Buzzing About Beats: The journey of Philly producer / MC DistantStarr

Distant Starr
Distant Starr | photo by Austin Eterno | courtesy of the artist

Originally hailing from New York, rapper / producer DistantStarr has been holding it down in both Philly’s underground rap and experimental beat scenes for about a decade. His sound, a rich mixture of spacey, ambient-inflected instrumentals and slick, razor-sharp bars tastefully embodies the spirit of both scenes. We caught up with Distant Starr a few days after his mind-blowing, impromptu set at Backyard Bxss (a live Beat showcase organized by Smth Savant collective). We talked about his latest release, Discover Tape, the unheralded history of Philly’s live Beat scene and the collaborative work that has connected him with artists around the world.  

The Key: I know you’ve been making it happen in the music scene for a while but you and I have only recently met. Could you give a little personal background and talk about how you got started in music?

DistantStarr: Sure. I grew up playing alto sax in jazz band. That was the spark. In high school, I got into writing raps. My first successful rap group was MAGr with Al Mighty. Our first release was in 2008 and featured Blu, Hudson Mohawke, Erik L and Rap Pack (Nico The Beast, Zilla Rocca, 2ew Gunn Ciz, Al and myself). My initial inspiration was my Uncle David Allen Jones. He did the music for Eddie Murphy’s RAW.

TK: Whoa. I’m pretty sure I had a MAGr CD-r back then. And you didn’t grow up in Philly, right?

DS: No sir. I was born and raised in NYC. Moved to NJ in middle school, Philly later on.

TK: What came first for you, producing or rhyming?

DS: Rhyming. Only started [producing] because I couldn’t get beats anywhere. Growing up, the main source for beats in the crew was Fel Sweetenberg. He actually taught me how to use the MPC [classic Akai Sampling drum machine]. His brother Mute and I used to have beat cyphers in his basement. He was way too busy so I had to learn.

TK: That’s dope. Fel’s a beast on both ends, rhyming and producing. When you first jumped on that MPC, how did it feel?

DS: Amazing man. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew I was closer to figuring it out.

TK: Right. That’s the best part of sampling and composing for me, the sense of discovery and figuring it all out as you go along.

DS: For sure. By learning to make beats I was learning to pick apart songs. That skill is priceless. Learning layers, what instruments sound good together, also how to mix.

TK: So crucial. Most beatmakers I know at least begin the process of learning how to mix and arrange, even before they knew what those things were called!

DS: Truth. I learned backwards too. Would have taken music theory or something first if I had a choice.

TK: Word. Moving back a little, you mentioned that you came to Philly from Jersey, around what time was this?

DS: About 9 years ago. Wasn’t huge tho, since I was right over the bridge in Camden.

TK: Cool, what kind of musical circles were you running in at that time? It wasn’t long ago, but some folks reading might not have a clear picture of what Philly’s music scene was like a decade ago

DS: I was rolling with Knxwledge and then Buddy Leezle around that time. Both were pretty much introduced to me via the MySpace days by Jay Scarlett of Germany. He’s a homie with Philly’s own DJ Junior [of Record Breakin’ Music]. Super small world. It all started with a release on a Reebok compilation album. I did a song with Reggie B [from Kansas City] that was placed. This got me connected worldwide for the most part.

Buddy was working with Rustie on 215tfk. Rustie was labelmates with Hudson Mohawke [of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music] that was our connection. Knxwledge was working with Suzi Analogue who I had just clicked with.

TK: Word. I don’t think folks realize how many folks that came out of that post-Dilla “Beat” scene lived in Philly during that time.

DS: Its true. Suzi had a collective with Mndsgn, Devonwho and Knxlwedge, learned a lot during that time

TK: Word. Klipmode. MySpace era.

DS: Yeh man! Philly was buzzing about beats then.

TK: Definitely! I try to impress that upon folks who come out to BackyardBxss, Philly has a long history of live Beats / electronic performances.

DS: Agreed. This is not new. Respects to Beat Society! Used to see Grammy award winning producers go for blood too. Remember when Illmind, Oddisee and Fel went in? That was school for me.

TK: Yeah man. I don’t think Hezekiah, Stef and all them get the credit they deserve for pioneering that type of events and movement.

DS: Facts. Stef Tatas! Her and Philly Blunt were the homies for real. We used to hit that record store all the time. Take trips from Camden regularly. Shouts to Cue [Records]. And Sao! Can’t forget Sao.

TK: Wait, Sao?

DS: He used to host with Stef at Beat Society.

TK: Ahhhh, word. Earlier, you talked about meeting artists and making worldwide connections through music. Can you talk a bit about the places you’ve traveled and relationships you built doing this?

DS: Sure. Honestly, the majority of my releases have been overseas. Album called Starrskream with French producer Le N?ko did pretty well. We have Redefinition which is made up of UK producer Mecca:83, Pittsburgh producer Buscrates and myself. Released a few vinyl things with French producer Fulgeance and his label. As far as travel, I have been to very few places outside of the US. The most recent was Japan and it seems to have a hold on me. I plan to return this summer with my fellow BSC crew members.

BSC is a collective of worldwide musicians, producers, artists and rappers. It’s a melting pot of languages and nationalities and features some of Japan’s most talented people. We have DMC [World DJ Championships] champs, anime score composers and rappers that can spit in several languages. SMH. So much happening! It’s funny I have never released a record with a label in the U.S. Only ever overseas. All U.S. releases have been independent.

TK: That’s amazing. Japan’s hip hop scene has been great for a long time, from folks like Krush and Shing02 to today with the Jazzy Sport collective and more. Can you talk a bit about the tapes you’ve been dropping recently? I’m loving the Discover and Center tapes in particular.

DS: Thank you sir! Well, last summer I made the decision to drop a year’s worth of beat tapes. This was only an attempt to get better at production and releasing music digitally. I spoke with my friend, artist Sadisco of Japan, and we came up with a game plan. He would provide the artwork for all tapes and I would focus on creating a new one every month. Here we are and tape eight just released a week ago. Four more to go!! My logic is, practice makes perfect try it and see. These are like an interlude for Seekers 4 though. It’s on the way, plus several other rap albums.

TK: Word! You answered my question before I even asked it.

DS: Yeah, I have a few rap releases coming, several singles in Japan dropping, an album with Sir Froderick which we just finished artwork for. Skxlxtor 2 with Buddy Leezle. An album of featured producers including Raggedy Jeans, Iadonik, Ta-ti and a bunch more an EP with Buscrates……all I can say for now.

TK: Damn, you’re killing it.

DS: Trying bro.

TK: Word. Any other thoughts or anything you’d like to share?

DS: Do Nothing That Is Of No Use – Miyamoto Musashi HAHAHAHAHA!

For more on DistantStarr, dig in to their discography on Bandcamp, or get with them on Facebook.



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