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Interview: DJ DSK

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Longtime Kunming resident DJ DSK has been spinning records in the Spring City for a decade. The English-born DSK regularly tours Europe and Asia and has the stamps in his passport to prove it.

GoKunming was able to catch up with DSK during a break between his near constant gigs. We talked with him about his new album, "The Dark Passenger." The record is a collaborative effort between DJ DSK and Cambodia-based MC Gobshite. We also spoke at length about his ten-year career as a China-based DJ. You can check him out personally when he plays a free album release show January 18 at The Mask. The show begins at 10pm.

GoKunming: Congratulations on the new album release. Where did you come up with the title?

DJ DSK: Thanks very much. "The Dark Passenger" title comes from the TV series Dexter and is used to describe the demon inside all of us that actively makes us do terrible things. The main character of the TV series is a serial killer that takes out evil people who have escaped the justice system.

The title track of the album is dark humor based on our take of this — a character called Frank whose "Dark Passenger" takes out artists for their crimes against music.

GK: Can you walk us through the process of making the album and what listeners can expect?

DJ DSK: It was a lot of hard work to meet the deadline for the CD release. Listeners can expect real hip-hop music with meaning. The subject matter is reminiscent of the 90s, boom-bap rap music era. Subjects vary from the isolation felt by expats living abroad to the overuse of social media in our lives. It also features what can best be described as a Dexter-style massacre of The Black Eyed Peas and Akon who keep getting away with the same musical crimes again and again.

As for the making of the album, Gobshite lives in Phnom Penh and I live in Kunming, so recording the album was always going be a challenge. The majority of the music was produced here in Kunming and a small amount of it was produced while we were on tour. Usually, I would email a sketch of some beats to Gobshite and he would then decide which of those beats he could work with.

Then via Skype we would discuss what subject, ideas and topics we felt strongly enough about to base the songs around. Gobshite would write a rough verse or two and email it to me and I would get on and finish the music for each song. When completed, Gobshite would go to 391 studios in Phnom Penh and record the vocals.

The last step for me was to mix it all and add any scratches that were needed. Finyl Tweak did the mastering for the music at a professional studio in the UK. When the album was complete, UK graffiti artist DEP designed the cover artwork.

GK: How can listeners get a copy?

DJ DSK: Physical CD copies can be picked up in Kunming at The Mask, in Phnom Penh at Black Star Tattoo, at Leicester HQ in the UK and world-wide via mail order. Anyone interested can just email me [unitynick[at]gmail[dot]com] for details and the album is available online at Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon.

GK: How were your recent tours of Thailand and Cambodia?

DJ DSK: I always love to play in Cambodia and Thailand and this time was no exception. We had a CD release party in Phnom Penh. It was a big success and it was great to see a lot of friends and local artists come out to support us. We couldn't have asked for more.

Phnom Penh has a growing hip-hop, art and music scene, which I see getting bigger and stronger each time I visit. Bangkok, as always, was great fun as I got down with the Sideshow Kuts crew on a rooftop lounge. It's such a beautiful venue and you can see the Bangkok skyline.

GK: You have toured extensively in Asia over the years. What are some of your favorite Asian and Chinese cities to play?

DJ DSK: Every city has a different vibe and energy. It's always a pleasure to experience different places. India and Korea are very interesting, as is Taiwan. It has a relaxed vibe and the b-boy events I've done there have been amazing. Singapore is a favorite, as the crowd seems to enjoy more funky music and have great musical knowledge. My two favorite cities are still Phnom Penh and Bangkok for the craziness, the amazing vibe and the friendly, happy locals.

In China, it is difficult to say. But I probably prefer playing the smaller venues run by friends. At places like those I am a lot more free to play the music I love. So I would have to say The Mask here in Kunming. The owners, Alex and Catherine, have always been so supportive of me and we try to put on some special nights with music you don't usually hear in Kundu. It's a small bar so the dance floor gets sweaty and it has a really nice intimate feeling.

In the old days of Kunming, the Speakeasy Bar was also a lot of fun and I have many great memories of DJing there. The Shelter in Shanghai and Secco in Nanjing are fantastic as well.

MC Gobshite and DJ DSK on stage in Phnom Penh
MC Gobshite and DJ DSK on stage in Phnom Penh

GK: Why did you choose Kunming as your home base?

DJ DSK: I lived in Southeast Asia for years and decided to learn Chinese. I basically stuck a pin in the map, which landed in Simao, and I headed there from Laos.

I found some work in Yuxi, just north of Simao and lived there for a year, where I met my wife. After that we headed to Kunming where I found a DJ school and worked there a few years. I really loved my early years living in Kunming and all the great people I met. I never wanted to live in one of the more polluted big cities like Shanghai or Beijing.

GK: Other than working on the album, what have you been up to and who have you been playing shows with recently?

DJ DSK: Recently, I have been lucky enough to work with Mystro who is one of the best MCs in the UK. Also, I have been working with Akil from Jurassic 5 on a song coming out soon. We'll tour together with his new group 4Dub.

My greatest achievement last year was to win a competition by remixing "London Posse – Gangster Chronicle" which is a seminal UK hip-hop track from the 90s. That will be released this year on my favorite label Tru Thoughts. Rodney P from London Posse is one of my all time favorite artists. So to win this and get respect from him was a big honor for me.

GK: Who are some of your favorite Chinese DJs or artists?

DJ DSK: To be honest there are not a lot of Chinese DJs that play the music I like personally. But I have a lot of respect for them and think there are some amazingly talented DJs in China. I would have to say DJ Wordy in Beijing, DJ LJ in Guiyang and Fat Kit in Guangzhou are some of the best.

The underground music scene is so exciting at the moment and I feel it is always overlooked by both the foreign and local press. People just tend to look at the rock or minority music scene. But electronic and hip-hop music are both exploding in China right now. Wordy Soulspeak, AM444, Kid God, Chee Productions, and Chacha are all making incredible music.

GK: How would you describe Kunming's music scene and its audiences to outsiders?

DJ DSK: I think that Kunming has a small but interesting music scene. I have seen some great bands in Kunming like Funk Assembly, Smegma Riot, War Whores, The Quebec Rednecks, Hell Yeah, and Lao Han's Reggae Band to mention a few.

As far as DJing, I think Kunming has a long way to go. Here in Kunming people mostly just play what is current and commercial with no one pushing boundaries or playing what they really like. I feel only the guys at The Club, like Maxi and Low Scene, are doing the right thing. They are producing and playing great electronic music from their hearts.

The merchandise table
The merchandise table

GK: How has working as a DJ in China changed since you first arrived?

DJ DSK: When I first arrived I was still playing purely vinyl. Chinese DJs were just starting to learn scratching and vinyl techniques. It was a very exciting time and most DJs then needed to actually buy music and spend time practicing and so they were a lot more passionate.

Now because of the internet, everyone is just downloading music and playing from a laptop that syncs the songs for them. That leads to a lot of foreigners with no skills at all who call themselves DJs and play anywhere they want around China.

GK: What advice would you give to DJs who are just starting out in China?

DJ DSK: I would say start DJing because you love music and not to just make money. I would recommend finding a DJ you like and approaching them to help be a promoter and to make parties together.

If you put in the effort of helping to promote parties they will appreciate that and you will get to meet the local party crowd. You can get an early slot before the more established DJ. The value of promoters is always overlooked, they are just as important as the DJ. So I would say begin there.

GK: Who are some of your musical influences and what are your favorite genres of music?

DJ DSK: The DJs that influenced me are Cash Money, Jazzy Jeff and the Skratch Piklz. My favorite genres are hip-hop, funk, soul, reggae, ska, trip-hop and old film scores.

GK: What was the last record you bought?

DJ DSK: My last vinyl purchase, I think, was by Tony Hatch & The Satin Brass. It's an amazing record. I found the Japanese issue in China and it's by a composer that actually wrote the theme music to the UK soap opera Crossroads. It is a crazy song with a beat I want to sample for a future track. Google it.

The crowd at a CD release party in Phnom Penh
The crowd at a CD release party in Phnom Penh

GK: Do you have any funny stories from the road playing around Asia?

DJ DSK: Yeah. Too many to write about and too many people to get into trouble [laughs]. Let's just say my time touring with MC Glitz, who stripped down to only his Y-fronts during the finale of every show, was interesting to say the least!

GK: There was a recent story about DJ Shadow being kicked off the decks in Miami because the promoters thought his music was "too futuristic" for the crowd. Have you had any similar experiences?

DJ DSK: Yes. Situations like that are the fault of the promoter. Sometimes they book artists who are not suitable for certain venues. One time we performed as a trio on a Christmas Eve — an MC, a singer and myself. The first song we did was "Ready Or Not" by the Fugees, which is a very slow track. We had been booked in a Chinese techno club and when we walked in, they were playing a techno version of "Jingle Bells" at 140 beats per minute. I have no idea why they booked us to follow that kind of music. As you can imagine we went down like a lead balloon!

If I'm playing a small town in China I will sometimes compromise by throwing in a few poppy hits. But playing internationally, I try to keep the music non-cheesy and play different genres cut up hip-hop style. You wont catch me playing "Gangnam Style" — so please don't request it.

GK: What's next for you?

DJ DSK: I have two releases coming out in March. One is a hip-hop release featuring Mystro and Akil and the other a release of some nu-funk breaks. I will do one more tour of Southeast Asia and China and I think that will be it. Time for me to hang up the headphones!

Editor's note: DJ DSK would like to thank the sponsors without whose help the new album would not have been possible. Special thanks to Eddie at Black Star, Cambodia; Andre at Propaganda, Singapore; Dale, at Sole Heaven, UK; Welly at Mix Club, Beijing and Dep at Paintshop Studio in the UK.

Top image: Piero Vio
MC Gobshite and DSK image: Nick Sells

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What an inspiration. I'm just saving up to buy my decks and mixer and teach myself to DJ with the few vinyls that I have. I've been to so many bars in China where they play terrible music, and I always thought "I should learn how to dj and play some Fela Kuti and James Brown". It's my dream (sorry to sound so cheesy), and having someone who lives here and does it for a living is really really encouraging. Great interview. Thumbs up on the Mystro and J5 connections (incidentally I've made an old skool remix of a Mystro) track, haha), I'll be sure to check out the gig and get that CD!

Yunnan's number one DJ by far, respect!

Maximum respect for keeping it real and not selling out yourself! The shadowside is, that it's hard to make money this way...
Keep it up mate, we hear you!!!

Great DJ, always has the dancefloor jumping, quality album too.

Great show last night. Three hours with no break? Good times.

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