DJ Witnesse, real name Jason Sims, is a gifted guy. As a DJ and student of music, his talent for effortlessly blending musical styles is awe-inspiring. He’s shared the stage with Pretty Lights, Rusko, Girl Talk, Big Gigantic and many others. He’s played festivals like Spring Rites, Beale Street Music Festival and Bonnaroo. He is not only an innovative DJ on his own, he is also the man behind the decks for the inventors of aristocrunk, Lord T and Eloise.
He can turn on a dime from dubstep to jazz, from techno to hip hop, melding the best elements of any genre into something new, exciting, and uniquely his. But as a person—in this case, a person teaching me Electronica 101—he’s patient, thoughtful, and passionate about the music he loves.
Conversations like this are why I do “Another Cup”: Memphis music—like electronica itself—isn’t a monolith. It’s bigger than what our parents listened to, and certainly bigger than our own self-made bubbles (in my case: singer-songwriters, rock, and soul). Memphis music at its best has always been about shaking people out of their comfort zones. In talking with Jason, and in listening to his music, I was thrilled to step outside of my own.
Now, enjoyAnother Cup of Coffee with Witnesse!
Full disclosure: I’m ignorant about the world of electronic music. Tell me a little about your background with music—did you start as a DJ?
I played bass first. I played in a couple of punk bands, low-fi jazz bands, maybe twenty years ago. I moved to San Francisco when I was nineteen or so.
Did you grow up here?
Yeah, I’m from Memphis. I went to Bartlett High. And then I went to San Francisco right after on a bus with a bass guitar and a backpack full of books.
Why San Francisco?
I knew a guy who lived in Bolinas. I was really lucky to land in this magical little town, an anything goes kinda town. There were these older English dudes out there who were DJing; they were called the Wicked Crew. This was the early 90s, around the time of the birth of rave. That was my introduction to electronic music, and it just stuck with me. I found something in it that was punk rock, to me. Back then, in its original form, it was rebellious. It was unconventional and new. That’s what got me into it.
So I moved back here. A couple of friends and I had been turned on to this new laboratory acid house sound. We really wanted to bring it back here. That was really my transformation from playing live music to DJing.
How many folks were doing that kind of music in Memphis at that time?
Not too many.
When you mention different subgenres of electronic music, are you speaking to a style of music more, a lifestyle more, or both?
Definitely a little bit of both. But in terms of lifestyle, it’s funny–there’s this bitter, anarchistic slant to techno kids now. Back then, there was more of a universal consciousness. People were trying to lighten their carbon footprint. Some raves, you had to bring canned goods to get in. That kind of thing. Open-mindedness.
It’s tough to talk about, because there are a million different changes that take place. It’s a big topic. It also hasn’t really been documented by the local press. The Memphis Flyer–really cool newspaper–pretty much focuses on alt-rock and the occasional misguided rap. They’ve never really given much play to the electronic scene here, which has been alive for a very long time.
This is something I really wanted to talk about. Electronic music feels like a separate world to me. I’m always hungry to hear something new, but that world always seemed intimidating. There are so many genres and subgenres, and its fans take it very seriously. I never know where to start. And that’s my own fault, I know. But it did always seem very separate and hard to crack.
Yeah, I’d recommend just going out, doing what you’re doing, asking around. I do a couple weeklies. I do a Thursday at Mollie Fontaine. I do a Monday at Beauty Shop, which has been going on for years.
Right! Okay. E.J. from Loudersoft plugs that show. I see him post that a lot on Twitter. Loudersoft definitely gives y’all some local support.
Right, yeah. He’s there a lot, which is cool.
Where do you see the Memphis electronic scene now as opposed to when you started?
It’s been through so many ups and downs through the years. Someone like yourself might see an electronic scene as one big conglomerate. It has that vibe about it. But inside of that, there are many different cliques that do really different things. To an outsider, the difference in the music might be in really small details, but to the people doing it, the difference might be in an entire lifestyle.
A few years back, an amazing thing happened: everyone’s scenes momentarily blended. You’d see punk and hip hop and hipster kids all at the same rave.
Why do you think that happened? Any one thing you can point to?
Not sure. That was a high-point to me. That whole boiling pot vibe is, to me, what Memphis is really all about. Memphis is very deep and mystical, but you might not see it on the surface. It kinda takes time, it has to grow on you, and you see all the cool things bubbling up next to each other below the surface. It’s a boiling pot of true, rich culture.
Outside of San Francisco, have you ever lived elsewhere?
I tour a lot. I’ve been everywhere around the states. I probably play at least 100 shows out of the year. It’s my full-time job, more or less.
How would you compare Memphis’s scene to other cities that you see on tour?
Depends on the city. Some cities are way more primitive than we are here. Other places–Colorado, New York, LA, San Francisco–they’ve got so many choices.
Listening to your Soundcloud, you’ve got tracks with Lord T & Eloise. You’ve got mellow stuff. You’ve got funky stuff. The diversity really jumps out. You seem to be able to float from one genre to another effortlessly. What’s your background with music? Are your tastes as varied as they seem?
I try to. I try to be a jack of all trades, in a way. That might be my strong point. It is kind of schizofrenic, in a way! But I feel like it’s a reflection of my history with music. You’re into one kind of music, you study it heavily, you collect a ton of records. And then it changes to something else.
You start getting curious: how did all these different styles develop? How did they affect each other? For example, disco. A lot of people consider it silly and archaic. But it was the predecessor of so many forms of music. Original hip hop was looped disco records. Disco led to early forms of Chicago house music, English techno, and on and on. That evolution really affects me. That’s where I’m coming from–I want to visit all these different time periods respectfully.
You talked about different cliques inside a greater electronic community. Where would you place yourself? How would you label yourself?
It’s hard. If you came to the Beauty Shop on Monday, you’d hear a lot of classic hip hop, a lot of Memphis crunk, avant garde rap, etc. But then if you leave me to my own devices in a big room, it’s more a post-dubstep thing. It’s like hip-hop tempo techno.
Help me out on dubstep. I know nothing about it except that it’s really divisive. I hear people either loving on it or hating on it.
Original dubstep was really cool. It was taking the best elements of rastafarian music, dub, hip hop, techno, and putting it all together. It was basically rastafarian techno. In my opinion, it’s been dead for so long. So many people went the exact same way with it. The same thing happened to jungle.
In dubstep, the beat’s slowed down, it’s basically half-time. It gives it that groovy tempo. Its earlier predecessor–jungle–double-timed the tempo, it was twice as fast. I dabble in maybe the more avant garde side of dubstep.
How did the [new Memphis-based electronica label] Voodoo Village come together?
I’m not 100% involved on the business side of the label. I was asked to be involved as an artist. I’ve known Brandon–one of the other guys involved–since we were kids. It grew from guys wanting to put something together that represented Memphis. That dark bass thing. Plus, there’s never really been an electronic-based label out of here before.
From what I understand, Voodoo Village doesn’t want to focus on just one style of electronica. But they are all going for this dark bass kind of thing. The label itself was just recently formed. It’s on its third or fourth release, maybe.
What’s your official role with Voodoo Village?
I’ve got an EP coming out with them. Tentatively spring or summertime.
You mentioned “dark bass” a few times. “Dark” is an interesting word. Cities Aviv talked about it a few months back. He said that was the adjective that separated a lot of Memphis rap from other cities over the last 15 years or so. It was just darker. Would you say that’s true for Memphis electronica?
That’s an interesting question. Maybe! Yeah. I could see that. It’s probably got something to do with the city itself, like I said earlier. The city has this underlying mystical nature. But it’s not dark as in, you know, “in league with Satan,” haha. Maybe just characterized by a level of seriousness that bubbles under the surface of it all.
That’s great. I’ve never thought of it like that. Who are you listening to right now?
Left to my own devices, I have a tendency to listen to…you know, Brad Osbourne, King Tubby. Stuff like that. I do music for a living. So when it’s up to me, I listen to music that doesn’t ask so much, doesn’t require as much of a thought process.
As far as the material that influences me, I’m feeling the new Voodoo Village release, MarceauxMarceaux. I’m really into this guy Eprom. Zomby. ASAP Rocky. Let me think. I was thinking about this question earlier! There’s so much.
Juicy J. I’ve been listening to a lot of Juicy J. You know, his last several mixtapes are totally absurd but so much fun.
It’s a great point. There’s the music we listen to for fun, and the music that influences us as artists. Sometimes they overlap. But there’s something to the music that can let your brain relax. To me, that’s not a guilty pleasure–that’s just another pleasure.
What was the last song you heard before you walked in?
I think it was probably Crime Mob. On Pandora.
How do you determine who you’ll collaborate with?
I’ve been a member of Lord T & Eloise since their third show. It’s been a great experience, playing a lot of big shows, opening for Yin Yang Twins, Killer Mike, Mickey Avalon, North Mississippi Allstars, playing with members of Three Six Mafia, etc. On the DJ circuit, I try to involve myself with the type of music that has the edge I’m looking for. It’s usually a more forward-thinking, adult energy. Not that I don’t get into various forms of silly and funky music as well..
What’s your favorite bar in Memphis? Most frequented bar?
I spent a lot of time at Beauty Shop and Mollie Fontaine.
You have one meal left in Memphis. Where do you go?
Someone’s making a Memphis music playlist. You get to add one song to the mix. What is it?
Cities Aviv, “sixsixsixes.”
Thanks so much, Jason.
Thank you, man.
Lord T and Eloise are playing this weekend in Arkansas.
Thursday – FAYETTEVILLE, AR at The Lit Lounge
Friday – LITTLE ROCK, AR at The Rev Room
Saturday – JONESBORO, AR at Brickhouse
The Another Cup playlist so far:
1. “Loose Diamond,” Jack-O & the Tennesssee Tearjerkers (Jeremy Stanfill’s pick)
2. “Happy” by Snowglobe (Cindy Cogbill’s pick)
3. “My Shadow,” by Jay Reatard (Cameron Mann’s pick)
4. “As Long,” by Reigning Sound (Will Odom’s pick)
5. To Be Determined Song off Andy Grooms’ solo record (Cory Branan’s pick)
6. “Even If It Takes a Lifetime,” Susan Marshall (Jeff Powell’s pick)
7. “You Mean Everything To Me,” Sweet Pearl (Cities Aviv’s pick)
8. “On Your Own,“ Star & Micey (Jody Stephens’ pick)
9) “Never In Love,” Chris Milam (Randi Lynn’s pick)
10. “sixsixsixes,” Cities Aviv (Witnesse’s pick)