The first time I heard DJ Motion Potion spin was at a Particle show last year. As I reached the end of a long, nondescript concrete corridor a blast of beat grabbed my feet and tossed me onto the dance floor. Without even realizing it, I was shucking and jiving like the original funky chicken. I kept my distance and watched him throw on one gem after another after another. Both his taste in tunes and his flow were impeccable.
It should be said that I’m a harsh critic of DJ culture. Ten years behind the boards on radio gives me a perspective on this art form that makes me dubious of most turntable workers. Being blunt: most don’t dig deep enough, most don’t channel the trombipulated funk I crave in the live setting. That night I added Motion Potion to the short list in my head that includes Cut Chemist, DJ Logic and Kid Koala.
As we approach the annual migration of headnodders to New Orleans for the music fest of music fests, I had the chance to sit down for a lengthy conversation with Motion Potion. We hit on playing music for the jam scene, what it takes to be a turntable artist, his role as part of Sunset Promotions, what playing late-night does to the music, and even New Orleans itself. His observations and candid delivery make for a lot of insights into DJ culture and the role of music in human lives. Open up a fresh synapse or two and tune into this wavelength...
Dennis Cook: What was your first show in front of a "jam" crowd like? How did it differ from previous experiences spinning for audiences?
Motion Potion: It was at a wedding up in Lake Tahoe. It was a pleasure for me, because for the first time I was able to play the music I actually listened to and supported when I went out. I think they were pleasantly shocked to hear a DJ who spun a lot of live cuts. It was also one of those never-ending parties. I think I played for six or seven hours... damn near killed me.
By Scott Chernis
DC: With the heavy emphasis on instrumental prowess amongst jam fans, is it hard to get over as a turntable artist?
MoPo: DJs are always dealing with this issue because there are those who don't think of it as an instrument. In my mind, the DJ is the "universal instrument." For example, when I play with a band, I look at their instrumentation and try to add a sample of something they DON'T have,
whether it's horns or female backing vocals, or piano or whatever. So having a creative DJ in your band is like having a chameleon who can change colors to fit the environments you create.
It also helps that I use CDs, which allows me to put any sample not only in proper time but in the proper key as well. I find that the audience just wants the best show possible, and if the band is feeling it and everyone is flowing, then they don't even see you as a DJ but just another voice in the chorus.
DC: Are there any arguments about musical legitimacy that you’ve encountered?
MoPo: More often than not it’s not from the bands. The DJ is the new thing and everybody wants to try it. It’s other DJs who are often skeptical of you playing with live bands. There’s a lot of prejudice against people who don’t play strictly vinyl or just play for a house audience. Part of my goal is to bring together the live music audience and the dance audience. What I find is when you bring them together and the vibe is right, everything works out fine. DJs who hate on other DJs for wanting to move forward are just luddites, there’s no sense in it. A lot of it is fear. Fear that all their years of buying records will be wasted, fear of losing their commitment to one genre. Fans just want to have a good time at a show – spiritually, musically and mentally.
You’re opening for Rebirth Brass Band a couple times in New Orleans. What makes them your favorite band, what sets them apart from the herd for you?
They’re the band that cloned me. It was Mardi Gras Day 1995 and I had my first transcendent funk experience at a Rebirth show. I finally really understood what funk was about, what they were trying to do. It was a deeply personal and special experience because I realized I could do what I wanted to do with my life. I was reborn that day through their music. It’s something I look back on as a turning point in my life, the day I was cloned as a funkateer. It’s the central aspect of everything I try to do as a DJ, promoter, as the director of a funk festival, as the writer of a newsletter. It’s trying to help people find their spirit through the dance and through the funk, helping them to turn their lives in a positive direction, as I was able to through funk. The deeper you dig, the better it gets.
I didn’t miss a Rebirth show for like 30 Tuesdays. I learned how to dance to the Rebirth Brass Band. In fact, when I moved out of New Orleans and danced, people looked at me like I was a freak because I second lined everywhere.
Playing with them at the Maple Leaf is special because it’s in my will that I want my ashes spread on that floor before a Rebirth show if I die (God forbid). To play with them at the Maple Leaf is such an incredible, incredible honor. I feel that this is the best club on earth. It’s all about the vibe and the sound in there and you don’t need amps to make it sound good. Plus Barbara in the back-bar is cool.
What can listeners expect from the Daptone Records FUNK and SOUL Revue show on the 30th [with The Sugarman 3, the legendary "Lee Fields," Melvin Sparks, DJ Motion Potion and more]?
That’s the night I’m going to drop all my old-school shit. Basically, all my rare groove. There’s no sense in playing mainstream music when you have guys like Neal Sugarman behind you. These guys live to put out obscure funk and I want to see if I can make them smile a little bit that night.
Name a sure-fire tune you always pull out for jam shows.
The album version of "Shakedown Street" is one of those "bona-fide" A-number one dance tracks that I can play for ANY audience. It's like the equivalent of "Superstition," "Billy Jean," or "Brickhouse" or "Kiss." It's so dependable that I almost don't use it because it's TOO easy. Other "jamband" tracks I use a lot include "Fuzzy Logic" from Fuzz's solo record, Galactic's live "I Get Lifted," and "Cut Chemist Suite" by Ozomatli. "Peace Frog" and "Miss You" are winners in a lot of contexts, though I'm not sure if the Doors and Stones apply. As I've gotten more into the live electronica stuff with the "Syn" parties, I have come to depend on "Tube" and "Mike's Groove" by Phish, Particle's "Elevator," New Deal's "Back to the Middle," Dr. Didg's "Bouncy," and The Disco Biscuits' "King of the World."
By Earl Gardner
Has someone requested Grateful Dead at every show you’ve done?
No, not really. Actually, the most requests I get are from the Panic fans. And man, are they persistent. I mean, I like to play a lot of Panic covers like "Pusherman" or "Red Hot Mama," but they're fanatic. And even if you play a track, they'll be back in your face five minutes later begging you to play another. This is cool because I am an old Panic fan (from the early '90s). But unappreciative, impatient requesters are the bane of a DJs existence.
Let’s talk about late-night gigs. How does the notion of moving in on dawn effect the music?
That’s the joy of DJ’ing to me, really feeling the moment and trying to place music in it. When I learned to DJ in Greece I used to start at 9pm and go until 4 in the morning. At 9 o’clock it was just couples watching the moon go over the ocean, so I’d play all my moon songs like “Man In The Moon” and “Moonshadow” and “Dark Side of the Moon.” These aren’t things you expect a DJ to play but it perfectly fit the mood. And the same happens when you’re coming around to the morning. I’m going to drop a "Sun King" sample on you, I’m going drop a “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” sample on you. Whatever time of day affects you. For instance, I like to play “After Midnight” into “Midnight” by Ice-T. Those sort of little extras, if people are paying attention, it's going to enhance their experience.
The other cool thing is people who stay out late-night are the professionals. If you’re out that late then it means one of three things: either you’re on some sort of substance that’s putting you in a good state; you really really love music so you’re willing to stay out past your bedtime; or you’re a nut. Those are all three great kinds of people to play for. That’s why bands all beg to play late-night sets. That’s why trippier music sounds better late-night because it entails playing for an audience in an altered state. There’s no better audience as long they’re in a positive altered state. I don’t think you have to be in an altered state in order to enjoy music.
I think of it as a sort of animated Feng Shui, where you’ve moved things out of their normal space, you’re not in the same position you’d normally be in at 3am, and that alone is enough to shift your perspective in profound ways.
That’s when the Funk Shui starts [laughter from both of us].
If you’ve played with a live band, tell us a bit about what that was like.
This is actually my favorite thing in the world. The DJ is a solitary figure. We work alone, we travel alone, and we make every decision. We sort of "walk the earth like Cain from Kung Fu." But playing with a band allows us to share ideas and flow within someone's else's context. It's like the difference between masturbation and group sex.
Some bands I have played with have been easy to get on with like Rebirth Brass Band. I know all their music, and know exactly how to fit in. Garaj Mahal was a REAL challenge because those guys use such unusual time signatures and lots of key changes. So I really have to listen well and stay on my toes. But like anything difficult, it's more rewarding if you can pull it off.
I think my favorite live gig was at the Olympics last year with the Chris Duarte Group. They had never played with a DJ and invited me out for the whole show. Now these guys play HEAVY rock and blues, and I dropped a lot of soft, feminine sounds in behind them - vocals, harmonicas, violins, horns - and it was just beautiful. The hardest one ever was Izm [Eric McFadden, Ron Kat, Spearman and Kevin Carnes], a P-Funk side-project. They played so fast that my arm nearly fell off trying to keep up. It was so hard that later that night my forearm swelled up and I couldn't sleep.
What is your favorite part of spinning for the jam heads?
That they have open minds, open hearts and WANT TO DANCE.
And the least favorite part?
I spin so many different kinds of music that I’m in a bind when I play live. In one sense, I’m known in the jam scene as someone who’s willing to spin jamband stuff, but I also do straight-up funk nights and hip-hop nights and disco nights. And people will come to those different nights wondering why I’m not playing Logic, why am I playing Earth, Wind & Fire when they came to hear String Cheese, or vice-versa. If I play for more of a jam audience, people that are more into my funk or hip-hop stuff will say, “What is this hippie shit?” The essence of what I’m trying to get at as Motion Potion is that it’s all one groove. What I ask people to do when they tell me they aren’t feeling what I’m doing is to close their eyes and listen, try to get over their own expectations. If you can mix anything with anything you’ll take people on little journeys between different genres.
One of the things I always went for as a DJ myself is a sustained mood within any given set, but not to recognize false differences like genre. The line that always comes to me is what your job as a DJ is includes drawing lines of connection across all barriers. I want to hear what you think about that.
Exactly. It’s very true. I learned to DJ with my hands tied behind my back. I did not have good equipment, I did not have good mixers, I had like 40 CDs and 40 records to work with and I had to be really creative about how to mix. It wasn’t possible in many cases to just mix on the beat. It wasn’t possible to just mix a single genre for an hour. So, I had to find where I could mix on a horn part or on something that’s being said that fits with another song or even the titles of songs. All these little inside jokes that I’m constantly trying to throw out to the audience. Now that I have good equipment and can mix on the beat I still try to stick to this approach.
You’re asking people to appreciate subtlety, which isn’t always appreciated by modern audiences. Do you ever feel the temptation to dumb it down?
Yeah. It depends on what night you’re spinning. On a Friday night anywhere you do sort of need to dumb it down a bit. Part of being a professional DJ is remembering who you’re responsible to. Sadly, unlike bands who can play for no one and still be fine, DJs are paid to sell beer. Mazel Tov if you can get beyond that point, but 90% of our gigs are club gigs and we’re paid to keep people in the bar, dancing and having fun. Sometimes you have to sublimate your ego.
By Scott Chernis
But there’s certain things I won’t do. I will not play “Brickhouse.” I played it once and that was at Commodores night at What Da Funk, and I played the live version. You try really hard to not dumb it down but people tend to dance to stuff they’ve heard before, that they know, that they recognize. You can play the best song in the world and if people don’t know it then they won’t react. I use what they know to sell them what they don’t know. I use “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'” to sell them “Soul Makossa.” Once you sell them “Soul Makossa” and you have them dancing then you can sell them on that vibe. I try never to go more than three or four songs without playing something familiar.
You’re right, people often don’t recognize the subtlety and you’re there for everybody. You’re not there just for yourself and you’re not there just for the geeks. Part of educating is giving people a baseline to start their education process. If you have a big ego as a DJ then you’re an idiot. You have to have a balance.
Fill in the blank. A dynamite DJ besides myself is…
Nationally, I think all DJs owe a ton of gratitude to Logic, who has basically made it easier for all of us to cross boundaries. My favorite DJs are Mister Rourke (who I have been seeing since he was in Fat Bag) and San Francisco's own DJs Zeph, Romanowski and Tom Thump. These are the guys who have taught me practically everything I know. I feel like they are guys the world NEEDS to know about. Not only are they technical masters, but their own music that they produce is superb. Zeph's solo album is amazing, and Romanowski's My Adidas compilation is likewise.
How’d you hook up with Gov't Mule? That’s not a band that folks usually associate with DJs. [MoPo performs at the "Deepest End" show on May 3rd at the Saenger Theatre, where Gov’t Mule will perform with a number of the bass players who appeared on its two recent releases.]
Growing up before I was into the funk, or knew I was into the funk, I was into Macon music. Slide guitar, Allman Brothers, Grinder Switch, and really into Southern rock. What I realize now is that was my funk button bubbling under, because Southern rock is all about funk hooks and funk breaks within the rock. So much of the Allman Brothers’s guitar hooks are so funky. I was fortunate enough to be picked to play these Syn parties in New York, Hampton and Cincinnati where I was to play nothing but live music. At the New York one I could just feel there were a lot of Brothers heads in the room and I played a lot of Allmans and Robert Randolph and live blues. I talked with [Gov’t Mule] and they asked me to submit a proposal. I made a CD of 75 minutes of my favorite rock and blues, focusing on Macon stuff, stuff that only people who grew up with that music would know about. I put that together and they invited me to join them at this show. What an incredible honor. I’ll be playing all the set breaks and the show is going to go on forever. And there’s a chance I might meet Bootsy Collins. It couldn’t be any better! What I want to do for that audience is to redefine what they believe a DJ is capable of, and make them realize an open-minded DJ that’s into their music can move them.
Tell us a bit about the shows you’re producing at JazzFest this year.
Being able to influence people in a positive direction through funk, there’s only so much you can do as a DJ and as a writer. So, it came to my attention a long time ago that I couldn’t just play Mandrill tracks and expect them to understand how good they are. I decided to produce a Mandrill show and that became the start of Sunset Promotions, with my great partner and the San Francisco Funk Festival. I feel very fortunate that I have the best business partner and friend you could ever hope for in John Miles. It’s an amazing symbiotic relationship. So much of me being able to do what I’m doing stems from this relationship.
This year at JazzFest we wanted to put together the Funk Fest at JazzFest. We put together all these artists who are known for their positive message not necessarily all about their music, but more the message they convey through their music. We have Jurassic 5, Spearhead, Blackalicious, Zigaboo Modeliste and Cut Chemist. It’s an incredible amount of work to do seven DJ gigs and these five shows, but it’s all part of the same deal, it’s all part of trying to help people improve their lives through music. There’s only so much I can do as a DJ, especially a DJ who doesn’t have an album out. I’d much rather stick Blackalicious on stage and let them speak because they’re better speakers who have something to say. I’d rather put Michael Franti on stage any day of the week because Michael Franti is a prophet. If I can have a hand in giving those people a stage on which to play and an audience to play to, then we’ve done a good service to opening people’s minds and hearts.
What words of wisdom can you offer the world after your years sweating it behind the wheels of steel?
Govern thyself by your dreams, and not by your fears. Don't be afraid to try new things, whether it's technology, genres, or situations. Also, DJs need to go out and listen to live acts and bands need to go listen to DJs. There's so much they can learn from one another. After all, we are all one
nation under a groove.
Quick, without thinking about it: what comes to mind when you hear the words “New Orleans”?
The drive in from I-10. When you hit the airport and you get into the car and that heat hits you and that vibe hits you and suddenly your whole body relaxes. For me, I instantly feel like I’m at home again. I think of New Orleans as my mistress. I won’t live there anymore, but I go back as often as I can. It hits me like a warm soft blanket the second I get outside.
For a full line-up of DJ Motion Potion's schedule, pop over here.
For the run-down on Sunset Promotions shows at Jazz Fest, visit their calendar page.
Interview by Dennis Cook
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