Interview: DJ DMD


DJ DMD is a DJ, producer, record label owner, and rapper from Port Arthur, Texas. He’s best-known for his his “25 Lighters (later remixed as “25 Bibles), as well as for his production work on early records from UGK.

How would you describe the differences between Port Arthur and Houston proper?

P.A., that’s where I was raised. I’m one of the original people to bring hip-hop to Port Arthur, back in the early ‘80s. I had a cousin who was friends with guys in New York, he was a DJ, and he would bring all of these records and stuff back. I’m twelve years old, fascinated with this new thing called hip-hop that’s startin’ to spread, so I gathered a group of guys and we started a whole hip-hop crew. Graffiti, breakdancing, DJing, and ultimately led us to forming a rap group and me to gettin’ into production. So Port Arthur is where I started, and right around the end of my high school situation I ran into Pimp C and turned him on. He eventually got hooked up with the legendary Bun B, and their history is what it is.

I left high school and started considering pursuing hip-hop as a profession. A year and a half in college, formed a rap group, and we got a record deal with an indie label here in Houston. Moved to Houston, put out an album and an EP, and they did pretty well. The label eventually folded, so I moved back to Port Arthur. This has to be 1993-ish, and my family bought a record store in Port Arthur. I ran that from 1993 up until 1998 when “25 Lighters took off. 1994, UGK’s second album Super Tight comes out. I was blessed to be able to have production credits on it, then 1996 me and my new crew started an independent record label (Inner Soul Records) in Port Arthur and put out my very first single, “So Real with DJ Screw. Then 1998 was “25 Lighters, with Fat Pat, rest in peace, and Lil’ Keke. It did what it did, changed my life, and got me a major deal with Elektra Records. I wound up buildin’ a big studio in Port Arthur in 2000, state-of-the-art, for the community, and then 2001 was my last big single “Mr. 25/8.

But in 2002, things started to change in my head and my heart, and I realized that I was livin’ life not like I was supposed to. I was involved in all kinds of stuff - if you can imagine what popular hip-hop artists can have their hands on, me and my crew were involved in all kinds of stuff. I knew my life wasn’t supposed to be goin’ in that direction; making music had become arduous, I didn’t like making music anymore. I had developed an alcohol problem, a small drug problem, and wound up ruinin’ my marriage. Right around that time, me and my wife got divorced with two kids. So I was just wylin’, until in 2002 I just left everything. Studio, company, money in the bank, turned my back on music and decided to start all over. So I moved to Dallas, stayed there for a couple of weeks with my friend the legendary Erotic D, and then got an offer to come run an independent record label out here in Houston. So I’ve been here ever since December of 2002.

Port Arthur has always been like a little Houston, especially after UGK’s success. Like I said, they’re from Port Arthur, but history has kind of re-written their birthplace. That’s just how close the cities were, we used to mimic stuff goin’ on in Houston. That’s one of the reasons that when I started my recording career I linked up with DJ Screw. But I always admired those guys - I got a crazy story that I’m gonna put out someday about when Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick crashed one of the dances that I was DJing at. We go way back. So there couldn’t have been a better place for me to end up when I had to relocate in 2002. The label I was contracted to work with eventually folded, but then I got hooked up with Texas Instruments for work. In the process, me and my ex-wife reconciled and I brought the whole family out here in 2003. So that’s my story in a nutshell [laughs].

When you left for Dallas, were people pretty respectful of you wanting to make a clean break or did you have people calling you back?

I didn’t really know what to expect. Erotic D was a long-time homie of mine, a collaborator with Dr. Dre on the Chronic 2001 album and brothers, basically, with D.O.C. At the time, they were assembling a production team for a record label called Gorilla Recordings or something like that. So when he found out that I was leaving, he offered me a spot on that team. So I went out there and I was kind of secluded; a lot of people didn’t really know where I was. I literally just packed up one day and left Port Arthur without tellin’ anybody anything. So I didn’t have many people knowledgeable of my exit at the time.

While I was in Dallas, word got out somehow some way that I was a free agent, and Lockdown Records, a guy named Paul, called me up and snatched me up. He offered a lot of money, and Tony Draper was gonna be the executive producer of the record. Come to find out, the owner of the label was involved with a whole bunch of illegal activity that caught up with him. But they didn’t tell me anything! They just left me with all this money, and I haven’t heard from them people since March 2003. That’s how the Lord, I now believe, got me to Houston. I haven’t seen Paul, I haven’t heard from Lockdown Records since I started at Texas Instruments. I hope that answers your question - a lot of people weren’t asking for me because a lot of people didn’t even know I was gone.

Would you say that you like the executive, A&R end of music as much as you do making and performing it?

Man, it’s in my blood. Hip-hop and the music business, in my blood since I was twelve years old. In an underground kind of way, I’d been acting as A&R for a lot of independent labels all over the South. I love that role, I have an ear for hip-hop, and people have leaned up on me for advice with production, single selection, and all of that. I attribute that to bein’ a DJ, I’d been DJing from the age of thirteen until I was twenty, twenty-one years old. I broke a lot of the hip-hop records in that area, learned what a good record sounds like. I love the music business, man. That’s why I came back to it, I believe that I’m supposed to contribute more to hip-hop.

So DJing was your entrance into music?

As far as hip-hop, yeah, but I actually began playing the drums at the age of nine. I remember pickin’ up my mom’s old record collection, and I put on this Peaches & Herb record called “Reunited. It was the very first record that I put on the turntable myself, I was sneakin’, and something clicked inside of me. I was an award-winning drummer in middle school, and then in high school I turned my attention to DJing. I started making money as a DJ at fourteen, fifteen years old, running the DJ scene in that part of the state for about seven years. Wasn’t a major party happening in East Texas that I didn’t DJ. That was my first love, and that’s why I’ve always stuck with DJ DMD as my moniker. When I introduce myself to people, I tell them I’m a DJ, then a producer, and then I’m a record label owner, and then I’m a rapper. In that order.

With regards to your embrace of religion, have you ended up thinking of your life as a sort of story of two distinct individuals?

That’s how I look at it, bro. All of us are on a journey, a life journey. The way I look at my life now is the old me and the new me. I’m still the same DJ DMD, but my eyes have been opened by some other things. In 2002, during that transition, I had to make some decisions on how I was gonna lead the rest of my life. I guess for the sake of this conversation I’ll say that religion played a big part in teaching me about things that I didn’t know as a younger adult. I was living life… haphazardly. Once I embraced the tenets of Christianity, started really researching and studying the word of God for myself, I watched my life drastically change and improve. I wouldn’t call it two different stories, it’s one big journey that I believe every human is on. Mine got impacted by religion maybe earlier or later than some people. But the way I look at it right now, that couldn’t have come at a better time.

It’s that same faith that eventually brought me back into the music industry. In 2012 I released, I call it the remix, to “25 Lighters and called it “25 Bibles. The record’s actually done pretty well! The video was done by my Port Arthur homeboy Nahala Johnson, Mr. Boomtown, who turned out to be one of hip-hop’s biggest videographers of the 2000s. And then involved in the song is one of Christian rap’s biggest artists, Bizzle. People are still rockin’ it, just recently Snoop Snapchatted singin’ to the record! Crazy. That’s just another sign to me that I’m doing the right thing coming back to the business with a better head.

I think some people would say that hip-hop’s always had that element of spirituality. The idea of soul.

It has! My first independent record label was named Inner Soul Records. There’s always been spirituality, themes and connotations, it just took longer to get to me. As a matter of fact, Bun B used to teach a class at Rice University called “Hip-hop and Religion. People don’t know that Bun is a professing Christian as well, and he understood that same connection. He’s been teaching his class for almost ten years now, I think.

One of my favorite hip-hop artists today is a guy named Lecrae. He lived in Houston for a while, one of the artists that influenced me when I was deciding to come back into the business. He’s a dope rapper, dope emcee, dope record label owner. It’s people like that, it’s movements like that, it’s a message like that that makes me want my legacy to be more than just the guy who sang “25 lighters on the dresser.

What do you think made “25 Lighters so special to people?

I really have to say, to this day I still haven’t quite figured out why people fell in love with that record so much. The vibe of the record is ultimately just a party, feel good, it’s not overbearing or too gangsta. It’s a feel good record, and people ultimately want to dance to records that make them feel good.

People still don’t realize that that record really was by accident. In between my first and second album, I’m in the studio puttin’ beats together. So I grab an old beat, from an Al B. Sure! record called “Nite and Day, one of my old-school favorite artists. I took the bassline from it and mixed it with a beat that I was creatin’ on the MPC and the beat came out dope! And then when I was looking for words, the Lil’ Keke verse and the Fat Pat verse that’s on the record is actually extra demo vocals that they had given me, transposed over the beat that I had created. I took a rough mix of the record to my DJ partners at 97.9 The Box, the big station here in Houston. I gave the demo to them for a critique, and twenty minutes later they’re playing it on the radio. They played it four times by the end of their shift, and then by the end of the night it blew up. So I never finished the record!

By the end of the weekend, it was one of the most-requested songs they’d ever had. I couldn’t mess with the song at that point. That’s just how supernatural that record is. Kendrick Lamar, Drake, everybody from Houston, there’s a young rapper out of Florida that was inspired by the record this year and put a record out, his name is Wifisfuneral. It’s amazing how much that record has impacted hip-hop, and yet I didn’t really have too much to do with it.

How did Pat and Keke feel about the demos getting out there?

Well actually, Fat Pat was murdered before I had finished the record. I started workin’ on the record in 1997, and he got killed early 1998. Once I had the demo together and realized how good the verses sounded together, it was my intention to pay Pat’s estate for the use of the vocals. Those vocals come from a 1996 session. And to be honest with you, Keke had heard the demo and was cool with it, but I wanted to add a brand new verse from him. The day that I went to the studio to work on it, Keke’s management called and said he wasn’t interested in doing the record anymore. The whole reason I made that demo was to give it to Keke’s management team so that they could get a better idea of what it would sound like and be persuaded to give me another sixteen. At that same time I’d brought it to the radio station. So the radio station happened, and let’s just say that by the next Monday morning Keke and his team wanted to be part of the record again. But initially, Keke didn’t really wanna be involved. But twenty years later, I’m quite sure he’s happy [laughs].

What was the dynamic like producing some of those tracks for Super Tight?

Like I said, Chad was my little mentee. I’ve still got demos of us from our old days in the mid-’80s. He was part of my crew. We had a love for each other, we had an affinity and we had a respect for each other, musically. So when Chad and UGK blew up off of their first record, “Tell Me Something Good and the album Too Hard to Swallow, him and Bun were actually the first rappers from Port Arthur to have a major record deal. So in-between that and Super Tight is when I and my crew were working on that independent label in Houston. Chad, he liked my production techniques, because I’d taught him a lot. So they was workin’ on Super Tight and he wanted to see if I had anything for him. So we would go over to his house in Port Arthur that was basically gutted out to be a studio. He had flown in big-time musicians from all over the South to be a part of the sessions.

It was around that time that Dr. Dre was really big in our hearts as a producer, so me and him would study The Chronic, [laughs], uh, we would study The Chronic religiously and try to take some ideas and incorporate them into the production. It was a great process, it was my first real time working in a million-dollar recording facility. They recorded, mixed and mastered the record in Dallas Sound Lab, and that was my first opportunity to work with an SSL mixing console, which changed my life. I laid the tracks, I was a part of recording the tracks, and for one of the tracks that I was involved with, “Three Sixteens, Chad wanted me to rap on it [laughs]. Bun B wrote my rap, but you can hear me on Super Tight. I produced three records, I produced “I Left It Wet for You, I co-produced “It's Supposed to Bubble, and I was on “Three Sixteens. It went gold, it opened up doors for them and also put me on the map. I owe Chad so much as a result of that work, he gave me one of his keyboards that I needed. He’s always been my little brother, even up until he died.

What did those mid-’80s demos sound like?

We were all learnin’ a little bit about hip-hop production, and the only real influences that we had at the time was comin’ from New York. People like Kid ‘n Play, people like LL Cool J. So a lot of our demos were trying to imitate what they were doing. People’d probably die laughing… Pimp C used to call himself MC C, that was his original rap name. MC C, DJ DMD, we was some straight hip-hop heads, man [laughs]. We were the first ones in our city, so we didn’t have anybody around us to really learn from. So we got records where we sound like Kid ‘n Play, we got records where we tried to sound like Big Daddy Kane, and then when N.W.A. hit the scene you heard our demos start to shift to be more musical and creative, a little bit harder. We got demos where I’m soundin’ like Dr. Dre [laughs]. We were just growing with the hip-hop experience. I don’t know if I’ll ever release some of those demos, but that would be a treat for hip-hop to hear Pimp C’s evolution. I was making all the beats at the time, Chad’s beats and all the beats for the neighborhood rappers, and we would all record in my mom’s house, at her garage where I had all my equipment stashed.

Just on an interpersonal level, what was Pimp C like back then?

The most special story that I have about Chad is that he drank his first forty-ounce with me. I don’t know if you know, but that’s a big deal in the hood. Back in those days, forty-ounce beers was huge, that was the street cred. Chad was a couple years younger than me, and one night he was accompanying us at a party I was DJing. Me and my crew, we drank, even though we were in high school. We was drinkin’ forty-ounces, and Chad said that he wanted to have a forty-ounce with us. He had seen us drink sometimes, but he had never wanted to be a part of it, but that night he said he wanted to have a forty-ounce. I knew that was a special sign, he wanted to have his first forty-ounce with me. So he got drunk in the back of my car. He got wasted. He didn’t throw up, but he got wasted. To this day, I don’t know if his mom knew that he was drunk when he finally made it home. She didn’t say anything to me after that, I don’t know how.

Do you remember which brand it was?

I used to drink Schlitz Malt Liquor; I don’t remember exactly which beer he had in his hand, but if he was rollin’ with us we all used to drink Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull. Matter of fact, we liked Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull so much that my very first regional hit was about it, it was called “All About That Bullshit. I can’t remember specifically, but if Chad got drunk with us it was Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull. We used to buy cases of forties from the little corner store, put ‘em in a big box, and people would just walk by, grab a forty, and we’d drink. And we’d just kick it on the corner, at somebody’s house, at the spot that I’m DJing at, but we’d have a big box of Schlitz Malt Liquor. Man, I’m soundin’ too happy talkin’ about them days, I need to stop [laughs].

Do you think there’s any particular feature of Port Arthur that shows up in the music people make there?

Are you familiar with Janis Joplin? You know she’s from Port Arthur? She was the first real big recording artist, she had to leave to really make her name in San Francisco, but that’s where she’s from. At one time, it was a real hotbed for entertainment in Southeast Texas, a place where all types of things went down. I wouldn’t say that it was one thing in particular - we never had a real major radio station in the area, we never had a major performing venue. I’d imagine it was just the different people, the different cultures that would roll through Port Arthur all the time back then. It was a port, there was always people coming in from all over the place, passing through, droppin’ off pieces of their culture. That’s how hip-hop came to Port Arthur; somebody from New York came by and dropped off their rap records. You might say it was in the water. But there’s always been a creative spirit, I guess because it’s a small town. It’s not much to do, so we had to be creative in finding ways to entertain ourselves.