Visualizing the Process of DJ Harrison

A look at the celebrated multi-instrumentalist and producer's hidden YouTube gems, from live practice sessions and MPC1000 beat sets to a combo cover of The Roots and Gang Starr.

Born the son of a radio DJ father and music aficionado mother, Richmonda, VA’s DJ Harrison grew up in a household full of ‘70s and ‘80s vinyl records that encompassed a broad spectrum of of genres. Eventually inspired to make his own music, he first picked up the violin in his younger years before advancing to the high school drumline. As a college student he took courses in the Jazz Studies program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

During this period of artistic growth Harrison also learned how to play other instruments while developing a deep appreciation for sample-based music. As his comfort level and proficiency with live playing increased, a light bulb went off. “It got to the point where I realized that, ‘Yes, I can sample these old records and make beats out of them,” he told Eamon Whalen in a 2017 Bandcamp Daily interview. “‘But I can also go back and replay the samples with live instruments and re-chop those. Or, I can chop up an old record and replay the chops with live instruments.’ There are so many avenues to be explored when there’s live instruments in the equation.”

Those looking for a sampling of his early work would do well to check out his Vault Series albums, where Harrison compiles hundreds of unreleased songs he recorded from age 19 to 24. A combination of live playing and sampler mastery, listening to these tapes gives the listener a sense of how much labor and love goes into every one of his productions. Cuts like “Africa,” “Commuter's Computer,” and “Elevators” from VAULT SERIES: #1- Good Vibes. were recorded 12 years ago, but they remain just as impressive as his later releases with Liquid Amber, Street Corner Music, and Stones Throw.  ‎

After laying down the bulk of his early work at his mother’s house (affectionately known as The Den), Harrison now resides and records in Jellowstone—a home studio that he shares with his Butcher Brown bandmates.

Much like the Vault Series, Jellowstone’s YouTube presence serves as a valuable digital archive of Harrison’s evolution and production process. For starters, dig through the back catalog of videos and you’ll find a 36-second snippet of him annihilating the pads on the Akai MPC1000 during a live in-studio beat set.

Another brief snippet captures the impeccable skill and energy he brings to his tracks while laying down live keys. The framing of the shot, which makes it look like Harrison is being watched through a door, adds to the allure of his performance.

If these clips wet your appetite for a lengthier showcase, there’s also a 22-minute Jellowstone live set where Harrison catches wreck on a variety of samplers and keyboards. The gritty, VHS-like video quality couples well with the smooth sounds emanating from his studio.

DJ Harrison’s YouTube archive isn’t just limited to live beat sets. Dig a bit further and you’ll also find beautiful MPC1000 and keyboard practice sessions for his 2013 California tour.

With so many other videos to explore, it would be easy to overlook his incredible covers—like this nod to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation.” Harrison’s remake respects the original while simultaneously turning it into something exciting and new.

And he isn’t afraid to take risks when covering another artist. The mesmerizing, unexpected pairing of Gang Starr’s “Soliloquy of Chaos” and The Roots’ “The Hypnotic” is a prime example, as the two songs fit together perfectly. Unfortunately, these covers are only available on YouTube at the moment.

Though Harrison’s quality output over the years eventually led to the higher profile Stones Throw Records release HazyMoods in 2017, the increase in visibility didn’t make him abandon his tried and true methods. The entire LP was recorded to tape in the Jellowstone living room.

Today, his music continues to catch the right people’s ears. Issa Rae’s HBO show Insecure recently featured “Things I Should Have Said,” a Georgia Anne Muldrow-assisted track from his Sons Of The James collaborative project with Rob Milton.

With 4,000 people looking the song up on Shazam right after the episode aired, there’s likely a significant number of people exploring DJ Harrison’s work for the first time. While diving into his newer recordings is certainly encouraged, hopefully new fans will also take the time to explore his rich, expansive back catalog.

Thanks for reading, see you on Friday!