"Keep Multi-Tracking on That Level": A DJ Harrison Interview
The Richmond, VA artist explains influential instructors, karaoke machine multi-tracking, the influence of Ohbliv, reel-to-reel recording, his Christmas record, and more.
Born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1988, multi-instrumentalist and producer DJ Harrison was surrounded by sound from the very beginning of his life. His father Lovander Shelton Jr.’s radio show on Magic 99 FM introduced listeners to funk, R & B, and soul that ranged from well-known acts to deep cuts. Harrison’s music aficionado mother also boasted a stellar vinyl collection of her own.
This steady diet of great music soon led to an ever-evolving fascination with all aspects of recording and distribution. “Just knowing what it takes to make a record from point A to Z,” he says. “It's kind of been my passion, even just from when I was a little kid.”
After his parents separated, Harrison’s mother took notice of his passion and helped him him build up an arsenal of gear to make his own music. First came a toy drum set before he started elementary school, then an amatuer keyboard a few years later. By the time he was six he added a trumpet to his collection and continued to endlessly immerse himself in an ongoing journey of self improvement.
When he entered Thomas Dale High School in the fall of 2002 he became part of the school’s drumline. The former director of bands Jason Morehouse and Harrison’s other teachers quickly realized he had perfect pitch - the ability to sing or play a desired note without a musical reference. Many instructors took note of his potential and played a role in his development, but nobody pushed him harder or helped him improve more than Mr. Morehouse. “Looking back on it, he was one of the most supportive people that’s responsible of me being who I am,” he says. “Seriously.”
The beginning of high school also marked a period of increased experimentation with home recording. Early efforts and cover songs were captured with an elaborate system of DIY multi-tracking on a dual tape deck karaoke machine. “One was the record deck and one was the playback deck,” he says. “You record the drums on the record channel of the tape. Once that's done, you rewind it, have the drums played on the playback tape, and then on the brand new tape you record the drums and the bass. And then you keep swapping the tapes and keep multi-tracking on that level.”
Harrison eventually upgraded to a TASCAM MF-P01 4-track and the recording process suddenly seemed like a breeze. He still owns the multi-track recorder today.
During his college years Harrison became a standout percussionist in Virginia Commonwealth University’s jazz studies program. In between gigs and practice he developed a deeper appreciation for producers like Madlib and the way they melded soulful records from a bygone era with modern rap production techniques.
It was his connection with friend and Richmond-based producer Ohbliv, however, that left an especially strong impression. In Harrison’s eyes, few people reimagined the sounds the past with the same potency. Ohbliv’s work still evokes a uniquely strong emotional reaction within him today.
Like Ohbliv, Harrison found the Roland SP-404 to be a good fit for his production process. “I use the 404 for a lot of looping and a lot of cutting, chopping, and kind of gluing in different samples and whatnot together - for effects and things of that sort,” he says.
The purchase of an MPC1000 in 2007 enabled him to further fuse live playing and sampling, especially with regards to his percussion. “It came with the stock drums and then it came with an extra memory card that I ended up putting a lot of my drum sounds on,” he says.
The ability to toy with the machine’s quantize feature for select sections of drum beats proved especially satisfying. “Instead of putting the whole thing to a grid and quantizing the whole thing, there's certain parts of the drum beat that you can quantize but then kind of have it be loose around the actual framework.”
Harrison likes to record his songs with two particular devices in his beloved Richmond-based home recording space Jellowstone Studio. One is the Otari MX-5050 reel-to-reel, a machine that immediately won him over with its impeccable sound. “It's more heavy duty - a little cleaner.”
Then there’s the Akai 4000DS 4-track, two-channel, stereo reel-to-reel tape recorder that has “a certain tinge to it.” You can hear music recorded with the 4000DS on solo efforts like 2015’s TapeCookies and the 2014 Butcher Brown release All Purpose Music. Though the reel-to-reel played a pivotal role in helping him achieve the desired sound for many projects, it cost him next to nothing. “I got the Akai machine from a thrift store for 30 bucks,” he says with a laugh.
In a addition to trying out different recording devices, Harrison is also open to thinking outside the box for album ideas. After pondering a collection of Christmas songs for some time, Butcher Brown bandmate Corey Fonville gave him the necessary extra push to make a yuletide record.
At first he only put A DJHarrison Xmas up at Christmastime and the liner notes still indicate that it will be taken offline at some point, but the album unexpectedly turned into one of the most popular entries in his entire catalog. It even caught the ears of one of his biggest inspirations.
After traveling to DC to catch Madlib in concert in 2019 he had the opportunity to hang out with the legendary producer for a bit after the show. To his surprise, Madlib had a deep knowledge of his catalog and started listing various entries with enthusiasm. One of the first things he brought up was A DJHarrison Xmas. Though flattered, Harrison was stunned. “It was one of the first things he mentioned,” he says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Bro, what the fuck?’ Wait a minute, wait a minute.”
Now, with his 2020 Sons of James project with Rob Milton still making waves, the impeccable Pen Eyes instrumental album recently out on Bandcamp, and the five-song ENCORE EP just released with his Butcher Brown bandmates, DJ Harrison shows no signs of slowing down or letting up. Whether sampling records, playing live instruments, or using a combination of both, it looks like he will continue to provide listeners with a broad range of solo and collaborative projects for many years to come.
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