DJ PHAM Interview
Written by: Kwesi Awotwi
Chicago has a rich history in the music industry that many people might not know about. I’ve lived in the Chicagoland area my whole life, and was active in the Hip-Hop, promotional, and rave scenes. I was unaware that some of the venues and clubs I would frequent during the early 2000s were just a few blocks away from world renowned record labels that signed some of the most influential artists emerging from the late 1950s Blues and Soul genres respectively.
Around 2011, after joining the The Shrine nightclub family, I received a crash course on Records Row from various music enthusiasts, including the club owner himself, Joe Russo. He was very passionate about music and its historical relevance that it ultimately led in part to his decision of placing the club in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. Coincidentally, The Shrine happened to share the same alleyway to the historic Chess Records office and studio.
I recently had the pleasure of re-connecting with a staple in Chicago’s Hyde Park Hip-Hop community, the DJ formerly known as DJ Planet, who now goes by DJ PHAM. I knew him from my introductory years in the Hip-Hop scene from writing for Nicholas Honore’s (N-Spot) Humble Magazine, which was a subsidiary endeavor of his legendary Hip-Hop crew Humble Quest.
PHAM blessed with me his latest project titled Kanye West X Records Row, and it’s a mixtape gem. The timing couldn’t be better, especially during a climate where many ‘Ye fans echo the sentiment of wanting, ‘The old Kanye back!” I’m sure many will enjoy this documixtape, and not just only for the educational juxta positioning of the Records Row PBS documentary snippets, but for the nostalgic experience you get from the many classic ten-year-old unreleased Kanye beats that are paired with it. Take a listen, reminisce, and learn something new. Thank you, DJ PHAM, for the music history tutorial and having the vision to produce this classic piece of work. We appreciate you. Check out the interview below and enjoy:
Tell me about the Chicago Hip-Hop scene during your early years. Who were some of your influences, and what drew you in?
First, I want to thank DrinkBlackWater and Kwesi for showing me love and doing this interview. Although I was drawn to the music and breaking in the early 80s, I didn’t realize there was a Hip-Hop culture until my senior year of high school (circa 92/93) when I was introduced to graffiti by some fellow classmates. I attempted to write or tag the name DZERV and joined a crew named CBS, that was a part of Chi-Rock Nation, Chapter 14. Graffiti wasn’t for me, although it helped me to see that the Hip-Hop culture was alive and well in Chicago. My biggest influence was Sunil (aka DJ SP-1)! I learned a lot from him about the culture. He was one of the few people who had turntables back then, which he let me keep for a few months because his Mom was tripping about them.
I remember you as DJ Planet from various Humble Quest events, why’d you change it to DJ PHAM?
LOL!!! Wow Planet! That brings back memories! When I first started spinning I wanted to be DJ Pat. Nick, the founder of Humble Quest, didn’t like the name so I came up with Planet even though I wasn’t really feeling the name at the time. As you can tell from my graffiti name, I’m not the best name selector. I knew I wanted something with my name in it, so I came up with PHAM. It’s the first letter of my first name, and the first 3 letters of my last name.
What was your first DJ setup like?
I saved up for the real deal because someone told me, “Don’t rush and get something cheap. Save your loot and get what you’re going to use throughout your career.” So, I bought my mixer first, a Gemini 19″, then I bought one Technic 1200 and another shortly after. I’ve been rocking with 1200s ever since. I don’t do controllers. I’m all about keeping it true to the culture.
Who’s your favorite artist? And If not from Chicago, what about favorite Chicago artist?
Nas is my favorite. I like his flow, chill demeanor, and his body of work. My favorite Chicago artist is definitely Kanye.
I read a post you made regarding the first time you met the late legendary DJ Timbuk2 (RIP). What were some of your memories of him?
Tim was mad cool! He had a love for music and I think that’s what made him a dope DJ. The last time I saw him alive was at the barbershop we both went to. Prior to that, I hadn’t seen him for about 10 years. We reminisced about our early years hanging in Hyde Park (Chicago) and spinning at Humble Quest parties and breaking battles. Music was our primary connection and it continued to be that way. Every time we saw each other, it was because of music, and if it wasn’t, we talked about music.
What’s the most memorable event you’ve DJ’d, and attended?
The most memorable event I DJ’d was a Super Bowl party in Arizona in 2008. A close friend of mine bought a club and flew me out there to spin 3 nights on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Saturday night’s party was called, “Chi-Zona” because we were bringing the Chi to Arizona. Twista was going to be there and a bunch of people from Chicago as well. This night, the place was packed. I’m in the DJ booth and this guy comes in with a CD and says “Bushwick from the Geto Boys is here. He’s got a new song and would love for you to play it!” I tell him, “Definitely! I love the Geto Boys.” Then Twista’s homie comes into the booth and hands me a CD and says, “This is Twista’s music.” The conversation goes like this: Me: “Ok, here are the headphones…” Him: “No, I want you to play the music and I’ll just tell you which tracks to play.” Me: “Oh Word?” Him: “Yeah!” I’m super geeked! I get to be the DJ for Twista as he performs!!! He comes on stage and rips it! Does all his hits, and we thought he was just gonna come and hang out, pop a few bottles, you know the typical club stunt! No, he got it in! I’m ultra-pumped at this point! Twista ripped, and I’m going-in with the music for the rest of the night! The party ends and I’m on cloud nine! I’m thinking, “What an awesome night!” All of a sudden, this guy comes up to me with this disappointed look on his face. It’s Bushwick’s homie! I immediately remember as the club’s clearing out that I forgot to play Bushwick’s song! I was so caught up in the night that it never again crossed my mind! I felt so bad! His friend says “Maaaaan Bushwick was waiting all night for you to play his song, and you never did”. I apologized, but after it was all said and done, it was a great night!
The most memorable event I attended was the Glow in the Dark tour 2008 in Tampa, FL. Don hooked my wife and I up with all access passes. That was my first time seeing Kanye perform and he did not disappoint! The tour also had N.E.R.D., Rihanna, and Lupe. I had a chance to meet Pharrell who was by far the coolest celebrity I ever met! That night was crazy because Rihanna’s performance was terrible, and didn’t fit with the other acts. She had these white male dancers with corny routines. It was like watching a performance at Great America! Mind you this is Pon de Replay aka the girl next door Rihanna. So, after she’s done, my wife and I go back stage and I ask Don, ‘What was up with Rihanna? That was terrible!” He laughs and tells me that “Ye wants to kick her off the tour!” I’m like, “Oooo that’s gonna be tough, but you gotta do what you gotta do.” I guess Ye couldn’t bring himself to do it because he ends up re-doing her entire performance, and styles her by having her wardrobe changed from a one-piece leotard to these futuristic outfits with pointy shoulders. He changes her image to this bad girl image, and she takes it and runs with it, calling herself, “Bad Girl RiRi”. We can thank Kanye for giving Rihanna the image that she portrays now, and in effect, making her into an even bigger star. As you can see, she’s had the same image since.
I hear you’re good friends with Don C. How’d that come about?
I met Don through a close friend of mine back in ’93. We hung out that summer and have been cool ever since.
The Kanye West X Records Row mixtape is an incredible piece of work. What led you to produce this?
Thank you! I always wanted to share those beats with the world because for whatever reason Kanye didn’t use them, or give them to anyone else. My first thought was to just put them together in a mix by themselves. Then I was watching the Record Row documentary again that originally aired on PBS, and it hit me to combine the two. I felt it would be a good way to showcase Kanye’s production from his early years, and tell a story about Chicago that everyone from here should know.
I understand a lot of the beats are from 10 years ago, why’d you feel the need to release it now?
Yes, they are. A lot of them are beats that were done for Common about 10 years ago, but he turned them down for whatever reason, which is funny because Common eventually raps to the sample on Kingdom that Ye used for the beat at 1:33:33 mark on my mixtape. There are a few tracks that maybe familiar, like the All Falls Down beat. If you listen closely that’s not Selena Johnson singing on the track, that’s Lauren Hill, who Ye wanted to use originally but they couldn’t get her. The reason I released them now was because I had them originally on an iPod and it crashed and I thought I lost them all. I recently plugged the iPod into my computer and my hope was realized when it came on and all my music was on there! So, I hurried and downloaded every song onto my computer.
Do you have a relationship with Kanye, and you think he’ll approve of the project?
We’re just acquaintances. When we see each other we speak, and it’s “all love.” I met Kanye when Don first met him at a freestyle battle back in 97/98. Our encounters were always brief before the fame. We’re cool, but I don’t have his number where I could pick up the phone and call him. I think Kanye will approve of the mix, if of course there are no legal issues. Kanye is mad cool and he loves art. That’s what I look at this mix as, “a work of art”, that can be listened to forever because of the different elements involved.
What do you want people to take away from this listening experience?
I want people to appreciate Kanye’s talent as a producer, learn the history of Blues and Soul music in Chicago, and for them to understand how Chicago played an important role in Blues and Soul music before Motown was started. I also want Chicagoans to be proud of the city despite the cloud of violence that currently hangs over it.
Any other projects in the works, and how can people stay in tune with your latest releases?
Yes! My next project will be like the Kanye X Records Row mixtape. I’m currently working on getting the material together for it, but I’m not going to give too much away at this point. I also put out mixes periodically with other themes. They can be found on Mixcloud, Podomatic, and SoundCloud.
Anything else you want to let the readers know?
I’m putting together a listening party for the Records Row X Kanye West mixtape, and in the process of adding a visual element to it that will be displayed at the event. It’s going to be here in Chicago, tentatively mid-February 2017. Free admission. I want it to be like a museum exhibit where you learn something, as well as, feel entertained. Hopefully when everything is set, and DrinkBlackWater will post the invite for me.