I discovered John Doe, one of the founding members of the DJ collective the 1200 Hobos, when I was interning as a concert promoter in London in 2005. I had recently received his Popular Fallacies mix tape as a gift and it was unlike any mix tape that I’d ever heard before. The CD was in constant rotation in my Discman during my time in London and continued to inspire me during my years as a DJ.
Time passed and my connection with music changed as I began to focus on writing instead of DJing. I was pleasantly surprised when John emailed me a few years ago. He had enjoyed my blog and offered to pass along a copy of his 2007 mix tape The Last Amateur for review. I was once again blown away the skill it took to put together. I immediately requested an interview.
It turns out that the composition of The Last Amateur is as interesting as the final product. By using what many would consider a dated mode of production, John managed to create something that blows 99.9% of mix tapes that have been released since 2007 (or before) out of the water. Read on as the last amateur breaks down his creative process.
DJ Sorce-1: When I hear a Jon Doe tape, I’m impressed by the beat juggles, sample drops, blending, and scratching. Do you have any influences in terms of mix tapes or are your creations something uniquely your own?
John Doe: Honestly, one of my influences came from hearing mix tapes that weren't very good. I would hear other tapes and think, “Why didn't they do this, scratch this, or put this underneath this.” It made me want to create something ten times better, a hundred times better if I could. There was a time when blend tapes were big, rare groove and sample tapes seemed to be pretty big, and scratch tapes were pretty big. I wanted to do all three, and I guess that’s what I was trying to do; put all three of them together in one really good package. In terms of tapes that influenced me, do you have a copy of Tapes Skills Techniques?
DJ Sorce-1: No.
John Doe: That’s actually the very first 1200 Hobos tape that was made before I became a member. A friend of mine let me borrow it and I was blown away. I was even more blown away when I realized it was by someone here in Cincinnati. A lot of the ideas of it were the kind of ideas that I had wanted to put out myself. Listening to Tapes Skills Techniques, meeting Mr. Dibbs and hearing his other work like Turntable Scientifics, and watching DMC tapes also influenced me.
DJ Sorce-1: Besides the 1200 Hobos, were there any other local DJ’s that influenced you?
John Doe: Locally my main influence was Dibbs. We used to DJ together on a radio show. When you DJ with someone, especially with scratching and stuff, it helps you get your skills up that much more. We DJ’d together for 3-4 years weekly.
I also like Kid Koala. I think the Scratchcratchratchatch tape that he did was really unique and different. That was the one that had the “I got a rock” CharlieBrown sample that he cut up. When he did that, I thought “God, that's hilarious, but it’s so hard.” When I listened to that tape I could tell that he pretty much did what he wanted to. That’s why I list him as one of my influences; I don’t think he was trying to appeal to anyone, really, except for himself. I think my style might also be a little quirky, but in a different way.
DJ Sorce-1: Well, you definitely have a subtle sense of humor. I love the sample at the very end of The Last Amateur from the movie Se7en where Kevin Spacey brags, “What I've done is going to be puzzled over, and studied, and followed.” Right after that, Brad Pitt says, “Yeah…delusions of grandeur.” It shows that even though you care about making a good product, you don’t take yourself too seriously.
John Doe: (Laughs) Exactly. It was kind of a funny, almost tongue in cheek. I guess you really could study it and it and take it apart if you wanted to, but “delusions of grandeur” is what someone would say to me if I really thought people were going to study one of my mixes.
DJ Sorce-1: Do you have a favorite era or year for rap music?
John Doe: Any era that still uses a lot of samples. If you listen to my CDs, a lot of it is sample based. I like songs that are from samples, so I play a lot of that era and a little bit later.
DJ Sorce-1: You used “Dangerous” by Bas Blasta on the track "The Big Hit", right around the 4:05 mark. I thought I was the only person still up on his singles.
John Doe: That’s a dope record.
DJ Sorce-1: It is a dope record. Another record of his that I love is “Ain’t Watcha Do”, which the Beatnuts produced.
John Doe: People like him get missed. I still find myself picking up stuff from 10-15 years ago that I’m like, “wow, this is pretty dope. I can’t believe I missed this.”
DJ Sorce-1: Is there any one group or region that you tend to learn towards for rap?
John Doe: I definitely lean towards the East Coast. (Laughs) For a time I lived in Florida when I was in high school. Miami bass was really, really big down there. I really didn’t get into it; I was more into the New York sound. What I liked about the Miami sound was the scratching. From what I heard, New York DJs could not cut like Miami DJs. So I liked Miami scratching but I like the New York style beats.
DJ Sorce-1: In an interview you said that you don’t use a computer when doing mix tapes and that you only use vinyl. Is that still the case?
John Doe: I still do vinyl, pretty much exclusively. I still go digging, but not as much as I used to.
DJ Sorce-1: You seem to have an extraordinary knowledge of breaks and samples. Do you make beats yourself?
John Doe: No, I don’t. I have a lot of the capabilities to make beats but to be honest, if I was going to work on a project I’d have a lot more fun making Popular Fallacies or The Last Amateur part two rather than sit here and make beats.
DJ Sorce-1: At the end of the tape, you scratched the line, “I stay amateur while others turn pro.” What kind of statement were you making?
DJ Sorce-1: When composing a mix tape, what equipment are you rocking?
John Doe: I use turntables and a mixer. I also use, believe it or not, an analog multi-tracker. There’s a picture of it on the back of the CD case. So yeah, all of my equipment is pretty dated, but it’s all about what you put out. I've always stood by that.
DJ Sorce-1: There’s no computer in your studio?
John Doe: No, there’s no computer down here in the studio. I don’t use any programs. I record to cassette.
DJ Sorce-1: The way different lyrics are pieced together and everything is inner-connected, it’s almost like you have a photographic memory.
John Doe: By putting my CDs together the way that I do, you can really tell what my personality is like by listening to it. I read somewhere that when you DJ, your personality should be able to show through what you play. I know a lot of people that like the same stuff that I do, but just playing it isn’t going to show my personality. The way I put things together though; that can really show what I’m about.
DJ Sorce-1: Do you do most of your recording in a studio?
John Doe: I actually have a home studio. That’s what I use.
DJ Sorce-1: Are other people a part of your recording sessions or do you record by yourself?
John Doe: Pretty much when I record, there’s no one else around. My wife and stepdaughter are home, but they don’t come and hang out with me when I’m recording. I stay down here and work, usually a little bit later at night when they've gone to bed.
DJ Sorce-1: I have a small home studio in my apartment. There is something really nice about being able to make music where you live.
John Doe: Oh yeah. I can work on stuff, go upstairs and make a sandwich, then come back down and keep on working. There were times when I used to be able to work on music until two or three in the morning knowing I had to be at work at seven or eight. I really can’t do that anymore. (Laughs) I can stay awake until one. I try to start working on music a little bit earlier in the evening, but I've found in previous years that I was a little bit more creative after midnight. I don’t know what it is.
DJ Sorce-1: When you’re making a CD, do you write things down?
John Doe: Oh yeah. I've got legal pads and composition books full of notes. I use them to map the tapes out.
DJ Sorce-1: I read that you started The Last Amateur in 2004. After you started recording it, you got married, bought a house, and didn't end up finessing it until 2007. Do you think having that amount of time was helpful?
John Doe: Yeah, I would say so. As soon as Popular Fallacies was done, I already had notes started and I think I had part of the intro for The Last Amateur done. There was so much going on in my life that I tried to do stuff here and there, but it wasn't until I was a little more settled that I could really sit down and attack it. To me there was no rush to put it out. I guess that’s why it took so long. I was picky, and you’re always your own worst critic. And when you’re putting everything together yourself, it takes a little bit longer to get things pressed up, get the artwork done, and things like that.
DJ Sorce-1: The CD I have looks really nice. The artwork is well done and it’s packaged well. Did you recoup what you spend to get it pressed up?
John Doe: The response was good. When I changed my profile on MySpace to a picture of me holding it, a lot of people emailed to ask if it was done. That was cool. But yeah, I recouped what I spend to have the CD copies made. The CDs sold pretty well through MySpace and people randomly emailing me.
A friend of mine, DEVIous TSC did the artwork. I had the CDs pressed up at another place and everything was printed here locally so I could check the proofs. I assembled the CDs at my house. I did the mix-down of The Last Amateur in my home studio but I didn't do the mastering. I had to go to a studio to get it mastered by an engineer so it bumped and everything sounded really good.
DJ Sorce-1: The sound it really clean. You can definitely tell that it’s a labor of love. For source material, how many records would you say that you have total?
John Doe: I would say about 3-4,000. I probably have an extra 1-2,000 at my parent’s house. I would say around 4-5,000 total. I try to weed stuff out sometimes. I've started pulling out records, and with some of them I realized, “I haven’t played this in the last 10 years. Do you I really need doubles of Foxy Brown’s fourth album?” (Laughs)
DJ Sorce-1: You break your CDs into three or four minute segments. How long does it take for you to perfect one of those segments?
John Doe: That entire mix was laid out, minute 1 through minute 60, and then I broke it up later. I didn't work on one section at a time. I went all the way through, and then when I listened to it I would come up with names for the different parts. It kind of seems like it was made as individual sections, but it wasn't. It was one big, continuous mix. That’s why some parts are really long and other parts are shorter.
When I make a mix tape, I work in blocks of 16 bars. Every single song that I use, every beat, is 16 bars long and that’s it. That’s why everything goes in and out so quickly. That’s one concession I made. You’re not going to want to listen to me scratch over one beat for three straight minutes. I’m going to do what I can in 16 bars and then move on. I really don’t know where that formula came from. 16 bars is usually the length of a verse, so I just did that, and it’s the format that I've stuck with. 16 bars is approximately 40 seconds, so I try to give you the best of everything squeezed into 40 seconds of each song.
DJ Sorce-1: You seem to have a pretty specific mode of production. Would it be hard to make a project with someone else?
John Doe: I think so. It’s really a matter of time and scheduling. I usually work on music pretty late, until around midnight, I can’t meet up with anyone or have them over to my house that late. I've been doing this by myself for so long, I don’t see a need to collaborate with someone. Now, if I did 30 minutes, and someone else did 30 minutes, that could probably work. As far as working on something together, I don’t see how that would be possible with timing and schedules.
You can pick up Popular Fallacies and The Last Amateur via John Doe's Bandcamp page. They are both being sold for a "name your own" price. I highly recommend both.
To read the first installment of 'Til My Tape Pop with Cosmo Baker, click here.