DJ Amir Digs Deep

As told to Joel Biswas, the veteran New York DJ shares being quarantined in Germany, growing up a music fanatic, and his longtime partnership with Kon.
By    July 20, 2020

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From feats of crate-digging that would make Cut Chemist’s palms sweaty to being one half of legendary DJ dance floor educators Kon & Amir rocking parties around the world, the softly spoken DJ Amir Abdullah knows what it’s like to be in the room where it happens. For two decades, he’s blazed a journeyman’s path across an ever-expanding panorama of black music – discovering, DJing and releasing the choicest of records – be it African disco, New York salsa, house, hip hop or some other mutant groove hinting at undiscovered sonic continents and hidden histories.

Lovingly restored and released through London label BBE and his own imprint 180 Proof Records in 2018, his re-issue of “Charles Mingus Quartet Live at the Strata Gallery” is a culmination of a half-life spent in every nook and groove of the music industry. It’s also a revelation. Easily one of the most significant jazz re-issues of the last decade, it captures a molten performance by a short-lived, ad-hoc group that sees hard-bop elder Mingus fan the embers of his searing jazz gospel while his band rings every last musical possibility out of the moment. Recorded live in the legendary Strata Gallery on 46 Selden in bombed-out early 70’s Detroit, it captures a generational torch-passing in a secret shrine of art and activism and the birthplace of Spiritual Jazz.

Since then, he’s less magpie for rare dance floor anthems than he is a cultural anthropologist meticulously deepening the canon. When we speak, he is supposed to be in London to DJ and lecture about the Mingus performance, although probably not in that order. Instead, we’re on Skype as death stalks our respective cities. He is holed up in Berlin, having traded an increasingly hollowed-out Brooklyn two years ago in search of a new working model for creative sustenance and community. The city has just implemented the strictest lockdown this side of the Hubei Province and his performance income has evaporated. The gap between promise and reality is more palpable with every pause in our conversation. 

He grapples with a personal history dedicated to the pursuit of his muse, casting backward glances within a looming shadow so big you can’t make out the edges. This moment feels like the completion of a cycle for this DJ, collector and industry insider who like so many artists, is still out here in the half-light guided by what he can hear if not see. What unfolds is testimony to passion, luck and perseverance and a testament to a vibrant community of rappers, producers and DJ’s and the families real and invented that hold them up. It’s also a clarion call for 2020 and whatever’s still coming to us. We’re all artists now, forced to reckon with what if anything, we’ll leave behind. Joel Biswas

It’s hard being away from family at a time like this. All my family in New York and other parts of the country are like “Yo, are you coming home?” Even if I had the money right now, Germany is in lockdown. Somebody today was like “Maybe you’re better off there.” Intellectually I understand that but emotionally it’s like “Damn, I wish I was with family.”

I’m originally from Boston. I moved to New York in ’95 and never looked back. I moved with two of my friends who happened to be hip hop producers and went by the name of The Vinyl Re-Animators. We had the biggest U-Haul truck you can get just for our records and then another one for our furniture. I am amazed the floor didn’t cave in. We had records in every room. We lived in Park Slope at Fourth and Union. My room was right above Union Street Station. We were only paying like three hundred and thirty-five dollars each which tells you how long ago that was. They knew a lot of cats because they had been DJing and producing a lot longer than me so whenever cats would come to town who they knew from the industry, they would come by the house. They knew Stretch and Bobbito, so right when I first got to the city I was going to Stretch and Bob’s show, I was going to shows by Martin Moore & Mayhem and DJ Riz at WNYU.

And because they had a label together, they produced this dude from Worcester, L da Headtoucha’s track, “Too Complex.” It was produced in our apartment. I knew Ed O.G. from before I came to New York and he recorded an EP in our house around ’96. We had L-Fudge – his single that was released on Rawkus was recorded in our house and that’s part of the reason I quit grad school. I’m in there trying to study and these dudes are tapping on their SP 1200 and S 950 and I’m like, “If I can’t stop them, I’m just gonna join them.” So I just dropped out and I decided to get into music and that was my thing.

They were pressing the “Too Complex” twelves themselves and they gave them to Fat Beats who had a distribution arm. I needed a job to pay the rent and Fat Beats was looking for a sales person. I had never done sales before but I needed a job and they hired me. I was the guy to bring in US sales because back then most of those 12 inches were getting sold in Europe or Japan. The US stores weren’t gonna take a chance on an artist they had never heard of. I was somewhat successful at it because being a record collector I travelled up and down the country and knew different stores. I was going to different cities and tearing out the section of the phonebook with record stores.  There was no one marketplace where you could find this stuff and find the information like eBay or Popsike. I was in a local hotel with the phone book looking up record stores and calling them because that’s what you did. That’s what it was. 

I grew up in a household full of music. My father had a lot of jazz records. He grew up with Jaki Byard who played with Mingus among others. So my dad listened to a lot of jazz, my mother was into gospel, my brothers and sisters all kinds of music so I grew up on that. When hip hop came around and they were sampling things or just playing those disco riffs – I would be like, “Man, that’s my brother’s record,” like an instant connection. I remember going to the store to get Stetsasonic’s first album and they were out of it. They gave me Public Enemy’s first album. I hadn’t heard of them and this dude was like “Trust me, this is a really good album.” So that’s how I started collecting, following recommendations.

When I got to college, I started one of the first hip hop radio shows there in ’89 and artists used to come through. We had Young Black Teenagers come through and they were all white and we were like “um…” (laughs). But it was cool. We had the Afros come through. Whoever was the program director there in the 60’s and 70’s had hooked it up because they had all these rare jazz and funk records. So years later when they sold some of their collection I was in there getting things that go for like 700 dollars a record. And I would listen to them while I was there, learning and getting a heads-up on stuff to collect.

We pressed peoples’ records and we also acted as A&R so we were picky about what we would take and what we wouldn’t. A lot of people would be pissed at us because we were too high-brow or whatever but there is a reason that a lot of Fat Beats records are classics now. For me, the guy that who was the start of Fat Beats distribution was Rich King. When you mention that dude, you’ll get one of two reactions. One, “I want to kill that dude” or “That guy gave me a career and taught me a lot.” I grew up on hip hop so there wasn’t a lot he could tell me or teach me about hip hop but he taught me how to take it over.

Because when he left to form his own label called Magnum and a distribution deal through Rawkus he was like “I’m giving the reigns to you”. This is after me being there for less than two years and he’s like “I know you know what’s up, you know? I see how you move.” He taught me that the number one rule is that when people come to you with music that they want to put out as a 12 inch or an album, they can be the biggest name ever but if it’s not good you have to comfortable saying no. If my company isn’t going to go out of business by not putting this out, then I can walk away. 

A friend reminded me recently that I said no to Danger Mouse when he first came out but I don’t remember it [laughing]. But I would be doing us both a disservice by putting something out that didn’t truly represent him. I had the same situation with Alchemist. He had a label that he still has called ALC. He had a single he was doing with Big Daddy Kane that was really good and his lawyer wanted an advance. And I was like, “I won’t be mad if this comes out somewhere else but we can’t afford that,” and a week later they came back. We did a few records with him. We did three or four Big Noyd records. We still cool.

At the same time I started with Fat Beats in late ’96, me and Kon started these “On Track” beat tapes. We weren’t the first ones to do this but the idea was making mixes on cassettes of all of the best samples that all our favorite producers were using. Soul Man down in Philly was doing it, Supreme La Rock in Seattle and one of the guys I lived with DJ Shame had done one in ’94, DJ Muro was doing them in Japan. We were making tapes for each other and we combined efforts. We separated ourselves by doing them in groups by artist– our favorite Beatnuts samples followed by Pete Rock samples.

I remember when Gang Starr had an in-store at Fat Beats in ’97 at the store on 6th avenue and I went straight up to Guru and Premier and made a little speech and they both gave me a drop and that’s how we kicked off the second volume. We had a drop from Black Thought and after that started getting them from all kinds of people – Pete Rock, Spinna – wish I’d got one from Dilla! “Yo, this is Guru and Preem and we’re chillin’ with Kon and Amir…” Because of where I was, I would know what samples would be on records before they were released and we could time our releases. People would be like, “How they were getting these?” I have met people in Europe and Japan who still have cassettes with my pager number on them. You had to page me in you wanted more. It was the time of big mixtapes – DJ Clue, S&S, DJ Envy coming with the hottest rap songs and we’re there featuring a ten second sample mixed into twenty seconds of something else with no track list. It took a lot of faith for people to check them out. A lot of people were like “Get out of here with that.”

Some of them might be on Mixcloud but that’s really it because they are not cleared. I have a copy of each of them. The last “On Track” we did was in 2006 around the same time we released our first record on BBE “The Kings of Digging” which was Kon and Amir vs. DJ Muro.

Our first actual record was on a label called Seven Heads and called “Kon and Amir presents Uncle Junior’s Friday Fish Fry” in 2004 and it did well but the label went out of business. So we had already gotten a taste of what it was like to put out your own record and I still wanted to do that. We approached Ubiquity too but Peter Adarkwah from BBE who I had already met came with the “Kings of Digging” series idea and I was like, “cool.” I left Fat Beats in 2005 and was working in distribution for ABB records out of Cali.  I was at the Midem music conference in Cannes and I approached the BBE guys with the idea of starting our own series called “Off Track”. We started putting not only things that people had sampled but really rare stuff that people might sample. Most Uber-nerds knew our stuff but people like DJ Muro had gone super-deep so we were on some ego shit like “Let’s start our own series and really flex on people about what we really have.”

Kon came with the really ill, rare disco records that are worth thousands now. I did all jazz for the first series and after that all African. I wish I still had all those records because they’re worth thousands now – but you got to put something back in circulation. 

I have been away from New York for two years now but the last time I was there I felt that there weren’t good disco or house scenes or good house parties…Funk, soul, Latin, there was none of that kind of thing going on. When I lived there, I had a monthly night right across the street from where our house that was always advertised as “Tastemakers’ Thursday” and people would come up and be like “Why you ain’t play no Drake? You know you gotta play some trap.” Dude, you can hear that every night of the week, anywhere. Tonight, you gotta take a break. Me and my girl wanted to explore living in another country, seeing what it was like. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been able to make it here yet.

It’s been more of a struggle than I expected. Someone warned me but I ignored the advice that “You were probably making all that money and getting all that recognition” because you weren’t here all the time” so when you are here it’s like an event, like top dollar. But here they don’t pay a lot and ask you to go for like seven, ten hours for like 200 euros, fill out an invoice and wait like a month to get paid. So I travel around Europe where the money is at. But it’s still a challenge because I feel like I’m playing a young man’s game. There are a lot of cats out here doing their thing. Some cats are just getting on to records Kon and I put out. There is a store in Paris called Superfly Records with a lot of dope super rare shit and I had to correct them when they featured something as the first time it was released on a comp when we put it out ten years ago.

When Wax Poetics first started, one of the owners Andre Torres came to me and he wanted to see if Fat Beats were interested in taking some copies. We were already distributing magazines like that –  Big Daddy from the UK which I would import from London. So I took like 500 copies and they were like popping bottles (laughs). So when they started a label, I was the first person they thought about coming to and I started running it. They were putting stuff out by contacting the original artists.

The first record that I decided I wanted to do myself was the Lyman Woodward Organisation’s “Saturday Night Special” on Strata. It’s got this iconic cover of money, a gun and a clip on a hotel bedspread.  I reached out to my boy House Shoes in Detroit and he put me in contact John Sinclair who was down with Strata back in the day and with Lyman.  I flew out to Detroit and took him to his favorite restaurant to show that I really wanted to do this. He came with Ron English who played on a lot of Strata Records and told me all these stories from back in the day and they had the masters. So I went back to the Wax Poetics guys like “Yo, we need to re-issue this catalog”. I was surprised that they said no – I was like, “Isn’t this the mission that we’re on?!”

By that time in 2008, they were making a lot of money and were getting into more popular stuff. So in 2009, a friend reached out about something called the Scion’s iQ museum – it was like a culture project – a label, radio, performances, similar to the Red Bull Academy. They were doing it first in America. I interviewed Moodymann in 2011 for one of their events in LA. They had asked for proposals for this online museum and I submitted one for Strata Records and they accepted.

So they flew me and a camera crew to Detroit and I met the owner of Strata Records Barbara Cox and interviewed her and Ron English and his wife at her house. She brought all these masters upstairs from the basement and I was like, “This is my chance.” I asked her if she would ever think about doing a licensing deal with me. After a year, until everything was signed and in production, the news got out and people were like “Whaaat? How?” I didn’t do anything different but talk to her – she’s in the phone book. People were acting like I did this big excavation and dug to China to find her but that just wasn’t the case. She was there and I took the chance to ask. 

For the uninitiated, the Strata story starts with the history of Detroit. For instance, in 1967 and ’68, they had two riots in a row. The first was over police brutality in the community and the other was over the assassination of Martin Luther King. Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quartet were from Detroit and they had put out two records on Blue Note in the late 60’s. They left because they didn’t really appreciate the A&R advice or feedback from Duke Pearson who was himself a famous jazz musician. So they went off and decided to do stuff own their own and that became Strata. They were putting on shows for people and had their own gallery and concert space at 46 Selden. They had their own booking agency. 

And it wasn’t until ’70, ’71 that they started a record label. Alongside Tribe Records, they are so significant because of what they did for the community – they were an artist-run label, community-based project trying to give people in a local Detroit community a chance. Some of the early artists on Strata were Motown session players. Lyman Woodward had been music director for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. They had worked for Motown when they couldn’t work in jazz and when that wasn’t happening any more, labels like Strata and Tribe let them put out what they really wanted to do. Strata was a lifeline for a city that had gone through so much and a lifeline for a lot of these people who didn’t have the avenues to express themselves. They were also into educating the public. In 1970, the guys from Strata started the first jazz music program at Oberlin College.

In 1970, you gotta understand that most American colleges it was all about classical music. Now jazz music is what it is for these programs and it started with Strata. 

When I first went to Berlin in 2017, Barbara Cox at Strata emailed me saying that her friend Hermione Brooks (widow of drummer Roy Brooks, who plays on the recording) had the Mingus master and asked if would I want to put that out. So I had John Morales (the legendary disco DJ) stop by her house in New Jersey and pick it up and send me the music. I had no idea what to expect. It was five and half hours of tape. There is an interview with Roy Brooks talking about the state of jazz at the time. There’s some drunk guy there shouting “Chuck, man, you’re great!” and people laughing. I left shit in like that because I want you to feel like you were there. I hate when it’s so sterilized. Bud Spengler is the host of the show you can hear on there. He was one of the engineers at 46 Selden as well as a drummer. In fact, he was in the group Sphere released on Strata. I used to be in touch and he’d call me and ask me to send him records. He was living in a hospice and he passed before they got there.

The first thing I did was try to contact Sue Mingus – even though it was released on Strata, she owns the rights to his music. I had to track down photos of each member of the band – because Mingus had never played with these dudes – now referred to as his last great quintet. There were two Joe Gardners and we couldn’t figure out who was who (laughs). It’s the first record with John Stubblefield who got kicked out of the group six months later. So it’s a collective of people that is rare. There are two originals: “Dizzy’s Profile” and “Nod Your Head Blues” that had never been recorded before. Sue Mingus wrote the liner notes.  Herbie Hancock performed there the week after the Mingus Show — Weather Report, Chick Corea, Elvin Jones, Keith Jarrett — they all played there.  I’m trying to get a hold of those recordings. It would be the next piece of the puzzle but people are obviously worried about their lives right now and that’s all on hold.

I am trying to reach out with friends here and seeing if we can stream as a collective. I’m researching, refining the Mingus lecture, starting one on the Fat Beats era and my take on it. When this is over I want to have something to offer because who knows how the world of DJing is going to be after this?  This is real life that we are going through – there are a million other stories that are more intense than this one. It’s gonna get worse before to gets better. 

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