Worst Comes to Worst: DJ Babu on the Fight to Make Dilated Peoples’ New Album
"Maybe we don't have it anymore."
Sixth grade. A friend says he's got the new Dilated Peoples. "You mean Dilated pupils?" I ask. "Uh no," he responds, "peoples." Then I said, "No, I really think it's pupils...like when you go to the eye doctor and they put those drops in your eye." This goes on for three minutes until we make it to Mr. Houston's social studies class and my friend pulls out the CD. It did not say dilated pupils...
"Early on it was very hard. We were trying so hard and no one could agree. I don't know if we ever had this conversation, but in my head I thought, 'Maybe this isn't such a good idea.' When you throw up ten songs and they are all nays, it starts getting a little discouraging. That first three to six months was very hard."
Flash forward five years, I'm still blasting that very same album, only this time I'm behind the wheel of a VW. It's the first real summer I spent soaking up hip-hop, naturally, including heavy doses of Kanye and Dilated Peoples. "This Way" was in heavy rotation. The first time I heard "Turn It Up (A Little Louder)" it gave me goosebumps...
"The biggest challenge was the pressure. I don't think we could have put a finger on it at the time, and nobody would talk about it at the time, but the pressure of coming back."
Flash forward nine years, I am on the New York subway, having just met my new DJBooth family/employers in person for the first time. "This Way" randomly comes on my headphones and sure enough, goosebumps...
"'Are we doing the right thing? Are we just throwing a wrench into the legacy and fucking up doing an album because we had to?' That was really hard. There was a certain point where we didn't even want to do a record unless it's gonna be adding to out legacy in a positive way."
In 14 years, I went from a clueless Nirvana fan to a professional music writer. A lot has changed, but Dilated Peoples have remained a force in not only my life, but the lives of hip-hop heads everywhere. Many of us only know a world with Dilated because they have been making music since the new generation of hip-hop fans were in diapers.
Now, eight years after their last full-length effort, Evidence, Rakaa Iriscience and the legendary DJ Babu are back with a brand new album, Directors of Photography, and I'm sitting across from Babu, hearing him explain that the album almost didn't come to fruition. It's like hearing from Santa Claus that Christmas almost didn't happen.
As you can tell, I have my own history with Dilated. As I'm sure is the case with many who seek something more from their music, they have remained a consistent ingredient in my hip-hop diet. To quote Rakaa, "The crew never left, but came back." Across the years, with shared verses, sample driven material from some of the game's best producers (Premier, Alchemist and Kanye among many others), and some razor sharp cutting for Babu, they have created a crisp, distinct sound that's instantly recognizable, no matter who produced the song. Even when I was a young punk with a brand new driver's license - before I really knew what a producer was - I could pick a Dilated beat out of a lineup. And Babu explained that's no accident.
"It's definitely deliberate. The funny thing is, even before I was in the group, Evidence and Rakk were just emcees; Ev wasn't even producing yet. So early on they had to go outside to get beats. Time passed, Ev started producing himself - being friends with Alchemist and Joey Chavez he caught the beat bug - so by the time I joined, he was already a great producer and I had started making beats myself and finding my sound, but I don't think we were strong enough to produce our whole album. Ev and Rakk come from the school of being able to reach out to producers, collab, and find a common ground that fits our sound, so by the time we started doing The Platform and Expansion Team, we found this nice groove of producing ourselves, but being able to reach out and grab a texture forma producer that we appreciate.
It's evolved to where this newest album, Ev and I did a lot to produce it. 90 percent of the time it was just me, Ev, and Rakk in a room and a recording right at Ev's house. We had a chunk carved out, and once we laid that foundation we started reaching out to friends or guys we know we could get good quality stuff from, but we were picking things that fit the context of the album."
Though they may have had to put in work to become skilled producers, Babu was already an expert behind the turntable. That consistent sound I was talking about is due in large part to Babu's DJ techniques, most notably his Jason Vorhees-like cutting.
"It's all really a matter of moving that fader to cut off sound. You might expose a sound on one turntable while getitng back to another sound muted on the other table. When you see someone really rubbing the record and they are moving the fader, a lot of that is scratching. Where they rhythmically take the sound and between hand movements on the record and movements on the fader, flashing the song in and out, you have different sounds you can achieve."
Most of the time, I consider cutting the window dressing of a song - a way to accentuate a beat or verse - but when it comes to Dilated, Babu's cuts are instrumental (pun intended) in creating that trademark sound. Babu explained the role scratching plays in their creative process.
"Every song is different. Sometimes we might start with an idea and everything else gets manifested from there. We got a song title and an idea, let's find the right beat. How are we going to interact with that on the chorus? Are we going to have a chorus vocally or am I going to scratch? Vice versa, there have been times when I've brought a scratch to the table and it sounds so dope the guys build a song around it.
At this point I'm like a musician in the group so I think the guys have it in the back of their head, 'How can we cleverly incorporate Babs into it?' And I'm always thinking about how I can interact with the guys. For us, we've been together for a long time, so we've fallen into this place where we tastefully know how to apply each other's strengths to the music."
Before they can get to laying down the cuts though, they gotta start from scratch (again, pun intended). So, for Directors Of Photography, how did it all begin? How did Babu and the crew push through those early difficulties he spoke about earlier and find a new rhythm?
"A lot of the early sessions were just us hangin' out and vibing, and whether or not I knew it the time, we needed to have the same ideology and needed to find out what our differences were. This is the first time we have a recorded an album in six or seven years so a lot of the process was just vibing and building with each other again. Smoke some weed, listening to music, throw some ideas at the wall.
Later in the the process it becomes more technical. Me and Ev will stay up, listen to records and craft beats ourselves. There are even days where it's not about the music, just taking notes. We've got these titles, these beats, what are we going to marry? What are we going to make? For this one, we came all the way back full circle, you know, just us three."
Sounds simple, but as we already heard, it most definitely was not. They struggled, they sweated, they worked. But a group who is committed to their legacy and cares about the quality of their music will always find a way, and sure enough, the strong survived.
"We started having keepers about five to six months into it, and before we knew it we had six or seven joints. It started changing. Morale was better, everyone swords were getting sharper. We were all getting used to seeing each other's punk asses everyday and ordering the same deli food.
You have to figure in too, we're all much older, people have children now, different responsibilities, geographically hooking up. It wasn't like we were on Capitol Records seeing three figures. You add all those factors in and at certain times, I really think all three of us can say separately we waited to throw our hands up.
But I'd like to think it's how much we care. It was a promise we made to ourselves and our core fans. After our solo stuff, we are going to take tour knowledge from our individual journeys, come back and make another record. Took a long time, but we did it and I'm really proud of the record."
For me, listening to Directors Of Photography will be that much sweeter knowing how much they busted their collective ass to make it happen. In my mind then, the mere existence of the album is a success, but what about for Babu? What does he expect from Directors Of Photography? What would make this album a success for him?
"I'd be a liar to say I don't want it to sell a lot of copies and have a great first week, but to be honest with you, if I care about anything I'd love to think that we have make our core fans happy. Our fans who have really followed us though out the years. The ones who have bought shirts, bought albums, come to the shows followed our solo endeavors and know all the lyrics. If we made them happy, I'll feel like this album was a success."
Music fans are a greedy bunch (myself included). Though I will undoubtedly wear out my speakers with this album, I'd be lying if I wasn't keeping one ear on the future. It seems like this album took a lot out of the guys, and they have been making music since many of us were children. So is this the Dilated's curtain call? The final act? The last Dilated album ever?
"I'll never say never, but one thing I can say is that we put everything we had into this record and this experience we thought was going to take three or four months ended up taking over a year and a half. It was hard. I'm still decompressing, to be honest. I couldn't tell you right now. One thing I know, it was worth it. I've never felt this strongly about one of our Dilated records since Expansion Team. We'll see. Ask me that in a year or two.
Age is nothing but a number. I'd like to say I still got a long time doing this. I can't force these two guys to stay on board, but as long as Dilated wants to keep going, I'm 200% down to keep this machine going."
Only time will tell if this is their last stand, but regardless, Dilated will never die. As long as there are hungry hip-hop heads out there, Dilated will remain influential. No matter how many years pass or how many kids go from snot-nosed 6th graders to hip-hop bloggers, Dilated will remain a force because of what they represent. As long as albums like 20/20 or Directors Of Photography are still being spun, Dilated will never truly end. They certainly still have it.
Fans can follow @DilatedPeople and @DJBabu for all the latest, and preview and purchase Directors of Photography here.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]