Virgil Abloh is a jack of all trades; while OFF-WHITE has taken the Chicago-born polymath around the world and into some of the most hallowed halls of fashion and design, his side gig as a DJ has provided him a creative release. He’s also aware that many might consider him a poser. In a recent interview with Billboard, Abloh spoke on his passion for DJing and how he deals with naysayers:
“I have this undying motivation to work and think hard [because] it’s what I do with everything. I nicknamed this [way of thinking] ‘the Scorpion.’ It’s a metaphor for potential death. A scorpion can potentially kill you at all times. You have that in the back of your brain. It’s the ability to self critique yourself. What can haters say? What holes can they poke in this? They’ll probably ask: ‘Do you even DJ? Do you know how to work a Pioneer? Are you using Serrato? Do you know how to mix?’ From the style of DJing, the type of music I play, to every song I choose, it all comes from knowing the 30 different points of potential death, critique style.”
Abloh goes on to explain that he has been DJing since his teens—he spun at house parties throughout high school and college—and that he was initially drawn to turntablism. He cites A-Trak, Benji B, Gilles Peterson and the X-Men versus Invisibl Skratch Piklz scratch-battle series as initial inspirations.
Read on below for Abloh’s take on AUX cord DJs, his memories of club culture, and how DJing has become “the new golf.” Click play on the video above to watch Abloh’s b2b Boiler Room set with Heron Preston, No Vacancy Inn’s Tremaine Emory and Acyde, and Benji B. You can read the rest of Virgil’s interview with Billboard here.
How did DJing become a passion of yours?
The plan for me has always been to never formally define. I’ve always been into different genres of music, so playing [music] has been something I’ve been doing since high school. It’s been 15 years now. I’ve been DJing since I was 18, 19, through high school and college. This has always been one of my favorite pastimes — representing different genres of music and bases of nightlife.
I’d transition from hip-hop scratching, in the vein of DJing, to listening to Gilles Peterson. I’d link my dad’s fascination with jazz and soul to the hip-hop I was listening to. I grew up listening to hip-hop such as Common and Tribe Called Quest. House electronic music wasn’t at the forefront, and it’s a shame [seeing that] I’m from Chicago. I learned [about] Detroit techno [through] Benji B. For a kid, that was the way you learned in the ’80s. There was no music education in those genres, just hip-hop.
Some aren’t aware as to how back DJing goes for you.
Nah, [and] I love it. It parallels to skateboarding. It’s one of these things [about the] ’90s that if you do it in the 2000s, people automatically assume that you’re brand new to it or jumped on a bandwagon. That’s not the case. I started DJing during the wave when turntablism was popular. My first turntables were plastic, belt-driven, Geminis. You’d buy it from the back of a catalog. My idol back then was A-Trak. I’d learn how to scratch with my friends after high school. I eventually had my pair of Technics 1200 and I’d lug them around from house party to house party in high school, playing off the same 12 records. I’ve DJ’d since that era, but then kind of took a break. Then realizing there was a lull in American club culture, I started listening to Gilles Peterson and Benji B. religiously. I listened to Benji B for 12 years straight, once a week. That’s my backbone and my palette is gauged off of both of them.
In America, especially, there’s been years [where there’s been] a lack of culture around music, which is pop music. The DJ’s role in current culture in America [has] wavered. I used to go to New York and watch DJ Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito [Garcia] play in the Meatpacking District. I remember years after, those parties and vibes weren’t there anymore. When I saw my entry point back into DJing, it was mainly to bring a [different] point of view into the role of playing songs.
Within club culture, as with many pockets of music, there’s a case of snobbery. What makes a DJ a DJ in your mind?
I love playing commercial music in credible environments, and play credible music in commercial environments to connect the culture, in the Malcolm McLaren spirit. It’s about breaking down the stigmas of different stereotypes and snobbery. It happens on both sides. It’s about freedom and bringing something to the table when stepping up to CDJs or the clubs. The sets at each [event] are drastically different but they’re meant to be eye-opening. I love playing your real favorite songs versus your favorite commercial songs in the same set.
There’s a different word for DJing off an auxiliary chord. I wouldn’t say it’s not DJing but I wouldn’t call it the same thing as matching three beats on three different CDJs, and one’s on loop and one’s some crazy house song. You bring up a good point though. I love when a niche culture can be invaded. It helps reassure the foundation. DJing is the new golf. Everyone DJs, doesn’t matter how good you are or not — it’s a commonality. Everyone has an opinion on music. It’s great that more people are getting into the art form of it. With that, there’s a great responsibility to be a great DJ. I, by no means, am at the level I want to be at yet but I am in a space.