The Prickly Pear Podcast • Blue Cactus Press · Episode 10: DJ Smokey Wonder
Take a break from worrying about the CODIV-19 heath crisis, the overwhelming number of online meetings you have to attend, work or the lack thereof, and everything else cramping your style this summer and just listen to some damn-good music. After a six-month-ish podcast hiatus, we’re back and eager to share a brand new podcast episode featuring homegrown, bad ass, get-down-funky music by DJ Smokey Wonder.
Yeah. A whole podcast episode of nothin’ but good-good music by one of our favorite, Tacoma-based musicians, DJ Smokey Wonder. Why? Because life is hard and sometimes it’s refreshing – and necessary – to participate in things that bring us joy and don’t expect a damn thing in return.
If you’re up for some reading (and we know you are, because this is a publishing website, duh) check out our written Q&A interview with DJ Smokey Wonder below (hint hint: listen-in while reading for maximum enjoyment). Enjoy, friends.
Storytelling Through Music: An Interview With DJ Smokey Wonder
Q: What drives you, creatively, to create music and share it with the people in your communities?
A: Like my homie José said, creating music is therapy. But what drives me is honestly just routine at this point. I get really anxious, grumpy, mean, useless feelings, etc. if I can’t touch music or do something creative at some point in the day. Fela Kuti said music is the weapon. To me it’s a weapon that is freedom, celebrating culture, life, something that is unique to us as humans, something that is even reverent. I’ve read a lot about what it means to make music, and to me, there is a great responsibility in the creation of music, even though I am about as far from a purist as can be.
Honestly, it’s just a necessity for me now. I really enjoy playing for the community because I believe in paying dues to the community first and providing spaces for people to explore their own creativity. And in some cases, some of the work I’ve been able to do with Thy Nguyen and Lee Barker of the People’s assembly has put me in touch with the grass root activism that I believe in here in Tacoma. I don’t think me DJ’ing changes the world or anything, it just makes it a little more bearable and hopefully contributes to our collective peoples and community.
I love that so many of the spaces and communities I work with really value and even pay their artists. Tacoma is actually really nice with that in comparison to other places I’ve lived, and I’ve been extremely lucky to be a part of it. But to me, I would probably do it for free in most cases (and in a lot of cases I do), especially for community organizations.
What type of music would you say you typically create?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I’ve been in this mode where I’m doing a kind of “automatic listening” – kind of like the psychic automatic writing. I love exploring “new to me” music, and finding roots of music, listening to genres in different geographies, and finding genres or modes of music that I haven’t listened to yet and also seeing how DJ’s from all over the world have built up their own respective DJ and music cultures, like Sonideros in Mexico, the Sound Systems of Jamaica, Picos in Colombia, DJs in Africa, and all over the world. Basically, the process for my auto listening is to go digging (in my own crates, virtually, or when time and money permits in record stores) and find what “sticks”.
I’m on a mission to go to more international record stores. Last Summer I was fortunate enough to go to a Sonidero (Mexican-style DJ) festival as well as one of the most renowned shops for cumbia/sonidero music in Mexico City called Discos Colombia Chiquita and was hoping to go to Medellín and Barranquilla in Colombia to learn more about their Picos, or sound systems, before COVID-19 hit. Anyhow, I like gathering a bunch of elements from the songs I hear – drums, weird sounds, melodies, little clips, old tv bits, etc. I really try not to overthink it too much and allow for as many coincidences and surprises as I can. I think of all these pieces of music as ingredients to create a sound. It’s like a puzzle to me, which is ironic because I don’t really like those 1000 piece puzzles, but I just try to find a way to put all these sonic pieces together in a way that makes sense to me.
There are definitely formulas I have but the fun for me now is trying to outsmart my own formulas, go left when I’m thinking right. It’s a way to challenge and break out of my own tendencies. So yes, I think my style is interpretive, based on whatever I might be listening to. In some cases, I might purposefully set out to make a Baile Funk song in the style of the young people making this music in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and then somewhere along the road I end up using some 90’s house elements or something, and then it just gets all mixed up because I can’t make either genre very well, which hopefully ends up making something unique. There are definitely a lot of failed experiments too.
Do you consider yourself a storyteller?
I definitely do, in some sense. My last album, Sangre, was built around the idea of a cosmic cholo looking for the mythical Aztlán homeland in the Perseus arm of the Milky Way in a lowrider spacecraft. Ese tipo (this dude) was listening to all these songs, which made up the album – a kind of soundtrack. To me, this concept was a creative vehicle to reimagine some of the rolas, or oldies, we would listen to as young people in the Southwest as Chicanos. I used to buy a lot of the compilation CD’s of “Lowrider Oldies” from the Albuquerque flea market and used those as some of the base elements of my songs.
Of course, I was also researching Aztlán, as well as the astrological basis of creation and origins from Native peoples, and yeah, basically it came together in some sort of storytelling fashion through the music. I was also fortunate to make a connection with my homie, Eduardo “Fondo” Trujillo, who lives in Eastern Washington, and he rapped in Spanish on a few of the tracks. The current collection of songs I’ve been working on for the past four to five months doesn’t quite have the same overall theme, but rather, each song has its own sort of unique elements of stories.
When DJ’ing, I definitely have been trying to have fun, taking the listeners to different places musically – like a geographical route, or earlier point in history – or just building/changing up energy and vibes. I think that’s the biggest challenge for DJs, and open format DJs: to build momentum, find a plane of energy, keep it there, relax it a bit, go to the peak, find another plane, go in a different direction, etc. I would imagine it’s like writing a novel or collection of poems, only with music.
One of the first times we saw you perform in Tacoma, you were leading a “Storytelling in Hip-Hop Music” music workshop with Write253. It was dope, of course. Can you talk a little bit about how storytelling plays out in the craft of DJ’ing?
That was one of my favorite workshops and I was very lucky to work with Write 253, Louder Than A Bomb, and some local b-girls/boys and share my love of Hip Hop history. I think there are so many possibilities to tell stories. The really great DJ’s who I admire, people like Craze, A-Trak, Qbert, Cash Money, Jazzy Jeff, and so on and so forth, are amazing and effortless at creating sets that feel monumental and unique. I’m only a slightly decent DJ so I’m constantly trying to find that in my own craft.
There are lots of stories, almost folklore, about DJ’ing and other elements of Hip Hop, and I aspire to be a Hip Hop historian and have memorized a lot of those. I think it’s important to share those Black and Brown stories of creation that have positively affected the lives of so many.
Last Summer, in a period of grief after losing my Dad and Uncle, I listened to one set by a Palestinian DJ, Sama, who just blew my mind. She told a story in 45 minutes through her selection and blending of songs that resonated entirely beyond anything I had ever heard. It was really healing. To know that she was sneaking into occupied Palestine, or Israel, to buy equipment and find records to do so was even more … not impressive but sort of … transcendent. It was just really powerful. It made me realize that music always has something to say, a background, a history, struggle, meaning. I started making this new collection of songs when I lost my Grandpa, and the music – really just the creative process – has been curative. It is me, you know, and all the fragments and voices of all the music that is encompassed in it, and hopefully those pieces of their stories and my own story are in it. My hope is to pay respect and homage to a lot of these different music styles and represent our collective stories.
What is one of the most important things making music has taught you?
I think the biggest thing is to just focus on the process. Love the moments when you get to create. Don’t worry about the end results so much. Find the truth in your mistakes. Seek enjoyment in your craft. Refine your workflow. And build-up those around you when you can.
Has being a father, or an educator, or any of the other hats you wear out in the world, affected your music?
Definitely. Once my son was born, my time to create became more focused. Like, I only have 30 minutes, so I better make it count! I noticed my workflow really improved, and ideas that I might have let float around in the ether before he was born (when I had a lot more time) would now be the driver for my sessions. If I can grab a whole hour now, I really put it to use! Working with community college students has also been a real eye-opener, not only do they keep me young and into new music, but they also are a reminder that life is, again, all about the process – especially making mistakes. I like to share that with them as much as possible. Music has also been my outlet for engaging in activism in the community, so to have a community and city like Tacoma be so supportive encourages me to participate more in the real things that matter!
How long have you been DJ’ing
I’ve been making music and DJ’ing since the early 2000’s, though my passion for it was there as long as I can remember. I was exposed as a young person to Hip Hop in the late 80’s, just before hitting my teens, and was definitely drawn to the sound of the bass and drums that to this day still draws me to many types of music. I knew I was in trouble musically speaking when I blew my Dad’s speakers, out of an obsession with the bass line on Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” and still loved it loud and boomy. I was fortunate enough to inherit and listen to, at a young age, a lot of the rock, soul, funk, and Latin Jazz my parents had in their collection, as well as finding my own tastes in hip hop, alternative music, etc.
How did you get your start making music?
It wasn’t until the early 90’s that I began recording radio shows, making old fashioned mixtapes from the radio and cassettes, and learning more about music. During this time, I was also exposed to graffiti and breakdancing – and the former gave me a lot of … life challenges. In the mid to late 90’s I was going to a lot of hip hop style conventions in the Southwest. Skateboarding, graffiti, and art were my main passions at that point. DJ’ing and beat making seemed like another world and one with a huge financial and learning barrier, but I was always collecting records and listening to music. I was also teaching myself various instruments at the time. There were record shops in El Paso and Albuquerque that were specializing in Hip Hop music as well as offering graffiti magazines and things like that. I was watching the DJ’s in the record stores, going to raves in the desert, discotecas in Juarez, México, as well as seeing a DJ in my town called Digumsmak, who would make copies of tapes of DJ crews like the Beat Junkies, X-men, Invisible Scratch Pickles, and more.
I was collecting records early on, probably at about 13 – 14 years old, around the early to mid-90s building pretty eclectic-ly off my parent’s collection. I had one old belt-drive, and with that I was emulating scratching – which I can guarantee was horrible. It was probably around that time that I really understood that a lot of the hip hop records I was listening to came from or were sampling older records. Actually, it was Rappin 4 Tay’s “I’ll Be Around” that sampled the Spinner’s song of the same name that really shook that branch for me. My Dad had that Spinner’s record, and I had the single from Rappin 4 Tay and would play the two back to back, on one turntable, just tripping out and vibing that they were able to sample that and reinvent the song that was popping for kids like me.
Around the early 2000’s I started experimenting more, making tapes with record samples, organs, keyboards, guitar, and other instruments on a Tascam 4 track. All my songs were definitely not a good kind of lo-fi. I got more into DJ’ing and actually investing in DJ and production equipment around 2005 – 2008. I started with records too, since that’s what I had. And then it just started off from there getting serious and playing little shows. That was also around the time I had moved up to the Northwest and started making my Tacoma connections.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on a batch of new songs – I have around 30 so far and maybe about one-fitfh of those are okay sounding. They started out about five months ago when I was making edits, which in DJ terms means taking an existing song, maybe stretching the intro’s out, or making versions without the second verses, or adding new drums or instrumentations to say take a R&B song and make it into an Afrobeat style, for example. A DJ can use edits as a tool to add their own stylistic flares, etc. It quickly jumped from that into just using elements of say, new songs, and flipping or recreating them into entirely new directions or sonic experimentations with the “automatic listening” process.
For example, recently I was listening to a lot of Habibi and Arabic funk, and then happened to hear a car driving by playing “It takes two to make a thing go right” – from the Lyn Collins “Think” song, and then the next day listening to a podcast about 80’s Hip Hop drum samples, and then thinking of some random vocal sample, or sound effect or something like that. I keep a mental list, write it down when I’m in front of my turntables, experiment with the different things I listened to, heard about, read, etc., and just see what works together. Then I take all those little elements, cut them up into pieces, and reassemble them into these music collages – there are lots of layers, lots of adjustments, lots of happy accidents. All of the songs on the mix for this show are the artifacts of that process.
Anything else you’d like to add before we wrap things up?
There are a lot of great local DJ’s, artists, and musicians, definitely way more than I can probably name, remember, or even know about – some established and some still learning or cooking up their craft – definitely go out and support their music and art! Check their live feeds, buy their art, support them like the local businesses they are, and show them the encouragement to throw down for their communities. Also, to those DJ’s and producers out there: just know I’m ready and willing to collaborate, battle, soundclash, and more with ya! Con mucho respeto y amor pa’ todos!
Smokey Wonder is a DJ, artist, and music producer living in Tacoma, Washington, who specializes in community events with Tropical and Latin music, Hip Hop, and more. He’s from New Mexico but has been doing his thing in the Northwest for over almost 10 years. The City of Tacoma and the communities have been instrumental in helping him grow his craft and he is forever grateful to Tacoma and the many people who have supported his music. Listen to more of DJ Smokey Wonder’s music on his soundcloud profile: @smokeywonder.