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DJ T-Rock

DJ T-Rock

Interviewed by
Martyn Pepperell
Friday 21st December, 2012 4:12PM

Raised in the mountains of North Carolina, DJ T-Rock (Travis Eller) has been engaged with hip-hop culture since age twelve, when he joined the now defunct Columbia House Tape Club. Educating himself on hip-hop, he acquired a turntable and started spending a lot of time at Marvin's One Stop Records in Lenoir, North Carolina.

Eventually becoming a club and scratch DJ, Eller relocated to Atlanta in 1993. In Atlanta he joined The Citizenz (DJ) Crew with Faust, Shortee, Craze, Shotgun and DJ Klever. During this time, Eller opened up for the likes of Cut Creator, Afrika Bambaataa, Mantronix, Mix Master Mike and battled regularly with JayCee, who later became the tour DJ for Ludacris, Lord Asward and Public Enemy.

In 1999 Eller released his first album on classic San Francisco label Bomb Hip Hop. In the intervening time he has appeared on over thirty three different albums and compilations, worked as a tour DJ for Virgin Records artist Amanda Perez (for three years), joined the legendary 1200 Hobo's crew with Mr. Dibbs and made countless tracks for various MTV shows, commercials and films. Since 2005, Eller has released three collaborative albums with New Yorker Squashy Nice (Joshua Montcalm) on New Zealand label Why Records. The most recent of these records Getting Through was released in late November.

In light of this, I connected with Eller to talk about his musical relationship with Montcalm, their connection with Why Records, the direction they took on Getting Through and paying musical homage to earlier eras. He also gave me a rundown on the music he is feeling right now, circa December 2012.

How did you originally connect with Squashy Nice?

We both had a mutual friend who worked in a record store in downtown Atlanta, DJ FYI. One day we were riding around together and he slipped me this beat tap and said "Hey man, you should check this guy out!" I popped it in the tape deck and it was some of the nicest jazzy chops I had ever heard in hip-hop production. It was Squashy Nice. He was real nice with the MPC man, real nice!

A few weeks passed and we finally met at the regional DMC battle I was competing in. After the battle DJ FYI comes walking up to me with this bald headed guy and was like, "T-Rock, meet Squashy Nice". We just clicked. Squashy would come to my place at crazy hours of the night after his work and we would just listen to records and make a ton of music. The rest is history.

How would you describe your working relationship over the last three albums? How do you guys put your music together, especially operating on other sides of the US?

It's not as hard as one might think thanks to technology. Usually our process is pretty basic at first. I'll call him up or vice versa and we'll play records over the phone for each other. Then, we'll decide whether or not its worthy of sampling and do we think we can make something hot out of it? The next thing is we'll send the records with the dope breaks in them to each other through the mail.

After that, stage three is we call each other up with a semi-finished or completed track and play that over the phone which then involves an mp3 being emailed for a closer, more detailed listen. The final stage is the search for the proper scratch sound or sound bite to go within the song. Some people may think that this is the easy part but actually it can sometimes be the hardest.

We pride ourselves on making sure the cut "fits" within the music and sounds as if it were part of the track and works with it, not against it. There you have it. That's the DJ T-Rock & Squashy Nice way.

Tell us about your connection with Why Records and the relationship there?

Meeting up with WHY Records is also a tale of third parties being involved. I met this producer in Atlanta who was looking for a DJ to lay some scratches down for a group called the Sleestackz on Ichiban Records. I had told him about Squashy Nice and I and we had just finished an album but had nowhere to go with it.

He told me about this girl he knew named Dom who lived in New Zealand and she was aching to start up a label and was looking for demos. We started an email correspondence which led to us finally meeting in New York City. We were both there on business together at the same time and we managed to get together long enough for me to put our newly finished album in her hands. She went home to New Zealand and called me a week or two later saying she really wanted to release it. That was our first album release on Why Records called Rock & Squash Techniques.

What was the inspiration or theme with Getting Through, what were you guys looking to work through or get across with it? What was left to explore that you hadn't collectively explored in your previous records?

The inspiration for our album Getting Through actually came from the public attention our first album Rock & Squash Techniques, received. We realized after the release of our 2nd album Outloud that we had drifted from our signature style just slightly to the left. Outloud was somewhat of an experiment for us using guests and adding more tracks and basically trying to cater to a more hip hop audience.

When it was all said and done both Squashy Nice and I realized that we wanted to take it back to the style of production that we loved, sample based grooves that make you think, music that makes your mind wander to a feel-good memory or a faraway place. The only thing we felt we had to explore with this new album was just getting down to the bare basics of sampling. We really wanted to simplify things with simple beats and make prominent and preserve the sounds of a scratchy analog vinyl as if the listener just dropped the needle on a record from their own dusty collection of records.

This record doesn't feature any guest vocalists, why the shift this direction?

We chose not to go the route of having special guests for a number of reasons. First, guests tend to take too long to get their parts complete and when you don't have money to pay a lot of the people you want well, it can often take even longer. This doesn't really go over that well with the label when there are certain deadlines you have to meet and MC Raps-a-lot hasn't even started yet.

There's a lot of ego's to please and sometimes things can get ugly. I've had MC's tell me that they wanna rap over a beat and they'll do it for free because all they want is to help get their name out there. Three months after the album release their song gets popular and they're calling me like "Yo man, you never paid me for that track!" and on top of that they're demanding an amount of money that is enough to choke Jay-Z? No one even knew who you were homie, now all the sudden you got a YouTube video with your song on it you're a star? Listen, If Squashy Nice and I had money to give...we would, but the truth is we just can't afford it most of the time. Also, we wanted to take Getting Through back to the basics of how we produce music and we felt like more of us in the production rather than us and a whole lot of others would give us our signature sound.

What you guys do feels very referential to the whole found sound and sample heavy instrumental hip-hop scene of the late 90s. It doesn't feel throwback though. It feels like the continuation of an era/vibe. Can you give me a window into how it is from your perspective?

Yes, this new album is sort of a continuation of that era of music. We grew up during this time and were influenced heavily by the beats. Squashy Nice and I felt that as artists we should create something with the tone and vibe of a 90's beat tape simply because we want to ensure that no one forgets. It's an art form and we didn't want it to be a dying one. We felt it necessary to continue the tradition of this style of beat making and just to show people that just because music has changed, technology has changed and even society has changed that it doesn't mean that you can't make good music using nostalgic methods.

What else are you involved in musically these days? Tell me about what else you are working on/doing etc?

Recently I've just finished an EP for a guy called Android Love Affair. The beats are really sci-fi futuristic that I produced entirely in Reason software. Also, Squashy Nice and I are planning on releasing an instrumental album called Leftovers, which is just basically beats. There are no sampled vocal hooks or cuts it's just strictly beats, with a slightly different production style than what our fans may be use to.

We both continue to work on songs everyday and we still dig into the crates quite often but we recently found ourselves with a huge interest in film. I have been acting in various indie film productions out here in Los Angeles and Squashy Nice has been writing screenplays in his spare time. Squashy Nice just won the Gotham City Screenwriters Competition for best sci-fi screenplay. Actually, we have both just finished working on a script entitled Bad Seeds of Lovin' Spring which takes place in the 1800's wild west that we will be devoting a lot of our time to in this coming year. The interest in film is what delayed our release of Getting Through, since we were both heavily involved with acting and writing.

In 2012, what new musicians, DJs, producers and styles of music are you checking for. Where is your inspiration coming from?

I am a huge fan of anything that the label Project Mooncircle puts out. I must say that two major sources of inspiration that came from them was the album Cassiopeia by Pavel Dovgal and my favourite of 2012 was The Branches by Long Arm. That album came out in February of 2011 but I seriously have rocked that album all of 2012! Also, I've been listening to Kid Koala's new album 12 Bit Blues and the French Turntablists band C2C and their EP Down The Road.

links - Album Stream