DJ Yoda spoke to Marko Kutlesa about multiple genres, recent projects, his plans for the summer, his breakfast cereal collection and general obsession with food.
Last updated: 14th Jun 2016
Duncan Beiny aka DJ Yoda is one of the UK's best known and longest standing hip hop DJs. He began DJing regularly in public when a student at the University Of Warwick and was soon turning out mixtapes to fans and local music stores. These mixtapes eventually evolved to become his well regarded How To Cut and Paste series.
Six of these have been given wide scale release by Antidote Records including country and western, Asian music, a 1930s edition and the hugely popular 1980s editions. He has also recorded mixtapes in conjunction with Dan Greenpeace and has contributed a solo mix to the Fabric live series.
Inspired by turntablist hip hop, in his earlier years as a DJ he took part in competitions and in 2001 won a DMC DJ of the Year award in the Scratch DJ category but soon took these skills and channelled them into his performances as a club and festival DJ.
As his popularity rose he embraced the large stage and has since become known for his pioneering incorporation of visual scratching into some of his larger appearances whereby he manipulates video samples on a large screen in conjunction with the music he presents. He has also written about music in several publications, specifically about hip hop and operated as a radio DJ including for BBC6 Music.
In 2015 a live music project partly initiated by Manchester venue Band On The Wall saw DJ Yoda put together a 15 piece ensemble for a performance at the venue following one week's worth of writing and rehearsal. The show went so well further dates were added, an album, Breakfast Of Champions was recorded and the band played several high profile festival dates.
Since that project ended DJ Yoda has continued the busy schedule of a popular DJ and concentrated on studio work for his solo releases and that of his R&B project Sparkle Motion.
You've said that a lot of hip hop DJs you were influenced by used to mix fast and move on quickly. Which DJs in particular were the ones that influenced you?
Some of them people have heard of, some of them they haven't. The ones that spring to mind, there was a guy called Ron G, who was like a really big mixtape DJ in New York in the early 90s. His style was something I was really impressed by. Kid Capri, Doo Wop, Steinski, Q Bert, all of these people had that kind of hip hop sensibility and a lot of that was about running through records really fast, making random things that you wouldn't expect to work together, work together. And that had a really big impression on me.
There are different kinds of DJing. Pure turntablism is something that you watch rather than dance to. When did you decide you wanted to be the kind of DJ that makes people dance?
I don't think that was ever a conscious decision. I always had an interest in the more technical side of it, but as I started attending those kinds of events I realised, yeah, it was a spectator thing rather than everyone getting involved.
I think it's more enjoyable to DJ a set for everyone, where people are partying and having a good time. It just felt more fun than some kind of spectator sport. There's kind of elements of that in what I do, but the first priority for me is always making it fun for everyone. If I had to narrow it down to one thing, yeah, it's fun. Sometimes those turntablism things aren't very fun.
I want to ask you about some of the How To Cut and Paste mixtapes. How did develop an interest in Asian music?
With all of those How To Cut and Paste mixes it's always reflective of my listening habits. What I tend to do is get into one kind of music and I'll spend a good year digging around in that kind of thing, finding the best stuff I like in that world. At the end of that experience a neat way to sum it all up for me is to take the best things I've found and make a How To Cut and Paste mix which encapsulates all the different cool stuff I've found in that particular genre.
So, when I did the 1930s mix I'd just spent a period listening to things from that era. I think when I did the Asian edition I'd just done two tours of Asia and as I was doing them I was digging around for music, record shopping in Vietnam and Thailand and it sent me off on a bit of a mission.
What is it you like about the 30s as an era?
What I really love about any kind of music is that it can be very transportative. I love music that takes you somewhere. That's the magic of music, the same with TV, film, all that stuff. I love that era of the 1930s in terms of culture, fashion and style and I think it's really refreshing to listen to music like that, that isn't so digital, computer and bass driven like so much of the music that we're force fed at the moment. It provides a real antidote to that sound.
And I like the kind of bad quality recordings, I think that they add a lot of atmosphere to the sound that you don't get with the music that people are spewing out of laptops nowadays.
One of the artists whose music you used in the 1930s mixtape was Cab Calloway. I see a lot of him in Kid Creole, who has also appeared in your music.
Absolutely. We chatted about that when I recorded 'U No Likey Like That' with Kid Creole. We talked about his 30s influence because I was really into that music at the time. Yeah, he did that stuff in the 80s. I think that if you go back through the decades people have always harked back to that 30s, speakeasy, swing era sound in different ways.
There must be a lot to mine from that. You had Bugsy Malone in the 70s, even the Cantina band in Star Wars, that was totally influenced by that speakeasy sound as well. So I think people do keep going back to that, not just Kid Creole in the 80s.
Ever been tempted to wear a zoot suit yourself?
I did, for some of the promotional photos for the 1930s mix. And sometimes I get booked to do DJ sets of that kind of music and when I do that I've got a suit I can wear that's kind of relevant.
Country and western is the most un-hip, most white music genre to many folks. Explain the appeal?
[Laughs] I don't really think of any genre as un-hip. It's definitely very white, you're right about that. But I don't really think there's any kind of music that I would have down as uncool. I certainly wasn't drawn to it because some people think it's uncool. I've always liked good country music.
And it kinda goes along with what I was saying about liking music that takes you somewhere, it's really evocative really good country music. It'll really take you somewhere. Look at bluegrass. It's all about the roots of America, Americana and that's something that just fascinates me because so much of the culture that I enjoy comes out of the States.
There are so many parallels between good country and hip hop. They might seem like they don't sound very similar, but all the stuff that goes into it, the reality of it all, the storytelling, the problems that people are facing, culturally, economically... the incredible era of Johnny Cash stuff, you take all the lyrics and write them down and it could be an NWA song. That's what got me into it, thinking of it in terms of it being a kind of hip hop.
Aside from Johnny Cash who are your favourite country artists?
Oh, wow, there's loads of them. You can really break down country into different sub genres, in the same way that you can with hip hop and I've got favourites within all those as well. The greats of country, as far as I'm concerned, are Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton. I like bluegrass. I also like some new stuff like Gillian Welch.
Are there any further How To Cut and Paste editions on the horizon and in what theme might they be?
Well, I did a few that were lesser known than some of them, they didn't get as big a release. I did a Halloween one which I was really happy with. That's the way that I record mixes anyway, otherwise I just get a bit overwhelmed with how much good music there is in the world.
I find it a really good starting point to give myself a topic and then work around that, work within that remit. Even the most recent mix, Lunch Breaks, which I only put out there about a month ago, I themed it around lunch and had lots of lunch related samples. I just find that's a helpful way to start a mix because otherwise I wouldn't know where to start.
If you play multi-genre like me there's too much in the world. How do you put together a mix just of good stuff? There's too much. As for what comes next? I don't have anything in my head, it will just come to me. We'll see.
I noticed that you're doing a sci-fi themed thing at Festival No. 6 this summer so I wondered if that was a theme you might explore on a mix?
That works really well as a video show so I do it as one of my audio visual shows, that way I can sample the actual movies, you have the big screen and it's more of a cinematic experience. I've picked out music for that show which is sci fi relevant, but I don't know if it would work for a How To Cut and Paste audio mix, I think you need the video in it.
What interesting YouTube spirals have you been down recently?
Ahahaha. That's a very good question. That's part of my daily routine, YouTube spirals. It's not obscure or irrelevant but I've really been enjoying Action Bronson's Fuck, That's Delicious show, which is just him travelling round smoking weed and eating food. That's an enjoyable thing to watch.
Let's bring up YouTube and see what my history is. The last few things are The History Of Kanye West by a piano player, so it's a pianist just playing Kanye West songs. Then there's Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street singing Regulate by Warren G, some very obscure 80s hip hop, ten Germans trying say the word squirrel.
Where are you up to with your music journalism?
Someone else asked me about that recently and I realised it's ground to a halt. I don't get the time for it. The reason I calmed it down was because I thought the time I was spending on it, I would rather be spending working on music. So that's what I'm putting my time into now, a new album. I'm kinda getting somewhere with that. I'd be interested to do something if the right thing came along, but right now it's not happening so much.
And how about radio?
The same thing. I calmed all that down for the same reasons. I've got all these diverse interests within music, but in order to focus and get something done I've calmed it all down. That's not to say I won't get into all that stuff again, I probably will, but I want to get an album finished.
Your Breakfast Of Champions band had its life extended into further shows than were originally planned and indeed an album. Was it difficult saying goodbye to that crew after spending so much time together, when it came for you to move on to the next thing?
It was a really neat project in that it had its genesis and it ended exactly a year after it had started. That was a really nice way of doing things, I enjoyed doing it like that. We hadn't met each other, because of the way the band got put together.
We all met in a room in Manchester one day, we rehearsed, made music, put together a show. Then we finished an album, shot videos, took it on tour and that whole process took a year, we did loads of festivals in the summer and ended on the main stage at Bestival. To end on such a high like that was so perfect.
Even though there was 11 of us we all got on so well, there wasn't one bad apple in the bunch. It was just such a lovely experience meeting all those people. I loved ending it like that, this has been such a good experience. It stopped because I didn't want it to go bad.
I'll keep in touch with all those people, I still do. I'm using various people that I met from that on different tracks that I'm doing for other projects. It's just a great way to have ended it.
Can you tell us where everything is up to with your R&B project Sparkle Motion? We saw that the new album came out in April.
The Sparkle Motion project has been all mixes, kind of R&B mixtapes. This is our first album of production. It's kind of like a beats tape, a bit like one of those Dilla beat tapes, sketches, ideas and grooves, but I'm really happy with all the beats we've done for this one.
You've described your three main interests as music, movies and food. You should be much fatter, no?
I'm pretty fat as it is. I do try to exercise, because if I didn't do that I really would be a slob. I go to the gym, swim, bit of yoga. But, yeah, you're right, all my three main interests involve sitting still and generally stuffing my face.
Some of the people you work with I guess you don't actually work with in person, it's all done via electronic communication. But with 'Happy' you had Boy George in the video and it was a pretty big single for you. Why did you want to work with him?
On that particular album, 'Chop Suey', I was trying to get guest vocalists on each individual song, ones that represented my diverse music tastes. And part of that, it was really important for me to get some vocalists from the 80s that I grew up listening to as a kid. That's why I got Kid Creole on that project as well.
Boy George totally fitted into that category. I thought, what's some of the first music I enjoyed, at school discos or wherever? And Culture Club was up there. The thing that really swung it for me was that I heard Boy George do a cover of a Lana del Ray track 'Video Games' on Soundcloud and his voice had just got so amazing over the years. It was like a fine whiskey or something, it had this depth of character that it never used to have when he was younger. I was like, my God, this is amazing, it would be so cool to do a track with him now.
I knew that his interest was in house music, which isn't so much my kind of thing, but I thought, in the Venn diagram of our tastes, where's the cross section? And at that point I was playing a lot of Moombahton, which has got that kind of Ibiza,, sunset kind of vibe to it. So that was the thinking behind that track, how it came together and how come the video was shot in Ibiza at sunset.
His voice seems to suit that track. Culture Club had a real reggae influence to them.
Exactly. That was precisely the kind of thinking. With Moombahton the rhythms are totally taken from dancehall. That's something that me and him both love, reggae.
Working with an openly gay singer is not very hip hop, is it? Hip hop is almost the last refuge of homophobia, no?
No, it's 2016 now and times have finally changed. I think that might have been the case if it was the 80s or the early 90s but there's a whole gay rap scene now. Loads of the stuff I play from New Orleans, there's a whole gay hip hop scene there called Bounce music and it's very club friendly.
Some of the artists are transgender, gay, the main guy's called Sissy Nobby. He's amazing, look him up on Youtube, he's brilliant. Times have changed. Hip hop is accepting of all sexual orientation these days.
You've said that you're always open to sourcing samples, like if you're watching tv or a film. Does that ever get in the way if you're trying to have a romantic evening at the cinema?
[Laughs] I'm just in a permanent mode of spotting samples now, I can't turn that off unfortunately. It doesn't mean it ruins my enjoyment of anything. Sometimes I have to make notes in my phone if I'm watching something. Something will just spring out and I can't turn that off. But I like that. I enjoy it. It's satisfying when something comes to fruition, you get something from having noticed something like that.
You appeared last year at Banksy's Dismaland. How did that come about?
He got in touch with me. I've DJd for Banksy a few times over the years. When he first started out, before any of the notoriety came, he knew what I did. He comes from Bristol which has always been one of my biggest places for DJing. He was totally aware of my mixtapes.
I've got this sampling culture aspect to what I do, which is something that he does as well. I've DJd for him at various launches across the years. Dismaland had a big stage and it seemed to make sense. That night was wicked, it was such a good line up.
What kind of preparation did you do in order to fit the show you do into the whole grim mood of things there?
[Laughs] I don't think I did any, I just made the decision to do me. In a lot of live situations I find myself playing to different crowds across the world and I think if you try too hard as a DJ to try and fit yourself into what you think should be right for that, it's a bad path to go down.
The better thing is to do what you know you can do best, be yourself and if people can dig that then great. Otherwise it can be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Aside from referencing your ethnicity in mixtape titles in what other ways, if any, does being Jewish have an influence on your musical career?
Probably just in my sense of humour. I think Jewish comedy is something that I've grown up with and that comes across in the type of stuff that I sample and my sense of humour about my music. Beyond that, not very much to be honest with you. I'm not religious, it's not something that means that much to me on a spiritual level. It's just a cultural thing, I like the food and the music.
You've worked with a lot of MCs, Jungle Brothers, MOP, Biz Markie, People Under The Stairs. Who is left on the list that you'd want to work with?
Well I kinda made a list and then ticked everyone off after doing the first two albums. That's why with the Breakfast Of Champions album I was like, ok, let's try and do a full album with the same people, unheard of people. So, I don't really know where that leaves me now. I'm working on this new album now and I've got all these beats and I don't know if I'm going to approach different people again or try and work with one person. The short answer is I don't know.
And how about singers?
Yeah, totally, but I feel like... like how when I was explaining how much good music there is in the world. Where do you start? Overall there's too many good people to know where to start.
You're named after a Star Wars character. What did you make of the new film?
I thought it was good actually. I was pleasantly surprised. I'm not like a mega Star Wars nerd. I grew up on it, but I'm not obsessed with it. I didn't have all these expectations and hopes piled on this one movie. I think that helped. I thought it was well pitched for people like me who wanted a bit of nostalgia but at the same time all the new characters they brought in seemed to be really appropriate for it. I liked it.
Me too, although killing off that main character just destroyed me.
Oh, I liked that. I thought it was a nice twist, it kept it from being too boring. One of my biggest criticisms would be that basically it was just a remix of the original one, so it was good to have one kind of twist in there that threw people a little bit.
What is it you like about breakfast cereals? Do you eat them and then keep the boxes?
It probably goes back to my childhood. We had a lot of family in America and we used to go out a lot to visit them when I was young. That was my lasting memory of America, learning about hip hop music and having tried all these cinnamon and fruity cereals that you just couldn't get in England. So it always just felt a bit exotic and exciting, sugary. Breakfast is the best meal of the day, I love breakfast.
It is the actual cereals you like or the packaging?
Both. It's the whole aesthetic.
So when you get an imported cereal or a limited edition, will you eat the cereal and then keep the packaging?
Yes. I keep the boxes. They're cool to have around. I'm actually calming down my collecting obsession because I'm starting to realise it's stupid to amass stuff and keep it. I feel a little bit less attached to these physical objects these days.
For the sake of your wife's sanity, now you share a house with somebody, I'm glad to hear that. What's your favourite non cereal breakfast?
Oh, I love it all, man. There's so many good things. I'm a big fan of pancakes. But I like healthy breakfasts too. I had an amazing breakfast on Saturday which was courgette fritters with halloumi, a poached egg, rocket salad and yoghurt.
What is the best version of chicken soup you've tried?
I thought you might say something Asian and I was going to ask if there wasn't some older Jewish lady in the family who would be horrified by that answer.
There is. Grandma. And hers is the best.
You worked some with video manipulation in conjunction with your DJing. I was thinking about the next evolution of visual manipulation that could enhance DJ sets and I was thinking maybe 3D.
Well, 3D is something I've looked into and I think you're right about that. I think the technology isn't quite there yet. As things stand you can do that, if you get the crowd all wearing 3D specs. But I don't really think that works in a club environment.
I've seen people try and do it and it kinda takes away from the social experience. But I think that the next thing that we'll get to with the technology is holographic and 3D imaging without the glasses. When that's a possibility I can think of loads of good things to do with that and DJing.
If you could employ 3D dancers, what style of dancers would you have?
I think I probably wouldn't have dancers, I'd have other stuff going on. I'd have flashing spaceships going over people's heads or something.
Really? You wouldn't be tempted to have like 50 Michael Jacksons accompany you on stage?
I mean that would be like a complete head fuck. I watched that Michael Jackson documentary that Spike Lee directed and the dancing in that is just sublime. You couldn't have more than one of that.
What gigs are you looking forward to this summer and are you doing anything special at any of them?
Yeah, I've got a packed summer again, loads of festivals, loads of different types of events. The sci-fi set that you mentioned, I think that's going to be really cool to do. I've got that at Festival No. 6 and also at a festival called Bluedot in Cheshire, which is all kind of science and sci-fi themed. That looks like it's going to be really good fun.
But I'm lucky that just about every week there's something interesting going on. I love all the travel that I get to do, generally there's often something to get excited by.