Sonny James – 7th Boro Interview
Party DJ, producer, tour DJ, mixtapes, SXSW Music Festival, Winter Music Conference, Heineken Green Room…these are just some of the things associated with Mr. Sonny James. As part of Philadelphia’s well respected Illvibe Collective, Sonny James has done more than just find his spot in the local scene. James has used his talents to take him around the world & build a career from something he loves doing.
Spek27: Let’s start off first by letting everyone know who you are and some of the many (many) things you do.
Sonny James: I’m Mr. Sonny James, formally known as DJ Statik. I’m one of the founding members of the 6 man DJ/Production team, Illvibe Collective, based in Philly. I’m also 1/5th of the newly formed UGLYBASS Crew based in Philly and LA. I’ve been a tour DJ for many independent rappers and I produce as well.
Spek27: You had already made a name for yourself in & outside of Philly as DJ Statik. Why the name change?
Sonny James: Well, I’ve been Statik since ’92, when a mentor suggested the name. It felt so original then, but when I began traveling more in my late teens and 20’s, I discovered that there was a DJ Static or Statik in just about every major city. There’s a widely known radio show based in Montreal called “Wefunk Radio” and I’ve frequently been confused with the DJ Statik from that show. In Europe I’ve been confused with the DJ Statik from Denmark. It bothered me for years and I finally came to the conclusion that it was time for me to separate myself from others using the name and start a new chapter in my life. My name since birth has been Sonny James so it was only right. And really, I come from the time period in hip hop when originality was everything. I won’t even buy a sneaker if I think other people in my circle will have it.
Spek27: Let’s talk about your crew, Illvibe Collective. How has the team changed / grown over the years, as far as style or artists that you work with?
Sonny James: We started in college, and back then our main focus was to rock parties and share our knowledge of hip hop with people. Although we always played in a way that today is called “open format” or across genres. We wanted everyone to love Dilated Peoples & Lootpack. In the late 90s, there was a feeling that independent hip-hop would never fall off. I even felt like it had the potential to be the new mainstream music. The way I saw it, artists like Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch were going to make pop music irrelevant. We were proud to play small lounges so we could keep the “real music” in the forefront and not conform to what larger audiences wanted in a party setting. As I began to leave the country more and get more cultured, I started learning and having an appreciation for all types of sounds, so naturally we began sharing them at our parties. We also began getting more serious about making our own music a few years back. As far as artist collaborations went, we went from working with rappers primarily to now working with live musicians and vocalists of all types. We never want to be stagnant. Strictly independent rap kept us going in ’98 but we’ve grown in many ways since then.
Spek27: There are kids in there 20’s coming to hear you spin that were like 10 yrs old when Illvibe started out. And everyone in the crew has obviously gotten older. How does a DJ manage to stay current with the scene while still staying true to their personal taste in music?
Sonny James: Many of the 90’s and early 2000’s songs we partied to in college are now considered classics to a younger audience so it helps that I was around and doing parties when those tunes were new. Regarding current ish, it can be tough at times, but I pretty much search for the gems I like within the current montage of monotony on the radio and internet. When you grew up DJing in the 90’s, it’s easy to dismiss most current music as rubbish since a lot of hip hop and club music is so formulaic. But there are always artists with substance that stand out and get love from young people. I actually think we sometimes don’t give young people enough credit. From having kids and doing music workshops for students, I learned that plenty of them do still listen to lyrics and can separate the real from the fantasy in a lot of the current rap. I play a lot more electronic music these days too, and with the current technology there are always new records being made and shared via sound cloud etc. that I dig a lot. It’s gotta be funky for me get into it though.
Spek27: Every time I open my Facebook, I see a flyer with your name on it. For years. What are some of the best & worst parts about being a club / party DJ?
Sonny James: The best part for me is having everyone in the room on the same page. When a song or a mix goes over really well, there’s sort of a vibration in the room that can’t be put into words. It just feels right. The worst part is that now people are more trained than they were years ago. Whereas we once went out to hear DJs play music we didn’t have access to. It’s quite the opposite now. Now music is like seasoning to a party instead of being the main course. And a lot of people shy away from unfamiliar sounds. Also, from a bottle service point of view, it tends to be more about posturing, promoters are now interested in being the focal person with the following while paying DJs less, and celebs have now taken a lot of credibility away from DJing with premixed sets and pitiful push button antics. That leaves many of us who’ve slaved to get really skilled at this craft wondering what to do to get people to just care about the damn music again.
Spek27: Besides being a party DJ, you’ve also been the touring DJ for several notable hip hop artists. Who have you DJ’d for & what was that experience like?
Sonny James: I started touring as a stage show DJ in ’99. Most frequently with Bahamadia, Mr. Lif, J-Live, and Hezekiah. But I’ve DJ’d for Camp Lo, Schoolz of Thought, Jneiro Jarel, Shape of Broad Minds, Lady Bug (Digable Planets), Grand Agent and about a dozen other indie rappers. It’s cool DJing for artists. It definitely helped me learn a lot about the music business. Particularly about the recording / releasing music side of it, which I never planned to get into when I began DJing 2 decades ago. Veterans like Lif and Bahamadia have a vast knowledge and experience that they’ve been generous enough to share with me and my crew. It’s really helped us avoid playing ourselves in some situations. The tour side of it is always good and it provides another outlet for me to use my talent and get paid to fly across the world doing it. I’ve met some good people and made lifelong friends in the process. My goals are now shifting though to build a more sustainable brand on my own instead of mainly being a support person in the background for other artists. I now want to be able to produce my own tours and give my support people an opportunity to see the world too.
Spek27: Give me 3 things that annoy a you the most as a DJ when you’re playing out.
Sonny James: This should be easy. 1) Line dancing. This is a black thing at the moment. It’s to the point where you can’t do a black event without playing line dance crap. Instructional dancing is the corniest shit in the world to me. Sorry black folks, but if you’re the type that sits down after the instructional dance song goes off, I’m referring to you. 2) Requests for hype songs during the first hour of a party. Why would I play the hottest songs everyone wants to hear before they show up? You and your homeboy bouncing to Shabba Ranks on an empty dance floor does not equal a popping party. 3) Club owners and staff telling me how to do my job. Why hire people that are more than capable of doing the job you hired them for, then try to direct them to do it the way you would do it if you hired yourself? Micromanage your coke problem…not your DJs. OR stop hiring cheap DJs that are incapable of reading a room just so you can pocket more cash at the end of the night.
Spek27: You’ve DJ’d all over. What keeps you in Philadelphia?
Sonny James: My kids. I lived in Jersey City like 5 mins from NYC a few years ago, and it was just too hectic getting back to Philly every weekend to make sure my son spent time with me. It’s tough in Philly to sustain yourself working in music without a secular job, but for me it’s tougher to be without my kids, so here I am. I considered moving to Europe a few years back, but it really wasn’t a realistic decision for my son. In a few years though, when he’s older, it may be in the cards. I love Philly. I do. But there is a point that a lot of us reach where we know deep down that it’s time to experience life elsewhere.
Spek27: Illvibe has released only one album, All In Together Now, in 2011 (not counting ENDLESS mixtapes). Any plans for future projects?
Sonny James: Yeah, All Together Now took 2 years for us to record with all the schedules of the artists featured, on top of us being really hard on ourselves creatively. I think it’s a little disenchanting when you work really hard on an album and feel like it was under promoted, under distributed, and barely noticed. After years of being pro-indie, I now understand the value of having a big budget from a major. If you’re gonna barely make money from countless hours spent in the studio, at least get some lasting promo out of it. Following our debut album, we released a remix album to that project on our own Illvibe label in which we have a distribution situation through Beatport / InGrooves. We are scheduling more releases this year. Some singles, DJ Phsh’s solo EP, a couple things I’m working on, and possibly signing a couple of our friends we frequently work with so their projects have an avenue to be in the market place.
Spek27: What’s in the future for Sonny James?
Sonny James: More production and remixes. I have the privilege of having great producer friends who encourage me to keep working on my own music, so that’s inspiring. And really more development of the UGLYBASS brand and continuing to push forward thinking events and projects with Illvibe.