DJ Nu-Mark: Schooled By Uncle Nu

One of 2 of Jurassic 5’s DJs, Nu-Mark has been behind the decks for close to 27 years now, making him one of the more significant figures in DJ culture. When the group disbanded, Uncle Nu – as he is fondly known as – was inadvertently given more time to focus on the DJing circuit, which he had used wisely to cement his name as a turntable great to a point of immovability. As of now, Nu is known for his toy set in which he had crafted a DJ set that centres around musical toys regular folks might find disposable. Despite his old school background, Nu walks the fine line between doing something new to feed his creative desire (as his namesake would imply) and entertaining the crowd. JUICE managed to get a sesh with him and we took the opportunity to grill him on everything from his broken up album Broken Sunlight, the changing milieu of DJing to scratching’s position in the world today.

Right off the bat, we heard Jurassic 5 just got back together?
Yeah, we’re doing a reunion tour…

What’s the relationship among bandmembers now? We never knew why you guys broke up.
Um… we split up because of time. Some guys wanna do their solo projects, some of the other guys wanna spend more time with their family. But you know in this industry, people don’t take no for an answer. So promoters kept hitting us with offers and they kept getting higher and higher, finally we said, “Hey, if it’s going to get to this number, then I’m sure we can put together a little run.” So now we are taking a break from our solo stuff and doing J5. Just the natural balance of life I guess. I’m looking forward to it, we’re having a good time sorting out the plans, some of the DJ stuff with Cut [Chemist]. I’ve already done a few brainstorming sessions with him at my studio and we got some great ideas for it.

Just with Cut? Y’all haven’t had a jamming session with all the members yet?
Nope. We start in mid-March. We’re still getting stage props together, ordering gears we need, coming up with ideas… we want to come up with a fresh outlook on it.

A fresh start to J5. You think the chemistry’s still there?
The chemistry will always be there. It’s just what will happen when you get all 6 of us in a room. Everybody contributes something very viable to the group, and you’d only realise this when you go out on your own and do your solo project. You really feel like, “Oh yeah, so that’s what used to be next to me all the time, that’s what I’m missing right now,” you know? Even something as simple as brainstorming, everybody really contributed to J5 – it was really fun.

You’re known for your toy set, how did the idea to pull that off come about?
Well when I was in J5, there was 1 toy that I found called Music Box. The toy was so dynamic and innovative that I wondered what would happen if I kept collecting toys. Once the group disbanded, I was really confused as to what I wanna do with my career. I always wanted to be at the back, behind the decks. But I decided to try expanding the toy set, filling the whole stage with toys and see what happens. It turned out being something really fun and beautiful – I’m having a good time with it, the crowd has a good time with it. It really pushed me as a DJ, more than anything else I ever done. You can’t mix toys, you have to drop ‘em at the right time. It’s been fun but very, very time consuming.

You must have taken a lot of hours practising your routine?
Well I used to. Now I just play shows and my shows are my practice. I’d switch it up a bit with each show, or I’d bring a new toy.

Ah, it’s gotten more improvisational and random now?
It changes a little bit with each show, there’s a routine to it but it’s progressing. I guess, you get to a certain point as a musician where you are on the road so much that your shows become your practise. That’s where I’m at now. That’s what J5 used to be, by the way. We didn’t have practices for a long time because we were always on the road.

Do you play to perform that way instead of having a proper routine?
It’s both. My routine is set and it’s flexible at the same time. Like when I played in Kuala Lumpur, there was a point in the set where I looked up at the audience to see what was happening and went down a different route. My theme for that night was multi-genre though, I noticed that in this city they like their dubstep, they like their house, they like their hip hop, they seem to like everything. I see that trend in a lot of cities but I really see it here. There’s no one genre that has taken over, so I made my set about that.

What would you advise aspiring DJs who want to pull off this whole Red Bull Thre3Style thing?
There’s no secret, really. The saying practice makes perfect is the most important thing, aside from having heart to want to do it. You gotta ask yourself what are you contributing to the music world – that’s just DJing. If you can’t contribute something or set yourself apart or you can’t put a finger on what you’re doing, then it’s time to rethink it, otherwise you’re going to get blended in with everyone else and the whole thing is going to turn beige. It’s nice to have different colours, textures, sounds, races, attitudes, and personalities. That’s what music is about.

You mentioned that at one point you’d look up to the audience and think of what they want to hear. But do you think DJs should be allowed to play whatever they want or should they cater to the audience?
Depends on what crowd you are playing for. If you are playing for a very hip, knowledgeable crowd, you can play whatever you want to play. If you are playing for a crowd that’s really into top 40 music, like the Vegas crowd for instance, you gotta steer towards them a little more. For me as a DJ, I do a lot of what I wanna do. Nobody is requesting toys, but at this point everybody wants to see it because I took a chance. So it’s a balance of taking those chances and also giving them something palatable that they can sink their teeth into.

Does it ever eat up your soul when you have to play something you don’t believe in?
No. When I make a choice, I stand by it. A lot of people think I’m [elitist] though, I’m not. I grew up DJing in the ‘80s doing house parties in LA. When you do that in LA, it’s sink or swim. They’d come right at the DJ booth and say “Turn this sh!t up, and play some NWA,” or whatever it was at the time. And so I grew up really quick and learnt how to work with a crowd in a very consequential environments. I DJed for gangbangers, I DJed for whole r’n’b parties, we would be at all kinds of neighbourhoods. You gotta learn how to adapt and rock a party. Which is why I like Red Bull, cause it ain’t just about scratching and tricks, it’s about moving people, changing the way they feel.

Speaking of which, being a DJ from that old school hip hop stream of thought, do you feel like scratching is a lost art these days?
Actually I feel the opposite to tell you the truth. Every DJ I’ve seen who scratches is amazing at it, almost annoying how good they are at scratching. That’s what I noticed when I tour, from city to city, I’ve gone international since, well J5. Almost 18 years DJing around the world? So lately I noticed that everybody can scratch, so it’s important to separate yourself from that kind of DJ as much as it is with top 40 DJs who just play club hits and dubstep. Listening to dubstep all night is just like eating beans and rice for the rest of your life. Switch it up, add some steak in there, try some sushi, you know. It’s good to diversify a bit, learn some Latin music, throw in a reggae joint, one funk joint, a James Brown song won’t kill you, you know? Mix it up a bit. DJ sets are all about peaks and balance – it’s like a rollercoaster, you go up and up, then you take them down a bit. If you don’t have up and down, up and down, you’re just flatlining it. A lot of DJs they just want to smash all the time, naw, let it bounce a bit, y’know?

We think that’s due to the whole loudness war. DJs think the more eardrums-piercing it is, the more crowd would react…
It’s interesting lately with what you just said, I noticed that crowds are starting to not respond to that. Because it’s so courageous and contagious, so big and crazy, that people are like, “Yeah, we’ve seen that.” Now they are waiting for the next thing, they are waiting for someone who understands more than just one genre of music. You can’t just go into a building and expect them to be on ten for 2 hours, unless you’re one of these mainstream guys like Tiësto. They have a certain crowd. I don’t know, just set yourself apart.