New Yorkers have the reputation for being gruff. DJ Qu, one of the scions of the city’s dance music scene, absolutely does not fit that profile, and I don’t just think it’s because he’s domiciled in New Jersey. No matter which Underground Quality-affiliated dude I bump into — Anthony Parasole wilin’ out at a listening station at Dope Jams, Jus-Ed peddling up-front copies of new UQ releases from a picnic table at Sunday Best — they’re warm, friendly, animated, and as thrilled to meet me as I am to meet them. The dark-house don born Ramon Lisandro Quezada and I were ostensibly meeting up for an interview, but I got the distinct sense he’d be down for a lengthy chat about vinyl, house dancing, and putting his long-in-the-works album together regardless of whether the tape was rolling. Qu was also kind enough to provide us with an exclusive mix of, in his words, “Thump and Vibe… in a Warrior style mentality.”
LWE Podcast 62: DJ Qu (56:02)
01. Mist Works, “Common Question?” (Aybee’s Immortal Mix) [Atjazz]
02. Vince Watson, “Ethereal” [Delsin]
03. Black Jazz Consortium, “Stay” [white*]
04. DJ Qu, “Get Sum” [white*]
05. Joey Anderson, “Untitled” [white*]
06. DJ Jus-Ed, “Untitled” [white*]
07. Levon Vincent, “A Melody For Everyone” [Novel Sound]
08. Nina Kraviz, “Pain In the Ass” [REKIDS]
09. Anton Zap, “Everyday Could Be Like DIZ” (Lil Nervous Mix)
10. Spider Bites, “Psychotronic Cesspool” [Plan B Recordings]
11. DJ Qu, “Prayer” [white*]
12. Nicuri, “Thoughts Of You” [white*]
* denotes tracks which, as of the time of publishing, are unreleased
There are lots of people who are doing deep house these days, and your stuff usually gets lumped in with the deep house stuff. But there’s something different about what you’re doing. It’s not deep so much as it is dark. People usually think about house as lighter music and techno as darker music, but your stuff’s darker than a lot of techno. Where do you place your stuff? Is it a misconception that house can’t be as dark as techno?
DJ Qu: Oh yeah, of course. You got to remember when it comes to electronic music or dance music, house is the root of it. So everything stems off of it. But that’s funny you ask that question. That’s a very good question, because we were talking about it the other day, me and some of my friends. We were listening to some of the tracks that I’ve put out, and even I was like, ‘Man, everything I do is so dark! Why is it so dark?’ I sit at home trying to make light tracks, and it still comes out dark. So I guess that’s just a personality thing, really. When you hear someone doing dark tracks or light tracks, it’s really more — that’s how they are. I think you can try to change things here and there and be successful. But for the most part, who you are is what’s going to come out.
As far as me being lumped in with the deep house stuff, I actually prefer to be there, because that’s where I consider myself to be. I don’t see me as a techno artist; I don’t see me as any other style except for deep house, because that’s all I know, that’s what I [first] heard. So I’m kind of happy to be lumped in that particular spot. But it is dark, I agree.
When did you first hear house? How were you first involved with it?
I don’t know how long you’ve been in the States, but in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, you couldn’t get away from house music. It was everywhere. Anywhere you went, that’s what they was listening to. When I was up in Jersey, any party I went to, any high school party I went to, anything — house music was what hip-hop is now, you know? You heard it everywhere. Basically everybody was into it. As years went on, little by little, people started chipping off of that, but people who still felt it stayed, and that’s who the true heads are today, you know? The people who never left it, like me.
I was listening to house tracks and dance tracks even before it was really [codified as such]. It was just the music and the sound of the culture. In the late ’80s, I was maybe 10 years old. People who were older than me, people that were going out already when the [Paradise] Garage was around and all that — everybody knew what it was. There’s no real explanation for how I got into it. It was around me. It caught me, and I stayed with it ‘til today. That’s basically how it breaks down.
Back when I was younger, I was very, very much into dancing. It started with hip-hop dance. I come from a Latin background, so there was Latin dancing, too. What’s house tracks now, they were just tracks we used to dance-off with, you know, the B-boy-ing or whatever it was. That’s what got me into the music: it was through dance that I actually got to find what house music was.
You were pursuing house dancing professionally during the ’90s, right?
[I did it with] the people I ended up meeting and connecting with through the dance scene. It was a natural elevation from learning to getting better to being competitive to being seen by other people to traveling and teaching and whatever else came with it. So it’s a natural progression, the same with the music.
Do you remember some of the artists or producers you were dancing to? Was it a lot of the stuff we think about now as classic house?
Back then, I wasn’t aware of where the actual house music was coming from. I just thought it was [generally] a U.S. thing. Later, I found out it was Chicago cats, that it was Chicago people who started doing the style of music that everybody was getting into at the time. It slowly moved into New York producers, Detroit producers. But it wasn’t until years later that I figured out where these guys were actually from and how they came about. That’s why I have a lot of respect for a lot of the older cats that contributed to the music today. It was a new sound back then, so it just took over everything, really.
How did you make the transition from dancing to being involved in the music side of the culture?
It actually turned out that a good friend of mine and my cousin were DJs back in the early ‘90s. I would always go by their house and they would be DJing, and they used to do all the parties in the area. I would go by their house and just be like, ‘Let me just test the [equipment].’ I would try to learn how to blend. Back then, there used to be a lot of scratching with the mixing, so I used to try to learn all that. A good friend of mine, Mok, who I actually reconnected with about a year ago after not talking to the guy in like 15 years — I would go by his house, and he would let me play with his stuff. He would teach me about it, he would show me records, and one day I went up and said — now this was a long-shot — I said, ‘Can you do me a favor? Do you think it’d be a problem if maybe I took the equipment home for a week?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah yeah, sure, no problem.’ You can’t do that today! You can’t ask somebody if you can just bring their equipment home. They’ll look at you like, you gotta get your own. But he lent it to me, I worked out with it for like two or three weeks, because for some reason he just didn’t care to go get it back. I’ve been DJing ever since.
You didn’t get into production until much later, though — 2006.
Gotcha. Was there a catalyst, something that finally made you not just want to play other people’s music? Did you see an opening, a chance to bring something to house music that wasn’t in there already?
I remember night after night being home before I had to go to school, just listening to house music — different DJs, different mixes you could get off the radio all night, day, night, day. My family’s like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Is that all you listen to?’ It was really just from being into it so much that I wanted to do my own tracks. I’m not a musician, even though I’m learning how to play things now as I go. The funny thing is, I was so broke, I was never able to afford any equipment that I needed to make tracks. I didn’t actually start making music until maybe ten years after the time I really wanted to start making records. I just never had the funds to do it. I knew some people who had equipment, but they would never share it.
That’s basically how the history goes with me. I’m not someone who just came out of nowhere and was like, let me just start making electronic house records. I was– [house music] governed my life. Any decision I made, it always revolved around — you know, am I going to be able to go to the house club after I’m done doing all this? No? Well then I’m not doing it. Is there a house party going on tonight on a Thursday? I’m going, and I’ll be at school the next day. It was just a love for the music. It grabbed me. I couldn’t refuse it, and just like with the dancing, it’s all a natural progression going down the line, from dancing to finding the music to listening to the music to DJing the music, and from DJing the music to making the music. I’m a DJ first before I’m a music producer, so that’s basically how it rolls with me.
You say you’re not a musician. Talk to me about your studio, then. Are you mostly working with computers?
Qu: I even get this question from friends, “What are you using?” I tell them all the time that it really doesn’t matter. Right now, as far as making my tracks, my computer is the platform for me to lay out everything. I have a bunch of programs, I mean, you name it. The only one I don’t have is Ableton. I’ve never even seen what that looks like! But the computer is a major point in [my studio]. It’s where I lay out all my tracks, any sounds I do, any sounds I bring in from any equipment I have, that’s where it gets sequenced out, written out, and made into a song. I do have hardware. I have a nice big 32-by-8 Mackie mixing board where I do a lot of the mixdowns. So I use a little bit of everything. I like organic stuff, too; if you give me two forks, I’m gonna bang out a track with that. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what you have. A lot of people focus on that, too. I see a lot of interviews and a lot of, ‘What did you use? What are you using?’ Even if you buy exactly what your favorite producer has, it ain’t gonna sound like him.
I ask about it, because when you were starting to make music, computers had really started to make it easier from a financial standpoint to produce, and it sounds like that was the biggest inhibitor for you.
Actually, my very first piece of equipment, which I unfortunately don’t have anymore, was the Alesis QS6 keyboard. It’s an old model, not around anymore. I sold it. I wish I didn’t, because I think it’d be a very useful thing today. But my first pieces of gear were analog. Through the hardship, I had to get rid of them, and I had stopped making tracks for awhile.
When you got rid of your gear… was this before you’d released anything?
Yeah, oh yeah. A lot of the music I made with that stuff, I don’t even have anymore unfortunately, because I didn’t have the computer or the stuff to actually store tracks the way you can today. The computer side of it… I mean, it does help, because it lets me actually see what I’m doing. I don’t have to, kind of — I like doing live stuff, but I’m not the type to just do a live recording, end of session, here’s the track. I also like to think about and imagine what should come next — to sit and listen and say, [given] the mood of this track, this is what should happen. But I wouldn’t say the computer era made it easier for me to start making tracks because I was already doing it, but it did help. It definitely did help.
Speaking of how you developed as a producer, I’ve been hearing for awhile that you have an album in the works.
Still in the works.
Where are you at with it? Are you getting closer to it being ready for release?
Ummm… where am I at, where am I at. You know, the problem is that I’m such a picky mofo that I’m very, like — being that it’s my first album, I kind of want to be strategic about it. As far as the music side of the album, I have music that I’ve done. Out of that whole catalog of maybe 100 tracks, I’ve got it down to maybe three or four that I know I’m going to use for the album.
Wait. You have a backlog of 100 tracks? That’s a ton of tracks to try to pick and choose from.
A lot of them aren’t finished. A lot of them are just grooves. But they’re there. If I decide I want to touch them, I will. The album not being done is just because I’m very picky. I remember going to record stores. The record guy gives me 50 records, I listen to those, listen to everything, give them all back and only take one. And they all look at me like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I’m very picky. I’m a very picky person. I’m very hard to please. That’s basically why my album hasn’t come to life just yet. It’s got to sound right to me before I can release it to anyone else. If I think something’s off, then anyone can say something’s off. If I think it’s right, then nine times out of 10, you might like it, or they might like it, or everyone will kind of understand what it is I’m seeing.
So why an album? I know for a lot of producers, making an album is this big step. It’s something more than just a collection of tracks. Where are you going with it? Are you trying to tell a story with it, make something that’s really carefully sequenced?
Oh yeah. It has to be.
…and put tracks on it that aren’t necessarily dance floor material?
Oh yeah. To me, an album has got to have it all — dance floor stuff, stuff that sounds good riding around in your car listening to it, stuff that sounds good just [at] home, stuff that’ll sound good in here [Ninth Street Espresso, E. 9th St. and Ave. C in Manhattan… great coffee shop with a pretty great iPod – Ed.]. It has to have the whole scenario of life. Now I can’t guarantee the album will have all that, but hopefully just in my head it will. It’s got to be right to me.
Are there any dance music albums that have been especially inspiring to you? Because it’s a tricky thing. A lot of producers don’t do it right. Can you think of any that really do what you’re talking about?
That’s hard. You know why that’s hard? Because a lot of the albums that I listen to aren’t necessarily dance albums. I can go on and on with albums that I think are awesome, like Wu-Tang Clan albums… but being that this is an electronic website, let’s think of a good dance album that I would say is really inspiring. [Qu thinks deeply for a moment.] Another Side. Fingers Inc. Not only is it an awesome album; it’s a milestone in dance music. It just taught everyone so much. I feel that album was just one of the grand teachers of the whole scheme of things when it comes to house music and electronic music. So that’s an album I’d definitely pick out.
As a producer and as a DJ, how important is vinyl to you?
Oh man. I think if you don’t play vinyl, you shouldn’t be called a DJ, because the term came from people playing vinyl, it didn’t come from anything else. So at this point, you shouldn’t be called a DJ if you’re not playing vinyl. Vinyl is very important. It’s a part of history. I mean, I’m not gonna lie: the market is very scary right now when it comes to vinyl. You don’t know what’s going to come in the future. I’m a big supporter of it. And there’s not better way of storing music. I don’t know of any other way of storing music that’s better than vinyl. If anyone does, please let me know, because, I mean, you can buy a vinyl record, a brand new record that just came out, for $10, and instead of that vinyl losing value… if you sell it 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, you can sell it for $100. You see it all the time. If you go online and see a record that’s good, it sells for more than it did brand new. What other form of music can do that? No one’s going to buy a used CD from you; I know I’m not. Who’s gonna buy a used CD from you? A computer’s not going to last forever. I don’t care how good of a computer you have, you’re going to have to keep shifting your music from computer to computer to hard drive to hard drive to hard drive. Vinyl, if you protect it, take care of it, it lasts forever. So it’s really the best way of storing music. And as far as playing music, that’s what I’m used to. If music was being mixed through 8-tracks when I was young coming in, then 8-tracks would be what I know. Vinyl’s what I know. I do play CDs, and I do download and all that, but vinyl is my thing.
Let’s talk about your own label, Strength Music. Tell me about the Exchange Place crew.
We’re all dudes who grew up around each other, who went through the same thing when it comes to music. Same history. We’ve known each other since we were, you know, [approximates height of little kid with hand] yay high. Always played together, always — whenever he had a new record, he’d come show us. It was a competition, and it was a place where we just exchanged what everybody was doing, and that’s where the term came up. Big ups to a Joey Anderson, because he’s the one who came up with the concept.
I wanted to ask about him specifically. He’s not as well-known a producer as you are, but his tracks on the Exchange Place 12”s are pretty good. He also started out as a dancer. Did you encourage him to start producing, or were you both just on parallel tracks?
Dance is how we met. He was a dancer, and I was a dancer. We’d be in the clubs, and that’s how we connected. Music-wise, he loved music, and I loved music. As far as the music-making side of it, I kind of encouraged him and pushed him in that direction. You know, [the Exchange Place guys] were all around me. They saw me do it, and naturally, if you’re going to stay around me, you’re naturally going to get involved in it, and that’s how he came about when it comes to the music side of things. As far as not being a well-known producer, he’s coming. His label’s coming — in a couple of months, actually, the first [release] should drop.
What’s the concept behind the Semesters 12”s? It seems like it’s more well-known people than the Exchange Place records.
The Exchange Place 12”s particularly deal with my personal crew, the ones I see on a daily basis. The Semesters releases could actually be anyone. As of now, I’ve kind of stuck to the same format. For this new one, I included Fred P, whereas in the first one, I had P.Funk, who’s another good friend of mine. But the Semesters is just kind of a reflection of what’s happening for us at the moment, and that’s why it’s called Semesters, like in school. You’re a junior, you’re a freshman, sophomore… it’s kind of the same concept: what’s happening with us at that particular moment.
How did you and Jus-Ed hook up? He’s been a big part of how you’ve gotten more recognition.
Qu: That brother has helped me out tremendously in the music world. Funnily enough, me and Ed met through MySpace. I had sent him a message. He sent me a message back. We’e kicked it ever since. And I remember that at the time I sent him the message, we already had To Eaches Own out, which was the first release from Strength Music. That release came out in 2005. It had such bad distribution that any interview I saw on it, any write-up, everyone thought it came out in 2007 — 2006 or 2007 — not knowing that it was already out in ’05, but it had no distribution. It wasn’t until I got with Ed, and he helped me with some of the distributors that he knew, that the record was actually able to go out to different places in the world. Met him through MySpace — one of the best blessings the internet’s ever brought me.
I know Ed told us that it’s really important to him that people who put out stuff on Underground Quality go on to start their own labels.
It’s actually really important to me, too, the same concept. Ed and I talk about it all the time. I was actually talking to him coming here… he and Levon [Vincent] just came back from Japan. We’ve got Joey that’s coming out with his label; we’ve got Nicuri, another artist from Exchange Place, getting ready to do his thing. I think it’s very important as an artist for you to start your own label, if you can, because who wants to sit around and wait — you know, if you’re an artist on my label, you really want to sit around and wait for my timetable? You’re going to release your stuff when I say it’s coming out? No. As an artist, you want to have everything in your full control, so it is very important that people start their own thing.
It also makes the scene more vibrant. It puts more stuff on the shelves, gets more people active. Speaking of which, what’s your take on the state of the house music scene here in New York?
It’s hard to call. I was actually on a phone call yesterday with Mike Huckaby, and we were just talking about how — how is it possible that there’s nothing popping off in the US? Nothing that’s big-time, the way it used to be. As far as New York in general, we’re still here. There’s still good music coming out of it. A lot of people promoted us as the new wave of New York, which was more the media promoting it that way. New York’s always going to be around. Whether it’s going to be back up here, back down there, I can’t call it. As far as us and the crew, we do what we love, and I think that’s why it’s blossomed all right for us. But New York’s not going nowhere. Neither is Chicago, neither is Detroit. One place might get more buzz than the other at this point of the whole scene, then the other might come in with more shine than the other. It’s just the same circle over and over.
You’re juggling a music career with also having a full-time job. Is the goal to eventually not have the day-job anymore, or do you like having that balance?
If it were up to me, I would like the idea of leaving the full-time job, because personally I’d rather put all my energy towards what I want to do. The full-time job is something I have to do: I have bills, I have responsibilities, there are certain things I’ve got to take care of. I gotta work. The full-time job gets me through a lot, but if it were up to me, I wouldn’t be juggling both worlds. For example, starting in the middle of this month — September — ’til the end of November, outside of the hours I have to put in at my nine-to-five, I have a very busy travel schedule when it comes to the DJing side. By the time all that’s said and done, I’m going to be burned out. Who wants to be burned out? So no. If it were up to me, I would cut the nine-to-five out.
It’s definitely become harder to just have a music career, if you’re going to be in house or techno. What do you think is driving that?
Well personally, when it comes to me, I think basically it’s because of where we live. It’s very expensive out here. I know a lot of artists that are doing music only and surviving off music only, but they don’t live in my area. They don’t live nowhere around me. They live in places where living is a lot cheaper, in other countries where things are a lot easier. I think a lot of it has to do with where we live. You can’t live in Manhattan or New York or wherever by selling 1,500 copies of a record; it’s not gonna happen, things are too expensive out here. So I think that’s one of the main things. I think that’s why people have to keep jobs and stuff, especially if you’re an artist from out here.
Do you ever think about picking up and moving to Berlin?
Not really. Not right now, at least. I’m about to be there for a week, and I can see me going there for a week or two or three at the most, maybe a month, but not just picking up and leaving, not right now. Levon’s out there, and he tells me all the time, ‘You’ve got a place to stay, you’re more than welcome if you want to come out here.’ So I have offers, if I actually wanted to go check it out and live for awhile. I’ve been there plenty of times, and I love it. But as of now, I’m a Jersey dude. I’m staying in Jersey. I know the US. I’ll stay here.
So what’s up next?
Right now, we are working on a project with the label Hello?Repeat. We got a project coming out, and we’re just under negotiations… is it going to be a one-vinyl release, two-vinyl release, will there be remixes, who’s gonna do the remixes? So we’re negotiating that, and hopefully in October — end of October, that’ll be out. As far as Strength Music, there might be one more release before the year is out, can’t guarantee it. It all depends, because I have a busy travelling schedule, which I just told you about. If not, 2011, we’ll hit ‘em hard again. No set-up releases as far as names and stuff just yet. I’m going to keep working on the album, because I really wanted to do it this year, and it might be this year, but I don’t know. As far as travelling, the next few months will be — I’m grateful I’ll be able to see Berlin again, which I love. I’m going to see Amsterdam, I’m going to be in Canada, I’m going to be in Italy, and different parts of the U.S. So that’s basically what’s going on with me right now, and the label.
I guess that basically covers it. Did you have anything else you wanted to throw in?
Can I say one short message?
Yeah, throw it out there
It’s the same thing I always say: live the music. You’ve got to live the music if you want to contribute and be a part of the music. Don’t just come out of nowhere. You’ve got to live whatever it is that you’re doing. That’s it. Is it alright if I say some quick shout-outs to some people?
Shout it out.
Of course, to my big brother Jus-Ed. Fred P. Levon Vincent. Anthony Parasole. Russian crew — Nina [Kraviz] and Anton [Zap]. Aybee. Detroit — everybody I met in Detroit. Europe. Japan. The world. Thank you for accepting me and letting me do what I do.