Detroit, MI has been a cultural hub for music since Motown came into style in the late 1950s, and that status has stayed true since hip-hop has claimed dominance over popular music. Many of hip-hop’s best and brightest, whether they be mainstream (Eminem, Big Sean, Xzibit), underground (Royce da 5’9″, Guilty Simpson, Elzhi), or everything in between (J Dilla, Dej Loaf, Danny Brown), rep Detroit City, but even given names as significant as those, Detroit is still chock full of hungry up and comers with talent and something big to prove; and DJ Soko is giving the next generation of Detroit’s finest a place to flex their muscles.
Born Eric Reynaert on July 9, 1985 in Seoul, South Korea, Soko has been a major player in the Detroit underground for years, both by himself and as a member of supergroup The Left with producer Apollo Brown and MC Journalist 103. A DJ in the traditional sense, akin to other scratch masters like DJ Premier, Jazzy Jeff, or Kid Koala, he can work the 1’s and 2’s with the best of them, and his debut solo project The Domino Effect, released via Fat Beats and his own imprint Left Of Center, is a testament to the man’s DJing and curatorial skills. Detroit MCs the likes of Guilty Simpson, Nolan The Ninja, Journalist 103, Stryfe, and more are peppered throughout, with production from Apollo Brown, Def Dee, Nolan, and Newstalgia, and many others; all tied together by Soko’s scratches and cuts. We got the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about his inspirations, the future of Left Of Center, and why he thinks Detroit doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
WatchLOUD: Where did you get the name DJ Soko?
Soko: “Soko” is actually short for South Korea. I don’t use it as an abbreviation, but coming up I went to a high school where there weren’t a lot of Asian kids; I would often get asked “what ethnicity are you?,” so one time when I told somebody what ethnicity I was, word got around and eventually word got around that I was also a DJ. I told one of my friends that I was struggling to come up with a DJ name, and they said “just go with DJ Soko. It’s true to your identity, it’s short and it sounds good,” so I’ve been running with that since about 2001.
DG: It’s catchy, so you’re on the right track. For me, whenever I hear someone’s name, it’ll take me 2-3 times to fully internalize a name, but ever since I first heard “Soko,” I’ve internalized it.
Soko: That’s the kind of effect I was going for.
WatchLOUD: So many DJs have cited Juice as their inspiration, but who/what inspired you to get behind the boards?
Soko: DJ Premier. Between Gang Starr, the scratch hook he did on “Full Clip,” the scratch hook he did on “Unbelievable,” the ones he did on The Lox records and “D’ Evils” for Jay-Z on Reasonable Doubt, there’s just so many scratch hooks that Preemo did that inspired me to learn how to scratch. I didn’t know about the other technical aspects that came with DJing at the time, like blends, mixing, beat juggling; I didn’t know about any of that, and the reason I learned was because of Preemo. Eventually I learned how to scratch, and then I learned how to mix and do everything else, but DJ Premier was the person who caught my ear and made me even want to do this in the first place.
WatchLOUD: How did you learn to scratch?
Soko: Through a lot of trial and error. Through a lot of doing things the wrong way and sounding horrible, like little tapes of myself scratching. I started when I was 15, so when DVDs finally came out, I was also buying instructional DVDs and practicing and listening to them. Also just listening to records; when you find out what a particular scratch sounds like, you can go back to a Jazzy Jeff record or a Premier song or an X-Ecutioners song and compare it to what you’re doing and know if it doesn’t sound remotely close to what you’re doing, then you’ll know you’re doing the scratch wrong.
WatchLOUD: What was the first record you ever learned how to scratch on?
Soko: Damn. It was a song on X-Ecutioners “Expressions” because I hadn’t purchased any break beat records or instrumental records yet, but there was a song on [Executioners] album that had an instrumental vibe to it because they were doing live instrumentation with the turntables. Then came DJ Rectangle break beat albums, 12” singles that had instrumantals on them and learning to scratch on those.
WatchLOUD: Dj Rectangle is a good choice.
Soko: It’s every DJ’s go-to break beat album that they buy.
WatchLOUD: Talk to me about Domino Effect. Where did the title come from? Because when I first heard about the record, the title was what grabbed me.
Soko: I appreciate that, man. I wanted to make the project be cohesive and have a loose concept to it, but not be a concept album; not like good kid, m.A.A.d. city. I mean, GKMC is a great album, but I didn’t want to make it a concept album per se’ , though I did want to have a loose underlying theme to it. This goes back to a conversation that me and Apollo Brown had a few years ago; I was talking to him about how after our group The Left came out with our debut album, I wanted to do a project of my own, much in the same fashion of Tony Touch’s Piecemaker album, Duck Season by DJ Babu, Soundbombing 2, and I wasn’t sure what to call it. That was my one dilemma; I knew all the MCs I wanted on the project, all the producers, and I knew how I wanted to construct it. I was telling [Brown] that there’s different things in my career that I’ve accomplished that I’ve wanted to accomplish over time, and it seems like one thing comes after the other and all this energy builds up like a domino effect, and that’s how I view anything like DJing or anything that you’ve got to build off of positive energy. I still couldn’t think of a name, and [Brown] told that “You should call it that, because you pretty much summed up everything about this project and the way you’re moving with your career right now.” He inspired me to go with that, so that’s the name I chose.
WatchLOUD: So we have Apollo Brown to thank for the album title? (laughs)
Soko: I mean, I had a big part in that, but musicians and artists, whether you’re a visual or audible artist, we all talk and bounce ideas off each other, and in that moment that idea is what sparked me to call it that, so yea, shout out to Apollo Brown.
WatchLOUD: It’s obvious that you’re deeply embedded in the world of Detroit hip-hop, between Apollo Brown, and Nolan The Ninja, and Guilty Simpson, who you have on the album. Talk about your imprint Left of Center and any artists you’re helping on the come-up.
Soko: Left Of Center came about almost on accident. When I talked to Fat Beats they said that they could put out the project under distribution, but that I would need to come up with my own vendor/imprint to have it filed under. So I came up with the name Left Of Center and decided that if I’m gonna do this for Domino Effect, then I really need to take it and run with it full speed. Nolan The Ninja is the next artist I’m putting out; after Nolan, I wanna put out Stryfe, who’s working with a Detroit producer called Foul Mouth, as well as Jae Musick, a dope MC from Detroit who’s also on Domino Effect. I’ve been talking with Noveliss from Clear Soul Forces to put out his solo album he’s working on. Another man who deserves a lot of credit for helping me with my label is Dart Adams from Boston; he’s basically my right-hand man in terms of A&R and bouncing ideas off of. I don’t have any other outside input as far as Left Of Center is concerned except for Dart Adams.
WatchLOUD: Detroit is very important in the world of hip-hop, so how do you feel artists like Eminem, DeJ Loaf, J Dilla, pretty much anyone who’s got significant mainstream play, do you feel like they’ve done a decent job of representing what you think Detroit has to offer?
Soko: Absolutely. The one thing I can say about Detroit hip-hop is that it’s soulful, but it’s also very diverse. You can pinpoint different sounds that are true and specific to Detroit, but I don’t feel that you can always pinpoint *one* specific Detroit sound. I feel like because we’re not East Coast, we’re not down South, we’re not West Coast that we take that and kind of run with it and just don’t give a fuck, and we don’t have to consign ourselves to sounding “like this because I’m here.” If you compare DeJ Loaf, Dilla, Eminem, or Guilty down to a Nolan, none of those guys (and woman) sound exactly alike. We’ve got a lot of soul in Detroit, but we’ve also got a lot of diversity.
WatchLOUD: Yea, because one of my favorite artists Black Milk, who’s also from Detroit, he’s always given me that same kind of feel. He’s got soul, but he’s also interested in electro and techno as well. There’s always been so many sounds coming out of Detroit and the Midwest in particular; you have someone like Freddie Gibbs from Gary, Indiana, who people are always trying to box into a particular category, but just like there’s no particular Detroit sound, there’s no particular Indiana sound, especially because Michael Jackson came from Gary, too. I think the Midwest is one of the most interesting areas that hip-hop has touched, and I appreciate everything you guys do because of that.
Soko: Thank you. We’re slept on and very conveniently not mentioned in the overall conversation of Hip Hop. Not really discussed alongside West Coast, down South, and East Coast hip-hop. I don’t really know why, especially since we’ve been running Europe and the overseas circuit for years, so pay us our respect, that’s all I say. We just want to be given the credit where it’s due to us because of our worldwide impact. We’ve had some of the greatest artists in the history of music, not even just hip-hop.
WatchLOUD: Exactly, going all the way back to Motown. Y’all have been holding it down for decades.
Soko: Yea, but at the end of the day, you can’t really be mad at that. Like if you’re from New York, you might have some bias towards your region, or if you’re from LA you might have bias, so we have our bias, but we have the stats to back it up.
WatchLOUD: What do you feel is the difference between cut-and-scratch DJs like yourself and “press play” DJs on the EDM circuit?
Soko: I mean, they’re polar opposites. And for the record, I don’t just cut and scratch; I can mix and blend and DJ a party, but the main difference is musical knowledge as well as technique and skill. I’m sure there are a lot of EDM DJs that have a lot of skill and knowledge and technique, but it seems that the highest paid ones are the one that aren’t really putting in as much work. Obviously, you can stand behind the turntables and CDJs and dance all night without *actually* DJing, so I’m pretty sure they put the playlist together, which requires some work, but it’s just opposites. I feel the stuff we do as DJs is much more hands on.
WatchLOUD: I agree. I feel like there’s a difference between someone like yourself, who’s incredibly skilled in all of the technical aspects of DJing, and someone who just puts playlists together. I look at DJs of that variety solely as curators, and while you’re both curators, like you said earlier, there’s more skill and work being put into cutting, scratching, mixing and doing what DJs do.
Soko: I would definitely agree with that.
WatchLOUD: Detroit or otherwise, who are three of your favorite DJs at the moment?
Soko: House Shoes, repping LA and Detroit. J Rocc from the Beat Junkies, and I can’t pick just one particular DJ or producer from the crew, but I really like everything that the whole Soulection crew is doing, like Joe Kay and AbJo and all them dudes. Their Soundcloud is just crazy. Kaytranada I really like, even though he’s more of a producer, but he does DJ; I got to catch him live for Boiler Room when he and House Shoes and Danny Brown were performing. But Kaytranada is one of my favorite producers and DJs.
WatchLOUD: [Kaytranada] recently played AfroPunk about 3-4 weeks ago; he was the headliner on Sunday night. I had heard his music before, but he’s amazing. He’s someone who’s in the middle when it comes to an EDM DJ pressing play and someone who actually knows how to DJ, so seeing that was really cool.
WatchLOUD: Anything else you want to throw out there?
Soko: My album [Domino Effect] came out on August 21, it’s still out on CD, vinyl, digital, iTunes, ughh.com, fatbeats.com. Shout out to Fat Beats, shout out to Nolan The Ninja, Pat 313, Dart Adams, Paramita Sound, the whole Detroit and New York.