DJ CHEB – interview by rondi collins
The sun was shining, and the air was crisp; suddenly, my feet came to a dead halt and my nose was lost in confusion as I pondered, could I really be in Los Angeles? A vast land of concrete and yellow smog, mad people and madder drivers. And the Getty center, like a pillar of hope in a land of mordor like qualities, stood out, up above the sprawling urban masses. The people wore smiles and shuffled their feet rather than stomping them. Yes, the sandwiches were $9 and the 16 oz bottled water $2.50, but the performances would be ideal and syncopated with the rythyms of the world. An Iconographic statue in the world of DJing, DJ Cheb has mystified minds and inspired many. Inspiration of awe fell on him from those who approached, and this is no joke.
When did you first come to the United States?
The first time I was here was the end of ‘68, and I stayed briefly, and then I came back again in 1970. I started to work with the Living Theatre, who actually was an American troupe based in Europe, and then I came back to America. I started to work with the Living Theatre in Brooklyn, and then started touring the U.S. and back to Europe. I became a DJ again in 1980 in Paris, did more theatre and then started again being a DJ again in San Francisco fourteen years ago.
With the Living Theatre, you were an actor?
Yes, acting, yeah, so between acting and spinning, that was pretty much it. But I started spinning in 1964.
Did you do the same kind of music that you do now?
In 1964, it was different, it was only soul music. In Paris, that was the only music that was the format, if you didn’t play that, forget it. We played those seven inches, soul music, and we didn’t even speak English. I didn’t speak English until I spent a little time here in America.
Do you like the English language?
(Pause) Yeah, well, on one hand it is the universal language. It became the universal language, but I am glad to know other languages and not just music
You use mostly other languages in your CD.
Yes, this is true, because Asian music, African music, Arabic music… obviously they might include some English if its more like on the hip hop side, but if it’s not, its going to be in the native language
You titled this CD in English, where your others were titled in…?
My other CD’s were titled in Indian language but it had to do with a dialect from India like Durga, Durga is a goddess. There was one album called Krishna Lila, he is the god of music. But “As Far As” was not… it’s not a produced CD, like going out and making a record. It s a DJ mix.
So, you take their songs and out it over your beats?
Yes there’s a little bit of tweaking but also within this fourteen tracks, out of fourteen tracks five tracks are mine; they are re-mixes or songs that I have composed.
When you compose, do you use your native language and English together?
Because I live here, some of the musicians, even if they are from India or Pakistan, they also live in America. It is only justice… for some of us, America is a country of adoption, so within that adoption we have to pay respect to the country that adopts us, so although we are from some where else we do speak English everyday to function. So, to me, it’s not a problem to bring the language… lets say I was living in France, I had lived in France for five six years as a teenager. It’s the same thing; if you are there, you speak French. If you are working with African musician or Arabic musician, they communicate in French, so if you are doing hip hop everyday they are still going to speak in French. If you’re at home, you may speak Arabic.
Is there a reason that these musicians choose America?
Everybody has their following according to what they do. English is known as the universal language. Just think about it: I don’t think there is one country in the world that does not say “okay”… I mean they won’t speak a word of anything, but if they agree with you, they will say “okay”. So that shows how universal English has become.
In the song where you sampled from Asian dub foundation?
Do you mean that as your own viewpoint?
Well, I felt like making a political statement definitely of that kind, because you know what I do most of the time is catagorized as world beat and I hate that I have never been like world beat cause when you listen to Asian dub foundation is that world beat, really? I mean that’s Asian Dub foundation, I mean,what they do is a combination of dub, reggae, hip hop all of it and their Pakistani sources where they come from. So I didn’t want to make just an album that’s considered world beat and its all ‘nice-nice’ and ‘African musician great!’. That is true, but at the same time there is a political and social reality that we are living in and that should not be forgotten and precisely because music is universal language [which] also brings in that element. So there are different elements in that record, but that one is just as important as all of the other ones. You know, I have also been labeled as doing spiritual music because you know, Durga Krishna Lila, but that like another category, you can’t define one person as ‘this is this’, ‘that is that’. We are social beings we are made out of different things so the spiritual element is important but so is the social.
When you say spiritual are you referring to religion like the title of some of your past records?
No. I don’t mean… I mean more like, we all have some kind of, for lack of a better word, some spiritual or metaphysical kind of quest. You know we wanna know other things besides what we just see and hear. At least for some of us, it might be something else. So within that realm you can go the spiritual you can go the metaphysical but don’t call it religious, so far they are showing us that they all want to kill each other (from different religions). But besides religion there is a quest, that is, for some of us. So if you categorize as spiritual is easy to fall into the new age trap. Everything is spiritual everything is cool, groovy. So “As Far As” makes we have a little bit of everything because that is what we are made is a little bit of all of that
I felt like a lot of the tracks were very joyous and hopeful but in restraint?
Well, because the world is suffering. I’m glad we still have music, ‘cause if we didn’t have music besides whatever we are being told and sold… ummm, without the music I think it would be pretty sad.
Are you fearful for the music industry in America?
As long as we can do what we want to do and as long as we have traditions and sources. What we call classical music or traditional music within any given continent or country as long as we have those sources, then we are ok and we don’t need really all that big hype, or whatever.
Why is there a lack of a relationship between music and youth and social movement?
Because it is, you know… I am not wanting to have a political discussion.
No, no, it’s ok. Um, you know, capitalism always works itself to present itself in any and every possible way; one word we use is co-opted. We can co-opt hip-hop, we can co-opt… well, you can co-opt everything and suddenly everything is cool if you can afford it. If you can’t afford it, then what? And within that ‘can’t afford it’, we are living within an affluent society there is a lot of things we can afford and the suddenly it all becomes very disposable.
Now if you take someone who makes a record in one week and uses sampling and drum machines, it can be great, the energy can be great but you have that one concept in one week for a record. A little bit of computer software and samples. Then you look at another group of musicians, like tonight you’ll see, you know, he has been playing his music for like forty years. He’s been practicing, playing and teaching this music for forty years, so you can see the difference with something you can do in a week and something that takes forty years to master… and the thing that takes forty years to master is not disposable like everything else.
There is so much of entertainment, food, gadgets… and when it doesn’t work, just get another one. In some countries, when your parents get their first TV, they cover it with a cloth and only the head of the household can push the remote. You come to this country and you’ve got TV’s on the sidewalk. So that’s, you know, within affluent society this is what is to be expected. And I think one thing that capitalism wants is definitely to go everywhere in the world and have everyone have one of each.
Do you think that third world countries will be diluted in the same way or do you think that they will survive on their own?
There is a danger of that, unless there is some kind of major awareness to go look, we can use some of the technology. We can use it to make our life easier but we can’t fall into this disposable everything.
How does your music represent that struggle between traditionalism and new ideas?
You now, we try to blend the two, because we can’t forget the tradition that’s what we learn. Lets say that what we do, that’s modern. Right now let’s say India and Arabic music is in. All the big hip-hop, they sample Dabla and this and that, so it’s in and it’s huge. Okay, if that goes out, lets say Irish music is the next big hit. We don’t know right? We still have our sources and our traditions and that is our reference point. I would think for African Americans, their reference point is Africa, but they really go there. I am not saying physically go to West Africa but even musically culturally language wise, they really go there. But that’s their reference point.
How do people there who respect the traditional music react to the combination of modern and traditional music?You might have some old school musician that would be probably upset but those people are everywhere. You have the ones that don’t mind the blending as long as the tradition is respected.
Are the drum sounds that you use similar to the drums in Algeria?
Now with sampling and because you have musicians that have their roots and at the same time want to be part of the modern scene while using their roots… And again, it’s how you blend the two without upsetting anyone.
Have you heard anything that disrespects that balance?
No, because when I produce music, I use real musicians. I mean I do a little sampling but the main, if you listen to my past CD’s, there are musician’s on each album. And those musicians are all from India. I mean, a couple may be from here, but everyone is from India and Pakistan. My next record, everyone is going to be from the Arab world. So I produce music in the studio with those musicians, then after that I might add some, what is known as modern dance beats. But first, it’s the musicians.
“As Far As” is different because that’s what I spin. It’s like having two lives in a way. When you’re a DJ and you spin three or four times a week, you spin whatever you want. DJ’s can do whatever they want, this place and that place. Musicians can’t do that. They’re kinda locked into the one thing they do well. But if you say, “hey lets play some Balinese music,” I don’t know, but as a DJ you can go wherever you want. You play your own stuff, but you play everyone else’s stuff. And your always looking for the most exciting happening tune. You spin a lot, you want to be fresh and you want to hear new things all the time. So the DJ thing is like, a lot of work into listening, editing, getting this track, that track, this track and then you put it together. When you produce an album it is a totally different thing.
Is this your first DJ mix?
Yes but before that I have sold thousands of cassettes.
There is immense emotion within the language used…
And you get it, even if you don’t understand the words, you get it. You don’t necessary have to understand the words. There is a message that transmits