Kunming-based DJ, producer, and organizer DSK, 37, started out mixing tapes as a teenager in his bedroom in Southampton, UK. From there he progressed to playing house parties and then bar nights, and finally, the local club scene. Twelve years ago, he packed up and moved to Asia, traveling around and living in Cambodia and Thailand and performing in clubs in nearly a dozen countries, before deciding (by putting a pin on a map of China) to set up in Kunming. Now he's one of the driving forces behind Unity Records, and has had tracks featured in several independent documentaries and on the BBC.
What's the background behind Unity?
I started a weekly night in Speakeasy Bar as there was nothing happening in Kunming then. [Later], Sam [Debell] began running the place. He kept having people come in and ask him for foreign DJs, so we decided to work together and make some shows and an agency for foreign performers. Later we found common ground as Sam is a great Latin and African percussionist, and I was always searching for break-beats in old funk, Latin, and rock records. We decided to make some music together and eventually set up Unity Recordings to release music.
We wanted to do it to give something back and try to start something that could grow bigger and bigger over time. Instead of just coming to China and trying to make money we feel that it's also important to give something back. Unity Recordings was set up to try and push some decent music within China and also give China artists a platform to reach the rest of the underground scene worldwide.
Who are your artists and what are your main projects?
To name a few, we have had Dum Due, a Cantonese rap group from Guangzhou; DJ Wordy, three-time DMC champion from Beijing; Jovian from Chengdu; and Renmin Jiezou, a funk/percussion outfit based in Kunming. The Battle of the Year China CD has been our main focus for the last two years, and we also released a Chinese scratch vinyl aimed at Chinese scratch DJs. Our latest release is Lost Soul by DJ DSK and DJ Fatkit from Guangzhou, a mix of funk, Latin, and classic hip-hop breaks including a few found in our secret Guangzhou vinyl banks.
What are the most challenging aspects of running a label in China?
There is no distribution for music like there is in the West so we have to put CDs in the shops ourselves and drag CDs to events to sell. Also, we're having the same problems as the global music industry—namely that nobody is really buying CDs anymore, so there is no money to be made. It was such a lot of work for our Battle of the Year releases. Having to coordinate people in so many countries was very difficult. We had a lot of sleepless nights to make the deadline and still barely managed to break even. After all your hard work people don't want to spend 20 or 25 RMB on a CD and expect you to give them a free copy! We sell the majority [of CDs] at events in China but the profit is so little [that] we actually make more money on the [smaller] quantity sold in other countries.
Why hip hop? What about it appeals to local youths?
Hip hop for me is something that brings people together and is no way related to the awful bling and rap videos you see on TV. It's something positive for youth to grab onto and express themselves. Hip hop started in America but each country has [its] own twist to make it fit within their culture. Dragon Style Crew from Beijing use a lot of kung fu and Chinese opera moves in their B-Boy show, for example. MC Webber is making hip hop and reggae in Chinese, which is sounding great. The most moving story for me is KK and Tiny Toones in Cambodia using hip hop to help the street kids in Phnom Penh: www.tinytoonescambodia.com.
What are your best and worst DJ experiences in China?
I really enjoy playing B-Boy battles—sometimes we have 80 crews competing from all over China (around 500 people just competing) and no one (foreign or local community) even knows it's happening. Recently I did the Circle Prinz China battle in Shanghai and Sam played live percussion over the breaks. That was a really cool event. Worst? Recently in Kunming—having a stupid drunk foreigner asking (shouting) for rock music on a hip-hop night and assuming, like foreigners do here, that the club is there solely for him. I said after this night that I never want to DJ in Kunming again.
If you hadn't gotten married would you still be around in China?
I'd definitely still be in Asia, but I think I would have moved out of Kunming a long time ago. Flights to other countries are expensive, and it's so cut off from everything; it's very hard to live here and do anything internationally or even domestically. I plan to keep playing until I go completely deaf which probably won't be too long! But I have a daughter now as well so I am really happy with family life.
This interview was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife, issue 28, November 2009 ("DIY"). Photo courtesy to dsk.