For The Record

Just about everyone has a moment when they fell in love with Hip-Hop: this poignant instance that you can’t help but recall in vivid detail years later like it was yesterday. You laugh or get excited just thinking about it. It’s a hypnotizing, aural-based epiphany — a sensory overload where you’ve been exposed to something new, vibrant, and somewhat overwhelming simultaneously. I’d safely imagine this might have been what Boston native Ben “DJ Yamin” Epstein felt when he witnessed DJ DNA of the Urban Dance Squad spin for the first time back in 1990. Over the years, while trying to find a catchy stage name, yet one that internally resonated, Yamin had several aliases: Act One, Skinny B, and Ben Ultimate, until settling on DJ Yamin (a shortened version of Benjamin in Hebrew, Binyamin). He had been previously indoctrinated into Hip-Hop culture as a graffiti artist at the age of 12 and was a member of Rock Against Racism, a multi-racial group of young adolescents that would “do breakdancing and graffiti… tour different schools and different parts of the city and perform.”

With Boston being in such close proximity to New York, a lot of the music that was being created in Hip-Hop’s epicenter flowed outward and was absorbed along the East Coast. “I would go to summer camp every summer in Vermont and 75% of the campers were from New York City. So from there we were doing the breaking, we were listening to Eric B. and Rakim. We were listening to Special Ed, listening to Fat Boys,” remembers Yamin. As he progressed on the 1s and 2s and transformed his passion into a livelihood, the seasoned DJ found himself joining mashup groups like Politics of Experience, the Three Kings, and the B Side, which combined DJing with live instrumentation, beat making, and emcees at the forefront. Despite his extensive background and creative upbringing to this point, this turntablist doesn’t necessarily call himself a Hip-Hop DJ. “Well, I think my core is Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop’s the epicenter and everything else grows from that because when I DJ, I like to get into funk. I like to get into reggae. I like to get into Latin,” states Yamin.

Ben “DJ Yamin” Epstein. Photo courtesy of Michael “Quess” Moore.

Coming up on his 10th year in New Orleans, DJ Yamin has transformed his love of Hip-Hop into a way of directly giving back to his community. His nonprofit, NOLA Mix, began as a way for him to continue teaching music production and providing DJ lessons. “I wanted to do what I was doing before, which was teaching this stuff to kids” says Yamin. He regularly taught music based skills at ZUMIX, an East Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to building adolescent self-identity through music and creative technology for low-income, underserved neighborhoods. After meeting a colleague who had some background in nonprofit-based work, they combined their efforts and began pitching the youth program as a six-week course to various places like the Ashé Cultural Arts Center and Freret Neighborhood Center. Yamin recollects, “I’d bring all of my equipment and we do it like two times a week after school.” This led to young participants performing at the Keller Library, Ogden Museum, and Kids’ Tent at Jazz Fest, among other opportunities. DJ Yamin continued to push the NOLA Mix brand and its curriculum into the city’s newly developed charter school system, establishing after-school programs with Kipp Academy, Edna Karr High School, Kipp Central City, and then ReNEW Accelerated High School. Eventually, he became a salaried ReNEW teacher, where music production was offered as an elective. “I was testing them and grading them, the whole nine, which was a trip because I hadn’t even finished college” says Yamin.

The evolution of NOLA Mix continued in September 2015 when DJ Yamin opened his own record store, NOLA Mix Records in Uptown New Orleans. The shop sells vinyl, tapes, DJ gear and equipment, books, as well as t-shirts and art by local artists. “Through Brice [Nice] I linked up with this guy who had a record shop in Algiers and was looking to get out of the business. I was like, ‘Well, why don’t I buy his stock and rent my own store where the records will be retail, while still having lessons in my own home base’” recalls Yamin. Throughout its nearly three years of existence, NOLA Mix Records has participated in the last three Record Store Days and provided both a performance space and commercial location for local recording artists of all genres to sell their music. “To have my own space, it really opens up the possibility of in-store performances, which is so important to me, because as a kid growing up it’s hard to get gigs, or to have a gig with a random audience with people walking in and usually sticking around. That’s crucial to the mission statement, supporting local artists” adds Yamin.

Although working with youth around music remains one of his passions, DJ Yamin has always remained an artist at heart, with a deep affection for New Orleans funk. Under the alias Professor Shorthair (a nod to New Orleans pianist Henry “Professor Longhair” Byrd), he’s released a slew of New Orleans funk remixes that have been flipped with his signature breakbeat Hip-Hop twist. His label, Superjock Records (named for the 1975 Reuben Bell song all about the DJ) is preparing for its 14th release later this year and includes the highlighted “NOLA Bounce Breaks,” a three volume set of scratch records that contain bounce samples and music, in collaboration with turntablists/producers Quickie Mart and Tony Skratchere. Yamin provides some background by saying, “The idea behind the label is anything related to New Orleans, whether it’s the guy remixing the track or the guy who the sample’s from. It can be any genre… but the epicenter is New Orleans. That connects it all.”

Ben “DJ Yamin” Epstein. Photo courtesty of Cindy Do.

From the early days of Roxanne Shante to the current wave of Cardi B, DJ Yamin has been present through it all and found ways to deepen his appreciation for New Orleans’ music and culture while also positively contributing to it. “It’s funny being almost a 44-year-old man and still being involved in music, but just in a different way. It makes you appreciate the time that you have to keep doing those things that you were doing before, but I’m going to keep doing it because I love doing it,” proclaims Yamin.