Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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David 'Mr. DJ' Sheats: Kastin’ a spell

David 'Mr. DJ' Sheats
David 'Mr. DJ' Sheats David 'Mr. DJ' Sheats David 'Mr. DJ' Sheats & Jeff B - Mama’s Mustache David 'Mr. DJ' Sheats & Jeff B - Mama’s Mustache

For the past 16 years, we’ve all come to love; anticipate and appreciate OutKast. Blessed with keen ears for producing impressive genre-bending hit singles and delivering brilliantly insightful lyrics in classics like 'B.O.B.;' 'Da Art of Storytellin’;' 'Elevators (Me and You),' the Grammy Award-winning 'Ms. Jackson' and 'The Whole World.' It’s no wonder why OutKast is by far the most critically and commercially successful hip hop act in the world!

The group’s major collaborator, David “Mr. DJ” Sheats, also enjoys this success and wants to continue to show the world how he’s helped to influence the group’s sound. After attending two in-studio listening sessions for Mr. DJ’s latest musical offspring, Mama’s Mustache, along with his collaborator Jeff B. (nee Jeff Bowden), I had the opportunity to get to know a major player behind one of the most successful groups of all time. It’s an honour to hear how Mr. DJ wants to take his production to the next level; how he got involved with music and OutKast from the beginning and (yes), those infamous “Camp David” stories.

Place: 11th Street Studios; Atlanta, GA

“Man, it’s the birth of a new baby. It’s like a pill of relief for the world with all of the bad times and all of the hardships goin’ on. It’s just some good music for everybody to enjoy and to cope with the times.”

It’s a bit funky out this Sunday evening. The slight drizzle brings along some overcast skies, but the rain lets up before dusk. 11th Street Studios’s lobby is no different. It’s quiet. The walls and counter tops are covered in a morose grey tone. Not even the sight of a muted NBA playoff game on the 13” plasma by the receptionist’s desk can spark any excitement. Then, everything changes as Mr. DJ steps out of his silver Range Rover and into the studio.

In chill mode, DJ is dressed like he is any other day: a black leather biker’s jacket; black VANS trucker hat; a grey t-shirt; dark denim and brown patent leather sneakers. It’s an important day for him – he’s introducing some of his latest studio work to some of his closest peers. It’s Mama’s Mustache: a duo composed of DJ and Jeff B., his musical partner and collaborator, which meshes funk; jazz; soul; hip hop; electronica; psychedelica; rock and gospel. In come numerous bottles of Coca-Cola; Sprite; Hennessy; Kettle One Vodka; cranberry juice; paper plates; potato chips; deli sandwiches and cookies. It’s all love in the lobby. Everyone hugs and daps someone. DJ is clearly excited; he walks around and thanks everyone for comin’. “Doin’ alright man!” he tells me in his laid-back staccato drawl. “Happy to be here. Glad that you’re here, too!”

Jeff B., a studded-faced cool guy rockin’ a spiky Afro and a “Mama’s Mustache” signature t-shirt, is in his element. He introduces himself to everyone and shakes hands of some more familiar faces he knows. “I’m excited to be blessed enough to make music and to be able to create what I hear in my mind,” he says in the midst of rolling up a blunt. “It’s a blessing to be able to share it with the world. We’re excited.”

A guarantee hit is in the air – in addition to the incredible smell of good herb that fills the entire studio. The walls are lined in countless platinum plaques and gold single certifications (one of them being a double platinum honour for OutKast’s 1998 epic 'Aquemini'). Others plaques surround the classic accolade: Ludacris; India.Arie; Lil’ Jon and the Eastside Boyz; Nappy Roots; Lil’ Wayne; Usher and Nas. The love continues as everyone makes their way in a semi-circle to the control room: now a nice little party jumpin’ off for real. Everyone is spread out from the marble countertops to the leather sofa. Before long, the room fills up.

The music begins to knock out of the titanium – tinted speakers. The group’s title track hits; it’s sonic boom clap rhythm, matched by funky Cameo-like croons, carries around the room. “Her mama’s got a mustache/It’s thick like mine (like mine)/It’s thick like mine (like mine)/It’s thick like mine (her mama’s got a mustache).” “Job Hunting,” Mama’s Mustache’s first single, follows. It’s a trippy 808 clap set to bouncy piano coos and doo-wop ad-libs that responds to the economic crisis. “I guess I’ll go look for a job again/I had some bread but it’s funny how this money spends/My baby mama on my ass again/And I ain’t tryin’ work the trap, man/Man y’all must got somethin’/What? Y’all aint got nothin’/Man y’all must got somethin’/Man when will this shit end?” DJ’s lightning-quick staccato but Southern drawl cuts over everyone’s voice. “Shit, get another drink and check it out.” DJ sits on the floor, with a plate of strawberries, and nods his head. Hell, the room’s in a complete frenzy over DJ’s new sounds.

“Man, it’s the birth of a new baby,” DJ says with excitement. “It’s like a pill of relief for the world with all of the bad times and all of the hardships goin’ on. It’s just some good music for everybody to enjoy and to cope with the times.”

“Heavy Metal” comes on; DJ and Jeff, over pulsating fading drums, addresses having respect for another man with an attractive lady present. The do-wop ad-libs continue to shine on “Math.” “Midnight Train” brings along some elctro-funk. “Hymn,” a track DJ says is “powerful,” is a testimonial about worshipping God over screeching strings; hard-hitting drums and gospel choir hums. “Glue” is a futuristic, Prince squeal-like drum ‘n bass track about true love. “Teenage Love” is a sparse funk number on falling in love in high school. “Encore” brings some loud audience chants over rousing congas; speedy raps and some crunk-assed volume to round out the set.

DJ is really in a good mood. He moves over to the reclining seats near Jeff. DJ knows that he and Jeff are onto something. He reaches his digital camera over his shoulder; he snaps the crowd surprisingly singin’ along and noddin’ to the beat. Shit, the music quakes so hard, it just shuts off in the middle of the record. There’s dead silence in the room. It’s only a matter of time before the speakers start to rattle and bump again. At the end of the first session (the album gets played another three times before the night ends), DJ hands out comment sheets to everyone. He and Jeff are obviously proud of the work they’d done. “Who gives a fuck about the radio?” DJ shouts. “We underground. It’s been a long time since we had some good music – not to knock anybody else.”

“I was in the band; I used to do a lot of different things. I didn’t know that I had it in me to make beats. And now it’s been 15 years.”

And to think, the creative mind born David Sheats in College Park, GA on May 1, 1974 would never think that music would be his calling over petty crime. He keeps it real about his past life. He listens to everything from Culture Club and the Steve Miller Band to Curtis Mayfield and Prince (he’ll always point this out on his Facebook status with just the hook to the various acts’ signature tunes). On the other hand, a knuckle-headed teenage DJ gets his hustle on stealing cars. He even has a chop shop in his mother’s garage. “I used to do it all, man,” he says. “We would go out and leave at midnight. Me and all of my homeboys dressed in black, and we’d go out to some nice apartments. We would steal cars, drive them back in a row – three or four Volkswagen's at a time. We’d strip ‘em, get all of the equipment off of ‘em, take one car, drag all the rest of ‘em back down the street and leave ‘em on the side of the road. That’s how I made my living; it wasn’t a joke.”

In time, DJ faces the music. Then, it’s off to Denton, TX, a small community about 50 miles outside of Dallas, for the young car thief. A trip to the town’s local skating rink proves to be DJ’s rude awakening. He sees a local radio personality, known simply as “Dr. Rock,” spinning records. As “Dr. Rock” throws on each song, he would never look up at the crowd. He doesn’t even say a word over the mic. This impresses DJ tremendously. “He always knew by what records he threw on what type of control he had over the crowd,” he says in a focused state. “I could tell it was gonna be a dope record. He threw that shit on, turned his head and the crowd went crazy. It’s that power of music, you know, that really made me say, ‘You know what? I think this is what I wanna do.’ I wanna do music, you know? It was powerful.”

Music is in DJ’s blood – literally. Armed with a mismatched set of turntables (which within a year turns into a cool set of 1200s) now but still the impulse to steal cars, DJ makes his way over to “The Dungeon,” a red clay laden basement studio owned by his first cousin and Organised Noize producer Rico Wade. Sure, the rodents and vermin would crawl all over the drum pads and recording equipment; but to anyone that would step into “The Dungeon,” it would be another inescapable musical experience. Wade, at the time, is working with a duo of ever present talented MCs always at “The Dungeon” known as Andre and Big Boi, or OutKast. This is 1994, and the two teenagers are looking to strike a recording contract with LaFace Records. DJ knows this is his chance to pursue music. Persistent in his quest, DJ convinces his cousin to let him join the group. “[Rico] was like, ‘Shit, you gotta holla’ at ‘em,’” DJ says in a pumped tone. “So I holla’d at Big and Dre, and they were like, ‘Hell, yeah – let’s do it.’ We went on and kicked it from there.” Once OutKast’s debut effort, 'Southernplayalisticadillacmusik', is released later that year and the group hits the road, they quickly earn a reputation for their incredible live sets. It’s pure hip hop.

“We were kinda called ‘the new Run DMC’ once ‘Kast hit the road,” DJ says. “We were rockin’ shows where we had the interaction with the turntables, the stoppin’, startin’ and mixin’ songs. We would do all of that.” A year passes, and the group earns a platinum plaque and a solid reputation as a well-developed touring act. With a refined confidence in the group’s ability to make good music, OutKast transitions from being performing artists into bonafide producers. The group forms a production team, Earthtone III (ETIII), along with DJ, and the rest is history. Beginning in 1996 with OutKast’s sophomore effort, ATLiens, DJ goes on to assist in the production of 90% of the OutKast catalog. ATLiens is certified platinum and peaks at #2 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Charts. The album’s debut single, “Elevators (Me and You),” also ETIII’s first production credit, is certified gold; peaks at #11 on the pop charts and becomes a #1 rap single. DJ knows he helped to change the face of music with Andre and Big Boi. “I think we offered an alternative to everything else that Atlanta has to offer,” DJ believes. “It’s a lot of different music comin’ from here; Atlanta is a talented city as a whole. It’s more so about creating a marriage between the writing and the music. The words and music should definitely go together.”

This would be the beginning of a wonderful ride for OutKast. For DJ, it’s a case of being what he calls “often heard but rarely seen.” “I learned I actually had a gift that God had given me,” he says. “I didn’t even know that I had a gift to create music. I was in the band; I used to do a lot of different things. I didn’t know that I had it in me to make beats. And now it’s been 16 years.”
Place: Stankonia Studios, Atlanta, GA

“Whoever wants to work with me, I’m down. What’s happenin’? What y’all wanna do?”

Prince has Paisley Park. The Beatles had Abbey Road. Jimi Hendrix held it down at Electric Lady. But as Andre 3000 puts it at the beginning of OutKast’s fourth opus: “Stankonia is a place where all funky thangs come.” It’s about a month following the last listening session, but DJ feels more at home even though it’s still rainy outside this particular Saturday evening.

Set in a modest brick flat, the inner walls are plastered in a burnt orange shade and mounted with countless platinum accolades; magazine covers; Andre 3000’s signature artwork of nude Afro angels and a photo slideshow. Everything from Rolling Stone to NOW! That’s What I Call Music plaques hang in the first turn of the hall. The gold single for “Elevators (Me and You)” is a straight shot from the front door. A poster for Big, a stage production performed in conjunction with the Atlanta Ballet, hangs beside OutKast’s coveted five-mic honour in The Source for Aquemini. Both hang parallel to a VH-1 Hip Hop Honours plaque. The wall begins to sweat as the smell of good herb and Apple Black and Milds begin to fill the entire studio. It’s another means for a party.

DJ and Jeff dap and hug everyone. They sing along to the music. They rock to the beat and get crunk. In the back area of the studio, the smoke continues to rise.

Everyone is having a good time standing around. DJ rocks his signature flair: his trucker hat; dark denim; basic tee and his brown patent leather sneakers. Jeff is no different: “Mama’s Mustache” signature tee; skinny jeans and black and gold dunks. Their cups both run over as a photo slideshow rotates on the wall. It’s DJ and Jeff jumpin’; pointin’; makin’ quirky faces and just posin’. Behind the snapshots, a large plush “O” with wings is lined with purple cushions and displayed Courvoisier bottles. The studio speakers bang out the entire project four times this evening. Trays of buns, hot dogs and barbecue chicken lay on top of the piano and the tables. As the trash overflows, the plastic red Solo cups continue to fill up with liquor and beer from the kegs. It’s quite humid with a continuous thick cloud of smoke everywhere. Grand Hustle president Jason Geter, singer/songwriter D. Woods and Big Boi all stop by the studio to show DJ and Jeff some love.

DJ, in his own words, is super crunk. “It’s really gratifying because now I feel like it’s a chance to let people know kinda not necessarily where the sound came from, but it was an incorporation of all three of our vibes that made the OutKast sound,” he says. “And I just want to, you know, kinda accent my contribution to that. I’m glad that this music, you know, is bringin’ that across for everybody. Hopefully, they will enjoy it as much as they enjoy the OutKast music or anybody else’s music that we might’ve done.” The Dungeon Family member has definitely been able to spread his musical wings. As a pivotal member of ETIII for six years (as well as the now defunct Aquemini Records, which spawned the careers of Atlanta acts Slimm Calhoun and Killer Mike), DJ, along with Andre 3000 and Big Boi, has gone on to sell over 60 million records worldwide with seven albums. Also a double Grammy Award winner for his work on “Ms. Jackson” and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, DJ has collaborated on projects for Mos Def; Eightball and MJG; Goodie M.O.B. (“They Don’t Dance No Mo’” and “Black Ice (Sky High)” are courtesy of DJ); Lenny Kravitz; Bubba Sparxxx; Field MOB; Rich Boy; Common; No Doubt; Mystikal; UGK; Cherokee; Backstreet Boys; Me’shell NdegeOcello; Bobby V.; Da Backwudz; Yung Joc; Trick Daddy; Snoop Dogg and Backbone. Humbled by his success and confident in his original flavour, DJ’s six year-old production company, Dungeon Ratz, and record label, Camp David (which launched in 2008), seeks to bring forth a new musical vision that blurs genres and has no collaborative limitations.

On DJ’s YouTube channel, dungeonratzproductions, viewers can tune into his behind-the-scenes special, The Camp David Chronicles. On the show, DJ takes everyone on a tour of his retreat; the studio sessions; his life and his inspiration behind his collaborations. Camp David, according to DJ, is an experience within itself. Taking its name from the retreat where the President of the United States goes to chill and relax, Camp David is the studio; creative hub and inner sanctum in which DJ also calls home. “It’s our place,” DJ says. “It’s where we reside; it’s where all of the magic happens. It’s secluded, private and where your cell phone doesn’t work. It’s just a place for the grown and sexy to come hang out and catch a good vibe. It’s all activities: fishing and swimming. Most people that come don’t return for 24 hours at least.” Jeff agrees. “It’s like a real camp,” he says. “When you go out there, you got to bring your sleeping bag.”

DJ’s cohort, Jeff B., is one of the initial acts with Camp David, along with Warner Bros. signee Ms. Brown and Shawty Redd. Also a product of Southside Atlanta, Jeff originally entered music as an R&B vocalist. Raised on the ‘90s era styles of Boyz II Men and Jodeci, he quickly found his niche for singing and songwriting. “I flirted with singing and found a passion for it,” he says as he seals the blunt. “The music just kinda presented itself to me as I was finding out more about myself and exploring who I was.” Now that Jeff is aligned with DJ, he considers it a bold move unlike any other. “It’s a blessing to work with great people: people that inspire music. We learn a lot from each other, man. I learn so much about the way that songs are put together. I came from a different side of the game; so when I got with DJ, I learned a lot about hip hop and rap. It’s about layering sounds and just the way different people make music. Together, we just have a great chemistry.”

As for DJ, the feeling is quite mutual. “I kinda got all of that flipside from Jeff: the harmonies; notes; strings and all of that, you know? We kinda incorporated it all together and came up with this ‘Mama’s Mustache’ sound we got goin’ on.”

DJ is about as dedicated to quality as they come. He’s so proud, he wants to remain independent. He looks forward to taking the stage for Mama’s Mustache, inside Atlanta and out, and sharing the songs with various crowds. Still, music is DJ’s first love. No job is clearly too big or too small for DJ. The ever-evolving student of music just wants to create. “I just love people who inspire me, man. You have to be yourself but musically inclined at the same time. I’d like to work with Prince one day. Other than that, whoever wants to work with me, I’m down. What’s happenin’? What y’all wanna do? God willin’; we hope that’s what it is.”
Words Christopher Daniel

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