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Versatility is a prized commodity in a music industry that’s riddled with buzzwords and subgenres. For L.A. producer Djemba Djemba, the hype game doesn’t really factor into his approach to his work. From writing in-house for Mad Decent to doing beat cyphers with TeamSupreme, he juggles feel-good pop tunes with the aural equivalent of dense thinkpieces regularly. While being sonically malleable may not have put his face on billboards just yet, it has definitely kept his name in credits of that song that’s been stuck in your head all week.

Photography by Rosie Simmons.

Personal branding seems so critical in our current digital climate. How would you define your personal brand? Have you pinpointed it yet, or are you still figuring it out?

Brands are definitely important to attracting fans and defining where you fit into a scene. But, for myself, I’d rather focus on the music and let someone build that for me. I think a lot of artists get stuck in an image and it’s almost harder to change their sound because of it. Changing your sound as an artist is hard enough, and I think having a recognizable image or brand makes it even more difficult to switch things up. I’m more interested in an artist’s narrative rather than the logo or graphic impression they try to create around their music. 

Outside of a sonic transformation, what else changed when you evolved from St Andrew to become Djemba Djemba?

My nose is bigger and my eyes are more soul-crushing now. A lot of people tell me Djemba Djemba is more mainstream than St Andrew, but to be honest, I just changed my name because there was another act with the same name. Djemba Djemba has more of a playful nature to it. The music I make as Djemba Djemba is just a progression of St Andrew – it’s not supposed to be a different sound so much as a different head space.

Tell me about your ‘day job’– you produce for Mad Decent?

I work with Diplo on a regular basis, out of his studio in Los Angeles. I produce music for his projects including Major Lazer, as well as music for pop artists, singers and rappers.

Time for some name-dropping. Who are some of the bigger names you have written for?

In 2013 alone, we’ve done some cool stuff with Sia, The Weeknd, Chris Brown, Tinie Tempah, Britney Spears and Katy Perry. We have done a bunch of dope tunes for the new Major Lazer record, which we worked on with producers including Blender, Mr. Carmack, Boaz vida Beatz, Raf Riley and a couple of secret weapons. 2014 is gonna be big in the pop department.

A lot of musicians are skewed in extremes – either all the way commercial or all the way underground. Do you think it is possible to sustain equilibrium between the two? Where do you feel you fit in the mix?

The only constant is good music. If it’s good, it will find a way to be profitable for the artist, either in touring, licensing, sales, or making cool friends over the internet. Whether it becomes mainstream or commercial isn’t really in the artists control and you just have to be okay with that fact. As long as you are true to your sound and don’t make what people expect you to make, then you’ll be able to ride the line of authenticity and commercial pretty well. I’m not really sure where I fit in. I used to care a great deal about remaining authentic to a scene or whatever, but I’m pretty much over that. All the people I want to work with want to work with me. That’s all that I care about.

How does your commercial work fuck with your personal work? How do you keep them separate?

My commercial work has multiple producers input usually, whilst my solo shit is all my own – except for collaborations. I’m not in a position to control how bigger artists work with my music yet, but eventually I’ll be in a better position to do that.

Do you ever cop heat for “selling out”? What defines “selling out” to you and is that even still a thing these days?

Not really. All my fans know what’s up and they’ve been supporting everything that I do from St Andrew, to TeamSupreme, to Mad Decent, to producing a Bieber record. I’ve never claimed to be anything other than someone that utilises a ton of different styles. I’m not the best producer but I think people fuck with me because they know that none of my songs sound the same.

What do you think you bring to the table as a producer? What are your strengths in the studio?

I think I’m best at linking producers together and making shit happen for them. Other than that, I’m pretty good at using an 808 sample. I’m also good at hitting the record button when Mr. Carmack graces the studio and randomly plays serious ballads.

Do you think your abilities as a DJ or live performer are comparable to your skills in the studio or are they two completely different things?

I’m not a technical DJ. It’s more about track selection and making people go “Ooooh.” However, in the studio, I like to pretend I’m pretty technical, but I think I’m just more of a lazy perfectionist, whatever that means.

Tell me about TeamSupreme. What’s the deal?

TeamSupreme is a crew of guys plus one girl that like to peer pressure themselves into producing a song every week based on a shared sample and BPM. We’re about to break 100 volumes and we have people from all over the world submitting every week. It’s a pretty extensive network of producers at this point, probably the largest of all time.

You’re kind of involved in some incestuous relationship with all these different cliques – TeamSupreme, The Melt, M|O|D, Astro Nautico, LuckyMe, Mad Decent. Have I forgotten anybody? Do you all fuck with each other? Is there ever any conflict or does it act more like a support network?

I just like to connect with dope artists and be a part of this story that’s happening. It’s surprisingly easy if you’re polite, play each other’s music and keep your thirst at bay. No one has time for the thirst being too real.

How important is it to have a good crew of fellow musicians versus having a good management team? Do you think it suffices to have just one, or do you feel artists need both these days?

At this point in my career it definitely helps having someone you can trust dealing with the shit that takes you away from music. But it’s definitely more important as an artist to crew up with other kids trying to make dope music. It’s amazing how good some of the kids in TeamSupreme have gotten in just one year. Peer pressure and threat of public shaming and guilt tripping works wonders.

I’m digitally inclined, so I’m probably biased – but I think it’s becoming harder for artists to stay relevant without being active online. What do you think? Is there still room for offline talents to this thrive in this Soundcloud age?

Always. There’s definitely some kid in a basement in Angola making the most insane shit that you won’t hear until some hipster from New York finds their cassette tape full of gold 10 years from now in a bazaar in Cameroon, then uploads it to SoundCloud. Even if you’re not relevant now, if you make music that’s timeless, then it will be relevant at some point. Fuck a follow!

This story is featured in ACCLAIM magazine issue 32 – ‘The Team Players Issue’ – available from the ACCLAIM online store.

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Catch Djemba Djemba at the Team Supreme 2-year Anniversary on Saturday March 24th @ The Echoplex, LA.