Photo by Sabina Tang
As technology has progressed, the artistic quality of the DJ has been lessened due to the ease of becoming one. All it takes to call oneself a DJ these days are two turntables, an iPod Shuffle, a case of Monster Energy Drink, and a trip to the Wu-Tang Clan Name Generator. Unlike the club rats whose smattering creative insights are more clouded than their fog machine, bass music DJ Sacha "Son Raw" Orenstein is a breath of fresh air -- he spins records without spiraling into cliche.
When James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem explained his worry of being bested by the younger DJs with better ideas and more talent on "Losing My Edge," he was talking about cats like Son Raw. The Montreal native is an established veteran digging loops for well over a decade, but never settles for anything less than continuous reinvention. Whether he excavates African rhythms from the vault or picks industrial reverberations that come off as selections for a modern Blade Runner score, Son Raw makes mixes that challenge and surprise until the end, but never sound like they should've been made any other way.
When Son Raw's not making mixes behind the boards, he's clacking at the keyboards as a grime columnist for award-winning blog Passion of the Weiss. Akin to a great bass music compilation, our conversation pulsates and is heavy. The former occurs when Son Raw discusses grime's promising future and his own journalistic integrity; the latter transpires when he brings up the passing of one of his heroes, Chicago footwork pioneer DJ Rashad.
Let's start with the basics of your writing career. How did you link up with Jeff Weiss, and when did you start contributing to his site, Passion of the Weiss?
I used to contribute to a number of sites as a guest writer in the mid-aughts, but the thought of running my own blog never appealed to me -- I travel too much to maintain a regular update schedule, and spots like Thailand aren't exactly hotbeds for new music! Then during one of my extended my trips abroad, I felt the urge to write something, but none of my regular outlets were interested. At the time I was mostly known as a hip-hop writer but I wanted to expand into dub, African music, Brazilian music and psychedelia. I asked Jeff if I could contribute a piece, and the rest is history. We bonded over our shared music geekery, Jewish heritage and love of shall we say, herbally enhanced music.
What album review are you most proud of writing?
Reviewing Danny Brown's Old last year was a highlight because that album feels like a one hour vindication of all of the musical ideas we fight to promote on the site, and we were one of the first publications outside of Detroit to feature his music. I'm also the guy who told Kevin Martin that King Midas Sound's live show sounded like My Bloody Valentine in dub and he's gone on to mention that story in subsequent interviews, so it's cool to have had that small bit of influence on a musician I admire.
You're of the impression that grime music is best represented by its singles, rather than full-length albums. Why do you believe that is so?
Well, all dance music is best heard in the mix and the building blocks for mixing are singles: they can be infinitely reordered and recombined; it's not a static genre meant to be heard in a "finished" state the way most contemporary rock or hip-hop is. I actually think album-length grime releases have a lot of potential as home listening however -- be on the lookout for forthcoming records by JT The Goon, Slackk, and SD LAIKA.
What direction do you see grime music going for the rest of this year?
It's just spiralling in a dozen creative directions at once -- and that's diversity is what's so exciting. You've got young producers doing edits of old R&B tracks, trap-oriented stuff for emcees, dark solemn tracks, sino-grime -- which is heavily influenced by Asian timbres -- stuff that's closer to old-school sounds. I think as long as producers don't get stuck on one sound, it'll keep growing.
If two of the best grime MCs -- Dizzee Rascal and Wiley -- got in a rap battle, who do you think would win?
It's a catch-22: Wiley can beat anyone if he sets his mind to it, but he's already shown that he doesn't want to take his old friend down.
As far as your own bass music DJ work, what are your rules to ensure a consistent improvement of your craft?
Spend several hours a week listening to new music, both mixed and unmixed. I know way too many DJs who don't listen to other DJs and it limits their range -- there's no shame in hearing someone do something cool and trying it out yourself afterwards. Also, don't get weighed down by genre tags -- they're just words. If two songs don't belong together, why not find a way to make them work?
What's the key to making a stellar bass music and/or grime mix?
All of the above, plus a good record collection and a sense of perfectionism.
What's your favorite venue to perform in?
I'm a big fan of underground parties in random lofts or warehouse spaces. I'm not what you'd call a hippie but the idea of doing something outside of the spaces society dictates really appeals to me. There's a feedback loop between an environment and the crowd as well: people there are more open to new ideas. As for established venues, playing Low End Theory in LA was a major highlight.
If you could pick a bass line to serve as your "theme music" when walking around, what would it be?
It's actually more melodic than bass led, but Ruff Sqwad's "Together" because it samples the Police and that's probably the first band I remember liking at around 2-3 years old, so it kind of loops from the beginning of my life until now. Plus the full track is about women trouble and I've dealt with a fair bit of that, too!
What music projects are you looking to put out this year?
I just mixed a set on Rinse France, which is a new sister station of London's Rinse FM. I'm immensely proud of that. I'll be returning to Montreal in a couple of months and there will be more mixes and more parties with my promotional company Deadbeat Montreal.
Anything else you'd like to add?
A big RIP to DJ Rashad -- he was a true innovator who strived to forge new paths in music at a time when too many were just content to rehash old ideas. I know countless musicians who wouldn't be where they are today without his records and want to send my thoughts and prayers out to his friends and family.