Music: DJ Burn One
DJ Burn One
Words & Photos:
David Sweeten is my friend. That’s the only reason I had the impulse to write this article. But, the reason why you’re reading this article, the reason why this collection of thoughts is living in a skateboard magazine has nothing to do with how much I like David. The reason you’re reading this article is because DJ Burn One is a do-it-right-or-keep-doing-it-till-it-is-right-but-for-sure-don’t-let-it-be-wrong ass motherfucker. The things that make every skateboarder a great skateboarder are the same things that define DJ Burn One’s music, his career, and ultimately the social narrative that he embraces, embodies, and fights for:
A commitment to something imagined, but not experienced.
Drawing motivation from a deep feeling, that has no words.
Transforming a reality constrained by capitalism through the creation of something new and unexpected.
Doing it again and again and again until it’s right, and knowing that failure only comes from within.
In 2011 nobody knew who ASAP Rocky was, unless you kept up with, or were part of the “internet rap scene”. Main Attrakionz, Danny Brown, Metro Zu, Clams Casino, Left Leberra, DJ Burn One, Keyboard Kid, Sortahuman, Beautiful Lou, Western Tink, and others were part of a loosely cohesive group of artists who had ushered in a radical shift in rap music in the wake of Lil B. For the first time in history the rare “token weirdo” hip hop artists from regions across the country were all in the same place at the same time via the internet. This diffuse conflagration of unorthodoxy was the catalyst for an inferno that transformed the culture and industry of music almost overnight. But, the transformation didn’t shake out how many of us foresaw it. For those of us who were there pouring our lives into the internet rap scene in 2010 and 2011, it seemed like the future of rap music would be replete with various types of creative individuals using this blue collar music to shine a light on the current state of our nation, and ultimately draw us all closer together in some type of shared resonance.
Instead we got ASAP Rocky, and a crop of other carefully-crafted posers intended to fool the general public. Music industry capitalists wanted you to believe that you were consuming something of substance. They wanted you to believe that ASAP Rocky’s life was as substantive as the lives of his collaborators, that his work was the result of similarly rugged individualism, distilled into righteously worthy nuggets of wisdom, and rendered in song form. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Rich people with lots of money used their money and influence to paint Rocky into a picture that he never could have appeared in naturally. They co-opted the momentum of a grass roots cultural movement, and used it to sell incredibly vapid music, with rapidly diminishing relevance. They came in and pillaged a vibrant music community, left little more than the dust of industry behind, and never worked with any of those artists again–except for the one artist who signed a deal with a major label: Clams Casino.
You might say those are the breaks, that’s how business shakes out. But in order for that to be true, some kind of business transaction would have to take place. And that’s why this situation is so unjust. Not only were these artists left behind after their momentum was utilized, they also weren’t paid. According to Burn One Rocky’s team claimed that they didn’t monetize the project, so no one should expect to be paid. But, we all know that without the Live.Love.ASAP mixtape Rocky’s career wouldn’t exist. That career has been nothing if not the conglomeration of any revenue stream within reach. Personally, I have a hard time seeing this as anything more than the carefully crafted strategy of robber baron capitalists looking to make millions off the backs of some young positive aspirational men.
Even though this slight could have been a massive hurdle, it didn’t stop Burn One or slow him down, it only created urgency. Getting screwed over as a creative, and watching someone else cake up off your hard work is a terrible feeling. It’s unlike anything else in the world, and the pressure can be enough to drive you mad when it’s someone of Rocky’s caliber. He’s an A1 capitalist asset of the first order, being broadcast on the most highly publicized channels of consumption. It’s tough to not come across his image or his music unless you live under a rock. If you want to think positive thoughts, and not go negative, you have to be prepared to watch strangers and friends celebrate your accomplishments co-opted as someone else’s work, knowing you have to wake up tomorrow and figure out your next money-making move. And that’s exactly what Burn One did. He kept working, and since 2011 he has only doubled down, and dug deeper into the practice that got him a spot on one of the most important mixtapes in hip hop history–although its import has nothing to do with its namesake.
After forming 5 Points Music Group in 2011 DJ Burn One continued to make the music that had inspired him, but he began adding more to it, taking the form as a point of departure rather than arrival. The result is an experimental process in the studio that has much more to do with rap’s future than its past. Or, another way to describe it would be to say that he has reached so far into the history of hip hop, that he has gone beyond hip hop, and is now re-orchestrating the sample sources themselves. After all, there is only so much that can take place within the realms of novelty, and while sampling offers access to amazing possibilities, it is ultimately lacking as a complete process for the exploration of sounds. In the last 18 years the trends in rap music have moved towards increasingly complex synthesizer compositions. The South’s run in hip hop popularized domestic narcotics production and distribution in the form of the trap house. The South also popularized a production style that was informed by the liberties of the trap house: beats are a means of authorship more than reference, and thus Southern hip hop is more about composing, than sampling.
Burn One has gone beyond rearranging existing samples, and instead has developed a practice that relies on live musicians in a studio creating precise sounds of exact intention. Burn One then samples those sounds and creates beats that make you nod, bounce, roll, vibe, or whatever else the mood calls for. But Burn One doesn’t just make beats for rappers, or even instrumental albums for consumers. Burn One is also creating music for television and film, and he is also selling sample kits that people can use to make their own beats. This concept of manifold authorship is exactly what we have seen in the last 10 years of skateboarding. The plaza style skateparks today are not the result of people building skateparks, instead they are the result of skateboarders re-articulating capitalist architecture to create spaces that are ideal for skateboarding. What followed was a generation of skateboarders who skate in ways that no traditional skatepark could have ever predicted. These skateboarders then set out and navigate the streets in ways that no street skater could have ever predicted. The same is true of Burn One. His music has moved into spaces that traditional hip hop could never have predicted, and he has begun doing things within music that no “hip hop producer” could have imagined. But in the same breath, Burn One is using instruments, effects racks, mixing boards, pedals, plug-ins, and the infinite components of the studio in a way that only a hip hop producer could imagine.
The best work doesn’t come from isolation. It comes from navigating contradictions that bear relevance to broad swathes of society. In 2018–7 years after he contributed beats to the breakout mixtape from THE breakout artist of the new era of hip hop–Burn One received final confirmation from ASAP Rocky’s management and legal teams that he would never be paid a dime for his contributions to Rocky’s success. Burn One responded by creating a non-profit to educate artists on how to deal with music industry business, and he’s currently working to start a union in order to organize producers. You can be sure that this is not the response that ASAP Rocky’s team envisioned. Most producers roll over, and eat the cost of being paid in exposure: the record industry accountants are literally counting on it. But again, Burn One isn’t like other producers, so while these music industry incumbents thought they were giving Burn One the shitty end of the stick, they were actually tossing a flaming stick onto a pile of tinder and gasoline.
It’s past time for the music industry to change. The time to change was 5 years ago, now it’s time to prepare for the impending fallout. If you’re on the incumbent side you’re going to want to stockpile resources, and dig deep into your bag of shady tricks. And if you’re not on the incumbent side, well then it’s time to start asking yourself the kind of tough questions that have informed Burn One’s career. Burn One has never been interested in whether or not right now is good enough, he’s only interested in whether or not right now is in line with his vision. I can tell you, it’s never good enough for Burn One, because the music industry is all about playing someone else’s game, and playing by rules that the incumbents will change up just as quick as you can say “I might be getting an edge on them!” And Burn One isn’t here to play someone else’s game, he’s here to use music to bring about the change that he wants to see in the world.
Burn One continues to release new music and contribute to the vibrant cultural legacy of Atlanta hip hop more than 12 years after he hosted Gucci Mane’s first mixtape. His career has consistently overlapped with the earliest stages of notable artists such as Starlito, Rittz, Yelawolf, Gucci Mane, Pill, and others. His legacy as a vital contributor to Atlanta’s legendary music scene is cemented, if not steeled. And now he is beginning a new phase of his career where his role in the music industry will be defined by the new standards he sets, as well as the classic music he continues to make. And in a region defined not only by bass, but also by authorship, it would seem that Burn One has found a new level. While record labels continue to focus on selling music to people who don’t want to buy music, Burn One is building a culture that exceeds the limits of music as a product, and connecting with people in a much more meaningful way. Burn One is working beyond the confines of capitalism to create a music culture that will empower more people to make music.