Interview by Justin Hardison
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I had the pleasure of interviewing DJ Krush the day after a mesmerizing performance at the release party for his sixth studio album entitled Zen. He spent a period of six months recording in Tokyo, NY, LA, and Philadelphia and worked with such artists as Black Thought, Zap Mama, Tunde Ayanyemi, Company Flow, Boss the MC and Sunja Lee. For me, his music has always been visual so it was no surprise to find out that he approaches his work in visually minded way. Like a minimalist, he is able to express so much with a small amount of sound, only the essential gear and a close attention to detail. Even though I was the last person to interview him for the day and we talked via his translator, he was energetic and enthusiastic when discussing his work.

What was the overall idea behind Zen?
It’s a glimpse into other things that were kind of bubbling in my creativity that I wanted to try out on this album. Zen means a little by little -bit by bit -gradual progression into something better so that was kind of the concept of the album.

How did you get into hip-hop in the first place?
When I was in school I used to listen to rock music with headphones and envision myself on stage with a guitar and things like that so I really liked music but in junior high and high school I kind of forgot about that. Hanging out with my friends was a lot more fun and I was doing bad things but seeing the hip-hop documentary ‘Wild Style’ kind of brought me back to that love of music and that form of it. During those days I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was hanging out with friends, not working, getting into bikes and gangs and basically trying to find myself but eventually I found my way back to music.

After hearing some of the odd time signatures in your previous work I wondered if you have any formal music training? I have no formal training what so ever.
I didn’t study a lot and only made it to the 10th grade so there was no formal training. My father used to listen to a lot of Coltrane, James Brown and Miles Davis when I was younger so the sounds were probably in my head as I was growing up but being a little kid at the time, I didn’t understand it. But I guess it was important. I’ve just listened to a lot of bands over the years and tapped into whatever creativity I had but I certainly can’t read any music.

There seems to be a minimal approach to you music. How do you go about selecting the sounds you use?
It’s almost like a painter having a lot of different paints. It’s not black, it’s not gray, its in-between. As a musician or an artist for sound I have through the years, compiled a lot of ‘paints’ and when I have a sound in my head that I want, I search for that sound through sampling and put in on my painting. Lots of artists take a famous song, loop it, and rap over that. That’s fine for other people but I’m not satisfied. I want to do the total opposite and create something different in which I come up with the idea that I’m going bring to the track. I don’t sample sounds directly. I always want to tweak them and make it different.

What about your studio set up? With all the new software and technology coming out every month, do you think you’ll switch over to computer based production or do you think it would change your sound too much?
I use an Akai 1100 sampler, a Roland MC-50 sequencer that only has 8 tracks, a midi keyboard and some other effects. There are a lot of computers and a lot of software but I like what I have and I don’t think just making it easier for myself is going to pull out anymore creativity. I feel comfortable with what I have but if I do use a computer it’s to acquire a hard drive. Because I try to put so much of my essence and my being into my music, I think it would take so much time to utilize a computer that I don’t feel the need to pursue that. Besides, I think I can be just as fast as the computer. I want to do a race with the computer and I bet that I would be faster. Just because you have the expensive super computer doesn’t mean you can make a better track although it could be convenient.

How do you feel the response has been to you music in the U.S?
Since there is a lot of different types of people everywhere, everybody has their own take on my music and a lot of people feel me just through my music while other won’t understand or wouldn’t be interested. I’ll coming back to tour later in the year and I just want to keep putting out DJ Krush germs and see how everybody reacts to it. Some people may get it and some may not.

What is your view on the U.S. hip-hop scene?
I don’t really have any comment on the charts. Those artists are doing what they’re feeling and that’s fine and there is a public that wants that and that’s fine but me personally, I don’t think I would ever go there. I see a lot of interesting things happening in the underground that is far more interesting to me and it has a lot more creative potential. It’s not that I’m dissing anything, I just don’t have any real comments about that.

What about the scene in Japan?
The scene is getting a lot bigger in Japan. You know, a while back the record companies really didn’t sign a lot of hip-hip artists but now there are hip-hop tracks in the charts so it’s seems to be really helping.

Are there any deliberate meanings behind your instrumental tracks?
When I collaborate with rappers, I look at it like a swimming pool. I build the pool, I put water in the pool but I have someone else jump in it and swim. With the instrumentals, it’s all me. I build the pool, I put water in it and I swim in it so how I go about making those two different types of tracks is different. With the instrumentals, it’s not a concept per-say, but it is a picture in my head that I want to express so they are basically trying to have a picture and wonder what that picture would sound like.

What’s the story behind the lyrics of Candle Chant (A Tribute)?
There was a 24-year-old kid that was a big fan. He was a half-Japanese and half-black kid that rapped and was dying of cancer. His mother called me up directly and said my son is sick and he respects you so much and asked if I would mind visiting him at the hospital because it would give him the courage to fight. So I went to the hospital with Boss the MC to visit him. Since he was a rapper, I wanted to do a song with him but he couldn’t move enough to make it to the recording studio so we talked to the hospital and was going to bring the equipment there so we could record at the hospital. So we were planning it out but two weeks later he passed away. So the song is about him and about the pure connection of a very limited time together and how certain circumstances brought us together. The last lyric in Japanese on that song says you will always be in our soul so it’s about connecting with somebody and no matter where they go, we are always together and he will always be here. He was a very powerful young man. He was half- black and half Japanese so he was probably discriminated against and kind of picked on in school. He always said that he’s not mixed blood but has the power of two bloods and that’s why he felt he had the power to beat the cancer so it made a very powerful impact on both Boss and myself.

Even though I couldn’t understand the lyrics during the show last night, it came across as very meaningful song.
I’m very happy that you felt something even though the words didn’t make sense to you but that goes to show that those feelings that you want to get across can make it.

If it weren’t for music, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be a construction worker or something to feed my children. I’m not very smart so I’d be working with my body doing physical work!

I’ve always loved the artists you’ve chosen for your cover art. Why did you decide to create the cover yourself for Zen?
Like I said, I’m not into advanced computers or gadgets but I happened to get a new computer and there was this drawing software. I was doing pre-production for this album and I was just playing around with it. Once you start using the computer, you find out how convenient it is. I’m scared about using the computer on my music because I focus on my music and want to put my essence into it. When it’s so easy to do different types of things, it’s so easy to add fluff to the track and I’d be afraid that I’d become occupied with the fluff instead of what the song should sound like. The manual process of the machines I use is a way of putting myself into it by using my fingers and using the keyboard. It’s an important part of the process for me but at the same time, I’m not a computer expert. If I knew how to use it the way I know how to use my machines now, it might be different so I can’t state all of this too strongly.