Live performances have been Zeds Dead’s strong suit for over six years; they play mixes that are guaranteed to hype their audience and the brilliance of their showmanship is unquestionable. The only thing missing from their artiste profile up until last month was a debut album — the Canadian duo isn’t to be faulted for this entirely though, as we imagine writing an album would be a challenging task given that they were constantly playing shows in various parts of the world. Finally though, they managed to set aside some time to produce their debut album, Northern Lights, with the help of Pusha T, Diplo, Jadakiss and many more. JUICE spoke to one half of the duo, Hooks, on their transition from learning to work the decks from their basement to headlining massive stages at festivals, their love for hip hop, and being paid fairly.
We know the two of you are avid hip hop fans — what was the first song or which artiste did you listen to that got you to get more invested in this genre?
The first hip hop song I remember really liking was Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’. It was on the commercials for the movie Dangerous Minds. I think I was seven years old and my mom bought me the soundtrack on tape. I used to listen to that a lot, I knew all the words.
Prior to creating the Zeds Dead brand, the two of you collaborated under a moniker named Mass Productions, which led to the creation of Fresh Beetz that was heavily inspired by ‘90s hip hop. Why that era specifically?
That was the golden era as far as we’re concerned. We lived for that sound at the time and naturally when we started making music, that’s what came out.
“I don’t look to new popular rappers for lyrics anymore, more so just good beats and the occasional catchy line.”
In an interview with Billboard, Dylan mentioned gravitating towards good lyrics; there are plenty of discussions regarding the quality of lyrics that were written during hip hop’s ‘Golden Era’ and what it is now. As fans, how do you feel about its progress?
For the most part, rap lyrics are at an all time low right now. I don’t look to new popular rappers for lyrics anymore, more so just good beats and the occasional catchy line. If I want good rap, I pretty much just put on a Sean Price record or freestyle.
You once said that it’s more about the hook than the story. What’s your stance on this as someone who’s a fan of good lyrics?
That was just a comment about the state of things. We don’t dictate our music based on the way things are though.
Both of you are self-taught producers who learnt to work the decks from the comforts of your basements and have graduated to headlining massive festivals and collaborating with award-winning artistes, how long did it take for that transition to happen?
From the beginning, making music to playing festivals and touring, it was about five years. I think there’s some truth in the 10,000 hours rule of thumb. We didn’t start reaching out to other artistes for collaborations until recently.
“At first I thought we’d be selling beats to rappers and producing songs, being in the background mostly.”
What convinced you two that you’d be able to make a living from being producers?
At first I thought we’d be selling beats to rappers and producing songs, being in the background mostly. I didn’t really think about it as something I would fully support myself on back then. I remember a moment for me was when I was in school and our manager had put together this little tour in the UK just through cold calling promoters. I realised it was scheduled during exam time, but I decided to go and didn’t say anything or try to retake the exams, just left for good.
As established producers, how did the two of you ensure that you weren’t being shortchanged when you were still aspiring artistes? Also, how did you determine the artistry’s worth?
Every situation is different and you just have to evaluate on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes the money is way less important than the look, but you also have to make sure you’re not being screwed.
Let’s talk about Northern Lights, the album includes collaborations with Pusha T, Diplo, Twin Shadow, Jadakiss, and many others, how did the two of you decide which artistes to work with? Did you already write materials with these artistes in mind or was it only after that you felt the respective artistes were suitable for that track?
They all came about differently. Sometimes we would get vocals first, or things recorded to other instrumentals and start from there, other times we would seek out who we thought would sound good on the song.
One of the oldest tracks on the album dates back three years ago — so, we can safely assume that Zeds Dead has an archive of songs — what made you two decide it was finally time to focus on the album?
It just felt like the right time. We always wanted to make a full album and we decided to take more time off to be in the studio and just focus on that.
Was it easy to get back into a “slower-paced” working environment in comparison to playing every other night? Were there any specific rules you created for yourself to be focused (i.e. isolating yourselves in a cabin somewhere)?
It was interesting to have more time but we warmed up to it for sure. We still played a lot of shows so it wasn’t quite like being in a cabin.
Your record label, Deadbeats, launched earlier this year, how do you plan for Deadbeats to be exceptionally distinctive in comparison to the next label?
The music and art will give it its individual character. There won’t be any other label with the same feel because it just reflects our own personal taste.
Are there any current projects that you two are currently working on that your fanbase should watch out for?
Check out the new EP from Nebbra we just put out on Deadbeats. Also, we’re going to be putting out some remixes to Northern Lights soon, so watch out for that as well.
Listen to Zeds Dead’s debut album entitled Northern Lights here.