AbJo on Inspiration, Soulection, & the So-Cal Beat Scene
Since his rapid ascent in the early 2010s, AbJo has been on the move: globetrotting between parties and festivals, looking to define his sound while experiencing others’. An original member of the formidable Soulection crew, the San Diego native’s early productions were key in shaping the collective’s distinct “Sound of Tomorrow” that has afforded them worldwide acclaim. Fast-forward half a decade later and AbJo continues to go from strength to strength; his latest release, “Chroma”, is a synesthetic journey showcasing the peak of his musical prowess. To commemorate the new album, AbJo sat down with us to reflect on the early So-Cal beat scene, the beginnings of Soulection, and what keeps him inspired.
Did you grow up in musical family?
Funnily enough, I’m the only person in my family––my immediate family, at least––that plays or does anything related to music… I just happened to be the one! I have some cousins who have relatives in the industry but I wasn’t really inspired by them––it was different, all about the music.
I first started playing music when I was nine in elementary school––I played the violin. My mother pushed me to have something else going on in my life, because where I’m from there were really only two options: basketball or construction work. Other than that, there’s kind of not a whole lot out here [in San Diego] besides tourism. Everybody else either works in hotels, TSA, or retail.
What was the music scene like when you were growing up in San Diego?
Honestly, I don’t think too much has changed since I started to now, especially in the last decade that I’ve been actively producing. I’m not saying there isn’t a scene, but it’s not as developed or together as LA’s beat scene or the DIY culture of the Bay for example. San Diego is, at it’s best, very experimental. I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff happen here, and we’re inspired by all these different people passing through the city. I consider myself a native because I was born and raised here, but lots of my friends and people that I know ended up here after originating in LA, or Atlanta, or wherever. They came because of immigration or the military, which is of course a big thing down here. A lot of my friends have parents in the Navy or Army or Air Force––their careers brought them here. That lack of “local” distinction combined with the laid-back style of life we have meant there wasn’t much drive for a scene to be created.
That being said, we did still have a couple good places––my first real experience with the beat scene was at this spot called the Kava Lounge. Gaslamp Killer is actually from San Diego and made multiple appearances there––it was like the only spot in town supporting that type of music. First time I ever played on the same bill as LA beat scene members was at Kava Lounge. It’s one of those places everyone knows about, they go and chill, but one night of the week everyone’s there for a certain event, absolutely. And that event was our own version of what they had going on with Low End Theory at The Airliner up in LA––in a way it was the beginning of Soulection’s The Sound Of Tomorrow (TSOT) showcases, where people come out to see a specific group of artists. Other than that, we had a huge warehouse and rave scene down here, spanning underground hip-hop and whatever proto-EDM acts were around at the time. I think that was largely in response to the early closing hours we have in San Diego––we just wanted a place to hang where you wouldn’t be kicked out at 1:30am.
I don’t want it to sound like a struggle––it wasn’t. There just weren’t as many of us dedicated to making it happen, so we had to make do with what we had. As much as we always wanted a thriving scene, there just weren’t enough of us––but we did what we could.
Is your experience in the So-Cal beat scene how you developed your sound into your signature hybrid of beats and electronic music?
Definitely––it couldn’t be helped, being influenced by these things that were so monumental. Appreciating Dilla’s discography during the whole Stones Throw, Madlib revival era was easy for me because I grew up on D’Angelo, The Roots––they’re my favorite group to date, still––so my transition into that type of scene wasn’t very tough. In terms of the LA scene, I wanted to do what they do, have what they have, and this reflected in the events we did at Kava Lounge. But I experienced all this with a sort of detached clarity; everyone in LA was so caught up in what was happening because it was all around them, but as an outsider looking in I was able to appreciate the music without feeling obliged to follow the same trends.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who AbJo was, and determined that I’m influenced by but not derivative of my inspirations. I pay homage while still doing my thing.
How did you get into producing?
Long story short, I kept playing violin, and then learned how to play viola, and then I learned how to write music. I went to a performing arts school and got into making beats and video production early-on in high school. Eventually I went to college and just started putting my first beats up on Myspace (laughs). Those beats were usually titled “Kava Lounge Beat 1” or “Kava Lounge Beat 2”, which is how people came to know about the live events and we connected in real life.
When I was just starting to produce I was really inspired by the LA beat scene and Dilla appreciation that was going on. I was there when FlyLo and Nosaj Thing started doing their stuff––barely 18 then, sneaking into shows, driving this rickety old Mustang from San Diego to LA to see shows every Wednesday. I feel that I’m definitely a part of that group of people––I was able to see and experience the beginnings as a young kid, and was able to grow alongside them.
When did you decide to give producing & performing a shot full-time?
Throughout my career I’ve always balanced making music full-time with various odd-jobs. It’s important to be an adult––have a job, pay bills––and not rely on the music to see me through. It’s nice that I can live off the music, but it’s nicer to have even more money in your pocket on the regular. I’ve been making money off of music since high school, playing and touring with bands and stuff, so financial success as AbJo wasn’t completely new territory.
How did you initially link up with the Soulection guys?
Back in 2010 I met [Soulection co-founder] Andre Power in a college class at the Art Institute of California –– San Diego. A friend of mine introduced me and we hit it off immediately, he wasn’t from here so I showed him around town and he introduced me to [Soulection co-founder] Joe Kay. Joe was also trying to find his ground DJing and had started this thing called “Ill Vibes Radio” at Long Beach State. We initially connected to talk about him playing one of the local spots down here, but we all just clicked. They told me they were about to start this thing called Soulection––at the time it was just a music blog––and Joe was super plugged-in to finding new music, way before SoundCloud, and had begun talking to other artists. He already had some tracks from Ta-Ku, Evil Needle, and now me, and was talking about starting a label.
At the same time, Joe was working on this separate thing called The Sound of Tomorrow, sort of like a music showcase, and had me come on-board to do a monthly beat set. Soulection the blog launched around this time, and we started getting coverage from our favorite blogs and were like “Ok, let’s continue doing releases”. They put out a compilation and then Ta-Ku’s “24” EP, and the third release was my “Sankofa” EP. From there things started picking up––this was in 2011, about five years after Dilla’s passing. It had been a while but the impact was still very strong, and there was something lacking in the community––a lot of the music coming out was very similar. But the stuff that Ta-Ku and I were doing sounded really different, and it was a good fit for the Soulection mission so we continued working together, doing TSOTs. And I think that’s what really led to people defining us as having a “Soulection sound”––me, Ta-Ku, Sango, and Lakim were making similar-but-different sounding stuff that was being shared in little online communities. We all knew each other from the Internet or through friends of friends, so it was really natural and grew into its own little cult (laughs).
2013 was the first time I played Coachella, and we played together as Soulection––me, Sango, Mr. Carmack, and others. It was a meeting of artists from different subgenres––footwork, trap, future beats––all playing distinct yet cohesive stuff as one group. After we did that performance, things went all the way up.
Soulection was part of that first big wave of SoundCloud talent that came into its own––do you think the online music space has changed since you guys came up?
I think we were really lucky––a lot of our success was certainly aided by releasing that new stuff in such a perfect musical climate. The coming together of the original Soulection crew was serendipitous because if it had happened any later I don’t think it would’ve caught on as much, and if it had happened earlier we would’ve been dismissed as a Stones Throw copycat. If we were trying to do now what we did back then, with the same resources and everything––then no, I don’t think we would’ve been nearly as successful. We were doing things back then, like pressing albums and getting vinyl into people’s hands, that are commonplace nowadays, but back then it was super rare.
It’s strange, because the access and limits to access that we were afforded on SoundCloud have changed dramatically. We’re a very experimental, homegrown music resource, and nowadays you don’t have as many distinct collectives due to market over-saturation. There’s so much music nowadays that I can dig into and hear prime quality but isn’t being covered because it’s lost in the crowd. Back when Sango joined the group, there was no-one out like Sango, and so he blew the fuck up! Same goes for me and Lakim––the doors were just wide open for us, and nobody even knew about the doors existed! It’s always a matter of being able to take advantage of something––we took advantage of the sonic gap in the market and staked our claim.
The sense of continuous unity, support, and community that Soulection espouses is evident. Do you have any memories that stand out to you as defining moments––things that make Soulection the unique collaborative force it is?
Definitely––my first time playing at Koko in London really stands out. It was the biggest club venue I’d played at, and the show was absolutely massive, the entire place drenched in sweat. It was the first time as a performer that I truly felt overwhelmed by the amount of energy coming from the audience––I had to stop for a minute and watch what was happening before transitioning to the next track. We had an afterparty at our AirBnB once the show ended, and it was fully-wired with Sonos speakers so it turned into one big “aux-cord” party––just us DJing off our phones and drinking all night. Towards towards the beginning of the party nobody wanted to DJ, but I didn’t care and plugged in my phone. I shuffled some of my favorites, and it just turned into this singing match between Soulection fans, artists, the promoters… It really struck me that everyone there knew every lyric to every song I played––the music really brought all these different people together. It hammered home the unique aspect of Soulection’s sound: there’s not a single place we go where people don’t like what we do, simply because we like what we do. It’s not really difficult to find people who enjoy the things you do, but bringing them all together in the right place at the right time is the challenge, and that’s what Soulection is able to do.
What does the collective mean to you?
Soulection is family. That’s the way it started out, and that’s the way it still is and will be. We’re all on the same page about what we love musically and creatively, and just come from the standpoint of “Let’s make something dope”, as opposed to “Let’s make a massive hit and cash out”. Out of that comes this supportive spirit––everyone leans on each other to get things done––and I think driving that is the fact that we’ve been blessed with something far larger and more impactful than any of us intended. Soulection is bigger than us, and we all understand that––if Soulection continues to be successful it will be because we never lose sight of that fact.
I’ve had the chance to pursue other opportunities in the industry, but have never once felt like I’d rather do anything or be affiliated with anyone other than Soulection. I think this is because we’re still invested in and putting out stuff that is unlike anything anyone’s heard before––that same commitment and camaraderie doesn’t necessarily exist elsewhere. Soulection has never not wanted me to be AbJo, they’ve never overruled me creatively––there’s a profound mutual respect and love between us. Simply put, Soulection is timeless.
It’s easy to get burnt out producing––especially in the fleeting digital age of SoundCloud. You’ve been doing it for a decade. How do you stay in-tune with your production sensibilities?
In my opinion, a lot of young producers these days are missing a key component in terms of being a truly great producer: being in that studio, in that room full of people that can inspire you–– it can’t be overstated. I feel lucky to have grown up in a time where it felt like producers––Pharrell, Kanye, Timbaland––were accessible. Producers nowadays don’t get to see the producer be the producer––what I mean by that is we all know about solitary bedroom producers, using MIDI keyboards and DAWs, but what I was influenced by were producers in state-of-the-art studios, behind huge mixing consoles, fielding ideas from an assortment of likeminded creatives in the room. They were doing the same exact stuff we were doing, in the same exact way; the only difference is they were sitting in a real live studio.
I feel like this has informed my understanding of producing to be a lot more grandiose than average––even though I’ve been labeled as a backpack producer, I still strive to be a studio producer. I have many friends who are perfectly happy producing from their bedrooms, an airplane, a coffee shop, whatever, and still make fantastic tracks. I never had influences like that before, but I do now, and having both perspectives is really helpful. But I still find myself looking back to the legendary archival material––N.E.R.D. in the studio––and drawing inspiration from that. I want to be able to sit in a dedicated room with all the equipment I could ever need––even though what I may actually need is right in front of me on my laptop, I still want to never stop exploring other possibilities.
“Chroma” is an emotive artistic statement––how does it feel finally put this body of work out into the world?
I consider myself to be very personal, but as a performer I don’t really have that luxury of privacy because I have to share who I am through my music. I’m getting used to habitually being very open via sharing my music because I know how important it is to literally release stuff from me. There’s a Jazzy Jeff quote that really galvanized that idea for me: “Die empty”. You know, don’t let an idea you have die with you––at the end of my life I don’t want to be left with ideas I haven’t finished. It’s tough to be that open and vulnerable. Putting out music is a very vulnerable experience. You’re not just putting out your feelings and emotions, your showing your personality for everyone to see.
It’s strange––I’ve had people come up to me and tell me my music has helped save their lives, that they made love to it and it was the best shit ever. But that kind of stuff is good to hear! (laughs) It helps inform the music I make in the future, knowing that this resonated or this didn’t. And at the same time, being an artist is as much about the personal experience––I’m hearing how I’m making people feel, based upon how I felt when I made that song. That’s the best part about music for me, at the end of the day.
That aside, Chroma was me trying to showcase myself at my very best; what I really wanted to convey was that you can make music and have it be bigger than just the title track––you can paint pictures with it. Without saying anything you can infer everything all at once––all the tracks on Chroma are “colored”, based off Synesthesia. The project is basically a demonstration of how to color music with your emotions.
Where there any particular challenges or mental blocks you encountered when recording?
For a long time, I was doing my best to try lock myself in a room and make music because I figured it was the best way to do it––force it, and whatever came out of me came out of me. What’s changed is a personal realization, from “my best music comes from a lack of sleep” to just living my life. I think my music has gotten so much better simply because I stopped racing to put out tracks––especially in my community, when frequency of output is emphasized.
Over time, I’ve slowly been replacing my eggs from the “quantity basket” into the “quality” one, and that also means a better quality of life personally. My music, from the past couple years at least, has definitely come from just having a life in general. You know, I started taking a few part-time jobs, not even to make ends meet but just to have some sort of structure and reality in my life and music. It grounded me, reminded me where this music was coming from, that it was borne out of these personal experiences. Even something like listening to a track I’ve made, driving stressed out to-and-from work, reminds me of how Tribe or Dilla used to make me feel in those same scenarios, and I tap into and channel that into my music.
You’re going back on tour with some of the Soulection crew this Fall. Tell me a bit about that.
Tour life in general isn’t for everybody––it can very easily become work. It’s a lot easier if you’re touring with people who “get” you. I’ve never been on tour with any of these guys, but we’re all kind of the same, all have our idiosyncrasies, all a little bit weird (laughs). The worst part about traveling is not being at home, but for me I find it easy to feel at home anywhere the music is good. And that’s the best part about touring with these guys––I’m traveling with a bunch of people who all make and listen to the same stuff I do! We’re trading tracks, demos––it’s like a little club as opposed to the monotonous “load-in by X, load-out by X”. It’s a blessing, being able to choose the people you travel and play with, of having the luxury for people to meet me halfway simply because they like my music. I think it wouldn’t be as easy or as dope to do what I do had I not had those choices––right now, it’s just like traveling with my family.
What’s does the future hold for AbJo?
Eventually I want to put together a band––elevate my show from more than just a DJ set via real instruments, taking that vulnerability out of my music and really laying it on stage. I’m a musician before anything else––at the end of the day I’m happier on a set of drums than behind the decks. I have a few new projects on the horizon––one unsurprisingly is a tribute to Dilla, and it’s going to be one of those personal projects where I don’t really care how it’s perceived, it’s more-so I need to put it out there. There’s also going to be a “Chroma” Remix EP, and of course the tour through the end of November! Right now, for me, it’s just about putting out the music I want to put out.
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