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The beautiful thing about art and music," reveals 37-year-old renaissance man Djinji Brown, "is that you can redefine or reinvent yourself by trying some different shit."
He should know. A recent Miami transplant, Brown has perfected the art of reinvention over his musical career. Starting out playing in a hardcore band, he went on to engineer for hip-hop legends during the mid-Nineties, write poetry, and, now, DJ and produce house music for Osunlade's legendary label Yoruba Records. With each creative turn, he has deftly drawn on his past knowledge and experiences to bring something fresh to the table, but with the same down-to-earth b-boy aesthetic.
Brown, born in Atlanta, comes from heady stock: His father, Marion Brown, is a renowned alto sax player who recorded with the likes of John Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard during the avant-garde jazz era. The younger Brown's mother was a student of anthropology, specifically Afro-Caribbean culture. Djinji grew up in the Bronx during the impressionable Eighties, and resided there until the sunshine and a new outlook brought him to Miami three years ago.
"I wanted to get my beats and DJing tight without being under the critical eye, and needed to go somewhere new and start fresh," Brown explains. "Underground is so critical; you're fighting for crumbs. I was in the same circles, but it was like they got the ball and there's no next on this game..... I'm like, fuck engineering for y'all — I want to hit you with some beats."
Since his move, following up on his acclaimed 2001 LP, Sirround Sounds (7-Heads), Brown has aligned himself and released material with Yoruba, one of the world's top house music labels. On the DJ side, he has teamed up with the equally world-famous Aquabooty crew, South Florida's fierce defenders of deep house. And he has taken up residency at Touch Restaurant on Lincoln Road every Thursday, as well as started his own Sunday-night sessions in the Aché Lounge at Uva 69, at NE 69th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.
The hallmark of Brown's sound? Soul. It comes through in his sets, no matter if he's playing James Brown or salsa 12-inch, Brazilian jazz, Pete Rock, or Bugz in the Attic. "I play the juxtaposition. It's like plátanos and collard greens; I'm serving dishes as well," he says. "A guy in a business suit came up to me once and asked about this Fela Kuti [record], 'Suffering and Smiling,' that I was playing. Here's a guy that looks like nothing in his world would want to be around some African music, but something in his ear said, 'That's incredible.' That's the beauty of it and what it's all about."
But first there was hardcore. In the mid-Eighties, Brown began as a "screamer," a vocalist for a group called Absolution. Around 1987 he met engineer Jerry Williams, who worked with early hardcore gods like the Bad Brains and the Cro-Mags, and was invited to sit in while he bounced some raw, four-track Bad Brains recordings. Brown was inspired, so he enrolled in New York's Institute of Audio Research.
He began to earn his studio chops as an engineer for some of the greatest rap acts of all time, between working as an intern, a freelancer, and a staff engineer. The list includes A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Notorious B.I.G., Big Pun, the RZA, and Eric Sadler of Public Enemy.
"My most memorable experience was with Pete Rock & CL," he reminisces. "I saw T.R.O.Y. being made. I saw Heavy D come to tears; I was so in awe, it was like watching Muhammad Ali in his prime. Watching Pete Rock construct a track with a box of 3.5-inch floppies, and CL coming in with his notebook — I'm getting goose bumps right now."
Brown worked mainly out of Green Street Studios in Soho, but also at the infamous D&D Studios, home of the Gangstarr/Boot Camp foundations and the birthplace of countless classic hip-hop records. "D&D was hardcore. I had to earn my respect through shooting pool with cats, almost having fights, through not backing down. I had fun, but it was real thugged-out, ghetto fun," he says. "M.O.P. was the most fun; I worked on the Warriorz album but left D&D during that album because I got drove damn near to drink. I never got one ounce of credit on that album but was there with Lil Fame when he was learning the MPC [drum machine]. Billy Danze used to fuck with me, but you had to earn your respect, and engineers always got chumped."
By the late Nineties, after proving his mettle, Brown was producing tracks for underground hip-hop acts such as Unspoken Heard and the Jungle Brothers. There was even an entire album for freestyle champ Supernatural, for East West Records, that was never released.
Now Brown is about house. His recent production catalogue, including The E.A.R.S. (Electronic Afro Rhythm Suite) EP and a stellar remix for São Paulo's Nomumba, has been influenced by Yoruba's label head, maestro Osunlade. That is to say, deep house layering and spiritual melodies. But if you listen to the tracks closely, they all still keep that Brown boogie. "Osunlade had said, 'Don't lose your intuitiveness or think too hard with the house music, because it won't be funky anymore,'" Brown says. "When I got into house music, I started listening to Ron Trent, Rich Medina, Little Louie Vega, and King Britt. But I knew as a producer, I didn't have the musical chops to be playing that type of stuff. Then I realized that half those guys don't even play that shit; a lot of producers were hiring musicians, and then the learning process came again."
These days Brown is staying away from straight sampling and live instruments, instead working on computer-based programs such as Logic and Reason, while playing his own bass and horn lines that recall his hip-hop roots. He's planning on turning some of this new music into a beat album, but without MCs, more for the soulful, boom-bap faithful.
And with his Sunday-night engagement at Uva 69, he's trying to bring positive change to his surroundings. "My daughter had said to me: 'I have a feeling you're going to bring a lot of life and soul to your new neighborhood.' That's what we do at the Aché lounge party," he explains. "We promote our spiritual tradition in a fun way, and it's part of the revitalization of this neighborhood."
It's an uphill battle, but Brown has never backed down from a challenge.
"To use a martial arts analogy: You should know what it's like to lose," he says. "If you don't have the tenacity to fail and get back up, you're not going to succeed. The best lessons to learn are when you fuck up, when you clear a dance floor, or when you're boxing and you drop your glove and get knocked up. You've got to get back up again."