Harangue the DJ
Rock ’N’ Roll And R&B, Postpunk And Rap, It’s All Hip-Hop To Sharkey’s Ears
This pit stop is one of about 300 music-industry parties taking place during South Beach’s annual week-long Winter Music Conference (reductively, the world’s biggest DJ convention). The Northwest D.C. native’s broad-minded debut album, Sharkey’s Machine, released last year on Babygrande Records under a hip-hop banner, has drawn ample praise (named one of 2004’s top 10 albums by The Washington Post), but it’s also gotten some flak for its disparate and seemingly disconnected elements.
“I know my music doesn’t fit in, but that doesn’t bother me,” Sharkey says, taking a small sip and continuing to yell over the din. “I don’t really like hip-hop right now at all. A lot of artists like Fabolous and stuff call themselves hip-hop—to me that’s not hip-hop, that’s rap music. Hip-hop is a whole separate thing. Hip-hop is about this whole culture that I grew up on and that I’m familiar with. Hip-hop is about finding something in music that influences you that you can call your own. That’s where hip-hop came from—making something from something else—having that be yours. That’s what I do.”
Though it’s only his second night in town and he’s sober, the 30-year-old leans with the sway of a palm tree and walks with a cowboy’s swagger. He’s got the gumption to wear Poindexter glasses, a mock Boy Scout brown button-down shirt (embroidered patches included), and a spiky mohawk that resembles a fin. Tiring of the interview questions, he turns to a Scandinavian-looking model type in a micro-mini and says, “How are ya? I’m Sharkey.” Diplo, the on-duty party DJ, mixes Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” and Odyssey’s “Inside Out” for the reveling, circle-dancing B-boys and -girls, industry mavens, and artists on the penthouse patio.
He finishes his drink and decides to bounce, heading downtown to Miami’s I/O lounge, where he is scheduled to do his thing at a showcase featuring old-school rapper Kool Keith. “Can you roll this window down?” he says to the cab driver en route. “I’m getting claustrophobic.” Getting some fresh air, he shares that he hates to be called “DJ Sharkey,” because he considers himself primarily a musician and a producer—not a DJ.
“I play a little of everything—guitar, bass, drums,” he says. “I was in bands for a long time and I just got really frustrated sharing the creative decisions. I wasn’t really that into producing until I got frustrated with not being able to get out my song ideas and stuff. I only do live DJ sets because it’s easier than playing 10 instruments at one time.”
Sharkey lived briefly in Los Angeles when his former band, the genre-bending Crownsayers, signed to Elektra in 2000. The group’s album was never released, though they did score a song for the Adam Sandler movie Big Daddy before calling it quits. “We were way ahead of the curve,” Sharkey says. “This was before Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park really blew up. When we turned in the record, the president of Elektra at the time, Sylvia Rhone, just didn’t get it. She believed that white people definitely shouldn’t be doing hip-hop, and if they did, they should be sticking to the formal structures of hip-hop and respect where it came from and not cross genres.”
I/O is already packed with waiting coeds and industry heads when Sharkey arrives. His style feels right in line with hip-hop’s latest growth spurt. The early ’90s announced the marriage of hip-hop and R&B; now the partnership of hip-hop and rock ’n’ roll is taking hold. Though mixes by Jay-Z/Linkin Park and Trick Daddy/Ozzy Osbourne sound novel, this union occurred much earlier: Recall Run-DMC and Aerosmith’s 1986 “Walk this Way” collaboration and much of the early Beastie Boys.
Checking out Otto Von Schirach’s set while waiting to go on, Sharkey argues it happened way before that. “Back in the ’70s, when Grandmaster Flash and those guys would spin records at parties, there weren’t a lot of hip-hop records out at the time, so the records they were spinning were the rock ’n’ roll records, and they were spinning the breaks from the rock ’n’ roll records,” he says. “Like what I’m doing—this isn’t like any new thing. It’s new to these kids who are just coming up and their idea of hip-hop is, like, Fabolous and shit like that. It’s new to those guys, but this shit is not new. Grandmaster Flash—that’s the shit I came up on. So I’m just playing the same thing I came up on, spinning rock ’n’ roll tracks.”
Sharkey has a singular live set. Anchoring the performance are Sharkey’s Machine’s standout tracks “Fuzz” (featuring Cannibal Ox) and “Summer in the City” (with label-mate Jean Grae), along with a few obvious selections like Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” on top of a RJD2 remix of Massive Attack’s “Butterfly Caught.” Most of the mixes are exquisite, a cappella lyrics over rock or blues instrumentals: Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique” lyrics over a straight-up train-whistle guitar blues riff co-opted by Nas and Olu Dara, a mating of the Cure’s “Close to Me” and Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” and a simply wicked meeting of OutKast’s “Roses” and Queens of the Stone Age’s “Art of Keeping a Secret,” kicking like a vodka and Red Bull.
Sharkey says the new record he’s working on is going to be more about instrumentals than rap. “I love doing instrumentals,” he says. “I think every producer hopes that at one point in their career they can do motion-picture soundtracks. Just making beats and stuff, in my opinion, doesn’t make a producer. A producer is someone who comes in and shapes the idea of something.”
A day later, as the sun rises on South Beach, a group of pigeons pulverize a slice of pizza on the sidewalk in front of Sopranos Pizza on Washington Avenue. It’s the morning after the final night of the Winter Music Conference, around 5 a.m., and Sharkey, his road manager Kevin, and a lady friend Sharkey is snuggling up with are going on and on about Canadian songstress Esthero’s showcase at the Eden Roc Hotel the night before. “That was such a nice show,” Sharkey says. “She got down into the audience, like, twice. One of the best shows I’ve seen in a while. So nice to see a real band. I’m sick of seeing DJs.”
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