DAKIM: PLAYING FOR THE SPIRIT
photography by cinque mubarak
The connection between music and spirituality gets frequent lip-service but it is a rare and special thing to find music that can function as a pathway towards the spirit. It is even rarer to have the privilege of recognizing a musician devoting themselves to music as a spiritual practice in real time. That’s been my experience with Dakim, the unassuming prodigal son of Detroit’s deep and fertile cultural legacy. I first crossed paths with Dak in the fall of 2013 during his first trip overseas. Independent filmmaker Gus Sutherland had recently completed his documentary All Ears, chronicling his understanding and admiration for the L.A. beat scene of the late 2000s, and he’d organized a university screening in Belfast, Ireland. Gus flew out Dak, Ras_G, Kutmah (then recently deported from the U.S.—fuck ICE! Abolish ICE!) and yours truly for a panel and performance. Witnessing Dak travel across the Atlantic with a set-up that included a chunky and obstinate 16-channel mixing board for one performance for about 200 people was an impressive and humbling display of dedication.
Dakim’s music stirred something in me and I was glad when he accepted the invitation to sit for an interview. A self-described hermit, Dak has spent most of his career making music for himself, with little regard for the rat-race most of his peers lose themselves in. That also meant that you may have had a hard time trying to find any of his releases, which don’t come close to catching up with his prolific work ethic. Now, however, the eclectic composer seems to have gained a confidence and perspective that is allowing him to maintain the sacredness of his creative space while more intentionally engaging with the commercial aspects.
Though we began our interview riffing on the pedestrian yet universal subject of how-are-you-smoking-your-weed-nowadays, we quickly moved on to matters of greater consequence and import. With great lucidity, vulnerability and candor, Dakim shed light on his early days in Detroit, his admiration for the work of Pharaoh Sanders and the spiritual practice he’s been able to cultivate through his work. A quiet warrior, Dakim’s art aims for the soul—he’s using the magic of sound to bring the discerning listener that much closer to the source. Dakim’s regos_mined will be available digitally on Thurs., Oct. 10. This interview by sweeney kovar.
You were saying you cut out the Backwoods and the tobacco.
Dakim: My lungs just couldn’t take it. That’s what happens when you smoke Backwoods everyday for years on end. At first I did miss it a little bit but now I can’t even smoke them anymore. Maybe once or twice a year, I’ll try to smoke a Backwoods for a special occasion and I’m like, ‘Man, this shit is gross.’
I remember thinking the same thing the first time I tried a Backwoods but then I grew to appreciate it.
Dakim: I actually enjoyed my first time. Prince Po from Organized Confusion was in Detroit for a show around 2006, about a week after Jay Dee died. We were kicking it afterwards and he was trying to get some trees. So we took him back to my hood—the grimy part of the hood—which he was real excited about for some reason. I remember thinking, ‘You’re not safe right now—you shouldn’t be so excited.’ Anyways, we got the trees and went back to the house and he pulled out the Backwoods. We were like, ‘What the hell is that?’ As a kid I remember seeing the Backwoods package at the grocery store and being intrigued because it kind of looked like the Big League Chew package. It looked like candy.
What were people smoking in Detroit at the time?
Dakim: Swishers, Optimos and Garcia y Vegas. Dutches were around but nobody was really checking for them like that. Swishers were the main ones. I can’t do those anymore either.
Getting to the music—one of the interesting aspects about you is how you’ve had a presence without having a ton of stuff released. How were your early days in Detroit making music?
Dakim: It was always just me and a small handful of homies in Detroit. We were pretty insulated. We weren’t really accepted by the elite of Detroit. People came from all over and congregated at spaces like St. Andrews or Hip-Hop Shop, Lush Lounge and Buddha Lounge a little bit later too. Everybody knew us because we were everywhere, but we were scrubs. We were doing our own thing. Maybe we were looked at as scrubs and felt ourselves as scrubs. But we kept at it, staying in our own bubble and developing our own little thing. Trying to push it or get it out there wasn’t even the mentality at the time. We just did it and it was for us. My whole thing with music since we started was therapy. I started making music at the same time I stopped going to school, around the age of 14. My brother left behind his turntables when he went away to school in 94. Within a year or so I started getting into his stuff and making tapes. My life fell apart at the time—I got super depressed and stopped going to school. I just focused on making tapes because that was the only thing I really could do at the time. I was making these little rinky-dink tapes and did that for a few years. Eventually, I met my homie Leaf and he was the first person to really hear me and support me. We linked and we’ve been cool ever since. That’s when we started kind of forming a crew but even still, it was just us. We never really got out of that doing-it-just-for-us feel.
Was that ever a point of conversation or was that just implicitly understood?
Dakim: We had dreams of doing things. Leaf would call me up sometimes like, ‘I had this dream we were doing this show!’ But as far as putting a plan to it? We just made the music and that was it. Even still to this day, that’s how I am. I make the music and that’s it. All that extra shit? That’s not for me. It’s to the detriment because that’s not the way to get shit popping.
When did you first start to feel like your music was reaching outside your bubble?
Dakim: That wasn’t until I lived in L.A. I only stayed in L.A. for three years but it feels like I was there for a lifetime. It was in L.A. that I started hearing from folks overseas, like Gus Sutherland in Ireland and my man Bun out of Japan. I had no idea people were listening. Gus is really the person to let me know people were listening. Before that, I just thought it was me and the homies.
What brought you to L.A.?
Dakim: My wife. We met on a hip-hop chatroom in AOL back in 96.
That’s amazing! What were the chat rooms like back then?
Just a lot of people grillin’ people. ‘What you know about Freestyle Fellowship?’ ‘You get that new 2MEX tape?’ That kind of shit. I was in Detroit so I didn’t know anything about that but I was intrigued by it. It was a place where like-minded people could come together and mostly just crack jokes on the new guys. My wife was in there and we had a few instant messages. Eventually we talked on the phone and eventually I came out to Orange County. I think that was 2000 or 2001. I kept going back and forth visiting and by 2007 it was clear something had to happen. So I moved out there and stayed with her and her two roommates in Highland Park. I stayed there for a few months and then got my own place in Cypress Park. I moved a few blocks down, then I moved to Glendale where I stayed for maybe a year. Then one of her roommates moved out and I ended up moving back to the house in Highland Park.
So it was a coincidence that you moved while there was this migration of Detroit people to Los Angeles at that particular time?
Dakim: I moved for love, man! I wasn’t thinking about music at all until I started going to Project Blowed. I was on MySpace at the time and this cat in New Jersey named Macross sent me a message directing me to Dibia$e and this beat thing happening at Project Blowed. I hit up Dibia$e and he told me to come down and my mind was blown. Project Blowed for the first time… oh my God. From that point I was catching the bus from Highland Park to Leimert Park, which is a mission. There’s a couple of times when I missed the last bus home. I think that actually happened my first night going out there. The bus stops early but Project Blowed goes to late and I didn’t know that. So I was just out there walking on Crenshaw at 3 AM not knowing how I was going to get back. I had just got there and I knew nothing about the city. Luckily this random dude in a Cadillac just slid up to me like, ‘What you doing out here?’ He gave me a ride and I got home. That was a blessing because that could of turned out real bad. I got caught out there a few times, scrambling to get home, but I kept going back because the energy was just incredible. That’s where I met Dibiase, Ras_G, Sacred and we were rolling from there.
How do you look back now on your time in L.A.?
Dakim: Like I said before, it seems like a lifetime. We’ve been living here in the Bay for 10 years now and I was only in L.A. for three years but it seems like I was there way longer than we’ve been here … probably because so much happened. I lived in so many places and met so many people. I look back on that time fondly. It was a time of growth. I had never been out of the house. I lived at the crib until I was 25, so it was all new for me.
How did it affect your creative process?
Dakim: I don’t know that it affected my process directly but it got me thinking about more things. Specifically texture, space and mixing. Up until I met people like Dibia$e, everything I did was all based on the feel. I spent so many hours on my MPC making music but it was all about the feel. The thump, the size, the mix? I didn’t have a concept of any of those things. I learned the MP on my own in the basement, same way I learned everything on my own. I didn’t know any basics. I just made beats and put them on tape. I wasn’t tracking them out or anything like that. Then I started hearing cats with crazy boom and big, fat drums with the shit sounding like it’s supposed to sound. That got me thinking about that. I’m still working on that because that’s not my strong suit. Just within the last couple of months or so, I don’t feel completely unconfident as far as mixing goes.
I love how your music is very free. You can have one piece of music that is easily understood and adheres to more ordinary structures and then you can have another piece of music that is just abstract and dense. Were you always that expansive in your music-making or did that progress through time?
Dakim: It’s always been like that, totally unintentionally. I would hear something and want to try it, as simple as that. My influences coming up were RZA, Jay Dee, Timbaland, Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, Bjork … it’s all the same to me. Whatever I could get the machine to do is what I was trying to do. If it’s hip-hop beat right now and then in ten minutes it’s something that’s 200 BPMs, that’s cool. I never really had any barriers as far as that’s concerned. Maybe being from Detroit has something to do with that. We’re big on electronic music and eclectic music is always around. Dance music and uptempo stuff has been in my blood forever so getting the drum machine to go up in tempo and get away from traditional hip-hop tempos … that wasn’t even a thought. I didn’t realize there was a range until I got out of my own comfort zone and realized most people are just one thing. Which is good too, because that’s how you master things. I never really mastered any of the things that I tried because I wanted to try everything.
Earlier you were mentioning the therapeutic benefits of music-making. Can you break that down a bit more?
Dakim: That’s all music is—therapy. Firstly, it’s always been around. My parents listened to a lot of Motown. I was in a band in junior high, but when I found my music-making process, that’s where I found my spirituality. I was 5% before that. That’s pretty cut-and-dry, but I feel there’s more to it than that. There’s a spiritual essence that I’ve been curious about my whole life. Working with music so intimately plugged me directly into that. I can plug into the source. It’s meditation. Recently, I did a serious meditation course—like a ten-day course. I saw how similar deep, serious meditation is to the creative process, when you get in there and the channels just open up and stuff starts flowing … that’s the closest thing to peace. It’s my spiritual practice more than my hobby or my career. It’s my salvation, man.
Is that also why it wasn’t ever easy or appealing to engage with the whole business side of it?
Dakim: That’s exactly why. This is where my heart is. Putting a price tag on it is always hard. Going beyond that, marketing and all that … I don’t even get into it because it’s so far away from the process. Elongating that peaceful space for as long as possible … that’s what I was doing in the basement in Detroit for years but then it got away from me for a while. Then I moved to L.A. and things got crazy. My process never really got back to where it was. Again, meeting people like Dibia$e and finding out how much I lacked—that put me on a path to figuring things out. I was trying things to get to an end for a really long time. Most of the stuff that’s out now, since about 09, that’s not my natural music. Anything before that is my natural music—my natural state—because I was doing it out of the love and the need for that peace. Then getting around more people and seeing that this is something that people can make careers out of … that changed my focus but not for the better.
How were you able to bring it back? Did moving up here help?
Dakim: Moving up here helped clear my mind and get me back in my natural creative space, but it was really last year when my mom got sick. That was really rough. She’s doing better now but there was a point about a year ago when I had a night where I felt that was the last time I was going to see my mom. That was serious trauma and to deal with that, I brought the MP in the garage and everyday—as much as possible—I was just in here. I was trying to get away from the trauma and the depression. I made about a hundred tracks and put them up on Bandcamp. I was also trying to get over another part, which was doing it just for the process and not sharing it. I checked out KanKick’s BandCamp, and I met my man Tiago Frugoli, who lives down in Brasil. That combination of experiences helped me take BandCamp seriously. I started making stuff and posting it up right away. I knew if I waited, I would second-guess myself. That started the process that’s still going on now, removing that barrier. I’ve been standing in my own way. I’ve had a million reasons not to put something out, or not share it or not even make it. Dealing with some trauma and going back into that peaceful space, working on the MP non-stop … that put my mind back to where it was when I was younger. My garage is like my mom’s basement now. I feel like I got back to the purity. It feels good to be able to share the stuff as it’s happening.
This also might be a good time to introduce some of the folks you frequently collaborate. I’m thinking of The Butter Made crew, like Ahk and them.
Dakim: Ahk is the first guy that comes to mind. He’s my oldest friend. We’ve known each other since we were babies. I always remember this: my mom used to put Frosted Flakes in plastic bags and we used to sit on my front porch and play G.I Joe’s and Transformers and eat Frosted Flakes. That’s my brother, plus his birthday is like two days away from mine. I reconnected with Ahk through my homie Leaf Erikson. He’s all over Detroit—everybody knows him. He’s a real people-person, which is the opposite of me. We started as Audopilots and then the homies Blake Eerie and AC Pull joined. Dirtee Curt came through with Blake. That was around the time we met Baatin. Leaf was at the bar at St. Andrews and Baatin came up to him like, ‘We’re gonna be friends.’ And just like that, they became best friends. Leaf called me up like, ‘Yo, I met Baatin!’ I was thinking he was making shit up. Eventually, a couple of weeks later, we drove over to Baatin’s house. That was my first time at his place and as soon as I walked in, I seen Ahk. We both had a moment. I hadn’t seen him in like 10, 15 years at that point. That’s magic. Our other homie, Damien, he’s real tight with Ahk. He introduced me to Sun-Ra and Pharaoh Sanders and that really changed my life. Pharaoh Sanders let me know that music was … more. That’s what let me know that this is a language. This is spirituality. This is how you do this. This is what it’s all about. That let me know that music can say everything. That’s all through Leaf and Baatin and Ahk. Hearing Pharaoh Sanders from Damien for the first time, I’ll never forget that.
Do you remember the song?
Dakim: ‘Hum-Allah.’ I was weeping. That song is a lifetime. It starts smooth then it becomes the worst shit ever, but still makes sense, and then the harmony and the melody come back in. That’s what let me know this is serious. I didn’t view sound the same. It was a sacred thing after that. Baatin being around, he had this shamanistic energy about him. He was the high priest bringing us all this energy from different times and spaces. That was a magical time. A little before that, through my man John, I met Sterling Toles, who was already very deep on that path. He was already living in the place Pharoah Sanders took me, like he has all the answers to those ill questions in the back of your mind. I can’t forget Hughie—Hugh Whitaker. He keeps things together. He’s the producer, beyond just making the music he makes sure this shit happens. And he makes incredible music too. That’s pretty much the crew.
There’s another member of the crew I wanted to ask you about—I think his name is Awesome Pete?
Dakim: I don’t know where Awesome Pete is anymore. I haven’t seen him in a long time. He’s hard to find, but he still kind of gives me courage to say things I couldn’t say otherwise. This stuff is therapy—that’s all Awesome Pete has ever done. It’s a way to give my anxieties and my fears a voice, so they’re not beating me up. It’s like, ‘OK, you can speak. You can do your thing.’ In doing that, I overcome it. This fear has been holding me back my whole life, so yell about it all you want, just do it on the mic. It’s two steps for getting at it: recognizing it’s there and then putting it out there. And it’s still scary!
Those things don’t go away—you just get better at dealing with them.
Right. I know everybody deals with fear and anxiety to varying degrees. For so long, I just let it keep me in a shell. Now I’m trying to think around it and maybe expose it a little bit. I’m hoping that can lessen its power or transmute that energy into something more constructive.
I know Gus Sutherland out of Ireland has been a big supporter.
Dakim: Gus’ help has been indispensable. Firstly, his premier in Belfast for the All Ears documentary was my first time going overseas. That experience alone was a huge boost and with the film showing in other places in the world, I’m sure it’s cultivated new listeners. I also feel like Gus’ work has helped gain more support back home in Detroit. It’s so common that Detroit artists have to leave home and get love elsewhere for the love to be shown in the city. It makes sense in a way—everyone is so talented, it’s easy to be one of many. It’s reasonable that you’d have to leave to stand out. The thing that’s best about connecting with Gus is that, after doing All Ears in L.A., he went to Detroit to make The Unseen. It feels great that our relationship extended to include a whole world of artists in the city. Cats I came up with, people who were early influences and my closest friends all got love in the film. To have any part in shining light on my city is incredible. For All Ears though … if I had known how serious Gus was about making it happen, I probably would have gotten a haircut.
How did the collaboration with Opio come about?
Dakim: Opio—that was a dream. I grew up on his music, for real. Hieroglyphics was such a part of my early development that when the word came that Opio wanted to work on something, I was through the roof! I sent him a few tracks and he recorded some stuff and I remixed them. It was a real quick, simple and easy thing. He’s a cool down to earth dude—like dude next door. You would never know he was sitting on classics!
You’ve mentioned traveling and traveling because of music. What has that done for you?
Dakim: It’s been inspirational. Every time I go some place, it’s another realization that people are listening. It’s mind-blowing to go somewhere and someone who doesn’t speak your language is bugging out and asking you to sign things. This is nuts! It’s hard to wrap my mind around, to be honest. Every time I go out, I can’t believe it’s happening. I just do my thing. I’m pretty isolated. I don’t really push anything. When someone hits me up to do a festival somewhere … how do you even know me? My wife and I are going to Glasgow, Scotland, in a few months for a festival. It’s a cool thing. I’ve seen places I never dreamed I’d be able to see just from staying locked on the MP. That was never my intent. I just wanted to feel better.
How does it feel when you perform live ?
Dakim: It’s usually nerve-wracking. More often than not, it’s not enjoyable. One show I did enjoy was in Korea at this experimental noise festival. The energy of the other artists blew my mind. Also I was prepared. I knew exactly what I was doing. That actually can throw me for a loop in its own way because I like to think I enjoy improvising more. I was very prepared and everything was lined up, I knew exactly what I was going to do. It went off without a hitch and I was really pleased with the performance. It was a real serious, high-brow thing and my set got people loose a bit. People were actually dancing and getting into it. But in general, I’m a hermit. Not being in the house is not enjoyable for me. I mean, I like to go to the park, take walks with my wife and things like that. But I don’t really like to go out. Being in social situations in any context, it can be rough. I’ve been a hardcore hermit for about 20 years now. I don’t really know how to be around people, just to be frank with you. The social aspects of performing are the most difficult. ‘Oh shit, people are looking at me!’ I just keep my head down and stay focused.
Are you recreating things you have on record or are you actually playing live and improvising?
Dakim: These days, it’s more live arranging. I kind of like to do live sets that are not recorded. Some time ago, maybe three years ago, I did some footwork stuff and that I did perform live pretty close to the recorded versions. Besides that, I like to make new stuff and arrange it live. I like for that performance to be the only time that will ever happen. I know that the best moments musically—or even any art where improvisation is a thing, the best takes are not recorded. Something about it just doesn’t allow it. Probably Monk’s best performance on the piano, no one will ever hear it because it wasn’t recorded. If his wife and his family were in the house, they heard it. That’s who it was for.
Do you feel like you have times like that?
Dakim: All the time! When I’m playing piano, or working on something new, the best times aren’t recorded. That used to really bother me back in the day, but I learned to be at peace with that. Even if I’m by myself, I’m playing for the spirit. They heard me.