interview by dimmSummer
transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
ET: This is ethnotechno's interview with Sean Dinsmore, aka DJ Cavo, aka DDP... How many other monikers do you have?
DDP: A few, actually, but let's leave those out of this.
ET: How long have you been making music? Especially in New York City, you've been here for a while -- maybe if you can recap how you started off the different outfits you've been with and what musical influence your past had on your music today.
DDP: Well, I guess you could say I put the old in old-school. I joined The Toasters in '85, quit The Toasters in '89 and formed Unity2 in '89. So I signed that one with Warner Brothers, did that for three years until '92, took a break, opened up a couple of restaurants in the city, moved to L.A. for a minute, tried to be an actor for a minute, came back, started up SuperCuz in '94. Well, rewind to about '92, I was producing and co-managing a rapper called Sha Live... I started making some beats for him with sitars on it, tablas, stuff like that, and he just looked at me like I was nuts, he wasn't ready for it. I thought it was cool, played it for some other people, they were like "Yeah, it's cool, but, you know, blah blah blah." So I kinda picked it up again around '96, started to fuck around with a lot of psychedelic records because a lot of them would have sitars and Eastern sounds. At the time I had a group called SuperCuz that I was the leader of, lead singer and songwriter. And then I went to India in '97 and I thought I was going to get off the plane and walk straight into a temple, like everybody lived in a temple and did chants all day, because I'd been collecting a lot of Indian devotional CDs I'd been checking out from Jackson Heights. Hindi film records just looked weird to me, I just didn't bother with them. And of course the second I stepped off the plane, you just get smacked in the face with whatever is the biggest Hindi film song, you're gonna hear it everywhere you go, and at that time it was "Dil To Pagal Hai," and it was just everywhere and I was kinda feeling it, so after I travelled around for a while, I went to go see the film in Delhi, and then I just fell in love. I fell in love with Madhuri Dixit, I fell in love with the movie, I fell in love with the sounds, that was it. I went out and bought the CD the next day, I found a guy who was selling vinyl in Chandani Chowk and bought like 200 records off of him, old records like "Sholay" and big big films, I had no idea what they were. I was just like "That one's cool, that has a nice cover." That pretty much was the birth of Dum Dum Project because I came back and I was in the studio trying to finish mixing the SuperCuz record but I was just so bored with it and all I wanted to go was just get back to these little...I was making little skits, snippets to put in between the tracks, of just a break beat and an Indian sample, and I just became so much more interested in those middle bits that I just forgot about the songs and just I expanded those. I had a record at the time, we had our own label, Groovy Sounds, and I needed a name so I just pulled it off of the back of those records, you know, Dum Dum, India, and that was it.
ET: So when did the first release of "Desi Vibes," when did that come out, was that around the same time or was that a product of all that experimentation? I heard it years ago, and when I listen to it now it seems like it was out of its time because it seems to fit better with what's going on now with hip-hop producers and people taking these kinds of samples from Bollywood and creating something out of it. So if you re-released it now...because it seems like a lot of people now are kind of re-discovering what you did back then. So was that a product of all that experimentation?
DDP: At the time, a lot of people were basically dissing that record. I'm not gonna say who, but everybody was into the Asian Underground, so everything was very drum and bass oriented, and a lot of people kind of...I read some things online and other places, I heard that people weren't really feeling "Desi Vibes" so I was like, that's cool, I just made the record that I could make, you know? Shanti was the only guy who came up to me and said "This is fat! I'm hearing old school hip-hop breaks and I'm hearing these Indian samples in a way I've never heard them used before." Because you have to admit that from '96-'98, everybody in the Asian Underground was mining from the exact same CD, "Deepest India." Everybody will admit it, and if they don't admit it they're liars. Niraj Chag will admit it, and he always calls it out on a guy. Every time I mention an Asian Underground track, Niraj goes "Deepest India. Deepest India." I didn't have "Deepest India," I had these records that I bought in Delhi, so, you know, yeah. Even "Punjabi 5-0" is based on a tumbi riff that I took off a record I bought in Delhi, this weird Punjabi record that plays at 45. So anyway, I don't know if it was ahead of its time because I just think it was a record that was so left-field at the time. But some of the little specialty shops, they took it and stocked it and then they sold it. This guy told me at Other Music "If I play it for people, they buy it." But nobody had any idea what it was or who it was, so you have to have an active staff of people who are actually selling it. And we didn't really have that, we were a pretty laid-back label, we were just kind of having fun. I was DJing, I had my Air India parties, I sold LOTS of them at Air India. It wasn't like a big off the hook party night, in the beginning it was pretty good, then it just remained steady. And everywhere we went, people were like "What are you playing? What are you playing?" and I would sell them a copy of "Desi Vibes." Even if I was playing Talvin Singh, I'd sell them a copy of "Desi Vibes." (laughter) But people would come back the next week and be like, "Can I get three more?" So that was kinda cool. I had a feeling we did something right.
ET: So let's talk about Export Quality. That came out after Desi Vibes, right? What was the impetus for creating Export Quality and was there something else you were trying to achieve with that, or was that just a continuation of exploring whatever you'd started with 'Desi Vibes"?
DDP: It was a continuation but it was also kind of a natural progression, because one of the things people commented on, and that I myself felt, was that on "Desi Vibes" there was hardly any live singing, only on "Jaia Ganesha" and a few tracks did we have any live vocals. And I was getting a bit bored with repeated sampled vocals, so through a set of very bizarre circumstances I ended up meeting Asha Puthli and once I'd met her, I said "I need you to sing on some songs," and I got Bhagwan Das to sing on a record, I got Sharron Gannon from JivaMukti to sing on a record and it was so funny because we had this big party at the recording studio, I just invited everybody down to sing backing vocals on "Jai Govinda." At the time I didn't want these songs to sound like bhajans, you know? Even though they were based on real bhajans, I wanted to make them funky bhajans, if you will. I wanted them to be danceable, and Asha was perfect for that, she's so experimental, her whole career has been just experimenting. So when I told her what I was up to, she was just like, "Yeah, it sounds great!" She took it to some places I didn't even think it was going to go. (laughter) But on certain tracks, like on "Hey Diwani, Hey Diwana," she killed it. I didn't have much to do with it, I just told her "Just sing." She'd go like this -- (sings) "Hey Diwani, hey Diwana" -- and I let her go after that. She just riffed and riffed and riffed and we got what we wanted. So that record in my mind was a more complete record. Like I always try to make "Jaani Jaan" a pop single. It didn't really work out that way because I don't think that anybody was ready to hear something in a language they didn't understand. But when I moved to London, a lot of the Asian kids who were on the scene there, when they met me they'd be like "Yeah, that 'Jaani Jaan' track was kinda fat." So it was cool. Also at that time I thought about using Shanti on that record but we had just met, we met in '99 but this was in 2000, and at that time I just thought I was gonna make some tracks for him. I didn't see how he was going to come into DDP at that time, but we were collaborating already, so that was going to be Phase 3, obviously, which is now, with "Spiritual Bling."
ET: So let's talk about the new CD. There's definite growth when you compare the last two albums, when you talk about songs, and I hear a lot of radio-friendly songs. I'm definitely going to drop a lot of those tracks on my station at home, also on the FM. Some of the tracks we know, "Punjabi 5-0" and things like that, but a lot of the tracks, how long did it take you to get to that point in the aesthetic where you defined it? There's a lot of things going on, there's kind of a desi dance hall hip-hop thing going on, a lot of stuff. How long did it take you to find the right voices? I'm assuming some of the voices are yours.
DDP: Yeah, some of them just talking or saying something, I had a lot of background voices and stuff. We made most of that record in London at Niraj's studio. It woulda been nice if we could have had a budget, gone in and made the record, but in the course of making that record, I got out of my deal with XSquare, didn't have a deal for a long time, was doing a bunch of remixes, we thought we were making Shanti's solo record, we were just in there. When I started making the record, I wasn't partners with Niraj. So in the middle of it, I became partners with him, and I had a bunch of tracks already, some tracks I had done with Shanti, then Niraj and I just struck this really creative vein and it was crazy, we were just making tracks all the time. Some of them were drum and bass, like that track "Secret Asian Man" and then we were doing some raaga stuff and then it settled into DDP. One day I was just like, "You know what, why don't you just be part of DDP?" because the two guys that I worked with on the first two records were back in New York and I wasn't moving back to New York and musically we were kind of in different places anyway, besides continents. That record is like a really weird piece of history in a way, I don't know if it means anything to anybody except us. But each one of those songs I can remember, oh, we did the vocals in Bombay, or we tracked that at an old apartment in Brooklyn which is not there any more, so each one of those little pieces of bricks in the wall. I remember, oh, we mixed that in Bombay, or we did that one in Bangkok, so this is really the international record. It's not done yet, that shouldn't be the final version. The Sony Asia version I had to put together pretty quickly because "Punjabi 5-0" was hitting. It's what should have happened in the UK, when "Punjabi 5-0" was hitting in the UK, we should have released something. When it was hitting in Bangkok and other places in Asia, they were like, "Give us an album." So we just cobbled together all these tracks we had, and then it worked because now finally we sold a lot of records over there. So now the next thing is to add a few, tweak it a little more. We have some more new tracks, we'll pull a couple of the tracks that we always thought were just sort of b-sides anyway, but they turn out to be someone else's favourite track, you can never tell. So for the UK mix there's going to be a couple surprises because the other thing I have to remember is that even thought we know these tracks inside and out, most people, even in London, haven't heard any of them. They've heard "Punjabi 5-0" and they've heard "Rewind," basically, that's it. We did this one for the summer, "Radio DDP," we threw that out because there was a soundtrack for this Queen Latifah movie and they contacted me and they said "Oh, we need a summer song, real uptempo, for this scene where she's getting chased on her bike, she's a bike messenger," so we did "Radio DDP" and then everything got stalled with the movie, so I just thought "Fuck it," and gave it to Bobby and Nihal and said "Here, I don't know, see what you can do." So some of the songs like that I think we should put on because they're more current.
ET: If you could describe Niraj in one sentence, it can be a long sentence, a short sentence, whatever, but if you could do that, what would you say?
DDP: Niraj Chag. (pause) Hmmm... (long pause) (laughter) He is...I don't know, how do you explain Niraj, man? You don't describe Niraj, you have to explain Niraj. [the1shanti in the background adds, "You don't explain Niraj, you experience Niraj..."] (laughter) We were doing an interview with MTV in Bangkok and this girl called in, it was a phone thing where they call in, and the girl said "I'd like to ask DJ Cavo, when you came back in another life, if you could be anybody, who would you want to be? And I was like, "I'd want to be Niraj!" because I'd just love to know what goes on in that kid's head. The things that come out of his mouth, you know? This is a subject I could go on and on about, he constantly just shocks me with the things that he says, only because you just wonder how a mind like that works. But musically he's a genius, and I guess that's it.
ET: As far as production work that you do outside of DDP, doing Shanti's current solo album, what other projects do you dabble in, if you want to touch upon those?
DDP: Well, we've been doing remixes under the banner of DDP, and sometimes they're collaborative efforts and sometimes if it comes up and it's in New York and Shanti's gonna do it, but one came up really quickly and it was in London and only Niraj was there for Chicane. And he ended up getting your vocal on it, which was cool. In Asia I've done quite a few for big Asian artists -- like there's a girl called Tata Young who's the top-selling artist in Asia, and she's actually just sung the lead track to the Hindi film "Dhoom" and she's Thai, but they're trying to sell her record in India. So she sang that, I remixed her, did a remix for Little John and Pitbull for TVT, that "Coolo" track, did a remix of "Baby Boy." It didn't come out on the U.S. version, I think it came out on the Asian version. I don't know, I never got a copy. Thailand is so sketchy, man. It's like Bombay. You show up or you don't show up. (laughter) So yeah, we've been doing some remixes, and Shanti's been doing some stuff on his own, and Niraj has been doing stuff on his own, so yeah, it's cool. Side projects, not right now. Niraj and I did a side project called "Jammie Blaster" and we signed off one track for a 12-inch for Pathaan's label, Stoned Asia, and it never came out so we got a little frustrated with that because it's time and contracts and all this stuff, and then it doesn't come out. So, Shanti did a remix for Little Flip, and he's doing a bunch of urban stuff in the U.S. So it's all good, it's all family.
ET: The remixes that you do, are they different than your own music, or is it just an extension of whatever you're doing in your own music?
DDP: It depends on the track, really. I don't know, for me anyway, the track sort of tells you which direction to go in when you're remixing it. Like on that Tata remix, I knew why they'd asked me to do it was because "Punjabi 5-0" was hitting hard at that time in the clubs, so we put a little bhangra thing on the hooks, it was a house track called "I Believe," it was sort of like a four-to-the-floor track, and we just slowed it down a little bit and made it like an R&B track, made it much funkier, put a nice bass line on it and put a little tumbi thing in the hook. Not overt, it didn't sound like "Punjabi 5-0" or Panjabi MC or anything, it was just kind of subtle but it was there, and I didn't think it sounded like us AT ALL. And I was in a club about a week after it got released and the DJ was playing it and somebody that I was with was like, "You did this, right? This is you guys" and I was like "Why? Why would you say that?" and he goes "It just sounds like you guys" and I was like, uhhh, because I wasn't trying to at all. I still don't think it sounds like us. (pause) What-EVER! (laughter) But usually just the song dictates which direction you go. I never try to put a DDP stamp on it because I wouldn't even know what that is. But other people have told me that they can tell the sound, certainly from the first two records. DK was quoting somebody else that said we were catering to the designer yoga hippie market, but a lot of those people are like, "Oh, I can tell your sound whenever I hear it," because I've done quite a few remixes in that field as well. And whenever I get those kinds of remixes, I always try to get it right away from the whispering, ethereal, I try to just pull it right away from there and give it a big funky crunchy bass line, a funky bhajan, make some dirty sounds. Not filthy dirty, but take it away from the big swelling Talvin-esque kind of strings, you know? So I guess in that sense, that's definitely not my sound. I started making beats with hip-hop and it's come full circle now. It may go in another direction, I don't know.
ET: How do you feel about the media focus recently on South Asian music and specifically bhangra, stuff like that? Do you think it's good for what you're doing? Does it matter? Is it going to be a fad and people will get sick of it and ignore you after a while? Or just keep doing what you're doing and then not even care what really happens? But at the same time, you want to get your stuff out there, you know what I'm saying?
DDP: Well, this is our big problem right now, we need to get our stuff out there. But I think it's good overall, anything that's drawing attention to Asian music I think is good, but in terms of a fad...I mean, I started out in a ska band. The ska scene was the ska scene and didn't give a shit what anyone else thought about it. And then it blew up at a certain point in the early '90s and bands like No Doubt became supergroups, and other bands that weren't even very good, like the Mighty Bosstones and stuff, became big big big bands, which I thought they were really bad. And then it died down. But the ska scene never really went away, and that's the same thing with the bhangra scene, you know? We didn't come from the bhangra scene. It just so happened that the bhangra scene got so big for a minute that it was influencing everybody. People that were in the Asian Underground scene who used to just do nothing but sit around and talk about what shit bhangra was suddenly were like (in British accent) "Oh, we're doing sorta bhangra thing," so those kinds of thing are going to happen because the industry is going to suddenly decide that something will be the next greatest thing and everybody wants to get in on it a little bit. I don't know if it's really jumping on the bandwagon as much as it's, maybe you never really listened to it before properly, and you start to realize there is a really crazy off-the-hook quality to the tumbi that matches really well with hip-hop, and that's what happened. Panjabi MC really drew attention to that, he did it four years before everyone else noticed. But the bhangra scene is not gonna go away. People in the hip-hop scene in the U.S. don't care about bhangra any more, but they don't care about it either in Birmingham where the bhangra scene is still going crazy, having their big nights. And the drum and bass guys are still doing drum and bass and we're still doing our thing, so it's good but I don't think it matters that much, it shouldn't affect everybody. If your whole thing was based on a period when everybody got souped up, then you had a shaky foundation to begin with.
Fade into Radio DDP -D'Caro Remix