Chile’s greatest producer makes your heart quake and booty shake at the same damn time.
One of the latest, greatest names to appear everywhere in electronic music circles is Barceleona-via-Chile producer DJ Raff. But In truth, there’s nothing new about Raff. For over a decade, he hustled his way to the top of Chile’s explosive rap scene, earning a reputation as the nation’s number one hip-hop DJ. Then suddenly, he threw it all away to move to Europe and make pensive, experimental beats layered with digital raindrops and sizzling waves of noise.
Such a move might inspire some side-eye if said experimental beats weren’t so darn good. His combination of boom-bap beats and moody synthesizers hit the spot profoundly, prompting one European journalist to coin the term “Emotional Bass” to describe Raff’s sounds. He nimbly straddles the line between warm and cold, organic and digital, hype and delicate. We heartily approve.
These days, things are moving fast for DJ Raff. Last year, he showed up on the bill of Barcelona’s prestigious Sonar festival and released his American debut, Latino and Proud, on Nacional Records. We caught up with Raff at the recent Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC) in New York City, and proceeded to nerd out about Chilean hip-hop, international DJ culture, and the art of the sound.
Hi Raff – your music is hard to describe. How would you describe it?
I’d say it’s something in-between instrumental hip-hop and electronic music. I was a straight hip-hop producer and DJ for many years. Then in 2005, I started moving more towards the electronic world, so that’s where I’m at now.
Chile has something of a famous hip-hop scene in South America. What attracted you to it?
I loved hip-hop from the first time I heard it. I was in my house in Chile, watching the movie Beat Street, and I realized they made music with things they had in the moment like turntables and their voice, just rapping and singing. I didn’t know how to play guitar or anything, but I had a little turntable from my father and I started to experiment with scratching and I loved it – it was music I could make with my own hands.
Chile’s hip-hop scene has always had a very political edge, right?
What happened is, we had a dictatorship for 17 years, and during this time a lot of people were exiled and forced to leave the country. The children of these people, who mostly went to Europe or Canada, came back to Chile with a new culture. In the early ‘90s, these kids started to bring back hip-hop and electronic music and everything that was happening over there. And that made the hip-hop scene in Chile in grow really quickly. That’s why today we have one of the most important scenes in Latin America, maybe the most evolved together with Brazil. We just got into it a before other countries.
Totally, I had friends from Germany who would bring over VHS tapes with hip-hop programs recorded on them and we would get together in the house to watch them. Sometimes a friend came from the US with a tape of Yo! MTV Raps. It would be, like, 3 months old, but for us it was “Wow, world premier!” So the culture was born and it grew. We watched, listened and tried to do it ourselves, putting some Chilean flavor on it.
From what I understand, you became the top hip-hop DJ in Chile, right?
Yes, I think it’s because I started when I was really young. In high school, I met a lot of other people interested in hip-hop like me, and I was interested in working with everyone. In the beginning, people were using instrumentals from other artists, and I was one of the first people to make his own beats in Chile. That made people want to work with me.
Why did they use other instrumentals? Were they trying to copy American hip-hop artists or did people just not have the know-how to make beats?
Nobody had the equipment. I didn’t either – I did everything at first with a radio and two tape decks. I would record something off the radio and loops it by recording back and forth between two tape decks, and then put a little scratching and keyboards on it. In the end I had an instrumental that sounded terrible, full of tape hiss, but at least it was original. Later on we all got Technics and MPCs, but at the beginning, there was nothing.
So, you were at the top of the game in Chile… why did you leave hip-hop and change up your sound?
I first left in Chile in 2005. I lived in London for a while, then Paris. Most recently, I was in Barcelona. At the same time, my music changed because I’ve always liked what’s new, the vanguardia. In ’95, hip-hop in Chile was something new. With time, I became disillusioned with hip-hop, because it became all about the bling-bling….
No, not really in Chile, but it changed its direction in the world. So I stopped being interested. Hip-hop is my foundation, my roots, but when I listen to hip-hop now I listen to the golden age: Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul. I haven’t found anything recently that grabs my attention. So the switch was this – looking for something new.
What were your references for this new project? It’s such an original sound, so I’m wondering if there was something you were listening to and said, “I want to sound like this.”
Yes, when I listened to Flying Lotus, it made my head explode. I knew I wanted to do something like that – to tell stories with sound. It was a whole landscape, a sound rooted in instrumental hip-hop but that was also really electronic and abstract. From there I started taking different influences – The Cure, Joy Division, and all this stuff. So the result is a combination of different feelings. I like the darkness and melancholy of the artists I just mentioned to you, and to mix it with the strong beat from my hip-hop influence.
I feel like there’s a strong element of noise in your music as well. The sound is rough around the edges, not too polished…
I like to give sensations through sound in my music, and I think noise and rough sounds are an important part of this emotional experience I’m trying to get across. Recently a journalist wrote that he thought my music could be a new genre called “Emotional Bass,” and I really liked that idea.
To me, this is music I really want to listen to. Is their pressure to play more dance or party-focused music at your gigs?
When I do DJ sets, I try to make people dance. I don’t play Top 40, but I play dance music. When I have a show, I make it more like a concert, more for listening and going through different feelings.
A month back or so Deadmau5 started a big controversy on his blog by putting up a post called “We All Hit Play,” basically telling the world that the live DJ concert really a myth, and that DJs are basically paid to press play on their songs and dance around while twiddling knobs cosmetically. A lot of DJs weren’t happy about it. What’s your take?
It’s really hard for DJs to play live what we do in the studio. I always compare it to making a painting. In the studio I’m always making a picture, adding all the different colors, and afterwards I can’t paint it again live. Because it’s already fixed; it’s a finished work. But in my case, I do try to do as much as I can live. I do press play of course, but then I add keyboards on top, I put effects. I’m always trying to create something new that people haven’t heard before. Because if not, I’d die of boredom – just pressing play and waiting to for the tracks to finish. That would be terrible.
It’s interesting to me because clearly our pop music is more and more electronic and production-based, yet at the same time the industry is changing to make live performance the only way to make money. It’s kind of a fundamental conflict, isn’t it?
It is a conflict, because today you have to play live, there’s no other way to survive. For this reason, a lot of electronic artists work with visuals as well, because you need to find a way to maintain the tension and tell the story of the music in a compelling way. I work with some great visual artists in Santiago – I think it’s an important tool.
I make music with hardware, with samplers, sequencers, and MIDI keyboards. Then once I get some sequences I like, I put it in ProTools and start adding weird sounds. I use some analog synths, old things from the ‘70s.
Hip-hop, especially in the ‘90s, was such a sample-based art form. Do you still use samples?
Yes, but I sample less. I have this crappy old sampler, a Casiotone. It limits you so you can only sample four seconds and it sounds terrible. It sounds so bad that it forces me to get as much as possible out of it. I always invent barriers like this for myself to help me come up with something new, because if now, you end up falling into the same patterns.
Wow, yeah, that sounds kind of like guitarists who try our weird tunings just so they accidently play new things.
Totally. I for example use samples to compose. I’ll sample something to get inspiration, and then take it out. Because sampling makes me works with notes that I wouldn’t have made on my own. So when I have something I like, I get rid of the sample and I’m left with the music that I made on top.
So how about this album on Nacional Records, Latino and Proud? What’s coming up next?
It’s gone really well – we have one video for “Digital Rain” and we’re working on another one for “Battle Life.” Right Now I’m working on songs for my next album, coming out early next year. But I’m happy, it was my first album in the US, the music is going new places. We have a song in the FIFA game. I hope that at some point I can come and do my first US tour.