Bubblin' Up: D33J
- Words: Lainna Fader
Famous freak Harmony Korine once said that he doesn't try to find meaning in his strange films, but instead abides by the law of the gut, producing weirdo art propelled by impulse. It's a similar philosophy that guides 22-year-old producer D33J (a.k.a. Djavan Santos). While attending an LA screening of Trash Humpers, an odd film that seemed to either confuse or disgust most viewers and critics, D33J was struck by comments made by the director during the Q&A session when Korine called out an audience member who was particularly frustrated by his film. "Harmony was totally fucking with this guy who was trying to analyze his movies, and I really liked that," D33J says with admiration. "I really feel that vibe [when] you don't necessarily know what you're doing, or go into it with a certain intention."
D33J has taken that sentiment to heart, describing his dreamy beats as an "emotional 808," driven not by any lyrical narrative but a particular mood or feeling. "I like to leave room for the audience's interpretation. You can draw your own conclusions. The creative process comes from a guttural place, not a hyper-analytical place. I think there's beauty in leaving room for openness."
Born and raised in Los Angeles, D33J studied guitar and electronic music at Hamilton High's renowned Music Academy, a fairly selective program that counts rising stars Groundislava (Friends of Friends), Syd the Kid (OFWGKTA) and Baths (Anticon) among its alumni. Encouraged by his Intro to Electronic Music class, Santos picked up the basics of the keyboard quickly and dove into making his own beats. "[When I started] it sounded so fucking stupid—like really shitty Postal Service beats." He eventually discovered Daedelus and the Microphones, two artists who heavily influenced his personal style. "[The Postal Service] was a gateway for me, and then it went off after that. I liked a lot of weirder production stuff, like the Microphones—I like that weirder zone between the two."
After graduating, D33J enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, opting to study design over music. "But not practical design," he says. "I still don't know how to make a website." He took classes on interactive installations and video and sound production, both at SFAI and in Germany, where he completed an artist residency. But his experiments with electronic music continued outside of the classroom, and eventually, his friend and roommate Shlohmo inducted him into the Wedidit collective, a group of young producers—including RL Grime and Groundislava—who have backed Santos' audio and visual work ever since. With the slogan "Professionally unprofessional since 1990" and an inclination to stick peace signs and smiley faces on just about everything, the group's sense of humor and aesthetic has earned them a near cult-like following—not to mention a dedicated group of detractors. "You either you get it or you don't," says D33J, who often performs in a '90s-era, neon Goosebumps snapback. "Take it or leave it."
Under the Wedidit banner, D33J released a number of R&B-tinged remixes of artists ranging from Drake to Doseone to Taylor Swift. "I fuck with a lot of old pop stuff," he says. "Like all these weird Drake melodies that stay in my head, or how Taylor Swift sounds pitched down. Those are weird, beautiful moments in pop music, and I like to strip those out and use them in my own production for a remix to make someone who hates Drake start liking Drake." On the strength of D33J's stack of remixes, he's performed all over the country, often alongside his old high school friend Baths and members of the Wedidit crew.
D33J recently finished his degree, returned to LA, and signed to Anticon—a label managed by fellow Hamilton alum Shaun Koplow, who he met after playing a show with Shlohmo. "It felt right because before we did any business, we became friends. And so it was this other relationship outside [of the music]. It just felt comfortable with [Baths] there." His first official release for the label was a collection of his older work, a five-song EP he initially self-released while living in San Francisco. Recorded in 2011, Tide Songs was re-mastered by Leaving Records boss Matthewdavid and reissued via Anticon in April. Unlike D33J's remix work, Tide Songs is quite mellow, eschewing the heavy R&B influences for a more chilled-out, melodic vibe. ("Park (Tape Version)" is a solid example of that.) "It wasn't really nostalgic, but I had this weird optimism about moving to a new place, being in an unfamiliar location [and] a positive mode," he says.
A new EP called Gravel is on the way, and is set to be released this summer. But D33J says the new record comes from a much different place—a darker place than Tide Songs. "I was still in San Francisco and moved into this dark-ass warehouse, with no natural light [and], like, 20 people living in it," confesses Santos. "And it had this crazy vibe. No regrets, of course, but I cherished alone time. So this album was made when I wasn't surrounded by all of those people, and it's meant to be heard at home, not in a club." That said, the young producer has more than personal reasons for his musical growth. "[My music] has always been in flux, always changing as I listen to new stuff," he adds. "I take things in and try to process them in a new way. I don't want to have a stagnating sound."
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