“I Took That Leap”: DJ Mentos on Richmond, Doom Flips, and ‘The Ill Collins Sessions’
The recent Richmond, VA transplant discusses off-kilter drum loops, his affinity for sampling live recordings with background noise, and his instrumental release ‘The Ill Collins Sessions’.
Like many people who go on to DJ and produce for a living, DJ Mentos remembers feeling a strong gravitational pull towards hip-hop culture at an early age. It wasn’t long before his casual interest became all-consuming. “I grew up obsessed with hip-hop, so I am a fan first,” he says.
Though the various artforms that fall underneath the hip-hop umbrella caught his eyes and ears right away, it would be several years before Mentos made the leap from passionate fan to active participant. “I always wanted to DJ, but it wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I really dedicated myself to learning the techniques — mixing, blending, scratching, beatmatching, juggling, etc. This was all on vinyl, before digital DJing existed,” he says.
As Mentos honed his skills on the ones and twos, he began to see a connection between his prowess on the turntables and the loop-layering of other producers who had started out as DJs. “Once you start juggling loops on vinyl in real time, you’re only a short way from looping up samples and building songs of your own,” he says. “Like so many other hip-hop DJ’s, I took that leap.”
“For me, golden era hip-hop is the foundation for all the music I create, so I constantly go back there for samples and scratches.”
First starting on an AKAI MPC2000XL that he bought in Times Square in 2004, Mentos made the switch to Ableton Live a few years later and has been rocking with it ever since. “I love the look and feel of dedicated hardware, but for me personally, making music on the computer is much more efficient,” he says.
Although his mode of production has evolved to include more modern tools of the trade, Mentos still enjoys getting the bulk of his sample material from good old fashioned records. “I started making beats at a time when you had to use vinyl for sampling because we didn’t have access to other mediums,” he says. “Now, I’m not opposed to sampling digital sources like YouTube and MP3s, but I’ll always rely on my records for samples and inspiration.”
After building a foundation of beat making skills for the better part of a decade, a major turning point in Mentos’ musical career came when he relocated from New York to the fertile rap music scene in Richmond, Virginia in 2014. After connecting with The Cheats Movement website — which provides expert coverage of local artists through a variety of mediums — he has served as a frequent contributor to their podcast and helped put together shows in the area featuring revered acts such as AZ and Oddisee. Then, two years after his initial relocation, Menthos teamed up with Richmond MC Noah-O and produced every tack for their debut effort The Rain. Showcasing a keen ear, his production worked as a perfect compliment to Noah-O’s lyrics by blending scratched samples, tasteful filtered basslines, crisp drums, and jazzy riffs throughout the album.
“Once you start juggling loops on vinyl in real time, you’re only a short way from looping up samples and building songs of your own.”
After releasing The Rain and working on other projects with rappers like Richmond native Michael Millions, Mentos found himself craving an added outlet for his music besides working with MCs. This desire helped spark the early stages of 2017's The Ill Collins Sessions, the third full-length instrumental project of his career. “The project was not a preconceived album the way The Rain was,” Mentos explains. “This was my outlet to release some music on my own. I really like collaborating with rappers, but I also like to create instrumentals and downtempo tracks independently.”
The EP grabs the listener’s attention right away with the ultra-smooth “Live As It Gets”, a cut that showcases Mentos’ trademark creative process. “Like all my music, ‘Live As It Gets’ started with a sample,” he says. “In this case, it was that main Fender Rhodes loop that you hear throughout the song — which has been sampled by a few others too. I filtered the same sample to get the bassline, a technique that I learned from listening to The Beatminerz production of Smif N Wessun and Black Moon.”
From there, he added scratches and a distinct drum loop to fill out the song. “I like to add unusual percussion sounds too,” he says. “On this, I used a shaker/conga loop from an obscure Bo Hansson song.”
“The main bassline loop is taken from a live recording at a club and it sounds like a busboy dropped something in the background.”
“Live As It Gets” builds off of a Fender Rhodes sample, while “Blunted Ill Types of Beats” makes excellent use of a vocal sample from a late rap legend. “I try to create music that pushes the boundaries of what most hip-hop sounds like, so I think using a hip-hop vocal sample like Guru brings the listener back to the basics,” Mentos says. “For me, golden era hip-hop is the foundation for all the music I create, so I constantly go back there for samples and scratches.”
Yet again showing a flair for the subtly unusual in his sample selection on the final track “Blue Smoke”, Mentos beautifully flips a drum track with some surprisingly effective background noise. “The subtle crowd noise is because the main drum loop is from a live recording,” he explains. “I’m not sure how I found it, but it’s a cover version of ‘Hand Jive’.”
Some producers might find added noise in a sample too distracting and try to clean the snippet up, but Mentos makes it fit perfectly — it enhances the overall sound by giving the track a different kind of energy. For him, finding and a way to work in extra background noise in a live recording is a challenging and often rewarding pursuit. “A lot of sampling artists avoid live samples, but I actually like them and I’ve found some pretty obscure stuff,” he says. “For example, on an MF Doom remix I made, if you listen carefully you can hear silverware in the background. The main bassline loop is taken from a live recording at a club and it sounds like a busboy dropped something in the background.”
“I’m not sure why there is so much talent here, but I think the key to the scene is having artists support one another and having non-artists who support the movement.”
As he continues to develop his sound through solo productions and collaborative efforts, DJ Mentos is grateful to be part of such a vibrant and rapidly evolving creative ecosystem. “I consider myself very fortunate to be a part of the Richmond hip-hop community,” he says. “When I moved from New York I didn’t know what to expect, but it didn’t take long before I got to know a lot of the artists and I now consider them close friends.”
Despite finding his footing in Richmond, the precise reasons for why the area has such a high concentration of talent remains a bit of a mystery to Mentos. But after giving it some thought, he points to the support of people in the city — both inside and outside the hip-hop scene. “I’m not sure why there is so much talent here, but I think the key to the scene is having artists support one another and having non-artists who support the movement,” he says.
As he continues to build relationships with other like-minded artists in close proximity, Mentos has several projects up his sleeve that fans of The Ill Collins Sessions and The Rain should expect soon. First, there’s his sophomore project with Noah-O titled Analog Suspects. Once that’s wrapped and released, he promises some more instrumental releases. Pinning down a specific date is difficult at the moment, but it sounds like there will plenty of new material in the not-too-distant future. “I am a bit scattered with lots of different things in the works,” Mentos admits. “But I have tons of unfinished and unreleased music.”
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