What is it about Canada's west coast that lends itself so well to a funk renaissance? We asked the man behind it.
You can’t talk about Canada's west coast funk scene without mentioning Timothy Wisdom. Having made dance floors shake with funky breaks and bass lines for over 10 years around British Columbia and beyond, the Burning Man and Shambhala veteran DJ has been dubbed “the voice of ghetto funk” by peers and fans alike. Fueled by a lifelong love affair with golden era hip hop, you’re now likely to see Wisdom feeding his passion for party starting by stepping out from behind the turntables, and returning to his roots as a live MC. The only one in the business to truly do it all, he has fused his skills into an all-encompassing, foot stomping, notoriously fun live show that even the most adamant hipster kid couldn’t resist dancing to.
“These days, I think I’m more of an MC than I am a DJ,” said Wisdom when we met to talk about his experience in the burgeoning west coast funk scene. “I spend my time out front rapping and singing because I think that elevates the show and really makes it a show. I try to make things exciting, get people screaming, hands in the air, lots of cheering and call and response just so that you’re lost in the music, and you’re not thinking about your work problems tomorrow.”
Like many other west coast bass artists, Wisdom owes some of his underground popularity to the infamous Shambhala Music Festival; an annual world-class electronic event nestled in the heart of British Columbia’s mountainous Kootenay region. Now going on its 17th year, Shambhala is Canada’s longest-running electronic music festival, which Wisdom believes has been "absolutely critical in making BC a figurehead in the entire world as a place for awesome music. Shambhala is definitely a catalyst for preparing the whole culture and movement.”
It helps that BC is also able to boast some of the greatest audiences to play for, filled with people who aren’t afraid to let go and have fun. Despite playing all over the world, he says it’s always nice to come back and play a show on home turf. “When we hear something we like, we scream and shout and throw fists in the air and that makes a really good party,” he said of his fellow Canadians. “So no matter where I go to play in the world, it’s always really nice to come back to Canada.”
In addition to Shambhala’s credo to support local upcoming artists, Wisdom also cites fellow Canadian’s willingness to collaborate on music as a reason why the west coast has become an epicenter for the funk and breaks scene worldwide. “There’s a snowball effect that happens on the west coast. It’s a healthy attitude where everyone’s collaborating with each other and helping each other out, we’re all inspiring each other.”
Noisey: When and why did you get started making music?
Timothy Wisdom: When I was in grade six, I was growing up in Newfoundland, and I first heard DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s album called He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper—it was the first time I’d ever heard hip-hop before, and I was pretty blown away. I thought it was clever, it was talking, it was rhyming, it was funny…On the B side of that album, there’s just a bunch of DJ Jazzy Jeff just scratching and doing really weird turntables stuff. There’s actually a track called “Live at NY Times Square”, where he and Will are DJing in front of a crowd, and Will’s actually not rapping he’s just going ‘Alright Jazzy, now show them the transformers scratch! Now break it down! Do this, do that!’ …and you can hear Jazzy Jeff doing these things. I was in grade 6 going ‘What are these things?! What is this sound?!’
And by the time I got to grade nine…I’d saved up enough money mowing lawns, and I gave my Dad like $1000 dollars because he was doing down to NYC on a business trip. I said please go to a store somewhere, and tell them that your son wants to make hip-hop, and get him the things he needs. My Dad came back with a really rudimental set of turntables, a decent mixer with a little eight second sampler in it, and also a Roland 505 drum machine. I had no idea what to do with it, and no one to teach me what to do with it. But I did have a massive collection of hip-hop on cassette tape, and I had an eight second sampler, but I didn’t have any records. So I raided my Dad’s record collection. He had mostly classical music, but he had one Supremes record, a Motown record, and there was one section of that record where the music stopped and one of the Supremes just kinda went "Ohhhhh"–this little a cappella flourish. And I knew scratching was part of the DJ thing, so I took that sample and I scratched the shit out of it until it was completely ruined… eventually I made a little album. I was starting to produce really ghetto music. I would choose things like Chuck D going ‘BASS!’ And then I would rap and add my verses in there and scratch. They always ended up sounding like Beastie Boys vocals because they’d been run over a couple times, but it was pretty decent.
Do you think it’s a good thing that people have such easy access to tools to become bedroom DJs?
Absolutely! I think it's great. I believe lots of people out there have got music inside of them and sometimes its difficult for it to come out.
Do you think new technology has helped evolve music in that it allows people to do more with a song?
I totally think it has. Now lots of old school guys, purists, will yell at you and say they’re not really DJing because they’re not putting the work in. I believe that if you can remove the tedious tasks like syncing, it frees your brain up so you can do much more in your show. Now there’s lots of guys out there that are just content to mix records, and that’s fine, but for me I really like to be always adding another layer of complexity to my show.
When people go to a show or a festival, what do you think they’re looking to get out of it?
Well, when people go to Shambhala, they’re looking to be blown away by really huge dramatic experiences that are often brought on by living in the now. When you’re living in the present, in the now, you’re absolutely your happiest, ‘cause you’re not thinking about the future or the past.
Do you think festivals like Shambhala have played a role in the development of funk music, especially on the west coast?
Shambhala has been absolutely critical in making BC a figurehead in the entire world as a place for awesome music. Shambhala is a world-class festival, it's been the best breaks festival in the world for years, its made top 10 lists of things to do, it's spawned other festivals to happen, like Bass Coast, I guess is the next biggest one, but there’s still like Astral Harvest, Tall Tree, Motion Notion. Shambhala is definitely a catalyst for preparing the whole culture and movement.
Now there’s a lot of peoples careers that have come out of the festival scene, especially Shambhala. For instance, Bassnectar, he’s huge! And I think he owes a bunch of that to festival culture, Shambhala and Burning Man especially those two, because that’s where he’s become popular. Excision and Datisk have come out of Shambhala, Stickybuds has come out of Shambhala, I’ve even come out of Shambhala. There’s a whole bunch of artists around BC that have really had a leg up because of that festival. It’s propelled them. But now its set this standard like, ‘Are you a Shambhala DJ?’ [laughs]
Besides the influence of Shambhala, do you think there’s any other reason why west coast funk has become such a big thing?
Canadians—west coasters—we have a really good attitude about collaboration and helping each other out. I’ve been over to England and a lot of the English guys they’re really protective—it’s kind of like back in the early 90s when DJ’s wouldn’t teach you about DJing—well a lot of UK guys they really don’t like to work together, they’re really competitive and they try to thwart each other. Whereas in BC (now I’m really trying to promote this), I’d like to see the competition side go away and cooperation really bubble up a bit more. Stickybuds is probably the ambassador of west coast funk music. And now, Slynk has just moved here from Australia. And instead of chastising Slynk for coming over here, we completely welcome him in, and we say things like “Dude we gotta write some tunes together!” Now, anytime Stickybuds is successful, more people look towards the west coast to see what’s going on, and I’m standing right next to him so people are going to look at me. Every time Sticky does something great, it’s great for everyone involved in our little scene.
Well in music and art theory too, that’s how music is developed too—when you actually collaborate and work together and that’s how things develop further.
Exactly. There’s a snowball effect that happens on the west coast. It’s a healthy attitude where everyone’s collaborating with each other and helping each other out, and were all inspiring each other. There is a level of competition, but its healthy competition. We’re all trying to one up each other a little bit, but it’s an inspirational tool that we’re all using keep each other going and keep the music going.
You’ve played all around the world, where do you think the best party is at?
I’ve had some great shows around the world, I’ve had a few bad shows around the world, and I honestly have to say the west coast of Canada has the greatest audiences. You’ll hear a lot of guys from Europe say the same thing about Canada. You’ll hear a lot of Americans come up and say the same thing about Canada too. The difference with our audience here is that we’re not afraid to let go and have fun. When you go to some big American cities, I guess they have this hipster mentality where they always have to maintain a ‘cool factor’ and remain inhibited, so they don’t tend to cheer as much and stuff like that, whereas Canadians…we don’t give a shit about that sort of stuff! So when we hear something we like, we scream and shout and throw fists in the air and that makes a really good party. So no matter where I go to play in the world, it’s always really nice to come back to Canada.
Why the ‘Wisdom’ in your name?
That was given to me by this woman in University. Her name was Becky, I don’t even remember her last name…We were just sitting at a bar one night and she was like, ‘You should be Timothy Wisdom!’, and it just kinda stuck.
Do you have a favourite show or festival moment?
I’ll tell you one story where I think I figured out the entertainment value of being a DJ. I was at a small new years party on the sunshine coast for a group called Tribal Harmonics, which is a west coast hippie party/movement. They were like a secret group of hippies that would throw parties in the forest every now and then. They did a new years party called ‘Intention’, and I was asked to DJ ‘The Midnight Slaughter’, which was the prime slot right after midnight. Anyway, my left turntable just stopped working halfway through the set. Just totally stopped working. And for a DJ who’s gotta mix one record into another, this pretty much means this is a no-go show, y’know, you’re done! And something happened; it was kind of like an out of body experience. I didn’t even hesitate or stop I just picked up the mic for the first time in – ever – and I started to tell jokes as I took the right record off an put the next record on, and the party just kept going. And every time that song would end, I would just go into radio DJ land where I would just chat with people and I’d tell jokes and say something funny, and get the crowd going. It was weird, something just entered me and I become this entertainer!
And everyone who was at that party talks about that moment. And I still don’t really understand what happened exactly…it’s a feeling that I’ve tried to latch onto though…I remember there was this thing: everyone knew the left turntable wasn’t working, and we were all in it together, and we we’re all solving this problem together, and it was going to be okay.
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