“Make Each Song a Moment” — An Interview with DJ Harrison

A conversation about cassettes and Prince with the newest signing to DJ Shadow's Liquid Amber label.
By    December 17, 2015

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If you want to talk to Chris Daly about the new Star Wars film, he’s on Twitter. 

DJ Shadow is on a mission to bring underground artists to a larger audience. From this goal sprang Liquid Amber, his new label that features artists like  Bleep Bloop, Ruckazoid, Mophono and G Jones. The latest to join is Richmond, Va. native DJ Harrison, who takes it back to the roots with his cassette-only release, Songs from the Black Water.

Harrison opened for Shadow and Cut Chemist on their Renegades of Rhythm tour, and the rest is history. The producer born Devonne Harris understands that audio cassettes can serve a purpose beyond hipster fetishism: they possess their own hiss and studio clutter similar to vinyl. Wielded correctly, it can play just as important a role as any instrument. Accordingly, the Virginian’s sound harkens back to early 80s hip hop with a hint of AM radio grooves.

The record is best enjoyed as one continuous listen. The tracks start hard and go astral. Each organically flows into the next, from the concrete shaking opening to the night time crawls slinking elsewhere. Today, we’re premiering “Pantry,” featuring Paten Locke. Listen below.

In addition, I spoke to Harrison about cassette tapes, the artist/audience relationship, and old Prince jams.

There seems to be a resurgence of sorts in artists returning to cassette tapes to share their music. What is it about the format that appeals to you?
It’s nostalgic. The sound, the feel, the process, the physical form of media itself. Records, tapes, and CDs came with its own mini poster of a cover or booklet to be digested visibly along with the aural content. The entire package.

Songs From The Black Water strikes me very much as boom box friendly, hitting hard and soft points on a real audio journey. Do you envision the listening experience here more of a shared experience like that or is this personal, headphone music?
It could fit both ways I think. It’s my shared experience with those who wish to inquire about the package, which in turn is their new experience to share with their friends, or listen on headphones on the way to work, to the club, to the bedroom. It’s a documentation of another musical chapter in my life, and I just want to try and make the listeners connect it with their life as best as possible.

You’re releasing this on tape, with only snippets and “Pantry” being available in other formats to whet listeners’ appetites, implying you see this as one continuous listen, kind of like Prince and Lovesexy. Can you speak to this a bit?
I think of albums as a pre-recorded live set sometimes. Prince has live sets with very minimal breaks for sometimes 2 to 3 hours. He wants his audience to get their money’s worth. They came for music – that’s what they’re getting!!!!! I feel that way about these recordings: trying to keep the listener engaged! I feel you should want to leave people wondering about your next move or song, or album. Make each song a moment to leave them listening, as most attention spans are short nowadays.

Do you worry about limiting your audience strictly in terms of the fact that very few people even have tape decks or Walkmans anymore? For that matter, in today’s digital age, how many Millennials even know what a tape is?
This draws back to the missing element of the physical. As there is a lack of Walkmans and other devices that will play older media, there still a mass demand for vinyl, tapes, and other hardcopy recordings. There’s a better care taken with the engineering process of the records press from 2inch studio tape, as it was lengthy and often required more than one person. Even millennials will go in their attic one day and find their parents records and tapes – if they don’t see the records in Urban Outfitters first.

What was your inspiration for the music itself?
I wanted to go back to the basics. When hip-hop was born, it came with that choppy, gritty edge. I felt that quality represented a special time in the growth of the culture. It’s hard not using a computer this day an age for mixing, but I actually recorded everything the old way: 8track multitrack, MPC, Triton rack, Juno, Moog, and pocket piano. No virtual software instruments. It reminded me of earlier beats I made at my moms house: rugged, but big sounds. Mixed on the 8track and bussed stereo out.

The James River of Richmond, Virginia (RVA) is a waterway containing historical place and substance; the river of my ancestors, if you will. I wanted to portray that sound of the “murky” water.

What’s your favorite track here and why? 
Slipped Up. The bounce, the overlapping synth rhythms, the bass. Yeeeeeeeaaaah the bass!!!!!!!

What’s on your plate for 2016?
Hopefully more albums, more studio time, more shows!!!!

In the spirit of Liquid Amber and its mission to uncover talent overlooked by the masses, who are you digging these days that deserves a shout out to a larger audience?
My homies: Ohbliv and Nat Digga produce great music. theres also my band, Butcher Brown. Tennishu, Sam Reed, And Steve Boone are the most current artists I’ve worked/am working with, and I’d like to see them do well.

Anything we haven’t discussed that you want to mention?
Richmond, Virginia. RVA is coming for the music game! D’angelo led the pack, now we coming to seal the deal.