By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Omar Oseguera.
There’s something about “the quiet ones” that makes you just want to figure them out. It seems the less they reveal, the more you feel they are keeping from you and in turn, it makes you keep digging for more. Jo Def of Oxnard, Calif. is the perfect example of one such artist. He refers to himself as “pretty chill and laid back; I kind of play in the background” and with his Chicago juke-influenced electronic project, he keeps no mics in front of him as a way to remain hyperfocused on the music with no opportunity for vanity. This is no mistake.
As a new addition to the Soulection crew in Los Angeles, he’s finding a place of his own on their roster as a subdued and rising producer. BTR was able to speak with Def as he was coming off work from his nine-to-five as a children’s speech therapist, a surprisingly flexible career choice to complement his turntabling.
One of the major hurdles of having a musical project is financing if it doesn’t pay the bills for you. In the lineups of most bands “starting out,” you’ll find waiters, baristas, and sound guys. For Jo Def, he’s able to teach kids how to talk even when he makes mostly non-verbal music. He says that he was DJing through his time at San Diego State but “when it came time to choose a profession, one of my professors got me into the speech program so it was cool.”
Just like that, Def found himself a career.
“It’s actually perfect; we make our own schedules, we get to take time off whenever we want. Like for example, I’m taking a week off for South By and I took a couple weeks off last year for when [the Soulection crew] headed out to Europe. It’s pretty flexible–it’s a cool, rewarding job. I get to work with little kids, helping out the youth,” says Def.
The professor saw something in Def’s ability to public speak, though he says he “begs to differ.” It seems Def’s image of himself is more in the background and views talking as secondary to the music he makes. He says, “When it’s time to talk, I can talk.” Though he’s got other people telling him what he’s allegedly good at, Jo Def knows himself well enough to know that he’s most comfortable behind the tables instead of acting like some sort of juke hype man.
“If there was a mic in front of me maybe I’d get ‘that itch.’ I don’t think there’s ever a mic around me, at least for the gigs that I’ve done they’re usually off to the side or on the stand,” says Def.
As mentioned before, this is no accident. Through careful self examination, Def has learned the intricate art of admitting your strengths and weaknesses. Though his music doesn’t stick to the typical “verse/chorus” vocal succession but instead repeats phrases such as “You’re the one I’m swimming to,” which runs the fantastic risk of getting caught in your head for days. When asked if he feels he lets the music speak for itself without much hyping, he says, “Hopefully it’s speaking to the audience, hopefully people are drawn to it and being welcomed; it’s good to get a reception.”
The roots of Jo Def trying his hand at juke trace back to Def’s “boy Edgar.” Edgar is as integral as he is enigmatic to Def’s musical evolution. Def says he’s always had an “open ear” to different styles but it was the year of the lord, 2008, when he was introduced to juke though “pretty late, maybe ten years after it was created.” He even grew up around Chicago house and “that whole 90s rave scene” with his sister and cousins in his Southern California home. His career really began in 2001 when he began DJing as a sophomore in high school. He would DJ house parties in the area with popular hip-hop and Top 40, though he says that his newfound position didn’t exactly grant him elite social status. There were a few established DJs in Oxnard at the time and Def was “on the lower end of the stick.”
With the help of friends in high school, Def learned how to cut and scratch and after being introduced to “like-minded individuals,” things “really exploded.” He was drawn to instrumental music to sample in his tracks, specifically the crate-digging culture.
“I got into digging around the same time I started DJing. I inherited my parents’ crates. Just growing up, we’d go to the garage and listen to some records. My parents had a lot of ‘80s and ‘70s soul,” says Def about his diverse musical upbringing.
With Def’s heavy emphasis on sampling and cutting, he’s able to insert selective parts of his childhood memories into his current life. The vocals on the tracks are samples that he calls “my style.” One song entitled “N My Mind” from his newest EP Steps contains 37 seconds of the word “crazy” repeated, which he claims is from a Soul For Real song, a childhood favorite of his. This challenges the listener to keep from skipping the track, a method he calls “my way of speaking without speaking.” He says the last track he flipped was from Janet Jackson because “anything goes with the internet.”
Jo Def is a recent addition to the Soulection crew based in Los Angeles which acts as a label and radio show, with artists from California, London, and Tokyo. He got hooked up with the label after corresponding through Joe Kay, the co-founder of the label. Def feels what he has to offer is “a little different… new to their audience.” He hasn’t met everyone on the roster yet, though “13 or 14 of [them]” are heading to SXSW this week in their own house. He’ll be the one hanging in the back, sampling a little of this and that from our collective past.
To hang back with Jo Def and let the music speak click here.
Check out Jo Def’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.