A conversation with DJ NDN and Bear Witness of Indigienous/Native/FIrst Nation DJ/production trio A Tribe Called Red is not just a conversation based in intellect and awareness. Deeper than that, it's a journey into understanding the depths and nuances of not just great music, but of understanding racism, ethnic strife and understanding an often overlooked aspect of the need for respect in our communal global experience.
With a combined six decades of DJ experience and two well-regarded independent albums under their belts, A Tribe Called Red head into 2014 on a roll. Whether you know them from making moombahton or trap, it's ultimately the power of the drum - that above any genre classification - drives their sound, which can best be described as the "electric pow wow." Aside from their album output, they've had TV placements of their music on the National Geographic Channel, and production credits with Das Racist and Angel Haze, too. As they prepare to kick off a busy touring schedule for 2014, I was able to catch up with 2/3 of the crew (DMC DJ champion DJ Shub is a member, too) to discuss their success, their mesmerizing live performances, thoughts about the unique interplay between politics and sound in their music and their forthcoming third album. Enjoy!
I believe that it would be fair to call 2013 A Tribe Called Red’s “underground break out” year. What were some of the defining moments that possibly signified this idea to you as well?
DJ NDN: There were a lot of really big things last year. One of the most interesting moments was at the Tall Trees Festival in British Columbia, where they even banned hipster headdresses from the site.
One of the keys to the trio’s growth was undoubtedly your second album, Nation II Nation. The debut A Tribe Called Red was so unique on so many levels, and to see you guys do it again (in your own unique manner) and set your standard on a higher level was impressive. The album’s nominated in a few categories in Canada’s Juno Awards (breakthrough group of the year, and electronic album of the year) and you were once again up for the Polaris Prize in 2013. Thoughts about Nation II Nation’s success?
Nation II Nation has had overwhelmingly positive feedback. It’s incredible. We’re nominated for awards for this album, and the whole experience has been different from everything.
[It’s been] super exciting to watch the growth [of A Tribe Called Red] into the mainstream. We’re out there representing indigenous people in a new way. The Polaris Prize nomination was great because we don't get to compete as entertainers often. It is exciting to be judged on our artistic merit and skill as opposed to our ability to entertain.
I wanted to touch on the tour for a bit. Your sets have this fully inclusive feeling, as if you’re literally entering a whole new society on the dance floor. I feel that the projection show that mixes together both positive and less-than-flattering media images of Native/Indigenous/First Nation people really adds to the show. How did that come about, and what do you feel the intentional interplay of the images and the music should connote for someone attending the show?
Bear Witness: I have a collection of movies that specifically deal with misrepresentations of indigenous people. I was obsessed with [these images] already, and was putting together these clips in my own video practice, so it made sense to pull it into a Tribe Called Red. [The images work because] we can confront people with misrepresentations [of Indigenous people] in a different environment. Their guards are down, and they get hit with the imagery. [They can] think it's funny or entertaining, [but we’re still] confronting people with what’s racist, stereotypical and one-dimensional. Allowing people to make their own connections from the way they've been exposed, [to the way that we’re exposing them] lets people create a new interpretation [of Indigenous people].
[Our sets] help us to be able to articulate our side of the argument [Through music], we're able to discuss and have those conversations [about respect for the rights of indigenous people]. The music helps people come to grips with colonialism. [Ideally], we're a doorway to having [those conversations] happen.
As well, on this tour you are traveling with an on-stage dancer. How will this add to the set?
It’s crazy, I was just watching a classic video of [Indigenous '70s rock act] Redbone on the Midnight Special program from the late 1970s and they had a similar thing happening onstage. Prior to you guys, I think they were the last First Nations pop act that I was familiar with. Are they in any way influential?
Yeah, Redbone's a huge influence, they were the only indigenous artists making it big at that time, along with Buffy Saint Marie, too.
As well, the fact that the three of you are all turntablists I feel is a unique factor, too. As “EDM” grows, the number of producers who play music live from a laptop increases, while the number of DJs who spin records that they have produced wanes. Your thoughts about that evolution, and how it affects your sets?
DJing is something we all grew up doing. None of us have ever DJed using a sync button. Dan (pka DJ Shub) is a DMC champion and Bear (Witness) has been DJing for two decades. We appreciate it when people notice [our turntablism skills], but many people don’t notice that these days.
I definitely wanted to get back to discussing your recording process. The samples on Nation II Nation aren’t the traditional EDM of the period with snippets of rappers, big house vocals, etc. There are Native singers and drums, which makes for a refreshing listen. How did you gain access to these samples, and moreover, do you plan to continue with this formula, or involve more mainstream sounds?
We have a great situation with a drum label called Tribal Spirit. [For Nation II Nation], they opened their catalog and [so that] we could sample pow wow singers. In return, they can remix any [A Tribe Called Red] tracks that they want. For our forthcoming album, we’re working with contemporary artists who are both Native and non-Native. We have rappers, cellists, poets and more. Our album should be out by the end of the year. The process has been different as we are working with so many artists, recording live in studio, as opposed to just working with vocals that have already been recorded. [Overall], we’re really excited.
Speaking of more mainstream work, Angel Haze’s debut album features a track called “A Tribe Called Red” that was actually produced by the three of you. How did that happen, and how was the process of working with a major label artist?
[We] met Angel through Twitter. She was upset that she was missing [one of] our shows. She then mentioned that she was [of a] First Nations background and that we should send her a beat. We sent her one beat and she wanted it for her album. We even met Markus Dravs, the producer for Angel’s album, in Montreal. Markus has won two Best Album Grammys in the past three years and he had a vision for what our collaboration should sound like. All in all, it was an amazing experience. Angel's a homie.
Back to gigs, one of my favorite gigs of yours that I attended was your set on Thanksgiving at Nadastrom and Sabo’s Moombahton Massive party at U Street Music Hall, on a day when the Washington Redskins had a scheduled game, tool. It was one of those bookings that was an eye-popper when announced - and given the Redskins current issues, plus your (DJ NDN’s) current political stance - made for an incredible moment. Thoughts?
What was crazy was that the Redskins played and won that day. We were excited to play that night. Dave (Nada) and Matt (Nordstrom) are friends. We have a lot of friends in DC. actually. When we were booked, we knew [the situation], [we knew] what was going on, and we knew where we were going. After the night was over though, it was strange to [walk around outside U Street Music Hall] and see wasted, non-Indigenous Redskins fans wearing headdresses.
Looking ahead, where are some of the places that you would like to see your sound spread (that you haven’t already visited in person)?
We’d love to go to Australia and New Zealand. [We] always want to take the Electric Pow Wow to countries where there is an Indigenous population and introduce it to other indigenous people. We finally went to Mexico last year, and we played to crowds of Indigenous people down there who got [our sound]. It was huge.