Interview with BLAQSTARR, artist, DJ and producer for M.I.A. and Rye Rye - Jul 26, 2010
“I’m stopping saying that I make songs, I’d just say I make experiences and these experiences I’m about to share with the world are totally cosmic.”
Having picked up a few good vibrations in 1966 the Beach Boys were duly inspired to compose a deathless pop classic. Now DJ, artist, producer and enigma Charles ‘Blaqstarr’ Smith is using vibrational forces to help fashion his musical exploits, but will the results provoke as many excitations?
Mortal ears and eyes were first drawn to the Blaqstarr in the clubs of Baltimore in the early 2000s when his pioneering ‘black roq music’ drew an ardent local following. Excited attentions about the young starr soon spread beyond the city limits, not least due to DJ/producer Diplo, who released the acclaimed ‘Supastarr’ EP, and M.I.A. (US Top 5, UK Top 20) who snagged him as a regular collaborator. Now with his M.I.A. co-write ‘XXXO’ riding the UK Top 40, Blaqstarr is poised to unleash his own solo career under the flag of M.I.A.’s N.E.E.T. label, and in promising deep, cosmic things, expectations are high ...
Diplo has said that you could be this generation’s Isaac Hayes. So was it always your intention to evolve into a fully-fledged solo star, even as far back as when you were drawing the crowds as a DJ on the Baltimore club scene?
Yes, it was always the big dream of mine.
So why is now the right time for Blaqstarr the performer?
There’s so many signs that it’s universally correct. It’s like all the visions that I’d had as dreams I’m now living.
What were those visions?
I didn’t see it exactly but it’s like I’d seen it as a feeling, in how everything has come about and how everything will be. So, it’s cosmic and boundless.
As a slow, sinister electro-soul ballad, ‘Oh My Darlin’ is a somewhat uncharacteristic debut for your new venture. So was it chosen as a conscious break away from the club bangers you’re associated with?
Yes ... It was just like a spillage from my imagination, I would say.
How did it come to life?
It was inspired by that feeling you have in a club when you’ve just made that connection with your dance partner. It just poured out from my imagination of how it’s like in that situation.
In describing your original club music as ‘black roq music’ you’re clearly not fond of having traditional labels put on your music, so is the music by Blaqstarr the solo artist going to prove equally difficult to pigeon hole?
Yes, it’d be like a more a direct way of expressing my art and a better way to pigeon hole my sound. It’s like it’s grabbing - like another magnet I’ve just put into the equation.
With tracks like ‘XXXO’ and ‘Shake It To The Ground’ you’re clearly well versed in the art of creating big tracks with a big potential audience, so are you now gearing up to take on the charts with this new sonic direction?
Yes, definitely, definitely ... I’m totally prepared.
You previewed a new band at the SXSW Festival last year. What was the reaction like?
That wasn’t a new band, that was just a side project I was working on because, like I said, it’s boundless what I do, so I want multiple situations.
The reaction was wonderful because it’s a natural thing for me to be a master of ceremony. I just gravitated to the whole vibration and every vibration I sent out was picked up.
Can we expect a full-length release on the N.E.E.T. record label anytime soon?
Yes, pretty soon ... This year.
How did you begin making music and what kind of music were you making?
In the beginning, I’d say it was more based around the Baltimore club sound and then it just evolved into what it is now, which is like a cosmic, boundless sound.
What equipment were you using at that time?
I was using a MPC2000 and the computer programme was Cool Edit Pro.
When did you first start performing?
Well, when I first started DJ-ing I was always vocally inclined. I always used to hype up the crowd and just sing like a low eight bar, like freestyle to the ladies. So, it was always like bits and pieces of my DJ performances have been coming up throughout my whole career.
What artists were inspiring you at the very beginning?
I was inspired by artists like Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Phyllis Hyman, Michael Jackson and Prince - good vibrational music, powerful vibrational music ...
I’ve read that you began working under the name DJ Blaqstarr while still at high school. What kind of things were you doing then and what kind of places were you playing?
I played every high school event, like homecomings, every prom, parties here and there - every event for the high school for the whole four years I was there.
And it also used to be club events, like every several months for high schools in the city, and clubs like Paradox in Baltimore. I used to DJ there for the high school kids. It was beautiful.
You built up quite a local following for your innovate club cuts - was there always a conscious desire to create something totally new and different to what was there already?
Yes, yes. I was just open to where I was down.
What then made you decide to branch out and release the Supastarr EP through the Mad Decent label in 2007?
It was just evolution. I wanted to evolve - I didn’t like to attach myself to past thoughts, I had to evolve and expand. It was automatic really.
How did you meet Diplo and get involved with Mad Decent Records?
At the time, he and his girlfriend M.I.A. had heard some of my music and they wanted to reach out to me. I think they contacted me through a DJ pool.
What kind of response did you get from that EP?
A wonderful response. A lot of people said it created a mega amount of suspense, which is perfect for me because suspense is totally the thing I need. Suspense equals power.
When M.I.A. first approached you to collaborate, what do you think she heard in your music that she felt would fit with and add to her own musical worldview?
The vibration, it’s like it was vibrationally correct - my voice, my whole everything, my vibrational package.
Why did you want to work with her - were you aware of her and her debut album at that point?
No, I wasn’t. I would just say it was vibrationally correct.
With her first two albums M.I.A.’s earned a reputation as being one of the most forward thinking pop artists – was there any pressure on you to keep trying to do something new and groundbreaking?
It’s like that positive pressure you had the day before Christmas, like, “Ahaaa!” That was part of the whole creation and inspiration. So, yeah, it was pressure but good pressure.
M.I.A.’s music sounded totally leftfield when she first burst onto the scene but through the sheer quality and immediacy of the music, she’s effectively realigned the mainstream. As a collaborator, has this success had a noticeable effect on you – has it for instance given your production skills a much wider exposure?
Yes, definitely. It catered to my vision totally, no limits - it’s like the whole boundless experience that I live by. It was universally correct and vibrational.
So do you now have pop artists wanting your production talents to try to get in on M.I.A.’s game?
My production help, yes.
And who are they?
It’s several people. I’m not sure if I can actually say ... It’s probably not cool to expose that right now.
Are there any specific artists you would like to work with?
There’s no limit. I would like to work with all the females in the game.
I’ve read the writing process for the Maya album involved you camping out in M.I.A.’s house in LA to work on the songs together. What was the process like - were you literally creating things from scratch or did you both already have lyrics and tracks ready to work on together?
It was literally everything from scratch, because we agreed that it was very important we both just grabbed from where we were right there - the whole set up and the environment. Just pull straight from the universe and then kill all ego.
Does she have a studio at home?
Yes, there’s a studio section on the house that she has.
What’s M.I.A. like to collaborate with? Is she as demanding and exacting in what she’s after as you might imagine?
What kind of equipment set up did you have?
It’s actually the same set up that I always use, like the MPC, the ProTools, and then a silent keyboard.
‘XXXO’ is the first single from the album and is attracting a lot of attention for being quite a pop track for M.I.A. Did it evolve into that sound or did she start out by saying she wanted a big clubby chart-friendly track?
It evolved into that sound. It came straight from the universe.
It’s a track that could be a big hit for any number of pop artists ...
Jay-Z did a remix of it and that was pretty tight - he killed it. It was beautiful.
You were chosen to perform at the People's Inaugural Ball in Washington D.C., one of the major events leading up to the inauguration of Barack Obama, how did that come about?
At the time I was working on a project so no, I didn’t perform there.
You’ve registered the name Blaqstarr as a clothing trademark. Why have you decided to branch out into clothing?
I did it more so that no one else would do it. I had the name, and fresh branched out into the clothing section. Everything is in a different department right now and so as the music evolves the whole idea with the styling has evolved at the same time. So, it wasn’t like progress.
You’re an active Tweeter, are you going to be taken advantage of any other social networking sites or blogs?
I haven’t started a blog yet, but that’s something that I’m about to incorporate into my imagination. So, my blog will be up soon.
Do you have any names in mind?
I’m tapping into my imagination right quick. Actually, no, not yet, because I want to come up with something magnifying. But it will be up and running this year for sure.
What’s in the pipeline for you at the moment?
Oh man, where do I start? There’s so much. Like right now there’s my killer show that I’m putting together, my killer album that’s soon to drop ...
I’m stopping saying that I make songs, I’d just say I make experiences and these experiences I’m about to share with the world are totally cosmic ... oh man, it’s going to be deep ...
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Boston pop-rock band Westland feature in the Artist Diary
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