The Detroit legend discusses making classic records with Eminem, beat battling with J. Dilla, and the Detroit hip-hop scene.
DJ Head, on the far right
How does it feel to be Eminem's DJ and producer at the height of his career in 2000, and thirteen years later you're not even speaking to him? Ask DJ Head. Born Kevin Bell and raised in Detroit, he studied classical and jazz piano as a kid before he began carrying crates for local DJs. He quickly became indoctrinated into the hometown hip-hop scene, where he met local legend Proof, and his career began to take off. Together, Head and Proof made a series of W.E.G.O. mixtapes in 1996. The next year, Head produced for a fledging rap group called D12 on their first project, The Underground EP. He went on to work on Bizarre's Attack of the Weirdos EP, which featured a young spitter named Marshall Mathers on a song called "Trife Thieves."
Head and Eminem formed a friendly working relationship that led to Head producing on key album cuts for The Slim Shady EP and LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, and The Eminem Show. He became Eminem's main touring DJ as Marshall began to blow up—you can spot Head on the top platform of the stage during the Up In Smoke tour—and seemed to be an integral part of Shady's production team.
And then he disappeared. Duringthe recording of The Eminem Show, Em began to handle production on his own, and after the release of that album, his relationship with Head was basically severed. Ever since, Stans who scoured the liner notes and always encountered Head's name have been wondering what happened to the guy.
DJ Head has been hesitant to reveal personal details—about Em, about the split, about Dr. Dre. I tracked him down to talk about the hand he played in Eminem's classic albums, beat battling with J Dilla, and which unreleased Em song he's dying to see released.
Noisey: What got you into making music at first?
DJ Head:I've been into music since I was seven-years-old. I went to Detroit Community Music School for an afterschool program. I was also in band throughout grade school and high school and all that. Funny we talk about this, because Keegan of Key and Peele went to the same grade school and high school and me and him were in band all that time. Our parents know one another.
How did you and Eminem first link up?
Well, I met Em via Proof. Me and Proof went to the same grade school along with Keegan and Proof and I met in the principal's office. I wasn't supposed to be in the principal's office but we were both put there. Then a few years later in college, I was friends with a guy who was rapping and he was friends with some guy since high school and he wanted to bring him by the house. And it was Proof, so we reconnected from there and kept going. He introduced me to Eminem.
What was your first work with Eminem?
Me and Proof did the ["W.E.G.O."] skit on [Eminem's first, rarely-referenced album] Infinite. Then from there we did the Slim Shady EP, then Bizarre's Attack of the Weirdos , and after that it just keeps going. But before that I had just been working with cats from the Hip-Hop Shop scene, and that was a cool place because I got to meet a lot of people who were coming through town.
The Hip-Hop Shop was where there would be a rap battle every Saturday from 4p.m. to 6p.m. And all the MCs would come, it was sort of like our mini Apollo, right on 7 Mile. A lot of cats came out of there: Proof, Em, 5 Elementz, Phat Kat, Royce, Obie Trice, Elzhi, and Slum Village. That was that spot at that particular time. That was Maurice Malone's store at the time, and it was free but only because Maurice had cash flow from being a clothing designer. So he had Maurice Malone's designs, but the Hip-Hop Shop was his storefront and we had the rap battles in there. That was where everyone hung out. Eminem would be doing his battles and everything.
You were Em's DJ during his 2000 show in Amsterdam and for the Up In Smoke tour. Must have been some crazy times. What was Em like back then?
Pretty much the same cat from the shop when I first met him. You know, as big as it got, I don't think it had even set in at that point. You just keep going. And then you're so busy that you're not even paying attention to all that. We would have fun on tour, but it was just like hanging out in Detroit. We'd go have a couple brews or freestyle on the street corner, you never know. It was a typical, "whatever happens" type of situation.
Where were you guys recording the Slim Shady EP and LP?
Slim Shady EP was recorded at a studio up on 8 mile that the Bass Brothers owned. The Slim Shady LP was done between L.A. and 54 Sound if I remember correctly. But we kept on recording once the EP dropped and continued to make songs to the point that Slim Shady LP.
Was Dr. Dre in the studio with you during the recording of those projects?
A little bit. He would check in on us. It was pretty much me, Em, and one of the Bass Brothers in the studio. And at a later point it might be Luis Resto. Dre was a little bit more hands-on for The Marshall Mathers LP. [Me and Eminem] just kept doing our program because that's what we were used to.
Did you and Em have a specific method when it came to working in the studio?
We would start off by going through some records, finding the drums and then begin building the rhythm track, and a skeleton track which was a basic beat to rap over. Like when you're DJing, you're kinda just looking for the break, the perfect beat or whatever. Then you start building the track up off of that. There might be 20 beats done, but we'd only grab one or two. Then if there's one that's feeling right, we start creating a song.
Was Kim ever around in the studio or on tour?
She wasn't in the studio. She would be on tour with us sometimes. I knew her through just hanging out. We would just be shooting pool or some shit and she'd be there. She even met my parents once. That was entertaining.
Eminem Show was basically the last Eminem album that you worked on. What do you remember about working on that album?
Well I remember doing "Cleaning Out My Closet." There was a D12 show that I had to DJ for and I had tracked out some of the beat before the show, went and did the dig, then came right back to the studio and kept working on it. Em had written about 75% of the song while I was DJing, so when I came back I realized what he was doing and I began putting the other pieces together. So I laid down that rhythm track before the show, and he figured out his rhyme schemes and patterns on that, and when I came back and heard the rough skeleton of what he was doing, we completed it.
It was also a little transition period because Em was having a studio built in his house, so we were recording some of the songs in his house at the time.
Moving backwards to The Marshall Mathers LP, you had drum programming credits on "Marshall Mathers," "Drug Ballad," "Amityville," "Under the Influence," and "Criminal." What do you remember about making "Criminal?"
I was actually switching from using one drum machine to another at the time. I was using the SP1200 a lot, and beatheads know about that machine, it was very limited, but that damn sound on it was hard, very hard. It was just an old analog machine, simple as hell. So I was transitioning from that to an MPC3000, but I hadn't learned how to work it yet. So "Criminal" was the last time I used the SP1200. For the rest of the songs, I would put the drum sounds in the SP1200, but then I would sample out of that into the MPC3000. A lot of the reason that Marshall Mathers knocks so hard is because it was all done on analog. We were recording on tape.
Was Eminem helping to produce at the time of Marshall Mathers LP?
He was there saying, "I like this, this will work" and so on. Or he'd come in and tell me he was looking for something like this feel, or he might have a bassline in his head, let's try this. We'd be throwing all the ingredients in the pot to see what we could come up with. He was more hands-on in terms of production for The Eminem Show.
Did you know early on that Em would become as big of a superstar as he did?
None of us was picturing that. Ever. We would work a day job and that was how we let off steam. I didn't feel like he was really blowing up until around The Marshall Mathers LP. Like, "Damn, this shit is huge." The TRLs and all of that. You're actually on MTV, you're actually at the Grammys, you're actually at the AMA's. And Detroit isn't a super media hub, so that's why it wasn't any kind of Hollywood thing. None of us thought, coming where we came from, that all that would happen.
What was the craziest shit you ever saw go down in the studio with Em?
[Long pause] I can't even remember any crazy shit, it was a long time ago. But he was pretty disciplined in there. It was tight, we kept it moving.
After Eminem Show, you and Em basically stopped working together. What happened?
I moved to Europe for a couple years to do a bunch of gigs and keep money flowing in.
So he didn't hit you up for any production after Eminem Show?
Nah. He just went and did the 8 Mile thing and just kept going.
Did you want to keep working with him, or did it not matter to you?
Eh…neither here nor there with it.
Yeah, I did the drums on that. What's funny about that song, though, is that the whole groove came from BET. They used to have a show called "BET on Jazz" and I'd be up late anyway, so that would come on at 4 in the morning. And it's all jazz, you'd be watching jazz players tinkering around. So I'm sitting there watching them and that's where the "Renegade" groove came from.
You've worked on and heard plenty of music that most people will never hear in their lifetime.What's some of the illest material you've ever heard in the studio with Em that's never been released?
There is one song that I wish would come out. I know he didn't like it, but I think Dre or Mel-Man did it. I can't remember the name of the song, but it was hot as shit. Whoo!This was in between The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show. This song is, man….this song is ridiculous. It's classic, classic, classic Em. You know how he can get serious but also funny all in the same gameplan? It was on that level, but it was like damn! Everything about that song was classic Em beyond belief. It had like a New Edition hook on it.
That song was my number one Eminem song. I wish I had a copy of that shit. I have no fucking idea why Em didn't like that track, because all of us was like, "Dude, you got to put that shit out!" Paul [Rosenberg] and Denaun [Porter] and everyone were like, "Dog…really?" The wordplay, the rhyme schemes were all in the pocket real hard. I haven't thought about that song in a long time.
Some of your earliest work with Em was on the Slim Shady EP, songs like "Low Down, Dirty" and "No One's Iller."
Yup. Interesting story about "No One's Iller." I was working three jobs back then, pushing 70 hours a week, So I'd be exhausted and worn out. Em would hit me like, "I need a beat for something". So I kept blowing it off and bullshitting because I was tired. So the day that he booked his studio time, he's like, "Yo, you got the beat?" And I lied to him and said yeah. So I said, "Give me an hour." I went into the basement with the SP1200 and made the beat in like five, ten minutes.
Me, J Dilla, Proof, and T3 from Slum Village used to have beat battles in my parents' basement with their drum machines. The rules of the beat battles were that the other people would pick five records for you, one would be a drum break record and you get four sample records to find a loop or chop something up from. So you've got those five records and like 20 minutes to make a beat. So we'd all make our own and then go back and listen to them.
During one of these beat battle sessions, Dilla made "Drop" for The Pharcyde, and on another beat battle session I made the beat for "Just The Two Of Us." So it became habit-forming to the point where we could make any beat in 20 minutes or less. Just grab something and throw it together. So with "No One's Iller," I had just gotten off work, grabbed a 40 from the store and then made the beat in like ten minutes.
So you were beat battling with J Dilla?
Me, Dilla, Proof, we came up with this beat battle thing out of boredom. Dilla was starting to get on anyway, and me and Dilla were real cool. I think Proof was the one that came up with the crazy idea because he would do shit like that. I had the SP1200 and you could make a beat on that thing in no time.
How did you meet him?
We had crossed paths several times prior to that, but then it became official via Proof. I never got to really work with him, but when he got on he would throw me acapellas to do remixes with. Some Masta Ace and shit like that, because he was working with Delicious [Vinyl] for Pharcyde's shit.
Dilla would be over at my parent's house all the time. I had a decent sized record collection just from DJing and grabbing shit, and we would just keep the beat battle thing going. We would go record shopping a lot too, just digging for samples. We'd go nuts in those record stores. We'd leave out of there with a stack, plus back then the Internet wasn't so prevalent so $100 could get you a ton of heat, versus now that's like $1,000 or $2,000.
Me and Dilla would hang out a lot, though. He would use my SP1200, too. He was using that SP1200 for a lot of his earlier stuff like The Pharcyde, Little Indian, Mad Skillz. That was my SP1200. I've still got the thing sitting in my closet. I had bought it with a credit card that I got by being in college because you got credit automatically. My boy told me there was an SP1200 at a music store with the case and everything. I had been looking for one because at that point they weren't making them anymore. This was like 1991, maybe. I drove all the way from Michigan State down to this music store in Mount Clemens or something, in the suburbs of Detroit. I got the credit card that week and it was the first thing I bought. Still got the machine to this day.
Do you remember any other beats that Dilla made when you were around?
Tons of shit, man. "Runnin'," maybe. He would actually hook us up, because me and Proof had the W.E.G.O. mixtapes and he would hook us up with beats he was working on prior to them being released. At that point the New York mixtape game was crazy, so it was kind of like the Detroit thing around here. And he would hook us up with the hot shit that he was working on so that we could flood the streets of Detroit with it.
The beat battle mentality really helped us keep it moving, because you never knew what's gonna stick. When I made "Just The Two Of Us", I was like, "Man, ain't like nobody ever flip Grover Washington Jr. and Bill Withers' 'Just the Two of Us.' This just another take on it like all the other ones." But I guess people ended up really liking the flip. That beat had to get replayed because we didn't clear the sample, so the Bass Brothers replayed it. They would do that for anything they didn't want to clear.
So were you never really in the studio with Dre?
Dre actually helped me mix "Shit On You" [by D-12]. He didn't teach me anything I didn't already know, but there were a couple tricks in terms of mixing that I'm still pondering. Like when he made "Guilty Conscience," I was trying to figure out how the hell he got the drums out of the sample.
Max Weinstein is on Twitter - @dubmaxx