We interviewed Philly’s Davu Flint about his musical upbringing, how his home state has moulded his music and another life as an international gigolo.
Of all the social media I use, Facebook is arguably the worst for content that doesn’t make me want to throw my laptop out of my bedroom window. However, I’ve done my best to surround myself with like-minded individuals and music has provided the perfect theme for my choices. Davu Flint is one of those I have enjoyed seeing on my timeline thanks to his honest opinions and taste in music. I interviewed him a few weeks ago and thought it would be appropriate to publish the article on his birthday.
Luke: When did you start making beats?
Davu: I have been rapping since 89, and I use to make pause tapes in the band room of my high-school, but I bought an Roland-SP 303 and two turntables in 2001 and started from there. I had already had a lot of vinyl and knew a little about records. I was a band geek in middle school and high school, so I knew a little about music as well. I was signed to an indie hip-hop label out of Columbus Ohio during the whole Def Jux era, and while it was exciting at first, the process of making a record was so traumatic for me because I wasn’t able to have any control over the music, although I had definite ideas about how I wanted the music to sound, as far as what samples to use and whatnot. I also wanted to incorporate more live instruments and live music, and the producer I was working with at the time was NOT trying to hear that. Making music collaboratively and live is a completely different experience from sitting alone in your bedroom and making beats. The former requires a lot of give and take and active listening. I got a keyboard and you have a drum and this cat has a bass and we all get together and make something and contribute a small piece to a greater whole. Even if you look at Sly Stone and a record like There’s A Riot Goin’ On, where he went from making records with the whole Family Stone in the studio to making records kinda by himself, it’s almost too much power for one man to have. Most producers are so used to controlling every instrument that when it comes time to work with someone they see you as just another instrument to be manipulated. It also gives a producer a certain amount of power over you as well, and sometimes you have to jump through a lot of hoops and kiss ass to get beats from folks. It’s a control thing. I went to a producer in Pittsburgh before I started learning how to make beats and asked him for a track and he wanted to charge me $500! Which was fair I guess, but I remember saying to him I could go out and get a piece of gear and learn how to make my own beats. And that’s exactly what I did.
L: What sort of music did you listen to growing up?
D: My Pops liked a lot of War and Parliament Funkadelic and Earth Wind and Fire. My moms was a big EWF fan, but also listened to a lot of Jackson 5 and Jon Lucien and Sade, as well as a LOT of gospel. My father left when I was 11, and I was pretty much in church 3 or 4 nights a week after that. So church music is definitely all through me. My grandfather was a pretty successful guitar and piano player as well, and would sit me on his lap and just play for me and my older sister.. He had a cool little band called The Splendours and he played a lot of jazz and Motown and toured with the Isley Brother’s for years, so those cats and cats like George Benson would come through the house and jam all the time when I was really young. I liked Hip-Hop, but I was a big New Wave and rock fan. You got a certain group of Black Americans from that era who grew up listening to everything. I was a kid before MTV was in everyone’s home, and the biggest Black music star was Michael Jackson. So if you wanted to see a Michael Jackson video you had to watch Friday Night Videos. And they always put the Michael Jackson video at the end, so you had to watch the whole show in order to see that one video. So I grew up listening to a lot of Blondie and the Talking Heads and The Runaways and The Ramones and Devo and The Cars and even Billy Joel. So music was definitely all around when I was growing up.
L: What was the first hip hop track that caught your attention?
D: My aunt, my Mom’s youngest sister, is like 7 years older than me. So she’s really like an older sister. And she was REALLY into Hip-Hop. This had to be like 83 or 84. So she had the whole room done up with the Right On and Word Up magazines and played Hip-Hop around the house a lot around. I remember 3 distinct songs out of all that music: Melle Mel’s verse on Beat Street Breakdown, which completely blew me away because it was just so political and he took you on this whole journey. , The UTFO/ Roxanne Wars which flipped me out because of all the characters and the back and forth made it almost like a t.v. show, and Dana Dane’s Nightmares, which was when I first fell in love with storytelling.
L: Who/what influences your style the most?
D: It really depends. I got a lot of influences because I grew up around a lot of Black people, but I was always in advanced classes in school so I also grew up with a lot of white people with money as well. At the time I felt I had to choose, but I grew up listening to everything. Old blues and soul and jazz and gospel from all the old folks in the church, hip-hop and r&b from folks around the neighborhood, and rock and later on jungle and house from the students in the scholars programs. I also dig films and painting because of my mom, and it all comes out someway in my music. So I’m all mixed up I guess. Straight up, if you come to my show you are going to hear all of that. Banging golden era hip-hop, soul, jazz,funk, even punk
L: How much has Philly and Pittsburgh shaped your sound?
D: Well Pittsburgh is really influential cause I’m from there and my family is from there and I came up in the Hip-Hop scene in the 90’s. Pittsburgh has always had great producers and beatmakers and musicians, and a lot of records were always around and i was blessed to come up out of that culture. Just off the digging in my mind it’s just craaaazzzzy. Philly is where I live now and go to school, and in a way it’s more cosmopolitan and connected than Pittsburgh is. I wasn’t really aware of Philly until college when I started going to school with all these Philly cats and going up there to hang out all the time and started hanging out with a lot of hardcore bands and graff artists and jazz musicians and emcees. It’s a pretty awesome place to be and to study and play music. I really came into my own the 10 years I lived in San Francisco and Oakland though, because it was a place where no one knew me and I had an an opportunity to reinvent myself. I learned how to put together and lead a bad and put out my own records, cause that’s what the Bay is all about. People support you and come out to see shows In Pittsburgh you grow up with these people, so it’s hard to rock cats who may have beaten you up in middle school or remember when you were in 9th grade. People still see you as the same person you were years ago, and I found it hard to try new things. It’s just how it is in the place where you grew up. I had to come home for a little while and take care of my moms who was sick, and I would run into people and we would fall back into the same patterns of behavior and roles we had 20 years ago. Pittsburgh is a great place to be FROM, but I eventually had to leave to really try new things. I’ve been blessed to travel quite a bit overseas, and those experiences come into play as well.
L: Do you think it is important to have a musical background, whether it be classically trained or just learning an instruments?
D: It depends. If you’re sampling from records you don’t really need to learn that cause that’s not how sample based music works. You just have to have that ear. But if you are making music on an instrument then it only makes sense to study that instrument. It all depends on where you wanna take it. For me, my vision of Hip-Hop is one where although I may be making the beat in the crib by myself, when you see the show it’s going to be on the keys with a band playing everything. That’s what my show is and that’s what I’ve always wanted it to be. I prefer having as much control over the music as I can. I enjoy the interplay with other musicians and how they interpret my work. As much as I am a fan of contemporary production, I am also enamored with composers: Mingus, Duke Ellington, Monk, Miles Davis, and I like the idea of bringing that composer/auteur theory to Hip-Hop music. In my opinion it’s the one thing it doesn’t have. The emcee gives too much power away. You going to this cat to get your music, you’re going to this cat to play your music and be your d.j. I just wanna sit down at the keys and be self contained and just rap and sing a little and have these cats in my band play my shit. It’s more exciting for the listener, and as an emcee who has literally been rapping for 25 years and can’t even remember how many shows I’ve done it’s more exciting for me. There are more variables in play. I get bored at Hip-Hop shows man. It’s almost like karaoke. And it’s not I’m playing jazz, with hella complex chord changes. I’m playing hip-hop music. I might have like 5 chord changes at the most in any one song. It’s not that complex. Is it funky? Hell yes. But it’s simple enough to where I don’t have to be a virtuoso to play it. So for myself, yeah I study music theory and chords and scales and that shit, just like I used to study breaks and chopping records. You can sit me down with an MPC and some records and I’ll make you a beat like boom. That’s easy to me. I come from that. In a small way I’m trying to reconnect the circle that was broken in the 80’s and 90’s when they took music programs out of black schools. I was there for that. I was the last generation of kids that grew up on Hip-Hop and had access to musical instruments in the inner city. In the band we would play Hip-Hop tunes when we were in the stands to get the audience hype. Like the drumline would play the drums to Digable Planets’ 9th Wonder or Top Billing and the woodwinds and horns would do the melody and we would all be there making Hip-Hop music man. So for me, it’s not like I’m a kid waiting for money from the government to pay for music lessons. I’m a grown ass man with money and no kids and free time. I didn’t start studying piano until I was 25. I could read music a little , but I just went out and got a piano and started studying. When I put a band together I got musicians who were a whole lot better than me and I would be like a baby man, asking questions. Most people, regardless of the art form, once they master something it’s hard to get them to learn something new, cause you got to humble yourself all over again. That’s not a problem I have.
L: Describe how you approach the making of a track.
D: Depends. Sometimes if I’m sitting at the keys and fucking around I’ll come up with something and lay drums over it. Then I replay the bassline on the Rhodes or with a bass. Honestly when I sitting at the keys sometimes I’ll learn a tune that’s popular by like Hendrix or the Beatles and take a bar or two and just replay it. My record Our Man Flint is like that. 90% of that record is me replaying popular tunes and freaking it. Like the song Ellington is the chord changes to the chorus of Hendrix’s The Wind Cries Mary. The song Polo is the changes to The Beatles Blackbird. It’s like sampling cause I’ll take something from someone else and switch it up and make it my own. Also, since I always perform with a band, it’s easier to tell them the chords that way. Like ok… it’s kinda like Blackbirds but I just took the little section form the chorus and it’s E flat, E minor, F major or whatever boom. Or I might program a drum track and sample one note from a Stevie Wonder tune or a Rhodes and just 16 level it and play a new melody and record it. That’s why I enjoy working on Maschine, because you can choose the tonic you want when you 16 level a note, so you can basically be aware of the notes you play. I’m always keeping two things in my mind when I make a track. Is this something I’m going to want to write to or rap over? And how can I make this to where it can be recreated with live musicians and expressed to them in a way they understand? So those are the two things I think about when making a beat.
L: What equipment and/or instruments do you use?
D: I’ve been on the move for last 8 months, bouncing back and forth from The Bay to Pittsburgh and Philly, so I have a really stripped down portable studio. A Maschine MK1, a Mackie 12 track mixer, an M-Audio interface, and a condenser mic. I can take it with me wherever I go and make music in small spaces and in airports and bus stations. Basically I made 3 albums between December 2013 and December 2014 and the last two used this set up. I kinda switch gear every album to challenge myself. I have a lot of gear in storage in Oakland that I haven’t sent for yet, but normally I use the MPC2000xl, the Fender Rhodes Mark II electric piano, an Alesis QS-8 keyboard, a MicroKorg, a Juno 106 keyboard, an electric bass, and like tambourines and shakers and shit. Being on the go this year has forced me to be more creative though cause I have less stuff to work with.
L: Name one instrument you’d love to master and why.
D: I am still trying to master the keys man. When I hear some of these cats playing I realize how far I have to go, especially in regards to independent movement in both hands. The piano is a mind fuck cause you have to work on both sides of your brain when you play it.
L: If you had unlimited funds, what one piece of equipment would you buy?
D: I would buy a digital video camera and and copy of Final Cut Pro and teach myself how to make my own music videos, which is kinda what I’m learning to do now Seriously though, I used to be really into gear and I still am, but having everything stripped away and having a real limited set up has been kind of liberating for me in the last few months. Gear comes and goes. I’ve probably owned like 10 MPC’s in the last 10 years. I’ll make an album and sell it and get a new one and make a new album and sell it again and get something else. So the gear is kind of irrelevant in the end. It’s all about that one idea.
L: Do you have one album you always go back to?
D: De La Soul Is Dead. Great skits, cover art, rhymes, beats… It has aged really well.
L: What are your fondest musical memories?
D: A couple of years ago my band had a residency in San Francisco, playing as the backing band at a weekly jam session at the Boom Boom Room in the Fillmore. The club used to belong to John Lee Hooker, and there are definitely a lot of spirits in that place. The opportunity to play there every week was a really great opportunity to grow as a musician
L: What’s your biggest musical accomplishment and why?
D: Just the fact that I’m still doing it it after so long. Still learning and growing and getting better everyday. There so much to learn about emceeing, and music, and performing that it’s a little breathtaking. I feel honored and humbled to be able to create and put things out into the world and have a few people feel it.
L: Do you have a favourite record that you have produced, either solo or as part of the group?
D: I love all my albums. It’s hard for me to pick one because they are all parts of me and build on each other and represent specific periods of my life: there’s the “I’m trying to prove something” record, the “divorce” record. the “no samples” record, the “all samples” record, the concept album. They’re all just different manifestations of myself and my consciousness.
L: Favourite label?
D: Toss up between Ninja Tune and Brainfeeder. I used to wanna be on Ninja Tune so bad back in the day. Brainfeeder is the future.
L: Favourite producer and MC?
D: It sounds kinda played out but Dilla followed by Madlib and Pete Rock. I was a fan of Dilla since the 90’s since Busta Rhymes’s The Coming and was a huge fan ever since. I was living in San Francisco when he died, and I had never seen him before and Madlib and Dilla were supposed to be doing a show at The Mezzanine in SF and Madlib was supposed to have a live band and it was going to be the Donuts SF release party. So you know I’m there right? My two heroes! So Dilla dies and Madlib just turned into the most beautiful Dilla tribute ever. It was a really moving and spiritual experience and really deepened my commitment to my own music.
L: Who would you most like to work with and why?
D: Georgia Anne Muldrow. Her whole vibe is just what I’m on, but she’s vibrating higher so it would make me better to have to match that vibration. It sounds kinda ethereal and spacey but it’s true. I opened for her and Dudley Perkins once in Oakland and they both really liked the music and were very supportive. I’ve been talking with Dudley for a minute about making something happen, and she’s down, I just gotta make sure everything is right vibe wise for me and money wise for them. One day soon I hope.
L: What albums are you currently listening to at the moment?
D: I’m always listening to a lot of music at once. Right now I’m listening to the new Flying Lotus, The Barrel Brothers, Diamond District’s March on Washington, That Georgia Anne Muldrow beattape Oligarchy Sucks, the new Ghostface, this French Cuban group Ibeyi, Mark De Clive Lowe, this old school Black punk rock group Pure Hell, always Hector Lavoe and Miles and Mingus and Trane, DOOM, Kev Brown and Hassan Mackey, the homie BusCrates 16Bit Ensemble, the new Steve Spacek, Pittsburgh Track Authority, that new TV On The Radio album, the Jai Paul bootleg, and songs from this new record I’m working on-GoodNight, GoodMorning.
L: What are your thoughts on UK Hip Hop and is there anyone in the UK you’d like to work with?
D: Man i lived in South London, in Elephant and Castle, for a few months in 2000 and I got maaaaad love for the U.K. I din’t wanna leave. I was traveling on to Paris and Botswana and South Africa with my girl at the time and I actually didn’t want to leave. We got into a big argument about it in Heathrow waiting in line for our plane to Paris. I’m actually trying to get into Goldsmith’s for my graduate degree in ethnomusicology, so we’ll see. I really fell in love with the grime scene that was popping off at the time, as well as the indie soul scene and all the singers. Wiley, Kano, So Solid Crew, that was and is my shit. Cats like Roots Manuva, Jehst and Ghostpoet especially are personal favorites and huge inspirations for me as well as non Hip-Hop U.K artists like Steve Spacek and Jai Paul, Mo Kolourz, and 4Hero and that whole West London broken beat scene. Cats don’t take Hip-Hop for granted like they do here in the states sometimes, and the West Indian influence is something that is still very much apart of the culture and you can see it in Brixton and taste it in the food and see it on the streets. It used to be like that here in the states, which I loved cause I grew up with mad West Indians, so shit like jungle and grime made sense to me, even when I was younger, so I’ve always paid attention to what was happening in the U.K. I mean Pete Rocks beats, to me, have always sounded mad Jamaican. And a lot of rappers are West Indian, I mean Nicki Minaj is Trini! But you don’t hear that in the music like that. I listen to more artists from the U.K. then I do cats from the states these days.
L: If you weren’t involved in music, what could you see yourself doing instead?
D: Maybe teaching. Maybe an international gigolo or a bus driver.
L: I’ve always admired your intellectual viewpoints towards hip hop and music in general. What role do you think gentrification has had on hip hop past, present and future?
D: You can’t say who can listen to your music because that is not how culture works. I equate Hip-Hop to martial arts. If I was to study Kung-Fu, there is a basic understanding that I’m dealing with some Asian shit. That’s Hip-Hop. You gotta accept hat this is a primarily Black diasporic mode of expression. You don’t have to be Black to do it, but you gotta accept that fact about it. People seem like they have a hard time with that because of their own assumptions and prejudices. At the same time, Hip-Hop is a direst result of de-investment in Black communities and schools, and found it’s genesis in white flight from urban areas. So just as the children of those folks that left for the suburbs are returning to live in cities that their parents abandoned, at the same time displacing residents, you have a lot of Hip-Hop residents being displaced as well. So you have these kids with prejudices and disposable incomes living in Bushwick playing trap music, who never even been in the trap. If you were in the trap I could see you playing trap music, but it just reinforces stereotypes that could be broken down by actually engaging with people, as opposed to engaging with corporate funded representations of people.
L: Who would play you in your biopic and what would you call it?
D: I can act. I studied theater on college and at The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. It’s my opinion that if you are going to rap you should really study acting. So…. me. I could play me no doubt. I mean, I look just like me, so I got that going for me, which is nice.
L: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
D: Art is all about what you bring from the objective to the subjective. There is no right and wrong.
L: What advice would you give to beginners starting out?
D: Master your craft and move on and learn something new. Don’t be so dope that you can’t humble yourself to learn something new. Learning never ends. That, and whatever you do, it gots to be funky.