An Interview with DJ Williams: American Upstart

It’s a quiet June evening in Richmond, VA, as a tall, dark-skinned guy with a guitar case strides into the Mint Gastropub, located in the Fan district, near Virginia Commonwealth University. The patrons, dressed in upscale casual attire, sip expensive drinks as the guitar player quietly sets up his gear. The subtle din of various conversation hums, until soft notes begin emanating from front of the room. Heads turn, and sentences are left hanging in the air, as nearly everyone in the house pauses to take in the flawless acoustic music.

The next night, Capital Ale House, also in Richmond, is at standing-room-only capacity. The guitar player from the previous evening has gone electric and is rocking the house with his band, DJ Williams Projekt, a six-piece outfit that manages to access virtually the entire sonic pantheon of American music without sacrificing the ability to have the crowd shaking their collective asses. The show is the band’s 10th anniversary concert.

The set opens with an aggressive (without being noisy) sprint through the gate, showcasing Williams’ powerful riff-work, and giving the horn section a chance to stretch their legs. The six members of the group played with the kind of comfortable synergy that only comes after having spent hundreds of hours on stage together, and many more than that in rehearsal. That is to say they made it look easy.

Several months earlier, the late-night crowd at Tipitina’s was in a frenzy. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe had brought their Ray Charles tribute to NOLA Jazz Fest, and showgoers were enthusiastic. With Zach Deputy sitting in on vocals, KDTU revamped Ray Charles classics into a high-energy funk-rock explosion. Denson, standing center stage, led the band through intense melodic jams, while, to his left, Williams ripped through the material like an old t-shirt, alternating between impeccable rhythm work and fire-breathing lead.

Travel a little further back in time to April, and Williams is back at Capital Ale House, waiting in the green room before the debut performance of his side-project BLAQTRONIC; an exploration of the intersection between rock and electronic music. During the first song of the show, one of the monitors went on the fritz, emitting a loud static that was decidedly not part of the music. Neither Williams, nor any of his on stage compatriots, missed a beat, even with the soundman frantically trying to troubleshoot the problem.

By the time the next song began, the glitch had been dispatched, and BLAQTRONIC continued through their set, huge electronic waves of sound merging with Williams’ muscular riffage. The music wasn’t exactly anything new—people have been playing with the variations on electro rock for years—but it all fit together in a way that felt more natural than most. Organic, if I could be forgiven the adjective.

DJ Williams, born in Plainfield, New Jersey, came of age in Midlothian, Virginia—the same neighborhood that inspired Richard Kelly to write Donnie Darko—graduating high school in the closing seasons of the ’90s. His parents, both originally from West Africa, raised Williams in a house filled with everything from funk to Fela Kuti. James Brown and Marvin Gaye were in heavy rotation, with bands such as the Beatles making frequent guest appearances. Not surprisingly, he began piano lessons at an early age, soon becoming at least passable on nearly any instrument he picked up.

As he entered his teenage years, he started playing in bands, first as a drummer in a hardcore band called Defcon-1, then as a bass player in another, finally picking up the guitar at 16. After his release from the confines of home rooms and standardized testing, Williams elected to attend college at Middle Tennessee State University, where he studied sound engineering.

“After school, I wanted to get as far away from Richmond as possible,” recalls Williams. “I wanted my college experience to be completely different from high school.”

At Middle Tennessee State, Williams started to broaden his horizons beyond his already wide experience of music, and got into modern jazz and other, more esoteric, forms of musical expression. What he didn’t do was graduate.

“I only stayed for a year and a semester, and I left,” says DJ. “I didn’t want to go home, and my cousin lived in the Bronx, so I stayed with him for like nine or 10 months, just kind of wanting to feel out the New York scene. But I got tired of being broke so I came back to Richmond.”

Though it may have felt like a retreat, the return to Richmond would become a catalyst for Williams. After a few false starts with band situations, he focused on his solo work, self-produced a demo CD, and earned himself a Tuesday night residency at local venue Cafe Diem. Before long, he hooked up with saxophone player Gordon Jones, formerly of local legends, hybrid hip-hop band, Jazz Poets Society.

“There’s definitely a Richmond sound. Even though we have all these genres, and all these different things, there’s definitely a sound that is, I think, unique,” says Williams.

The collaboration between Williams and Gordon became the nucleus around which the DJ Williams Projekt would form. They started playing around Richmond, where someone put them on to an open mic in New York’s East Village (located at the venerable Sidewalk Cafe) that was supposed to be especially happening at the time.

Williams relates the story: “We were sitting around at a bar, this was shortly after we first met. We heard about this really famous open mic in the East Village. So we’re sitting there and he was like, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know what the deal is. What are you doing tonight?’ and he said, ‘Do you want to go to New York?’ ‘Yep.’ So we got in the car and drove to New York.

“So we go up there and sign up, and he gives us this number. We got there at like seven or eight, but we didn’t go on until like two a.m. He put us at the bottom of the thing. We got up there and did our thing, and that guy ended up becoming our first manager.”

Over time, the DJ Williams Projekt evolved from the live-looping duo of its infancy into its current six-piece incarnation (with guest musicians a frequent addition), and becoming a mainstay of both the Richmond local scene and the regional and national festival circuit. One night, in 2004, the DJ Williams Projekt opened for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, one of the most beloved bands in American jam music. Karl was so impressed with what he saw, he invited the Projekt to hop on tour with him as the opening band.

That run led to Karl eventually inviting Williams to become the guitarist for Tiny Universe—Karl once referred to Williams as his “draft pick”—where he currently plays on stages around the world, trading notes and chords with some of the greats of modern music. During Tiny Universe sets, Williams stands far stage left; his guitar sound a fundamental pillar of the band’s music.


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