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Mr. Sonny James: Carrying The Torch For Philly DJs.

March 18, 2014

SonnyJamesIllvibeGun$GarciaMIXTAPE01Here’s our third installment of our monthly mixtape series, which is curated by GUN$ Garcia. Today she brings us Mr. Sonny James, co-founder of Illvibe Collective.

He’s been spinning records in Philadelphia since the age of 12, with the intention of making even the shyest of wallflowers dance. You can catch him spinning hip-hop and classic soul every other month at Body Rock, held at Kung Fu Necktie. He and DJ Lean Wit It will spin at Maxi’s, on the Temple University campus, Thursday evening. Our Lissa Alicia caught up with Mr. Sonny James and talked about tattoos and his passion for music.

How long have you been in Philly?

My whole life. I grew up all over the place. When I was real young, I lived in Northeast Philly, not too far from Franklin Mills. Then when I was 13, I moved to Southwest. I lived I’m Southwest for a couple years, then I moved to South Philly for most of my teenage years until I went to college. When people ask me where I am from, I usually say South Philly because that’s the place where I kind of got my identity.

How did you begin DJing?

I’ve been DJing since I was 12. I guess I started because of my family. Both my mom and my dad had pretty deep record collections, so I would always play around with them. Also, my sister had a friend who was a pretty accomplished DJ in the area – Philly, Delaware, New York Jersey, so I would hang out and watch him. I watched him and listened to the radio – you know, guys like Cosmic Kev, DJ Ran and Jayski. I got inspired and heavily into it. The first time I got paid, I was 14.

What was the gig?

I was a friend’s wedding reception. It seemed normal at the time. My son is 12 now and when I think about it, wow, I can’t imagine him doing something like that.

What’s set you apart from other DJs in the city?

In the time I came up, there were no DJ schools, Youtube and all these assets that you have around if you want to learn about the trade and want to developed a skill now. It was like you had to learn from the people that you knew. And you had to pay dues before you were even allowed to touch a record. Even to acquire your music collection you had to save up. I bought most of my record collection with allowance money, chore money, and then actually had an internship when I was in high school – just to go to the record store and buying a lot of records. I think that builds a different appreciation for music.

Now, a lot of the music has turned disposable. You know you have free downloads available for almost everything depending on how hard you are willing to look. And even stuff that you paid for still kind of feels disposable. It doesn’t occur to most people to buy a physical release anymore. I think a lot of it has to do with that but then also it has to do with being willing to take chances. I don’t feel intimidated by the crowd, where I won’t take a chance musically. I think that might answer your question, but also I grew upon turntables. That’s kind of a big part of my repertoire – actual skills, like cutting and channeling, which I am able to do in a party setting and not clear the dance floor.

Would you say you prefer vinyl over digital?

Its has its pros and cons but I love the way vinyl sounds. I do an all vinyl party monthly. There is just no denying that it sounds better than an mp3. In terms of the amount of effort it takes to prepare for something like that, it’s insane. The amount of time I spend just trying to pull records together for one set – it’s hours. There is a disadvantage in terms of the amount of time and preparation that goes into it. At the same time, I do like the challenge because sometimes it can be  to the point where it monotonous to play off of computer files. You have everything in front of you. You have to go through tracks that end up popping up all the time. Its a neutrality when you end up playing with records. In terms of ease, it’s definitely easier to play with a computer, especially when I’m  traveling. Nowadays, it’s all digital when I travel. I usually take a handful of records in my bag just in case. I’ve been traveling internationally since 2001. There’s always something that might happen, some kind of break down. I’ve had my computer crash on stage in Australia in front of 20,000 people. I always bring 10-15 records in my bag just so I can have something to play while I am restarting and troubleshooting. But for the most part I am digital.

How did you and the crowd react when your computer crashed while performing in Australia?

Oh, I was having a heart attack but I didn’t let it show. At the time there was a host. I told him, “Keep talking. I am troubleshooting.” When other situations like that happen, I usually just pick up the mic and talk. I try to engage the crowd – call and response. “How’s everybody doing? Happy birthdays to whoever’s in here.” Basically I try to keep the people engaged until I get the music back on.

SonnyJamesIllvibe02What makes a good DJ?

Paying Attention. I think the worse thing that I notice when I go out and hear other people DJing, they are kind of playing for themselves and not really observing what people are reacting to, in a positive or negative way. If you understand the environment you are in and you are a fan of music, you can always find a common denominator to get people moving. Philly is one of the toughest places for that because people are so segregated and people very critical of everything.

Who are your favorite Philly DJ’s?

Jazzy Jeff, Rich Medina and Cash Money. There are so many good ones.

If my memory is correct, you have a tattoo of a pair of headphones around your neck.

Yeah, I do.

What’s the story behind it?

I went for years without getting any ink. I knew I always wanted something but I didn’t want  to get something that I was going to regret later. Music has been something that’s been consistent for as long as I can remember. I’ve been building this record collection since I was like 4 or 5-years old. Being a DJ is a big part of my identity. I’ve seen other DJ’s tattoos and they are usually something typical like a turntable or the arm of a turntable or a needle.

IllvibeInsideSmallWhat is your favorite show to spin?

My favorite one is probably Body Rock. We’ve been doing it for 13 years now. It’s almost like the common denominator with our DJ crew. Its pretty much the only time that we manage to get together and play together. Even Though we are all friends outside of music, it reminds us of the foundations of why we hang out with each other. And I love the dudes that I play with so it always inspiring to hear what the other dudes are going to play. It also makes me step my game up because I now I can’t be lazy around them. Not that I want to. It’s just a reminder.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to Europe for a couple weeks to DJ. That’s kind of what’s immediately happening. After that, I am working on finishing my solo thing, then the next the Illvibe Collective album. I’m looking forward to getting it done. Its been in the works since our last project was done. It’s been hard to stay inspired, especially having a new baby.

How does it feel to be able to control the energy of a crowd with your skills?

I don’t see it as that big of a deal. Maybe I should. I think what happens is that I tend to compare what we do to the comedic world. I know comedians who say, “You can have a thousand people in the room laughing, but you will notice the people who are not. I think that’s what happens with me as a DJ. I may have a bunch of people in a room who are really enjoying their night. The two people who are standing, aren’t enjoying themselves, are the two people that I think about the rest of the night. I really don’t want it be that way. But for some reason, that is just how it is. That parallels to what comedians go through.

In a previous interview with JUMP, you said, “We love music so much, we treat it delicately.” Can you elaborate?

What I notice when I hear a lot of DJ’s play is that it seems to be more of a popularity contest, trying to play whatever the hot joints are. With us, it’s really about music. There are a bunch of gigs that we do and we don’t necessarily make a lot of money from. It’s important for us to keep the integrity of music in Philly. In some ways, I feel like the torch has been passed. Guys like Rich Medina are like our heroes but they aren’t really that busy anymore in Philly. They kind of moved on to a more international market. When it comes to the musical torch here, it kind of rests with us. I’m pretty particular about things that I will play and things that I wont play. There’s definitely compromises that I have made at times. For the most part, I am about the music. I think that sometimes becomes my downfall. A lot of DJ are interested in looking like their shit is poppin’ more than actually about having integrity about the art.


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