DJ Trackstar isn't your average dj. He's released over one hundred mixtapes in his career, lent his skills to seminars and demos for those who could use the help of an all star dj and that's just the beginning. He's the tour dj for one of the most important rappers ever, and has now joined the number one hip hop group out there today. We caught up with Trackstar to talk about his journey so far, linking up with Killer Mike, and the adventure he's been on since joining Mike and El-P in Run The Jewels...
Fingers On Blast: You've done more than a hundred mixtapes in your career. Some with amazing artists, and some with some creative concepts. Do you have any stand out favourites?
My favorite is probably Out of the Darkness: The Best of Organized Noize…ONP's music is so significant in my life, it's one of the tapes I put in the most time and energy on, Big Rube was the PERFECT host, and the timing of how and when it dropped just worked out amazingly--when I started it I was living in Cali, but through various circumstances I didn't end up releasing it until after I moved to Atlanta (which I had zero plans to do when I began work on the mix).
One Dollar Mix Volume 4 is another favorite, and probably the one I'm proudest of at the end of the day--it's from way back in 2005, before I had met or worked with any national artists. I picked out 50 of my favorite beats from '04, got 50 of my favorite rappers in St Louis to all record exclusive verses for the project over those beats, and blended them together in a continuous mix that kinda serves as a time capsule to an era in STL hip hop. It was definitely the mix that took the most work, and the St Louis scene is so important to me personally and professionally that I'm glad to have hopefully helped document that moment within our culture.
Fingers on Blast: Where did the name "The Rap Fan" begin?
I'm from Wisconsin…I never imagined I'd be meeting the artists I was obsessed with and spent hours listening to on my headphones, let alone work with them on any level. Even before I became Mike's DJ, let alone this RTJ experience, I used to think about what my 15-year old rap-obessed self would say if I told him about all the amazing artists I'd met and worked with, and kinda developed a pet phrase of sorts: "forget Trackstar the DJ's career, Gabe the Rap Fan has had a hell of a time".
On the first Mike/El tour in 2012, I wanted to make some merch to supplement my income on the road. Whatever I made had to be something that was true to myself, and I couldn't think of anything truer than my identity as a Rap Fan, so I put it on a shirt and it turned out others could relate. After a couple different tries at creating a logo, my STL compatriot Tech Supreme made the current version and I've been lucky to have the RTJ platform through which RAP FAN has gotten an awesome amount of direct exposure to like-minded individuals.
Fingers on Blast: Were you a track star in school?
I was indeed. I ran distance, from the half-mile to 5K--I wasn't world class but for most of my HS career I was one of the top runners in the city in my events, and after High School I ran a couple marathons. For what it's worth, at the very least I do think that without a doubt I was the top runner in my area with a daily weed habit. Ha.
Fingers on Blast: Tell us a bit about the Smoking Section and the part it's played in your career?
There's kinda a simple theme in how I end up working with a lot of the folks I've blessed to work with--they are my favorites, and then I try really hard to get down with them lol. Early on in the rap blog game, TSS became my main online destination, so when I started putting my mixtapes online I immediately started sending them to Gotty, asking him to post them. Eventually he started putting them on the site--I can be very persistent lol--and as time went on I slowly became part of the crew, TSS became an official presenter of my projects, and Gotty became one of my most trusted advisers. We put out the first couple of TSS-sponsored artist mixtapes with a couple of my favorite rap pals, Wafeek and Rockwell Knuckles, back in 07-08, and since then everything I've put out has the TSS logo. I'm proud to have been on the team for all these years, and to play a small part in helping TSS continue its run as one of the most respected sites in the online rap world.
Fingers on Blast: How did you get started with Killer Mike and Run The Jewels?
There's a looong version and a short version…I'll try to lean towards the short version here.
In early 2007, I read a Killer Mike interview while sitting in my apartment in St Louis (I wish I remember what publication/site, or even whether it was on- or off-line, but I have no clue) and at the end he gave his phone number. I assumed it would be a fan club line of some type, an answering service asking for your email or phone number to keep fans updated with news on Mike, so I called it out of curiousity…and he answered himself. I didn't really have a plan or agenda--I was expecting to just listen to the voicemail message--so I thought quick and proposed he host a "Best of Killer Mike" mixtape mixed by me, after explaining what a fan I was of his and telling him how I was spinning his underground records heavily at clubs in St Louis at the time. He agreed, and eventually we put out Anger & Ambition with TSS.
After we put out the project, I met Mike in person for the first time at A3C in 2009. I told him I was in ATL for the weekend and was available if there was anything he needed a DJ for while I was there…his reply was to ask if I could rock with him the next night opening up for Rakim. Unbelievable. From there, we did shows anytime we were in the same city, and at SXSW 2011, after doing four shows with him in one day, he declared I was his new tour DJ. The timing was great, as he had just hooked up with El-P, which led to R.A.P. Music and eventually RTJ.
Fingers on Blast: What has been the wildest moment in the RTJ journey?
There's been so many, but a sentimental favorite was opening up for Wu-Tang Clan in front of 20,000+ in Utah this past July. Wu was basically a religion for me in high school, and I was in Chicago at the last Rage/Wu show before the Clan left the tour during the summer of 97…I got my copy of Wu-Tang Forever signed by all the members that were there. I'd DJed for the GZA when we went on tour with him so it wasn't my first Wu moment but to be around (almost) the whole Clan was something special.
Fingers on Blast: Run the Jewels did a show in St. Louis in late November at the Ready Room, one that has since become quite famous for Killer Mike's introduction. Can you tell us a bit about what that was like in a city you once called home?
Even without the non-verdict coming down that evening, that was a crazy day. Shows in StL are always intense for me anyway, trying to connect with as many friends as possible, and then our bus broke down a couple hours outside STL and we got to the show incredibly late, so we were all already on edge. Thinking about and feeling the ramifications of that jury's decision while watching the news on the bus was almost too much to handle period, let alone after the day we'd had, but we hit that stage and Mike and El just did what they best and passionately expressed what they were feeling. They are both brilliant dudes with big hearts, and that came across in what they said, and I was humbled to be a part of that moment
Fingers on Blast: You've done a lot of demos and workshops on djing in a variety of settings. Can you tell us a bit about how you got started in that sort of work?
I read a couple books by William Upski Wimsatt ("Bomb the Suburbs" and later, "No More Prisons") which got me thinking about ways to put my intense obsession with hip hop to good use. In Bomb the Suburbs, Upski spoke with Wendy Day, who started the Rap Coalition in order to help educate artists on how to get the most out of their careers. I was really inspired by Wendy's story, and I decided to try to mentor teenagers who wanted to get involved in hip hop about the realities of the business, as well as give them perspective on the history of hip hop. I started a non-profit organization in St Louis that initially was meant to pair local MCs with youth and developing one-to-one mentoring relationships, but eventually turned into a weekly meeting amongst a tightknit group of dedicated artists and youth who wanted to rap, produce and DJ.
That went on for quite a few years, until I moved to California, where I connected with SessionsLA, which was and is an amazing organization that took what I was doing to another level. I was proud to be a small part of their work and meet some incredible young people through Sessions--one of my favorite touring moments has been when I brought Killer Mike to speak to them. Since moving to ATL I've been on tour a ton and haven't been able to work with the youth as much as I'd like, but I have connected with a program called Soul Food Cypher that is doing good work there.
Fingers on Blast: What keeps you inspired and motivated to work so tirelessly?
I've always tried my best to only take on projects and gigs that I honestly care about--that way it's not really work. It's cliche but it's so important to love what you are doing. I believe you get the best results that way, and even if the results don't come, you won't regret the time and energy spent. I'm incredibly blessed to have connected with Mike and El and (finally) made some semblance of a career out of this hip hop thing, but even if I hadn't, every moment before that lightning struck would have been worth everything I put into it. I wouldn't have regretted any of the broke years stumbling around trying to figure out what I was doing, throwing shows that 20 people attended and DJing five nights a week for low-to-no money, because I loved being a part of the local hip hop scene and I loved trying to help great music reach more ears. It was what I was passionate about, so it wasn't really difficult for me to put in the looooong hours and make the many sacrifices involved. Even now, seeing my StL guys like Tef Poe get serious recognition on a national level, and having Tef and Rockwell open for a few dates on the RTJ2 tour, is just as gratifying to me as playing Madison Square Garden or touring Australia.
Fingers on Blast: You recently performed at the Isle of Light festival in the Dominican Republic with Run The Jewels. Can you tell us a bit about that experience? Was it different from the average North American show?
For one, we usually can't see the Carribbean Sea from stage lol. The DR was an amazing experience--the show was great, the crowd was appreciative, and the people running the festival treated us extremely well. Oh and the food was amazing. Past that, it was incredible to walk around Santo Domingo with my wife and see some of the first buildings built in this hemisphere by the European settlers (the OG gentrifiers). I just can't believe I get to go to all these amazing places and do rap.
Thanks SO much to Trackstar for chatting with us. Keep up with the man himself here.