Music means something to me. It takes me on journeys, both mental and physical. I can feel like I’ve travelled miles but not left the comfort of the sofa. Other times I have gone those miles but because of music it’s felt like nothing. Thats the power of great music. I’m a city dweller, the music contained in my iPod is my friend. It comforts me, empowers me and most of all propels me. The grind of public transport is wearing. Music lessens the impact. I’m getting older too, my tastes develop but my core passion stays the same. I live for a good beat. I feel alive when I hear the kick & snare, a bass line that envelops me, a sample that confounds me. That’s Hip Hop to me. I could be old and grumpy and say that the current crop of artists leave me cold but that would be an untruth. Many move me. One that in the last year has moved me greatly is Ray West. Something about the mans work takes me to the streets of NYC, snaking through people on their daily grind, minding their own, pursuing dreams or just doing what needs to be done. Ray produces the sounds of a living, breathing city, unforgiving at times but with glimpses of beauty like breaks in the cloud. He is a man who’s music is soulful, deeply so, infused with layers of sonics and rugged textures. I imagine his knowledge of music runs & runs. I see a vast collection of records in his grasp, with a understanding of each one like an old friend. I picture dusty crates. I picture a man with a story to tell.
Q) Lets go right back to the start. When & where were you born? To give your story (in later life) context can you explain your family’s dynamic back at that time?
A) I was born in 1976 in the Bronx NY. My parents were in their early 20s at the time they had me.
My father was an electrician apprentice and my mother was a stay home mom who taught piano on the side.
Q) Were you raised working class or lower middle class?
A) We were from a working class family. All my grand parents and parents were hard workers. They all instilled the importance of work ethic and anything that’s worth something comes from determination.
Q) The images of the Bronx from that time period depicted a tough & deprived environment. Looking back now is that something you would agree with? How did that effect your childhood?
A) I was fortunate enough to grow up in a good area of the Bronx. The surrounding areas were tough, but I was in a good working class pocket. It was still the Bronx but it wasn’t run down and forgotten like the other neighbourhoods around us.You always had to be careful and the Bronx will make you street smart. Especially during the 80s – crack era. Things seemed to be moving really fast from a child’s perspective.
Q) Were you a good student? Back then was the education system in good shape?
A) I was a decent student I was just uninterested. Honestly by the 5th grade the majority of my days were focused on rap/ hip hop music. Conversations about the Fat Boys, Biz Mark ,LL , Doug E Fresh and Slick Rick. I could never get all the way into the books. I did enough to keep my parents and the teachers happy. It didn’t always work tho lol. I think the educational system was always stressed in the city. Too many kids … Some teachers get burnt out. If you family is able to afford a smaller school you will be better off, depending on what the kid puts in.
Q) Was the Bronx a multi cultural place? I ask in relation to the gentrification of the boro’s of New York in more recent times. How has it changed your environment?
A) The Bronx has always been multicultural. We always had different sections but people merged. Nowadays I’m still in the same neighbourhood I grew up in and I still really dig it. For me it was a great place to grow up. It had enough shelter to be safe but also enough room to get in trouble. A good balance.
Q) You said conversations about Hip Hop and that leads me to ask about the other aspects of the culture Graffiti, Breaking and DJ’ing. Were you aware of those elements early on or did you have to seek them out so to speak? The South Bronx being the home of Hip Hop must have meant you saw many icons around on the humble.
A) I was definitely aware. There were to DJs on my block, people were breaking and popping. I was watching beat street and learning about rock steady. As far as Graf, the area I come from is the home of graffiti legend SEEN. I remember seeing him do a mural in a school yard when I was very young. Seen is a true pioneer & Hip Hop legend from my neighbourhood.
Q) As a young kid which aspect intrigued you most? Did you try rhyming?
A) I was most intrigued by DJing and records. But by 12 years old I had turntables and had already been collecting rap records. I did write Graf when I was younger – just pilot markers – catching tags. I was rhyming in the park – freestyle but I didn’t take it to the next level. I was more into DJing. Guys like red alert, kid Capri & lord finesse were my DJ inspirations.
Q) Did you run with a crew from 5th Grade onwards or were you more of your solo mission kinda kid?
A) I didn’t have a crew that young , but around high school I was In various crews and groups as a DJ.
Q) You said your mother taught piano on the side, did you learn it? If so did you branch out with other instruments? I ask because your music has many levels and I thought that you must have to have a good understanding of instrumentation to achieve that from either playing or listening to records.
A) I never learned the piano unfortunately. But I play small progressions by ear. The whole learning music throws me off. So I just play with the keys in my own structure and I do what sounds right to me. I feel I can play any instrument if I try. It may not be playing them in the proper way, but I experiment. I have drums and percussion instruments that I incorporate in my productions. Various synths and bass, whatever sounds good to me I run with.
Q) Were your Father & Mother avid record collectors? Again from listening to your production I get that either they, or someone else inspired you’re burgeoning love of records.
A) My parents definitely had records but they were not fanatical about it. They had a record player and a small collection. I still have all their records. My fathers Jimi Hendrix records and my moms beetles & Michael Jackson records.
Q) Did your parents small but dope collection inspire you to cultivate your own? Can you recall those first few records you copped? How was the Bronx for vinyl spots? Fast forwarding to now how deep are your crates in 2014?
A) My parents collection was the beginning of my collection. They defiantly inspired me. My first records were the fat boys & run DMC’s first LP’s. Friends by Whodini on 45 and Roxanne from UTFO on 45. My collection now is about 80 to 100 crates deep, plus bins of 7 inches. It’s an addiction.
Q) Back to your childhood when did you get your first set of turntables? Can you remember how you felt at that time?
A) My first set of tables was at 12. It consisted of a home audio old school turntable and a technique blest drive turntable which had pitch control. A older DJ on my block gave me a Gemini mixer. It was limited but so was my skills and I was just learning and getting to understand how to mix beats and cut. By the time I was 16 I had 2 technique 1200’s and I felt complete. From 12 years old on all I ever wanted for X-mas or birthday was another piece of equipment to get to that point of having 2 1200’s and all the right stuff. It was all I cared about. Once my parents saw that I was really sticking with this I think they embraced it more as far as getting expensive stuff – needles and stuff. As a kid it all seemed so expensive and out of range.
Q) As you built your skills did you make mixtapes for yourself or friends? I ask because I made mad pause tapes in my youth.
A) Oh yes, I made so many tapes. That was my only goal. I wanted to immolate kid Capri back then. He was the best DJ to me. His tapes were like being in a party.
Q) So lets jump to the end of high school, what were your career plans? Had you at this point contemplated working in the music biz?
A) High school was all about making tapes and practicing in the basement. I had a collective group of friend that were all in to it, either rappers or DJs. I would make tapes and spread em around my high school and neighbourhood. I didn’t think about getting in the music biz, I just thought about being better at what I was doing. The best advice my father gave me in regards to a career was keep doing your music thing but make sure you have a job or a plan B to pay your bills and plan for the future.
Q) That’s solid advice. What was plan B?
A) Plan B was following my family’s footsteps and becoming an electrician. My great grand father, grand father and father were all proud union electricians in NYC. As am I.
Q) Moving on from DJ’ing and making tapes when did you decide to dabble in beat making/production? Was it just for your own pleasure or a greater goal?
A) Around 19 years old I got a 6 second Gemini sampler and a tascam 4 track and started making little beats / Loops to incorporate in my DJ tapes. But It just made me wanna be able to do more so I eventually got an MPC 2000 when I was about 21 … Somewhere around then. I didn’t have big goals set at that time. I just wanted to become a master if the MPC and make things that moved me.
Q) Can you recall the first beat you made?
A) The first beats I made on the 4 track where loops from ultimate breaks and beats records combined with some samples. My first beat on the MPC I think I still have some where … It was simple – kick, snare & sample.
Q) As far as beat making goes who were (and still are) your inspirations? Did other genres away from rap inspire as well?
A) My inspirations were the greats like Premo, Pete Rock, Lord Finesse & DITC, DJ Muggs & Q Tip ..
Later on it was Dilla who inspired me in whole new ways.Today it’s guys like MadLib, Tarrach, Roc Marc & Ka who inspire me. I was also inspired by other genres tho. James brown, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Sun Ra. Listening to Jazz records and going to the blue note in NYC to see legends also changed my approach over time. The way they blend together and seem all as one. I try to do that. I try make the drums and percussion 1 with the bass and samples. But in the end It’s all music and life in general that inspire me to create.
Q) When did you decide to actively pursue production at a higher level? By that I mean get involved with local cats and their projects. Where did you get the confidence to step things up?
A) I started doing more serious projects after a couple of years of making beats. I Started making songs with my friend Abdul Jabar and my other friend Cern of the YMI crew. My confidence came from knowing that what I was doing was different and that I really liked it myself.
Q) How did the connection with the legend AG come about? Tell the story because I reckon cats want to know. He’s to me is one of those MC’s/artists who is as creative as he was when he first dropped. What was it like working with him?
A) Me and A connected threw being from the Bronx and grinding with music. It’s really crazy how things happen in life. I never expected to work with someone like A, he was always such an inspiration to me. When I first recorded him I was so impressed by his ability but also his humbleness. He was genuine and he really took an interest in what I was doing. To me he is a legend, so just being able to record with him was an amazing experience but once I got to know him that wasn’t even the half.
He has changed my life in many ways & made me a better person, besides all the opportunity he has blessed me with. I always say that i’m very thankful to have the mentors I had in the beginning of getting into the music biz. There are so many potholes and snakes in this … But I came in this game with AG and Roc Marc and both of those brothers guided me and made sure I was straight. I have been blessed.
Q) At this point did you have a home studio set up or were you working out of a local spot with AG? Did he bring others around?
A) I was working out of my home then in the Basement. He brought around Party Arty, Dflow, king of chill and OC … Plus a bunch of other great people like D KUTS and guys behind the scene that are a huge part of AG’s movement.
Q) Everything’s Berri drops on Fat Beats. What happened next? After working with him did doors begin to open or was it still a case of paying dues? I can imagine it being a mixture of both.
A) Me and A had plans for a different record at first. It was called “pianos in the projects”. It was a record with him and party arty. But unfortunately party arty passed away and we felt a certain way about the music. It was a sensitive time for us …. Especially A. That’s how we came up with everything’s Berri. Around that time I was working with Roc Marc on Marcberg, recording and mixing. It was a crazy time for me cause I was putting all my energy into both those projects. When they both came out around the same time … I felt like there was some kinda break threw .. A new chapter in my path. After “everything’s Berri” we released a lot of the “pianos in the projects” stuff Independently, pressing our own 7 inch vinyls. We did 5 different 7 inches and then a limited box set. After that doors defiantly started opening for myself & red apples a bit more. They new we were here to stay. That’s when we did the LUVNY record.
Q) You mentioned Red Apples 45, what was behind the label formation? Was it a desire for control of your own product? I got to say I really dig the label name.
A) Red apples 45 came to be in a very natural way. AG, party arty and myself had a bunch of music recorded and project ideas at that time. We wanted a way to put out our catalogue in the formats we wanna. That’s where the “45” comes in… Our foray releases after “everything’s Berrii” were 5 different 7 inches we did on our own. The “red apples” is a New York City thing.
Q) You made reference to the LUVNY record. I got to say that it’s a top ten record for me. It’s perfect. How did it come about and how did you get the legend that’s Kool Keith involved? The man is genius.
A) AG knew that I was really into Kool Keith. By chance he ran into Keith on Fordham road in the Bx sneaker shopping….They connected and A plugged me in. I was happy to do 1 song with Keith, but it turned into much more. He is a super genius and really insightful. We recorded for about a year, did almost 30 songs.
Q) What was the response like to LUVNY? Did it open more doors for production work?
A) The response was really great. I was happy that people liked it as much as they did. I feel LUVNY was special.. How it went down.. All the brothers wrote the songs together in the studio. It was all done outta love – no business . It did open doors, but I kinda stick to the brothers who have been with me from the start. AG, OC, Roc Marc, Kurious & Dave Dar. These brothers been with me from day 1 so for me that’s all the opportunity in the world.
Q) That leads me to Ray’s Cafe with OC. What was the concept behind the collaboration with the man responsible for one of the most defining records of the 90’s? I have a feeling it might be a case of mutual respect for each others body of work.
A) AG introduced me to OC. He knew it would work. When O came threw we ate dinner upstairs with family then went into the basement and he was like this is “Rays Cafe”. Then we recorded the song “Rays Cafe” … That’s what gave me the idea if the whole project. Make an ep called Rays Cafe like we are in an intimate Jazz club.
Q) I get the vibe that your a man who likes to preserve the culture whilst moving forward. How does that relate to the choices you’ve made in regards to the formats used for releases on Red Apples 45?
A) I still believe in physical product .. wether it’s a record, Cd & tape. To me that’s what red apples 45 is about. It’s for collectors … It’s not music to stream
Q) It’s march 2014, what’s on the agenda for you this year? Can you drop any gems for the readers on any upcoming releases and ventures?
A) This year we have ” The Snake Tape” which is a “LUVNY” concept limited edition tape cassette.
We plan on dropping our AG / JOHN Robinson LP, an AG / Party arty LP. Possibly late 2014 our Kool Keith record and a record I have with DFlow depending on our mixing schedule. Some LUVNY clothing that will have some new music that comes with it. I’m working on some more songs with BLU too.
Q) I wondered if you have considered producing a purely instrumental album? I only ask because I feel that you produce such timeless sounds. I hold your music in high regard like the greats. I guess what I mean is will we see your equivalent to Dilla’s Donuts?
A) Thank u sir, I am working on that. I have 2 different concepts in that vein that I hope to cultivate.
Q) I want to thank you Ray for your time with this interview, it’s been a perfect experience for me. It feels like a classic Source kinda interview from the 90’s with the range of subjects and depth covered. So for my last question can you list 5 albums that your currently bumping at home and in your ride that are resonating with you the most? Any genre. Drop a gem on us sir.
A) Thank you for taking your time and having interest in what we are doing, much appreciated!
1. MadLib & Freddie Gibbs- piñata
2. Bamboo brothers – Kurious & Dave Dar
3. Lord Finesse – return of the funky man
4. Some live Grateful Dead recordings
5. Shuggie Otis – inspiration information