DJ Quik is a little bit misunderstood. The Compton-bred 44-year-old is best known for his work as a pioneering gangsta rapper—or perhaps for his uncanny ability to perpetually look and sound like he just stepped off a yacht—but in fact his truest form is that of a studio rat. As a producer and an engineer his sonic fingerprints can be heard on some of the most popular hip-hop records of all time. That was him manning the boards on 2Pac's All Eyez On Me, those are his drums on 50 Cent's "In Da Club."
He's also had an unprecedented, if quiet, late career renaissance as a rapper in this century. Blaqkout, his 2009 effort with Kurupt was about as natural as any collaborative rap record in recent memory while his solo records Trauma (2005) and Book of David (2011) were cathartic masterpieces, filled with acts of familial bridge burning that would make Eminem blush. And even in the midst of that chaos Quik never sacrificed his poise as a producer. His just-released ninth album, The Midnight Life, strikes a happier note (mostly) but still splits a perfect balance between old school G-Funk and futuristic space funk. So it was only right that we took the occasion to talk to him about vintage drum machines and Saturn and Prince and denim and vomit.
What's your mind state when you sit down to make a beat today? It's really about how you want to groove, how you want to bounce, what you want to dance to. Everything's been done in music. If you're working in 4/4 pretty much everything has been covered. There's no rhythm that's new, but you can make it [feel] new. So I try to get the biggest, loudest samples; the funkiest, heaviest drums; the brightest snares or claps; and I try to blend them all together to make a beat that reminds me of my favorite drum beats, like Eurythmic's "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)." I love that drum pattern. Or Kraftwerk's "Computer Games," "Trans Europe Express"—all those Kraftwerk records. They were funking out with those drums! Or even Yellow Magic Orchestra, which was a Japanese group doing the funkiest syncopation and being tight. That's where I come from. I want to do something new but at the same time I want it to remind you of "Planet Rock." I want to mix it all because to me it's all just music. I try to do a little bit of Soul Train, a little bit of bullet train.
That's the same thing that Prince did. I used to buy 12-inches like "Erotic City" and… [enters an outside conversation]—It's in the garage. It's serving a purpose that's really important, I'll get you another one. [Unintelligible response] Your denim is now my motherfucking drum machine cover!—Sorry man, my family is here.
You're going to have to explain the denim drum machine cover. My sister, she left her jacket in my car, so I took it out. After she got me pulled over by the police—not only did she get me pulled over by the police, she got me pulled over by the helicopter [background voice returns]—No I didn't throw it out! It's in the garage! You think I'm just gonna throw your jacket away? I'mma give it back to you. It's Levi's, I know it is. It's cut nice too. It's just the right size to [protect] my drum machine from dust. I'll go to Levi's right now, I got you. Let me finish this interview.
"I sample weird wild shit because I think my fans need to hear it."
Uh… so where were we? Oh, Prince. Prince always found his own voice in rhythm. He always found his own voice in the way he did guitar against his drums, against the LinnDrum. The LinnDrum is still hot to me, some of the best rhythms were LinnDrums. All the Rick James stuff, Michael Jackson. So I've been using LinnDrums, I'm trying to keep that alive and at the same time use all the new platforms.
It seems like the TR-808 is the only vintage drum machine hip-hop has any memory for these days. They're not even using the 808 drum machines, they're using the 808 samples that people have hodgepodged and put online. They want to keep it there because it sounds like the records that they hear on the radio. They think it's the definitive sound. It wasn't just that. It was the fucking DMX drum machine. If you think about songs like [Run DMC's] "Krush Groove"—that was one of the best drum sounds ever! It's not just about the 808. People get stuck because they like the speakers to vibrate. People get turned on, there's something sexual about it. It's like a vibrator. But you can make it sexual with a bassline, you can make it sexual with an SH-101, a Roland fucking synthesizer. You can make it emotive and erotic with flangers and stuff. People don't do the whole math when it comes to making music. You can do so many different things to one sound that it will become something totally new.
To me it's all planetary. One of the best things I heard was when Dr. Dre told me that he wanted to make an album not using anything from Earth. He wanted to make an album using the sounds of all of the planets in our solar system. He wanted to use the ambient sounds of Saturn and turn it into a rhythm. Most people would say he's crazy or that ain't gonna work, but that might be some of the best shit you've ever heard. That's what he's going for when he's using these synthesizers. He's calling on the planets. He's trying to use sounds that sound like a fucking comet flying by pshew… who knows what it sounds like? But now he wants to use the actual sound instead of somebody's interpretation of it. Detox was supposed to be about planetary music. It was going to be something different than what we can use on Earth.
That's probably why it's taking him so long. He's out chasing comets. Now he's got a billion dollars maybe he can record all the motherfuckers. We're gonna see a Dr. Dre Saturn V going up. They driving by Saturn, dropping probes with microphones and shit. Who knows? Either that was some really good drugs the OG Doctor was taking or he's the greatest producer of all time. I think it's brilliant.
You've pulled from some strange sources yourself. Like the "Moroccan Blues" loop was crazy, but I don't want to blow it up if you don't want me to. No it's cool, I pulled it off of Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods. And he cleared it. Andrew Zimmern is a fan of DJ Quik. What it was there was a Moroccan restaurant in Morocco and [a guy] was playing this stringed instrument. [Sings sample.] He was just having fun, singing about the restaurant. He was making noise in this clay building but it resonated so nice. So I sampled it and I juiced his little string instrument and made it sound like a horn. It was a little avant garde, it was too nouveau, maybe it went over some people's heads. But if I could find that guy we could write some other songs. I could have him singing some American shit and playing that little… it's like a violin, but it's not. What do they call it? An orbitron? It was orbital but it was played like a violin with a bow. It was pretty sick. It was something I never seen before.
I sample weird wild shit because I think my fans need to hear it. Instead of going to the comets I try to go around the world with music. Because I want my music to be around the world. My music is about the world, it's not just about my neighborhood.
So where does it go from here? The Midnight Life is a super fuckin neon record with highlights and funk lights and love lights, no distractions, no hatred, no anger, super fun, super funky, super poking fun at myself, super comedic, all of the above. The next thing I want to do is another album called The Morning After where you can feel the effects of a hangover. I want to put a little bit of hangover in my music, a little bit of warpedness, a little bit of all of that and then back it into another good time again. Because we have our cycles. If you have too much fun you pay for it in the morning by having the Irish flu. You hear the weirdest sounds when you're throwing up. [Makes dramatic puking noises.] I wish I could record that but I have both hands on the toilet—I can't.