DJ Haylow on the Influence of J. Dilla and the Splintering of "Underground" Hip-Hop
For the past 15 years, Bay Area DJ Haylow has maintained a philosophy of "being a messenger to share music with others who love music." His involvement in ventures such as the groundbreaking Bay Area hip-hop TV show Distortion 2 Static and the Roy Ayers Project demonstrate his never-ending desire to keep old-school knowledge and positivity alive within the hip-hop/rap/funk scene. He is also involved in Beats, Rhymes, and Life, a non-profit organization that focuses on using rap and hip-hop to aid in mental health and wellness. This Thursday, he pays tribute to hip-hop icon J. Dilla, alongside DJs Platurn, Mr. E., and Muddbird at Mighty. Ahead of the party, we spoke to Haylow about the influence of J. Dilla and his hopes for the future of hip-hop.
You started out playing strictly underground hip-hop when you started DJing in 1998. What would a set consist of?
In the late '90s, underground and indie label hip-hop was embraced to the point where you could get frequent work just spinning that particular niche. When I say "underground hip-hop," I refer to many independent labels from around the country that focused their distribution on providing wax for the DJ community, with labels like Rawkus, Fondle 'em, Stones Throw, as well as local labels like Quannum and Hieroglyphics. Any artists featured on those labels were played by me, like Mos Def, Kweli, Kool Keith, Aceyalone, The Lootpack, just to name a few, including major-label releases from people like Common, [and] The Roots. To put it short, going against the mainstream, which was then monopolized by Puff Daddy and Master P, was my mindset. In hindsight, I see how my hip-hop radicalism had a narrow scope, and prevented me from learning about other genres, but my high hip-hop concentration was the foundation of what I am today.
How have you seen its definition change?
Hip-hop is always changing, people come and go, new trends become popular while others fade away, but it all comes down to beats and rhymes, which is a bare-bones definition of hip-hop. One way that I have seen underground hip-hop change is the different subgenres of hip-hop. Pretend it's 1998, my most formative year as a DJ; if there was an underground hip-hop show, I would go and expect to see everyone I knew there, as well as like-minded people whom I saw at other shows, not to mention many people I didn't know, but I felt like I did. This was the extent of the underground hip-hop community in the Bay Area.
In 2013, you can have five different people who all say they listen to underground hip-hop, and none of them listen to the same artists. For example, someone who listens to Odd Future probably doesn't listen to J. Stalin, or someone who listens to Lil' Boosie doesn't listen to Atmosphere. What is strange is that all of these artists are extremely successful, and have what we like to call "their own crowd," yet they're all considered hip-hop that is, for the most part, independently marketed and sold. In today's market, ironically, collaborations with artists like Madlib and Freddy Gibbs, or 9th Wonder and David Banner, are considered fusing genres. There was a point where if you like hip-hop, then you listen to artists A, B, and C. The subdivides have been the change during my time as a DJ.
What finally prompted you to start exploring other genres?
My phase of hip-hop radicalism had me feel that hip-hop was the end-all be-all, and every other genre was substandard. Hip-hop, by nature, is a sport based on arrogance, and that's the best way I can define it. I would always share music with my mother, and there would be a particular song I would play for her, and she would say, "You know that's Earth, Wind, and Fire, right?" or "Oh, that's Aretha Franklin!" My mother was never a huge music head, but she knew enough to indirectly tell me that this music is a result of a previous idea. I had always known about sampling, for example "U Cant Touch This," but this really helped me understand that nearly everything had come from a result of something else.
Your side projects also included Distortion 2 Static. Why did the program end?
I decided to step away from Distortion 2 Static to pursue the Roy Ayers Project, which is my current side project. If you ask any member of D2S, you might get different answers, but I can simply say that the show had run its course, and my life was not as compatible with D2S as before. When the show began in 2002, hip-hop was everything to me, and D2S reflected that. As my live began to broaden and I began to develop other interests, D2S still remained a part of me, but it was no longer my full existence. For the record, all members of D2S remain friends, and we still have regular gatherings. In fact, some members of D2S are now assisting me with the Roy Ayers Project.
Tell us a little about the organization Beats, Rhymes, and Life. With violence often being a significant part of rap culture, how does this program use rap and hip-hop to help others?
Beats, Rhymes, and Life uses hip-hop as a catalyst for change and development. More specifically, it uses rap as a form of therapy. Hip-hop was created out of a need of acceptance, a need to be loved, a need to be heard. These are all things that youth need, and in the mid-'70s to early '80s, hip-hop provided these needs to young men and women of color in NYC when the world, let alone their own city, didn't care about them. Fast forward to today, Beats, Rhymes, and Life helps youth deal with their challenges, whether they are day-to-day challenges or lifelong challenges, through hip-hop. It is commonly said that hip-hop has embraced the theme "making something out of nothing," but what my BRL colleague Earl Skinner expressed is hip-hop is "making something out of something that is perceived as nothing." To put it simply, music is the universal language, and it helps us heal.
You're playing a tribute to J Dilla at Mighty this coming Thursday. How has his music has influenced your career?
Dilla has been a huge influence in my career as a DJ, as well as a hip-hop fan. In my mind he is the perfect example of a crossover producer. Of course, the word "crossover" in hip-hop has a history of negative connotations, so I'll explain. Who is as versatile as Dilla? Who can make a beat that is smooth and seductive, while you can also bob your head and kick a freestyle? Who else can make a song that can play in the clubs, as well as something that a soul singer can vibe to, or a lyrical emcee can rap over? If there is one strength that Dilla has above anyone else, it is his versatility. We can talk all day about the greatness that is Dilla.
How do you think he continues to inspire younger generations?
I think his music will continue to be appreciated [and] dissected by his fans, as well as new listeners and critics. The main inspiration that Dilla provides is to young beat makers. Dilla can definitely teach a younger producer a certain sound or style, but I think Dilla is best at teaching the art of versatility and taking risks with your music.
Share with us the story of your first Dilla mix.
"James Yancey Productions" was a mix I made on the heels of a Distortion 2 Static interview that we had recorded with Pharrell Williams from the Neptunes. During his interview, he was very candid in his feelings about J Dilla, calling him "the beat king," and paying him the utmost respect. In the intro of the mix, I have the sound byte of Pharrell saying such. I had liked Dilla for years, but it took someone as prominent as Pharrell to say it for me to understand how great he is. This also lines up to myself getting a new computer, and learning digital recording. I thought that "James Yancey Productions" would be a great way to get better acquainted with my computer, as well as highlight the beat king.
And lastly, since you've always been a hip-hop head, what kind of direction do you hope to see it take for 2013?
There are many changes I would like to see in hip-hop, and honestly, most are unrealistic. One direction that I would like to see hip-hop go in 2013 is more of a female representation. In the era of the late '80s and early '90s, hip-hop did not discriminate because of sex. As a result, there were many female emcees featured in the genre. In 2013, misogyny, and objectification of women is rampant, and the role of women in hip-hop is based solely on sex. I would like to see and hear the inclusion of women in the art form who will be great role models for not only young women and men, but for their peers as well.