AYLI Podcast #86 – DJ Ra-Soul

If you’ve been digging house music in the Bay Area for the past five years, you might not know DJ Ra-Soul. But if you’ve been digging house music in the Bay Area for more than ten, then you’ve probably heard his name.

African-born, Oakland-based Guy Nado — aka DJ Ra-Soul, Digi-Soul, Killa Green Buds, Madd African, Politix of Dancing, San Frandisco Sound Outfit, and many more — has been producing and DJing killer disco-flavored house music in the Bay Area for decades. His first record as DJ Ra-Soul landed in 1993, with a steady stream to follow.

He quickly became known for deep, funky, hard-hitting house music, and was a key player in the developing West Coast scene. Recently, he went on hiatus — which is why some newer heads might not be familiar with him — but he’s back in action, producing psychedelic political house music with fellow Oaklander Don Crisp as Black In Time, and returning to the DJ circuit, recently playing As You Like It’s annual picnic in Golden Gate Park last Sunday, July 21.

He’s contributed the latest edition in the As You Like It podcast. Jam to it right down below and read on to learn more about Ra-Soul.

CZ: I know you’ve been living in the Bay Area for decades, but you’ve from Côte d’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast, originally. When did you move to the USA? How has life in the Bay Area changed for you over the years? 

GN: I emigrated from the Ivory Coast when I was five. I pretty much consider myself a Bay Area native. I would say that I grew up as an American kid with a slightly different household than the rest of my neighborhood. Most of my childhood friends would always comment on the food whenever they came over, but they loved it — not too many people were eating curry, fried plantains and peanut stew when I was growing up.

CZ: You’ve been making music for decades, too — Discogs tells me your first record came out in 1993. Are you a lifelong musician? When did you discover house music, and what inspired you to pick up the machines yourself?

GN: I was an avid radio listener in my youth. The diversity of the Bay Area made many choices available for radio. Listening to some of these stations formed my musical taste and influence as well as listening to my father’s collection of Afrobeat and other African music styles.

There was KSOL, KDIA, and KBLX, which all catered to the black market. KDIA was on AM radio and played nothing but Soul and Funk. 

KBLX was known as The Quiet Storm, and played contemporary jazz and Jazz fusion. I oddly had an affinity for this sound back then. 

KSOL was I guess you can say urban radio, although I dislike that term because of its racist connotations. They played a mix of funk, soul, freestyle, electro and early hip-hop. Plus they had the famous 12:00 noon mix by Page Hodel. 

And I can’t forget KPOO, KZSU, and KPFA, all community radio stations with legendary underground hip-hop shows and KFRC which was a modern rock station. 

The great Synth Showdown of the 1985 Grammy’s changed my life. That year they focused on synths and electronic music, and they finally had Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Thomas Dolby, and Howard Jones all throwing down. Right then I wanted a keyboard and I wanted to make electronic music. I first started dabbling with hip-hop which was one of the first genres to push the electronic forefront. Didn’t own any gear yet, but my father DJ’d as a hobby. He played Afrobeat and hosted a radio show on community radio which played music inspired from Africa and the Africa Diaspora. In his study he had a setup, and I would sneak in when he was at work and mess around with the tables and two tape decks. From there I progressed to cheap Casio samplers, eventually a full-fledged studio, and now, to my iMac and a few pieces of gear.

I was already dabbling in hip-hop production when I first heard house music when I attended college in Atlanta. 

It is important for me to note that I attended one of the HBCUs, and that my first experience with house was in an environment with an all black crowd which was very different from what I encountered when I returned to the Bay Area. 

The year was 1989. The setting was a small loft party on the outskirts of downtown. No alcohol or drugs, just a juice bar, people smoking weed, strobe light, a fog machine and baby powder.

They had two DJs that night, who were the regulars. A kid from Chicago that went by Kamikaze Joe and this skinny nerdy looking dude that that went by Li’l, who would later become Li’l Jon, the inventor of krunk. The night was a mix of hip hop, dancehall and house music. Everybody danced to everything. There wasn’t really a separation between the genres, it was all about dancing.

 As soon as the first house track was played, I was like, “WTF is this?” Instantly I was hooked. I wasn’t only exposed to just one sound, they played everything from Mr Fingers, early Strictly Rhythm, Nu Groove, to banging Chicago acid and distorted kick drum techno and tracks like Strings of Life. I can’t remember exactly what song it was I heard first but I was hooked, became an instant house head and I knew then and there this was the music I wanted to make. 

My first influence was Larry Heard as well as my most influential artist. I wanted to make music like him. Then along came others such as Wayne Gardiner AKA Classic Man, Todd Terry, Lil Louis from Chicago, Masters at Work, and DJ Pierre. My style was a blend of all of them together. The most influential songs for me would have to be The whole Fingers Inc. album, The Warning and The Final Frontier by Logic aka Wayne Gardiner, and Strings of Life on Metroplex.

CZ: I noticed you have a knack for collaboration, too. Some of your earliest records were produced in tandem with several other people, and you have a new project with fellow Oaklander Don Crisp called Black In Time. How does working with other people change the music-making process?  

GN: I love it. It takes the stress out of making some creative decisions. When two people can agree it’s a go — always nice to have confirmation. Plus I enjoy learning new ideas and vice versa. With each collaboration there was always an exchange of ideas, tips and tricks, and secrets. I also feel it’s a show of respect when someone wants to collaborate with you. Plus, I could never make what I did on these collaborations on my own.

CZ: Since you’ve lived in the Bay Area so long, you’ve seen trends and sounds come and go. Do you think there’s a particular West Coast house and techno sound? Do you see your own work as fitting into a West Coast scene, or are you looking beyond? 

GN: Even outside of house music, the Bay Area has always had its own flow and style. Bay Area Funk was different. We had our own Electro and Freestyle sound and you can’t deny the influence the Bay Area rap scene had in the music industry.

For the last 10 years I haven’t been active in the Bay Area scene so I’m just now catching up on what’s been developing. From what I can see, I feel the early foundations are still there, along with a more developed techno and minimal scene that started in the mid to late 2000s.

The Bay Area has definitely always had its own sound. Even though my influences were Chicago, New York, and Detroit, being from the Bay formed my musical identity. I always wanted to represent the West Coast.

One cannot deny the influence of the Wicked Crew — they were the foundation of the West Coast sound. Although I’ve read that myself and others were part of the west coast sound, I say that’s only partly correct. I felt that I was more representing the sound I heard when I went out —

what people often overlook about DJing is the creative process of the blend. I’ve always approached it as an art form. It’s not about just one song, or track, and being over-worried about beat mixing (now there is sync and that shouldn’t be an issue and hopefully DJs start thinking more creatively.) I am always thinking about what can I create with these two or three tracks. Take some obscure stuff and make it sound stellar. Jeno was the master of this, and he influenced a track I did called True Science. Actually, I made that track specifically for Jeno. Not in the literal sense, but in that that was the purpose of that track. And to me, that is the Bay Area Sound. My goal is to still represent that sound. With so many people moving away to make it, I intend to work on putting the Bay back on the map.

CZ: Tell me about your As You Like It podcast. How did you put it together? Was there a theme or a concept you were going after? Is it a typical Rasoul DJ set or something different? 

GN: Well, the mix is live from the party. I tend to like my mixes to have a certain flow, with intro, buildup, peak, and then bring it down. No concept or theme but I wanted to showcase that I also play the styles in the techno genre.

I knew your crowd would be receptive and I wanted to take this chance and show case that side of me. So, probably not a typical Rasoul set from back in the day, but this is what I’ve always done — but focusing on more in the present.

CZ: Tell me about Black In Time, your new project with Don Crisp. Is this a production duo, or label project, or all of the above? Will you be showcasing just your own work or that of other artists, too? Do you have any other new projects in the mix that you are working on?

GN: Black in Time is a production duo and project we are doing. The whole premise is to have an outlet for us to make techno and minimal tracks and at the same time make some social and political commentary.  Each release will have track featuring some kind of social commentary. Of course we will have instrumental versions.

Black In Time is a play on our social identities in America’s racist social construct and the urgency of awareness. It’s also a play on Black musicians and musical timing, all tied in with the acronym B I T, which represents technology — hence electronic music.

CZ: Tell me about your practice when you’re DJing. How do you pack your record bag? Do you come in with a plan in mind? Do you find yourself wildly changing your selections based on the crowd? What makes you feel like a particular DJ set was successful or not?  

GN: I will be condemned to hell by the vinyl purists, but I haven’t packed a record bag in ten years. Some planning always goes into when I play sets. I get a group of what tracks I want to play and have some idea of an order, but I always watch the crowd. If have to wildly change my selections I’m at the wrong venue.

A good set to me is one that had a good flow, with no abrupt changes in energy and mood, and that can keep the dance floor moving…

CZ: Last but not least, let’s talk about some new music you’re listening to. It could be old music, but new to you, and it doesn’t have to be dance music. What’s got you excited? 

GN: The funny thing is that I never really sit back and listen to music. Either I’m working on it, or I’m listening to it by mixing. Usually I only listen to other music when I’m outside my own environment and someone else is playing it.

I do get influenced by the tracks I pick up. There’s lots of good minimal out there if you search long enough.

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