The sound of hip-hop has changed dramatically since the ’90s. Layered synths, 808 sub-bass kicks, and double time hi-hats often replace jazzy, sample-driven boom-bap. But not every producer is looking to the modern soundscape for inspiration. Some, like Washington D.C.‘s Damu the Fudgemunk (Earl Davis), are looking back, resurrecting the techniques and sounds of ’90s producers and re-imagining their sonic potential.
The 29 year-old producer has released over 15 albums, co-founded an independent label (Redefintion Records), recorded music with Blu and Roc Marciano and completed official remixes for MF Doom and Talib Kewli. Producing with the same technology that sustained the golden age through its best years, he’s also creating more complex and layered arrangements. Think Pete Rock’s jazz/soul paired with the scratching of DJ Premier and the mellow slickness of Marley Marl. Of Damu, the latter once said, “[It’s] very refreshing to hear a young cat with that much soul. [That’s] exactly what’s been missing from the game… soul.” — Harrison Samphir
Any fan of old school hip hop, jazz, soul or classic American music would understand how your music is unlike what a lot of producers are doing right now. It’s really enjoyable to listen to your work and be transported back in time. When did you start making music?
I guess officially 12 years ago. But I could say, really doing something tangible, started in high school at 17 making beats. Though I’ve always been around music, listening to music. At the age of 13 or 14 is when I gravitated to music to a point where it was a skill I’d develop. I’ve always been around musicians. My mother was a musician, my father was a musician. They weren’t into hip hop, but they gave me an ear for sounds. So 17 is when I started but 14 was when I first started buying records. I got my first turntables around 15, 16. I had enough money from working to get a Boss Dr. SP-303 sampler, which Madlib used a few years later, and I think still uses to this day. So I had that for about two years and when I was 19 I was out of high school, had a job, and saved that money to buy the MPC I use now. All the music I’ve made to date has been on the MPC I bought when I was 19 years-old.
You’re born and raised in D.C. What does the city mean to you?
Around time I was getting into hip hop, the New York and East Coast sound was definitely the ruling style of the time. Also around that time [early ‘90s] you had the South just gaining notoriety. You had your No Limit, your Cash Money [Records] and some of those other Southern acts. But it didn’t have the impact and influence it does now. So it was definitely East Coast, New York. D.C. is four hours away and we’re in the Northern region, but as far as musical taste goes, D.C. certainly has an ear for the Southern music. So I was a bit of an outcast. A lot of people weren’t into the same sound I was.
When I listen to your instrumentals, I can immediately spot the influence of Pete Rock, Lord Finesse, Premo and Native Tongues.
Yeah, those are all people I’m influenced by. You know the palette of music I was listening to out of high school was smaller than it is now, because I wasn’t old enough when some music was coming out to appreciate it and dissect it and study it. It was just music that existed then, but as soon as I started making music and getting into beatmaking, some of that stuff was five or 10 years old and I was a late teenager. You hit it right on the nail: Pete Rock, DJ Premier, K-Def, I could list a ton of artists. But I was a huge Wu-Tang fan, and I think everybody was and still is. The Gang Starr Foundation has had a huge impact on my career, too.
To me, the defining feature of your work – even in comparison to the other producers you’ve mentioned – is that your instrumentals are so subtly crafted. All similar yet so different. The scratches, live instrumentation and electronic effects combine to produce a layered sound on every track.
It’s funny you say that, and I really appreciate you taking the time to analyze it and be an educated listener and consumer. I think if everyone did analyze the things they digest whether its visual or auditory, the art would improve. But having numerous styles in one track comes from me listening to so many different producers, and just being very ambitious, you know? I want to make everyone who influenced me proud. Because I feel like I learned so much from them, I looked up to then. It’s definitely driven by props. I just wanted to do something that impressed them. That’s why I may do some things that sound familiar, or revisit some ideas that I think people will appreciate. Make sense?
Definitely. And I really like what you’ve done with social media and through YouTube, showing listeners what DJ’ing actually entails. It’s not just about playing songs off of a Macbook. What you’ve done, showing people how to utilize the old equipment and technology, sheds light on what sampling and recycling is all about. Has that process allowed you to connect with fans on a deeper level?
I’ve always been a shy, private person. I’ve been less generous in recent years as far as the amount of content that’s made available on the internet. It’s definitely a great place – it’s helped a lot of businesses, careers, artists, people, a platform to do whatever it is they want to do. But it’s also a place where things that exist never really die. They kind of go there and live forever. You put out a record or something physical that’s not there [the internet] its a different type of appreciation. So I’ve definitely become more selective. But fans have reached out and have so many things to say. I’m always speechless because I have people telling me about how I influenced them, or how they were introduced to my music and miss the vintage sound. I’ve pretty much been filling the void for them, for people who want old school hip hop. And it’s really just me doing what’s comfortable. When I got into hip hop, using the older machinery, records and those things, that’s what was accessible to me, that was the tangible way of making hip hop, you know? I thought, if you want to make beats you need to go out and learn how to DJ – which isn’t the case, but that was the concept. The concept I grasped was I needed to DJ, I needed to buy records, I needed a beat machine, because this is how they did it. Even though the access to technology was different at the time, it really has a lot to do with my concept of making music. So I continue to do what’s comfortable.
And you’ve put out a lot of records.
Yes. And a lot of that music has been aged until it sees the light of day. You see, what a lot of people don’t know is that I have a job. I have never done music full time. I spend at least eight hours a day or more working. A lot of my releases have been two or three years old. When I made it, I didn’t even have access to the tools I have now, and the label [Redefinition Records]. It’s definitely a blessing to have a platform to be heard and for people to hear and appreciate my music.
Do you see music becoming a full time commitment soon?
Yes, and the goal right now is doing this full time. It’s a blessing to be able to release music and have people support and buy and listen, but next year I plan to do that and open up a lot more doors for myself. To spend 100% of my time on music. Rakim said it best: “How could I keep my composure/When all sorts of thoughts fought for exposure?” That drives a creative person crazy! So just to have access to work on all the ideas that I have, I’m really looking forward to that. I want to put out more records, I want to take my music to another level. I want to outdo everything that I’ve done. A lot of the releases that have come out to date have inspired a bunch of people, just like old music inspired me. Working with Redefinition Records we’ve made a lot of strides, and we’ve noticed the benefits of bringing on many other artists. It’s not just about me anymore. I want to give new musicians a platform to express themselves and have their voices heard.