From store clerk to Mos Def’s right-hand man

DJ Preservation was a Mos Def fan. Now they’re friends and co-conspirators on stage.

DJ Preservation. Photo by Mr. Mass

Gone are the days when the DJ took top billing in a rap group’s name. Unless your DJ can sell out a room on his own — and even if he or she can, in some instances — their name won’t even make it to the flyer.

So you may not know who DJ Preservation is, but he has been working with Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) for so long that he still affectionately refers to him by his birth name, “Dante.”

But being Mos Def’s DJ is far from the most interesting thing about Preservation. Having roomed in college with American producer and hip hop futurist Mike Ladd, Pres became affiliated with a ragtag group of rap miscreants that would eventually define the sound of early-aughts NYC indie rap — guys like Rob Sonic and Cannibal Ox, to name names.

With a brand-new LP, Old Numbers, out last week and a free remix project of Mos Def’s 2009 record, The REcstatic, on his Mon Dieu Music label, Preservation is more than a DJ/producer — he is among rap’s historians.

Darcy MacDonald: So tell us about yourself — where you’re from and your musical background and so forth.

DJ Preservation: I’m from New York, kinda raised back and forth between New York and Jersey City, so close to New York. Not deep Jersey — just near the Hudson River. I was always back and forth, you know, going to clubs in the late ’80s and early ‘90s, high school days. I graduated in 1992, so it was kinda that last era of real NYC club days, and people going to dance, like really going to dance, and DJs pushin’ it and playing all kinds of stuff. That inspired me a lot to really be into the music.

Both of my parents are into art, mostly visual arts. I went to school for visual art but I kinda veered to the music. My father is a jazz guitarist, and there was always all kinds of music around the house. You kinda grow attached to it because it’s there. My dad is a huge jazz and reggae fan.

I would also go to a lotta house parties around New York, and got into a lotta house music.

[My family] was always going back and forth to New Orleans; my parents had friends down there. My dad’s good friend ran one of the oldest jazz clubs down there, called Preservation Hall.

Now when my name came up, I wasn’t thinking that because it was actually someone that gave it to me. He was like, “You preserve your records so nice!” At some point, a little less now, but I was always keeping my records nice and clean. My friends all had, like, messy stacks of vinyl, and I was always taking care of mine, maybe a little more than my partner.

[At Preservation Hall], my father’s friend would bring me on stage. I was shy, but when I got on stage I was good, getting dragged up there. So that kinda influence was always there, being around performers, and backstage, the good times — that all left a mark on me as a child. So those are the roots.

DM: Obvious question: how did you link up with Mos?

Pres: Well, Mike [Ladd] introduced us first. We were walking out of, like, the Bowery Ballroom poetry thing or some shit like that. They knew each other, and I was walking out with Mike, and they were like, “Whassup?” So Mike introduced me to him and I’m like, “Oh shit!” That was right after Black on Both Sides came out, so, like, 2000.

DM: So you were a fan already?

Pres: Oh yeah, totally! I was in the circle, but at the same time I was outta the circle. [Mos] was on a different level, and I definitely respected and looked up to him. That was a little renaissance we had in NY, that Rawkus era.

So then we’d bump into each other here and there, like headnod, peace, regular New York shit: when you recognize someone, you kinda give ’em a pound and keep it movin’.

Then I started working at this store called Union, it’s this kinda exclusive sneaker store — streetwear, T-shirts, some real downtown shit. We also sold sample tapes, all the original samples from the new music out, like every three months. That graduated toward the crazy mixtape thing, 50 and all that shit coming in.

So all these MCs would be coming to the store. The owner was really cool with a lotta them; the store was linked to Supreme and a lotta other downtown stores. So everybody — Pos from De La, Puff, Styles P — fucking everybody would come down. Dante would come down a lot. We started a conversation and had moments where it was just me and him, even. It was a small room. So he’d be looking for shit and trying shit out, and we would just talk about music. Cannibal Ox was one of the points where he sort of realized that I had been part of [that scene]. Can Ox was interesting ‘cause it was kinda between like, our weird shit and that Rawkus-kinda family. So it was interesting that we kinda found a talking point on that. I never expected anything with those records — it was like, you either like it or you don’t.

It was very natural and very cool. Then, whenever we see each other in a spot or a club, then it was more like, “Hey, how you doin’, blah blah blah.” So then, when I finally gave him a CD, he came back and really liked some of the shit on there.

So he was in Toronto, I think he was shooting 16 Blocks. There was this John Lennon, like, educational studio bus — kids could go in there and learn a little about how to produce, or play some drums. It was actually parked on the set, so we were using that. That was where we actually recorded the track on Old Numbers.

DM: Why do you think, personally, that Mos Def chose you and trusts you to be his DJ?

Pres: I have noooo idea (laughs). But still, every time I think about it it’s like, “What? Okay! I was workin’ in a sneaker store, man – what the fuck you thinkin’?” It came outta left field. ■

See DJ Preservation on stage with Mos Def at le Belmont (4483 St-Laurent) tonight, Tuesday, July 16, 9 p.m., $35

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