Early in my journalism career, I was the music editor for a New York-based indie hip-hop fanzine called Beat·Down magazine. During my 3-year tenure at the publication, I've interviewed many superstars in the rap and entertainment community.
One memorable interview that I conducted was with DJ King Britt, a world-renowned producer and remixer. I had to tweak the interview below because it was conducted in June of 1996. The conversation maybe dated, but the questions and answers are timeless.
The Funky Technician
By Trent Fitzgerald
"A hip-hop artist should have a human, a DJ, behind him. The DJ is the sole durative of hip-hop . . . "
-- DJ Grandmaster Flash
King James Britt bought his first stereo in 1985 -- it wasa pair of Technique SL 1200s with the rubberband belt drive with no pitch. The teenage Britt was a big fan of alternative music, so he would play songs from the Cure, the Smiths, New Order and then mix it with '80s-era rap hits by Schooly D, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five and Cash Money & Marvelous. "It was all about the beats and the bass," Britt recalls.
Today, the 30-something DJ and producer, who disguises himself under a numbered of aliases including Sylk 130 and Scuba, has become an innovative turntablist and music producer.
On his 1996 debut album, When the Funk Hits the Fan (Ovum/Sony), DJ King Britt takes the listener into a time warp to the year 1977 when disco was the sound and the DJ was the king of the dance floor. Britt calls the album an "emotion picture" soundtrack -- an imaginary movie fused with disco rhythms, funk, spoken word, soul and early hip-hop. Joining the Philadelphia native on his musical journey are a collective group of hometown talent like spoken-word artist Ursula Rucker, deep-voiced rapper Tony Green and vocalists Vicki Miles and Alison Crockett.
[Added Note: In 2001, King Britt dropped his follow-up Re-Members Only (Six Degrees), his re-interpretation of the 80's era featuring ABC's Martin Frye, Alison Moyet of Yaz and the late sax man Grover Washington Jr.]
DJ King Britt grew up in Southwest Philly to both musical and spiritual-guided parents, and started his immense record collection of jazz, soul, disco and funk at six years old. "My dad was strictly into funk records, while my mom was heavily into jazz records," he says. "My parents would take me to shows where I saw Sun-Ra perform and when I was eight, I saw James Brown at Latin Casino. I was always surrounded by music and it made my household serene and calm." He also embraced hip-hop during his high-school days in the late '80s. "Hip-hop is my culture," he says. "It's me and it represents the streets. It's this generation's jazz music. Hopefully, hip-hop will go back to the underground again and become Black-owned."
While in college, he befriended a young rap upstart named Ishmael Butler (aka Butterfly) whose DJ unsuspectingly quit. Ishmael hired Britt to DJ for his hip-hop group called the Digable Planets. Britt (as Silkworm) backed the trio of Ishmael, Craig "Doodlebug" Irving and Mary Ann "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira. In 1993, they dropped their debut album, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space). The set's first single "Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" became the album's biggest hit and earned them a 1994 Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
Among Britt's other achievements includes hosting the country's first acid jazz radio show, "Full Circle," on Temple University's campus radio station WRTI. In an addition to being a sought-after DJ and remixer, he also runs his own music imprtint FiveSix Media, a multimedia, studio and marketing company.
Outside of music, he is a proud father of a three-year-old daughter name Summer and has a record collection of over 20,000 rare 12 inches and 45s (not including CDs).
On this sunny day in June, King Britt and I are holed up in a local Philadelphia diner about 3 miles away from Temple University where Britt majored in Marketing. Although he has travel around the world, he has no qualms telling me the problems he sees with amateur DJs. "These [younger DJs] have to stick to their own sounds," he tells me. "Don't try to copy DJ Shadow or the Invisibl Scratch Pickls, just try to come up with your own way of spinning and make your turntable manipulations stand out. Originality is the key." During our conversation, Britt and I talk about his career, his latest disc and the art of DJing.
"1977 was the year of the DJs. Disco was massive and the DJ was king. Everyone looked at the DJ for music from 1977 to 1983. For me, 1977 was a strong year to be a DJ . . . " -- DJ King Britt
BEAT·DOWN: Explain your alter ego Sylk 130?
DJ KING BRITT: I always appreciated graffiti and the artists who tagged names like Tame One, or Tame 123, you know. So since I was Silkworm in Digable Planets, I took the name of my [hometown] street address, which was 130 Pembelton, and incorporated it into the name Sylk 130.
BD: Explain your 1996 debut album When the Funk Hits the Fan.
KB: The album is the first in a trilogy of albums that I will record that have influenced me as a DJ. This album is based on the music I listened to when I was growing up around 1977-1980. My father would say to me, "Son, now this is real funk," and that is what the album is about. Now the concept with the title is this: when the funk hits the fan, the "fan" meaning "the person," not an electrical appliance. The second album is going to continue from 1984 to 1994 with old-school hip-hop to new wave and then the last album is going to be techno oriented and be very futuristic.
BD: Why did you choose the year 1977 as the musical basis for the album?
KB: Everything that has to do with art goes in cycle of 10 years. So I picked 1977 because that was the year of the DJs. The popularity of the DJ was huge back then. Disco was massive and the DJ was the king. Everyone looked to the DJ for music from 1977 to like 1983-4. Plus you had clubs like Studio 54 and The Garage and just that the whole DJ culture. For me, 1977 was a strong year to be a DJ.
BD: It's interesting that you did a remake of Indeep's 80's club hit "Last Night A DJ Saved My Life." To me, the DJ was the lifesaver of every party. How important is the DJ culture?
KB: Oh, it is very important. You see, that song in particular saved my life. Because it made me want to become a DJ. You see, I want to spin and take the art of DJing to an instrumental level and become a turntablist. That's why I'm so happy to be a part of the Digable Planets. Back in the days, when I went on tour with them, I had to be an improvisationalist and be spontaneous. That helped me build my strength as a DJ being ready for anything.
BD: Do you think DJs are the superheroes of the dancefloor?
KB: No, we are humans and we are musicians trying to create a serene atmosphere for people to dance and have a good time. People have to recognize that DJing isn't about playing records -- it's an art form. And DJs like me are bringing out the DJ culture. DJing is an intense art form and there's no superheroes allow, man.