Interview: DJ Roc
DJ Roc is a juke and footwork producer and DJ from Chicago, Illinois. He’s best known as a member of the Beatdown House crew, as well as for his Juke City mixtape series and 2010 solo record The Crack Capone. His next album, the sequel to last year’s Roctober, comes out October 28th.
What was your initial exposure to music?
Growing up in the neighborhood that I’m from, since a kid I always loved music, you know? Michael Jackson was my favorite [laughs], I always used to dance when music came on and whatnot. We’d start dance battles with other cousins and all that stuff when we had family gatherings.
Did you have other musicians in your family?
Yeah, my uncles was DJs. That triggered me leanin’ towards that type of hobby to have, playing music, DJing. I started freshman in high school, in the year 2000.
What was growing up in the Low End like?
The lifestyle there is moreso like gangbangin’, drug dealing. It’s also moreso a community too; back then, that’s when the gang rivals used to warn us to go in the house before they started shootin’ and all that stuff. A lot of drug dealing, gangbangin’, partying type of atmosphere, you know? Some get lost into that type of environment and be in way too deep, mess they future up tryin’ to live those lives. But once I found out how to make music, it kind of steered me away from that type of lifestyle. Even though I knew better, I did do things that I shouldn’t have done. But if I was gonna do anything, I did it the smart way, you know? I ain’t be dumb, or let people know my move or whatnot.
How’d you learn to make tracks?
I found out how to make tracks in 2000. My homie Josh, which, he passed away a few years ago due to a car accident in Wisconsin, he introduced me to the program Fruity Loops and it was on from there. I was like the first guy in the projects with a computer at the time, and then all my other homies started getting computers and stuff. We basically was teachin’ each other how to do things on the programs, because we really didn’t know how to operate it back then. We learned from each other, figured things out, and made a way.
Was there any resistance from the people that had hardware to switching over to computers?
Nah, it was moreso that we all of that age went to the software first. No one I knew had a beat machine, you know what I’m sayin’, in my age bracket.
It sounds like everybody starts out trying to be a dancer, and then if that doesn’t work out they might take up producing.
I danced, but I was never in a dance group. I used to footwork and all that stuff, but I don’t even know what it’s like to kick my legs no more. I grew out of it. But really, we just come from the culture. Dancing was just part of it, from house music to the ghetto house music, to juke, to footwork.
When you were starting to go out and play your own tracks, book your own shows, where were those parties happening?
See I would throw my own parties. I came up throwin’ parties at vacant apartments, I’d make the tracks the night before. A dance group by the name of Phase 2 had practice in my backyard, and I’d test ‘em out. That was when I was like a teenager, but then as I got older I’d end up rentin’ spots out, rentin’ venues. But I’m skippin’ the part when I was going to parties that DJ Clent and them was throwin’, DJ Chip and them was throwin’ while I was still in the mix of making my tracks and meeting other DJs.
Was it easy to approach those dudes and start asking about tracks, or did you kind of have to prove yourself?
Well, it was a lot of dissin’ goin’ on when I was coming up, you know? Other DJs dissing each other, fighting each other at parties and all that. We had a lot of that in my era as well, which was the second or third generation. We had the beef and all that stuff. Things got personal, people would say some disrespectful shit on a track and play it at a party amongst a whole bunch of people [laughs]. It’d be a very embarrassing moment for the person that DJ was after.
It’s like with any culture, it’s just a competitive thing - some people have personal issues with people where they wanna put it on wax, get it out since they can’t have a civilized conversation as adults. It really wasn’t a publicity stunt, these guys were really beefin’. There wasn’t nothin’ to capitalize off of; some people got seriously hurt.
How long were you producing before you felt like you really started to find your own lane?
Well, the DJs that influenced me was… I used to dance to Greedy, DJ Funk, Puncho, Slugo, Deeon, Milton, DJ PJ, DJ Lemo, Clent, Rashad, Traxman, Gant-Man. But my main influences were RP Boo, Clent, Rashad, DJ PJ, DJ Lemo. And every last one of those DJs have a distinctive sound. And in the midst of comin’ up, you know, you take a lot of things and you recycle ‘em, you utilize ‘em your way. I basically worked my way out of that and got into doin’ things my way. So when I finally dropped my album in 2005, it was a different type of flavor.
I basically saved Chicago juke and footwork around the time I dropped it, because DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn, Traxman, Majik Myke, all those cats weren’t puttin’ out no music. And I put out three albums within three months, brought it back up. My CD was being sold at all the malls around Chicago, outside Chicago, people was orderin’ ‘em because it was available online as well. I put it out through Slugo, shout out to Slugo for that. It was a good moment for me, you know what I’m sayin’? I basically got hood rich off of that, I didn’t think it was gonna do that well. I was young, I just wanted to put the name out, but actually it opened up a lot of doors for me. I was doing rave parties out in Ohio, downtown, in St. Louis. It kind of opened me up to the underground lifestyle.
Then there was, I think his name was Scott. DJ Diamond had introduced me to him, and Scott was trying to do something with the juke and footwork movement, you know what I’m sayin’? It’s always someone trying to pick it up and move it around. He had a perfect venue on the college campus up in Madison, Wisconsin. He paid for us to come down there, we had did a set out there. It was dope, I ain’t realized that many people out there liked our music. And they had a whole other variety of DJs as well, playing dubstep, trap, drum ‘n’ bass, hip-hop. It was dope - same way with Minnesota, same way with New York, Las Vegas, even in Texas.
What was the first rave that you went to like?
Aw man, it was in Ohio actually! It was an event that Slugo had got booked for, and I went with him. A lot of people from France were there, they shook my hand and I was signin’ autographs and everything. I’m like “damn!" This my first album, I didn’t think it was gonna be that deep [laughs]. People was happy to see my face. It was so much love, so much more than I ever received in my own city - which you already know, Chicago is a love-hate city. They hate on each other, take people out who was doin’ good. That’s why nobody really make it out of Chicago.
Funnily enough, I’ve always thought that The Crack Capone especially had something of a New York feel to it - that king of minimal, Mafia feel and those grandiose strings and stuff.
Yeah, I was listenin’ to a whole lot of Dipset at the time. And “minimal," that’s how a blogger - you know, some days I’ll take a day and just search my name, see what pops up, you know? It was a blogger who basically described my sound at that time. And I guess it came out like that, based on the sounds that I was choosing at the time. What people were really drawn to in my music was the transitions that I had - how I dropped the beat to change it up, that’s how you knew it was a Roc track. That was my signature, the hard drops. Even if you didn’t know what it was when you heard it, all you had to do was follow the bassline.
For Crack Capone, I sent Planet Mu like forty tracks and they picked twenty. I think the only recent track that was on there was “Ball Em Up." All the other ones were old, them came out on my first album from 2005 so them tracks was already five years old at the time. I wanted them to use the tracks that I made in 2010 instead of the old ones, you know [laughs]? But they selection was decent, they got the “One Blood," “Make Crack Like Dis" - I ain’t really care about what they used, they was in the business longer than I had been and they know what type of crowd they tryin’ to cater to. It turned out ok, you know what I’m sayin’?
I was excited about the vinyl. When I started looking into the business side of it and all that, it’s expensive, you know? And you gotta be very precise on what you finna release when you wanna do vinyl, because it’ll be a waste of money if it don’t sell, if you put some bullshit out. And depending on what label put it out, it’s a reflection on them too.
Even a few years later when you put out Practice What U Preach, it sounded as though things had moved away from the dancefloor a little bit.
Uh, I ain’t really get no reviews on that album. I really didn’t. Like, to know what people was lookin’ forward to hearing or whatever the case may be. But I feel like I kinda did shy away from the hard shit… if you listen to the music now it’s like “what the fuck, this is what it came to?" And I didn’t really drift over to that, I just stayed in my lane. And that’s another thing, that label wanted to put those out too. They wanna put out the singin’ tracks and all that shit, I’m not ok with that [laughs]. It is what it is with that, that’s some commercial shit.
What was your mindset when footwork really started to take off internationally?
That’s 2010, you gotta think that I’m already ten years in already. So my mindset already on longevity, it didn’t matter if I released something at that time or not. And to be honest, after Planet Mu reached out to Nate, they found me. And they said they’d been lookin’ for me since 2005. So they finally got in tune with me - first, they was gonna pay me per track to license, but when I sent them all that material they said “ok, what you think about doin’ an album?" And the mixdowns started sounding so good, even on the vinyl. I’d still been doing my exploration with the engineering side on those old tracks, they actually made those old tracks sound like they should.
It’s the footworkers that migrated, took the craft elsewhere and planted seeds. I’d say it was King Charles from Creation, he was one of ‘em that started the footwork teams and whatnot, the first to take off and then go on tour with Madonna and shit. They’ve been on worldwide television and all that, took it to a greater height.
How much music are you making nowadays? What gets you into the studio?
Just pushing myself to work on a project. Like “man, I should put an album out." If I wanna do all-new material, I’ll be focused and get it done. I’m working on the Roctober album right now, I’ll be releasing that October 28th. I’ve got DJ Diamond featuring, Clent, DJ Corey - I did thirteen tracks by myself, so there’ll be eight or nine more that I’ll give to the world on the features.
Are you more interested now in exploring some new sound, or sticking with that more traditional lane that you ended up in?
I’m basically sticking to what I know, I ain’t trying to venture off and do nothing extra. I’m gonna stick to what I’m true to, and that’s juke and footwork. I don’t wanna just jump off into something else. I done tried the drum ‘n’ bass elements, but not through the whole track. It might have a drum ‘n’ bass intro, but then it’d transition to a raw-ass footwork track. I’m open to try new things, but it’d still be incorporating them into my footwork style of things, my perspective. That would be my twist to it.
Do you find it hard to take other styles or sounds and fit that to the footwork template?
Not at all! Not at all, because I make music based on how I’m feelin’. If I wanna make a beat, if I wanna make a track. If the frequency’s right, I’ll go crazy; if it’s kind of challenging, I’ll figure it out. I like figuring it out, because I’m kinda proving to myself a point. That I can actually oversee it and get it done, make something nice that I can play in a set.
I guess footwork can track with other stuff pretty closely too, just since there’s such a remix culture. I actually saw you post that track “Don’t Play" with the Travis Scott flip just a couple hours ago.
Yeah! We give those out for free, like them freebies. When we remix artist’s songs and stuff, that’s what we do. That type of stuff get radio play here, you know what I’m sayin’? It’s something that you could play at a juke and trap show or something, play the original song and the remix right after. And then sometimes when you hear certain things - and I know all the other DJs could vouch for me on this - when you hear a song, you’ll already have a whole drum pattern in your head on how you want it to go and everything. And then you’ll run down to your studio, get to choppin’ shit up and goin’ crazy gettin’ your ideas out.
At least in Chicago, it seems like the rap and footwork scenes have never really overlapped.
Yeah, they are. They barely merge - they don’t merge at all, to be honest. That’s really because rap is the genre, and what we’re doing isn’t really a genre. I don’t know what it’ll take for it to be considered as a genre - other people call it EDM, but it’s not. So that’s the fight that us Chicagoers who make juke and footwork music - that’s the title that we want, “juke and footwork." Don’t want to be under “EDM and dance." It being itself would separate us, because it’s not electrical dance music. They got similarities, but it’s not that. It’s a different sound, and we already got the word for it, we already got the definition of it. It’s migratin’ all over the world now, but I don’t know what it’s gonna take.
Do you think that to some extent it’s harder to get that recognition right in Chicago than elsewhere in the world?
Yeah, it’s hard to get it here. Everybody tryin’ to be somebody. It’s a lot of people here that just wake up one day and wanna be a DJ. And that basically fucks it up for those people that have been doin’ it longer than them. They just wanna do some shit, they don’t really got a passion for it. It’s a lot of followers here, a lot of followers and a lot of haters. Don’t nobody wanna see you doin’ better than them here.
Is that what led to you grouping up with Beatdown House or Bosses of the Circle?
I felt like that was my home, due to the style of music that I make. And it was the mecca for the pioneers of footwork - Spinn, C-Bit, Rashad, Clent. Those legends, right there. And I feel like I belong with them, due to me livin’ in the Low End, on 39th, and Clent being from 39th. That’s why I felt like they were always my home. I never remixed none of them guys’ music, I always had my own music. There were people who wanted to be like them so bad, remixin’ their music, which, you know, we don’t respect that. We don’t like the carbon copy. I’m fresh in, I just wanted to be mentored by those guys who were older than me, who had been in it longer than me. That’s all I was looking for, I wanted to get that extra polish.
Bosses of the Circle was a juke and footwork clique too, trackmakers and DJs. We started that in 2006, it was Peanut, D-Block, Speed, and myself. P Nut and Speed, they’re cousins, and D-Block and myself are cousins. We all had the same vision, so we put a name on it and started throwin’ parties and all that stuff. Off my work alone, I stood out the most, and it wasn’t no confrontation in that. They was pushin’ me, they was with it.
Jlin was in Bosses of the Circle for a bit, right?
Aw yeah, she was the first female to make juke and footwork. I was the guy who accepted her, taught her, and then she grew into her own sound. She doesn’t make juke and footwork anymore because that’s her own sound - when you listen to Jlin, that’s Jlin, you know? A lot of people was trying to snatch her away from me and all that shit, but we were adults, we went our separate ways. That’s my daughter [laughs]. We would challenge each other, pick a sample and go against each other. “Erotic Heat," that shit was raw as hell. She sent that to me, I was like “God damn, that’s what I’m talking about Jlin!" That’s still in my crate.
You were talking about it not really being cool to remix someone’s track -
Man, motherfuckers have a fit, you remix they track. Man, you’ll fuck around and get your jaw broke doing that type of shit. Especially if it’s original, then you go out and make money on it. That’s like a slap in the face. No paperwork involved, no ok for you to do it, no credit. That’s fucked up. That’s playin’ with somebody money. If this is they life - makin’ music, makin’ juke tracks - hell yeah, that’s serious. That’s takin’ food off that man plate.
Some of the samples get out, but some get ripped off the track itself. That shit be crazy. That’s the problem - by being different cliques, shouldn’t nobody outside the clique have the sound instruments that y’all have or y’all use to monetize y’all sound, for people to know who it is. And now it’s easy, because everybody just passin’ shit out. It kinda fucked it up, because you got people who not even from Chicago that make the music and get bigger than those who are in Chicago. Or gettin’ more sales than the people that originated shit.
When you’re laying vocals on a track, do you view that as more of a lyrical or rhythmic exercise?
Uh-huh, most definitely it’s a lyrical creative window. How they makin’ music out of anything now [laughs], it makes it more easier to just say anything on the track [laughs]. As long as the beat bangin’, it don’t even matter what the track sayin’.
It depends on what’s your concept. When you’re producin’ these tracks, some of the instrumentals talk to you. You feel like you should say something on the track. Shit, just turn the mix on and get to recording yourself saying different shit. And dependin’ on how you say it, depends on how the track turns out. And when you find the perfect words for it, it just feels like it’s supposed to be said.
Do you have a favorite vocal from one of your tracks?
I got a favorite drop! “Ayo Roc, turn the fuck up man" [laughs]. That’s my drop, the other one was “This track a banger!" I like drops, I’m not really into a favorite vocal. You get stuck on that vocal, you ain’t gon’ get away from it. You gonna come up with a lot of different versions of the same vocal, that’s wack as hell. You don’t wanna be in a bubble with things, your ass ain’t ever gonna get up out of it.
I saw a comment you made on some random Youtube video, I guess there was a rumor that you were dead?
[laughs] Yeah, they had me mixed up with DJ Speed. That was one of my Bosses of the Circle partners, he had died of an asthma attack while he was on the job and shit. I discovered it just being nosy, seein’ what people had to say and shit on these tracks. Looking at the comments and stuff, like “Wow, motherfuckers really think that I was dead." I got a whole Youtube channel, so that’s what made me start commenting, being a little more active.