Billy Jam

Hip-Hop Core: How did you first get involved in hip-hop?

Billy Jam: Growing up my dad was a DJ and my older brother was both an avid record collector and a musician. So I grew up around always hearing lots of music (from country and Irish traditional to rock and reggae etc.) and I got in the habit of always seeking out different music as I got exposed to it: this included glam rock, roots reggae, ska, funk, disco, and punk. So when I first heard hip hop I automatically embraced that too. That was 1979 when I immigrated from Ireland to NYC. After that I continued to follow hip hop and witness it grow each year with more and more artists and releases. But note that hip hop was only one of the many genres I listened to back then. And what really attracted me to it was not really so much the rapping/emcee part but more the unique production approach of many of the DJs/producers – the deconstructionist approach, particularly the sample/cut and paste style – that many utilized. Really it was the producers rather than the rappers that really hooked me at first.

HHC: Can you tell us a few words about the magazine you used to run. Why did it stop?

BJ: That was in the mid nineties when I had already written for many publications about hip hop including the Source, Vibe, XXL, San Francisco Chronicle, etc. The magazine was called "No Joke" (later renamed Strivin) and it was put together by former Hip Hop Slam member Doxx. It was overseen by Hip Hop Slam.What made it unique was that it was exclusively about Bay Area hip hop/rap. And even though it only had a small circulation of about 500 copies per issue, it had an impact and was often controversial. (for example: the time I wrote an open letter to Bay Area commercial radio giant KMEL demanding that they "cease and desist" falsely using the term "hip hop" to describe their format.....this resulted in me being banned from the radio station and artists who mentioned my name also been banned.)

HHC: Your website seems to kind of replace it now?

BJ: Yes the website does replace it in many ways and more....websites are a great way to reach many more people - especially compared to manually printing and putting together a few hundred photocopied fanzines.

HHC: By the way, your website doesn't talk exclusively about the USA . There's even been an article about TTC. Is that international dimension important to you?

BJ: Yes. Hip hop is not just American. It used to be but not for a long time. To me an amazing group like TTC as well as nearly all of the other French artists I have heard thanks to folks like Bachir and Reiko Underwater are a lot more creative and innovative than most American hip hop artists. For many years now in my travels I have always made an effort to seek out hip hop scenes in the countries I travel to like France, Ireland, England, and Australia and in my travels it has been most interesting to notice how with each of these four countries for example how in the late 1980's and the early 1990's how their hip hop has greatly developed from derivative to innovative. To me it honestly seems like today some of the best new hip hop is not from inside but from outside of the USA.

HHC: Graffiti and Politics also have a lot of exposure on your website. How do you choose the subjects you talk about?

BJ: In life you can't avoid politics and in New York City you can't, or rather couldn't, avoid graffiti - especially back in the late seventies and early 80s when I lived there and traveled back there regularly from the Bay Area. Back then I just loved seeing all of this cool bright art done illegally in public spaces. I even loved the tags. So when a few years later in 1984 I got to be a broadcaster/producer on the radio (KALX in Berkeley California ) I decided to take advantage of this medium to present and share my view of art that I personally valued. As well as being a DJ spinning records I would do "public affairs" interviews on various topics and two of the earliest radio reports I did were about "scratching" and "graffiti" - For the graffiti one I went to New York City and tracked down (via his tags all over the Lower East Side) the graf artist Chico and interviewed him about his hip hop art and why he felt compelled to do it.

HHC: How does it feel having Schwarzenneger as your governor?

BJ: Surreal....tragically surreal....or rather great! In addition to Dubya there will now be even more incredible sound bites for the DJs of Mass Destruction to tape and use as samples over beats!

HHC: What's your view on the foreign policy of the United States these days, particularly concerning the situation in Iraq ?

BJ: It sucks. Bush is a fuckin idiot. But an idiot with power which is the most dangerous type of idiot. I grew up in Ireland and saw first hand the damage that British imperialism did to Northern Ireland and how it takes generations to mend the damage caused by the murder of innocent civilians by occupying military forces. Hence the negative impact of the US/Coalition forces' presence in Iraq will be felt negatively by not just the USA but all Western nations for many many generations/decades to come. Check out the WAR album for my complete views on Bush/Iraq.

HHC: A few words about your record label? What are the future projects?

BJ: Operation Ivy album of a session they did with me on the radio back in 1987. Also a new project called the Skratch Pistols (me and DJ Pone and others including Tim Armstrong of Rancid). We are also working on a DVD version of the "WAR" album plus a collection of the best of the past 20 years of freestyles I have had artists do on my radio/TV shows. There are some other surprises too.

HHC: Why did you decide to release a "best-of" type of compilation as the third volume of Turntables By The Bay?

BJ: I didn't. I think you are confusing the CD version of "Turntables by the Bay" with the VINYL version of "Turntables by the Bay Vol. 3" - two very different things...but easy to confuse them.

HHC: Your record covers are often designed by Doug One. What is he up to these days? And what are exactly your links with him?

BJ: Like the incredible visual artists Dawgisht, Mars-1, Damion Silver, Andrew Kushin, and Ryan Tanner who have all done amazing cover art for Hip Hop Slam, so too has the gifted artist Dug-One (aka Doug Cunningham). Over a year ago Doug moved to New York City where is working on numerous projects. He is still working with QBert and Thud Rumble and myself...and he should be doing the artwork for the QBert book I am working on. He is also rumored to be possibly working on a "Turntable Timmy" animation (based on the kids book).

HHC: Every compilation released on your label has a very detailed booklet with biographies and email adresses for every artist involved. Do you want to create a stronger bond between the DJ's and their listeners?

BJ: Yes. I believe you can never have enough background information on artists. As a music fan that's what I always look for when I buy records or CDs and as a journalist it is something I am in the habit of doing. Plus if someone is going to spend their money on a CD they should get as much as possible for their hard-earned money.

HHC: You're from the Bay Area, which to many people still represents a kind of Eldorado for the DJ's. Is the turntablist scene as intense and active as it used to be?

BJ: In terms of more young DJs getting started yes it is intense. However in terms of excitement over the genre there is somewhat of a lull right now. That's in the Bay Area. But what I am noticing outside the USA , in countries like England and France , is a surge in numbers of new DJs and a distinctive increase in skills.

HHC: You've been through many phases throughout DJing history. Which one is your favorite and why?

BJ: I would have to say the most exciting time for me would have to be the mid to late 1990's. Another exciting time was circa 1984. But also right now, 2004, is an exciting time as more and more digital DJs emerge. This is something I think will grow as a new sub-genre: the digital skratch DJ.

HHC: Are you one of those old-timers who think that "it was better before"?

BJ: Hey don't call me 'old timer' :) and No there is always good new music and there always will be good new music.

HHC: What about Q-Bert's biography? How do you work on that? Do you have any guideline? Still on Q-Bert, what do you think about his current career (the Vestax tour, etc.) and about the fact that some people only see him as a very good businessman now?

BJ: I am finishing up QBert's biography right now and from what I can see he is regarded/respected as one of the world's greatest DJs. As far as Q been perceived as a "businessman" that may be the negative image projected by a jealous minority who look for fault in others who instead of getting busy on their skills take the easy way out via finding fault in others – hence temporarily masking their own insecurities as DJs.

HHC: You've contributed to the now legendary "Egotrip's Book of Rap Lists". How did you end up writing for this book? Can you tell us a few words about your list?

BJ: My list is one that covers many of the original 1980's West Coast hip hop releases. They asked me since they (the editors) knew me personally and knew that I was one of the original West Coast rap reporters (I stared writing about Bay Area rap for the Source from 87/88 until 92) and because I had also researched and compiled the extensive liner notes for the West Coast Rap compilation series that got released back in the early nineties.

HHC: You've appeared in the critically-acclaimed documentary "Scratch" by Doug Pray. What do you think about this project some years down the line, knowing that some DJ's have openly criticized it (D-Styles, Jazzy Jeff...)?

BJ: I didn't know that D-Styles had criticized it. I know he wasn't in it which is too bad since he is one of the greatest and most innovative DJ's today. (his group Gunkhole are fantastic!) But to those who criticize it, I say go and make your own movie or shut the fuck up!! I love the movie but I admit I am biased since I was quite involved in the pre-production of the movie, assisting the director Doug Pray in research advice and setting up many of the interviews. Actually he has fully credited me for giving him the title of the movie (Scratch) when I advised him to use it instead of the working title ("Vinyl") that he had originally planned. That film or more importantly the DVD version of it, which most people will get to see, will be as important and influential twenty years from now as 'Wild Style" is today.

HHC: Are you interested in that whole new "scratch music" movement? Do you appreciate it?

BJ: Of course I do! Just read what I write on or check out the releases featuring new skratch music on the Hip Hop Slam label....all of which are made out of love for the art.

HHC: Do you consider scratching as a music? Is scratch music necessarily hip-hop in your opinion?

BJ: Yes Yes Yes. Of course I do. In fact I LOVE IT! That is why I release more scratch music than any other record label even while I lose money as a business by doing so - since it doesn't sell well despite how incredibly innovative it is. Sadly most music fans would rather buy rap records which - while they may be good - or by no means even close to the level of innovation reached by the majority of turntablist/DJ-producer record makers.

HHC: What do you think about the Final Scratch software and about the CD-scratching devices that are becoming more and more common these days?

BJ: I love new technology and innovations and think that it is stupid to dismiss non-turntable technology just because it is different or "less organic". Remember that turntables were once the new technology too and musicians/artists dismissed them also as "not really music" so people need to open their ears and more importantly their minds when it comes to hearing new music and thinking about how it is made.

HHC: What about your radio show?

BJ: Currently I part-take in the Sunday Morning Cultural Affairs show on KALX 90.7FM in Berkeley which is a hip hop based talk/music show that tackles various topical cultural, political, and sociological affairs. Right now the bullshit war in Iraq is one of the top topics.

HHC: First and last records you bought?

BJ: First: Temptations - "Cloud Nine" 7" (Motown). Last record: Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf - "Big Shots" (Stones Throw)

HHC: What was the last time a record really made you go "wow!"?

BJ: Today....and nearly everyday when I listen to new music ....which is most days.

HHC: Can you tell us a few words about your record collection? What are your top 5 favorite LP's and mixtapes?

BJ: I have a really big collection of records, CDs, cassettes, MiniDisks, and even some other formats......I love them all and just wish there was more time to listen to everything. I don't have favorites per se but I do find myself going through phases of enjoying certain artists/genres. But out of all of these I would have to say that some of my favorite artists include Too $hort and A Tribe Called Quest while some of my fave mixtapes would include QBert's first one (Demolition...) and DJ Jester's last one.

HHC: Any last word for the readers of

BJ: To the readers of I say: Thank you for taking time to read what I had to say and that I hope that you will always have an open mind when it comes to listening to new music, regardless of what it might be since there is good sounds to be found everywhere...
Hip Hop Slam shout outs: Bachir Krewner (at + for always telling us about French underground hip hop especially DJs, Gloria (aka Reiko Underwater) at for turning us onto cool weird French artists that we love, and to the French DJ Pone for all the confusion with the US DJ Pone....We challenge you to a DJ Pone vs DJ Pone battle! (for real :). and a big up and respect to all the great graf artists, emcees, breakers, and DJs in France ....PEACE!

Interview by Bachir
March 2004

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