An Interview with The Internet's Freshest DJ Fresh
A deep talk with the Oakland producer and DJ wizard who recently put out an album with Freddie Gibbs.
Yo did you hear that project Freddie Gibbs did with that west coast producer that just dropped? Nah, the other one. While we were all still collectively vibing off Gibbs and Madlib’s Piñata, the powers that be up and blessed us with another Gangsta Gibbs joint, this time with Oakland mainstay DJ Fresh aka The World’s Freshest. The Tonite Show with Freddie Gibbs EP is the latest in DJ Fresh’s long-running Tonite Show series of single-artist projects.
DJ Fresh is one of those talented producers who manages to be versatile while still maintaining a distinct sound. His mix of jheri-curl funk drums, soul samples, and sunny synths works both as radio-friendly post-hyphy (D-Lo’s 2010 hit “No Ho”) and as smoked-out ridin music (him and Mitchy Slick’s excellent Feet Match the Paint). It’s a great fit for Gibbs (who, admittedly, sounds great on almost everything) and an interesting counterpoint to Madlib’s boom-bap.
Like everyone in the Oakland rap scene, DJ Fresh has made a ridiculous amount of music. There are well over twenty volumes of The Tonite Show featuring everyone from Yukmouth to Raekwon. But unlike most of insular Oakland, Fresh has his roots on the east coast. Before making his name as a producer, he was a formidable battle DJ who backed Nas on tour. We hopped on the phone last week to talk about his previous life on the decks, marketing albums, rap politics, and other DJ Fresh’s across the globe.
Noisey: How did you get started as a DJ?
DJ Fresh: I basically started DJing when I was 9 in Baltimore, Virginia, New York, in that area, I was doing mixtapes. I came to California when I was nine or ten, still just learnin’ how to DJ … it didn’t take me long to learn the basics but when I turned 15, my brother [DJ Dummy] was already big, he was DJing stuff for Onyx, Smoove Da Hustler, he was already doin’ his thing. When Common Sense—he’s Common now—but when did One Day It’ll All Make Sense and my brother was on that tour. That was my first big break, they used to come to San Francisco and I used to get to do the shows with my brother. It was big for me because I was living in the Bay Area and they’d be like, “Who’s this dude with Common next to Dummy?”
How did you end up in the Bay?
My mom had moved us just to get out the hood basically. Baltimore was the danger zone nahmean, it was a lot of poverty and shit goin’ on so we moved to San Jose.
But by the time you guys moved, he was old enough to stay east.
Yeah, he was doin’ his thing. He’s four years older than me.
So you were like a generation after Q-Bert and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz?
Yeah definitely. That was my brother’s generation … Q-Bert, Roc Raida—RIP Roc Raida! His generation was that but also Craze, DJ Babu. My generation was like DJ Klever, DJ Relm, those guys. I went far in battling but only for like two years. In ’99 I placed 3rd in the USA and I placed 2nd in the DMC in Washington, DC. 99/2000 was my biggest battle years and right after that I went on tour with Nas.
Did you ever battle A-Trak?
We know who each other are but I never got to face him. He was the first kid to win a DMC championship. I think he won and then he went on to DJ for Kanye West.
Right, he went on to do other things besides turntablism.
That was the same thing I was trying to do. I had gotten this real recognition as a turntablist but being a real DJ was always in my heart. I knew from a young age that I needed to make some money in this and there’s only a few heads really making money in the turntablism … the Q-Berts and the Crazes, the world champion dudes.
When were you touring with Nas?
That was when he put out Stillmatic and God’s Son. When I was on tour with Nas, that’s top of the food chain, makin’ good money, but the tour would only last a month or something. I was like, “What am I gonna do the rest of the year to make my income?” So I slowly started going into production. That’s how the Tonite Show series came about.
I was doing traditional mixtapes, just like blending the hottest songs. But as the internet started coming into play, the songs were coming so rapidly. Back in the day, a mixtape could last you a year or two because there wasn’t as much music coming out. But I realized with the fast pace of music, the lifespan of a tape was only a couple months.
So once I found out about sampling from my homies or whatever—you know, especially as a kid, you hear it and you don’t know how they’re making it. My homie put me on how it was done. I bought my first sampler, the EPS 16-plus. That was the birth of my production.
You really had never thought about sampling? You can remember the moment when someone explained sampling to you?
Oh I remember it very clearly! It was my homeboy Style Messiah and my homeboy Dexter, they were two producers already doin’ their thing in the local Bay Area scene. For some reason the cowbell sound and one other percussion sound, I was just so intrigued by how it sounded. I asked how he got that sound and he was like, “I sampled it.” I already had hella records because I’m a DJ and I had records from my family. Once he showed me how to do it I didn’t even wanna DJ anymore. It was something new and exciting.
How did The Tonite Show albums begin?
I was going to a music college in Emeryville, California. I was making these beats and by this time I was a lot better than I was but I also used to do a lot of video editing. I was really into shooting videos, little street videos, they was like the visuals for my beats at because I didn’t know any rappers. But I had ran into Mistah Fab at this little music mixer networking thing. At the time he was on his own, his fame and all that shit hadn’t came yet. But he had a bunch of videotapes he was workin’ on, tryin’ to put out a DVD. Remember when DVD’s was poppin’? So I was like, “I’ll work on your videos to get my name on there,” and he would put it out. He gave me 20 or 30 tapes and the video came out tight. It was called The Freestyle King and Mac Dre’s label Thizz had put it out. It had me on there DJing on there too.
It was a super success, it was one of the biggest selling DVD’s in the Bay Area and Northern California. After that was done, I was at the studio and one night I just called Fab and told him to come through. He just went in and freestyled the whole thing because he was “the freestyle king,” and that was the first Tonite Show. We did like two or three sessions over the next month or so. They had the big green screen and we superimposed the pic to make it look like we were on Jay Leno whatever. That was ten years ago.
That was that weird transitional period when mixtapes started becoming “street albums.”
I knew that at the time if I said I wanted these Tonite Show projects to be albums people would shy away from it like, “Oh it might mess up my main album.” But at the same time I always veered away from calling it a mixtape because I didn’t want to discredit the prestige of the project to the fans like it was something we didn’t care about. For a long time people didn’t even realize I was the one producing all those beats. They thought I was just making mixtapes. That’s how the “DJ Fresh DJ Fresh DJ Fresh” tag came about. Once I did the one with Yukmouth people was like, “OK this is an album.” After it dropped he was like, “People are feeling The Tonite Show** more than they feelin’ my main album.” so that was a turning point for my career.
Why’d you decide to move to LA?
I felt like I got to a ceiling in the Bay Area. I literally worked with everyone more than once, more than twice, more than I can count on one hand. I’m never gonna forget The Soil but the only way I felt I could expand and make a better business out of my brand is to come to LA.
Your last two Tonite Shows with Trae and Freddie Gibbs are the furthest away from Oakland.
I did one with Raekwon too! But I hooked up with Trae through Ghazi at Empire Distribution. He put the word in Trae’s ear; we made it happen. At the time I think Trae had like three other projects out so, as far as the numbers, it didn’t go as well as I hoped but from the outside looking in it was a good look. Trae’s like the King of Texas and he’s an OG, he been out. In that sense, the prestige and the respect was there.
In this day and age, with sales dropping across the board, getting your name out there with someone like Trae in and of itself is worth a lot.
Right, it was a great investment.
How did you feel about it the Tonite Show with Freddie Gibbs dropping so close to Piñata?
Honestly, at first I didn’t want to put it out at the same time as Piñata because I didn’t want to have to make people choose—Madlib is a hell of a producer and I didn’t want the project to get stepchilded. Somehow it leaked online though and it ended up on iTunes. So I told my distribution and they decided since it was out there they were just gonna put it out. I was just being optimistic and was like, “Aight let’s do it!” I talked to Freddie and got him on board.
I didn’t know how it was gonna turn out but since Freddie was hot with Piñata, Tonite Show kind of kept the flame lit. Also the project I have with Freddie is so different than the one with Madlib. It’s one of the first projects I’ve done that I really think got the recognition it deserved. I realize I’m the underdog but it’s OK, I ain’t trippin’ on that.
Were you worried about any possible industry backlash from Gibbs going at Jeezy?
Nah man, I mean I’ve been in that predicament before where I started out doing a project with somebody and they have a fallout with someone I’m in the middle of doin’ another project with, but it’s real recognize real … YG and Freddie Gibbs are cool and YG is signed with Jeezy, nahmean? I was working on the Tonite Show with Messy Marv and me and San Quinn had worked on a ToniteShow and in the middle of it was when they started having that major funk with each other. But neither one of them had no type of ill will towards me because I had nothing to do with it.
What’s going on with your name change from DJ Fresh to The World’s Freshest?
I changed my name because we live in the Google era and you gotta be the first thing that pops up. There’s several other DJ Freshes out there but the main one is in the drum’n’bass world in the UK … he’s got a #1 record. So a lot of time people will confuse him with me. I’ve even done shows where the IRS shows up like, “You need to fill out this W9” because they think I’m a different DJ Fresh. But I’ll always be DJ Fresh. It’s like 2 Chainz will always be Tity Boi.
Skinny Friedman owns two cats and a Serato box. He's on Twitter - @skinny412