DJ Quik is feeling jovial. He’s in New York for a pair of shows at the Knitting Factory and an appearance on Jimmy Fallon, all on the back of his masterful 2011 record The Book Of David. David isn’t just the rap record of the year; it’s one of the most accomplished albums in his far-too-long overlooked catalog, and he beams with the knowledge. “It’s one of the only albums in my catalog I can listen to without fast-forwarding, which is the first time that’s happened since my first album,” he says matter-of-factly.
Quik has played the role of Unsung West Coast Rap Hero for a long time. There are ups and downs to being a rap-nerd secret handshake; he’s universally respected, but he’s also done unpaid work on the kind of records that are supposed to fund your great-grandkids’ college tuition. And that’s to say nothing of the troubling family issues that have dogged him over the past ten years—issues he addresses with unsettling frankness on The Book Of David.
But none of that seems to be bothering him at the moment. Over the course of a giddy hour, we touch on his love of Harold Ramis (“him and John Landis? That shit is brilliant”), his intermittent asthma (“I think I cured that shit myself, just by making myself perform live”) and his allergy to repeating himself. “You know, the brain detects loops, and you’ll be off some shit in a minute if it’s repetitive. I didn’t want two soundalike records on this record at all. Repetition is my enemy. Even though that’s an oxymoron, because my career is based on loops. So you see, I live in a fuckin’ paradox; I try not to drive myself crazy.”
You spent a few years living in New York City around the time of 2005’s Trauma, right?
When I came out here to NYC for those three years (from 2003-2005), it changed things for me. I was just putting myself through a New York lesson, you know? Learning the grind. I looked at the game from both sides, and I think if I had not had the New York experience, my music wouldn’t affect people in the same way it does now. There’s an intensity that’s like no other. People honestly need what goes on out here. I needed this place. Everything here was the polar opposite of my comfort zone. Out in L.A., I got blunts, bitches, and free equipment sometimes. I was getting spoiled. But out here, nobody gives a fuck about you. You gotta earn everything. You gotta earn your respect all over again. I think it made me take everything more seriously.
You self-identify as a producer first, but I always thought you don’t get enough credit for your rapping. Your word choices are always so interesting—”I’m malignant, you benign,” rhyming “acumen” with “vacuumin’.” You seem like a thesaurus guy.
Straight up, that’s how I learned to rap. When I was 18 or 19, I would write rhymes like “I knew a girl named Kandi from the Lower West Side/I called her house at five and said, let’s go for a ride.” And I said to myself, there’s gotta be a better way to express that, a way that’s not so bubblegum. So I spent time with the thesaurus. My man Playa Hamm’s mom was a librarian; after my mom lost her house I was living there. I’m sitting at this dope mahogany wood table with this encyclopedia set and all these books. I stayed away from the rhyming dictionary, though; if you need to use a rhyming dictionary, get another job.
Did you carry a rhyme book around, any of that geeky Freestyle Fellowship shit?
I carried around a rhyme book for awhile; I think we all did. And then you go back and look, and some of that shit is embarrassing. I can’t write anymore, anyway, because I have some shit that hasn’t even been diagnosed yet by neurologists. I have, like, double-ADHD. I can’t sit still long enough to write out 48 bars of rhyme. It’s easier to just think about it. I will write maybe one line, just so I don’t get lost. And that’ll be the start of it, and I hear the other fifteen in my head.
You’ve addressed your family issues on record in the past, but you’re particularly direct on this one.
I tried not to! But how could I be plastic and pretend everything was hunky-dory and perfect? These motherfuckers had me getting up in the morning to go to court; that’s the most indignant shit ever. To get up at fuckin’ 6 a.m. to face a judge? And for nothing! For shit that I didn’t even do. These motherfuckers are all fucked-up and dysfunctional, and I’m the breadwinner and the voice of reason; I’m trying to keep people cool. I just realized: these motherfuckers are self-destructive, and if I keep riding with them, I’m gonna get destroyed.
My accountant used to always tell me, “You know, your family is your Achilles Heel. You could be rich; you could be just like Eric Wright. But your siblings are bleeding you dry. You’ve gotta get rid of them.” It seemed harsh, but I took a step back and looked at them on day, like, “Y’all motherfuckers are wicked. Y’all got to go.”
Do you know if your family listens to your music?
Oh, they’ve heard this album. They’ve been reaching out to me on email like, “We need to talk; we need to talk.” I was like, “You all did all the talking before I recorded this album. You guys are the ones who didn’t want to get shit right before I went in to record this album. You were the ones out there bragging, ‘Yeah, we fucked him up; we made him lose his deal at Warner Bros'”—who does that? Who brags about shit like that? Because they wanted money from me. They had this mentality that I owed them for my success. I was like, where were you when I was homeless? You guys didn’t think about me for the three years when I disappeared before I became a star. They popped up later. They do it all the time; that’s why Oprah doesn’t fuck with her family.
They’ll fix it, hopefully. I mean, I don’t hate ’em, but I’m still pretty pissed at ’em. They fucked up a lot of shit. These motherfuckers tried to extort me. They devised this great plan to kidnap my kids to get at least $250,000 from me. So that plan circulated, and when it got back to me, I freaked out; it kept me up all night. What happens when you don’t sleep? You’re not thinking clearly. And the police? The police have always been pricks to me; they don’t help. And I pay all these taxes! So I said, “I know how to handle this. I’ll handle it like I used to handle it—do Compton.” I went and got a .45, and went over there looking for these nephews of mine. I didn’t know at the time, but they were doing meth. And I didn’t understand that; I’m a joint and alcohol guy. That’s some of the most dangerous shit ever to be smoking.
I drive out into San Bernadino to find these motherfuckers, out in the desert. I kick the door in, and they’re gone, but my sister’s there, and she’s a part of the plot. So I ask her what’s going on, and she plays dumb. I’m like, “This is right up your alley, Pee Wee. I know you guys were extorting me.” She breaks down and starts crying, saying it wasn’t just her. And I just lose it. I just start beating her ass and shit, whuppin on her. We used to do that growing up, but now I’m a celebrity; I didn’t think about that! So she calls CNN, and now I’m on the ticker tape.
It was a blessing at least in the sense that at least I got the police to listen to me; these motherfuckers have been extorting me since 1993, and if I’ve gotta do some jail time for this shit to be done, give me the jail time. I ended up getting 40 days, which I fucked up and ended up getting 150 days. But it was better than the ten-year alternative.
Now, though, it’s about furthering my life. This was a crazy mud-hole I done stepped in. But I still got my talent, that’s not going anywhere. I slowed down a little bit, and I started strategically getting them out of my life. I just let them know: I’m closing those doors; the building has shut down. Don’t come around here no more! Just like Tom Petty [sings]: “Don’t Come Around Here No More!” [Laughs] So then they started running around to discredit me, saying things like “Oh, DJ Quik’s gay, or he’s got AIDS,” or whatever. Before I even put the record out, I warned them, “you’re writing your way into my book.” So on The Book of David, I got it all out of my system. It was cathartic, but now I’m ready for the next step. It’s time to do bigger things.
On to happier stuff! There’s another lyric on The Book Of David that leaps out at me, and it’s from “Killer Dope”; “I be all precision like the Temptations meant/Or before Paul Williams’s replacement stint.” That’s such a deep music-nerd reference; you strike me as the quintessential liner-notes person.
I still buy records, man. I remember being so confused by the Temptations’ lineup change of the cover. When you go from one Temptations album to a year later to another Temptations album with another lineup, but it’s still the Temptations? That shit’s confusing. You wonder what happened. Even when Cameo went from this eleven-member group to just three members, you’re like, what happened?
I’ve always been the guy who read credits. I was shopping the other day at Amoeba Records in Hollywood. I picked up the Minnie Riperton album where her face is just blasting out of it. And it made me remember why I still love the music; you feel more in touch with the artist that you like when you look at the album cover. Because they’re so big—you can see the makeup, the intensity in their eyes, or the lack thereof—but you feel closer to them than just picking up a CD. And then if you turn it over, and find out the people behind it…that’s the next level. Me, I don’t even buy records for liking the record anymore. I buy them for the ensemble of musicians playing on it. Like, if I see Steve Gadd playing drums on a record, or Wayne Henderson, or Ralph McDonald? I just buy the motherfucker.
You seem more concerned with these guys getting their due than most. Your albums clear out a lot of space for them—you have “Intro for Roger” [Roger Troutman] on Trauma; you have “El’s Interlude” on Rhythm-Al-ism for El DeBarge.
Because I grew up with these people, you know? And what better way to show appreciation for them and their craft than to write a song with them, for them on that record, and give them some publishing money, you know? Pay them. If it wasn’t for me listening to DeBarge, I probably wouldn’t have the sensitivity that I have on some songs. I always feel for the unsung-hero dudes. There’s nothing worse than when they have hardships, or one of them dies, and nobody acknowledges it, you know what I mean?
Do you sympathize with their plight? After all, you’ve also done a lot of things for West Coast hip-hop that, to be frank, most people don’t know about.
Right. They don’t even know why they like that song “In Da Club” by 50 Cent. They just know that they’ve heard it more than any other song, and it never gets old somehow. Well, it’s because I helped Dr. Dre with the drums. I gave him those claps, and that kick. He acknowledges that now. I used to say for years, “You guys don’t understand! I gave Dr. Dre those drum sounds!” “Yeah, yeah, okay David.” And now when I go into the studio with Dre, he’ll tell his people. And I’m like, Dre, that right there is worth more than any advance you could have ever paid me, any royalty or publishing. Acknowledgment like that from you? I’m good.
I hope to be able to work with Kanye like that, just have him produce one song for me and I produce one for him, and nobody knows about it—he’d give me a beat and have me rapping the way he’d want to hear me. I think it’s time for all that, before it’s too late, and I have a big gray beard and my teeth fall out and I gotta lisp and shit. I want to do some amazing shit while I still can, you know?
You seem re-energized, revitalized lately.
I think it’s because I got all the vitriol out of my life from my family. Now it’s done! Now I smile all the time.
DJ Quik plays the Knitting Factory on June 9 and 10.