Long road, good music
by Jody Rust
Friday nights at the Golden Rule, Latwuan Kelly sits behind his laptop lining up a range of rock, country and hip hop songs for the local crowd.
As the local Disc Jockey, Kelly plays what the people want, but in his heart, he hears a different calling – a calling that takes his DJ job into producing.
“My goal is to be a producer. So I am at it every day,” Kelly said. “I’d rather be honest and tell people no, I am not going to DJ for you.”
The feedback Kelly receives as a DJ in Eagle Butte is mixed, “because I have the latest music, but I don’t always have it. Where I am, it’s hard to please everyone. That’s why I tell people I don’t plan on investing in equipment anymore. I would really rather focus on making music than playing it,” he said.
“You want to see me play music – Friday nights,” Kelly said, laughing.
“I was never really good as a DJ growing up. Every time I jumped behind a turntable it was a learning lesson. I didn’t realize how good I was getting. Back then, there were not that many DJ classes,” Kelly explained.
Kelly, who just turned 40 this past July, grew up in the San Francisco Bay area in California. When he was a teenager, he found out that the San Francisco police department ran a DJ class, and the guy that ran it was an officer for the police department.
The classes were aimed at getting youth interested in positive activities that would hopefully keep them from getting involved in gangs and illegal activities.
“The guy asked during the song, how many beats per minute; I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know. So I just guessed, and sometimes I got it right and sometimes I got it wrong. When it actually came time to get on the turntables, the guy said I was a natural. ‘You may not be able to count, but you have an ear for it’ he said to me,” Kelly explained.
“Mixing is all mathematical, believe it or not. I suck at math. I have more of an ear for it, even if it’s adjusting the bar on the turntable to find where your BPMs [beats per minute] match up. I listen to the song to find out how to adjust the pitch control. Sometimes it needs to go up, sometimes it needs to go down,” Kelly said.
DJ’ing and producing are not one in the same profession, but they are closely related. A DJ chooses songs already published by artists and plays them at events or in nightclubs. DJ’s often mix existing songs with tracks and loops from other songs, but do not create original music.
“DJ’ing is kind of hard – what you play depends on the age range, and there are a lot of older people who are going to want to hear stuff that was out before you were born,” Kelly said.
For anyone who wants to DJ, Kelly offered this advice: “People are hard to satisfy. More than one or two hip-hop songs might be too much for the older people – you have to tell yourself “are you ready for that?” But I think this will change, and the younger ones who grew up listening to hip-hop are not going to want to hear country.”
Different from a DJ, a producer actually uses a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to mix his or her own sounds into a song. Producers may use stems from other musicians’ works, or they may pay to use cuts from songs, but the work itself is considered original.
Kelly wants to move from being a DJ to being a producer.
“My biggest set-back is not really being able to have the money I need to move forward – basically a job, and not being able to update my equipment when I need it. If I could get a decent job here in Eagle Butte, I would stay and produce my music here. I could take care of my family and produce music,” Kelly said.
“My buddy Robyn Chasinghawk and I go to his house on some Saturdays. We have one song, but we have one more verse to go before we can mix it and master it – make it ready. It’s radio friendly. It’s been a long time coming, and we have been talking about music since a year or two after I moved here,” Kelly said, who has lived in Eagle Butte for just under 13 years.
The easiest way to produce music is to use all original materials. Kelly and Chasinghawk’s song is all original.
Kelly said you can buy hooks, and it is fairly easy to find the sounds and beats you are looking for without running into copyright issues.
“Back in the ‘80s they didn’t have samplers, your DJ was a sampler,” Kelly said, so many of the DJs were using cuts from songs without permission from the artists. Today, Kelly said that the laws are more strictly enforced so that the original artists receive royalties from the portions of their original music used by others.
When Chasinghawk and Kelly got together to lay their track, “the beat was already made; we sat tweaking the sounds, and then he laid down his intro and the first two verses,” Kelly said.
“The last verse he didn’t write yet. And if I know Robyn, it’s all going to come together, it’s just finding the time to do it, with us both having families — which is why we choose to do it late at night on Saturdays. That works best for the both of us,” Kelly said.
The Music Behind the DJ
“Music has been a part of my life for a long time. I have particular songs I listen to. They are memories, some good and some bad. A lot of them weren’t so good. I listen to a lot of 70s and 80s R&B, mostly slow, because those songs play a big part of who I am and how I grew up,” Kelly said.
Kelly grew up with the hip-hop as it emerged in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. I am not sure how to describe it.
“I love hip hop, for a lot of rappers in the 80s, the first song they heard was Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight”, but that was not my first hip hop song,” Kelly said.
“My first hip hop song was from a trio of girls on the same label as Sugar Hill, same year–’79. The girl group was called Sequence,” he said.
Sequence was group of young women from the south who Kelly said, “you could totally tell by the way that they talked. They had a southern accent with a big city feel, and the song was called ‘Funk you up’. It was really funky, because you could hear that base guitar, and that bass guitar made it funky, and that’s where I fell in love with hip-hop, Kelly said.
But before hip-hop, there was Motown.
“Growing up, Motown played a big part in my life. I knew right off the back I was a big fan of Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gay, Diana Ross and the Supremes. And then there’s a lot of other music related to Motown — Mary Wells,” Kelly said of his Motown influences.
“It was mostly the slow stuff I heard, but I didn’t realize that a lot of the other stuff that was not played on the radio, and the more I listened, the more I bought them – stuff from the 50s and 60s. To this day, I get a lot of hip hop, but I pick my oldies over hip hop,” Kelly said.
As I got older, I realized James Brown was a great influence too,” Kelly said, but not just on himself, but rappers and hip hop in general. “A lot of his music inspired and was sampled by 80s artists. If he knew then, what I know now about sample clearancey, James Brown would be a rich man” Kelly said.
Kelly said that the early 80s hip hop scene was before platinum chains and diamond incrusted rings. Rap wasn’t a big thing then, because a lot of people did not think rap would go as far as it did.
“It exceeded so much, that the Bay area, where I am from, saw something too – we have quite a bit of rappers, MC’s as some people call them, as rap evolved even more,” he said.
“While I was in junior high – there were quite a few rappers around, and the biggest one was Too Short. I mean he’s from Oakland, but he was the biggest one,” Kelly said.
It was a big thing in the SF Chronicle when he got signed on a big label out of New York. It was crazy, knowing at the time somebody we considered to be local, signed a contract with a big record. We call it Bay-Love, that’s when it started, you started getting local rap – people from different parts of SF putting together their own tracks. I used to go visit my cousin, Bill, who lived in the Army Street Projects,” Kelly said.
Bill and his friend Safalla or Stafalla, Kelly said, created their own song and passed out copies of it to people around the “PJs”, or projects.
“Army Street Boys was the start of a ‘hood song’, because it was based on that neighborhood. Now-a-days, there are so many of them out there, but they are all done differently from back then, because of what they had access to then and what they have now,” Kelly said.
These Motown musicians and hip hop entrepreneurs acted as role models and inspiration for Kelly, who marks major events with the songs that played in the background of each experience.
But of all the influences, none exceed that of Barry White, whose music inspired Kelly, but whose life history made an even greater impact on Kelly.
“I guess in a way I feel like Barry White,” Kelly said.
Kelly said he learned about White’s life in a biography shown on VH1 as part of the “Behind the Music” series.
“Berry White was a Crip from LA who had a rough side, but who also had a sensitive side. I feel the same way. I didn’t realize he was a Crip until he passed away,” Kelly said.
“My mom listened to Berry White. We [White and Kelly] didn’t have a whole lot in common, but we had some in common. He is from the streets. I ain’t no hood, but I am not a sucker either. And we both have a passion for music,” Kelly said.
Mixing the Music
“I always stayed open minded about what was out there. I was willing to listen to anything and give feedback,” Kelly said.
Kelly’s connection with music extends beyond a typical repertoire that might be expected of a black person in America and included both Hispanic and country music.
“I didn’t get my first taste in country music until I was in elementary school when I first heard Kenny Rogers the Gambler,” Kelly said.
“I remember that perfect because I had too much water that night and it was about 4 or 5 in the morning, and I had to pee really bad. My uncle Bobby was shaving and getting ready for his security job. “The Gambler” was on the radio station. Bobby was from St. Louise, and he played that country music station every night and morning. I didn’t know black people listened to country music until then,” Kelly said.
In addition to country music exposure, Kelly listened to and played a lot of Latino music.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that was predominately Latin. So my friends that I DJ’ed with, they all spoke Spanish, except for me, and some were mixed white and others black. It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned my dad was Spanish. I tried to learn to speak it, but I couldn’t,” said Kelly.
Kelly’s experience and exposure to an array of music influences his original mixes today.
Producing as a Career
“It would be nice to be on the same track as Dr. Dre — to be known as a music producer, creator, and maybe even an artist,” Kelly said.
Kelly said he would like to be able to find and produce new talents, and every other year put together his compilation of artists.
“I try to be a perfectionist, but nobody in this world is perfect, but I can try. It doesn’t matter if I am a world wide producer, but to be known well enough for people to come to me and have me produce their songs would be nice,” Kelly said.
Kelly wants his producing career to be more like his DJ’ing experience, in which people come to him and ask him to play at various events.
But even if he wanted to DJ parties and events on a regular basis, Kelly does not have the money to buy the right equipment.
“I don’t really want to do private parties anymore. I grew up doing that, but I am now in a completely different place than when and where I grew up. The music variety is different here, and I don’t always know what to play,” Kelly said.
Kelly’s heart is not in playing music by others, but making his own music. He spends his daylight hours focusing on his family, his Fridays DJ’ing, and when all about the house not a creature is stirring, he mixes his own beats.
“I don’t have a timeline, but I am focused. I have well over 60 to 70 drum patterns I have made,” Kelly said, and with the proper equipment and time, he said he could put out quite a bit of material.
As with any entrepreneurship or artistic endeavor, time, money and supplies are needed to grow the business or make the art.
“I get my entrepreneurial skills from my mom and dad, but now they are both force retired because they are sick. My dad had a janitorial business, and my mom was a beautician,” Kelly explained.
But being inspired by role models and having a desire to generate your art and make money from it is just a part of achieving success.
“You have gotta have a passion. You gotta be willing to put in the work it takes to do it. And if you have kids, you have to — without a doubt — make time for your music and your kids,” Kelly said.
“I sacrifice sleep to do music, because in the long run, I am doing all of this for them [my kids]. If they want to do music, then fine, but if they want to do something else, at least I set up something that will help them do their own thing. At least I can be inspirational for them, because they know how hard daddy had to work, they will know what it takes to run their own businesses someday” Kelly said.