A Classic Interview with Global Beatmaster DJ Nickodemus on the Roots of New York City’s Underground Dance Scene
This interview originally appeared on Junkmedia.org. John C. Tripp is the Editor of Mundovibe.com
By John C. Tripp
Within the rarefied group of DJs that cut their teeth at New York City’s weekly Giant Step parties of the mid-1990s is Brooklyn-based DJ and Producer Nickodemus. At Giant Step, Nickodemus proffered his eclectic mix of acid jazz, hip hop, house, reggae and abstract beats to an appreciative crowd that was as varied as his music: heads, hipsters, hippies and aficionados all together under one vibe. The Giant Step period was a unified and uplifting one for the New York City scene in the early 90s, before Giuliani made it a crime to dance. When Giant Step’s weekly parties came to an end (since rechristened to much acclaim with DJ Ron Trent), Nickodemus hooked up with the Organic Grooves crew and DJ’d many a one-off event. He also began producing music with collaborators Carol C, Jay B and Osiris.
At Organic Grooves, Nickodemus befriended Mariano, an Italian percussionist, forming a friendship and musical partnership that seems fateful. The two envisioned an event that would represent their musical sensibilities of mixing styles and chose the then-neglected banks of the Hudson River for “Turntables on the Hudson,” an outdoor summer party that vitalized the New York club scene with its uplifting and eclectic mix of house, Afrobeat, salsa, dub and hip-hop. “Turntables on the Hudson” has entered the pantheon of the must-attend parties, hosting an uplifting and joyous music selection by DJs and live music with a regular crew that includes DJ Nat Rahav, Mariano, percussionist Nappy G and special guests such as DJ Osiris and the Jinga Pura Samba Drum Troupe.
But “Turntables on the Hudson” is only half the picture; for Nickodemus, there’s also his work as a producer and label cofounder. In 1999, he founded Rhythm Love records with Nat Rahav, featuring their production work and as well as that of others who comprise the Rhythm Love family of DJs, producers and live musicians. The label launched “Turntables on the Hudson,” a compilation featuring the same uplifting, eclectic vibe as the party. There have been a select number of 12″ singles, an EP and two additional volumes of “Turntables on the Hudson,” the latest just released in November. The much anticipated compilation features songs by NYC artists who have contributed to the event, including Osiris, Ticklah, Zeb the pleb, BellHops remix of Groove Collective and new RhythmLove artists Little Jay, Metaprofessor and Puerto Rico-based band Local 12. The CD also features some of the party’s favorite anthems, including Carla Alexandars “Simba” and Raj Guptas remix of Robin Jones’ “Royal Marcha”.
Nickdemus also contributed to DJ Ron Trent’s debut mix CD on Giant Step records with the 12″ single, “Free Souls”, featuring the phenomenal talents of Mino Cinelu, Mitch Stein and Jay Rodriguez and the co-production of Osiris. Nickodemus and Osiris have also recently remixed the song “En Fuego”, featuring Marc Antoine with Troy Simms on guitar. On top of this, Nickodemus has been touring with Mino Cinelu to Europe and Africa as well as DJing a regular gig at Vienna’s Sunshine Club.
With all of this buzz of activity, I had a surprisingly casual meeting with Nickodemus at his home studio in Brooklyn’s Park Slope and then later at Bergen Street Beat, the cafe he is a partner in. Talking music with Nickodemus is a history lesson in New York City’s recent club culture, since he’s been active on the scene since the 1980s, when his sister snuck him into shows at the Roxy where she worked. Hip-hop is the cornerstone of Nickodemus’ musical tastes, and that’s where this interview began.
Mundovibe: I remember seeing you breakdancing last summer at “Turntables on the Hudson.” One night you had a bunch of old school stuff going on…
Nickodemus: Oh yeah, percussionists and we had some breakers. I tried to fuse all of these percussionists with B-Boys and breaks with world influence.
That’s what I like about what I heard. Would you say you came out of the old school in terms of your early influence?
Definitely. Hip-hop, old school. My sister was really inspirational for me. She used to work at these clubs like the Ritz, the Red Zone, all of these old school clubs, and used to sneak me in at like twelve years old. So I had an influence from reggae, house and hip-hop, everything really.
So, you went from being involved in the hip-hop culture in Long Island and hooking up with Giant Step as a DJ?
And you were one of their house DJs?
Yeah, from ’95 to ’99; whenever they stopped doing weeklies. It was nice, it was a good experience. I got to jam with a lot of good musicians and DJs. Really got to be out there and be able to think differently and not have to fit a format of hip-hop. They were really open to anything as party promoters. They never said a word to me, they were like “do whatever you want.”
Would you say that you are part of a crew now? Obviously you are not just a DJ. Is it a loose conglomeration?
Yeah. After years of being down with different people who were into the same thing, you sort of figure out who the real heads are and you go through a lot of different crews. I feel cool about the crew I’m with now. We go by the Rhythm Love Sound System. It started out of myself and Mariano, who’s cool cause I kind of mentored him as a DJ and it feels really cool to see him take it to this whole level and really do well. Everyone’s really good DJs and they have their own little specialties. When we throw parties, we just generally have some of these guys spin, depending on what type of party and what kind of vibe we want to throw down. So, Nat Rahav and me started the label, Rhythm Love records.
And, so far, you’ve had two releases?
Yeah. Two compilations and “Turntables on the Hudson”, our party on the River. We finally have our own forum. I was doing parties for years in all these little spaces. Just random, totally random, and then finally we found a spot where we could do it on a weekly basis, which was the first time for me since Giant Step. I did Organic Grooves for a while, but it was more sporadic. So it was great, we finally had our own thing to push and nurture. And it worked out nice. It blew up right away. Throughout the years people who’d always been kind of like-minded in music and in DJ style—we just hooked them up into the circle.
So, there’s a lot of sharing.
Yeah, and that’s how the compilation came out, because we tried to get tracks from these people. And a lot of people had never even produced before, but they were like “here,” and it just amazed me: ‘how’d that happen?
It’s amazing. If you actually say, “hey you can do this” and put someone up to it.
It was a platform for a lot of people, and they rose to the occasion. Like Nat, who never really DJ’d out, he never produced a lick in his life and now he’s spinning out, he has all the technology for making beats, and he’s flipping out really nice stuff. And that’s in two years.
How about yourself? When did you get into production?
I guess around ’94 I started getting my first exposure. I was with this group called Diversity, a very “Native Tongue” hip-hop group. They never really made it, but they were really, really fresh. I guess the market wasn’t ready for that, it was moving into the gangster shit, so they fell to the wayside. But those guys would bring me around the studio. That was my first exposure to it. And then I bought a sampler one year, around ’96 and just started messing around.
And, in terms of your tracks, you’ve been contributing to compilations, released your own stuff.
Yeah, I’ve done a little of everything. Depending on what kind of track it is, maybe we’ll put it out on [another] label, not our own. Or, maybe we’ll put it out on the label. It’s all mixed up, just spreading the vibes out.
One observation I’ve made is that it seems like now, in terms of hip-hop, the underground has shifted to Brooklyn, with all of the activity that’s going on. It’s a whole different vibe.
It seems that way, and I hope it stays that way. I see so many people that start like that, and they wind up selling their ass out quick. But, I like the scene, the way it’s been going. It’s nice, a lot of different, innovative things happening like more instrumentation or spoken word-influenced. All of these things are great.
Hip-hop has pretty much become a world phenomenon. So, it’s interesting now that it’s merging with other styles. How did that all happen for you?
Mariano and DJ Nickodemus
Mariano and Nickodemus
For me, since I’m a DJ, I guess that a lot of tracks that I was getting had that hip-hop element and it was right about the time I had turned hip-hop off in my head. Sort of the end of the native tongue era when all this gangster music got really commercial at one point. For example, Naz’s second album, if you compare it to his first. That time, right in between there something drastic happened. I can’t put my finger on it, because I’m not that heavy into it. I just know that I was like ‘OK, there’s very [little] hip-hop that I can deal with now, what else is out there?’ I started hearing all of these amazing hip-hop influenced beats, just instrumental, without all the words that really weren’t going anywhere. It was good, because it definitely opened my mind to a whole new style of hip-hop, or interpretation of it. And, sure enough, hip-hop was still doing it’s thing here, but you had to search a little harder to find it, or the right people were holding it down.
This was going on mainly in London?
Yeah, in London, in France, even Japan with DJ Krush who’s stuff was phenomenal to me. So, these things that fuse hip-hop with jazz and hip-hop [with] just straight instrumental stuff, so there was this whole acid jazz scene. I loved it; it had the elements of jazz and funk that I liked, and it also had the elements of hip-hop that I liked. And here they are together. You know, if you want to hear some lyrics and some content you can always check out hip-hop or you can check this out for a vibe. That’s when I started really getting into that whole vibe.
That was while you were with Giant Step?
Yeah, right before I started with Giant Step. A lot of my friends were jamming musicians, so we were always jamming it out as well. It all just started happening very naturally. It was cool.
It’s kind of going full circle in a way, cause a lot of this came out of this area anyway. It’s kind of ironic, ’cause that seems to be the circle, something comes out of New York or the States and it goes to Europe and gets recycled.
That’s the cool thing. I wish a lot more of the people here who were into hip-hop could hear this other stuff that’s happening, that really came from hip-hop in a lot of ways. And came from soul and jazz, where hip-hop came from. That’s why I like playing or producing; I love to catch those elements and educate in a way. I’ve always been into just opening people up into new styles of music and new things, as I learn and get into it. It’s fun because you see it go somewhere else in the world and transform into Indian hip-hop and then, ‘boom’, it’ll come back as a whole other thing.
It’s amazing how rapid it is now. I guess it has good and bad, because a lot of people are always onto the next thing.
Yeah, I hear what you are saying.
When you put your music together and you’re pulling from a lot of areas, that’s something that is personal for you.
Oh, definitely. I pull from hip-hop, I pull from jazz, I love Eastern music, from India from the Middle East, I love African music. All of these things, as you get older you just start feeding your soul with all of these sounds and when you start to make something it just comes out in the most true and natural way. And when it does, you’ll have, like, a very Afro Beat sound but then it’s a hip-hop beat, yet it’s like Eastern vocals. How did all of that happen, I don’t know, you don’t have to label it.
It’s funny, I’ll tell you a little story. We were just in Puerto Rico and we recorded these musicians. We made the beat here and we went down there with the 8-track. It’s kind of how we do it to record musicians, we just move around, like go to Cincinnati and record some jazz cats who are off the meter, and come home and reboot it, move things around. So, we went down there and we asked these legendary musicians, this guy Juancito Torres and Polito Huertas. They used to play with, like, Eddie Palmeri and all these cats. And we asked them to jam on our track, and we played the track for them and they were like ‘what the hell is this?’, we can’t play to a clave that’s like ‘dat, dat, dat, dat, dat’. That’s Brazilian, you can’t play to that. I’m like ‘I’m not trying to make a Latin track, I’m making a track’, you know?
They’re traditional, right?
Was this an insult to them or was it like ‘what is up with this’?
Yeah, it came off at first like they were trying to say ‘hey you can’t do this, you need to educate yourself before you step to us.’ And I was like, ‘if you want to talk about it, I can tell you the rhythm, but this is a different rhythm I’m not trying to fit into a category and just because you are Latin and you play in a very Latin style doesn’t mean you can’t jam to, say, a reggae beat, you know?’
I guess it happens a lot more in, say, Brazil where there’s more of that going on. In Puerto Rico it seems like it’s really pop drabber.
More interesting. Beside the fact that he was like ‘hey, you can’t do that’, I think he just couldn’t really feel it. He wasn’t used to hearing stuff where the clave was anywhere else. And we had to be like ‘check this out’. I played him a couple other tracks trying to get him to feel the swing. And he got it, he’s a master so he was like ‘kabaam’ and he did it. But it was really interesting, because I thought he was insulting me, but he just couldn’t feel it.
But as a fellow musician he grabbed onto it.
Yeah, he grabbed it.
So, that’s your procedure, you lay down your beats and go live and improvisational with it.
Yeah and from there we may take parts of it and sample it and refreak it, or we’ll take the whole take, just the way it came, which is my favorite technique. I like, ‘OK, are you feeling this beat. What are you going to do over it, and then after you’re done, that’s it. I just like to do one take; what they feel over it, not what I want them feel. I can give them some guidance and then what happens, happens. That’s how I like to do it, but sometimes there’s no chemistry, so you’ve got to doctor it or chuck it.
You do this a lot?
Yeah. Almost all of the tracks I’ve done have had either vocalists or a percussionist or a horn player or a flute player. Generally, I like to try to get guys who are schooled in this type of music, so they can lock into the beat. There’s not too many chord progressions; it’s very lateral for them, but they understand it. It’s not traditional—eventually we’ll start making “electro salsa”, or who knows, but right now we’re doing straight-up dance tracks.
This is all stuff that you can then press or you can work into your mix or whatever?
Yeah. So, the last thing we just did. I’ve been on tour with Mino Cinelu. He’s a really sick percussionist; he used to play with Miles and Sting. So, we’ve been collaborating a lot. I’ve been doing beats and scratches on his music, and he’s doing vocals and percussion on my music. It’s a really nice exchange. He just did this really nice track called “Free Souls” to be released on Giant Step, and it’s the hip-hop beat, the funk bassline, the Afrobeat, he flipped a whole Eastern style cause he knows that’s what I love. It just came out nice, it’s a nice global fusion.
Where do you draw the line where it gets to the point where you’re just watering down too many genres? Do you ever get that kind of criticism?
I think I’m allowed to get away with it because I’m hip-hop (laughs). But if anyone wanted to really challenge me on it, I can represent. I know enough about a lot of the music that I could say ‘hey, this didn’t come out of, I had this record collection. I listen to this music.
That is conveyed in the final thing, because it’s not just slapped on.
Exactly, and if someone felt it isn’t, then they’re a true expert in that area and I humble myself to them but this is what I do. Eventually, I’ll hopefully be a master in a lot of different styles, extremely deep into everything. But, we’ll see (laughs).
Could you have done this in another city, or do you think that it’s the whole multicultural aspect of New York coming through?
I think there’s only a few cities where this can exist, you know? San Fran might pull it off, I wouldn’t even say LA. I mean, you can create a scene anywhere and people will get into it because it’s exotic to people or they just feel it. Let me try to think of a place that was totally out of the ordinary and it worked… Take Vienna, for example… Sunshine Club. That’s my other main place, besides New York. I go there plenty of times. Even now with all that stuff with Jˆrg Haider. There’s a huge Turkish flush in the workforce.
Look at the vibe over there, it’s not very multicultural like New York. Just the way they treat immigrants from Turkey, there was a big resistance to foreigners, and I’m glad that Europe blew up their spot. Europe boycotted and was like, ‘no way, this isn’t happening.’ I was there for a huge protest against Haider in the Heidenplatz, where Hitler gave his famous speeches and it was pretty intense—it was like a complete opposite thing coming out from the speakers from only sixty years ago. It was amazing, there was an amazing turnout to protest this guy. But what I was saying is that from a city that’s not nearly as diverse as this city, there’s actually more music coming out of there that’s world influenced than here. So, I don’t know if it’s really the population, it’s just a matter of what you expose yourself to.
I’ve found that it’s easier to get exposed to it via the Internet.
No doubt. Music shouldn’t be so limited, as long as you respect the traditions.
Have you ever just put out something that traditional. I was thinking Up, Bustle & Out, which is both traditional and has hip-hop beats.
Yeah, those guys are far out. They’re definitely a big influence. When I heard their first album, I was just stunned. They kicked it hard. They went all around South America and they funked it up.
Obviously you do a lot of gigs all over the place. You go to Europe more than the States?
Yeah. I’ve only been to a few places in the States, and they’ve been really small parties with little to no money. But Europe is the place. All of my music is selling in Europe. When I started DJing there in ’96 in Vienna, they loved me because I had that hip-hop sensibility of DJing: mixing and cutting it up, but using all of this current stuff that they were all into and there weren’t too many people doing it like that over there. And I just made a good mark and was able to return. I made some really tight connections with friends, and that’s it. Now, it’s like one of my favorite cities to spin. I’ve been in Paris—the Parisian scene is off the hook, it’s incredible. Almost all of the licensing for my tracks are in Paris, with random compilations like Buddha Bar. These guys are all hip to this world sound dance music.
Are there any people that you want to mention that you work with?
Yeah, sure. I work heavily now on production with Osirus. He’s a friend from growing up, and we just meet perfectly, our minds meet perfectly on the production tip. We just did a 12″ for Giant Step, we doing another 12″ on the hip-hop tip. For this latin project I brought him to Puerto Rico. We have a whole bunch of projects. He also has some solo stuff that’s going to be amazing on our label Rhythm Love.
John C. Tripp, November 2001
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