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DJ Sake One

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

A true veteran of the Bay Area hip hop and music scene, DJ Sake One is a born and raised renaissance man, known to doing anything from community projects to opening up for big acts such as Mos Def or Kanye West. Whether its soulful lounge tracks or bass-filled remixes, his talent and musical palate does not discriminate. Speaking with SF Station by phone, Sake One shares his wise words on hip hop, life, and music in the Bay.

SF Station (SFS): Youve had your DJ name since you were young. How did you get it?

Sake One (SO): When I was a little kid, I was into graffiti like most little bad San Francisco kids were. A lot of times in graffiti people just want to find something that looks good when they write it, so we came up with nonsense words, but "sake" is an actual word! And back that time, I wasnt too familiar with my foreign beverages, so I was trying to find something that looked cool when I wrote it. I stopped doing graffiti, but the name kind of stuck with me in the community; people knew me as Sake. When I decided to take the DJ thing seriously, it was an obvious choice. That was kind of the hip hop era, when you would have a nickname that stuck with you no matter what you did.

SFS: What got you into DJing -- when you started first doing graffiti?

SO: I started out by being into hip hop in the late 80s and early 90s. As the culture expanded and grew, so did my interest. Graffiti was not something I was going to be in long term, because I didnt have any graphic art skills, and I kept getting arrested! That wasnt going to work. My older brother was a DJ; he didnt directly influence me to be a DJ, but really influenced me to pay attention in music and have a deep interest in music. He was actually more of a music collector and I actually became a DJ before he did.

He moved to New York in 1988, and would send me tapes of radio shows there so I could hear Marly Mar or Red Alert and the hip hop DJs on the radio which hadnt really hit out here yet. Hed send me a Marly Mar tape and Id hear a song by LL Cool J Id never heard before, and Id ask my brother and he would say it was on the 12" single, and not the album. I would go to Tower Records and mom n pop stores and started buying 12" so I could have these remixes and songs that werent on the album. After a while, my friends knew me as the dude who had the A Tribe Called Quest song that wasnt out because I went and bought the record. I started building a record collection, started DJing, and thats where it started off.

SFS: As a DJ, do you think its important to have a good record collection?

SO: Yeah, I think its essential. I was actually just thinking about that because now with Serato, pretty much anyone could start DJing if you have music in your iTunes collection, which is fine. But you used to be known for the music collection you had; there were records DJs would have that you wouldnt have and that was kind of how you got your reputation. Thats going back to the beginning of DJing, but thats changed in the past three or four years. Its changed so anyone can get any music; you can get it online, burn it on a cd, download it, etc.

Theres still a ton of music that hasnt been digitized and only on vinyl, but to me its more important now that a DJ has a good selection and a good ear for music, and maintains a niche for themselves in the DJ market. The DJ market's flooded with DJs that just play whatevers hot. Definitely having an ear for what's good and discovering gems, and pushing the boundaries of whats popular is whats important.

SFS: Going with your answer, how do you think music has changed with the invention of Serato? What do you think of the music scene in the Bay lately?

SO: I think that its easy to be good, but hard to be great. I think there are different sides to it: the creative side, distribution, and playback of music, which is where DJs fill in. You dont need a recording studio to make a remix now; you can make it on a laptop. Obviously that has become a bigger feature of pop music and whats expected of DJs. Youre not supposed to play music, youre expected to remix and create. The technology has become a lot more democratic and its easier for people to do it. Its hard to be great at it because theres so many people doing it and it makes it harder to stand out in the humongous fray of people.

It seems to me now that a lot of music requires filtering. There used to be five house records, five hip hop, etc, and the major labels would have 12" singles they would send to the DJs. Now, there are a million songs out, and theres a million remixes, stuff is out before its officially out, so you have to filter stuff much more. DJs can help by differentiating something that has a lot of hype versus something that is really good.

Tons of stuff that will come out and people will jump on it, but sometimes its not that high quality. DJs need to be more accountable for that instead of playing whats hot; they can be gatekeepers, but not an elitist way. If people want to listen to LMFAO thats fine, but DJs have always been known as people who pay more attention to music and our opinions should be valuable.

SFS: You mostly do hip hop, right?

SO: Not anymore, its what I started as, and Im kind of known in that realm, but Im not doing too much hip hop because musically its kind of a dead genre.

SFS: Right! Lately hip hop has been all about hype versus musicality. What are some artists you think are doing something good? Any favorites?

SO: It depends -- I listen to music from all genres. Im a big fan of Quentin Harris, a house producer, and I really like the new Major Lazer record. It comes out of a hip hop sensibility but its more of a dancehall record.

SFS: Did you see him when he was here?

SO: No I was in Miami when he was here, but I saw him a couple weeks ago in NY and we got lunch. I consider Major Lazer and some of the Baltimore club-influenced stuff coming out like Rye Rye, Blaqstarr, and even Trackademicks from the Bay, to be post-hip hop. It doesnt sound like hip hop, but it comes out as a similar edge of making something fresh where people can dance.

SFS: Youve been a staple, and Ive seen you open up for huge acts, what would you say your staying power is?

SO: Im not sure, definitely part of it is that I really love music; a lot of DJs that become irrelevant or fall off get caught in a certain genre or sound. For me, thats never happened. I avoided that for a while.

Ive always tried to consciously avoid being in a box in terms of what kind of music I play and be unpredictable. I think a big part of it is that Im really connected with the community, like the non-profits and the social justice world, and in terms of staying power, I am really connected with the Bay Area in ways that some DJs arent. Im old enough to have friends who have little brothers and sisters going to the clubs sayin that their older sister really likes me!

SFS: Do you have anything coming out soon?

SO: I have a couple of remixes, and a 12 out in November. Theres a remix project with J-Boogie.

SFS: Yeah! He was the 3rd person I interviewed.

SO: Justin is a homie. We have a remix album called Leftism, the first and second dropped last year, and some studio production. Two weeks ago we met and put together some Michael Jackson remixes in honor of his passing. Well be releasing more music this fall!

Catch Sake One at his resident PST at 330 Ritch every Tuesday, and keep up with him and check when his newest mix drops at