It's my pleasure to bring you this interview with Emskee The Complex Engineer. Like me, he's a fellow Jersey head and tape nerd. He's contributed a few radio shows to DW as well as his batch of incredible radio promos which I suggest you all peep if you havent already. Emskee has made a name for himself throughout the years making ill promos for some of the best NYC radio shows, with his group The Good People and also as a resident DJ for the acclaimed Underground Railroad show on WBAI. He's got a vinyl release coming out through UK's Diggers With Gratitude label featuring some of his unreleased recordings from the early 90's. He was nice enough to sit down and tell us about his time in the game and what he's been up to, interview after the jump..
DW: Born/raised/currently representing?
EM: I was born in the BX, and raised in the melting pot suburbs of Teaneck, New Jersey. Once I left the rest I 'repped the Heights in Jersey City for about 3 years. From there it was on to the L.E.S. in the city for about 12 years. I been in Bushwick now for over a year. I love my Jersey/New York roots. A lot memories in this area.
DW: When did you start djing/MCing/producing, and who inspired you to get involved with hip hop?
(what records, which DJ's, producers MC's etc)
EM: Ha ha. Whenever this question is asked, most cats that lived through the "golden years" of hip hop in NY will have similar answers.
I caught the bug back in like '85. I had always been infatuated with my pops tape recorders and stacks of reel to reels since i was a baby so I was a music nerd REAL early. I started collecting (and fuckin up alot of records) on my direct drive stereo in my room (before I knew about scratch pads and felt for the platter). I'd burn the grooves of different phrases scratching so much on one side, and then I'd turn it over and realize I'd totally scratched up the flip. The good 'ol trial and error period.
Also, around that time I was a slave to recording stuff from the radio on a little bullshit box I had. Of course the obvious, Mr. Magic, Red Alert, and Chuck Chillout. But I was drawn to the underground, to-the-left, all-the-way-down-the-dial-where-the-static-was shows and super late night jump offs. "Rap This" with P Fine. The Wildman Steve Show on WBAU out in Garden City (when I could catch it without crazy static), Public Enermy's show also out of Long Island. Jerry Bloodrock. The Awesome 2. Afrika Islam's Zulu Beats on WHBI, DNA-Hank Love Show. Man, I was a NERD. It's a shame this next generation coming up won't ever have the special experience of gaining important hip hop knowledge by having to FIND and seek out various "hidden" media outlets spewing brain-twisting, ground breaking material. It's all at the fingertips and the click of a mouse now pretty much. That was a dope time. Those are all the shows and elements that got me into the culture. Of course analog sound is the main factor. It just had that IT that I needed in my life.
MC wise, I have to give it up to T La Rock at the start. He had that voice AND next level type flow for that time. Masters Of Ceremony stood out, and of course BDP. Oh yeah. Mantronix was a beast too. I never had my own drum machine/sampler and stuff so I never actually produced anything. I always had dope ideas though.
DW: Favorite year/era in hip hop? why?
EM: Hands down.....'85 to '95. The best 10 years of CONSISTENT, VARIETY hip hop ever. Street joints, conscious joints, happy joints. Whatever mood I was in, there were choices that I could make. More specifically....'91 to "94. That 3-year span saw some ill, legends-born releases. Why? Analog versatility. There were alot of drums that were over-sampled, but why complain. Producers flipped them in their own style and it always came off (pause). LOL My main and biggest producer inspirations are (they should be immortalized like the faces of Mount Rushmore) Buckwild, Diamond D, Pete Rock, Marley Marl, Showbiz, Dj Premier, Large Professor and Ez Mo Bee. Some reading this might frown and question why others weren't mentioned, but these are the cats who made up the soundtrack to my life for the most part.
DW: Can u think back & describe some early live shows that really amazed/inspired you?
EM: I used to go to a rollerskating rink called "The Rink" in the next town over from Teaneck, Begenfield, New Jersey, on Saturday nights. They'd have a stage built on the island next to the dj booth in the middle of the skating floor on weekends. Between '82 and like '85 I saw, in their early stages Davy DMX, The Fresh 3 MC's, The Fat Boys, LL Cool J, Dougy Fresh and Slick Rick, Dana Dane, Run DMC, The Cold Crush Brothers, Strafe (yeah the "Set It Off" song group), and a few others I can't remember. These are the shows that molded my early hip hop mind. Not to mention, looking back, that I was watching pioneer icons in action not realizing their significance. I also saw The Roots at the Bowery Ballroom back in like '95 which was INCREDIBLE. A live hip hop band for that time wasn't as championed as it is now, and they just had that IT and their fingers on the pulse of what a solid, entertaining, skilled performance was.
DW: Same question for radio shows, which shows really set u off pre doing radio yourself?
(any specific memories?)
EM: I mentioned some shows earlier. Definitely those, but Marley Marl's "In Control" Show on WBLS with, first Dj Kev-E-Kev, and then the debut (as far as I know) of Pete Rock spinning back in '89 was the ONE. Marley was just THE man for a long while with that show. The selections, cutting, blending were all ahead of their time on that show. Loads of exclusives between Marley and Pete were aired.
"Future Flavors", another show hosted by Marley and Pete for awhile on Hot 97 in NY, was crazy. "Pirate Radio", another show Marley hosted was a staple for me. I lived by the Stretch Armstrong Show in the early 90's. Big up to your show archive blog by the way. I've been downloading the few shows i missed when i used to tape the FULL SHOWS EVERY WEEK. I have an insane amount of cassette tapes that i still need to convert. Another "moment" for me would be a freestyle that Supernatural did on the Stretch Armstrong Show where he was shouting so loud rhyming that it added an ill sound to his voice. I actually jacked parts of his freestyle for a hook on a Funk Master Flex promo that i did in '94. Crazy. That was the best example of hip hop that I could give somebody if they needed to know about it. Oh yeah, and of course the infamous Big L freestyles on the show too.
Oh, and one more ill time was when Kid Capri called me up after I sent him a promo and invited me to come up to WBLS back when he was doing an hour on weeknights in '92. I got to hang in the studio watching the tapemaster work his magic. He eventually asked me to write two songs for his next album (that never came out unfortunately). One of the joints is on the DWG label release I have coming out.
DW: How did u link up with J-Smooth and the Underground Railroad?
EM: I give all credit to my man Dj Monk One for that one. This is back in '99, around the time when Dj Spinna and Dj Avee, who were killin the show every week, were starting to not be around on the regular to do it. Monk was an avid listener of the show, as I was as well, but he used to make these ill break beat tapes all the time at his crib and decided to send one to J Smooth. For all those digitally spoiled these days, this was before EVERYBODY started claiming to be diggers and playing funk/soul records like they'd been doing it for years. AND, spinning with ALL ORIGINAL VINYL.
Anyway, he sent the tape in, and one night a few weeks later, neither Spinna or Avee could make it in, and J Smooth and co-host G Man played the tape. G Man called up Monk, who was listening to the show of course, praising him for the dopeness that they had been blessed with. He asked Monk to come up to the show to do a set. After all this went down, Monk calls me up and tell me to make a tape for the Railroad as well. To make a long story short, me and Monk made our debut on the Railroad in October of '99, and soon after became regulars on the show for the next 10 years. Spinna and Avee moved on other projects and traveling. I'm so thankful to J Smooth and blessed that I had the opportunity to ride as a resident on the longest running hip hop show in the world (i think it's been on for 19 years straight now) and play whatever I wanted. That's big.
DW: Is there any night(s) with guest appearances that really stood out in your mind from your time on WBAI, something that made you really glad to be in the studio for? what can you say about your overall experience from doing that show for nearly a decade..
EM: Wow. Well, for one (and for the record....no pun intended), the show could've been, and not to compare, as great and live "energied" as the Stretch Armstrong Show had playing cursing in records and such been allowed. But I respect J for upholding a standard of ethics and intelligence for all these years.
For me, it had to be when i got Kool Dj Red Alert and Ez Mo Bee to come up and do sets. Mo Bee actually sat down and did and interview with us which was real dope. I don't know of any other radio show in NY that had had Mo Bee on for an interview so it was really special. He talked about the making of the Biggie album of course, record samples, the state of the business, and just what he's into. I have the recording somewhere. Might have to give that you for upload to the blog.
Another moment would be when i brought the End Of The Weak (www.endoftheweak.com or www.eodub.com) freestyle fanatics to the show early on before they spread into other countries and hosting major events and stuff. Their freestyle talent is incredible and to be able to give them that platform was really cool for me.
The last major memory moment for me was being able to host the 5-hour classic dance music special me and Monk One co-created called "The Rare Radio Show" which was spawned by J Smooth giving up the time for the Underground Railroad, and the legend that came on after when we first started, Chet Jackson, allowing us to introduce rare disco and house to the NY and world masses late night, commercial free. We've had Dj Spinna, Ez Mo Bee, Kool Dj Red Alert, Qool Dj Marv, The Boogieman, The Lost and Found Crew, Tony Vega, Dj Mihoko (female japanese dj), and Q-Tip. We did 35 shows in an 11 year span. Big up to the legend in his own right too, Dr. Tony Ryan of Soul Central Station, who took over Chet Jackson's slot when he passed away, and allowed us to keep the show going as consistently as possible. Crazy, great memories, and not to mention music education.
DW: Can u tell us about 'Emskee the complex engineer' and how that came about? (did you go to school for engineering? do all the production and engineering on the promos and demos you made? how would you describe what you were trying to do as an artist?)
EM: The Complex Engineer name sadly wasn't because I was nice on the mixing board and drum machines. I've never really been a full on producer. It described my offbeat/onbeat rhyme style that I had back in 1988-89. I crafted lyrics like an engineer, building them in a complex mannner. A lot of people mistook that name for me making alot of the tracks that I rhymed on. Those were all created by my man Nick Wiz (has done production for Rawkus Records artists, the Cella Dwellas, Shabaam Shadeeq, Chino XL, Pudgee tha Fat Bastard, Main One, Ran Reed, Chubb Rock and alot of others...back then known as Kayzee The White Soul), and DMC competition dj participant and winner, the original Dj Slyce...both from where I grew up...Teaneck, New Jersey. I actually went to the DMX school for production at Touro College in manhattan year before last (2009) to try to finally wrap my head around producing, but still have yet to get my own equipment.
I have a double 12" record EP that the DWG label (Diggers With Gratitude) in the UK just put out of some of my classic promos and demos I submitted to them. I'm looking forward to that.
DW: I noticed a few of the demos you made remarked on how wack the industry was, how they tried to shape and rape artists (no props, no gimmicks). Do you feel much has changed these days? As someone who has been involved with hip hop for so long how do you feel about the current state of things?
EM: Ha ha, do we have enough space to fit everything i wanna say?!! LOL
Real mc's, dj's and overall fans have always had a beef with commercialized garbage. My demo "No Gimmicks" basically exhibited what i thought the industry was like (I did the record execs voice in that joint too) back then. "No Props" was just a hard joint i did (pause) over the ill sample my man Dj Slyce flipped. Oh yeah, if you don't know where that sample is from, i'm not telling you. LOL
I've always been somewhat of a purist when it comes to hip hop. I'm all about expansion and experimentation, but when it gets out of hand, like it has over the last, I'd say 7 years, I can't co-sign alot of it. The underground has always continued to respect the blueprint of making joints, but the commerical money maker players, maybe with the exception of Jay Z, have taken it too far with how they brand and market garbage and have the nerve to CALL it hip hop with no evidence of soul, flavor, or solid creativity. J has proven that he can give you the commercial record, but still take it back to authenticity when he wants to. I never want to knock any artist for doing their thing because art is freedom of expression.
The other blame needs to be placed on consumers who are supporting sub-standard music. If the wack artists don't get supported, the gimmicks and garbage won't be able to make it. I recently saw that the Black Eyed Peas, who USED to have their finger on hip hop, did a show in the rain in Central Park and 60,000 people came out to see them. If Nas, or Dj Premier, or Torae, or Termanology, or Skyzoo, or Little Brother, or any other solid hip hop group did a show like that, there sadly wouldn't be half that amount attending. Why is that? Its crazy. All these brothers I mentioned would annihilate the stage, but the Black Eyed Peas, who are categorized as hip hop, get the nod.
Oh, and you also have the situation of mc's that WERE hot back in the golden age who are dope in their own right to this day, turning down good money and deeming it "not enough". Me and my man The Saint (my current group The Good People just approached a very highly respected mc that everybody knows, that hasn't really been out there alot recently, to do a 16 bar verse on one of our songs. We told him $700. At first he agreed, but when it came down to it, he balked and asked if we could come up with another $300 to make it a G. Money doesn't grown on my tree like that, and furthermore, that's bad business. It takes alot of balls and audacity to do that. This is another way the game has changed for the worse these days. It's all for the check and less for the creation and love of making timeless, quality music.
DW: Can you tell us about the new release you have with DWG records?
When were those tracks made, were they being shopped at the time?
EM: I mentioned that earlier. Big up to Chris Aylen, Dave Roberts, Toby, and all the great cats over at DWG.
All the promos (were actually radio played by the respective hosts) and demos (were being shopped but never landed a deal) were made between '92 and '95. The ones that they have are just a small collection of what I have at the crib. I've already told them that if this first run goes well, I have joints ready for the second go-round. Heads can actually cop the vinyl here. To be honest, I think "No Gimmicks" is the weakest joint on the release. I'm not sure if it made the cut, but I did a Wendy Williams promo which used "Blind Alley" where Nick Wiz flipped the sample so simple but crazy. Sooo dope man. I should have used it for a song, but the promo was actually laid out like a song. If it's not on this release, it'll be on the next one. Trust me.
DW: On the subject of diggers with gratitude, can you tell us some of your most prized vinyl pieces, something you would never sell? and maybe an interesting dig story/good score?
EM: To be brutally honest. I'm not one of those collectors that spends hundreds of dollars on rare records. I've always been a dollar to 20, maybe 30 dollar dude. I seek out the deals. I've never sought out records just for samples or "collection" per say. I always bought records that I would play in some capacity. Not to just sit on the shelf just to say I have it. I know alot of heads that are "stuck" with good records, but at the same time are hunkered down with an excess of joints that they'll never use/play. My collection is pretty thick. I can't even begin to tell you how many I have because....well...although i don't dig nearly as much as I used to....diggin never stops. I've got to find the time to go through and get rid of stuff that I'm never going to play. I don't dj as much as I used to either so, as any "experienced" digger will tell you, there comes a time when you have to downsize and "let some stuff go". Especially now in the digital age where it's easy to store music on an external drive to save space.
A few interesting stories would be...well....the countless basements, thrift stores, and whole crates just sitting on the street that I've seen, gone through and bought home. When I used to live in the L.E.S. (Lower East Side) of Manhattan back in the early 2000's, there's a well know collector/record show seller from uptown Harlem called King George that had a store front a few blocks from my crib that was disgustingly filled with nothing but RECORDS upon RECORDS. Not in any particular order or system, just wax upon wax, upon wax. I once dug in his store for about 3 hours and came across two mint copies of the classic disco joint "Frisco Disco" with the psychedelic colored wax in one sleeve. He couldn't have known they were there because I had to go through crazy shit to get them. Anyway, all the joints I was looking through he said were 2 dollars. I already had a stack of about 10-15 $2 joints piled up. I stuck the Frisco Disco joints in the middle so he would look and breeze right by them. To make a long story short, he recognized the record and tried to charge me 20 per copy. Fuckin asshole. I left them there. I caught them later on somewhere else in reasonable condition for a moderate price.
DW: Aside from the vinyl release, do you still spin out/do radio/what's up these days?
EM: I'm working on a new Good People album, and a project called "Love Me Dusty" with my brothers E the 5th and D Slim formerly of the monstrous talented Sputnik Brown hip hop group. I'm also still recording tracks with my man Chris Parkin out in the UK as a part of a project called the Holglodytes. And guest appearances on miscellaneous joints.
I still spin some private events here and there. Since EVERYBODY'S a fuckin dj these days, the demand for quality dj's who take chances and EDUTAIN venues has diminished. From where I see it, if you haven't sustained a name from a long time ago and stay connected with the right promoters, you're lost in the scramble of the fake selectors who never take chances with selections, have fake followers because everybody claims to know the dj, and who believe that when the dj plays music that they don't like or recognize, they have the right to plug in their ipod to keep the party moving. I also think the digital, easy-to-access music age has killed the demand for properly skilled djs.
I haven't done the Underground Railroad or Rare Radio in a minute since the shows moved from saturday night to friday night. Times have changed inevitably, but I stay busy doing something musically besides the j-o-b.
DW: Last words, shout outs, contact?
EM: I just want to big you up again Nes for the interview opportunity. I'm not the household name that alot of heads know, but i hope they found my story interesting if they didn't already know me. Big up to all my cassette and record collecting nerds all over the world. We are in a special class. I know I was ridiculed by friends and others back in the 90's when I would bounce from wanting to hang out because I couldn't miss taping a Stretch Armstrong show, or getting shit from my parents back in the day when I would be up late night taping shows and couldn't keep the volume down. Now, it seems all the work we put in collecting those ill moments have those same cats that used to bug on us wanting the recordings. Ha ha, suckers. Search the blogs.
Heads can get the friend add on facebook and can also catch me at twitter. Like said earlier, check for all my archived mixes at http://djemskee.podomatic.com and for my Good People group. If you can support my vinyl release on DWG, i appreciate and thank you in advance. Shouts to my wife Karen, my mellow Old Chris, P Duddy,Todd aka Dj Mixed Greens, Dj C-Reality, Maggie Stein, Nydia at Daptone Records, Honey Dew Sue, Jared Boxx at Big City Records, and everybody!!! Peace!!
Big Shout to Emskee for taking the time to do this interview and check for his DWG release coming soon.
DWG011: Emskee 'The Complex Engineer E.P.' (snippets) by Diggers With Gratitude