Oakland's DJ Mere on the Local Rap Scene and Becoming a KMEL All-Star DJ
As one of KMEL's all-star DJs and a member of the Oakland Faders crew, Oakland-born-and-raised DJ Mere's ascension to the top is a tale of hustling, street-teaming, and hard work. Starting his career as an intern at a promotions company at the age of 17, he found himself promoting locally for then-up-and-coming labels such as Roc-A-Fella and Death Row Records. Soon landing mix shows at KSJS and KZSU, he was noticed by one of the Bay's most prominent radio stations, 106 KMEL. Wanting to be more than just a street team leader, he began making one to two mixes a week to play at public events, which caught the attention of various resident DJs around the Bay. In 2001, he received the title of KMEL All-Star DJ, and for the past 10 years has been making one to two mixes a week while opening for acts such as Ludacris and Busta Rhymes. We spoke with DJ Mere about recently finishing his tour with Rebelution, the Oakland DJ scene, and his various residencies. He plays every first and third Friday at Luka's Taproom in Oakland with DJ Spair, Max Kane, and Lexx Jones.
You recently got off Rebelution's Peace of Mind tour. How was that experience?
It was a whole other world from what I'm used to. Having the opportunity to just get out of the Bay and rock for thousands of people every day was a blessing. Seeing the entire country and hearing what they play in their clubs was amazing. I was hanging out with celebrities and pro athletes. I had no idea how huge Rebelution was. I hope to get the chance to do it again soon.
How did being a tour DJ compare to just doing local gigs?
At first it was a bit overwhelming. But once I got over the initial shock of it, it's a good deal. It was great meeting new people, making new professional and personal connections, etc. It's something that I've wanted to do for a long time. Now that I'm here, I doubt that I'll ever be satisfied being just a local DJ. Plus, I got to see places I'd only seen on TV or in magazines.
What are a couple things you've noticed that are different about DJing in Oakland versus San Francisco?
As I see it, both cities have almost identical music tastes. You can pretty much play the same music in venues on either side of the Bay. It all depends on timing and how you read the crowd. But I have noticed in San Francisco clubs that I've done people are more open to the happy-go-lucky Top 40 pop music and electro remixes. You really can't get away with that in Oakland too often, although with a few songs, maybe. Not an entire set. It could just be the tourists that like that stuff.
Have you seen Oakland's club scene change since you started DJing?
Yes indeed. When I first started doing clubs, the crowds were more mixed. At a 21+ venue you would have people in their late 40s partying with the younger kids. I'm starting to see less and less of this. It kind of affects what I play now, which contributes to the cycle. I cater to the younger kids and alienate the handful of diehard older folks.
Does it bother you to alienate the diehard older folks?
Actually it does. I feel bad because that's my core audience. But at the end of the day I'm there to work. I have to support the majority and keep the momentum going. I can't really justify sabotaging the party to cater to a handful of people. It sounds bad, but I'm just being honest.
You pride your style on being "funky urban." Tell us what that means.
When I'm doing a set I try not to stick to the same genre for very long. I'll throw in some old school R&B or soul, gravitate to some classic hip-hop, and maybe toss in some hood anthems. Then I'll add a dash of Top 40 pop over some reworked drums, and offset with some dancehall.
That's quite a concoction.
It's like making gumbo. I take the best of what I have and make something out of it. I couldn't do it any other way. To get literal with it, the style of music that I gravitate towards has to make my head nod. That's the "funky." The "urban" comes from where I'm from. At the end of the day I'm still from the hood and I love the music that comes from there, whether it was the music my mom played while cleaning the house or the music pumping from boomboxes on the block.
What's your favorite memory of kicking off your DJ career when interning at KMEL?
Hands down, it has to be DJing my first Summer Jam. I did the "little" stage, but I didn't care. I was the stage that the lesser known hip-hop acts performed on. I was the in-between entertainment. It was cool with me; I didn't care about the big names at that time. I was a hardcore hip-hop head back then. It was a dream come true. I felt like I had made it, because I was still a teen at the time. I've done it many times since then, but nothing feels as good as the first.
Soon after interning, you became a KMEL All-Star DJ. How did it feel to get to that point?
You couldn't tell me anything. I was the man. I got exclusive records in the mail, lunches with label reps and artists, free gear, and VIP treatment. I still get respect from the younger DJs for getting that far in the game. And the truth is, it really isn't that far. But I loved it, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
For the last 10 years, you've recorded 1-2 mixes per week. How do you manage to stay so prolific?
At first it was a requirement. I never mixed live on the radio so I had to have my show done and ready for air by the weekend. After a point it became easy, and I started to test myself. I went a whole year without playing the same records twice. Little things like that kept it fresh. I started to do mixes when I didn't have to, like mixes for me to listen to in the car, artist dedications, and stuff like that. It's something that I love to do. I'd do it even if I was the only one that ever got to hear them. Now I have an entire back catalog of my journey through the industry, so I guess it paid off.
Who are some hip-hop acts you've been digging lately?
Like many of the kids from my generation, I tend to listen to '90s hip-hop and artists from that era constantly. For a time I even listened to nothing but turntablism tracks. But when I break away from that I'll pop in some Schoolboy Q, Kanye, Lupe, J. Cole, Devin, Sean Price, etc. I like music with hard drums, slightly noticeable samples, and thought-provoking lyrics.
What do you think of the local Oakland hip-hop scene today?
I've been very vocal in the past about how most of the local acts seemed to have tunnel vision. Meaning only doing songs for the locals. I'm starting to notice a change for the better. The HBKs and the Moe Greens make me smile. I have hope for the future.
Your residency at Luka's has been going for seven-plus years. What do you attribute its success to?
The influx of fresh talent. It's never really one DJ spinning the entire night. There was a stretch of time where Platurn would have a different guest DJ from out of town every night. The people have come to expect the "gumbo." You will never hear the same type of music all night long. You will never leave with your knowledge of music untested. You will never be unsatisfied. As a crew (Oakland Faders), we have different methods of how to rock the party. When we come together ... no one can defeat Voltron.
What can we expect to see more of from you this year?
I'm teaching myself how to produce. I don't know if I'll feel confident enough to produce for an artist by years end, but who knows? I may finally decide to drop a solo mix CD or remix album, since I've never done that. I just picked up another commercial mix show, in Colorado, so I'm going to be recording like crazy. If everything works out I might even go back on the road. I need to cross "International Tour DJ" off my bucket list.