“This is Pre-Game Music For Protests”: An Interview with Zach Witness

Mano Sundaresan speaks with Zach Witness about Dallas Boogie, music as a fighting force, and Andre 3000.
By    August 1, 2017

WITNESS 1 (photo by Elizabeth Lavin)

Survey the credits of Erykah Badu’s 2015 mixtape But You Caint Use My Phone and you’ll find a mysterious “Zach Witness” next to almost every song. A resident of East Dallas, Witness released an expansive remix of Badu’s “Bag Lady” earlier that year which quickly caught her attention. Badu contacted Witness about collaborating, and a free-wheeling, 12-day recording session in Witness’ bedroom studio yielded a batch of cloudy, cellular compositions—equal parts Soulquarian and postmodern—that would become But You Caint Use My Phone. It also yielded an opportunity for Witness to meet and work with his idol André 3000.

That interaction sparked his desire to create what is now his debut EP, Electric Revival: Rise of an OutKast Nation, set to be released August 25. Originally a gift to André, the instrumental project contains significant interpolation of OutKast melodies and lyrics through myriad lenses, from electronic to symphonic. It plays front-to-back like a series of movements in a concerto, with sparing, but calculated lyrics giving it political weight.

To the music world, Zach Witness is still a relatively-unknown, but rising artist with undeniable scope and an impressive résumé. But to his hometown, he will always be a Dallas Boogie legend: DJ White Chocolate.

Flashback ten years. It’s 2007. “My Dougie” by Lil Wil just came out, and if you’re from Dallas, you’re doing the Dougie whenever this song comes on. If you’re not from Dallas, you’re about three years away from doing Cali Swag District’s version of it. “My Dougie” is a cornerstone of Dallas Boogie, an influential stream of rap songs and dance moves that took over the city in the late 2000s. Arriving during that sweet spot between regional rap’s decline and internet rap’s takeover, Dallas Boogie embedded itself in a geographic foundation while also trickling into other regional scenes. Everything about “My Dougie” is microcosmic of Dallas Boogie: its simple, but addictive snaps and synth riffs, its massive success in Dallas but disproportionate lack of success nationwide, and, of course, its accompanying viral dance.

Today, Dallas Boogie is best revisited through its primary sources: low-quality, bootleg dance videos on incipient late-2000s YouTube. Watch any of these videos and you might hear a “DJ WHITE CHOCOLATE!” producer tag at the start. To his Dallas contemporaries, Zach Witness may forever be known as DJ White Chocolate, a prodigious scratch DJ and tastemaker who made the music of Dallas Boogie accessible and widely circulated through his Ahead of the Class mixtape.

Our conversation trends towards the autobiographical, with Witness weaving powerful, unsung narratives about growing up as the rare white kid in a historically black and Hispanic community and accidentally pioneering the Dallas Boogie movement. His storytelling evokes the sort of loamy spirituality that Big Rube channels in his Dungeon Family discourses. His musical pivots from competitive scratch DJ to Dallas Boogie figurehead to Erykah Badu collaborator to solo artist seem arbitrary but make too much sense. After all, Zach Witness’ end goal isn’t music, but rather movements. —Mano Sundaresan

You’ve described your upcoming project Electric Revival as a reminder that, “it’s the marginalized who hold the key to real change.” Did you come to that realization through personal experience?

Zach Witness: Totally. I have a unique experience compared to most people growing up in that I’m a white male but I’ve had the experience of being around many African-Americans and being around many people who are in the working class of America. From kindergarten to fourth grade I attended a private school that was predominantly white—it was middle to upper class kids. Very uniform, it was a Catholic school. In fourth grade, I started taking music more seriously. And I just couldn’t stand to be at that school because it was just too stuffy for me, I guess. On top of that, my parents were having a hard time affording that school. So we found this school that was an arts magnet, sort of similar to Berklee but in elementary form. I took my chances, to go to this other school.

When I got there the first day, I had no clue but I was the only white kid there. This school was in a pretty rough area, a part of Dallas called Oak Cliff. And that’s really a lot for a ten-year old to take in, like to go from where I was at to this new school which was literally the opposite of the school that I was at. But looking back on it, it was easily one of the best experiences of my life because it totally opened up my world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, because from a really young age it exposed me to where the lines are within society.

Who was in your family growing up?

Zach Witness: I have an older brother that I grew up with, and I had a mom and a dad. When I was a teenager my parents got divorced. So right now, when I’m in Dallas I’m just at home with my mom, and it’s actually the same home that I grew up in. I’ve been in the same house my entire life. And it’s also the same house that Erykah [Badu] and I recorded the mixtape in. Same house that André 3000 came over to.

You were involved with local hip-hop radio as early as the age of 12. How’d you get that gig so early?

Zach Witness: There was this DJ record store in Dallas called All Time Party Time. They sold records, they sold DJ equipment, I think they even sold hookahs. And up there I met this guy who I was a massive fan of named QuickMixx Rick. He was one of the top DJs in Dallas who was DJing on 97.9 The Beat. Just from going to that shop we built a relationship, and he took me under his wing and started mentoring me. He started bringing me up to the radio station, one thing led to another, and eventually I was helping select new records to be played on the radio at the meetings they had every week. And by the time I was 15, I was actually DJ’ing on the radio, and from what I’m told, I was one of the youngest people to DJ on FM radio. That really was my gateway into the world of hip-hop.

How did you pick up DJ’ing?

Zach Witness: By the time I was 11 and had switched to the school in Oak Cliff, being so immersed in hip-hop culture at this new school, it just kinda happened. I was just really inspired by how a person can totally move an entire room with music and totally change the vibration of people with music. It just looked like a lot of fun, to be honest. I started out getting into turntablism, which is just concerned with scratching and doing tricks and that kind of thing. At that time my main goal was to beat out a DJ named DJ A-Trak, who had won the world-renowned DJ battle called DMC. He won it when he was 15 years old, and my goal was to beat him out by winning it when I was 14 years old. So that was my main passion in life, scratching and turntablism.

But when I started working with the radio station, I got more into mixing, that became more of my focus. Scratching and all of that is really cool but it’s not gonna pay your bills, it’s not gonna really do much for you. It’s more of a self-fulfillment thing.

Before you became Zach Witness, you went by DJ White Chocolate. Was that a name you gave yourself?

Zach Witness: When I switched to school at Oak Cliff, everybody was either black or Mexican, and I was the only white kid, so the typical names given to people in that situation were “cracker,” “wigger,” or “white chocolate.” And also at the time there was a basketball show on MTV, and there was a guy on that show named White Chocolate. Other people at the school watched this show and were like, “Oh you’re White Chocolate, bro!”

So White Chocolate was originally my nickname that was given to me in elementary school. Everybody, even teachers, were calling me that. A lot of people didn’t even know what my actual name was. So when I started DJ’ing, it was like a no-brainer, DJ White Chocolate. I still see people in Dallas that will call me that. I’ll be out at the most random place and somebody will be like, “White Chocolate!” and I’ll be like, “Yo!” It’s very much a part of who I am.

And White Chocolate took on new meaning during the peak of the Dallas Boogie movement?

Zach Witness: Correct. So the first place that I ever started DJ’ing at outside of radio was the biggest teen club in DFW called the Skatium. It was located in Arlington, Texas, and basically it was this huge skating rink. Every Sunday when we didn’t have school on Monday they would throw these teen nights. I would consider it really the Mecca of Dallas Boogie because the Skatium was where a lot of the dances were first showcased and where a lot of the songs were first premiered. It was very much the center of the whole movement.

So naturally, I just got thrown into the fire of it, and by DJ’ing at the Skatium and becoming the resident DJ, I had to be on Dallas Boogie. I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to continue DJ’ing there, I had to be in the know. And just from DJ’ing at the Skatium, I got really involved with the movement and started helping artists out.

After a while, because of the position I was in as a DJ at the Skatium, I just had loads of music that everybody knew but nobody had access to. People would hear these songs at the Skatium, and most of these songs were given to me by the artists directly, so I had all this music that people knew but nobody had access to. So when I was 16 or 17, I decided people needed this music. It just didn’t make sense to me that so many people were into Dallas Boogie but didn’t have access to the actual music for themselves.

Why didn’t they have access to it?

Zach Witness: A lot of it came from YouTube or MySpace, but a lot of it also just came from them being at the Skatium and different spots. Sometimes it wouldn’t even be on YouTube or MySpace. It was a really grassroots thing. So I ended up taking everything that I was playing at the Skatium and a few other spots that were really pivotal to Dallas Boogie and creating a mixtape called Ahead of the Class, Volume 1. Basically what I did is I got 1000 copies of this mixtape pressed up and I gave them away for free at all the main high schools where Dallas Boogie was a big deal. And overnight it just went crazy, because now people had this music for themselves.

A lot of people consider that mixtape the Bible of Dallas Boogie because it has the majority of the songs that went on to be big records within the Dallas Boogie movement on it. And that mixtape helped break a lot of artists and a lot of records too. So once I dropped that mixtape, White Chocolate just became synonymous with Dallas Boogie. It was wild, man.

How would you describe the legacy of Dallas Boogie?

Zach Witness: Looking back on it, I’m so thankful for that experience, because up until that point Dallas never really had its own form of urban dance music. And from my perspective, I can honestly say the music you hear in most urban clubs would not be what it is without Dallas Boogie. I distinctly remember at the time most urban dance music was maybe 78 beats per minute or faster, and basically what Dallas Boogie did is it took the slower tempos that Texans were already used to from the music that came out of Houston and made it danceable.

So we were creating dance music at really slow tempos before that was the cool thing to do. And now when you go to a club, shit is really really really slow and people are dancing to it. And I would say Dallas Boogie was a pioneer in that happening. Most people don’t even realize that because Dallas was the secret gem of music at the time. It seemed like every week a new dance was coming out of Dallas.

I didn’t even realize until way after the fact how widespread the movement was. In Oklahoma it was literally just like a mirror of Dallas. Everything they’re doing in Oklahoma was a mirror to Dallas Boogie. They were dancing like us, creating music like us, dressing like us. Same with Kansas, same with Arkansas, even Louisiana. And then Cali Swag District created “Teach Me How To Dougie.”

How do you feel about that? Are you comfortable with LA and other places you mentioned co-opting some of that culture?

Zach Witness: I guess I have to accept the reality of things. The thing that Dallas lacks in comparison to other cities is infrastructure. Dallas would have been a major force in music if it had the infrastructure at the time. And even now, it still lacks the infrastructure of a place like Los Angeles or New York.

Do you think regional movements like Dallas Boogie are still possible in 2017?

Zach Witness: Yes and no. Movements need time to grow. They need time to develop, to have some sort of sustainability. And it seems like most of the movements that happen now are based online and have a really short lifespan. For example, on SoundCloud, it seems like every several months, there will be a new trend happening that everybody jumps on and people will just work it to death to the point where it’s not even cool anymore.
Dallas Boogie had really been developing since 2003.

Probably one of the earliest records that influenced what would later become Dallas Boogie was “Watch Dis” by a rapper named Lil Joe. But there were a number of other records which followed that are all pieces to the puzzle. There was a sound in “My Dougie” by Lil Wil, it was like a sine wave synth sound, and literally every damn Dallas Boogie record had that sound in it, usually playing the same melody too. It almost became comical after a while because everybody was always using that sound.

A lot of the songs on Ahead of the Class helped define the sound of Dallas Boogie. I had been curating for at least five years before it was ready to become a thing, and I think it took about seven years, maybe even ten years for it to reach its peak. And it seems most musical movements take that long. Dubstep was being created as far back as 2001 and it didn’t really get into full swing until 2009 or 2010.

You went to the performing arts school Booker T. Washington for high school. Did going there motivate you to transition to producing?

Zach Witness: Definitely. I started taking it more seriously when I was in high school. It was just a really creative environment. I started out just producing for rappers in Dallas. My first big placement was producing for Dorrough Music, who has that song “Ice Cream Paint Job.” I produced a record on his second album, and from that, it kinda launched me into my career as a producer. And that’s what I did for a while, I just produced for rappers.

How did you transition to producing electronic music?

Zach Witness: As I got deeper into [rap], I just got really bored with it. Also I just had a strong phobia of rappers using my beats and just shitting on them in the worst way and making a terrible song to something I put my heart into. Rap music was just not very interesting to me anymore and that’s when I started to fade out of the White Chocolate thing.

A friend of mine starting playing dubstep for me, and it totally blew my mind because my ear was so tuned into Southern music that most other genres weren’t appealing to me. Dubstep had the same tempos as Dallas Boogie music and music from Houston, but obviously it was this whole other thing using nothing but electronic sounds. So dubstep was my gateway into the world of electronic music. I started making dubstep, I started making house music, I started making drum ‘n’ bass, started going by all these various aliases making different genres of music.

How was working with Erykah Badu different from working with other artists?

Zach Witness: She totally changed my entirely world. And she had been changing my entire world since I saw her on All That when I was five. But when we started working, I really learned what “raw” means. She’s one of the rawest people you’ll meet in your entire life. And her music is a direct reflection of that. I’m always a big fan of making music very orchestrated and having different sections, and even key changes, just making it a big production. But Erykah is like, “Nah, just give me a good groove, a couple chords, and that’s all I need.” When I was working on the mixtape with her, a lot of the beats to me were more like rough demos that I would make leading up to full songs.

Most of those songs were made so quickly. For me, it was more like me just messing around with ideas. But for her that was a finished song. She definitely revolutionized my way of creating in that sense. And I’m always taking a spiritual approach to the creation of music and just life in general. Working with her just further opened that up for me because she has such a spiritual approach to music and to life.

Was André 3000 similarly spiritual?

Zach Witness: Totally. Both of them function on a similar frequency, and I think they probably sensed that about me or else they would never have felt okay working with me. André is definitely very spiritual. André is actually one of the humblest people I’ve ever met in my life, especially to have done what he’s done in his life. When I met him, he was timid, almost shy. He’s like Erykah in that he’s very what you see is what you get and very genuine. Very sweet-hearted too.

But here’s another thing that Erykah definitely schooled me on: how beautiful the initial point of creation is. What I mean by that is she’s always about creating a moment, and whatever happens in that moment is what the record becomes. The way I’ve always worked is generally I’ll start with an idea and then I’ll just perfect that idea.

Was Electric Revival always intended to be a gift to André?

Zach Witness: Yes that was originally just totally intended to be a gift to André. After I had worked with André and gotten to know him, I felt the need to say thank you. And the reason I felt that need was that like Erykah, he had had a massive impact on my life in molding me as an artist. I still remember hearing Stankonia when I was nine years old. Totally flipped my world upside down. OutKast was really important for me because it was one of the first times it was okay for me to be whoever I wanted to be.

When I heard OutKast, I was just like, “Wow these are two black guys from the South making rock-funk-rap-jazz music.” It didn’t fit the mold of what a rapper should be, especially at that time. André in particular, because he was wearing crazy outfits and he was just everything a rapper was not supposed to be, and I loved that so much. So I decided to make a whole little project in ode to OutKast by doing interpolations of melodies and using samples and building new songs around them. It was a fun little thing, and I gave it to André and his reaction was crazy and he loved it. So I was like damn, if André feels this way about it, maybe I should finish it up and make it into an official thing.

It comes off as a very political project, despite there being very few lyrics. Was that its sound when you gave it to him?

Zach Witness: Yes and no. I gave this to him in 2016, and as you know, 2016 was a really crazy year in America. A lot of people were dying, racial tension was at an all time high. And everything that was going on was coming through me as I was creating that music, but I didn’t really realize that at first. After I sat back from the project, I was like, ‘Wow, these things that I’ve been thinking about found their way into the music.’ When I realized that, I decided that I should build upon that and make it more of a feature of the record. And it all seemed to tie together because originally I was creating this as an ode to the musical group OutKast, but when I stepped back from it I realized this was more an ode to the outcasts of the world.

A lot of my early experiences in life, having friends who were minorities and just dealing with a lot of oppression very much influenced Electric Revival. It sort of became this grand orchestration to articulate my take on what was happening in America and the world. It grew into this whole thing, but it originally started out as a gift for André.

You seem to be really into movements, whether that’s Dallas Boogie or something bigger and more political.

Zach Witness: Yeah totally. When I’ve described the record to people, I actually say, “This project is not an EP, it’s a movement.” I feel like it does has the potential to inspire and be the catalyst to change in this country and around the world. To me, Electric Revival is a motivator. And Electric Revival isn’t trying to promote any particular message. It’s a catalyst to creating dialogue and making people think about things. For me that’s one of the great beauties of music.

Music can pull things out of people without you having to force it down their throat. Electric Revival could motivate people who are dealing with oppression from classism and racism, being put into a box because of their sexuality, their gender, it could be a number of things. Every athlete has their pre-game music before they even step foot on the court or the field to get them hyped up and in the zone. And that’s what Electric Revival is: the pregame music for protests and standing up and saying something.

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