A Closer Look: sKewn

Dedicated readers of this blog and its facebook page know that I have been voraciously consuming everything in sKewn’s catalogue. He has really captured my bass imagination with his innovative, smooth, and ever changing sets. He knows no genre boundaries and draws readily from both present and past bass movements to challenge your conceptions of how a dance music set is supposed to sound. One look to my more expansive discussion of his mixing work in the Our Scene | Our City | Our Sound Mix Series from Wednesday confirms and reinforces these statements easily.

sKewn is also no stranger to the historical story of Columbus Dance Music. He was with DJ Push and many members of our old guard in the early to mid 90s at rave events all over Ohio. He has witnessed our scene at the height of its underground and club success in the mid to late 90s and experienced our scene moving away from the downtown clubs in the early to mid 2000s before a new generation re-emerged. His experiences provide multiple lessons for understanding how we may approach pushing the current iteration of dance music we are experiencing in Columbus to the next level and provides us a new way to think about music collecting, DJ’ing, and scene building. SO the historical project continues today, as we let sKewn tell us about his experiences:

LA: Music has always been a constant in everything you have done. What role has music played in your life?

S: Music has played a huge role in my life. It has helped me form a stronger bond with my family and friends. It has been a teacher. Music has helped me through some tough times, and has been there to celebrate the good. It has given me a creative outlet. Sometimes music has even been my voice. There are times when I can’t quite find the words to describe how I feel about something, and often times there is a song that does it for me. I wouldn’t be the same person I am today if it wasn’t for music.

LA: I know you were around in the early to mid 1990s for the Ohio rave scene. How did you get into dance music? What was it about it that drew you in?

S: It’s difficult for me to say, because there isn’t a definitive line. I was exposed to all types of music growing up, because my parents have a very diverse taste in music.  I remember being young and hearing a lot of early jazz fusion and electronic bands such as Herbie Handcock and Alan Parsons. Herbie Handcock, Future Shock was released in 1983, shortly after I moved to Ohio.  I would have to say that Rockit (from the Future Shock album) was the song that made me obsessed with the turntable. Every kid on my block would be on their cheap plastic turntable trying to scratch away on any record they could.  About ten years later was when I first started to notice the Columbus rave culture emerging. I was still deeply rooted in Hip Hop at that time, but I knew a few kids that were going to raves. It was around 96 when Hip Hop and Jungle music were merging more and more. Jungle DJ’s/Producers were mashing up popular Hip Hop accapellas, that were widely available at the time, to Jungle/D&B beats.  It was the merging of something familiar with something new that initially sparked my interest in Jungle music and rave culture. A friend took me to my first rave in Cleveland.  I loved the vibe, and I was totally hooked from then on out.

LA: What were those raves in the early/mid 90’s like? Paint me a picture of the sounds, sights, and feelings that were percolating around that time?

S: I can’t just lump them all together.  Every party had it’s own unique qualities.  There were so many different venues I can’t even remember them all.  I went to some massive parties like Metamorphosis that were just huge, and I’ve also been to some that were really small, but the size of a party didn’t determine how fun it was.  I remember one party that was in a shoebox sized warehouse space near the Arena District, just packed to the gills with people. From the outside the venue looked like nothing, but inside the bass hit hard and everyone was dancing their ass off.

It wasn’t all good though.  Some parties flopped, others got shut down by the police, and there were several instances of people overdosing on drugs. All of these things had a negative impact on the underground party scene, and competition from the clubs didn’t help raves either.  I don’t think the clubs were ever a bad thing though.  It gave us a decent spot to party, grab a drink, and be with our peeps. It was still the same music and most of the same people. Besides, I’d much rather use a real bathroom in a club, than a port-o-potty in some warehouse anyday.

LA: What was the Columbus scene like back in those days? How did it compare to other cities in Ohio? Most of my time was spent at local raves, house parties, and clubs, so I can’t really draw much of a comparison to other cities in Ohio.  I’ve been to a few parties in Cleveland and Cincinatti, but for the most part the vibe was the same.

S: The scene back then was driven by the physical world.  You heard about a party by word of mouth, or by going to a party or record shop and getting a printed flyer.  DJ’s shared their mixes on tape cassette.  You had to press a dubplate to get your tune mixed, because DJ’s only played records.

LA: What were the dominant sounds that were being played in those days? Was there a difference in what was being played in the clubs and underground parties?

S: The dominant sounds at that time in my opinion were House, Techno, Breaks, and Jungle, and probably in that order. Speed Garage or 2-Step came later on.  I heard more Jungle at underground parties than I did at the clubs, but there were some clubs that had it.

LA: You talked about Fort Hayes high school being an incubator and key inspiration in your search to express yourself artistically. What was it about that alternative high school that inspired you so much?

S: The school had such a diverse student body, that made it so inspiring from a creative standpoint.  You had so many people, from so many different walks of life and sides of town all in one spot, it was a breeding ground for talented inividuals.  Not to mention the great programs they have for the arts, that encouraged us to explore our interests and hone our abilities.  One of the professors of the fine arts department opened up the spray booth room to us, so we could paint graffiti on school property.  He would critique our work just as any other art project and made us think about what we were doing with our work.  I still hold him in high regard and apply lessons I learned back then to what I do now.  I know high school was a pain in the ass when I was in it, but looking back I realize I had it pretty damn good.  I met some of the most talented people who live/lived in Columbus from Ft Hayes and CAHS (the other alternative high school in town).

LA: How did you get your start DJ’in?

S: I started out DJing house parties in middle school with my friend Jonathan. We didn’t mix records but we would play CD’s and tapes and just try to keep the party vibe going. It was a very primitive start to my life as a DJ. After high school I began playing around on decks over at my buddy Coreroc’s house, just doing some Hip Hop mash ups.  Those were pretty easy and all I could really do at first.  Then my boy Push (aka Swerve at the time) got a turntable setup and a crate of electronic records from a DJ that owed him some money.  I finally had access to play with some electronic music. Being that I was into Jungle and D&B, I tried my hand at those records first.  I must admit I was pretty awful to listen to back then.  I hadn’t developed the ear to match a beat properly and I generally just sucked.  I was so bad in fact that Push gave me a key to his house so I could practice when no one was home, just to spare them the torture.  Being that I love to learn new things and I’m always up for a challenge, I stuck with it and kept finding ways to acquire new records to play with. I remembered I would take a Techno record and leave it alone on the one turntable, then I would try to figure out weather the other record needed slowed down or sped up. I guess it was sort of a scientific approach, having a control and a variable. It took me a while to get the concept of beat matching down, and even longer to master the finesse.  I also spent time practicing with DJ Cheese, who is a beast at scratching, and we made some mix tapes together.  I also paired up with a crew of DJ’s called Digital Coalition (Boo, Payste, Q, and Dingo8).  They were the first ones to get me involved with digital production.  I really took to it and fell in love with producing. Even though I was a worse producer than I was a DJ, it was something I enjoyed to do and it was fun playing with beats in a new way other than just vinyl. Those guys were also the first ones I ever saw who mixed music with computers. They used two desktop PC’s and a mixer to DJ their own homegrown music.  This was well before Traktor and Serato were even a concept.  It was pretty inspiring to see someone make a tune in the basement one day and be able to play it out somewhere the next night.  I remember those guys getting a lot of guff from some of the more traditional DJ’s for using computers instead of wax, but now it seems like playing the computer is the norm.

LA: What was the first set you spun? How did you feel?

S: I can’t even remember the first time I played in public, but I do remember playing a small rave in Cincinatti and I was nervous as hell.  It was the first time I felt like I was playing for an audience that understood what I was doing and they knew what to expect from a DJ.  It was a little intimidating to say the least. I remember my hands were trembling when I put my first few records on, but after mixing the first few I became more relaxed. I remember being the one who was nervous about making a mistake, but it ended up being the sound guy who tripped on a cable and killed the sound right in the middle of my set.  He was a little embarassed, but we got things running again.  The people on the dance floor didn’t really seem to care too much and just went back to dancing.  I guess making a mistake in mix isn’t really a big deal.

LA: What does the act of DJ’in mean to you? Why do you do it?

S: The act of DJing for me is all about presenting music to people.  I do it because I love music and I love people.  I’m just a shepard of music really.  I bring what I find to peoples ears, who may not have heard it otherwise.

LA: You place a heavy emphasis on Vinyl and remaining true to spinning it. Why is Vinyl so vital for you as a DJ?

S: Vinyl is vital to every DJ weather they choose to use it or not.  It’s because of vinyl that the term and the function of “DJ” even exists.  The origins of what we all do as DJ’s stems from what happened with vinyl records. I guess it’s so vital to me because I’m heavily invested in it. About 80% of my music collection is on vinyl. I just love records, so I choose to use them as my medium to DJ.  

LA: You are a self-professed audiophile who collects music on the daily. What music do you collect, and how do you approach the act of collecting vinyl?Is any genre off limits?

S: I collect all kinds of music and there is absolutely no genre off limits to me.  I can find music I love and relate to in every genre I know of.  The way I approach collecting records is to listen to what’s out there every day, and buy what I can.  That’s about the only reason I would ever buy any type of music I guess.  I won’t purchase a tune just because I think other people will like it.  I don’t really care what they like if I’m the one who is paying for it. I’ve made a lot of mixes and played a lot of shows, but there is a vast amount of my collection I have never shared. Mostly because I haven’t found the right outlet for it, but that doesn’t keep me from buying what I like to listen to.

LA: You also have very specific ideas about the role a DJ is supposed to play in a music community. What is the function of a DJ to a music community in your eyes?

S: This is just my opinion, but a DJ should be the one who does the exploring for people.  You go out and listen to what’s going in the world of music, and then share what you find with your audience in a creative an entertaining way.

LA: Why do you believe it is important to almost never play the same track twice in a live set?

S: I don’t have time to play out every week, so when I do play I want people to have something brand new to listen to. Besides there are so many great tunes coming out it’s impossible for me to share them all.  If I played out everyday or week I would probably have to play the same tunes because I couldn’t afford to keep up.  Since I don’t play out a lot, I try to make up for it by always keeping it fresh for my listeners.

LA: You are of the opinion that a DJ should let a track shine and not do violence to it through effects. Why is such a practice so important?

S: I don’t feel like there’s anything a DJ should or shouldn’t do, but I tend to take a minimalistic approach to my mixes.  I don’t try to get too choppy with the faders and I barely touch effects.  I showcase the songs in a more unfiltered way.  I look for tunes that work well together in a mix without much help from me.  I don’t really feel there is a right and wrong way to DJ by any means. Everyone has their own way of mixing and there shouldn’t ever be any boundaries.

LA: You were foundational to starting Push Productions with Toby Tope. How didPush start? What was the idea behind putting this collective together?

S: Toby (DJ Push) and I were talking about what we could do to get more involved with parties in Columbus. He wanted to start a production/promotions group and asked for my help.  The idea for the name of PUSH was mine, but DJ Push was really the driving force behind the concept. He took the name on personally as DJ Push and really stood behind it. The basic idea of PUSH is that we would help push the scene to new levels, by pushing ourselves. It seemed to work pretty well for us, until DJ Push was relocated outside of Ohio for business and PUSH Productions went dormant. When DJ Push returned to Ohio some years later, he wanted to revive the PUSH Productions crew and make it even bigger and better. I was totally on board for that, and got to work designing a new logo for the crew and setting up all the web based elements for the group. We pooled our resources and got with friends, DJ’s, artists, and administrative people who wanted to be a part of it.  We put together a hell of a crew if you ask me and I’m pretty impressed with how far we’ve come.

LA: Why do you think is it important to push things to the next level for Columbus Dance Music?

S: If you don’t push things to new levels, people get bored, and when people get bored, they find other things to do.

LA: You are recognized as one of the first guys in Columbus to spin Dubstep back in 2007/08 at Bento Go G0. What was that first experience like? Why did you think it was important to start spinning dubstep in Columbus?

S: It was February 2008 when I first played Dubstep at Bento’s, and the experience was both good and bad.  On one hand it was kind of a disaster, but on the other hand it was good because it got some people talking.  I remember I had about an hour long set and I was spinning breaks and electro. A little more than half way through I switched up to Dubstep. I dropped a lot of old records from the label Tempa and some from Planet Mu. I remember seeing people stop dancing and they were looking at me like “what the hell are you doing?”  I didn’t let up and I finished out the set playing only Dubstep.  I ended my mix with a Kode 9 remix of Dabrye’s tune “Air”, featuring MF Doom, that just came out on Ghostly International.  I thought if I played something with some Doom in it, I might win back some listeners.  It didn’t end as bad as it seemed to start, but what I found after I finished was that other DJ’s were on the Dubstep tip already.  Fellow Junglists Hawstyle, Caedo, and Arkova were all gathering up Dubstep records and Hawstyle was planning on doing a Jungle/Dubstep night called Bus Bass. It was an important mix for me, because it broke the ice, got some people talking, and let DJ’s take this emerging style even further throughout Columbus.

LA: Where did dubstep go from there? How did it become so popular locally?

S: I can only speak for myself, but I went on to play Dubstep at shows for Bus Bass, Bristol Bar, Oldfeild’s and I began getting some attention from people outside of the US, on Myspace, Dubstep Forum, and Dubearth. I don’t really know why it got so popular locally, because I feel sort of detached from it’s sucess.  I think it just blew up on its own.  People just found it and liked it.

LA: Though you are most recognized for your works on the deck, you have some amazing production work you have done. What is your creative process? How do you go about creating a track?

S: My creative process varies from track to track. Sometimes it’s a beat that gets my ideas flowing, other times it may be a bassline or melody.  Some tracks seem to take forever to finish, others write themselves in a few hours, and some tracks die before they are even born.  I think my best work is when I have gone into the creative process without a particular idea.  Instead of going in there with an adjenda, I try to play with the sounds free from constraint, and let them influence my direction.  If I go into a track and say, I will make Jungle, or Techno, or Dubstep, or whatever, I’ll end up creating what I think those things should sound like.  When I go into it free from those constraints, the results sometimes end up surprising me and taking me down roads I didn’t try to go down.

LA: What about a Mix? What are you trying to achieve when you make a mix? Are you trying to tell a story?

S: I just want whatever I do to sound like it’s on purpose. Sometimes I pick one or two records I know I want to work into a mix, then I let the rest fall into place around them.  Other times I just pick up a record, throw it on and see how it makes me feel and think of what will sound good with it.  Sometimes I try to hint at a thought or feeling by using a song with lyrics.  I don’t think I really ever try to tell a story, but I do try to convey some different feelings throughout a mix. If it is always hard as hell, you lose the sense of the hardness until you put it next to something soft. Juxtipostion is important to my mixes, as it adds depth to the journey for my listeners.

LA: We talked a lot about your ideas of the pop and drop cycle. What is this cycle and how do you think it impacts the creation of music today?

S: Everyone seems to always be looking for the next best thing.  These artists get so hyped up, then just seem to drop off the face of the earth.  I think in one sense it may be because the niche that makes them popular outruns their abilty to sustain it.  I was talking to a friend of mine about how it seems many artists either die off, stay within their comfort zone, or experiment themselves into career suicide.  It’s very rare to find artists who can evolve and stay relevant at the same time.

LA: Today dance music seems to be endlessly classified into genres. Do you think such labels are useful? How do you approach thinking about music classifications?

S: The whole label thing is getting kind of annoying, but it does help when you are shopping for a particular type of music I guess.  When people ask me what I like, I just say everything.

LA: We talked explicitly about the importance of advancing the product not people in building the Columbus Scene. What does this mean to you and what historical examples from Columbus dance music history can guide us in how to do this?

S: I remember back in the 90’s when a lot of different crews were doing their thing, there came a point when we realized we could do much more as a unit than as individuals.  That didn’t necessarily mean we all worked together on every party, but we did open the doors of communication to make sure we weren’t stepping on each others toes.  Scheduling is a huge factor.  If you have three or four groups throwing big events on the same night, the turnout would be poor at all of the events because there are only so many people that go to these things.  When we would discuss plans in advance, then one group could do an event on a certain Friday, another would rock a Saturday and so on.  The events were more of a success because of planning. Even though every crew had a different way of doing their thing, we had a common respect for the scene as a whole and wanted to see it flourish.  Having support for one another is key at making our scene a success.

You need more sKewn? Well you are in luck, because I have compiled a list of mixes that he has created and provided a few words on Wednesday in the the Our Scene | Our City | Our Sound Mix Series where I featured his work.

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