J Rocc is one of the most enduring names in turntable culture.
Starting out as the DJ for West-Coast group PSK in the mid-80s, J Rocc truly came into the spotlight as a founding member of the infamous Beat Junkies. Across the years he’s also been Madlib‘s go to DJ – including touring with Madlib and J Dilla as the unofficial third member of Jaylib, as well as releasing loads of mixtapes and original productions through Stones Throw records and others.
On the eve of his current Australia tour, we set up Dizz1 (Liveschool trainer, RBMA alumni and beatmaker extraordinaire on Tru Thoughts) conducted this J Rocc interview about his inspiration, creative process and vinyl addiction.
If you’re in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne or Adelaide make sure to catch his free performances on the 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd of February, presented by Red Bull Music Academy. All the shows are free entry – RSVP here.
So starting off with the basics, what’s been keeping you busy lately?
Edits, making beats….we’ve just launched a Beat Junkie station on this app called Dash Radio. It’s internet radio for your phone – similar to SiriusXM. This guy DJ Skee – he’s the one man behind it, the creator. Odd Future have their own station, Julio G
from KDAY radio has his own station, Tek9 has his own station. So I’ve been real busy doing that.,.then just making beats and productions
What do you normally start with when you’re writing a beat or a production – what’s the first step for you?
Either the sample or the drums. Usually it’s a sample, like I’ll hear something that I want to chop up, loop up or do something with. Then I’ll just try to find drums that sound right under it. I’ll sit there and preview listen through different kicks until “oh that ones sounds good over there”, then do the same thing with the snare until I find one that sounds right, y’know.
I also use the convert melody to MIDI or convert harmony to MIDI in Ableton Live to get me started – to figure out bass-lines, what keys are being played and stuff like that. I do that a lot.
If you’re listening to music and you hear a snippet or a section in a record, do you go “Fuck I need to jump on the gear now and start chopping a beat up”, or do you take notes – how does that work for you?
It just depends what I’m doing. I do a lot of digitising albums, I’ll just throw it on, record it and archive it for future listening – so sometimes I’ll catch something while I’m doing that. Other times I’ll just be listening to a record and be like “oh snap that’s cool, let me get that in right now”.
I have folders galore of samples – not chopped or anything – just records I’ve heard, recorded in Ableton and pulled to the side.
My Session View in Ableton Live is usually like 30 or 40 samples I’ve cut up previously, that’s before I take anything into Arrangement view.
What about your creative space – what do you have in there and what’s important for your inspiration in there?
It depends whether I can find room! I have a lot of records laying around, so I’ve got make space for a chair sometimes. I’m not really picky though, as long as I’m comfortable and have a nice little seat.
In there I usually just use Ableton Push, two turntables, a MIDI keyboard and some plugins – so I just go back and forth between all those, all running through an Apogee Duet.
I don’t really bring stuff with me on the road. On the road I’m not making crazy beats – I might start something, but I won’t get too deep on it. I’ll do a mix tape though on the road in a heart beat – just in Ableton Live.
So how do you know when one of your tracks is finished and to let it go?
Just when it feels done.
Sometimes I’ll want to keep layering stuff over it and keep going and going and going…. and sometimes that works. Most of time though (if I can’t stop adding layers) it actually just needs a different mix – like I need to turn something up, or or something was too loud when I played it out – that happens all the time. That too can be a never-ending process though if you’re not careful. The mix will never be perfect – like you’ll play it out again and it’ll be “oh man now the hi-hats too loud now” – there’s always something, so at some point you’ve just got to stop.
What about looking back – can you recall any moment or event that you feel was a turning point in your success as an artist?
Shoot I don’t know…just being accepted was a turning point. Just people knowing what the hell I do.
I’ve done so much though that I don’t what one thing anybody would know me from… like DJing for Dilla and Madlib – some people might know me from that – or I might get somebody that’s like “Oh man I love Quantic – I got that Quantic mix from you”. Or I might get someone that only knows me from the Beat Junkies – then they started looking into me, so there’s different routes.
That’s cool. So if you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice when you were starting out as an artist, what would it be?
Damn, one piece of advice…
Don’t buy so many records (laughs). I would have told that to myself a couple of years ago – not until you’ve listened to your last crate a least.
So is that the case – have you set some kind of rules for yourself, like you have to listen to everything you buy or at least make sure you’ve put it on the (turntable) platter?
Man I try to but it just doesn’t work. I tried to set that rule but it just ends up in a crate somewhere. It gets ridiculous.
Yeah for sure.
What about playing live – do you have any kind of pre-show warm up ritual to get yourself in the zone – and do you ever get nervous?
I just check out who’s before me and see how the crowd is. I get a little nervous because I don’t know what’s going to happen – not nervous like I don’t want to go on, more like “man I hope Serato doesn’t crash”. I guess that stuff’s always somewhere in the back of your mind, but you just got to try have a good time and not let it show.
What about when you were starting out?
Oh man back then for sure (laughs).
Did you have any ways to deal with it?
Nah, just went through it – like “fuck, I’m fucking up..” – but y’know, you got to go through it. I’d be doing stuff with Beat Junkies and my needles would start skipping like crazy and I’d be like “oh man I’m having the worst set ever”, but you got to keep going.
What about a pre-studio routine – is there something you do to get in the zone, do you need a coffee or something to start?
Just get myself hyped. The sample’s got to get me into it in the first place. What I’m working on has to get me hyped and if it doesn’t then I shouldn’t be working on that beat.
If I’m falling asleep or something I’ll have like a coconut water or an espresso or a tea – I guess something to stay up. Usually though it’s the beat inspiring me like “I can’t wait to see what this will sound like at the end” – that’s usually what gets me.
J Rocc Australian Tour Dates:
All shows are FREE thanks to Red Bull Music Academy.
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