DJ QB Smith puts his house in order
‘We’ve got two turntables and a microphone.” This line from the song Needle to the Groove by 1980s hip-hop group Mantronix kept playing in the mind of London-born producer and house DJ QB Smith when he was a teenager; it prompted him to pursue a career in DJing.
By the age of 15 he was obsessed with turntables; he saved up enough to buy “cheap” DJing equipment.
A career in music was always part of Smith’s bigger picture. As soon as he could, he armed himself with a degree in sound design and a BTech in sound engineering. His career is influenced by house producers and musicians such as Mr Fingers (Larry Heard), Louie Vega and Blaze.
Smith’s music sounds as though he is playing deep-house vinyl on one turntable and jazz on another. Merge deep-house pub House 22 with jazz club The Orbit and you’ll get an idea of what a QB Smith mix sounds like.
If his music has not reached your ears yet, you can watch him live on stage at the show Jazz in the Cradle, at the Nirox Sculpture Park near Krugersdorp, where he’ll be performing with his ensemble, Warm Days, which comprises vocalist Lindiwe Maxolo, Yonela Mnana on keys, Sisonke Xonti on flute and soprano, Siphiwe Shiburi on drums and Amaeshi Ikechi on bass. The band, who met at various music shows, will perform a set featuring new material and cover songs.
The Mail & Guardian met up with Smith ahead of his performance at Nirox to talk about Warm Days. After working in multimedia and record stores, music is now his nine-to-five.
He talks about his set for Jazz in the Cradle and, though he is excited for the show, the new songs leave him feeling a bit anxious because the band has not yet rehearsed together. But having a list of experienced jazz musicians in his corner puts his mind at ease.
Warm Days Ensemble: QB Smith, Lindiwe Maxolo and Yonela Mnana.
(PHOTO: Oupa Nkosi)
Although he has no formal training in music, Smith has, over the years, taught himself some music theory jargon that has since helped him to communicate his ideas to instrumentalist more clearly. Humming a melody could only get him so far.
His first knock on the music industry door was through performances in nightclubs and submitting tapes of his mixes to local radio stations. His ability to marry house and jazz together is admirable. Which pulls his heartstrings more, jazz or house?
“For me there is very little in my head that separates my jazz side from my house side because I came from a DJing culture, which was about digging for music in record shops and basements,” he says.
“I’m 42 so I’m not of the era when the Ahmad Jamals and John Coltranes were putting out those 1960s records. When I was a teenager I heard those songs through the DJ culture and through the people in hip-hop.”
He says if New York hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest sampled the work of jazz pianist Jamal, for example, in a song, he would search for Jamal’s music.
“For me you can’t separate hip-hop, house, jazz and soul.”
Though some teenagers wouldn’t find it cool to share a similar playlist with their elders, Smith aims to make jazz attractive to the younger audience.
“My job partly is to bring what I am doing to these teenagers because the house market is full of young people. The audience seems to start from the teenage group right up to 50-year-olds. House is mainstream, more popular than jazz, but those young people are one step away from being jazz heads.”
He describes his music as jazz disguised as house. But he’s accepted that not everyone will appreciate deep house – a topic he could talk about until the sun comes up.
“I make music I enjoy. I’m not there to entertain but to play my music.”
With local hip-hop dominating the music charts, award shows and festival line-ups in South Africa, house DJs have serious competition. According to Smith, the house music fan base has somewhat decreased of late, because hip-hop is increasingly sought-after.
“The growing popularity of local hip-hop is great, but with regard to the house market decreasing, that is only a good thing. I don’t need people around who, because commercial radio stations have playlisted some particular international house song, now they too know it.
Those people are not fans of the artist but fans of what is getting played. Those are the type of fans you’ll keep losing for however long and what you’ll be left with are people who care about music.”
He does, however, respect DJs, such as Ralf Gum, who’ve found the balance between making music they love and being a part of the mainstream.
He mentions his upcoming gig, Johannesburg’s Deep House Sunday Sessions at Kitchener’s Carvery Bar in Braamfontein. The DJ line-up includes Ms Jones, Soulbee and Bubbles.
“This gig is about a tribe of people who decided they love deep house and came together with the aim to fully foster a growing audience.”
Deep house arose from the distinct split of house into subgenres in the 1970s. The sound is rooted in soul, African beats and jazz. Big name producers such as Mr Fingers, Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy and Marshall Jefferson have been hailed as pioneers of the house movement that was establishing clubs like The Warehouse in Chicago, popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Locally, DJs such as Vinny da Vinci, Christos and Dino Michael have helped popularise the genre.
Smith plays regularly in townships such as Ga-Rankuwa, Mabopane north of Pretoria and Tsakane in the East Rand where he believes there is a “deep listening” culture.
United States composer Pauline Oliveros described deep listening as “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing” and being present in the moment.
For Smith, deep listening to house or any other genre happens when you are invested in the tradition, craft, message and experience of the music. It’s the matured local house culture that has kept him in South Africa. He played in the country five years ago and decided to stay after discovering that there is a great appreciation of the genre here. South Africa has been his permanent home since 2012.
“Moving to South Africa was a synergy on a fundamental response to the music. I perform at niche venues and platforms for an audience that is genre-specific; in South Africa the scale of that niche market is massive compared to anywhere else in the world.”
Smith has one studio album to his name: Hot Music Volume 1, and he has released several singles on the side. “South Africans care a lot about albums, which is not the case in the United Kingdom. Where I am from, more emphasis is placed on singles,” he explains.
He has worked with artists such as Mark de Clive-Lowe, Brian Temba, Atjazz, Monique Bingham and Mi Casa, as well as jazz vocalist Somi on the EP Akobi: First Born S(u)n (QB’s Remix Collection).
Warm Days has not recorded an album yet. Smith’s wish is to record a live album sometime between late 2015 and early 2016.
Jazz in the Cradle 2015 aims to celebrate the shared links of creativity and roots connecting us through jazz. With Warm Days, Smith hopes to celebrate the jazz and house connect and to share positivity with his turntables and army of musicians.
“We live in a messed-up world. The message in music is important and has to be positive. House music has always been about that. House is about positivity and the jazz tradition that I identified with, of your Pharoah Sanders and John Coltranes, also carries a positive message.”