiar with was birthed. When I was in Mali (West Africa) playing roots music, I guarantee it was their first time hearing 99% of those tracks, but the way they were moving to the music was right in line, as if I was in yard, BK, Miami, wherever.  Me and Jahdan were trippin’ off that.  I check for Reggae all over the world, not just the Caribbean diaspora.  Kafu Banton been killin it forever in South America. Tanka Zion in Mali is a beast. Black Prophet in Ghana is a heavyweight—It’s everywhere!

LU: Aside from working with a wide range of artists in reggae, you’re also producing beats and recording mixtapes with some heavy hitters in the Oakland rap game.  Tell us a little bit about the creative process with those projects and what it’s like working with those artists:

DJC: I’ve been working heavily with Jacka and Husalah which are part of a group called the Mob Figaz along with Keak Da Sneak & AP-9. Jacka is one of my favorite rappers ever—PERIOD. He has a truly original style, flow & sound. I feel that a lot of times him and Hus are overlooked as lyricists ‘cause their music is so mobbed out. But straight up, Jacka paints words like a Nas or Jay-Z. I know those are heavyweight comparisons, but if you a real lover of hiphop culture, you know what I’m talkin about.

Working with rappers is just like working with any other artist. Some are humble. Some are dicks. But pretty much all of em’ think that they’re the best in the world. I can’t tell you how many times I finish a track with a rapper or reggae artist and they like “Yo, this a hit! This a #1 tune!” And me being the jaded cynic that I am…I just sigh.

I’ve worked with a lot of dope rappers out West, though. Two of my good friends out here DJ Impereal & DJ Devro are called “The Demolition Men.” They are “the Bay Area Mixtape Kings.” Pretty much all the rappers I’ve worked with out here have come through linkin’ with that family. I’ve done a gang of tracks with Mistah FAB, Beeda Weeda, Mitchy Slick, Kaz Kyzah (the Team), Shady Nate, Phil Da Agony etc. What people from the East don’t really understand is that the West got real street music, not just that shaboobalaboop ghost ride the whip hyphy shit. Oakland is the home of the independent out the trunk hustle. Mu’fuckas is hungry out here.

LU: You’ve built PGM from the ground up 100% independently, what type of advice would you give to some of the newcomers looking to establish themselves and their brands in this tough industry?

DJC: Do what you say, don’t say what you do. Everything you do should be for you and your family. We are living in an era of cloned illusory images—everything has been robbed and consumed by culture vultures. Stop the propagation of this evil capitalistic regime called the industry. Make something real, provide for your family, provide for your community. Create your own way and defy the guidelines society holds control over. Burn corporate payola media thugs. Centralize, organize, realize. Spread love!