Question in the Form of an Answer: DJ Trackstar and the Art of Jewel Running

From his days in St. Louis to trotting the globe with Jamie and Mike, DJ Trackstar speaks with Jimmy Ness about running them jewels fast.
By    January 8, 2015

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Jimmy Ness is a Rap Fan

Run The Jewels are in full attack mode. Two critically acclaimed albums, riot provoking tours, a growing legion of like-minded fans and DJ Trackstar at the core loving every chain-snatching second. Before he DJed for the unruly duo, Gabe Moskoff was an avowed rap fan from Madison, Wisconsin. He collected magazines, played on college radio, organized gigs, wrote articles and taught classes on hip-hop, all while working full-time. A chance encounter with Killer Mike introduced him to the world of politician smacking rhymes just over five years ago and he’s never stopped pinching himself. During our chat, Trackstar often shared his appreciation for Killer Mike and EL-P’s artistry as well as genuine wonder at how his music career has panned out. He also covered being best friends with his favorite MC, T.I’s inspiring speech at a juvenile detention centre and St Louis rapper Tef Poe’s inspiring Ferguson activism.

The story of how you met Killer Mike is incredible. You saw his number printed in an article and called it on a whim. It wasn’t until later in the conversation you came up with the idea for the collaborative mixtape Anger & Ambition. Was it awkward when he first answered the phone?

I don’t think it came off as awkward, but I was going crazy in my head because I didn’t expect him to answer. I thought it was going to be some sort of answering service that asks for your email address or a sort of fan-club type deal. I did not expect Killer Mike to answer the phone, I expected an assistant or something so it definitely screwed with my brain and took me a second. I was sitting in my apartment in St Louis stoned. I wasn’t prepared for what probably turned out to be the most important phone call of my life.

He was your favorite rapper, and still is. 

Absolutely, once I heard “That’s Life” from Pledge one. I was aware of him previously and I thought he was dope. I’m sure I listened to Monster for a time or two, but it wasn’t the record that stuck with me super hard for whatever reason. As rap fans we go through obsessions where we discover someone or get a new view on someone and they’re just our favourite thing in the world. Mike’s basically been my favorite rapper since and no one has dethroned him.

Not many people can say they’re best friends with their favorite rapper.

It’s crazy, he’s been my favourite rapper since ’08 or whatever and I spend more time with him than anyone except my wife. I mean that’s nuts [laughs].

Your first show with Mike was at the AC3 Festival where you DJed. Was that one of the most nerve racking experiences of your life?

Absolutely, it was. First of all we were opening up for Rakim. The idea that Rakim might watch me performing and have an opinion on it was scary. We had never done a show together. I didn’t know him, we’d had some conversations but I didn’t know him that well. Frankly at that point, that was a pretty huge crowd. I’d only been in front of crowds that size a couple of times so in addition to everything else there was also a huge crowd. It was amazing experience, it was definitely nerve racking. I’m glad that I did a good enough job that I’m still his DJ now, but yeah it was crazy.  

Killer Mike’s been in the media quite a bit recently, discussing racial issues such as Ferguson and Eric Garner’s death. How has the feedback been? 

He’s amazing and everyone for the most part seems to recognize that fact, which is cool. He’s had a little conflict here and there. Mostly people who aren’t listening to the totality of what he’s saying or people who are assuming he’s going to have a certain angle or just people who dismiss him because his name’s Killer Mike. They want to talk about that, without knowing the origin of the name or ignoring the fact that it doesn’t matter what his name is if he’s got great ideas and states them in a compelling way.

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Mike’s speech in St Louis before Run The Jewels performed was very moving.

Yeah that was amazing and that was up on the internet super fast. It was an amazing speech and message, and we had incredible timing to be there when we were.

How was performing that night? The atmosphere must have been intense.

It was, it was an intense night overall. Even with the non-indictment it would have been an intense night. We got there late because the bus had broken down, we were all stressed and had been on this bus for hours. I lived in St Louis for ten years so it was going to be an intense evening for me. Seeing all my friends, talking to people I hadn’t seen in years and then the non-indictment really just made it even more intense than it was already destined to be. Obviously for the crowd it was really cathartic and therapeutic and a great way to get their minds off what they had been going through for four months or many years depending on how you look at it.

What happened with the tour bus? 

The bus broke down and when the driver went to inspect the engine he saw that the trailer was on fire. If the bus didn’t break down he could have driven for another hour while the entire trailer burned and burst into flames. Fortunately it broke down when it did and he got out and saw the fire. I guess it was a tire wheel scraping against the inside of the frame of the trailer and it got hot, so whatever was on the inside of the trailer touching that hot surface burst into flames. I believe, I’m not certain, but that’s the best explanation I’ve gotten so far. It’s a pretty crazy freak occurrence, like some Final Destination shit.

As a rap fan, you’ve met a lot of cool people on tour with RTJ. Are there any that stand out?

So many, so many. You know, I do the Rap Fan brand because that’s kind of at the core of who I am and it’s just amazing to meet all these people. Getting to meet the RZA this summer was big. I only spoke to him for a brief minute, but Wu Tang is huge in my lifetime. We had a show in Salt Lake City with the whole clan, I got everyone except Rae, Meth and obviously Dirty to sign my copy of Wu Tang Forever. That might be my biggest, most amazing moment, honestly.

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Did you talk much to them?

GZA and I already knew each other. How crazy is that just by itself? Mike and I toured with GZA a couple of years ago and I actually DJed for GZA during every show on that tour. I spent a good amount of time chopping it up with Inspectah Deck. Oh yeah and Divine was there, he’s a really cool guy. I really wanted to talk to True Mathematics more, as one DJ for one of the all time greatest rap groups to another DJ from one of the all time greatest rap groups.

Obviously getting to meet all of the Dungeon family people that I’m around and getting to know them semi-well is just incredible. Wu Tang and Dungeon Family were two of the pillars of my hip-hop experience growing up.

Your mom bought Wu Tang Forever the day it came out and delivered it to you at school?

I was an athlete in high school, I was into track and field and there were big track meets coming up. I was just so obsessed with hearing the album as soon as possible. I told my mom if she didn’t do it that was okay, I was going to skip class to go get it and then I’d have to sit out of track meet but that was going to be worth it to me because I couldn’t wait until that evening to hear Wu Tang Forever, it just wasn’t an option. That was a good little spoiled 16-year-old rap fan anecdote.

How surreal was it seeing Andre 3000 introduce himself to your parents?

Oh yeah, that was unbelievable. It was just so funny because he said to my mom “Hi, I’m Andre” and she said “Hi, I’m Cheryl, I’m Gabe’s mom.” It was just incredible. Like mom, I don’t think Andre knows “Gabe” yet. He and Trackstar have met a couple of times, but I’m not sure he’s familiar with Gabe quite yet. I don’t know if we’re on a first name basis at this point. 

Have you seen much of Sleepy Brown?

Yeah, Sleepy’s an amazing guy. The first day of the Big Boi tour, I get on the bus and go to choose a bunk to sleep in and I didn’t realize how big Sleepy is, he’s a tall guy. I walk on the bus and from behind I didn’t recognize it was Sleepy Brown or whatever and I go “hey, how you doing man,” and he turns around and goes “hey I’m sleepy.” And I’m like “holy shit, you are coming on tour with us that’s so cool.” I was able to give him the Organized Noize mixtape I did and tell him I’ve been inspired by his work. He was excited to meet me because he had the mix and it just a really amazing moment. First of all just to find out that I was going to be touring with him and to find out he appreciated the work that I did in appreciation of his work. All three of them [Organized Noize] have been really nice and complimentary so that means a lot. Just for them to think that what I do is acceptable is enough for me.

Dungeon Family seem pretty quiet these days.

They’re all working. They had a hand in Future. Almost every time I go to the studio I see at least Ray [Murray] and sometimes all of them. Whether they’re working on music or just working on beats, they’re true artists whether or not they’ve got stuff coming out on the internet that we’re seeing or hearing. They’re working all the time and making more music and learning and improving. I’ve got no doubt that there’s going to be some amazing stuff coming out of that camp soon that we might not be expecting. 

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Danny Brown introduced you guys at your recent Detroit gig and said on Twitter that Run The Jewels 2 was his album of the year. RTJ and Danny collaborating is kind of a match made in heaven.

Yeah I appreciate that. That’s the thing, the way Mike and El are doing it is going real gentle on the features because they don’t want to overdo it and they want it to be about their vision. Just like everyone else man, I’m constantly thinking “how amazing would it be to hear Run The Jewels and this guy?” or “how about we get this guy on the remix?” I have full trust in Mike and El to make the right decision and get the right people on the right records. 

That’s good because in 2014 a lot of people are only concerned with the guest verses and it seems some artists can’t hold down a solo album without help.

Yeah and they’re also really intelligent, interesting guys with a lot to say so if we’re only doing 40 minute albums, that’s not a lot time for them to get all of their ideas and thoughts and feelings out. So the guest verses need to be chosen appropriately and make sense. I mean what could make more sense than Gangsta Boo on “Love Again,” what could make more sense than Zach De La Rocha on “Close Your Eyes.”

You volunteered in a juvenile detention centre, how was that experience? 

It was really eye opening. It was interesting to see these kids and really get to feel where they were coming from. Get a better understanding of the circumstances that put them in these situations and how they react to them. I was already reasonably well versed in the vicious prison industrial complex that is America, but growing up as a middle class white guy in Wisconsin, I don’t have a lot of connections directly to people who are incarcerated and when I say not a lot I mean basically none. So it definitely added another layer of depth to my understanding of how fucked up the system is and how unreal it is that it is okay within this country to just massively incarcerate young black kids for mostly the same stuff that me and my friends did growing up.

T.I spoke at the centre while he was on community service. What did he talk about? 

My big take away from his speech is, my god, if T.I and Jay-Z, Kanye, Boosie, Gucci, Jeezy and all the artists that these kids worship would come in and speak, if they could just spend 20 minutes a day speaking at one place each, I just feel like it could change the world. As someone who had spent the previous year or two trying to get their attention, watching the devotion that the kids gave to T.I’s words and thoughts was just amazing. T.I came in with a great message and he put it in a way that they could understand. He let them know that he used to be them and said “every single thing that each one you did to get locked up here, I probably did that and I probably got locked up for it. I know where you are coming from. I know your motivation, I know your situation.” And he explained it in terms that would get through to them. Obviously some of these kids are on survival mode, they’re not on big picture mode. He explained to them how if you’re selling drugs to get money, let me explain to you why selling drugs is not the best way to get money in the long term. He broke down a lot of stuff and I would be shocked if a few of them didn’t have their lives changed forever in that half an hour. I’m sure he dropped some wisdom that some of those kids still think about every day and maybe have thought about when they have decided to do the right thing. That’s one of the greatest things about Run The Jewels blowing up right now. Mike and El are two of the smartest, most thoughtful people that I know and that I’ve ever been aware of. They care and they think really hard about important issues and they have great things to get across so the bigger the platform that Mike and Jaime are on the better. I just think that’s a better thing for the world, for everyone.

As well as I prepared things for that day and planned everything out, they knew and I knew, that I couldn’t relate to them on that level. I was able to get through to them generally on a level where we could see eye to eye and I could respect what they had to say and they could respect what I had to say, but there’s a disconnect and it was a struggle for me to relate to them sometimes in the way that made them open to hearing what I had to say. That’s what was really driven home when I saw T.I and any time that I hear Mike speak to these kids. You can tell right away Mike understands their struggle on a more visceral level than I ever could. Between Mike and Tef Poe I’m really happy to be able to help these men get their message to the people that need to hear it.

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Has working with Run The Jewels and listening to the opinions of El-P and Killer Mike made you more politically minded?

I’ve always been very interested in the social aspects of hip-hop and I had a non-profit organization for a lot of years in St Louis, where I taught kids about hip-hop. I’ve always had opinions and thoughts about it. The first rap group I ever DJed for was called Honors English and they’re a group in St Louis. They were made up of Kash, Tef Poe and they later added Young Thunder. They were not an overly political group, but they’d probably fall into the conscious rap category. It’s amazing coming full circle because first of all, at the time I considered them the best rap group in the world just because I thought they were amazing and now I’m DJing for the best rap group in the world. Also Tef Poe is now one of the leading voices for Ferguson. Hours after Mike Brown was shot, Tef was in the streets, tweeting, documenting, getting information out, leading the people. It’s really amazing to watch. It’s like his whole life has lead him to this point – to have the understanding and the resources and the voice to lead this struggle and to push things in the right direction. To see him step into this role and embrace it, just be the leader that no one knew he was being prepared to be by everything that he had done in his life. From growing up the way he did to being a rapper, that gave him the respect and the voice that a lot of people might not have heard if he was just Kareem. People have heard Tef Poe on the radio and been to his shows and they respect him as an artist. When he spoke, people listened a little more. I can’t say enough about how incredible he’s been in the stuff that he’s been doing. I’m so proud of him. It’s funny, on the drive to Mike’s barbershop right now, I was listening to Tef’s new song called “War Cry” where he calls out a lot of politicians. I was like “man, this dude is my hero.“

One of the most amazing parts is he dropped his music career to do this. When Mike Brown was shot, Tef was at his highest point in his career. He was the hottest rapper in the city for whatever that’s worth. He had a distribution deal with a major label, he had songs on radio. He had so much going for him. He had an amazing opportunity in his music career. From the moment Mike got shot I don’t think Tef recorded a word. I don’t think Tef did a show for six or eight weeks. He dropped everything at the highest level of opportunity he’d ever been at. He gave all that up because he knew he had something more important to do.

I’ve read you feel artists like Nelly and Chingy have overshadowed the diversity of artists in St Louis. 

Yeah and that’s natural. There’s always going to be the famous rappers who the casual fan knows. Kind of the unfortunate thing about the St Louis movement is there wasn’t any balance in it. There was Nelly, Chingy and J-Kwon making party music, but there wasn’t another artist from St Louis who also got that push with a different agenda and a different message that gave it a little bit more variety, a little more depth.

As someone who lived in St Louis did you run into any of these guys?

My time in St Louis started in ‘99, so by the time I got there it was pretty close to when they all blew up. I didn’t really have the opportunity to see anyone before their fame, but when I was around, and I know still now Murphy, Kyjuan and Ali are definitely out there with the people and they’ve got businesses and they participate with the local hip-hop community here and there. I met Chingy once at a meet and greet. J-Kwon did an amazing drop for me that I don’t use enough where you can hear him refer to me as his N word. You hear him get corrected by someone in the background like “actually he’s white.” And he’s like, “I don’t care he’s still my N word.” It’s actually a really funny drop.

One of the things that makes Run The Jewels special is EL-P and Killer Mike seem like genuine friends. That chemistry is apparent on the stage and on record. I would never have predicted a well-known indie rapper from New York and a Southern MC would work so well together.

This whole thing is divine. Them meeting is just a bizarre set of circumstances, it’s very random and god bless Jason DeMarco for having the brilliant vision to put them in the same room. What you see on stage is 100% real. That goes for Mike as a person, El as a person and their relationship. Obviously they’re performing but there’s nothing that goes on at the stage that doesn’t go on in the tour bus at 10 in the morning. Those guys genuinely love each other, they’re genuinely best friends. Who meets their best friend at 36 or whatever age they were when they met? That’s crazy, you think you’re done having new friends.

Do they have quite different dispositions? As someone who doesn’t know them, you might see El-P as a cynical New Yorker, which seems at odds with Mike’s more energetic Southern persona.

They’re really different in a lot of ways and they’re really similar in a lot of ways. There are aspects to both of those things you mentioned in them to some extent, but people think El is this like doom and gloom raincloud of death and destruction, but he’s a pretty happy guy. His music expresses how he feels about the world and how he views things, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t enjoy his life and have good vibes and doesn’t have a positive worldview or love people. They’re very different, but they’re also the same age and have similar relationships with hip-hop and just the contrast of their two life experiences and their two rap styles and their visions is just amazing. The thing that ties it all together is that they’re best friends for real. That means on the things they don’t see eye to eye on, it’s not a deal breaker. They can talk about it and work it out and they respect and love each other and care enough to come to a middle ground and compromise. It’s amazing that they’re together. It’s amazing the music is as good as it is and I get to be their DJ and friend.

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You had a brief cameo in the “Blockbuster Night (Part 1)” video.  That looked like a fun video to shoot.

I waited about seven hours for that little cameo. It was totally worth it because that’s history forever. It was hilarious, the idea’s funny. They’re the two perfect guys to pull it off. They were both able to make the vision work and it looked cool. One of the cool things about Run The Jewels period is that not many artists or rap groups or whoever have the ability to go so silly or so serious and have it be completely legit. The have very serious views and have serious thoughts on the world and on society, but they’re also both fucking hilarious. Run The Jewels is really an encapsulation of their two personalities put together. That’s why the aggression of there, the humor is there, that’s why the thoughtfulness is there, the sensitivity is there and the dick in your mouth all day is there.

Your scratching appears on Run The Jewels one and two.

I have scratches once on the first album. On this one I’ve got two or three if you count the bonus track and yeah, it’s crazy. It’s crazy to look at the Rolling Stone number one hip-hop album and say I had a hand in that. That’s preposterous [laughs]. It was crazy enough two years ago just touring with Mike off R.A.P Music and thinking “wow, this is the album of the year and I’m DJing as it’s being performed.” I’m just so thankful for all of it, any little bit of this would have been amazing to Gabe the rap fan. It’s all been icing on the cake for the last four years.

Well, it definitely seems like Run The Jewels isn’t going anywhere yet.

There’s already talk about Run The Jewels 3. I’ve heard the beginnings of one song that’s incredible. I don’t know if that’s Run The Jewels 3 or a bonus track or whatever. They’re both artists and they love creating together and I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t continue to create together. It looks like it’s heading that way, nothing’s promised, but there’s no reason I can see that we shouldn’t be The Rolling Stones touring and doing shows for 30 years when we’re in our 60s.

https://soundcloud.com/djtrackstar2/prime-time-a-rap-fans-guide-to-no-id

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