Ypsilanti hip-hop producer DaG is cutting his own path in The 734
The producer has worked with a who’s who of artists in the Midwest including Slum Village, Supakaine, Nolan the Ninja, A-Minus, and BJ the Chicago Kid. As a producer, DaG balances the hard task of preserving old school sounds with modern swag in a way that sounds relevant to today.
The Ann Arbor-raised, Ypsi-based DaG is also a DJ, spinning at events in Washtenaw County and traveling around the country. One of his most recent and notable gigs was opening for hip-hop legend KRS One at the Blind Pig this spring.
Between spinning at concerts and producing hits for other artists, DaG is also an emcee in his own right, further proving that he is a multitalented artist. From his earliest project dionLoveSwing to his most recent work, Village Tales 3, he shows his versatility in style from funk and soul to hip-hop and jazz.
With new music due this fall, DaG is ready once again to show his listeners why he is a musical force in the 734 area code. I sat down with him to discuss his vintage sound, his take on Michigan hip-hop, what he’d be doing if he weren’t a musician, and more.
Q: Tell us about DaG, where did that name come from and how did you get your start in the industry?
A: I would say the name DaG came from my initials and the cartoon Angry Beavers. If you’re familiar with the main characters on there, they are Norbert and Dagg. I used to watch that cartoon when I was little and it was hilarious [laughs]. I got my start in the 734, around here, as far as the professional sense. I’m from Sparrow Wood [Apartments in Ann Arbor]. My pops was a DJ also. Those are my influences and how it really began. As far as the industry, it began around here. I did house parties, campus parties, doing open mics, [playing] venues [such as] Studio 4, which doesn’t exist anymore, and the Blind Pig. ... 734, that’s really where it started though and it took off from there.
Q: In becoming a producer, what was your earliest inspiration?
A: Actually, a few, because I was a fan of [producers] and the world of hip-hop as a whole. Hi-Tek -- a producer and DJ for Talib Kweli -- 9th Wonder, and Bink. Timbaland. DeVante Swing was a heavy influence on me. DionLoveSwing, my alter ego, stems from that. My man J Dilla is also an early inspiration. One of the earliest hip-hop records that I can remember being played in my household was "Get This Money" by Slum Village. A little bit of Dr. Dre, Puffy, Rodney Jerkins, Lord Finesse, Just Blaze, Erick Sermon, Def Squad, and Havoc from Mobb Deep.
Q: There are a lot of 1980s and '90s influences in your production, such as vintage soul and R&B instrumentation, but you have a distinctive present-day vibe. Are you ever concerned with fitting in today’s market? Do you have plans of going mainstream or would you like to stay independent?
A: Not necessarily, because I know my sound is timeless. Those kinds of things I don’t really worry about because as long as the content is good, no matter what year it is, it’s always going to adapt to people’s needs and their musical tastes. If the music is good, it’s going to stay alive in any generation or any era. As far as staying independent and underground or going mainstream, I can’t really say right now, man, I’m just going with the right now. I’ve been a free agent for so long. I’ve never signed with anyone. I’ve also never put it out there that I’m with this person or that person. I have a lot of existing relationships and associations with certain artists. I got a lot of love for artists as well: the musical relationship and the friendship as well. Those kinds of things are organic. Right now, I’m just worried about Village Tales, my imprint, and what we have going on. I think that’s what’s kept me relevant from then until now. As far as the [music buisness] politics, I don’t get too deep into it because I don’t want it to affect the music. Also, I know how to go about things because I’ve got good management and representation and when it comes my way he’ll know how to handle it. I’m just worried about continuing to perfect and elevate my sound right now. That’s it.
Q: So when you listen to artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, what do you think makes those records so timeless? I was just listening to MJ's "Lady in My Life" and that’s a song you could listen to it back in the '80s, today, and even 30 years from now and it’s going to have the same effect. With you being a producer, do you think it’s in the chords, the melodies, how would you say what makes that such a classic sound?
A: I think it’s everything. I think it was a mix between the intentions, the vibes, the message and melodies, the people involved, and the talent. Also, the capabilities of the people coming together and going off of one motive, which is making a hit and a great vibe; not just a record but a vibe and a timeless vibration that people could sit with. Not much effort goes into music like that today. Why? ... [W]e have a lot of advantages in the 21st century but we also have a lot of laziness, too. These tools are so accessible to us nowadays; we don’t have to do as much work as they had to back then. Your favorite producer can pull up his favorite synth chord right then and there whereas 20, 30 years ago they had to actually plug in machines and synthesizers into different machines, racks, and other synthesizers just to get a certain sound. Within that process, you probably could discover other things and that’s the beauty of being hands-on with things while creating.
Those are the types of tools that Mike and Prince were using and working with. Even looking at Mike, he demanded your all, 100%, because that’s the way James Brown was and Mike’s a descendant of James Brown. The same thing goes for Prince and that’s why those types of records stand out, man, because of the effort that was put in; not that much effort goes in today. It could be the same effort but you have to go out of the box creativity wise and I think that’s what they did man and that’s why we’re still singing [starts singing] "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" and "Diamonds and Pearls" [laughs]. That’s another reason why we need to embrace the past generation’s approach because there’s a difference between having this shit all on screen and you knowing how to do all of this, in every musical avenue. Just because you’re fire on the keys doesn’t mean you’re cold on the synths or the bass. Today’s approach is where everything is universal, anybody can do it, but back then you had to find that right person to get that certain sound.
Q: One of my favorite tracks from you is "Incense," a song you did with Detroit rapper Supakaine from his Scholastica Park mixtape. In addition to producing it, you show you also have MC skills. Is this something you’re trying to pursue in the future?
A: The rapping could happen as a main thing if the people want and demand it. I could consider doing it, maybe not full time, but a lot more relevant and consistent than I do now.
Q: Who influences you as an MC?
A: Raekwon, Method Man, The Lox, Slum Village, Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G., Wayne Carter aka Lil Wayne, Juelz Santana, Willie the Kid, Prodigy, Wu-Tang Clan, Talib Kweli, Shawn P, Big L, Pastor Troy, David Banner, and Mike Jones.
Q: When listening to your earliest project, dionLoveSwing, there are some obvious funk influences. Can you name your absolute biggest influence in this genre, just one?
A: D’Angelo. When I was 7 years old, his craft and artistry inspired my creative spirit like no other artist. It was life-changing.
Q: You have an impressive resume from working with Detroit rappers and MCs. Supakine, A-Minus, and Nolan the Ninja all have worked with you on their projects. In regard to the Michigan hip-hop scene, what in your opinion distinguishes us from the rest of the nation in relation to our sound? What have we become known for as a hip-hop sub-genre or can that be defined yet?
A: Man! Me personally, I think that we represent everything that stands for what’s good in this whole thing we call hip-hop. From art-wise to locations and the right environment for movie destinations, our landscaping is beautiful from the east side of Michigan all the way to the west side. We have influences from style, fashion, sound, and a way of life and thinking. We keep things here instead of obliging to this new way that this country is trying to push on us. Our way of thinking and living, in general, has already set us higher on the food chain when it comes to this country and it’s been that way for decades, but now people are actually starting to recognize the impact that we have worldwide. At the end of the day, this is the Midwest and it’s the only region in the country that hasn’t been wiped out yet as far as its culture.
Q: Do you ever feel a responsibility or that you have a platform to continue to provide quality hip-hop to the masses given our current choices in the mainstream market?
A: No, not really. The only responsibility that I have is to give my fans and the world the best of me in my capabilities with my music. That’s the only thing that I’m obligated to do is to keep going for the sake of Village Tales.
Q: Tell us about Village Tales. Is there more than one member or artist?
A: At the moment, there are no other artists. There are associates but the only artist is me, but that can change tomorrow. Julian, my manager, and I could be mind-blown by some young cat, you never know. I’m very open to artists, though, and I’ve definitely thought about more artists. Once these next few projects come out, I definitely know that the light will be on us more. There might be artists that I haven’t connected with yet that have the same intentions that we do but maybe are different than what we listen to but you gotta embrace that. Right now, I want to embrace more of the youth because there aren’t a lot of people that are doing that.
Q: If you weren’t a music producer and DJ, what do you believe you’d be doing?
A: A video-game designer. Also, a lot of people don’t know this about DaG, but I am a huge interior designer and decorator. One of my favorite shows growing up was House Hunters on HGTV; I used to watch that a lot with my grandmother when I was a kid. Just look out for, like, 20 or 30 years from now, I’ll have gray hair and everything but just hit me up if you need your crib designed. I’ll get you together, me and my team. It’s going to be called Village Tales Interior Design. Also, I would probably be a tech consultant. I used to want to do [computer] programming, but after going to school for it I decided it wasn’t for me.
Q: What do you want the public to remember most when they hear the name DaG and what are your plans for the future?
A: I would say that I want the people to always remember the soul, funk, and the bounce. As far as the future goes, I can’t really call it right now, man. I don’t want to sound like a cliché, but I hope I’m alive. If I have kids, I hope they’re good. I hope in that time that I’ve done enough and making sure that my people are straight. Also, that my fans and the people are getting everything that I intended them to get when I design whatever they listen to
Sean Copeland is a recording artist, music producer, writer, and AADL staff member.