“This is Creativity”: A Conversation with DJ Muggs

Son Raw speaks to the legendary producer about putting out his latest record through the label Sacred Bones, how the industry has improved since the file-sharing days, and much more.
By    March 16, 2021

Courtesy of Sacred Bones

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DJ Muggs is a busy man. Since we linked up for this interview to discuss his forthcoming Dies Occidendum project on Sacred Bones, he’s dropped Death & the Magician, an excellent album with rising underground star Rome Streetz, and a 24 minute short film collecting the project’s videos. But what’s truly impressive isn’t just the quantity but the quality: Muggs’ output, from his initial run with Cypress Hill to his latest ventures as an underground leading light, showcase a care for detail and a passion for artistry all to rare in an industry that has prioritized the quick buck and shameless trend hopping. Throughout our conversation, I was struck by his energy and passion for life, and while we were ostensibly there to discuss a single project, the conversation came to cover creativity, his output new and old, and even some life lessons for maximizing one’s potential in a creative industry.Son Raw


Dies Occidendum: a dark album that came out after a dark year. How have you been holding up?


Muggs: This has been the best year of my life, bro. This shit been good, focused; I’ve had time for no bullshit. I’ve been up every morning at 6 o’clock, working out, in the studio, no distractions, no problems, got a big-ass big-screen TV, I can order food to the house, there’s no problems – Americans are fucking spoiled.


I’ve got to get on that level.


Muggs: All my creative friends have said that this has been the best year of their lives. They have time to clean their closets out; they have time to do shit they didn’t have time to do before; focus has been crazy. Or you don’t and you’re that other dude. We don’t get down like that over here.


That’s great to hear. Over the years, people that have followed you, they know that you’ve done a lot of work in different styles – you’ve done Dust in the early 2000s, which was trip-hop, Bass for Your Face, Cross My Heart Hope to Die [EP]. In terms of this new work, why this album right now? What brought this out of you in this moment?


Muggs: It’s been done. I’ve had this music. I just make so much music all the time, I’ve got albums that are done. I actually have probably about 100 songs for the Black Goat projects already finished. When the label approached me to put out an independent hip-hop record, I was like, “Nah, I’m good man,” but I’ve got some stuff that would work really good with this label because I love Sacred Bones, so I sent them over some things, and they were like, “Yeah. This is it, right here.” I just held the music because the music’s timeless, so it’s just the right people to put it out with and when to put it out. I didn’t know when that was going to happen; I just had to figure out how to get to it.


So, they approached you with the project, but you were already kind of familiar with them. What was some of the music that they put out that was on your radar?


Muggs: David Lynch, all of the fucking [John] Carpenter stuff – I’m a big fan of soundtrack music and a big David Lynch fan, so that’s what I pretty much had known them for.


That’s interesting because one of the things that stood out, is Dies Occidendum’s horror movie vibe, but when you compare it to a lot of hip-hop, it’s not so much the “Slasher” or the serial killer thing; it’s a really creepy album, and it leans on the atmospheric.


Muggs: What was interesting was that I produced the last Die Antwoord album, remember? I did 9 songs, and then I was managing them for like 2 years. In the process of all that, me and Yolandi were working on a solo project, just me and her, called The Black Goat. A lot of these tracks were made during that time 10 years ago, but we just ended up not putting the project out, so there are a lot of instrumentals from that time and space. I’m big into score music, soundtrack music, mood stuff; big Ennio Morricone fan too, Danny Elfman.


For fans, when we heard it was coming out on Sacred Bones, people were surprised, but at the same time were like, “Oh, that makes total sense given what you’ve done, and given your history.”


Muggs: And that’s why I couldn’t put this music out on my label, because my fans of the hip-hop shit would be like, “The fuck is this?” Now that it goes through them, it makes perfect sense. Like I said, I was just waiting for the right partner because you could have the best fucking music in the world, but if you don’t put it out the right way, with the right people, it’s just going to disappear in like a minute.


That’s the thing with the internet right now – there’s a lot going on, but you’ve managed to present your music in a way where it connects with people. I’m thinking of the more recent hip-hop stuff with Mach-Hommy and Eto and all of that, but even going into this one, the fans that are on that label would be like, “Oh, DJ Muggs, I remember him. Oh shit, he’s doing stuff that I like right now.”


Muggs: Right. It’s just having strategic partners for whatever you’re trying to accomplish, and that goes for every different thing. I’m very happy I got connected with them because they know how to put this record out there; they’ve done everything right. I’m used to doing everything on my own because I haven’t had a record deal in damn-near 20 years. It’s definitely fun working with a label that knows that they’re doing.


In terms of navigating the industry, Cypress was on Sony for a long time and that involved big studios, and then the game got a little fucked up with filesharing but there were also opportunities for home recording. Both in terms of creating the music and also putting it out, how are you finding the landscape right now?


Muggs: I think it’s the greatest time; it’s so fucking easy right now. To give you real history, back in 2004 maybe, everything took a shit – records went from selling a gang of records, all of this money that went to music went to 0. They didn’t have streaming down yet; there wasn’t Spotify, there wasn’t Apple Music, there was no YouTube popping like now. It was Napster, and shit was still kind of weird, bro. You didn’t know what the fuck. For 13 years, music was just in the red; they had to figure this shit out. Once they started figuring this shit out, things started getting easier. I used to shoot a video, a cheap video would cost me $5,000 before, but then I had to make copies, then I had to hire a video promotion dude, then he had to take it up to these places, then we had to try to get it on. Now, I’m doing videos for $200, it’s so easy and so accessible. Now, with the infrastructure already built out, now you just need to get in there and go directly to the consumer and just work and do your thing. Now you’ve got to be super on-point with your consumer, your customer care has got to be ridiculous, quality product, consistent product. I love it now.


I appreciate that.


Muggs: It’s super fun now for me. Usually, I’ve got to deal with some fucking idiots in the label or something, but now, I can just do my thing, and when I find the right creative partners to do separate projects with, I plug in with them and we do it.


One of the cool things that I’ve noticed, you’ve got different price points for people. I know that’s a little more business than the musical side, but I thought that’s got a lot of potential because if someone wants to stream it, they can discover it, but if someone’s a die-hard fan, they can buy it for a regular price, and if someone’s a collector, they can put a little bit more money in it and invest in the art. Do you think that’s a sustainable model for artists like yourself that are working independently?


Muggs: I do. I think it’s a good model. I think it gives the fans a choice if they want, but the thing is, once you’ve got a fanbase – like me, I’m about less volume and more of the boutique prices and the boutique-y music, top-quality everything for everybody. I love the tier system. Sometimes I put records out and they’re just not for everybody, there’s a little bit, they’re expensive, but they’re just not for everybody. I wish I could have a Rolls-Royce, but they’re not for me; I can’t afford it. These are art pieces. I think music could be valued at so much, I think people started expecting that music is just free. If you want to go steal my record, go steal it, go fucking steal it and have it for free. These vinyls, they make just enough money to keep the lights on and pay the employees and keep the shit flowing.


Just to give you an example, I discovered Al Divino through the one you put out just a few months ago, and now I got a print from him, and now it’s going to his pocket and it’s keeping it moving. One of the things that’s been interesting, for a certain tier of emcee, it’s almost become a rite of passage to have a Muggs album because Eto had one, and Mach had two, and now it just keeps on going. How do you feel in kind of that role, where I feel like people are looking to you like, “Okay, who is he going to put on next?”


Muggs: It’s who I connect with as a human. I can’t meet a lot of kids like, “Yo, I want to work with you.” We ain’t met. I can’t work with people off the Internet. I’m still old-school when it comes to face-to-face. I’m going to come make my beats, it’s going to take me however long, you’re going to come rap on the beat, and now you leave. Now, you’re fucking done, and I’ve got to fucking mix it, now I’ve got to master it, now I’ve got to spend a fucking month tweaking on it and sequencing it. So it’s like, who do I feel like putting my energy into? I’d rather play with my kids and my dog and go to Hawaii. I really enjoy helping these youngsters and showing ‘em, “Look, this is how you can get paid. If you build your infrastructure, if you do ‘A-B-C-D-E,’ you’re going to have a good life, you make $100,000 a year, you can travel the world.” Maybe you’ll make $50,000 a year and travel the world, it’s better than going and getting a job and getting 2-week vacations a year. If you can learn how to take care of your fans, if you know what people want, you lock in and keep building and you’re smart, you have the right to access about 6 billion people right now. Streaming’s only at 5% of its potential. Wait until streaming gets to 30% of its potential. If you could lock something in and everybody’s just on their phone around the world pushing a fucking button when everything switches over to Blockchain money, it’s a wrap.


You might want to start a rap business course out of this.


Muggs: We do. We do this music for fun, man. Money – we’ve been rich for 30 years; money’s the easy part. It’s just having fun, making art, is both fun and challenging.


Getting back into that art, into that record, another element that stands out in the single where you put out the video for “Nigrum Mortem,” is the psych-rock influence. You’ve always said that you’ve been a fan of Sabbath and you’ve been a fan of that era. One of the things that stood out for me in that record was the drumming was just really, really sick. Was that live drumming and instrumentation?


Muggs: That was a kid called Scott Abels, a really good friend of mine; he plays with the Heptones and does a lot of Ska stuff and records. He tried wild ideas like, “Play some free-form, open jazz shit and put this fuzz on top.” I played the guitar, and he played the drums, and we just went live, man. Andrew played the bass and that was it.


It’s interesting, on this album you kind of have the two different schools of hip-hop – you got the 808s, and what people call “no drums,” but to me, it’s drum-fills and more free-form drums.


Muggs: Yeah, there’s some mixtures of stuff on there. In one session, those songs were accumulated; one of those, I think that song was about 7 years old, the single. I just put it out. This music is timeless, so it doesn’t matter when it comes out, it’s how it comes out, the presentation to the people.


Since it was recorded at different times, are you doing sessions to mix it and to make it all cohesive, if you’re drawing from different eras and different sessions and stuff?


Muggs: Good question. It depends on the project, but a lot of times, I go in and update it and make it sound newer – these ones, I didn’t, I basically pulled the MP3s or the WAVs. Some of them, I couldn’t even find the song files. Shit’s just so old, it’s like, I just mixed the WAVs of it with the MP3s and ran ‘em through shit and destroyed everything. Anything that wasn’t mixed right, I just fucking ran it through the decapitator and just destroyed the sounds, just making it sound more fucked up.


Having gone through the different phases, and I don’t know when anything was done, but thinking back to the early SP-1200 records and then thinking to the Versus series, where I was a big Grandmasters fan and a big fan of The Mask and the Assassin, the one you did with Sick Jacken, and I really liked those records, but when I’m hearing the music that’s coming out now, the one real difference I hear is in the percussion and how it’s mixed different. It wasn’t just you; it was a lot of drums and boom-bap drums in the first decade of the millennium, it sounded like the computer, but it’s almost like you cracked the code for that now.


Muggs: Yeah, it’s like, how do you stay the same but be different? How do you stay the same but move into the future? There’s an element of that sound that people want now, but it’s also sounding different. I might hear somebody say that this is 90s boom-bap, but no, this is a very different sound right now. It seems like it’s a little less drum and a little more musical, where the drums are pushed down like 5 dbs.


Even the tempo is just like — I mean, I was around for “Kill a Man…”


Muggs: The tempos are a lot slower too. A slow tempo used to be fucking 89, fucking 90 was retarded slow, bro, now it’s fucking super fast.


And you had a joint on the Winter album where you actually went and did “Veneno” — an 1989/1090-style joint with Eto and CRIMEAPPLE.


Muggs: Oh yeah, that was like 101.


That felt more like a Kane era-type joint.


Muggs: Yeah, yeah, exactly. That was on purpose. I just wanted to flip it, just be unexpected. It’s so easy to repeat yourself and to be fucking expected; I hate repeating myself, it’s so boring. You’re like, “Why do I want to paint the same fucking picture, over and over and over and over?” You can get locked into a style and you get stuck into that style and you can’t break away from it. You become one-dimensional and pigeon-holed. I always do things, even outside of my character, just to clean my palette. That’s why I go do a Dust record or a Bass for Your Face record, Dies Occidendum, just to learn some shit and have differences, and then dive back into my shit. It’s a marathon.


I was kind of interested in that dubstep record, just because at the time that it dropped, that’s how I was making my money – I was DJing in that circuit, just because rap wasn’t paying my bills at the time or anything like that.


Muggs: I just loved dubstep so much, and what I did is just started making it, but as I made it, I put it out. I didn’t make a lot of it; I just made that and put it out, bro. I just wanted to learn. It wasn’t like I was going to learn and then build a name for 4-5 years and then, “Let me do my album.” That’s what the fuck I practiced on – boom, right there.


It was so unexpected to hear from you, and then you kind of just vanished with it. You did it and that was your statement.


Muggs: Yeah, that was for me. I wanted to learn the production [techniques]. I was like, “How do you do this shit?” I was still using drum machines for things, and I was like, “Yo, I can’t do this shit with the drum machines. I’ve got to go with the next space with this shit.” So, I was like, “Okay, alright. Time to be humble, kid. It’s time to be a student and learn some new shit.” I just sat back and learned. I constantly keep myself feeling uncomfortable; I always keep learning and keep stretching, otherwise I get bored. I’ve got to do things that are constantly challenging myself and trying new shit.


One of the things you mentioned was having creative partners, and it’s not just you, but it’s Soul Assassins, and you had a big look this month with the “Mr. Cartoon” Super Bowl commercial for Modelo. How do you find that balance in-between keeping your brand authentic, doing these independent projects, working with these underground MCs, and still tapping into those bigger opportunities that make sense? I don’t think anybody thought that it was out-of-pocket for you.”


Muggs: No, you know it’s 30 years, man. It’s 30 years of fucking building this brand, and everyone knows that it’s always the truth. When we do a Modelo commercial, it’s us; they come to us, we don’t go to them, and you don’t see us acting different, doing weirdo shit to try to get some bread. It’s 100% us. They’re coming to us for the culture now. They know we’re the leaders of the culture, and they want to buy into it. They bring their energy, which is fiat, fiat money, they bring it, it’s a transfer of energy, and they buy culture from us. But you know us – I’m always looking for the underground kids. I have fun working with underground, new people and teaching them. It’s fun putting them up, showing them how shit works. A lot of these kids think they fucking know everything; they don’t know shit. They know a little bit, but I was like, “You do not know how to maximize your full potential, as a human or as an artist or as a businessman,” and some of them listen. I’ll lead them the water. Hey, some of them I lead them to water and they don’t want to listen, then so be it, “When you’re ready, come over here.” I see a lot of similarities in the old music business and now, even though it’s so different, but you’ve got to work, man. You can’t just sit behind your fucking computer and push buttons – that ain’t work. You’ve got to get out there with people and do shit, bro.


For you, when you were starting out, was there anyone that put you onto the game like that? Was there anyone that stood out and showed you–


Muggs: In the old days, nah, we figured it out. It was a different game, we figured it out. I learned to DJ by just going to clubs and just listening to the radio. There was no one to show, no YouTube tutorials; it was like, “Figure it out, man.”


My beats sucked before YouTube, so I have no idea how you guys did it back in the day.


Muggs: My beats sucked for a year until they were even good. It was more ear, more going inside the things, instead of externally. It was more like listening and hearing it in your head. Now, you’re watching the fucking music on your computer. It’s fucking weird. It took me some time. That’s what Bass for Your Face was for me because it took me some time to get used to looking at a computer to be creative. I never worked off grids, I never even put my music in timing, I just did everything by hand. It was kind of like, “Fuck, I don’t even feel like being creative like this.” I psyched myself out and my brain clicked into the new brain that I developed.


With an instrumental album, everyone’s going to take what they’re going to take out of it, but there’s the visuals, there’s the packaging and everything, and your work has always had references to the occult with the early Cypress covers, but it’s really foregrounded here, and you also have the tarot references in this record, and also from what I’ve heard of Death & the Magician – I‘ve only heard the preview you put out yesterday…


Muggs: Cypress had darker imagery for a few records, but there was never no occult references. First of all: define “occult,” because we might have different versions of “occult.”


I’m thinking more mystical – maybe not occult, I’m thinking the spiritual and more mystical side of it, mixed with the darker themes, I guess. That’s how I would define it.


Muggs: Yeah, the mystical side, the unknown side, the mystery side, the possibilities, all the parts of somebody’s personality, of who they really are. You’re not your body and you’re not your face and you’re not your name and you’re not your job; you’re this other thing that lives inside there and it’s tapping into that. I’ve always been a big Led Zeppelin fan and Black Sabbath and stuff like that. I’ve always liked the mystery and the mystical and, “What is that? Woah.” Figuring shit out and going through the maze and all these folklores, so that kind of imagery has pretty much always stuck with me.


“Olympic Stamps” with Cappadonna from the Winter album, that was the first time in a long time that I think he had the right sound for his voice. Do you guys have anything else on the way?


Muggs: You know, we recorded 3 songs. I have a couple more songs I’m going to put on another album, but that’s all we recorded. I’ve got, for my next project, for the next Muggs album, I think I’m going to put him on that. At the end of the summer/[early] fall – I’ve got most of it recorded, I just need a couple more verses and I’ve just got to start mixing it, but it’s pretty much finished.


I’m looking forward to hearing it, man. I’ve seen you and Flee Lord working, and that’s exciting to me as well: there are a lot of people out there that are looking forward to your work.


Muggs: Oh man, I really appreciate that a lot. Me and Flee are done, it’s just a matter of mixing right now and getting all the art together and everything, but I’m really excited about that record. It’s a real fucking good record.


I’m looking forward to hearing that, man. I never know what the next thing is going to be from you, and that keeps me excited. I’m not in my 20s no more either, and seeing you reaching new heights and making relevant an exciting music, that pushes me to keep going and go further.


Muggs: Yeah, bro. This is creativity; this is what comes from air. The only thing that’s going to get you is laziness. If you practice a lot, being lazy and practice thinking negative, you’re going to get fucking really good at it. Creativity is a muscle; you can’t leave it alone. You can’t leave it alone because it’s going to go away, so you’ve got to constantly exercise that muscle, and as long as you do it, it’s turned on. Once you don’t – you know that one time you want to go back to the gym and it’s just dragging your ass, you don’t want to go back to fucking gym no more, right? But once you get back in, after a week, you can’t live without it. It’s the same thing with creativity. You’ve got to constantly exercise that muscle. Sometimes, I’ve got nothing to do, so I’ll work with somebody just because I’m in-between shit and I just want to stay creative. What happens when I work with somebody that might be a really small artist, I end up making 50 times the music that you actually heard on that album, so now I have music for the next 2 albums. I just like to keep that energy up. In the society we live in, it’s weird, “This is young, this is old.” If you left it up to the old custodian, we probably wouldn’t be putting out records right now, because it would be too hard to put records out if it was the same way that it used to be. Now, we can go out there and do our thing, and I think real artists start peaking creatively at 40/50/60. Look at some of the greatest artists ever: Picasso and them, those fools were peaking in their 50s and 60s, because that’s when the creativity is at its best for man. It’s just a matter of being able to tap into that. Don’t let life beat you up, don’t get all negative and pessimistic and fucking cynical about fucking everything. Keep your mind sharp, read fucking books, meditate, keep your body sharp, stretch, work out, run, stay creative, keep learning. Always stay uncomfortable. With music, keep being a student; with your body, keep being a student; with your mind, keep being a student. Don’t think you know everything. Keep pushing it, and once you learn that learn something else that’s going to keep you fucking uncomfortable. It’s going to keep you alive; it’s going to keep you up at night, it’s going to keep all of your circuits working at 1000%. It’s important, but people need to figure it out for themselves and find out themselves what they’re trying to accomplish. Always see the fucking finish in your head. What are you wearing; what are you drinking; what are you eating; who are you hanging out with? Oh, you’re at the beach, see the fucking end result. How much money is in your account? People want to get somewhere, but they don’t fucking know where they want to get. These are the things I do for myself, man. Invest in Blockchain, invest in Bitcoin, it’s early still. You might think it’s late – you’re still early, it hasn’t hit the masses yet, you’re way early. It’s got to be where you hold your money. Put all your money, anything you can get, and leave it there.

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