Q&A: DJ Qu On Growing Up With House Music, Vinyl Purism, And Being A Picky Record Buyer
Part of the crew of younger, rawer house producers New York and its environs have been flaunting to the world of late, DJ Qu--born Ramon Quezada in New Jersey--has lately come into high demand in Europe. He still lives in Jersey, though, and he's been playing out since the early '90s. Beginning in 1999 and for the next decade, he was a resident at the House Dance Conference club night, a globally famous house connoisseur's party that eventually attracted the notice of Jus-Ed, who runs the label Underground Quality. Two years ago, UQ put together a six-set CD-R of MP3 DJ mixes--by Jus-Ed, DJ Qu, Levon Vincent, Anton Zap, Fred P, and Nina Kraviz--that quickly became a totem for electronic-dance fans. Qu's set was the most traditionally "house" of the six, but moody and unpredictable, not to mention speedy. Qu's rep is as a dancer's DJ, and that's apparent on the mix. That's true as well of Gymnastics, Qu's new album on his own label, Strength Music. Over dinner near Jersey City, I asked where Ramon Quezada ends and DJ Qu begins. "Actually," he says, "we both walk hand in hand."
On his background:
I was born and raised in New Jersey. My family's originally from the Dominican Republic. They migrated here in the early '70s. My upbringing is the same as any West Indian family, you know what I mean? Very musical, very religious--very cultured, really. It's not so much about, "Boy, you need to make sure you've got good credit when you're older." Where we lived, right downstairs, my grandfather owned a kind of billiards-type place. You couldn't even call it a club. And all night long, people would go there, play pool, drink, music blasting out of the jukebox--everybody dancing, having a good time. It's just part of the culture, really. You'll find that to be the same with a lot of people from that island.
My mom was strict when she needed to be. She was a very loving mom--a single mom. My dad, unfortunately, wasn't with us; he passed away when I was seven [or] eight years old. My mom was holding it down for me and my older sister; [she] got into real estate. Me and my sister are the ones who are [entrepreneurial], maybe because we're the first generation to be raised in a society where that's possible, you know? My mom was more, "Get a job, work hard, stay there, and try to grow there." We're the type who'll try something different and hope for the best. She liked to play it safe.
On early house music:
In the late '80s, early '90s, in this area of New Jersey and New York, [house music] was everywhere. All you had to do was go outside. You couldn't run from it. I'm sure there are old records from that time that I'd play now for my mom and she'll remember those songs, just from hearing them on the blocks. People would be riding past in their cars, playing it out. You were kind of dragged into it.
I was actually a dancer first. It was all about battles, growing up. When I started going to high school parties and events, my older cousin was a DJ for a lot of those things; he was popular in the area. I'd go to his house and he'd let me play around with the turntables.
Zanzibar was the place in Jersey. It had a very big reputation. It was a very nice club. It had legendary DJs who did so much for the music in general, around the world--Tony Humphries is a household name to some people. Not my particular family, but people older than me would come to me around the way that had nothing to do with dance music [who] had their own jobs. I'd meet them here or there, and they'd know that club. It [was] totally about the music--anyone who went there didn't go for anything else. Yeah, you could hook up with someone--female or male, whatever you were looking for. But for the most part music brought you there before anything else. It's probably as popular as any club that happened in Manhattan.
I was never a raver. There was a club in New York called the Limelight, and honestly, I was scared out of my mind. It wasn't a scene I was into; I was into going to clubs to dance. This wasn't about dancing. The way we saw it, raving was more drug-infested in a way. How long can you stay up partying, you know? What memories can you leave with? It wasn't something I was used to.
On studio work:
I started producing records in 2002-2003, and I put out my first record in 2005. I would struggle to get a piece of gear, and the next two months I'd sell the gear because I needed the money at the time. I'd use friends' gear. I'd use tape decks and turntables trying to record things, just using the pause button.
The album was in mind for a couple years now, and it only really took me, I'd say, three or four months to actually put it together. It was more a mental thing than it was physical to get it done. "Prayer," "Juicy Fruit," "Baby Luv," "Open Arms"--they're more recent than the other stuff on there. "Sliding Through," that's maybe two years old by now. "Mixing Room" I actually released in 2005 on TS Records, Traveling Sound. I got so many people asking how they could get that track--the record's out of print. So I figured the album would be the perfect way to bring it back.
Very few times I've made tracks very quickly. A lot of times I'll go in and do a session, and my session is basically turning on my system and listening to a track I started for two-three hours. I'm trying to figure out which direction I want the track to go. Then I shut it off--don't do anything. I've done tracks in an hour, but I've also done one track in two months, you know? I am a slow worker. I like to listen to stuff over and over and over and over. I don't complete things out of the blue. Usually what ends up happening is you hear something within the song and say, "That's what I'm looking for." Even though you're listening to the same thing over and over, you're hearing what's there even though it's not there. You get the hint: "This is what it sounds like." It's all about harmony, too. You can't just put anything together; it might not make sense. Any sound I put inside the track has to be harmonic with the rest of the track, even if it's coming out of left field. I'm in the mood to make a song, know what I mean, instead of just a loopy track, where there's a story and something happening--it's a long process.
I'm a vinyl purist. I've actually been recording a lot of my vinyl to CD, because I've been doing a lot of traveling. I can't bring with me what I want to bring with me, so I carry a box of vinyl and a box of CDs. I've seen Ableton and Traktor, but I still don't understand the concept. Even Serato [Scratch]--I've seen people on it, but I don't comprehend how it works just yet. Nothing against it, I just haven't looked into it.
I talk it over with friends all the time. We came up in the '80s and '90s. Vinyl was it. When I started actually touching the turntables, I was maybe 11, 12, 13 years old. So it's special for me, because it's something I know from that point. What happens to the 12-13-year-olds doing it today? How do you make them understand how special vinyl was? You can't.
I'm very picky. I remember going to record shops and some of the guys I know at the record store would randomly hand me records. I would listen to all 50 and leave with one. They'd look at me after months and years of doing it, they'd say, "Dude, you don't buy anything!"
On the title Gymnastics:
It best described what I wanted. Not only did I like the way it sounded, gymnastics has a lot of styles--aerials, body tucks, tumbles. But it's all gymnastics. And it's the same thing I seek with this album--it was all dance tracks, with different twists to them.
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