Sonny James

The music matters to DJ and musician Sonny James. He is inspired by the sounds and mixes of Turntable music, and in this interview James talks about the skills needed as a DJ artist and his new work.

Jupiter Index: Can you talk about the music you grew up listening to and who were the artists or bands you enjoyed hearing?

Sonny James: I grew up in a household with a really good record collection. Music I remember listening to as a child was by soulful groups like Heatwave, The Spinners, The Jacksons, Blue Magic, Bohannon etc. My sister is 6 years my senior so she had her own stash of music I would listen to which included names like Boogie Down Productions, Eric B & Rakim, New Edition and other popular performers of black music in the 80s.

What was it about music that drew you to become a DJ and create live music shows from recorded mixes?

I’ve been excited about hearing and sharing new sounds for as long as I can remember. And we had a family friend that was a DJ when I was a pre teen. He had a full set up with Technics 1200’s, amps, crossovers and all. Watching him work definitely inspired me to learn how to DJ properly. Regarding recorded mixes, Philly has such a rich legacy of amazing DJs on the radio and many of the DJs from my generation learned how to mix a variety of genres from listening to those daily mix shows from guys like DJ Ran, Don Mystic Mack, Gary-O, Jay-Ski, DJ Touchtone, Cosmic Kev and others. Knowing that many people are discovering new sounds via that medium, it became a goal early on to be a mixer on a platform where people could easily access the content. I became really interested in doing mixtapes after meeting Jazzy Jeff in 2000 and asking him what he recommended to gain more notoriety in the field. He suggested putting time into mixtapes to leave an impression with folks when they’re not hearing me perform live in a club or on a stage. That advice helped me establish myself as a content creator early on in my career and seek additional avenues where music could be shared.

Can you talk about your current music projects that you are working on, and are you planning on releasing a new record in the future? When might the CD come out?

I’m working on music regularly. I’ve recorded a couple songs for a solo project that will likely be released later in the year. I’m still a bit undetermined on which physical formats I’m likely to release new music in though. My last project was in 2011 with my team, Illvibe Collective and it was a different world then in terms of access to CD players and the willingness to support physical products. In my ideal world, I’ll do vinyl with a digital download included but we’ll see which way it goes once I get closer to completing the music. Just trying to stay inspired at the moment even the world is going bananas.

Which three concerts/performances have you attended in the past that moved you for the musical ability and skill of the DJ artist? What was it about the show that still stays with you? (Can you recall the music played?)

1. One of the shows I frequently think about impacting me is seeing the A Tribe Called Quest Reunion show in Philly with Funk Master Flex as a support artist. I recall Flex was really late and the crowd was getting pretty restless and exhausted from being on their feet. Once Flex got on the stage, he immediately commanded the crowd’s attention and played every record at exactly the right time. His 90s hip hop set picked up the energy in the room and got everyone extra excited to see Tribe. Then when he wrapped up, Ali Shaheed Muhammad took the stage which made everyone scream like crazy and then the rest of ATCQ appeared on stage and the place exploded. The stage presence of the DJ was so apparent and powerful on this night.

2. I’ve enjoyed many incredible DJ sets at the Winter Music Conferences over the years in Miami. One of the sets that will stay with me for life is seeing Seiji from Bugz In The Attic play The Phuture Party which was all about progressive, black electronic music. Aside from the fact that the lineup was insane and he went on in the main room after Charlie Dark and DJ Jazzy Jeff, he also made probably 90% of the UK Brokenbeat records he played in the set. I have yet to see a club since with the energy displayed in the room on that night maybe aside from Berghain in Berlin. Seiji masterful execution showed me the importance of timing when dropping tunes and surprising the dance floor with things they didn’t see coming. Legendary.

3. When I was starting out in clubs I was trying to keep my job as a newby and wanted to please every club manager standing over my shoulder shouting demands. This would cause me to play mostly the obvious hits of the time straying off into my own personal tastes very few times in the course of a night. After going to Fluid Nightclub the first time on my 19th birthday, I heard Rich Medina and Cosmo Baker program a room with only music they loved for an entire night including tunes that no one had heard before, sample sources for hip hop classics, jazz records, funk 45s and slow jams. It really opened my eyes to the idea that not all people are one dimensional with narrow music tastes and that if you create the environment that welcomes it, you can really stretch out as a DJ and share music that’s different than the norm.

DJ or turntable music has grown in recent years, but where do you see music heading in the future? And what are your hopes for it?

I see lots of new turntablists on Instagram and tik tok which is inspiring to see. There was a trend for quite some time of DJs saying turntable skills like scratching and beat juggling are a thing of the past while the newer generations focused on playing popular music to gain club bookings. I think it’s dope to see some young folks putting in the work to learn turntablist skills. Now that we’re in an era of live-streaming, it certainly helps to have the ability to be a bit flashy as a dj since a raging crowd just isn’t there for us IRL during this pandemic. It now causes DJs to think about putting more effort into their presentation to keep their viewers engaged. I’m also seeing folks diverting from the hits and playing older music as well as genres they stayed away from before due to being afraid of losing people on a dance floor. I hope to see more DJs putting their own tastes on display once they’re back in packed clubs again. Although DJing is a customer service role, it’s also a creative one so I hope to see more emphasis on the latter as the nightclub industry goes through a massive reset.

by G.M. Burns