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Interview: DJ Harrison

His Newest Album - Shades of Yesterday - Shares a Peek Into the Performer's Nostalgic Musicality

Ever eat a delicious sandwich and try to deconstruct it so you can assemble your own version at home? Perhaps you’re the kind of person who not only enjoys something excellent, but also wants to know how it was done. It takes a certain character to want to do such a thing, a personality with a scientific bent, an insatiable curiosity. You’re about to meet someone who is this way with music: Devonne Andre Harris, also known as DJ Harrison.

His newest release is titled, Shades of Yesterday on Stones Throw Records and this two-time Grammy nominated producer and musician revisits songs that he recalls from his youth and tries to recreate them in his own way in his studio in Richmond, Virginia. Listening to the album is fun on two levels: the first is that it’s enjoyable to hear DJ Harrison’s version of songs that are familiar; his unique twist on tracks that you’ve heard a million times will be a fun way to experience them again. But, secondly, he’s also here to hip you to some tunes that you may not be aware of, so - in this way - the album also serves as a mixtape of sorts, functioning as a conduit to some great music that he’s just introduced you to.

The album also sounds great, the special brew that Harris has concocted in his personal studio - or, perhaps better off laboratory - serves as an excellent environment to create a funky, warm and inviting sonic package. Indeed, the particular copy I received is excitingly quiet and well-pressed with plenty of headroom to exploit with your front-end’s volume knob. Use it, you’ll be rewarded with massive amounts of vintage sounds that may kickstart some of your musically nostalgic memories. 

Even though Devonne had just returned to Virginia off of a redeye from California, he was kind enough to talk about his latest release, the musical inspirations of his youthful musical experience that served to inform the album, and to share a bit of his mysterious process working as a one-man show: performing, producing and engineering the new album. 

So, even if you’re not a tinkerer by nature, you’ll still appreciate DJ Harrison’s process and his sincere admiration for the music that has inspired him through his formative days. Who knows, his scientific approach might persuade you to delve deeply into something you’ve always wanted to explore further. If you decide to do such a thing, at least you know you have an excellent album to serve as your backdrop.

ezt: My son was very excited about this album because his name is Harrison. I showed him the cover and he said, "Oh, DJ Harrison." He liked that. He's thinking of himself as a DJ now.

DJ Harrison: That is lovely, that's lovely.

ezt: Of course, they love this picture on the cover. They love your hat and your shades and it's Shades of Yesterday. It's both shades and shades and it's a really cool cover. That's the name of the album and it's featured some favorite songs of yours from your childhood. Talk to me a little bit about your childhood and what comes to mind musically when thinking about putting this project together. It's an interesting angle that you chose to consider with this record.

dj: Basically, when I'm recording my own solo situation, like my own solo detail work, I got the records behind me. I got cassette tapes, a library of stuff. It's nostalgic for me when I listen to certain songs. Then now that I'm older, I have this palette where I can listen to it from a sonic standpoint in addition to a musical standpoint. I'm always trying to match the palette for certain songs and then I end up try to cover the songs covering the actual musical material, but then also covering the actual sonics too, and try and make it sound like it's reminiscent of the day of when it came out, but still it still has my hands on it. My spin on it.

ezt: Right. I think you get that feeling on this record. It's interesting how as you're listening, there are some things that you change and you make a little different sound on the cover songs. Then there are some things that I'm listening to and I'm going, "Whoa, how did he do that?" Because it's like the same kind of thing. In fact, on "Tomorrow Never Knows," you've got that weird little high-pitched part that's on the record [mimics sound] and I'm saying, "Whoa, where did you get that?" I wonder how do you approach what you want to make sound new and what you want to really try to nail as far as the sonics of the original?

dj: Just in a sense, just understanding what the world of recording is like and just being able to form the palette with the tools that you have, like effects and compression and EQ, things like that. It's like having different tools when you're like a painter or like a sculptor, it's like you can see the final vision, but only certain people have the tools to get to the refined version for that final vision. I have a bunch of different keyboards and different rack units and effect pedals and everything. I'm always in here experimenting and it's like the chemists with the white coat, except mine's green.

It's one of those things where I'm always just like if I hear a record I'm like, "Oh, how did they do that?" It's like you start looking at it up. It's okay. It's the 1960s. These were the microphones. This is the technology of the day. You start going back and saying like, "I don't have that technology right now because it's so long ago, but what can I do that's reminiscent of that?" Then you start doing your research. It really goes like deep down to research and what microphones were used preamps and how what we replace, what drums were used, which delays were used, like tape delays and different tape distortion and everything.

You start hearing different records and you start dissecting it from a scientific perspective to the point where it's like, "Who was the engineer?” Then you read about the engineer and see how he did it. Then it's using that as the start of the experiment, but then you put your own spin on it. That's the actual experiment itself and then the result is what comes out.

ezt: You must have quite a collection of gear and stuff in your studio there in Virginia. Tell us about it. Have you been collecting things over the years, different microphones or different, I don't know. I'm sure you have a crazy bunch of stuff in there.

dj: Yes, I've been collecting stuff since I was in my mom's house. I got my first tape machine, my first cassette recorder, a Tascam four track. I got that it was like 1999 or 2000 or somewhere in the 2000 range, and just having a microphone and also having a having a drum set in the house. I always had musical abilities. My mom, she bought me a drum set. She bought me a keyboard, she bought me different instruments. I always was surrounded by instruments. Once I got the actual cassette recorder, that's when I was like, "I can actually make music. I can record myself doing all the parts and like everything that I'm hearing in my head.”

It was crazy, man just even thinking about it now. There's a box of tapes in the corner from when I recorded those tapes at my mom's house when I was 12, 13 years old. It's like the start of the stuff we're doing now with my thing, Butcher Brown, other projects I'm involved in and just the way it is, just seeing to go from a four track and one microphone to a full studio with the keyboards and everything, it's still wild to me to see.

ezt: You have a big toy box there to play with. You ever go back to those old recordings of you as a kid and maybe you use a little sample somewhere or stick a little something? Particularly on this record, it would have been appropriate. Right?

dj: Yes. I wasn't advanced doing covers like that yet. At this point, this record is me doing covers just to like doing some of the newer stuff. The covers I did from just maybe 10, 12 years ago, but within that span, I'm always doing covers because I'm always listening to records and I'm always dissecting. I'm always listening for like, if I'm not listening for the keyboard part, I'm listening for like, okay, how are the drums like and how are they processed? Just always wondering and just trying to take my wonder and then put it into the actual physical gear. You know what I mean?

ezt: Recreating it backwards. It's almost like eating a dinner at a restaurant and then trying to figure out how to make it at home.

dj: Right, right. It's not going to be the same, but it'll still be your rendition of it.

ezt: It's your version. Yes. How do you as a multi-instrumentalist you think about Paul McCartney or these guys that do stuff like this, and how do you begin a project? You basically played everything on this new album, or you definitely played everything on this new album, unless you'll correct me. Where do you start? Do you start with drums? Do you start with bass? How do you begin the process of putting these songs together?

dj: Most of the time it's just the main motif of the actual track. If I hear an Ohio Player's drum part and it strikes me, then I'll just start with the drum part and then I go and do everything else after that. A lot of times, you have to have the rhythmic and the harmonic structure of it just to be able to say if I want to start it here on drums, I'm going to play the whole song for four minutes on drums with everything mapped out how the song is because I can hear it in my head. You play drums for four minutes, and then you go back and then you fill it in with the bass and the keyboard and all of that stuff.

A lot of times I'll start with the keyboard too. It just depends on the song and depending on the actual subject matter. I'm trying to pull from that and then use that as the nucleus to start the rest of the track.

ezt: I was excited to see that you covered "I.G.Y." I really liked that song, and I love the record The Nightfly, and I like your approach. Tell me about how you took this really technical recording and you did a lot of the things that Donald Fagan did. Of course, you added your own spin. What was your approach on that song in particular? I'm just curious.

dj: That song, it was just a lot of times just listening to it in the car, and just like Donald Fagan's voice is very familiar with all the Steely Dan stuff. It was already familiar to me. I was just discovering his Nightfly album after all the Steely Dan stuff, like when we took the break and everything. It was literally like it was Gary Katz. They had all the session dudes on it. It was one of those things that I just kept listening to it over and over and over and it wasn't just "I.G.Y.", it was the whole album. "I.G.Y." I think is the first track on it. It's like that would just be the one.

If I'm going to a gig and I put the CD in "I.G.Y." was always the first track that's playing. That was the one that I always heard and it just got stuck. I think I took it to the lab. It was like I just wanted to see if I could recreate the sound because obviously with Donald Fagan's voice and everything, like with the timbre, but also just like all the parts and all of the sonics, it's literally just like you just listen to a record, the record is the entire package of different people working together.

I don't know, I just got so fascinated about making records to the point where if I'm playing "I.G.Y." in the car, it's like, I got to go home and just be like, well, he's singing like this. I'm not sure what harmonica situation he played, but I have a melodica and I can make it sound somewhat like that. It's like the best version of myself that I can offer to try to pay tribute to the song that I grew up with, the song that I like that I've already internalized.

ezt: I bet he would appreciate your version. I wonder if someone will share it with him.

dj: I don't know. I don't know. I hope not because I know he's a perfectionist. I hope not to be honest. (laughs)

ezt: He'll get it. I think he'd appreciate it and he'd get it. You got pretty close. There's a lot of stuff there that I think was-- and you think about the huge studios that he was using at the time and the guys he was using and here you are doing it all by yourself in your own studio over there in Virginia. There you go, you got your own version so it's pretty impressive.

dj: Oh, thank you, bro. Thank you. Thank you. I just hope if he hears it, he has mercy on me.

ezt: Also "Little Birdie" was interesting to me and it's funny that this comes through a filter of your childhood. I think we're probably similar. You're probably a little younger than me, but we're similar ages, and I'm listening to it and I'm going, what is this song? I'm trying to identify some of these songs before I hit the internet. Of course, the dead giveaway was the end, [mimics beats] the Vince Guaraldi part. I'm like, oh, this is a Peanuts thing.

dj: Yes. Also, when I grew up with music, growing up in the house is being like trying to learn records. I was watching a lot of TV and I was hanging out a lot with a lot of my older family members. I was watching old ‘70s shows. Then I'm watching Sanford & Son, I'm watching Jefferson's, I'm watching Good Times. I'm watching all these different things, but then also within the music but then we get to the cartoons. It was just like, Charlie Brown is just on PBS also, just like Charlie Brown was definitely a part of my childhood on PBS. Obviously, me having an attraction with that cartoon, it's one of those things where I can identify with it just because I've grown up with it.

Vince Guaraldi come to find out was the dude that painted that picture musically. When I got older it was like, oh, okay. Vince Guaraldi, he's the guy that's playing the Red Baron. He's playing the "Rain, Rain Go Away" thing. He wrote, he played, he wrote a lot of that too. I'm not saying all of it, but he wrote a lot of it. I remember watching the Thanksgiving special a couple of years ago and it was just like who's actually singing this? Then I'm looking up and I'm like, it's got to go be like, he sounds like Ray Charles. I was like, it can't be Ray Charles, not at all. I look it up and it's Vince. Vince is the one that's singing it.

ezt: He's singing it. See, I didn't even know that until now. I was thinking about that this week, thinking about this record and that song. He did the vocal on that.

dj: He's the one that's singing it. I'm just like, oh wow. It was a mind blowing moment. Just being like the guy that wrote the music for Peanuts, well, most of the music for Peanuts. Then he's playing on this crazy piano, writing all these crazy chords but then to find out he's singing on "Little Birdie." I remember hearing that song for so many years and I was just like, yo, that's Vince singing.

ezt: It's too bad he left us too soon.

dj: Yes, for sure. It's like, that's the thing it's like the fact that his music ended up reaching me. He left before I even got here. The fact that his music reached me, you know what I mean? There's that, that's heavy. I think it's the power of music, in a sense of just being able to reach people that you've never met, and people that you might never be in the same room with, but their music reaches you, or maybe your music reaches them. It's heavy, man. It's like a real spiritual experience.

ezt: Yes. What’s interesting, too, when these songs are tied into a movie or a show that remains popular for many years. you look at the Beatles, and well, the Beatles stuff is always on the radio, that stuff is around. The Vince Guaraldi stuff is so tied into the Peanuts stuff. Maybe kids nowadays aren't really watching those movies the way that we did back when we were kids. They're, sadly, probably, but it's curious. I can't think of another example of music that's tied particularly to a film or a TV show that's really stood the test of time. It's hard to think of. He really had a good gig with the Peanuts guys, right?

dj: Yes, when I think of Peanuts, I think of, now that I know it's Vince, I think of him writing, him playing like that's Vince. It's also, you go deeper than the surface, Vince had his own jazz career, he had his own career outside of that but he was able to fuse that with the cartoon. It made such a huge impact to the point where, like I was saying earlier, he's reaching and impacting people when he's not even here in the physical.

ezt: Speaking of the Beatles, you do "Tomorrow Never Knows." It's one of the songs that you cover on the album. It's also one of the few that you don't sing. How come you handed off the vocal responsibilities to somebody else?

dj: Well, actually, I am singing on this. There's an underlying vocal, one layer of me as far as one layer vocal of-- I think I'm just singing the whole, the actual reference the whole way through. I think it's like harmonies, but yes, Peanut Butter Wolf is singing the vocals on this, and he’s the one that started the label. He started Stone's Throw. He was the one that I was listening to when I was in college. The fact that he's singing on a Beatles cover of mine is, I don't know, it's still surreal to me, I'm still trying to process it.

ezt: It's cool. You did a nice job on that one. I enjoyed that one, too. Now, I pride myself on knowing a lot of stuff that other people don't know. You stumped me on a lot of these tracks. I don't know if they're older things from your childhood, or just things that have come up lately for you. I was wondering if you could just walk us through some of them and tell us where you learned about them. I think I named all the ones that I was familiar with before I started exploring it. "You Were Too Good to be True." That's the lead off track. Where's that come from?

dj: That was a track I heard off of a Madlib tape, and then it was also a full circle moment to find out that Gary Wilson has albums out on Stone's Throw. That kind of connection it's like, yo, it's so wild. It's so crazy.

ezt: Where's "Galaxy" from?

dj: "Galaxy"is a song that I used to listen to when I was in school. "Galaxy" is an Eddie Henderson joint. It's like jazz fusion music like ‘70s around 1800s-ish era. What's the album? It's from Sunburst. It's a red cover and all that. "Galaxy" was a song where it was just like the ultimate, it was an odd middle joint. Then just the fact that it was so in that sound palette, that was one of those sound palettes I wanted to cover in the ‘70s, Headhunters, ‘70s, what was the other band? Like New Birth vibes. Betty Davis, like making the bass heavy and making the drums a little more driven.

Then Nigel Hall slid through to the house to do some studio work over the summer maybe a year and a half ago. I was like, “Yo, man, I just need a synth solo or some kind

of solo to put over 'Galaxy'” He has ARP Odyssey with him.

ezt: That'll do it.

dj: Yes, and then he was in the other room in the living room playing the ARP Odyssey. I was back here in the racks doing delay turns and doing reverb swells and everything. He's playing the solo and I'm doing all this stuff as he's playing the solo. That was the first take and that's what ended up on the record.

ezt: That's a cool story.

dj: Yes, I stopped it and he was like, “Yo, DJ, you need to do it again.” I was like, “No, we’ve got it.”

ezt: That's it.

dj: “We already got it.”

ezt: One shot. I love the pictures, as I mentioned before. It's another reminder of what's so fun about vinyl records and physical media. You've got these great pictures and people can appreciate them. You really get the feel for what you were going for. If you're listening to the record and just looking at the cover and reading the liner notes. That's really cool. Tell me about your relationship with vinyl. Obviously, you're a real vinyl guy. I'm sure you had it, as you say, in the house growing up with mom and dad. I know dad was a DJ. Tell me a little bit about it, where it lives in your life right now.

dj: It's just like a reference tool but it's also just nostalgic. It's also like a digestible form of media, just like everything else. It's a lot of like vinyl is different things to different people but it's all those things to me, in a sense, obviously, my dad collected a lot of vinyl, but it's also like, just the way that I learned music, and the way that I learned how it sounds, or how it sounded like. It was me being a child that was all I used to see. If it wasn't that it was CDs. If it wasn't CDs, it was cassettes. It was some form of physical media. It's just like, I low-key feel like I'm one of the last Mohicans because I don't want physical media to go out of style, because it's just so much you can learn from it and it's just so much substance.

Just like putting the record, or holding the actual cover while listening to the record that’s playing. Then you can actually pull out oh, yes, it sometimes it comes with a poster. Sometimes, you can read the liner notes to like read poetry or you can read the lyrics, but it's a part of something that you can physically hold. That was always the thing with me, I just wanted to make my music sound warm, like analog, like the way that they recorded it. Once I got of age just being like well, they used this tape machine, they used this DAT machine, they used this, they used that.

Once I started getting hit to how it was recorded, it was like well, I got to figure out how I want to do that because all the music that I like was recorded like that. I need to be able to know how that happens to be able to make good music. Like I said before, the musical side and the sonic side.

ezt: You get that sound. By the way, this is a great pressing, it's super clear. It's just a really nice pressing. The snare sound...everything sounds great but the snare sound is like, chef's kiss. It's beautiful. Great.

dj: Oh, yes, just a couple of preamps. There's nothing much, but it's just me trying to replicate the sounds that I'm used to on the records.

ezt: I was reading a thread about atmospheric music the other day, and have been thinking about it a lot lately, just how some songs create an atmosphere. They create some kind of a-- you feel like you're almost in a bubble with some of these songs. I think "Pling" definitely falls into that category, that atmospheric column. Tell me a little bit about that song. Where's it from and how did you structure that atmosphere?

dj: Oh, "Pling"? That's from Inspiration Information, the Shuggie joint, the Shuggie Otis joint. It's like, that's one of those on really one of those albums where you can go back and really listen to home recording, but it's also like somebody who's doing everything themselves. There's the Prince's and D'Angelo's but there's also the Shuggie. A lot of the Inspiration Information thing was like the rhythm tracks was him just playing all the parts getting it out. It was like, that's what we know today. Just hearing "Pling", it was like all right, well, it reminds me of Sly. It's also a little bit, it's like sweeter. It's like one of the ballads of the album. It's like a, dare I say, like lullaby kind of vibe. It’s like you just rock back and forth kind of thing.

ezt: You have an album to plug, and you have a lot of other projects going on, too. Tell people if everybody liked this record if they're interested, where else can they hear you doing things, whether it's production or being a musician or whatever, because I know you're involved in a lot of different things?

dj: Man, just, in general, just follow me on Instagram, on Twitter, on Facebook, at DJ Harrison RVA, on all platforms, hear me on Spotify. Yes, there's more music on the way. I have music coming out with people where I'm also like, my name's not mentioned, but it's also just trying to have my imprint in different areas and trying to see how it operates, but also just trying to keep my tools sharp. From a production standpoint, from an actual musician and creative standpoint.

ezt: Yes. I know it took you a few years to put this record together. I'm sure it was a labor of love. It's probably something you did a little bits at a time. Are you thinking about a follow up here? I know it just came out, it was just coming out on Friday. You got some time here. Do you have other stuff in the archives that you could work on or maybe create a follow up album?

dj: Man. Yes. [laughs]

ezt: There’s a lot of stuff.

dj: [laughs] Yes, I'm always working on stuff, man. It's just like creating music it's like me writing a journal, just like me going through a session just being like-- I'm always I'm always making things. I think as I'm getting older, I'm always realizing, it's important to catalog the things that I'm making too. I can't just keep making stuff and making stuff and then can't find it later. I got to be able to keep it organized and keep it certified because like I said, I'm always making stuff. I was making stuff in Cali. I was making, maybe right when I first set up, when I got back, I got back this afternoon from Cali. I took a red eye, had a conference call earlier today. I was setting up my stuff and then I was like, let me make sure it works. I was working on this beat and then the call happened.

ezt: It's always there. It's just your lifeblood. It's who you are. You're connected to it all the time.

dj: Yes, I'm not going to sit here and say that I have to be connected to it all the time. It just helps because this is what I've familiarized myself with in life. I can look at the racks and just be like, if I want to make a record, I need this, this, this and this because I've done the research. It all started with the records and the radio and my parents exposing me to different types of music. It's just like me trying to give back to my journey in a way.

ezt: Devonne, I really appreciate your time. This is a great new album. I've really been enjoying it. Again, sounds really terrific. People that are interested in vinyl, if you're buying new vinyl, you should check this one out because it's an excellent pressing. It sounds fantastic. I thank you for your time. I'm just looking forward to hearing more about what you're creating down the road.

dj: Oh, bless you, bro. Thank you so much for giving me the time, man.

Interviewer: My pleasure.


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