“This Art Gotta Get Displayed”: An Interview with DJ Taye

Jack Riedy speaks with DJ Taye about his debut Hyperdub album, being fake woke, and turning down pills from fans.
By    March 1, 2018

Photo by Andy J. Scott.

DJ Taye’s garden-level apartment in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood is decorated in shades of generically on-trend gray. The only signifiers of the current resident are a Macbook sitting on the couch playing Thundercat and a DJ-808 rig filling the entire coffee table — its ruptured packaging stashed in a corner. A new place is on lock for when he returns from his near constant touring, but the road has been such a constant that he’s temporarily lodged in a more central part of the city than the south suburbs he grew up in.

The producer born Dante Sanders-Houston was only 16 when he tried out for Teklife, Chicago’s premiere footwork crew. He played his tracks for DJs Spinn and the late legend DJ Rashad, and they welcomed him into the fold. Since then, he has toured the world, dropped a series of EPs, and popped up on his crew members’ solo works and compilations. Now 23, Taye is ready to make a new kind of statement.

Still Trippin’, DJ Taye’s debut album, drops this week. The album is 50 minutes of footwork as mural—shimmering keys paired with steady splotches of triplet kicks. On lead single “Trippin’” Taye spotlights his talent as an MC, a rarity for a footwork producer. He uses the generosity of the album format to broaden his palette. The chords in opener “2094” flow into each other like great jazz. It looks like an aerial view of a futuristic city, blurring and resolving through rain.

“Closer” flashes a glitchy strobe over samples that sound like background music for Halloween cartoons. Taye includes features from vocalists and live players. As expected, multiple comrades from Teklife make guest appearances. DJ Taye said that he hoped the album would be an entry point to Teklife, to footwork, like Double Cup, the departed DJ Rashad’s magnum opus.

I met Taye a few days after he performed at a block party, his gear set up next to piles of snow outside the Empty Bottle. When I arrived in the afternoon, he first helped a photographer carry her gear from his ersatz living room to her car. He was decked out in Teklife sweats and a shirt that says “haram” beneath the blooming Adidas logo. He sheepishly explained that he just woke up and fixed a fresh pot of coffee. DJ Taye joined me on the couch and talked about free drugs, the fake woke, and the future of footwork. —Jack Riedy

[Ed. Note] Enjoy a stream of Still Trippin’ below.

You tried out for Teklife at age 16. What was that tryout like?

DJ Taye: It was just showing ‘em my music. I just played the tracks for Spinn and Rashad. It was after one, like, spitting all these notes out. I sampled the old Kanye West song called “Get ‘Em High,” and it was the part where he was like, “We don’t wanna hear that weak shit no more.” It fit the attitude and the energy, and they fucked with it. That was one of the key ones that they liked.

Is that the track you led with?

DJ Taye: No, I didn’t even lead with that honestly. When I first started making footwork tracks, I was already making music. Once I started making footwork tracks, my friends, the people I grew up around who would just footwork around me, were like, “Ah, they’re okay.” But once I made that one track, they were like, “Ah, that’s the weakest track we ever heard.” And I was like, “That’s just like some haterade shit.” As soon as I went up there, Rashad and Spinn were just like, “This is the coldest shit.” I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t know it was like…I thought it wasn’t good.

Were there other people with you trying out? Was it a competitive thing, or did you get lucky?

DJ Taye: It wasn’t like I knew ‘em, ‘cause I didn’t know ‘em. At that time, I didn’t know Rashad. That was my first time meeting him. I knew Manny, but we didn’t realize we knew each other. I just realized the other day that me and Manny first met each other just around the neighborhood, footworking with mutual friends. But that was my first time meeting him. I didn’t see anybody else trying out, but a few years later, I heard there was other people trying out. Spinn said he didn’t even know what happened to the other people trying out.

Did you feel like the pressure was on when you had this tryout?

DJ Taye: If they like it, they like it. If they don’t, I’m going to keep going. Their positive feedback led me to be like, “I’m gonna believe in my music way more,” because it gave me way more to push with.

You’ve been with them for a long time now. Does it feel like there’s a generation gap between you and the other guys in Teklife?

DJ Taye: It’s always been like that. I’m young, but I think that music is all about how much knowledge you can get. Beyond that, certain things like social media, ways of communication, then, it’s a generational thing and everybody is kind of different. Even me and Manny, we’re three years apart. We might always be on the phone, but in different ways, you know? We’re not always texting somebody, we’re not always on Facebook or Twitter, we’re probably doing something different. Like, my little brother, I don’t know what he do on the phone. Probably just go on YouTube.

You have been making tracks for a long time, but you started out making hip-hop. You cleared all your music before the Break It Down EP, took all that off the internet. Why was that? Did that feel like a new start for you?

DJ Taye: I don’t wanna offend other artists, or anybody else that sampled their tracks. I want to be selling they music. Just a respect thing. Yeah, I cleared it because I didn’t want to deal with any random sampling. I’m pretty sure it’s never happened on Bandcamp, but I didn’t want to deal with it.

Legal trouble?

DJ Taye: I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t happen, but it was just to be safe.

Did you recycle any of those tracks, maybe swap out a sample to put them out again? Or are you closing the book on the old tracks?

DJ Taye: They’re old tracks, and I can’t even really remember what releases aren’t on there anymore. I think I was picking the best, you know? Which ones really need to be heard. I don’t want to distract anybody from my music. I want them to come to listen to Break It Down, all the new stuff, and be like, “Oh, I gotta keep digging for more.” I don’t want them to go listen to old stuff, ew.

When you’re working on a beat, how do you decide if it needs vocals? How do you decide what gets added over an instrumental, or if it’s fine by itself?

DJ Taye: Sometimes stuff can be instrumental. I feel like everything instrumental is cool, but I feel like it’s just playing a beat, you know? It’s cool, but it should have some type of change-ups where it’s not just a beat. I feel like the more we build upon it, the more people are going to be able to relate to it. The more we just stick to one thing, then we just kinda making music for the same person, you know? And I’m not saying that, if you were listening for a long time, “Yeah I’m not making this next track for you.” I don’t want you to be listening to the same thing that you just heard me doing last year.

How do you choose who you want to work with? Especially outside the Teklife crew?

DJ Taye: “Who do I know, who’s easy, accessible, and wanting to work right now? What can we build?” When it happens organically. When we have time to build, we’ll build. Even with Teklife or any of my friends. The singers happened naturally on the album, all of that. Honestly, I just meet people and I’m like, “Yo, you want to work?”

Is there anyone that you haven’t heard from yet that you’re hoping to collab with one day?

DJ Taye: I got a few. It’s a few that I could see happening from the sounds that I can hear. There are rappers that I never even heard about that just wanna collaborate with me now, just off the project.

Is it tough to work on new music, knowing you’ve got the album ready to go but not officially out?

DJ Taye: Yeah, yeah. It’s real weird, bro. It’s like, “Hm. What am I making next?” Already seeing the visions, but don’t wanna go too far with it. I just gotta bring myself back and think, “You’re just doing exactly what you was doing when you was writing the album, you was just excited to put out some art.” That’s really it. And I was just excited to make visions, just put out the art, and just display a musical message. When I start making songs, I instantly write treatments for videos because I have the ideas flowing in my head.

A couple years back you said you were finishing up your first year of college. Are you full-time on music now?

DJ Taye: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn’t drop out or nothing, it wasn’t because of grades or nothing. It was really just money and I thought I might as well just finish and find a job. I got a department job. I was working for half a year and stacking up to go back to school. But then I started playing local shows, and then I ended up going to the Midwest—Detroit, Minnesota to play a couple shows. When I was doing that, I thought maybe I could keep at least the local circuit going.

I was just trying to do that for a couple years, and then it just kept going. Hopefully the art will like bring me back to go back to school and learn a little bit more and do something bigger with it. I was electrical engineering, so maybe I could make something like this [DJ-808], who knows.

You started out deejaying at a party. Now that you’re touring Europe and headlining shows, does it still feel like trying to put on a good party?

DJ Taye: Yeah. Honestly, it do. For real. I wanted to be a DJ when I was in seventh grade. It was like toward the end of the year, free time. We did all our work, we got our grades and stuff, so we kinda just waiting for summer to come. We was just in the class like…Crank that. Soulja Boy. Before he even hit the radio. This was when I realized we had a good eye on the underground, even as kids. When YouTube came, me and my friend were the first people like, “Oh, whatcha all in here doing, playing Neopets? We got YouTube.” I’m just pulling up songs on YouTube and just like doing classic two-tab.

Two-tab deejaying?

DJ Taye: This was like literally sixth grade, this was like 2005, bro. And I was just playing tracks, but everybody liked it and I just felt like I was giving energy to the class. Then summer came and I was in my grandma’s empty basement. And it’s not even like I missed certain friends, I just missed controlling the vibe. It was funny. I missed giving off good energy to everybody. I think that’s when I first realized I wanted to deejay. I was deejaying high school parties after that. I was 15, 16. People were shooting in high school parties and shit. South suburbs.

Do you feel like you have to play different music to different crowds, or do you show up with the same set?

DJ Taye: Sometimes I feel like when I’m in Europe I can go as crazy as I want. Because I feel like they know a lot of your music. If the track is original, I feel like they’re just going to like the tone, or the drums, or whatever the fuck if they don’t know it. But in certain places it feels like I gotta introduce, you know? Not play too much technical shit, but maybe play more radio edits or Top 40 stuff that they would know.

Are you picking up local sounds when you travel?

DJ Taye: Yeah. Either from Shazaming stuff that I’m hearing locally, or when I was in San Diego, I went to the coast out there. It was almost sunset, and the waves was still going, so I just pulled out my phone and started recording to get some sample.

When you were working on the album, was there anything specific that you were influenced by?

DJ Taye: It’s kind of an album to the fake woke.

What do you mean by that?

DJ Taye: It’s an album to the fake woke as far as, the fake woke won’t get it, but the real woke would get it. The real woke would know that the album is talking about the fake woke. Especially “Trippin’.” “You fake trippin’ I stay trippin’,” little stuff like that. Research chemicals versus real acid. 2014 was the age of the awakening, I guess. That’s why everybody was like, “retrograde, retrograde…Mercury’s in retrograde.”

But meditation and all that helped me achieve a lot of stuff on this album, and keep my focus and clarity. When I first started, I was meditating with binaural beats with assists sometimes, and the tones was dope. The alpha and the beta waves activate that part of the brain or whatever the fuck. I just wanted to be like, “Yo, that’s a cool-ass concept and if I just made some soundscapes on the album that touched in that same type of way…”

I was thinking about sampling the sounds, but maybe I could just try to make my own isochronic tone. I tried to make some trippy chords, and it draws you in, in the same type of way. People were saying it does actually remind them of meditation music, so I gave off what I wanted to.

It’s interesting that you’re trying to make some meditation music, but it’s also music you could dance to. Do you see that as two separate goals or were you trying to fuse the two?

DJ Taye: When I found out about footwork music, it was kind of a meditation for me, between like playing video games, doing homework, exercising, and going to sleep. I just felt like I wrapped around footwork so much. Just constantly. It literally became like my mantra, my meditation. With the album I had to come back to that and give it off to the world, but still make it dance-able. People were like, “This is a driving album.” My cousin was like, “Yo, I’m working out to ‘Trippin’’ right now on the treadmill today.” I always like hearing that different stuff, because it’s exactly what I made the album for, to be used for different purposes.

Since you’ve finished it, have you listened to it a lot yourself?

DJ Taye: I listen to it a lot as my own soundtrack, let it play. I’m glad I’m not tired of it. I wanted to make a record I wouldn’t get tired of, like, I can look back and hopefully I can tell my kids one day.

You’ve got that research chemical call-out on “Trippin’,” and you have lines on “Smokeout” about staying off the Xans. Do you think certain substances are a problem in the scene, or is that just your preference?

DJ Taye: I’m not gonna sit here and be like, “Listen here y’all, stop doing drugs.” That’s not what I’m saying. But, people kind of wrap they life around one thing, you know? It’s just my personal preference to see this type of stuff, and decide that I’m gonna stay away from all this.

I know what I like, and I know what I’ve seen. I know people fear the unknown, and I kind of don’t got no fear because…Not to say that nothing’s unknown, but I’m more aware of what’s out there. I’m not about to be like poppin’ Xans or doing nothing like that because it’s laced with fentanyl. I’m not going to be getting acid from people because it’s more than likely just research chemicals. Even that reggie. A research chemical is worse than reggie. It’s gotta be worse than reggie, because reggie is natural.

Does that happen to you when you’re on tour? Do people come up offering stuff that you have to turn down?

DJ Taye: All the time, all the time. Man, it’s not cool, bro. This is why I make albums like this. It’s not cool. Like, people have come up to me in London and different places and tried to hand me pills, random pills. And I’m like, “No, I don’t want this shit. I don’t know you, I don’t want your pill, I don’t want your medication.” Like, what do we live in today?

I don’t know man, I’m not even down on doing drugs, because we’ve all done our fair share of stuff, I’m not judging nobody. Do your own thing. I don’t want anybody to be turning to drugs because they was listening to my music. If they was enlightened or they got more psychedelic because they was listening to my music and they started creating some stuff, power to you. I’m happy. I don’t want nobody to to fuck themselves up over something I said, you know?

I love the line “You started making footwork just to get up in the Fader.” Do you feel like footwork is getting the respect it should? Or do you think it still has a long way to go before it is as popular as it should be?

DJ Taye: I feel like it’s growing in popularity almost every day at this point. More releases coming out. It’s steady growing. Every year, we’re like, “Oh, I thought it was gonna start dying off,” but every time you look back, it’s more regular music trying to take from the sound. That’s why I wrote that line. People hear stuff and they think, “Ah, you can get press like that? I can make that. I can do that.”

Can you tell just from hearing a track, like, “Oh, they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re new?”

DJ Taye: Yeah. I actually can, I actually can. I try to be cool about it, just try to help. Look, I try to hear the good in everybody’s music even if they’re new. I try to remember who I am, I try to remember where I came from, and I’m not the ruler of this shit.

Do you think that Teklife is ever going to get in the studio all together?

DJ Taye: That’s what I’ve been telling ‘em! I’ve been saying, the compilations are nice, but it’d be better if we all like sat down and made some heat as a group. People want to hear Teklife collectively. Crews should come together. Wu-Tang.

The guitar part on “Another4” has this Western cowboy twang, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard that sound on a dance track before. Who played that guitar part?

DJ Taye: I did. The way I placed it too, if you pay attention, that’s literally the mid-point of the album, and if you get to the end, there’s more guitar and bass. I try to place the elements in certain ways to give you a certain feeling, to give it a story and set the mood. I want to do that on my next records. I used to play the trumpet but I wanna do some live instrumentation footwork, I wanna see what that would do. Make it a whole show, because the possibilities are endless, so why would we just stop? This art gotta get displayed.

You said you work on video treatments. Does that visual stuff come into your mind as you’re working on a track?

DJ Taye: All these videos that I was playing in my head, they was all supposed to go to some type of storyline. I’m still plotting it in a chronological order, when I’m gonna shoot ‘em all and which ways I’m gonna release the videos, but I’m thinking of shooting more of a short film. More dramatic, not really no words, but you see what’s going on. You see Chicago, you see parties, but you also see violence. You just see what people actually go through. You see babies and shit, and you see cemeteries and shit. That’s what I’m seeing in my head as I’m making this album. A bunch of realness, a bunch of happiness, just a bunch of people turnt up, but also all the turmoil that I’ve had to deal with. This album was therapeutic for me in a way, to come back to Chicago and have something positive to put out.

Speaking of keeping it Chicago, what are your touring plans? Are you gonna promote the record in the city or are they gonna take you all over the place?

DJ Taye: I’m tryna figure it out. I’m going on tour here next month, but come spring I wanna do some stuff in Chicago. I wanna do some stuff in America, I wanna hit some Canada. I wanna hit places I haven’t been before, maybe South America, Japan, Australia. I don’t know how it’s gonna happen but I wanna do a tour of America with Spinn, Manny, PayPal, DJ Lucky, and anybody else If I could get like a van or a bus or anything like that, I would just travel to every city with merch and throw a footwork party on the road, turnt up. Come back after the road and just work on more music.

Do you have any advice for young musicians who are trying to get into their scene, wherever they may be?

DJ Taye: I would say create it. Just believe in yourself and just be organic. Don’t be paying attention to everybody else. Especially in Chicago, it’s easy to get jealous of the next person getting more, like they like to say it, clout. Don’t try to chase accolades or clout or even money. Just keep pushing and it’s all gonna come organically. Put out good energy, you’ll get the good energy back. It’s the same thing.

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