The request was so weird that it had to be true. About a month ago, the social media pages of DJ Dodger Stadium (or DJDS, as they now prefer to be called) and their management blew up. Kanye West wanted to see them immediately. Could the dance-music duo come to his home studio in Calabasas?
They said “Yes” faster than you read this sentence.
There are the stereotypical visions you may have of a Kanye studio session: crates of Champagne, Kardashians lingering, paparazzi lurking, Kid Cudi caterwauling into an existential void. But on that day it was shockingly low-key. Just West and his engineer, eager to meet Jerome LOL and Samo Sound Boy. Yeezus had heard songs from their brilliant 2014 debut, Friend of Mine, and decreed that he needed their input on his new album.
“He really liked how we were sampling stuff,” says Samo, 31, born Sam Griesemer and raised in New York and New Hampshire. “So initially, we just vibed out and played some stuff that we’d been working on. Then he explained what he was going for on the album in a Kanye kinda way.”
The exact description — to be said in your best all-caps Kanye voice — was: “Think about everything you ever wanted from music. This has to sound like that, all at once.”
Unless you have an Earthlink.net email address, you’re aware that Kanye’s The Life of Pablo is the most anticipated album since, well, Kanye’s last album. But DJDS are a significantly lesser-known commodity.
Starting around 2010, DJDS began building an underground cult with their own sample-driven originals, remixes and various other singles issued on their Body High imprint. Blending techno, house, soul, hip-hop, garage and Jersey club, they incubated a scene in the late-night industrial warehouse fringes of L.A. Their music stood in stark contrast to the dance-music narratives of the last decade, avoiding the nitrous bludgeoning of trap, the fluorescent PLUR clichés of corporate rave and the astral hip-hop futurism of Low End Theory.
The aesthetic was nostalgic without being retro, romantic without sappiness, melancholic but never mopey. It’s obvious that what Kanye saw in their productions was the same thing he initially became famous for — the gift of wringing dizzying wellsprings of emotion from fleeting vocal samples, revitalizing old fragments of sounds and using them to tell new stories.
Until a few weeks ago, DJDS had remained subterranean. So if you saw the now-iconic notebook paper with signatures from every collaborator on Life of Pablo, you’d be forgiven for overlooking the duo. After all, the short list of names also included 2 Chainz, Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, A$AP Rocky, Earl Sweatshirt and Andre 3000.
“The way we sample wouldn’t even exist if we hadn’t listened to Kanye’s music.” -Jerome LOL
Yet it’s highly possible that no one, outside of West himself, sculpted the sound of Pablo more than the two producers who typically work out of a dilapidated, no-frills tenement building in MacArthur Park. Of the 11 album tracks that played at West’s Madison Square Garden live stream on Feb. 11, DJDS worked on five.
Even after their contributions became an internationally recognized reality, Jerome and Samo still can’t help but marvel at how surreal it all seems. Just a few months ago, they paid for seats like everyone else to see Kanye perform 808s & Heartbreak at the Hollywood Bowl. Now they’ve received the most coveted co-sign in music. The greatest sampler of his generation recruited them to help him sample.
“A lot of our music and the way we sample wouldn’t even exist if we hadn’t listened to Kanye’s music,” says Jerome LOL (aka Jerome Potter), 28, who grew up in Palos Verdes and Torrance.
“It was bizarre,” Samo adds. “We’ve never produced for anyone else, and to get to help him, it was so incredible. We’d been huge fans forever.”
They’re speaking by phone aboard the Holy Ship party cruise, where they’ll spin the next night somewhere in international waters off Nassau, the Bahamas. They’d spent the previous weekend with West in New York as part of a final, frenzied, 24/7 lunge to finish the album.
The process was sort of like getting the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory, but rather than receive the taste test and tour, they were required to help reinvent the entire concept of chocolate confections. Offer one wrong recipe and you’re Augustus Gloop. Instead, DJDS became West’s active agent.
“We were there to provide creative energy and creative ideas. He surrounds himself with people who are there to help him in the grand mission of telling the story,” Jerome says.
“He’ll know what he wants, but if you have a different perspective, he’ll always hear it,” Samo adds. “Even if he’s 100 percent sure, he’s always looking for a new way to hear something.
“A lot of the stuff already sounded great, so we’d just do remixes of it, and sometimes parts that we did would be worked into the finished product,” he says.
They describe the experience with the post-baptismal fervor you might expect: thrilling, intense and otherworldly. They watched impromptu Kanye DJ sets of Cameo, Luther Vandross and ’80s funk, where he’d tell them to “take it all in and make something that feels like this.”
One night, West delivered a dazzling MPC jam. Other nights, they caught frenetic Chance the Rapper freestyles and absorbed wisdom from The-Dream.
Most of the time, they worked in close tandem with Rap-A-Lot production legend Mike Dean, a longtime member of West’s team. It was a musical education you can’t pay for — and even if you could, no one could afford it.
Amidst all the chaos, DJDS dropped their own superb sophomore album, Stand Up and Speak, last month. Stepping up to the larger Loma Vista label, DJDS largely eschewed samples for once, instead recruiting guest vocalists and instrumentalists to blend pop, R&B, dance music and soul, with little of the watering down often seen when artists expand beyond their initial comfort zone.
Stand Up and Speak delineates them from their peers through their ability to capture the high and lows of human experience, wrapped up in 4/4 time signatures.
It’s not hard to understand why they became Kanye’s new favorite dance duo. At their best, DJDS deliver everything you want from music, all at once.
“He’s clearly always changing his sound and pushing it in different directions. With this album, he wanted to come into line with what we do in ours,” Samo says. “We try to make stuff that feels timeless. He was setting out to do something …”
“Grand,” Jerome finishes his partner’s sentence.
“Exactly. Something that’s at the core of why music is so important,” Samo continues. “If this was three years ago, when he was making Yeezus, we weren’t the guys he would’ve turned to. But now …”
But now it elevates the duo to an elite stature they deserve. They’ve long been one of Los Angeles’ best-kept secrets. Now DJDS could become as famous as Yasiel Puig.
In the process, the collaboration bridged the chasm between the world’s most famous musician and the semi-legal parties in the few remaining corridors of L.A. that haven’t been gentrified, where they don’t search at the door and where underground isn’t an aesthetic choice, as much as it is a necessity.
Viewed in that light, the request wasn’t that weird after all. DJDS were there for a very crucial reason: to help Kanye West avoid losing his edge.