Interview: DJ Elmoe
DJ Elmoe is a footwork producer from Chicago, Illinois. He’s best known for “Whea Yo Ghost At, Whea Yo Dead Man," the lead track from Planet Mu’s Bangs & Works compilation, which brought footwork massive international attention upon its release in 2010.
Where are you at currently?
Well right now, I just came back from Cali - I’m in Chicago now.
What were you out there for?
Really, I was trying to get a career under my feet. I had started doing truck driving, then I did some trade school. I just have to go ahead and get this electrician certificate under my belt, that’s currently where I’m at now.
Man I’ve been thinking about doing exactly that. Do you like it?
I like it, I’ve always been a tech-y person, so I just wanted to get more in-depth on learning how to do things. That way, when I’ve purchased my home, I’m able to do the manual labor myself. But not only that - I’ve always enjoyed messing around with anything as far as wiring. I grew up installing the audio to cars and stuff, so it’s pretty much second nature to me. I always did side work around with my family, so I figured why not go ahead and get the education under my belt?
Where’d you grow up? I don’t have a great idea of where around Chicago the 708 area code is.
708 is pretty much the south suburbs. It’s the outskirts of Chicago, pretty much the south side, but more of a suburban area. I’m really from partially the hood, I grew up in this city called Riverdale. I grew up in a little complex, like a community complex called the Pacesetters, a small community inside of Riverdale. They call it the Wild 100s, which is the address - I stayed on 138th and Wallace. It wasn’t that bad when I was growing up, definitely a lot different compared to how today’s era is now. Back then, all the kids was outside, we always had the music goin’, so a lot of times we got into mini-dance battles. When I was growing up, it kind of grew onto me because my sister was in a dance group back then. I always had an ear for music, but I didn’t really find that as an artist until right before I became a teenager.
So you were making tracks for your sister?
No, I started getting into juke music when my mother got me into band. I ended up doing percussion, so when I was doing percussion I’d always had this ear for melodies and rhythms. That ended up escalated into seeing my sister do dance routines with a group of people that I never really knew, but once I started getting older I started realizing that these people were really known in the city. The group that she danced for was called Terror Squad. I used to go with her, they considered her the first lady in the group, she would drag me along to sit in the basement and watch them dance to this fast-paced music that I was unfamiliar with. Then I was able to get my hands on Fruity Loops, and I instantly fell in love with doing footworkin’ music.
Was it hard at all to translate live percussion to a grid on a computer?
It was pretty natural for me; it was kind of difficult, because when you first pull up the software you’re kind of naive to everything, but with practice I started kind of gettin’ the rhythm of sampling. It got easier over the course of years.
What year was this that you started out?
I was starting in 2004, but I probably didn’t master my craft until 2009. But once I got used to making the tracks, feeling comfortable with putting it on social media, that was 2006.
So it was all just online? You weren’t really doing mixtapes or anything?
Yeah, that’s how it started off. It’s kind of a blur to me, because I don’t know exactly how people started researchin’ me, but I can say that I realized people were showing interest in my music when this one guy, his name was DJ Killa E but he goes by Sir Blakemore now, he reached out to me on a website called Imeem to do a group EP. He gathered me and three other artists doing the same type of music, and once he showed me how he broadcast his music on there I made my own personal account. So I made this short album called Workin in the Circle and threw it on there. I started seein’ that I was getting a lot of plays, so I put that same album on other social media sites such as BlackPlanet, Myspace, Tagged, broadcasting everywhere. So probably about one year into it, a lot of people started lovin’ my music. I started getting personal private messages with people asking me to make tracks with their group name. It just started gettin’ surreal to me at the time, I got more and more accustomed to putting my music out to the point that I got comfortable with accepting negative feedback. I would take that feedback and put it into my music.
I don’t think I’d ever heard of Imeem before doing these interviews, but everybody’s saying that’s where everything was.
I know! The crazy part about it is the fact that Myspace bought out Imeem, and they took over all the music that was on their website. But it was a lot of music that ended up being eliminated because they bought that out. So it’s a lot of stuff that I had, and I created, that I no longer have anymore. Even if I could go on Myspace and type it up, it’s not on there. But I do have music that’s on Myspace that they took from Imeem. They wiped us out, I had to start all over from scratch.
Was footworking big at your school at all?
I started doing percussion in band in fifth grade, so I would’ve started in sixth grade. I didn’t ever really explore it to see who else had that same interest, but when I got to learnin’ it, it was more so outside of school. We had a lot of family reunions, the Bud Billiken Parade. I would always attend those types of events, and everytime I had a family reunion I always had somebody playin’ juke music. It was so ironic, because there’d be one drunk guy that would start dancing, and if I seen that I would look at it as a battle. I’d go out there in front of everybody and start footworkin’ [laughs]. I got so accustomed to doin’ that that if I came to family reunions they’d expect me to dance. I didn’t really know the different groups around those times, I wasn’t really active in the footworkin’ scene, but if I was somewhere I was comfortable and I seen ‘em dance, I’d definitely kick a few feet here and there [laughs].
Did you ever get out and DJ parties, or was it more about making tracks?
It was always, to me, about making tracks, because I always had a passion for music. I always grew up around music, but it was nevertheless that I never really sat down and did other things with it. I have; when I was gettin’ out of high school I got a lot of equipment that my uncle let me borrow, and when I went to Cali I did a couple house parties at some smaller, indie-type venues. But I never really went out as far as performing overseas and stuff like that because I’m so stuck listening to music all the time, trying to find that new thing to create. I would love to do it, it’s just taking the time - I got three kids, I just bought a home, so I got a lot of personal things goin’ on before I can settle to want to do it. But my diehard fans love the music, I know they do, but I know it’s a piece of me that I have to give to them. I owe that to them.
I was wondering about this old track of yours, “Elmoe Signin Off."
I was on the verge of not doing tracks anymore, I’d kind of lost the thrill of it. It’s funny that you brought that up, because I’d actually collabed with this guy, he go by the name of Snoop and danced with Havoc, and we actually did an extended version of that track. But I made it shorter and just put my part out and said that I was signing off because I was kinda distraught; I had lost a good friend, his name was DJ Spade, and he ended up getting murdered. It kind of took a blow to the chest, made me lose a lot of passion for the music. But I eventually ended up gettin’ that back, I’m right back where I used to be now.
I feel that man, whatever you shared with them is the last thing you wanna touch.
Yeah, it’s almost like a motor to a car. Once that dies out, what else can you do? Sell it for parts. So once he passed away… I don’t have that many influences. My influences is, like, cut and dry. I got three people that I love, and that’s what my music comes from. This guy named DJ Royal, RP Boo, and DJ Spade. Them the only three. Even though Teklife, I’m not saying that I don’t like ‘em, but it’s not my go-to. So once he passed away, DJ Royal not really doin’ anything… RP Boo is the person who kept that drive in me, because of his natural creativity. He do everything from scratch - he don’t take samples from here, take vocal samples from movies, or things of that nature. He actually says certain things, and blends it very well. So I feel like he’s what kept me going. It’s crazy, because a lot of people put me next to him. The originality, the melodies that I use, they can tell that it’s stories behind the tracks that I do. I don’t make my tracks for people to just dance off to, I make tracks that you can listen to forever, not just bring up in a party. I always got a story behind everything.
How do you try and express that to the listener when you aren’t gonna, like, drop a sixteen or something?
Pretty much, I didn’t realize that I was using those samples and vocals so much until I went back and reviewed. I go back and listen to my old stuff all the time. But it’s just something that I think of, and if it sound right to me then I just put it in there. In some cases, I might blend things together, and I might get something completely off-the-wall that syncs well with it like a vocal on a movie. My mind really goes beyond me when I’m making tracks. Some people can’t relate, some people know exactly what I was thinking when I make certain things. I’ve had people personal message me and tell me that they cried multiple times listening to certain tracks, I’m always surprised to get that type of feedback.
Have you ever thought about how “Whea Yo Ghost At, Whea Yo Dead Man" was probably a lot of peoples’ first exposure to footwork?
Yeah! When Mike Paradinas had reached out to me in 2009, I actually made that track in 2005. So when he reached out to me for that track, me personally, I didn’t like it. Like I liked it, but you know after a while you done heard it for so long that it’s like “ok." So when I seen how much people loved that track, it made me fall in love all over again. I’ma keep it honest with you, I didn’t expect nobody to like my tracks. I don’t know why, I just felt like I was the mediocre guy. I always looked at myself as the underground artist. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anyone, but when Mike reached out to me about that track, that was an eye-opener for me.
Do you remember how you found that Vangelis sample?
I was actually sittin’ at home, and when I made that track was around the era when DJ Solo came about out the blue and started makin’ all this good music. That transferred over to other track-makers, and they started using those same type of samples. So I said “fuck it, I’ma watch a Lord of the Rings video" and I happened to hear this song in the background. So I went on Youtube - one thing that I always do, is I read comments. Because when you read the comments and they hear a song in the movie, somebody gon’ ask what it is and somebody gon’ know. So I found out the song, and when it came up I instantly was like “yeah, I’m ‘bout to kill this." Man, that’s good jewels, that’s some good jewels. You learn a lot from comments.
Did you know that your track was gonna lead off the compilation?
I didn’t know! Mike didn’t tell me, he never gave me the tracklist. We did the deal, I signed the contract, and all of a sudden I’m number one. My mother, she cried like a bitch [laughs]. I was surprised bro, that showed me that I was accomplished. That let me know that a lot of people enjoyed my music.
As far as picking samples goes, I remember checking out that BouG EP and hearing that track “Nobody" with the same sample as “Laid Back Shit" from like five years ago. Has that just been kicking around in your head the whole time?
Kinda sorta. When I dropped that EP, I was in a dark place. I had some shit goin’ on, man, that I wasn’t supposed to be doing. The situation that I was in, I wanted to be out so bad, but I couldn’t find an outlet. So eventually, I started going through crate-searchin’. I talked to my father, he got thousands and thousands of records - one day, I was just over there talkin’ to him, he was giving me some advice, and we just started playin’ music. So I thought “you know what, I’ma go back to this." And then I took the sample with John Witherspoon with Next Friday where he’s like “nobody got me pussy-whipped, I whip pussy" and just cut “nobody got me." Because at that period of time, like I said, I was in a dark place. I felt alone, I felt by myself, I lost a lot of drive based off a person I was dealin’ with at that time. I felt like that was my outlet, lettin’ the world know - it felt like nobody had me, nobody was makin’ sure I was ok. So that’s where that came from.
It’s crazy how clear that comes through. The first time I heard the record it felt real personal, like something I wasn’t sure I was supposed to be listening to.
[laughs] It was cool man, I try to give everybody a piece of everything that I go through. That kind of gets that chip off my shoulder. If I’m feelin’ some type of way, I let my audience know what I’m goin’ through through the music. It’s just a secret message that you would never understand unless you ask me personally. And it’s funny how I put that together, because at the same time he’s saying “nobody got me," you got the guy in the back talkin’ ‘bout some [singing] “you and I / have an understanding." [laughs] That was hilarious.
I wanted to talk about that EP too, just the idea of being “better off underground."
Yeah, I don’t really glorify myself as somebody’s who super-duper known or any of that. I always been the sort of person that’s just kind of been to myself. So when I made BouG, it was telling the world that on these platforms, audiences still love me. I don’t have to go overseas every two months. People can contact me anytime to talk to me, if they want to hear something new I don’t mind gifting those previews. So when I said that I was better off underground, I meant that I was accepting the position that I’m in. I accepted me for being an underdog, I’ll take that as a battle to anybody. I’ll never switch up, try to make anybody else’s tracks.
Have you ever dabbled in other styles?
I’ve mixed rave music before. It’s like things that I’ve been playin’ around with that I haven’t put out yet. I definitely want to, but I’m still trying to master that, make sure that it’s polished and clean. I do have this one project that I’ve been workin’ on, it’s like a chopped and screwed version of footworkin’ tracks. It’s so dope, it’s this one track I’ve made called “Shifu" it’s like a preview of what I’ve been working on. I literally got the track going at 158 bpm, and eventually I flip it and it’s super slowed down. It sound so good and so catchy, the way how I blended it sounds so good. I was thinking about dropping the project on Halloween, then I got like three other projects that I got ready to go. But that’s one thing that I wanna try first, see if anybody can fall in love with that.
That’s “Shifu 14," right? I think I saw that on your Bandcamp. For a second I thought you might’ve meant that tape with Tony Snell on the front.
Yeah. You know what’s funny? A lot of people wonder why I used Tony Snell. I felt like Tony Snell was a underground NBA player. When he played for the Bulls, he was always that silent killer. A lot of people sleep on Tony Snell. So I used him as me being slept on. So definitely, I got another Tony Snell cover coming out for y’all [laughs].
Back around 2010, did you feel like there was a lot of pressure on you to capitalize on footwork blowing up? How did you react to that?
I got more accustomed to learning the business side of the music industry. When I seen people starting to really go out they way and make money off of it, that’s when it turned from a hobby into a business. So a lot of times, I had to kind of draw back from selling my music, because I had to make sure that I stayed passionate about it. So learning the business side, I always was kind of weary about it. Then eventually, I think the Bangs & Works compilation gave me the energy to create different things, different patterns to use that might be still similar to my creativity.
What do you mean by having to step back from selling your music?
Like, I was making the money, but it was like I was making enough money to the point where I was expecting it. So I just stepped back from wanting to put my music on social media and have the luxury of listening to my own music and falling in love with it, over and over and over again. I never wanted to be to the point of “oh, I’m tired of this shit. This is over and done with, don’t nobody care for tracks." That’s all that everybody was around me sayin’. But I had fell in love with making footworkin’ tracks, and it was that same thing - people was makin’ tracks as well, but they was fallin’ out of love with it because if they was creatin’ music, they was expecting to make money off of it. I mean c’mon, if you makin’ money doing something you love, you gon’ start to want more money. I had to draw back a little bit, just to get that feeling and that drive back.
I imagine it was hard to suddenly have all these people outside Chicago with opinions on what you should do with your music, and they’re the ones with the money.
It’s one thing about me, money has never been an issue to me. I never worried about money. But I always wanna make sure that my fans know that my music is genuine. That’s one thing that I drill in they heads, to let them know that I took my time making this track. I didn’t put this shit together, I didn’t copy from another person’s track, I didn’t collab with somebody so I can get clout, that never been me. For me, making tracks is always passionate.
I think there’s a lot of value in that, in knowing that you’re seeing somebody do what they would do whether or not you were watching.
And that’s the thing, with me I feel like I’m a Jay-Z. I come out every now and then like a groundhog. I don’t wanna dilute people with my music and then they be like “oh, I’m tired of him." I’m the spontaneous guy, I like to put things out in increments. You see Jay, you gotta bow down to him. Versus you seein’ somebody every day, like it’s another day at work.
Where’s “Elmoe" come from?
My mother, she called me that when I was growing up. She actually told me that she was going to make that my government middle name, but she ended up not doing it and I took my biological father’s name. His first name was James, so they named my middle name James. But she still called me Elmoe when I was little. They used to have arguments; my father didn’t want her calling me that, but she still called me that when I wasn’t around him. I used to be young and bad, man, sitting in front of the TV with a fork, eatin’ jelly out the jar watching Elmo [laughs]. That’s all I used to do.
Just from following you on Twitter, I’ve seen that you’re super into 2K.
Yeah, I’ve actually played every 2K since Dreamcast, man [laughs]. I was a NBA Live head too, but when Dreamcast came out it was over. I’m definitely a game head. My first nature is Call of Duty, hands down. I’ll go crazy on Call of Duty. But 2K I just got the feel of because of the MyPlayer mode, where you can create your own player and you in this whole virtual world and you can play basketball against other people online. And I just be bustin’ people ass on there, I be really goin’ crazy on that game. So I guess I just fell in love with playin’ the game period when I was a child. I always had the newest system, my mother always looked out for me. So it was always just Call of Duty at first, I used to love playing the multiplayer on Call of Duty all the time, it just got more serious and it went hand in hand with as I got better with the music, I got better playin’ the game. When I was growin’ up, that’s all I was doin’ - makin’ tracks and playin’ the game.
Were you ever on, like, Xbox Live telling people to check out your music?
Oh yeah, all the time. Believe it or not, it’s the women that love my music. I have a lot of women on my friends list that love my music, genuinely. It’s crazy, but I always make sure that I let the people know. Especially if them from a UK server or something like that, I make sure I let them know. “You know who DJ Elmoe is?"
You were talking about growing up around music all the time, but what other interests did you have outside of that?
I like bowling a lot. My father put me in the league when I was younger, now I bowl with him every Saturday in a league. Now, I became more of a family guy. Since I got kids, I like to spend a lot of time with my kids. I like to sit down, roll around, play with ‘em. They just as goofy as me, they love doin’ things outdoors. I just be at home, takin’ care of my home and doing everything with them. That’s pretty much what my hobby is now, enjoying life.
Have they shown any interest in making music themselves?
Well as of right now, they not doin’ anything creative, that’s too extravagant, but they definitely listen to my music. All my kids love my music. My oldest son, he’s eight, and his mom got him a phone - I told him, man, you know I make music? You can download Youtube, listen to a couple of my tracks. He’s like “you don’t make music!" I’m like yes I do, all this time I’ve been playing this different shit and you don’t even know who it is? So when I showed him my Youtube he was out of it - you know, the kids see that and they think that you famous [laughs].
You said your dad had a huge record collection - were your parents real musical, or did you find that independently?
When I was growing up, my father was that dad that would get off work and then be in the garage. Like, what the fuck is he doin’ in the garage so much? So, I used to go outside and he’d be workin’ on everybody’s car in the garage. But every night, when it get dark, he’d pull out his record player and a bunch of music, and they’d be just chillin’. I’m talking about, like, he probably done fixed four cars, and them same people are literally still in the garage drinkin’ and listening to music. And I’d be out there, he’d throw me a Smirnoff or something and we’d just be there listening to music all night.
And then my mother, probably around 2006 when I was making tracks, my mother used to always throw parties at the house. She’d do like Mexican fiesta parties, Jamaican parties, all these different theme parties. We had this big stupid sound system with this big-ass subwoofer that used to bang the whole house - being around bass, period, would draw me straight to the music. She’d play all these different cuts, and I’d say “Ma, what’s that?" and go write that shit down. And then fasho enough, I’d be in my room in the middle of the night, I’m making a track, and then my mama like “turn that shit off and go to bed! You got school in the morning!" But she not realizin’ that I was taking that music and making my own shit.
I know you said you didn’t have a ton of contact with a lot of the other people in the footwork scene, but I did read somewhere that Boylan was your chemistry teacher in high school.
Yeah, Mr. Boylan. He was a cool cat, man. It was funny, because my first semester, I think I was a sophomore when I was in his class, he didn’t know me from a can of paint and I didn’t know him from a can of paint. But I used to fuckin’ hate chemistry. I just did not like it, bro. So the whole time, l was just in the back of the class clownin’. Just sittin’ back, not doing my work. So the second semester come around, and I come in the classroom and this man playin’ tracks! I’m like, “the fuck?" I’m like, “Mr. Boylan, what you know about this, dude?" He’s like “man, I make tracks! I be hangin’ with DJ Rashad!" I’m like “Rashad?! You be kickin’ it with Rashad? Stop playin’ with me." And it just went from there. It got to the point that I got so cool with him that I didn’t give a fuck about chemistry [laughs]. He ended up passing me with a D.
Once I seen that he knew Rashad, that’s when I was like man, some people know people up in here. This world startin’ to get small around here. It was so funny bro, I would never expect Boylan. You see him performin’, but if you was to see him at the age that I was, you would think that he was just a regular-ass school teacher. I couldn’t believe he was makin’ tracks. I remember one day he came and he brought his whole little, you dig, and played it in the class, I had my CD in my pocket and gave it to him like “play this!" And then it got to the point where before class I’d always go in there and we’d be talking about tracks the whole time. And then that bell would ring, kids would start coming in, and it was back to business.