Name: DJ Abilities aka Gregory Keltgen
Occupation: Producer, DJ
Current Release: DJ Abilities's Phonograph Phoenix is out via Rhymesayers.
If you enjoyed this interview with DJ Abilities and would like to stay up to date on his work, visit his official website. He is als on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What did you learn from the masters of production for your own work?
I started producing as a teenager, influenced by 90s Hip Hop and Rock, for sure. Nas, Nirvana, Wu-Tang, Alice In Chains and Hieroglyphics all come to mind, but DJ Premier was my biggest influence early on. I loved his beats AND scratches. Then later on, El-P with Company Flow. I loved how he sampled anything and liked that the samples didn’t “match”. That was a big moment.
I learned to make sure you have a sound that is unique to yourself and that it has energy. Cleverness in sample flipping is always a plus too.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important instruments or pieces of gear for you?
First was an Ensoniq keyboard and a 4 track, that progressed to the MPC 2000, then 2000XL, which is what I made all of the Eyedea & Abilities stuff on. It’s evolved for me as I always want to grow and explore.
My current record is an example of that. I made it with Ableton and VSTs, so a drastic departure from my previous work, but I loved the challenge. Now I’ve moved into modular which is a whole other challenge!
When it comes to sampling vs playing something yourself, what are your preferences?
Now, I definitely prefer playing it myself. But flipping a sample in a clever, unique way will always be awesome.
Within a digital working environment, it is possible to compile huge archives of ideas for later use. Tell me a bit about your strategies of building such an archive and how you put these ideas and sketches to use.
Totally, I have a massive Ableton session with countless acapellas that help me write for sure.
Have there been technologies which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Sorry to be redundant, (laughs), but Ableton! That platform really is wonderful.
The Vestax Controller One was a game changer and it upped the ante on melodic scratching.
Now modular, that medium has so many brilliant people in the field making gear and so many “whoa” concepts, I love it.
Where does the impulse to create a beat come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I love beats so the main motivation would be the desire to hear them and the challenge to create them. Other mediums definitely do, too, though. If I see a great movie or something, I get inspired to create. Also reading.
I think the sequencing of the words helps my brain get in the proper space and I've noticed it’s usually easier to get something good going after I’ve been reading for an hour or so.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
No planning, that’s the fun! Just a blank canvas and seeing what happens ... The newness!
What do you start with? How difficult is that first bar of music?
Most times it’ll be drums, because once you have a groove, finding the melody over the top tends to be more fun.
The difficulty of the first bar varies, some tracks start crazy easy, some are more labor intensive.
Using an example, can you tell me how you produce a beat? In your opinion, what makes a great beat?
An approach I’ve done frequently is I’ll find various drum sounds / breaks that inspire me, then section out the pieces I like, loop each one at a time, and EQ / effect until it sounds exactly how I want. Then, once I’ve done this enough for a full kit I’ll program some drums, then dial in the swing and velocity to give it breath, then start playing with notes over the top.
What makes a great beat is the feeling. How does it make you feel? Fast beats, slow beats, complicated beats, simple beats, anything can be fresh – it just has to have that feel. It's indescribable and yet, you know it when you feel it.
When will you leave a beat to work its magic by itself as an instrumental and when will you add vocals to it? Do you see beats as an artform in their own right?
Beats are absolutely an art form in their own right. I wish I could be more specific but either you can "hear" vocals or not – there’s no formula or rule to determine that.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
For collabs I always prefer being in the same room. I will file share but it often feels like homework (laughs). Being in the same room feels like we're doing this together and it yields different results. And it’s more fun!
How do you choose vocal collaborators for a particular beat and what, in your opinion, sets a great vocalist/rapper apart from a 'merely' good one? Do you produce beats specifically with a vocalist in mind?
It naturally occurs. I’ll hear the vocalist over the top in my mind. Probably my DJ brain doing mixes and blends in my head.
After you've recorded all the vocals, what is the arrangement process like for you and what is different in hip hop production compared to, say, a rock or pop piece? How do you stand in terms of producing "freestyles" versus "songs"?
That is usually all figured out in the composition phase, so when the vocals are being recorded it’s already exactly as it should be.
How do you see the balance between writing for current trends, referring to classic sounds or creating a personal signature sound?
Always make your own sound and what you want to hear. If that lines up with current trends, great. If not, so be it.
Many listeners will usually focus in on the contribution of the rapper(s) in a hip hop song. But the beat and musical elements provide for the emotional foundation of that performance. How much of yourself is in the finished production?
I’d counter and say many do the beat, myself being one of them (laughs). Ideally, it’s a 50/50. I felt that way with Eyedea & Abilities and it made for a fantastic partnership.