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Interview with DJ Chairman Mao

Legendary DJ, journalist, and crate digging fiend Chairman Mao a.k.a Jeff Mao has graciously taken time out of his busy schedule to speak with Cultures of Soul about himself.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get into collecting records? What kinds of records were you collecting at the beginning? What were some of your early digging spots in NYC?

I started collecting records when I was a kid – like most other kids I knew did – just to keep up with new music that I liked. I bought whatever was on the radio, which in Boston meant a healthy diet of The Cars, J. Geils and U2. But also Michael Jackson, Motown and soul/R&B/dance stuff that I’d hear on KISS 108. I guess I gradually got more serious about it when I started reading up on older music in magazines and books and realized certain things weren’t so readily available because the records were out of print – James Brown, Funkadelic. Eventually, I’d get fewer records from the regular retail chains like Strawberries, and started going to used record shops like Nuggets in Kenmore Square and Brookline to try to find things. In high school I’d started checking out the local college radio stations – WERS and WZBC – so I was getting into punk, new wave, ska, hip-hop, and whatnot.

 

Later when I attended NYU, a regular record shopping routine established itself pretty quickly. Not only were there lots of cool shops in the Village – Sounds, Venus, Subterranean (most of which were rock oriented, but where you could also catch good soul/jazz/funk if you knew what to check for). But because it was pre-Giuliani and the “quality of life” crackdown on street vending hadn’t happened yet, basically all you had to do was walk out the door to find records. So really the top so-called “digging spot” from back then was just what you’d find from guys who sold on the street.

One of the regular vendors who’d set up on Astor and Broadway was an artist and painter named Garfield Gillings who bought and sold collections. Anyone who was around then remembers Garfield. He was like the mayor of that strip, right in front of the building where Profile Records used to be. I learned a lot from just checking out what titles he kept for sale on his table, going through this record box on wheels that he’d cart around, and picking up stuff he’d recommend. I got a lot of heavy soul and funk stuff from him over the years: 24 Carat Black, Lee Moses etc. Eventually we became friends and DJ-ed a little bit together. There were other really cool folks from those years that sold records around the area as well – Bob Porter, Robert Raynor, Bobby Watlington (who later kept a table at the Roosevelt). I just remember with great fondness the times I’d meet up with them, talk shop, learn about the music, and get cool records.

What made you want to be a DJ? What sort of stuff where you spinning at the time? What clubs were you DJ-ing at?

DJ-ing was just a natural extension of making tapes for friends. When I graduated from school I got two Technics 1200s as a graduation gift from my mom. I started out just doing house parties for friends on occasion, figuring out how to do it as I went along. I was playing hip-hop, house, dancehall, soul and funk, classics – basically every working DJ had to be able to play all of that during the course of a night. DJ-ing was just something I did in my spare time as a hobby. I’d gone to NYU film school and was working as a production assistant on commercials and music videos, so that was my main job at the time. But I lived in an apartment building on 6thStreet and Avenue B where there was about a half dozen DJs living. So by word of mouth and stuff I started to get into it more, getting little gigs here and there.

I did some stuff at this venue called Metropolis Café – which is where the restaurant Blue Water Grill is now. One was this party I did with my friend Garfield who I mentioned before – it was like an art installation/exhibition, with his paintings hanging everywhere and whatnot – and then we DJ-ed. Then for a minute at the same venue I was a part of this really crappy knock-off of Giant Step that these promoters tried to do with DJs and a live band. The night was called Revival, but it was disparagingly referred to as Rehearsal because it was such a cacophonous mess. I just tried to get gigs wherever – mostly hole in the wall places in the East Village and Lower East Side. Around that time every bar owner downtown figured out that if they put turntables and a shitty sound system in their place it was a relatively cheap investment towards making some extra money over the long haul.

But there was also a nice I guess you’d call it “rare groove”-themed night my friend Geo – who was the manager at Chung King Studios at the time – promoted at this bar called B ob Down on Eldridge Street, where I actually wound up spinning for a couple of years. The residents were Jeff Brown (who schooled me on tons of jazz dance, Latin and Brazilian, and rare groove stuff because he’d lived in Tokyo and was up on all that Gilles Peterson type stuff), DJ Hiro (not to be confused with the hip-hop DJ Hiro who later did the Blow Pop party with Master Key, but a fine DJ in his own right), and me (as well as Geo), and the party was called Butter. (Uh, in case you couldn’t figure out from the name this was still the early ’90s.)

 How did you get into music journalism? What was the significance of Beat Down Magazine in the hip-hop world? How did this lead to writing gigs at bigger magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone? What have been your most favorite pieces that you have written?

I got into writing about music in order to get free promo vinyl from the labels. That was really the main motivation. It turned out that because I’d always read so many music magazines that I guess I developed a knack for criticism. I started out writing for Beat Downafter I’d met Sacha Jenkins, who was the editor of the magazine. Sacha was interning at this place Third World Newsreel that was distributing my NYU student film, and everyone who worked there was like, you should meet Sacha since you’re a DJ and are into hip-hop. He saw me getting off the elevator one day and figured, here’s a Chinese dude wearing Carhartt – he must be Mao. And he asked me to contribute to the magazine. Beat Down was an important publication when we were working on it, I thought. It offered an alternative voice to The Source, but unlike The Source’s main competitors at the time, Rap Pages and Rap Sheet, it was East Coast-based. It was cool – purist, thoughtfully put together. When Sacha and his former partner had a falling out, he left to start ego trip with Elliott Wilson and many of us followed.

It was via writing for Ego Trip and URB that I eventually got gigs writing for The Source, and later really steady work for Vibe and XXL. From there I got occasional reviews and short pieces for Spin, Rolling Stone and Blender. I don’t know that I have any favorite pieces that I’ve written, honestly. Like I said, I never got into journalism from of a love for writing; I only got into it because I was into music, and because it was a preferable way to earn a living (rather than being a production assistant, which sucked big-time). Plus in every article I’ve ever written there’s always something I wish I could change: either there’s an error, or something that bothers me that I wish I’d done differently, or the editor inserted something stupid that I wouldn’t have written.

Actually, now that I think of it one thing that I still like that I’ve written is the piece I did on the Roosevelt Record Show for Wax Poetics a few years back – probably because it’s just a personal recollection of a time and place that’s meaningful to me. Also, the memorial piece I wrote about James Brown for Scratch that no one read because Scratch went under shortly thereafter. Everything else I probably have some ambivalent feeling about.

What has been the journalist’s role in shaping hip-hop through the years?

Well, I guess the journalist’s role in hip-hop has evolved as the music’s evolved. (And in other breaking news: the world is round!) You could say that at first it was to be a cheerleader for hip-hop because hip-hop was underground, revolutionary music that merited the world’s attention and respect. As the music gained that respect and popularity it was important for journalists to be really impartial and honest critical voices and document its growth and evolution. With print journalism now displaced by the Internet, everyone has a forum, and the journalist’s role is probably more important for providing some proper context. And also, as it’s always been, just to do a good job telling a story. My favorite rap artist profile of recent memory is Peter Relic’s Geto Boys story for XXLfrom a few years ago. It’s hilarious and really captures the dynamic of the group in a way some half-assed on-line Q&A on-line never will. (Er, not to suggest that this Q&A we’re doing now is half-assed, or anything.)

That said you know there’s plenty of bloggers who are more fun to read than so-called professional journalists. And by the same token, the DIY part of blogging and writing on-line appeals to me since I started out in zines. The absence of word counts is also a plus both as a writer (since editorial space has been shrinking for like the last ten years), and as a reader if you’re enjoying what someone has to say. It’d just be great if writing on the Internet could co-exist with traditional, well-researched journalism rather than turn magazines into museum pieces.

What was your role with the magazine Ego Trip? What was your role in ego trip’s Book of Rap Lists?

I started out as the music editor at ego trip. Eventually, I became editor-in-chief. But as is the case with anything worthwhile, working on the magazine was very much a team effort. In the early days it was Sacha, Elliott, myself, and a devoted gang of contributors and editors. For the most substantial part of our run, it was all of us along with Gabriel Alvarez and Brent Rollins, who’d both moved to New York from LA around 1996 and brought their experience of having done Rap Pages for years. Those guys took it to another level. Everyone who worked at ego trip over the years on a daily basis probably did every job required to put out the magazine at one time or another. We all conducted interviews, wrote the articles, took photos, edited the text, booked the occasional ad, unloaded issues off the truck, physically brought issues to newsstands, and I think once in an emergency situation even did layout. (Fortunately, the latter never happened again once Brent came on board.)

Book of Rap Lists was more or less inspired by Dave Marsh’s Book of Rock Lists. The Marsh book was something that I’d read compulsively as a teenager. They wound up doing a revised version that attempted to include hip-hop but it didn’t really ring true. I think the legacy of Rap Listsis that it’s the ultimate hip-hop fan’s book. Even though sort of like with my own writing, when I look back I’ll notice things that could have been better, I think that book does as good a job as is imaginable encapsulating a specific era of rap music. After 2000 it was, and remains, a free for all. Writing the book was a really concentrated team effort. It’s not really possible to single out any individual’s role versus another – except for maybe Rollins since he’s the art guy. The five of us (and guest contributors) worked on it together and everyone brought something unique to the table in terms of knowledge, skill, voice, and effort to help make it what it was. So it was a beautiful thing.

Tell me more about some of your guest DJ spots including Bumpshop around NYC?

I started DJ-ing at APT in late 2000. (Holy shit, time flies.) Anyways, in the beginning it was myself and Dennis “Citizen” Kane doing Saturdays together. After maybe two years or so we wound up alternating weeks, doing our own things. I was just sort of doing my nights on my own with the occasional guest like Cash Money or 45 King coming through.

Since he knew I still avidly collected funk and soul 45s, Alec DeRuggerio, the original music director at APT, asked me if I was interested in starting up a rare funk and soul-themed night on one of my Saturdays just to mix things up a little. There wasn’t anything like that happening in the city on the weekends at the time, except for maybe Subway Soul Club, but that was more ’60s focused. So we figured with the right combination of folks involved we could make something special happen. It wound up being Mr. Fine Wine of WFMU, David Griffiths, and Jared Boxx from Sound Library (later Big City Records) and myself as the residents and we called the night Bumpshop. Not only was it the name of an old Detroit soul label, but it sounded cool. A bumpshop is an old term for an auto body shop. “Where We Fix Your Chassis” was our motto.

We brought our pal Dante Carfagna in to guest with us in summer of 2004 as a test run and then set it off officially in January 2005 with Kenny Dope – who Dave was working with at Kay-Dee – as the guest for the formal launch. Having Kenny there legitimized us from jump, and we wound up being one of the venue’s signature nights, I’d humbly say. Some of the folks we brought in to guest were Cut Chemist, Ian Wright, DJ Muro, Jason Perlmutter, Egon, Miles from Breakestra, Brad Hales of People’s Records, Tony Janda, Gabe & Neal from Daptone, Jeff & Leon from Truth & Soul, George Mahood, Andy Noble, Aaron Anderson – a lot of the best soul and funk 45 DJs around. Last summer we wound up voluntarily pulling the plug on the party. The farewell night was really celebratory. I guess we could have continued, but we started to feel like we were in danger of things getting stale, so better to end early than stick around too long. Besides, the door’s still open for us to come back and do something if it feels eventful enough, so we may very well be back again…

For the last several years on the weeks that I wasn’t doing the Bumpshop parties, I dubbed the night Grand Groove – and now that’s the name I do all my nights at APT under. I feel really fortunate that I’ve had the residency for this extended a run. It’s been a real blessing. The gigs continue to be lots of fun even after all this time. I play what I want more or less – soul, funk, old timer rap, deep disco, boogie classics, electro, Latin, house, whatever – and I’m able to bring in guests that I really dig and respect – people like Muro, Rockin’ Rob, and Just Blaze. My man Monk-One now does the alternate Saturdays with his party One Step Ahead, and we’ll collab on special events like last Halloween when we brought in Randy Muller, Denise Wilkinson of Skyy, and Leroy Burgess to perform live sets.

When I get the chance I travel and gig. I don’t do it that often but when I do it’s always fun. But I still sort of consider myself someone who just DJs on the side – even though between gigs and on-line radio stuff it occupies more of my time than writing probably does.

What is your favorite rare funk record discovery? Your favorite hip-hop record discovery?

I can’t in good conscience claim any rare funk discoveries. I’ve got plenty of rare records but I haven’t discovered shit. I leave that to the Dave Griffiths of the world. Griffiths is the man when it comes to finding rare funk and certain kinds of soul records – records that are like the sound of dreams disintegrating. If that description seems esoteric, all I can say is anyone who knows Griffiths and the kind of stuff he comes up on knows what I’m talking about. I’m definitely not out there looking for stuff the way he is. It’s been a minute since I was out in the field like that.

I do take pride in the tunes we played regularly at Bumpshop – New Holidays, Tammi Terrell “All I Do,” the Springers, “Mystery of Black,” Spade Brigade, Dee Edwards, Kool Blues, Double O’s Demingos, Timeless Legend, Mighty Lovers, Mosaic Tweed, Antonio Castro, Willie Wright etc. Some of them were things our guests introduced us too – Dante and Tony have been a big influence that way. Some things we were already playing. In any case I’ll always associate those records with those parties and really good times.

Hip-hop discoveries, I don’t know. I played a bunch of rare rap on this WBAI live mix for the Underground Railroad show some years back that people seem to enjoy, for what that’s worth. IBM Nation “This Is For the Nation” was on there, 3 Tha Hard Way (later known as Hard Knocks)’s “Ladies” was on there. But I’m pretty sure my friend Makoto of Weekend Records (the legendary store he ran out of his Brooklyn apartment on the weekends) put me up on both of those. I’ve always gotten hipped to stuff from friends and folks I know. Does this count as a “discovery”? A few years ago just off a street sale I came up on a Marauder & the Fury test press of an unreleased track that I don’t hear anyone talk about. It’s over “Joyous,” which is never a bad thing. I don’t know if Paul C. was involved with it or not. I think it’s dope, but maybe no one talks about it because it sucks? Who knows?

I will, however, claim 50% responsibility for the introduction of the much-maligned term “random rap” into the collecting lexicon. I see people on-line always complaining about what a dumb term it is. It wasn’t meant for public consumption. It was something my friend and fellow writer and music nerd Dave Tompkins and I would say to one another when we were talking about stuff we came up on that wasn’t on a major label or well known, usually golden era: “Find any random rap records of interest?” They were cheap records that no one else wanted. Now it’s a standard ebay description and there’s even a “random rap” compilation out there. I feel like friggin’ Kool Herc – where’s my royalty check?!? (j/k)

What are your top 5 records that never leave your record box?

Classics I never get tired of and still play way too much after all these years include:

James Brown – Give It Up or Turnit a Loose (Polydor)
Jackson 5 – Hum Along and Dance (Motown) 
Willie Hutch – Brothers Gonna Work It Out (Motown) (The Underdog Edit 12 from a few years back is pretty cool too.)
Cross Bronx Expressway – Help Your Brothers (Zell’s)
Grand Wizard Theodore & the Fantastic Five – Can I Get a Soul Clap Fresh Out the Pack (Soul-O-Wax)

 If that’s too boring, here’s five soul 45s I can’t get enough of right now:

Tommy McGee – Come On (Tosted)
Sir Henry Ivy – He Left You Standing There (Future Dimension)
Ricky Lance – Lay the Cash On the Line (City Lights)
Ron Patteron – Story Book (Venice)
George Wilson – Come Back to Me b/w Everything Will Be Fine (Stang)



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