Imagine a super plant—a hybrid breed and visually ambiguous of course—pollinating the world, not with seeds of itself but with seeds and plants that it encounters, often for the first time. In fact, its primary function is to passionately enlighten us with the newness of these striking encounters and bridge the old ones. Like for instance, DJ Chief Boima—the DJ that could.
He’s a multicultural enthusiast. Disc Jokey, trailblazer who has reconciled the paradox of vinyl and MP3s (they can both exist in peace) and he understands the social responsibility of not just playing music, but, instead, one must be the ambassador of cultures he encounters. We dissect and differentiate the casual propagators of popular sound to discovering the vessels of our existence, in stereo.
We were able talk to Chief Boima as he gears up to play at Sonic Diaspora Friday March 9th at The Shrine here in Chicago.
GOZAMOS: You’ve had an interesting musical trajectory. It seems like your development as a musician and a DJ has had a lot to do with embracing your own multicultural background, I should say by yourself in your work and by others.
Well, actually I was in Europe when I kind of had, maybe, a revelation? I grew up in Milwaukee actually, but I’m sure you can kind of imagine that it’s not the most, oooh how can I say this, place where they celebrate multiculturalism in the city. There are a lot of different people living there, but you don’t see it—especially in the 80s and 90s when I experienced it. You have this kind of segregated atmosphere. I went to Europe in college and studied in Spain when they were going through this really intense demographic transition with a lot of African—north and Sub Saharan—immigrants and people from all over the world. I would go clubbing and they would play contemporary Senegalese music to Afro-Cuban tunes and [the immigrants] were in one place. It was like we’re in this place together as immigrants and this is our home. For me, as a foreigner, I was an immigrant in as sense. I seemed to be with them more than the Spaniards and I took that experience back with me to the states at like 20 or 21 years old. As far as exploring multiculturalism, that was a very formative period for me.
How can that be paralleled with your experience as a DJ and a musician?
To reframe that, I had been DJing in college, reggae and hip hop parties, and I came back from Spain looking to continue that vibe. I linked with this multicultural Spanish-language band, and this was when reggaeton was just coming out in the US as a commercial thing (in 2003 and 2004), I would play dancehall and throw in a little bit of Salsa. From there it was like I had all of these ideas to mix all of these things. I did an interview with someone back then and I played some Paul Simon remix, but like a dancehall remix [laughs]. So these were just things I was interested in and I ended up in San Francisco and I came across a very similar club to what I had found in Madrid, which was Little Baobab, and that was a place where Latinos, Africans, Caribbean folks and Americans would be in one room dancing to their home music every Friday and Saturday night. I think spaces like that are incubator spaces where, myself as a DJ, can explore multiple sides of my identity, but also get something from the crowd. Those intimate club spaces, for me, are were these ideas have most solidly come out; also paralleled with this thing called the Internet where people have access to information and where I was able and find music from Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire and places like that.
Yea access to information is really important, because it’s this transcending idea that can be about things like access to music around the world.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this as a DJ where people are taking in this music for the first time…why do you think music is so important to culture and identities?
I don’t want to get too academic [laughs]…
I’m sure the readers at Gozamos will appreciate it.
Well, I’m reading this guy right now and I’m writing a thesis. This guy named Michael Stasik and he writes about this practice called “musicing,“ and he describes “musicing” as this practice where social barriers are temporarily done away with and people are able to invent their identity through how they identify with music. Whether it’s in the street…there are different places where music happens and different ways people interact with each other in these spaces and music really is a unifier. You see this in places all over the world. DJ Ripley, talks about this idea of “exilic spaces” where colonialism, or the state, is done away with and people are able to assert their power of individuality in these spaces because of the social power of music. So I really think that music creates space for people to be something that society won’t let them be or interact with people that society won’t let them interact with.
I know, in different ways, you talk about [in your opinion] the difference between San Francisco and New York, where New York is very segregated in cultural spaces and San Francisco is not.
In a way though, do you think that could be a good thing for music—the isolation? If it’s incubating in these specific places, which would make them seem pure and organic and unique? Versus being in these mixed spaces that would cause them to be confronted in a different way? So what I’m saying is, both—segregated and plural spaces—can allow for two very different, but equally valuable forms of cultural expression.
…Yea, I’ll talk about two specific scenes. Let’s say you have the Dominican scene in New York and then you have like hyphy in Oakland. I would say that the Dominican scene in New York is contained by language, by geography, by national identity and so there is this perception that there are spaces that are for Dominicans, by Dominicans that are doing this really creative stuff that isn’t being accessed by any other communities. So leaving it there—I’ll come back to it—but in Oakland you have this, kind of, outward expression of identity and it’s very much not based on national origin or even class—and this is the hyphy movement, sidehow and all these things—this is all happening. It is contained to a geographic area somewhat, like neighborhoods that are poor, but it’s also open to anyone because it’s on the streets. It’s something that everyone in the Bay Area can identify with. Going back to The Dominican neighborhood. They are actually pulling a lot of their influences from, actually, the Internet. So you have, within the Dominican scene, experimentations like club music from Jersey and Baltimore and Philly. You have experimentations with kuduro and dembow, reggaeton, dancehall, all kinds of different stuff. I think these things are happening in a space where people are forming different types of communities and identity, but it’s just in different terms of identity.
You’re with the collective Dutty Artz Crew, what’s the makeup of the group?
It was started by Jace Clayton( DJ Rupture )and Matt Shadetek, soon after they decided that they would [co-found,in 2008] a label in New York. They brought on Geko Jones—all three of them are pretty much east-cast-based DJs. Jace and Matt were both based in Europe and they had just moved back so they brought Geko in to produce their first album—which was like electronic—for Jahdan Blakkamoore who was like a Brooklyn underground staple and underappreciated. He was on a record with Boot Camp Clik and Afu-Ra, he was putting out like 90s Hip Hop stuff and I don’t think—at that time—a lot of people recognized his contributions. So the three of those dudes linked up with Jahdan and produced his album and that was like that moment where they took electronic music and different global influences and put it into this one project. From there they did tracks for a lot of people and it’s made up of Uproot Andy, myself, Lamin Fofana, Atropolis and a bunch of different folks doing a lot of different stuff. It’s a good diverse crew, but very rooted in the same kind of philosophy, which is good.
What’s that philosophy?
Just and underground, do-it-your-self aesthetic, African diasporic, global south music and representing that in the United States, one, but also from a New York perspective—which is very mixed and diverse. Like I said earlier, people there don’t want to go out of their comfort zones if they don’t want to and all of us want to.
Do you still play with the band “Beaten By Them [BBT]?”
Yea I do. We just recorded a project in January.
What’s the difference between playing in “BBT” and being in “Dutty Artz Crew?”
BBT, creatively, is very similar because we all come from different backgrounds and contributing to this one project. I came into [BBT] at a very different point in my artistic vision because—also besides DJing I was playing the cello out of college—I was just training with a jazz musician named Hanah Jon Taylor. I moved to San Francisco and I was hungry to play with anybody I could and I linked up with them because [BBT] were the most serious and had the most resources to do recording and touring. We put a project together and have been doing it for about five or six years now.
What do you think the role of a DJ is inside the club—and outside? Are you diasporic messengers, cultural historians through beats and rhythms, something else?
I think that the role of the DJ has gone through this arc and we are in this time where anybody with a laptop can be a DJ. There becomes this point where you ask yourself, ‘what is a DJ?’ Anybody can be a DJ. It doesn’t take a specific skill or training. When I started DJing I had to practice a lot. I sounded like crap when I first got my turntables [laughs]… you know, like, this doesn’t sound like what I thought it was going to sound like. Now you have beat matching software and you have like cutting and all of this stuff you can do with software. I think for me that question started to be answered when you go back to the origins of a DJ, it was really like cats in New York in the 70s—both uptown and downtown taking—basically the same music, which was R&B and Disco, and putting their identity on it. In New York, at that time, you had young folks of color uptown experimenting with it and out comes hip-hop. You have gay folks and folks of color downtown experimenting with it and coming up with a harder dance which eventually leads to house. I think that with the DJ was in that moment, they were cultural focal points for experimentation and identity creation. It’s almost like we are in a similar landscape to what commercial music was like in the 70s where it was very over produced and people would have this adverse reaction to commercial music. I think we are very much at that point again. Today, as DJs, I think we are going to have to come with a separate term for it, for people who are shaping cultural identities and for people who are just playing music for a crowd at a bar.
How do you connect with the crowd? Knowing what to play, at times can be quite visceral right?
Yea, I say in Europe there is definitely a challenge sometimes. You go into a totally different cultural environment and you’re like all right, what am I getting into [laughs]? It’s not so easy. For me the easiest way is observation and being able to be quick and being able to judge peoples body language. I believe you get to a point when you can tell if people are responding to you or not just on body language. I think that’s a big part of it—also judging the situation you’re going into you know?
I read that you embrace “MP3 digging” as opposed to vinyl; do you think the wax will be phased away eventually?
No, because you have so many people who are invested in analog culture they are never going to let it die [laughs]…but no, that’s a good thing too. I collect vinyl myself. I’ll never let go. I’ll never let vinyl die. It’s not as feasible to press vinyl these days, at a certain scale. For me, if I’m producing my own record I’m not really going to have the start up funds to press a thousand vinyls and expect to sell them. If you are a label that has cultivated that kind of audience then I think there is strong network for that. It’ll keep going.
That’s good to know. [Laughs]
Books are coming back [laughs]…just like tape labels. I think vinyl definitely won’t be a primary way people will consume music, but it’ll definitely become a culture on its own, it already is.
Is there anything you’re listening to right now that we can expect to move to at Sonic Diaspora?
There is one song that I’m listening to called “Senrene” by Ajebutter22 from Nigeria, and it’s so nasty, it’s like a UK, funky Nigerian thing. I think he’s based in London, but goes back and forth between Lagos. I will definitely play that. If I could play that twenty times in a set I would. Expect to hear that song for sure.
Where will the music take you next?
Hopefully to West Africa to work on a project where I’m trying to build basically a music festival and a series of workshops with artists there and people I work with in the states who are interested in going over to do collaboration. Both to help build some infrastructure so people can get their music out internationally and try to generate some money for them. Also I think the mix of creative and cultural exchanges can be very rich and exciting. That’s where I’m headed.
For the latest and greatest of DJ Boima visit: http://chiefboima.com/