DJ Fresh Discusses the Growth of ‘The Tonite Show’ Series and New Ezale Album
There is no shortage of legendary Bay Area rap producers. Rick Rock, Khayree, Mike Mosley and Traxamillion are just a few of the names that enter the conversation. The family tree is sprawling, from E-A-Ski to The Mekanix, but few producers seem to enjoy the type of tenacious, refreshing consistency that DJ Fresh does.
Ever since he was 9 years old, DJ Fresh, a.k.a. The World's Freshest, has been spinning vinyl. Growing up in Baltimore, he heard Run-D.M.C.'s "Peter Piper" and became mesmerized by Jam Master Jay's cutting techniques. His family moved to San Jose, Calif. when he was about 9, but he brought traces of his home with him. "Moving from the East Coast, I had the jazz influence, because the East Coast was very jazz-influenced and melodic, but the West Coast was slump heavy, synthesizers, bass. So I just meshed it together like a gumbo pot."
Both his father and his cousins deejayed, and soon enough, Fresh picked up the hobby. He began making beats when he was 16, and two years later his brother, DJ Dummy, got him a gig spinning for Common when the Chicago MC came to San Francisco. That led to touring with Nas during the Stillmatic years, when Fresh was 19, and so began his rap career.
But it wasn't until 2006 that he started a series called The Tonite Show, which found him collaborating with individual artists for full-length projects. At the time, he was editing Mistah Fab's Freestyle King DVD at night, and according to Fresh, the idea behind The Tonite Show was to buck the convention of lazy beat-jacking that dominated mixtapes at the time.
"All those hot mixtapes that came out in the last 10 or 20 years, they were products of the time, but my theory was that shit ain’t gonna last that long," Fresh tells XXL. "Dedication 1, 2 and 3 by Lil Wayne, all that shit is hella dope, but you’re probably not gonna go back to it because it’s not an original song."
Spurred by his incessant work ethic and disappointment in the prevailing culture of unoriginality, Fresh started The Tonite Show series to do things his own way. "My motto is I'm gonna make my own music. I’m gonna do my own records that are gonna be timeless."
The first few releases of The Tonite Show were with Mistah Fab, a well known Bay Area rapper, and as Fresh continued to churn out beats, he began connecting with local rappers like Mr. Tower, Beeda Weeda and J. Stalin. Hieroglyphics member Tajai had a record label called Clear Label in the mid-2000s and Beeda Weeda was under him, so Fresh would join them in the studio. "I used to sleep in that building," remembers Fresh. "Tajai was a big part of my success. He put money into me, he let me do my thing. He believed in me."
Fresh formed a tight relationship with J. Stalin, one he likens to the kind of chemistry Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre or Guru and DJ Premier had. They began working together heavily, and soon Fresh was branching out to work with other artists like Shady Nate, Living Legends, Messy Marv and more. He started dropping The Tonite Show non-stop with every rapper he could find in the Bay.
"I just kept working and working and working," he remembers. "I started locking in with everybody. If you got dope beats and you’re fucking with the right people, it ain’t gonna be that hard."
Soon enough, Fresh became a well-known local fixture in the Bay Area rap scene, eventually releasing albums with artists like The Jacka, Freddie Gibbs and Raekwon. Having The Tonite Show was like a rite of passage for certain street rappers. According to Fresh, he's closing in on almost 60 iterations of the series to date.
As he continued to work, Fresh constantly tweaked and honed his style, but his influences remained the same. "Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Cherrelle, S.O.S. Band, all that kind of shit," he says. "But as far as rap, people like Larry Smith, DJ Premier, J Dilla, DJ Darryl, Ant Banks, Battlecat, and Dr. Dre, of course. I'm heavily influenced by the '80s."
So it's no wonder that the beats on the latest edition of The Tonite Show with East Oakland rapper Ezale sound drenched in '80s funk. The majority of the project is produced by Fresh, with Ezale's DJ Hawk Beatz responsible for four songs. Sampled artists on the album include Teena Marie, Alexander O'Neal, Surface, New Edition and Cameo.
Fresh first heard of Ezale from a friend at a Santa Cruz clothing store who told the producer he had to get a load of the young MC. "At the time I needed some new people to work with, some youngsters," remembers Fresh. "So I see Ezale and it’s this little Cambodian nigga, Asian nigga, whatever that nigga is [laughs]. And he from East Oakland and he dancing. He mobbing but he dancing, not funny but just keeping it comical. And I’m like okay, yeah. So then I tapped in with him and he was like, 'Man, I grew up on your shit, Fresh. I’d love to do something with you.'"
Eventually getting together in a studio in in San Leandro, they worked on the album for about a year and a half, but Ezale was a perfectionist, constantly calling Fresh to tweak little things until the project was just right. "Ezale, that’s my nephew, he’s a youngster so I let him breathe how he wanna breathe," says Fresh. "This is his first real release, his first real CD. So I let him do his thing and it came together real well."
The result, at a crisp 25-minute running time, is one of the best albums of the year. Like many in Fresh's The Tonite Show series, it'll be pressed up on CD, and off the strength of the project's early single "Day Ones," the album looks to expand Ezale's profile beyond the Bay Area.
As for Fresh, he plans to drop another entry in The Tonite Show series with Celly Ru later this month and hopefully one with Rydah J Kyle in October as well. Plus, he's working with B-Legit and Husalah on their own editions of The Tonite Show. It seems all Fresh does is eat, sleep and make beats.
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