DJ Manzo on Montreal’s Dilla love

We spoke to a key player in the local annual event honouring a hip hop legend.

J Dilla

Everybody loves J Dilla, no? He’s like the Beatles of hip hop. Somewhere in your music collection, he is present.

Since his passing on Feb. 10, 2006, DJs worldwide have honoured his production legacy with memorial events, usually on or near the anniversary of his death.

Montreal was one of the first cities to found such a tradition, and this year is no different. Montreal Loves Dilla takes place this Saturday at Artgang, and we spoke to local hip hop scene fixture DJ Manzo to find out about this year’s event, past favourites and Dilla’s impact on music and DJ aesthetics.

Later this month, Manzo brings his and Killa-Jewel’s monthly Scratch Sessions to Nuit Blanche, with a turntable jam live at St-Laurent metro station, so we took the opportunity to ask about that, too.

DJ Manzo

Darcy MacDonald: You’ve been on the scene for a minute, but please introduce yourself and explain briefly how you became active as a DJ in Montreal back in the day.

Manzo: Oh well, 20 years ago ha ha ha… actually it’s true! I’ve always been a hip hop fan and became curious about DJ stuff around 15 years old. I saw DJs like Roc Raida (RIP), Rob Swift, Mista Sinista, Shortcut, Q Bert & D-styles. They made me really curious about the art of scratch. Then I started buying gear here and there (and) doing the thing at home like every aspiring DJ, practicing like eight hours a day and hustling to get more money to buy more records.

About a year and a half later, I was DJing in clubs on the main. I did the KOPS Crew night at Saphir with Furious, Who See, Maysr and Grand Theft, and a couple of years later I did Back to Basics at Blue Dog with him and DR One. After that (I started opening) for a shit-load of shows.

DM: How did J Dilla’s work enter your life?

Manzo: Actually he came up before I even noticed him. He was working with so many different artists that I was into back then and a couple years later I noticed it was always this dude! So I looked out for him more and more. I was more a jazz-style hip hop fan back in the days, I was listening to ATCQ, De la Soul, Pharcyde, Gang Starr, Jungle Brothers and others. After that I was always looking for his name in the production credits.

I’m still looking today for some of his records that I don’t own on wax. Might be just a few of them but those are some records that I’ve been searching for years. After his death, they all became really expensive.

DM: You are definitely a turntable dude, a DJ’s DJ. And if you make beats, we have never really discussed it. I have never asked anyone this question: how have Dilla’s time signatures and progressions affected your aesthetic in orchestrating a set — any set, not just a Dilla night set.

Manzo: That’s an interesting question. If I answer it correctly it has to be about DJing, not making a beat, so I would say that his arrangements made me mix more in key — it’s just a musically defined way of mixing tracks together.

Secondly, I think the time signature is another topic that we can talk about for hours but yes it did change some of my mix, the musical transition, the blending of two songs, cause Dilla was not using the typical time signature at the beginning of the songs. Sometimes even the swing could affect the mixing technique. You know, the way he was using the MPC3000 or that little snare that was off.

DM: Please revisit your earliest involvement in the MTL Loves Dilla events.

Manzo: It was originally (DJs) Ephiks and Toast Dawg (who started it) and I got to play with them later, probably the second year or the third. I was physically there at all of them and started getting involved as a DJ and co-organizer for the event that happened each year, except for one year, since 2007.

Sev Dee was doing his Dilla night with Scott C and later on we merged together and added DJs to the event every year or so. Now it’s a bunch of DJs: Toast Dawg, Ephiks, Dr Mad, 7D, Mark the Magnanimous, DJ Manifest and me. For a few years now, we’ve been selling some gear designed by Kristian Bolanos. This year we will have long sleeve shirts and caps. All profits go to the Dilla foundation.

DM: Do the DJs each year give each other an idea what each other will play or do you wing it all night?

Manzo: Every year is different, we don’t say “you play this” or “you play that.” We have to figure out a way so everybody has the same amount of set time and that is mostly the main way we decide.

This year we are supposed to drop names in a hat and pick a time, schedule randomly. I would honestly say that the hardest part is to pay attention when you’re not DJing ’cause you could drop a gem that was played earlier, especially when you do a Dilla night.

I don’t think we forgot to play a song during a night. I’m not saying we played all of them, but I don’t think we forgot a track that we like.

DM: What are some favourite memories from past events?

Manzo: The best one was the last edition at l’Inspecteur Épingle, because this place was reallly small and the vibe was like “whoa.” The crowd was singing each song really loud. We had like 400 people in a 20-capacity room. That vibe was gone, kinda, when we took a bigger spot cause we’re not close to the crowd like we used to be at the beginning.

The second one was when we had (Dilla’s mom) Ma Dukes, (his brother) Illa J and Frank Nitt. That edition was very special ’cause his mom was chilling backstage with us and did a speech during the show.

A lot of people do events and they don’t give money to the Dilla Foundation. I’m not mad at them, but some (people) are. To me, it’s all about music. But I’m proud to say that we give money each year.

DM: What would you want Dilla to know about hip hop today if you could tell him?

Manzo: I would be honest and say, “You left too quickly.” His influence was certainly much bigger than he could ever imagine. I would be mad curious to hear what he would do if he was still alive today.

DM: Onto Scratch Sessions. You’ve been holding these down for years now. Please explain the general concept to our readers.

Manzo: The easiest way to understand is comparing it to a MC freestyle session. We do the same with scratch over live beats or instrumentals and loopers. I started this three years ago with Killa-Jewel and it is a monthly event. Most of the time the event takes place on the last Sunday of the month in a bar or a record store or other special venue. DJs and turntablists of all skill levels and musical genres are welcome.

My goal with Julie was to bring all DJs  together in an effort to build our scratch community, provide a platform for an exchange of ideas and musicality and to promote the elevation of our craft. You can reach the Facebook group under the name of Sunday Scratch Sessions (Montreal Chapter).

DM: How did you organize the Nuit Blanche Metro Session? And please describe what the set-up will be like and how people can attend.

Manzo: That idea came from the fact that someone in Montreal attempted something like that but without contacting the STM and they tried to jam in a wagon. Actually, oops, I was there too!

But we got kicked out so we did a jam in front of Cadillac station. And 30 minutes later the police came up and then you know the dilly. We had to leave.

A couple of years later I was like, we should try and reach out to the STM and see where it goes. So I filled out a form to request an event like anybody can, and they replied and said that they were interested. I was really surprised, but I kept talking, and we did the event last year for Nuit Blanche. The funny part of that event was that I’ve been told that we were a ”projet pilote” and all the big shots from STM were there to see the event. ■

Montreal Loves Dilla takes place at Artgang Plaza (6524 St-Hubert) on Saturday, Feb. 10, doors 9 p.m., $10

Scratch Sessions (Nuit Blanche edition), takes place at St-Laurent metro on Saturday, March 3, 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., free