Cipha Sounds: Still Rising
From hosting MTV to making beats for Weezy, this NY DJ has plenty to be gassed about.
You may know him as the host of MTV’s Sucker Free Countdown, but Cipha Sounds’ rise to the top of the hip-hop game has been a decade in the making. Born Luis Diaz, the Bronx, N.Y. native began DJing and producing in the early ’90s after being inspired by DJ Premier, Pete Rock, DJ Scratch and Kid Capri. In 1996, Cipha broke into the industry by interning for Wildman Steve and DJ Riz of New York’s Flip Squad. Riz took Cipha under his wing, teaching him the ropes of DJing, which lead to him meeting the legendary DJ Funkmaster Flex. Impressed by the youngster’s moxie, Flex allowed Cipha to spin on his nightly Hot 97 radio show and eventually earn a spot in his prestigious DJ crew, the Big Dawg Pitbulls.
Over the next few years, the Dominican turntabalist began to branch out, DJing at NYC’s Tunnel nightclub, co-hosting MTV Jams with Flex, and landing A&R gigs at labels like Rawkus, Tommy Boy and Star Trak. Then, in 2003, Cipha launched his own production and management company, Jack Move, which released R&B duo Nina Sky’s debut album in ’04. For the next two years, Cipha continued to grind, landing his own show, The Cipha Sounds Effect, on Sirius Satellite Radio and signing on as Senior Vice President of Jay-Z’s Roc La Familia label. A year later, Roc La Familia folded and Cipha landed a new gig as the host of MTV’s Sucker Free Countdown. Now, with a promising television career, Cipha Sounds is making the unlikely rise to hip-hop stardom. He’s even branching out as a producer, working with Lil Wayne for the song, “Outstanding.” XXLMag.com caught up with the new face of MTV to reflect on his successful career. Don’t get gassed!
You got your start by interning with the Flip Squad. How’d you link with them?
I was DJing and this kid brought me up to Wildman Steve. That’s when I saw DJ Riz for the first time cutting up a record. I had never seen it live like that. I always listened to the radio and [I] didn’t know how they did certain things. I watched Riz and just became a junkie. So I asked Wildman Steve if I could just answer phones, get the guests and all that stuff. He said, “Yeah, no problem.” I just had to be on point.
Was that your big break into the industry?
Yeah, that was the ultimate stepping-stone because I used to roll to clubs with Riz when he’d be DJing at night. He didn’t have a car and luckily I had a little hooptie. So I used to pick him up and drive him to the city with his crates and everything. So he introduced me to [club promoter] Jessica [Rosenblum], who introduced me to [Funkmaster] Flex and that’s when I got down with Flex. So without Riz, it definitely wouldn’t have happened.
When did you start working at Hot 97?
I’m not good with years, [but] I’ve been down with Flex for like 10 years. About ‘97/’98 is when I started and I got my own show about ‘00/’01. It started as a late show on Sunday nights and I did that for about a year and a half before moving to Saturdays.
How did you start spinning at the Tunnel?
When I met Riz, I learned how to do parties. I would open up for him or play a record when he went to the bathroom or something. It just developed. Riz used to open the Tunnel, but then he started getting his own gig, so he didn’t want to open at the Tunnel anymore. So then [Big] Kap was on early. He used to come like an hour or half-an-hour late, so I played [for] about an hour to 45 minutes. Then Kap saw I was a good opener and I wasn’t trying to kill him, so I started playing an hour, hour and a half, then two and three hours.
The Tunnel was always surrounded by controversy and violence. What are some of the craziest things you’ve seen while DJing there?
Shit, there’s fuckin’ too many stories. [Laughs] There was this dude in a wheelchair and the LOX came out doing “Wild Out.” So the kid in the wheelchair, nobody cared he was there, and he was getting all shook up. So he got nervous and pulled out a gun he had snuck in, telling people to back up off him and he fuckin’ shot himself in the leg. But he didn’t even know he was shot because his leg was paralyzed. [Laughs] So everyone started running away [and] the wheelchair got turned over. [Laughs] That got the Tunnel shutdown for a good six months.
Why did you make the transition from Hot 97 to Sirius?
I always say this as a bad joke, but unless somebody dies or gets pregnant, there’s nothing opening up over there [at Hot 97]. Flex been promising he’s gon’ retire for eight years. [Laughs] A guy who was really one of my champions at Hot 97, Reginald Hawkins, left and went to Sirius and was like, “Yo, I want to give you a shot over here.” It’s dope over there—commercial free and you can do what you want. It’s actually too much freedom, ’cause if you don’t come from radio and just go up there, you’re like a wild animal. You’ll get to play every album cut you ever wanted, but you still have to keep that radio mentality because no matter how uncensored or raw it is, people still wanna hear their favorite songs. They’re not into music like us. They want to listen to music as they live their life. For most people, it just plays in the background.
In 2005, you were appointed Senior Vice President of Jay-Z’s Roc La Familia imprint, before it folded. What went wrong?
First and foremost, the biggest thing is that the industry has been fucked up for the last five years. It’s nowhere near where it used to be, money-wise. But I saw Jay one night and I introduced him to Damien Marley. The “Welcome to Jamrock” record was out and I was telling Jay about signing Damien. And I told him, “I want to A&R for you.” He was like, “I got 12 A&Rs.” So I said, “Yeah, but I’ll do it for free.” That’s actually how I got all my A&R gigs; I said I’d do them for free.
What did Jay say?
Jay laughed at that. [Laughs] But two weeks later, it didn’t look like they were going to get Damien Marley because of politics with the lawyers who represented Bob Marley’s catalogue. So Jay said he was starting a label for world music and since I brought him Damien Marley, he knew I had access to other types of music. So he was like, “I’m starting Roc La Familia and I want you to head A&R it.” So I helped bring Tru-Life over there.
Why did you leave Roc La Familia then?
While I was there I got the MTV job. Jay was basically like, “Yo, we have to let 50 people go from Def Jam and the guy who A&Rs beneath you really needs this job. You don’t really need this job. You have MTV, Sirius, you’re DJing in clubs, so I figure if we let you go and let him keep his job, you can still bring something to us if you ever have anything.” So I figured that made sense. The whole thing shut down a few months later anyway.
Recently, you produced Lil Wayne’s “Outstanding.” How did that come about?
He took one of my beats and every time I saw Wayne he said, “I’m going to do that beat,” [but] it never happened. But [last month] the shit leaked out on Internet.
At first, the Internet labeled it as a Dr. Dre beat.
Yeah, it sounds retarded, like a compliment and a diss as the same time. I feel like since it leaked it probably won’t make it to the album [Tha Carter III]. But I saw him at the Ozone Awards and he said it’s going on there. But he’s a rapper. It still might not go on there. Rappers do lie. [Laughs] But he said it on my MTV show, so…
MTV has always been criticized for its representation of hip-hop. How do you make sure hip-hop gets represented correctly on your show?
It’s hard, but it’s either going to be me or somebody else. I’ll ask stupid questions and have fun on the show, but then I’ll ask some ill technical questions that some white girl watching won’t even know what I’m talking about. But some hip-hop kid will be like, “Oh shit, he asked ’em about that?” So it’s really about balance. But, yo, listen…the major corporations? They don’t give a fuck about hip-hop. It’s business. So you can spend your life complaining and wishing [DJ] Premier was the head of marketing at MTV [Laughs], but it’s never going to happen. And if anyone tests me…you can say I’m a commercial, fly-by-night nigga. [But] test me! Ask me anything. I’ll most likely know it and if I don’t know, I’ll know how to find out. Real people that I know, like Q-Tip, [DJ] Premier [and] Clark Kent will be like, “Yo, I’m proud of you, my nigga.” Yeah, I got to do a song and dance, but you know what? It worked.