DJ Harrison has been playing music since he was 3 years old. First, it was the drums, then came the piano, then the bass guitar. And when all of that wasn’t enough, he thought he would try his hand at producing and DJ’ing. The son of a radio DJ in Virginia, DJ Harrison grew up in a musical household filled with records, and enough sounds to keep any child in a constant state of exploration, spanning Jazz, Gospel, Rock, and Hip-Hop. While attending Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), DJ Harrison linked up with other musicians, forming Butcher Brown, a band whose sound is limitless, but rooted in the tradition of Black American music.
Earlier this year I got the chance to sit down with multi-instrumentalist, beatmaker, and producer, DJ Harrison. At the time of our conversation, DJ Harrison was on tour with Kiefer, and preparing for a set of shows in Oakland playing alongside his bandmates, Butcher Brown, that also featured the likes of Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Alex Isley. During our conversation we talked about everything from touring with Kamasi Washington and recording with Nicholas Payton, to the legacy of slavery in Virginia, to his bond with his bandmates, in Butcher Brown, and a bunch more! Here’s our conversation:
Stanley: Thanks for taking the time to do this. You play keys in Butcher Brown, but you're also a beatmaker, DJ, and producer. Is your approach to music different depending on the hat you're wearing?
DJ Harrison: Yeah, it's like a different shift in focus where I have to pay attention to different things. When I'm playing keys, I have to worry about chords and bass lines. And then on the other side of that, when I'm actually spinning my beats live, it's one of those things where it's all about the transitions, so I have to put my mind on the transitions between songs. So, it's definitely different, and it all depends on what the scene is. I always try to home in on the most important factor, and just try to contribute the best to the music.
Stanley: What came first for you, keys?
DJ Harrison: Drums. I was three years old. My mom got me one of those kiddy kits from Toys R Us or whatever. I kept breaking them lol, but she finally got me a nice professional drum set when I was like 7, then keyboard, then bass came at like age 12. Having those instruments around the house helped. My Mom being into records, and my Dad being a radio DJ, it was one of those things where we just had records around the house. Then I started putting two and two together, I was like "oh, that looks like the keyboard I have", or that looks like the drum set I have." Then it was a thing where I got interested in how people made these records, so from then on I was fascinated in how to actually make a record. So, I been trying to get it right ever since lol.
Stanley: With your Dad being a DJ - was he supportive of you becoming a DJ/musician, or did you feel pressured?
DJ Harrison: Not really, I don’t feel like he forced anything on me. Just having his records around the house was enough to pique my interest. But really it was more so my mom, and the area that I grew up in. She didn't want me to be in the streets like that, so she just kept me focused with the records, started buying instruments, and that piqued my interest even more. So, it wasn't necessarily pressure. It was sort of like that's just what was there at the time.
Stanley: A lot of your music recalls a history of Funk, Jazz, and Hip-Hop. You're also in a band, Butcher Brown, that is somewhat of an amalgamation of genres. You've characterized your music as Black American Music, so I was wondering if you could talk about what Black American Music means, your approach to the genre?
DJ Harrison: To me, it's just realizing that popular music comes from Black American Music. Whether it be Swing, Gospel, or Slave Songs, or even some Folk music, and obviously the Blues. Just knowing how to connect those things together and knowing how to connect music that comes out today to those genres, because that's what the lineage is. You can't really know where to go unless you know where you've been.
Stanley: That's interesting. I can hear a lot that in your music, like on your album Slyish.
DJ Harrison: Yeah, and that's just me trying to pay homage, and just trying to take what they did and carry it further. As hard as it is – there's only twelve notes you can pick from lol – but just trying to find new ways of chopping up samples, new rhythms, finding different placement of things that make you feel different. We all know the music we like because it makes us feel a certain way. It's like a long experiment. I never feel like I get it quite right, but it always feels good to me in the end.
Stanley: I was wondering if you could talk Richmond, VA, specifically, and the musical lineage there. D'Angelo and countless others are from that area.
DJ Harrison: The thing about Virginia is that it was one of the first places founded in the "new world." The historical aspect of it is that Richmond has the James River flowing through it. A river that once carried enslaved Africans, people from Europe to the new world, and back across the ocean to get more slaves. So, being a Richmond native, we have to realize what happened on that soil before you came here. It was the capitol of the confederacy during the Civil War. There's a history there that makes it what it is. It's what makes the music there so fertile.
All the gospel musicians, Rock musicians, the singer-songwriters, they all understand the tradition, and the connection between what they're trying to do. It's crazy to think about how the slave spiritual became Gospel music, and how currently Richmond has some of the best gospel musicians. And the thing with Black music is you have so many different melting pots of things – you have Hip-Hop, you got the gospel scene, the R&B scene – and obviously D'Angelo's a huge example in how all these genres can be melded together. Just living in Richmond, you'll see landmarks. Whenever I see the James River, I think about my ancestors, and how they used that river to escape from slavery. There are old slave jails along the river, too. And a lot of that resonates in the music. All of that is a part of who I am.
Stanley: Did you grow up playing in church? How did Richmond shape you?
DJ Harrison: I was born in Petersburg, which is more or less the hood lol. But it's great. When I was a little kid, I wasn't playing in church, but I would see musicians playing in church. It was one of those things where I had all of the records and things like that. Also, whenever the parades would happen, like Virginia State, High Schools, I would always look at the marching band, and my eyes would get wide open. Between the marching band and being open to experimentation, trying different things, really helped to mold me. Then in middle school I had a band class, and from there it was a wrap. My teachers saw that I was really intrigued and putting forth the extra effort to learn how to read music and how different instruments work. When I got to High School my teacher would give me extra homework, and at the time I'm like 15, I didn’t realize it, but looking back they were prepping me, and they really took their time with me.
Stanley: Wow, that's great - having those people that see your interest and them making sure you have the tools you need.
DJ Harrison: Yeah, exactly. And I love other music scenes, but me growing up in the 804, Richmond Tri-Cities area, I've always had that support from my teachers and the music community. And they were real with me, letting me know it wouldn't be easy, but they let me know that they had me. I'm just really thankful to have that support.
Stanley: Who are some of the people that you look up to as a beat maker, producer, or instrumentalist?
DJ Harrison: Man, we'll be here until the show starts lol. I mean, obviously cats like D'Angelo, Questlove, Premier, Pete Rock, Large Pro. That school of cats – when it comes to production, beat making, and songwriting are great. I'm also into people like Donald Fagan and the work he did with Steely Dan. I'm all over the place though, I can go from Donald Fagan to Shuggie Otis to Kiefer to Ohbliv. Ohbliv is a keys cat, I've known him for about 10 years now, and seeing how his music's grown, and how he's influenced me as a musician and a composer, it's just been beautiful to see his trajectory. I've always known him to be gifted with the SP-404, and just his ear. Everyone's catching on now, and noticing his talent. It's literally too many people to name, though. I feel bad, I don't want to leave anybody out lol.
But you know a big component of who I am as a musician and who I look up to are my homies, like my actual homies I came up with, like the guys in Butcher Brown, we went to college together. We spent so much time together playing and practicing, and it's kind of crazy when we look around and we're on stage with Kamasi Washington, and it's like, I remember when so-and-so was late to class because of whatever reason lol. Just looking at the progression is the most beautiful part.
Stanley: Yeah! And you know - this is a little off topic but - I appreciate Butcher Brown for a lot of reasons, but you don't see a lot of bands, Black bands, like instrumentalists, as much anymore.
DJ Harrison: Thanks, I appreciate that. I feel like I speak for everyone in the band when I say that Andy is an honorary brother lol. But it's one of those things where when Butcher Brown first got the LLC, I looked at it like this is pretty much a Black owned business. I'd never thought about it until we got that certificate, but it's really saying something. Being able to be in control, have representation and people that will fight for us, there's something to be said about that. For me, it explains a lot of what happens when you stick together, being able to say we're in this until the end, and we're going to keep it going.
Stanley: You mentioned touring with Kamasi Washington, and you also worked with Nicholas Payton. What were those experiences like?
DJ Harrison: I can't speak for everyone else in the band, but it was nerve wrecking for me. Nicholas Payton came down to Jellow Stone, which is the house we live in, and he recorded Numbers at our house. Which is, first of all, crazy in itself. But then it's like he shows up, and I'm kind of pacing around, walking back and forth in the back. Everyone's excited to see him, and I'm just in the back like, "oh shit he's here, he's actually here." But I mean, for me I was kind of timid because I didn't want to feel like I'm stepping on anybody's toes, but as the session went on, he broke the shell, and had us do our own thing. It was just a cool experience, just how open he was, and watching him in the studio offering ideas. One of us would do something and he would look up with a little smirk, it was cool as hell.
The Kamasi tour was kind of like the same thing lol. They're playing huge rooms, and I'm sitting here like how many people are coming tonight? It's sold out? What's the capacity? 900? Oh, okay lol. But then with us being a little bit younger than them, and just coming into the game, they were really supportive. Even after the gigs were over, the hangs were great learning experiences in themselves, hearing stories, different experiences they've had, and them just kicking some game to us.
Stanley: Can you think of anything that you learned from that tour?
DJ Harrison: I learned a lot about "wet behind the ears touring." For example, on the tour we weren't on a tour bus and we don't have techs. Individually, had been on some tours previously, but the Kamasi tour was where we finally figured out our system. Things like, how to pack the van, who’s going to do what when we get to the venue. We got quicker from city to city.
We handle a lot of the stuff ourselves. We have to go collect the merch, we have to pack the van, we have to check into the Air BnB, we have to make sure everybody's dietary restrictions are cool, because there's no tour manager to do that for us. So, just learning how to navigate that ourselves is really a treat, because we all tour with different artists, but this time we were able to see it on a much bigger level, and you take that with you - being a professional at all times.
Stanley: Thinking about the future, what do you see for next yourself?
DJ Harrison: Just trying to be better, trying to stay focused. You know, it's tough because you never know how many days you get. The time is always now, if you want to do it, go do it now, lay that foundation. For myself and Butcher Brown, I feel like we're heading in the right direction. But it's also about acquiring different skill sets. Like, Butcher Brown is a great fusion band, soul, funk, and jazz, but we've been getting into more rap as well. We're testing the waters with rap, but it's just about breaking any limit that you think is there. As far as me, I'm still turning knobs and pushing buttons, that's what I know, and I don't plan on slowing down anytime soon lol.