DJ Paul Nice digs for gold in different places

NY DJ Paul Nice, playing Montreal for the first time this weekend, on Montreal memories, remixing the Beatles and crate-digging vs. YouTube.

DJ Paul Nice, photo by Al Nowak

Born and raised in Poughkeepsie, NY, a short jaunt up the Hudson from the birthplace of hip hop, break broker Paul Nice reached adulthood during the culture’s golden era and has been dealing in cuts, fades, scratches and styluses ever since, moving all the way to the Bay and back in the interim and cementing his status as one of the genre’s most architectural DJ/producers.

Known as a devoted digger, Nice’s break collections have served as a go-to for beat makers who made it all the way from their college dorms to Hollywood. He has worked with A-listers from the Beasties to Guru to Kweli, remixing and producing his way through the history book of rap. Saturday night, he turns the party out for a first-ever DJ gig here in Montreal, so I took the opportunity to contact him to talk music, memories and modern mechanics.

Darcy MacDonald: So apparently this will be your first time in Montreal.

Paul Nice: Well, that’s a bit of a misnomer. Actually, I’ve been to Montreal once when I was a likkle youth. I mean, not to play. I wasn’t DJing at that point. I was only about 12 years old. I first went to see The Empire Strikes Back up there. I was on vacation with my family, and I remember, my one trip to Montreal was a little traumatic for me. As a boy of 12, I was over-excited and trying to beat my parents and my sister everywhere, and that kinda got the best of me. We were — I guess, the metro, right? The subway line, you guys call it the metro. I remember I got on to the train. I saw the train pulling up on a platform, and I was like “Let’s go, let’s go, hurry up!” and the doors closed right behind me.

DM: Oh shit!

Nice: (laughing) Yeah! We’re pulling out, and I think my mother was too shook to even say anything; she just had this look of terror on her face. And my father and sister are screamin’, “Get off at the next stop!” I remember just kinda turning around and having this feeling that nobody spoke English! Like, all these old French ladies just looking at me like I’m crazy. So that could have been a wild adventure, but it ended well, obviously. That was my experience in Montreal. But yeah, I’m looking forward to it. I remember the city being very beautiful. But that’s my memory: The Empire Strikes Back, that metro experience and buying a bunch of Asterix comic books.

DM: So on the tour front, though, has it just played out that way, that you’ve never come up to play?

Nice: Yeah, it just never came to be, for whatever reason. I’ve got a friend who is one of the curators for, I believe, the Toronto film festival, and a big music fan, and he’s been talking to me for years about coming up, so this’ll be the first time and hopefully the first of many.

DM: I don’t wanna talk about the past forever, and I know you’re working on projects right now, so “Where should we start?” is my first real question.

Nice: Good lord, put me on the spot, why don’t you?! I dunno, I’ve loved music my whole life. I grew up listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I’ve got one sister, and she’s five years older than me. I got tastes from her, initially. She was a teenager when disco hit, and I got a lotta 45s and stuff from her, and — you know, this could turn out to be a very long conversation!

DM: Yeah, I’ll try to narrow it down a little more than that. But it’s cool you mention the Beatles right away because I was checking out your Soundcloud page and those newer tracks.

Nice: Yeah, those remixes.

DM: I really like the remix of “The Word.” It’s got like a house-y vibe to it. What mood were you in, and why did you pick that song, of all the Beatles catalogue?

Nice: That was a song — like I said, my earliest musical memories are definitely Beatles memories. I remember my mother or my sister always buying me the records. Rubber Soul was one that I got early on, so was Revolver. I always liked that song — I mean, it’s obviously one of their funkier tunes. But it wasn’t until probably the early ’90s, and Mark Ronson was actually going to school at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, where I grew up. We became friends, and I remember there was something about that tune that he really liked, and we were talking about it and I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s really fuckin’ dope!” I kinda remembered it again, but in a different light, because now, at that point in my life, I’ve got like, a hip hop sensibility. I remember I was like, I’d really love to do something with that at some point.

And of course, in the last year or so, all these multi-track files — I don’t know what the exact history of that was, but I think it went into that Rock Band video game, the Beatles version of it, with all these multi-tracks. And that was the first one I messed with. I’ve got a couple more. The ultimate goal there is to put out a mixtape, and it’s a labour of love, truly. I’m not really trying to change anything, too much. At first, the name of the tape was Ultimate Breaks and Beatles, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, but somebody else already used that. So I think I’m gonna call it If Paul Was Ringo.

DM: That’s awesome.

Nice: Basically, I’m not doing much except changing the drums, adding new drums, different breaks and doing little tweaks here and there, but I’m trying to really keep and respect the original vibe of the tunes.

DM: May I suggest “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” as a Beatles tune that heavily deserves to get chopped up?

Nice: Ha! Yeah, lemme write that down.

DM: The intro piano alone — I mean, I’m not a producer, I’m not a digger. I play some music, but I write about it, that’s where it ended up for me! But it’s funny you say this stuff, because I remember when I was a little kid getting into my big brother’s record collection, just looking through it, the first record that obsessed me was Magical Mystery Tour. I’d just stare at it. I thought John Lennon was actually a walrus.

Nice: It’s funny, though, you know. You say, “May I suggest this?” and you kind of in a modest way dismiss yourself, like, “I’m a writer” But, really, that’s how any DJ starts, right, and then the progression from a DJ to a producer. You have these ideas in your head. For years, in the few years before I was able to save enough money to buy my first turntables, that’s how I would do it. I would have these mixes in my head. And granted, this is going back to the early ’80s. This was at a time when rap music and hip hop in general was such a rare thing. You weren’t hearing this stuff on the radio. And when you would, it was really specific times, late at night. Occasionally, during the daytime they’d play, like, the hit song here or there. But that was it. In other words, it was really special, which is kinda what I think is missing now. It’s everywhere now. So I was kinda at the right age in the right time, and I had all these ideas in my head. What I would do initially was, I had a turntable. Well, it was, like, a phonograph-slash-tape player or eight-track player, all in one. One of these things, you know? And it had a little clock radio. So I would literally wait until a song came on. And would have one of my five records — I think I had, like, “Sucker MCs.” I had the 12-inch with the instrumental. So I would try to blend — like, I would practise my mixing by waiting by the clock radio for a song to come on to do a live blend while the song was playing. You know, you do what you can to make it work out. You’ve got all these ideas in your head, and you gotta wait until you have the resources at your disposal to try to work them out in reality.

DM: And that is such a cool anecdote, really, of how hip hop came to be. I remember being a little kid and trying to make pause tapes, not knowing that what I was even doing was called “making a pause tape.” And just doing that, being a little kid and shit, to grow up and find out that’s how guys actually started doing it. Nice: It started somewhere, right? One of my all-time favourite records is Fusion Beats Vol. 2 , which was this bootleg record, and it was just kind of a pause-tape mix. The story goes, I think it was Bambaataa put it together, they kinda pressed it like a pirate tape. I’d hear DJs play it. But it was basically like a little cut and paste record of two or three breakbeats. Mohawk “The Champ” was one; “Give It Up and Turn It Loose” was another one. But it was just a pause tape! I found out later it was pause tape. But it was just a funky-ass hip hop record, you know? Somebody had to do it.

DM: The landscape for digging out there, assuming that you still go digging, in this digital time, or whatever — when you go out to find wax, is there more? Less? Is it stable? Are people hanging on to their vinyl collections more closely, or the opposite?

Nice: I think it all depends. To be quite honest with you, and I hope I’m not breaking anyone’s feelings by saying this, but I’m not quite as into collecting as I used to be. A couple of things happened in the last 10 years or so where I ended up losing parts of my collection. And that’s the second time that’s happened to me. In the early ’90s, I had amassed a nice, sizeable collection — I had been collecting for about 10 years at that point. I had a DJ partner and we kept all of our records and equipment in his parents’ basement. One summer they went away for a weekend and it rained really badly. When they came back, the basement was flooded, and all my records were ruined. That kinda stuff happens, and it’s happened more than once, so nothing is lasting in this world. I talk to these real vinyl purists who are like, “It’s vinyl or nothing,” and I understand that. But to me, ultimately, it’s the music, that’s the main thing. As far as collecting, I couldn’t really give you an honest gauge. I do my own collecting through — I kind of have a real tight circle of people I get my music from. That is not to say I do not dig anymore. I’ll never stop digging.

I’ll give you an example: There’s a store, locally, where I live now, that I had been going to for years. In fact, when I used to live further, a couple of hours away, I’d come up to this spot a couple of times a year to go digging. But I never realized they had a basement, never thought to ask! So last year I asked, and [the owner] said, “Oh, yeah!” and let me down there. And there was a treasure trove of stuff and most of it is untouched. I mean, I’m sure there’s people that have been there, but it’s just, you never know. There’s always stuff out there.

The other thing is, how do you know when to stop? YouTube has completely changed the game, and I don’t care what anybody says — I think YouTube is probably the best place to find music right now. I can discover so much more music and then take the next step and go, “Where can I find this record?” It’s a great resource in general for finding old music or new music. I’m not one of these bitter guys these days who kinda looks down upon the kids because they can have an instant collection of 10,000 records digitally within their first hour of deciding to become a DJ. There are more variables to that that are gonna determine whether that person has what it takes. And if they do, well, my whole thing is, if you have a passion for it, you’re gonna learn about the music and where it comes from. Digging is not simply looking for records — it’s also finding out about the artist, and one thing leading to another. If their passion is there, it doesn’t stop. It doesn’t stop for me.

DM: Digger, DJ, vinyl, digital — everybody who really loves music will go through that same thing, whether discovering an artist through a sample or break or otherwise.

Nice: Yeah! And lemme tell you, if I’d had back then the technology we have now, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I remember when the first Pioneer CD/turntable came out, and that just changed everything for me, ‘cuz now you could manipulate any sound source as if it were vinyl, instantly. So I could take this conversation we’re having right now, flip it to a CD  or now any kind of digital music file, and cut it up. Before that, you’d have to spend $500, $1,000 to press a dubplate. So the technology, I embrace it all. I love it. ■

Paul Nice DJs at the Music Is My Sanctuary monthly with resident DJs Scott C and Lexis at le Belmont (4483 St-Laurent) on Saturday, Nov. 10, 10 p.m., $10

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