DJ Quest Interview

January 13, 2016

If you're a student of the game, whatever game that might be, you better have expectations of becoming the teacher one day. Otherwise, the cycle of extending knowledge to future generations ends with you. One man who serves as a bridge between generations is the legendary DJ Quest. After moving to San Francisco at the age of nine, he studied in depth, and was essentially mentored by DJs across the country from Cash Money to Jam Master Jay to Mr. Mixx and Battle Cat. This hodgepodge of influences helped him grow into an experimental style of DJing and turntablism, culminating in Hamster Breaks Vol. 1 and HB 3.5. Those names might sound familiar since he started the Hamster Style of reversing the fader on a mixer. Study Quest's story and see how you can extend it with yours.

Even though DJ Quest only spent time in his native country El Salvador as a young child, he still remembers the music that filled the air. Especially around the holidays, he recalls Latin American music but also the Beatles ("who I am a fan of") and Kiss ("who I'm not a fan of"). Hearing these bands made him want to start a band at seven--a dream that would later be realized in his adult life. At nine, he got out of the war zone in his hometown and moved with his family to the Mission District of San Francisco. There he was exposed to music from Run DMC, Newcleus, Furious 5, Soul Sonic Force, Ice T, Kraftwerk, Egyptian Lover, and Mantronix. It was like another world for a young DJ Quest: "[Their music] carried me off this planet."

Some of the exposure came through every Sunday from KK Baby and Marcus Clemmons' radio show on KPOO while the rest came from street, break dance circles and low riders bumping music. He would record their shows as well as some from KSOL on cassettes for entertainment and educational purposes. This was his form of vinyl collecting early on. The prominence of the DJ in Hip-Hop at the time reinforced the acceptance of mixing genres like Breaks, Electro, Gangster Hip-Hop, and old school jams. Other aspect of the culture and films like Beat Street had him consider breakdancing as his first foray into the pillars of Hip-Hop. Although it didn't take off like his attempt at rapping, DJing provided his outlet of expressing himself with the new cultural phenomenon.

When he did buy his first turntable and mixer, he taught himself how to scratch by continually playing the scratch solos on Hip-Hop songs over and over. When he started getting gigs, he learned mixing by looking closer at the DJs on air like Cameron Paul. An introduction to the battle scene came from DMC videos that Eddie Def put him onto. That interest developed into putting routines together. It was only a matter of time before all of the elements fell in place and he formed a handle on his party rocking music selection. But all the preparation couldn't have saved his nerves at the first gig he received in middle school, when he his hands were so shaky that he couldn't put the needle on the record. Fortunately he used that memory to improve himself.

After hitting the scenes with DJ Polo G and 2 Fresh initially, DJ Quest teamed up with Eddie Def and DJ Cue to form The Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters (later The Bullet Proof Space Travelerz). He had already worked out a small number of 4 turntable scratch routines with Eddie Def, unofficially making them a "turntable band." And once Eddie came up with the name, DJs Flare and Disk joined up and Eddie, Cue, and Quest recorded the seminal Hamster Breaks Vol. 1.

The user of the term "hamster" stems from Quest's windfall of setting up his turntables backwards when he bought a mixer in 1986. As a result, he learned how to scratch what was considered backwards at the time but is now the heavily preferred way of setting up for battle DJs. They helped spread the name of their group by naming their first project, Hamster Breaks Vol. 1. Quest explains the inspiration behind the creation and its novelty:

"We wanted a record (to use) that had all the sonic qualities we loved only available in producer records--Simon Harris and such. Also, we wanted it to be technically accessible for scratching, sounds back to back, jugglin' segments, and beats we could cut to."

After moving on from house parties in the mid 80s to performing more with Hip-Hop groups and battling in the 90s, Quest formed his own experimental band, Livehuman, in 1996. Instead of spinning other people's music, he wanted to assemble his own show of original music. He started to meet artists in the area and linked up with a bass player who introduced him to a drummer, Albert Mathias. Albert then introduced Quest to another bassist Andrew Kushin. Their proximity as Mission District residents allowed them to jam together and create music "so out there, yet familiar." After a month, they recorded their first record and continued to put out new music through Matador, Fat Cat Records, and their own label, Cosmic Records. They found comfort in the minimal aspect of the group, giving them room to express themselves without boundaries. He describes the workflow as such:

"Really it's just as raw as possible. Capture live improvised concepts, come up with arrangements, then take 'em apart again and allow the resonance of the harmonics of the 3 instruments to create a 4th virtual player. We call it the 3-D effect but really it's multi dimensional."

Despite traveling the world for gigs, Quest has kept up with producing and providing scratches for other artists like Dan the Automator, Rob Swift, and making cameos in films like Scratch. Somehow in the midst of all of this, he's also set up his own institution to teach others about DJing, called the Quest School of DJ Arts. It's a joint effort with non profit organization The DJ Project to offer "entrepreneurship programs that use music to engage young adults with a range of industry related subjects from DJing to audio and event production." He's also penned a book for hopeful DJs titled The Beginner's DJ Guide. His motivation to share his knowledge came naturally as a figure in the DJ world as well as recognizing his responsibility as a respected figure to "show the newer generation how to DJ with integrity and be true to the craft for the sake of the music, not the lights."

DJ Quest may not have as big of a trophy room as some other DJs, but his influence on the artform is just as important. In fact, he's copywritten the DJ Quest trademark to protect his work and street cred. You can expect more scratch music from him in the future as well as some work on a new DJ documentary Ahhh, Fresh that will go over the origins of some of the most familiar DJ scratch sounds.

Last Call

1. What is your favorite movie of all time?Can't give you a direct answer without thinking of a bunch, but Beat Street is up there.

2. As a young DJ, who was the one DJ you looked up to?Joe Cooley

3. As a DJ, what's your biggest pet peeve?My fader knob flying off the fader when I'm scratching or jugglin'. If there's one thing that makes me want to quit DJing that's it. Also, when DJs say "vinyls" for some reason.

4. What is your current set up at home?Mainly ProTools for recording but will create the raw ideas on anything from Serato, MPC, Korg Electribe and other random drum machines and synthesizers. I may use stock sounds and sound banks, toy instruments or random music app if it sounds good at the moment or for practicality.
Additionally, I have a classic turntable set up with Rane 64 and Boss DD20, plus a bunch of other effects and gadgets. I do also have one Technics turntable and mixer set up with no bells and whistles, independently of everything else just for scratching.

5. What's your favorite record of all time?Another impossible answer but I always tune my studio to "Push the Button" by Newcleus.

Keep up with DJ Quest on his Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, website, and Twitter.