This past month I had the opportunity to sit down with Needles (government-appointed name James Gates) at the all-too-familiar St. Louis Bread Company on the Delmar Loop during the noon rush. As a laid-back and easy-going person, Needles told me all about how he got his start, his name and enough background information to write a book in this detail-packed, one-of-a-kind interview. Below is Part 1 of the interview. Read Part 2 here.
Dannie Boyd: Where did everything start for you music wise?
Needles: Well, my father is a well-known DJ in St. Louis and other parts of the country so we always had records and all that stuff. We had tons of records in the house, so music was kind of in my life at birth. Growing up I never had a desire to become a DJ though. I always loved music but that was not my initial path. I'm a cartoonist. I draw, I illustrate, I do all of that stuff. I've been drawing since I was 2, so I was going towards that through pretty much the whole school experience all the way up to high school in '94 when I graduated.
That fall in '94 is when I did my first party. That came about from my brother's friend who needed somebody to do some music for her birthday party. He knew I had tons of tapes I made off the radio and I had a couple of CDs. I didn't have any money back then so I didn't really buy CDs. I had tapes, cassette singles, things like that. He just knew I had all this music so he kind of suggested me to do the party. I didn't know how I was going to do it. I immediately thought, "I'm not about to just press play and let the whole tape just play." I guess I kind of just had that instinct to figure out how I'm going to DJ a party with tapes and cater to that party. I quickly figured out, "Okay, I need a main radio." I didn't have any type of system or anything; this is early, early days. My sister had a boom box, and it had dual cassettes, so I had that. And it had the turbo bass and all that stuff. I knew that would carry because it was just a basement party. Then I had the smaller radio that I would use to cue up the different songs on my tapes. While the main song was playing I would be busy finding another song, rewinding and fast-forwarding and cueing up the next song. So that's how I did that. And when I did that something kind of bit me. I got bit by the bug, basically, and the feeling never left. I was just like, man this is awesome! I'm doing my personal picks and people are really responding off of it and I'm responsible for a good portion of the good time that's being had. So that's kind of how it started.
When did you put together your first mixtape that you released as a DJ? How did that process go?
Aw man. It was '98, after tons of practicing. What happened was, from that first birthday party in '94, I guess word got around that I was cheap (laughs) and I was doing parties just like that. Tapes, a few CDs, but mostly tapes. I would do mini-jams, is what they would kind of be referred to as in high school, in between the years of '94 and like '96 or so, '97, and [I would] get the birthday parties. But then, in the back of my mind I was like, if I want to keep doing this I'm eventually going to get called out by some kid looking at me and how I'm doing it and being like (laughs), "You don't even have any records. You don't have a turntable or a mixer; you're not a real DJ!" And I would not consider myself a DJ [back then]. I didn't have a name or anything. I was just playing music. But I always wanted to make sure, before that happened, I was skilled in the actual craft.
In '97 I got a job at Vintage Vinyl. So many records were coming in because around that time, late '90s, the CDJs [CD decks] were coming in, the CD turntables were coming in, and a lot of DJs were transitioning from vinyl to just CDs and they were selling their vinyl back; a lot of classic pieces that I've never seen before. [When] I got the job at Vintage Vinyl, I was able to buy all this stuff half price, and I got all these records. Basically, I took '97, almost a whole year, just to teach myself how to mix. I was able to come up on this busted mixer that my mom got me. I had two different turntables. They weren't even real standard DJ turntables; they were like record players. The ones that come with the floor-model stereos. I had one of those, and then I had one that this guy came in Vintage Vinyl to sell. He sold it for like 25 bucks. It was an old Technics turntable. It wasn't the 1200s, but it was old. And I sort of taught myself how to mix then. I was out a lot and observed a lot of DJs.
So around '98 I was like "I want to release something." I was practicing, I was taping what I was practicing, I was mixing and stuff and I was like, "I think I'm ready to release something" because it [mixtape making] was really big in The Loop and St. Louis in general; a lot of mixtapes. So I put it together. A lot of underground, current, hip-hop fellows out at the time. It kind of went real well. A lot of people responded to it. I sold it for 5 bucks. It was in a cassette case like Maxell [brand cassettes]. I did my own graphics like how I do today still, but it was very primitive back then. I cut my picture out, pasted it and copied it (laughs) and put text on it from another cutout. But it was real cool. It was called '98 Fresh Mixtape. It had a lot of Pete Rock, Black Star, Lauryn Hill. I think I put "Lost Ones" on there. It was real nice, and like I said, people responded to it well, and that was kind of the start. That was the beginning of the mixtape series for me.
When did you actually develop the name DJ Needles, or Nappy Needles, and consider yourself a real DJ doing shows and things of that nature?
Well, I would say kind of before I got established. And really, before I got out and played my first set. I was thinking to myself, "What might be a cool DJ name?" and I landed on Needles. It was so silly because I remembered the movie Dick Tracy and all of their nicknames were cool to me. I liked all their nicknames; they kind of matched them and everything. I could have sworn that there was a guy, a villain, on the movie named "Needles" and I was like, "That's cool. It's been used in the movie so why can't I just use it as a DJ name?"
I wanted to make people understand that when they hear "Needles" they know that they're going to get somebody who's playing records with an actual needle to the record and everything and they're not getting CDs. So I picked Needles believing that this name had also been used in Dick Tracy. Come to find out later, I was thinking of "Mumbles." The guy's name was Mumbles (laughs) and I was wrong. Dude was mumbling and for some reason I thought they called him Needles because, I don't know, maybe his mouth. I have no idea why I thought they would call him Needles. Anyway, it stuck. A lot of people just gravitated toward it. To this day It's weird, a lot of people that knew me as James, my real name long before DJing, they now call me Needles. I don't know if I dig that too much (laughs). I'm talking family members too. It's not cool (laughs). It's all good. But yeah, that's basically how it happened, a silly little story. I think I was actually on the Metrolink when I came up with the name Needles. I was riding somewhere and was like hmm (hums), what about Needles? Okay.
How did you get into production and making your own music?
That came from the influence of my little brother Barry. He was heavy into computers, also into programs. Initially around, I would say, '99 or 2000 or so. I was beginning to notice all of this stuff that I was hearing from him back in our den. That's where I kind of setup a makeshift studio. I put my turntables back there. My mom let me setup and everything. My father's records had formerly been in there and I kind of started to take over with my record collection and things like that. But I was hearing a lot of house tracks and techno-style tracks and everything coming from there [the den]. I'm thinking he's playing records because he was also a house and techno DJ, but come to find out this is his original music. It was that good to where I thought he was playing established records. So I'm like, "Wait a minute! How are you doing this?" I was really curious. "How are you making your own music?" I was ignorant to the whole computer wave that was really beginning to take off at that time, so he just explained it was a computer program. He taught me a few computer programs as far as making music and recording music. I was hip-hop mode back then, so I was like I'm going to take this and I'm going to start making hip-hop beats and I'm going to see what I can do.
There was a lot of music made by older artist that I heard. I heard a few songs here and there and I was like, "Man that would probably make a good sample you know." And I never knew what I was going to do with that. I kind of just made a mental note that if I ever was in the position to make my own beats I was going to try to use this stuff. That's basically how I did it. Around 2001 is when I first started making beats. Like I said, my brother walked me through it. He taught me how to use the programs. Until this day I still ask him for help and everything. But that's how it started. Real humble man, just like "I can actually make beats!" It wasn't traditional hip-hop style because I didn't have an SP [sampler]; I didn't have an MPC [sampler] or anything. This is all on the computer. I still plan on learning how to use those different traditional production styles and everything, but for right now I stick with the programs I was taught. It's been working out.
Have you had a chance to work with any artists, as far as providing them with the tracks or working with them musically?
Yeah. A lot of people here in St. Louis. Jada Avenue, Black Spade, Tef Poe, Karim, Got to be Karim. A lot of people that basically are my friends. There have been a few outside St. Louis, Eric Roberson. You know, very few. I'm definitely not out on the map so-to-speak in that sense. Who else? Indiana Rome, he has recorded over my tracks. Definitely a lot of local, just immensely talented artist here in St. Louis.
What's been the biggest obstacle for you so far?
As a DJ?
As a DJ or music wise.
I would say, the biggest obstacle is to keep (pauses). It's hard to say (pauses). Exposure. Trying to get different people to get where I'm coming from and to try and let go of preconceived notions of what a DJ, specifically a black DJ, should play. That's definitely a hard thing to get over. A lot of crowds see you and they expect you to play certain music and stay with that, and that's just not the case with a lot of DJs. Definitely not a lot of DJs that I run with. We're all individually specific. We kind of try to bring forth the same type of attitude toward what we do as an artist because we are all artists. I would say an artist that people actually consider an artist because a lot of people don't consider DJs artists. We bring that attitude that an artist -- a band or whoever else performs -- performance-wise brings to their performance. We want people to understand that when you come to see a specific DJ. Not all DJs because a lot of DJs are just general DJs. They'll play whatever a crowd wants to hear. But when you're dealing with people that have specific flavors then you got to get to know them and kind of get to understand them just as much as you would get to know some new rapper, some new singer, some new musician and decide whether or not they're for you or not. That's the type of style that me and a lot of other DJs here in town and around the world are trying to get through to people. You can't really paint all DJs with the same brush. We're trying to provide a service as well as good significant art through music.
I know you're classified as a hip hop/soul/afro-beat DJ but do you incorporate other genres of music into your rotation?
Yeah. Definitely. A lot of Latin, Latin funk, house, soul house, dance hall, definitely a lot of dance hall. As well as a lot of the old-school R&B which comes from soul but really isn't soul music. I include that. Pop and rock music I incorporate. And all of these genres a lot of people might not get it, or they might think that it's like (pauses). Like, if I play rock music a lot of people might think that I might be playing that as if I have an obligation to certain people that may be in the venue. It's really because I like it. I only play stuff that I like, you know. That's basically it. If you hear me play it, I like it, and I want you to hear it, and hopefully you'll dance to it. A lot of this stuff, a lot of the pop music, a lot of rock music, definitely from the '80s and a lot of it from the '90s I dug. I didn't just listen to hip hop. That's my core but I definitely branched off.
That's the good thing about true hip-hop music. It actually teaches a lot of people about different genres of music in and of itself. Mainly by samples, and many times by the rappers referring to different lines out of different songs. Like Method Man on "How High." He starts off, "Excuse me while I kiss the sky." Before I heard that song I was familiar with Jimi Hendrix, but I didn't really realize that that [line] was it [his]. That kind of keeps the connection when people give a nod to the older artists. It's a bug out when you actually discover, "Wow he was quoting Jimi Hendrix." Even though I don't like this song very much, the Wyclef, not the Wyclef song, but Pras did a song with ODB and Maya [titled] "Ghetto Superstar." That was a whole Kenny Rogers song that was sampled, an old country song. It's a really exciting genre that opens you up to different genres that you might not have so quickly been drawn too.
How closely related is your personal musical collection to what you actually play?
Very close. Quite close actually. You're bound to hear a good, I would say, 60 percent of my actual music collection when I play. I try to cover a lot of ground without spreading myself to thin. I try to keep it all coherent and mixed well. I try to keep transitions going. It's funny, most of the things that I play, most of my sets, are just flooded with inside jokes. Not jokes but inside connections that people really have to listen to. It's fine if people don't get it, but I get it. If I'm playing this song and I try to mix this other song in with that one there's usually a connection. This song might have sampled the next song I'm playing. A lot of times I do mini best-of sets. It's not just limited to people who died or anything. It's just that I might play, like, a lot of Outkast. Like three or four songs in a row just to get people excited like, "Aw man, this is all Outkast right now. I'm very happy about that!" That's kind of what I try to keep. I try to keep it fun and keep it going to one direction musically.
How has your experience been with Rawthentic on KDHX?
Great! Honestly, that was one of my big goals, to get a show on KDHX. Back when I was coming up through the ranks and everything I'd always listen to KDHX, particularly to "Street Vibes" and "The Underworld," Doug Morgan's show which is now "The Record Sto'." I've been listening to those cats since, I would say, '89, '90 something like that. I was a big fan of all of them. I listened to different shows from time to time. I finally got to meet DJ Alejan and I got to meet G-Wiz, and Doug. I worked with Doug at Vintage Vinyl and it was just really amazing to be among him and working beside him.
Now I have my own show. I definitely credit it to G-Wiz because he was the one that brought me into 88 [88.1 KDHX] in '06. I'd gotten at him I think a couple of years prior and I suggested that we do a show together if he could make it happen, and he was down with it. He said "Let me take care of it, let me handle it, let me see if I can get it" and 2 years later, because the waiting period is so long and I understand that, he comes back leading up to '06 -- he's like, "It's looking good. We got to fill this out, fill that out" and in '06 we made it happen. We were able to get a show on Monday night at 8 p.m. That's like prime time, and I loved it. Then they did the whole switch around and changed up and Wiz couldn't really do Friday so they gave me my solo show on Friday, and now I'm on Wednesdays. It's just a great experience. I know I'm definitely reaching my core group of people that quote unquote "get it." There's no wondering. When you're on 88.1 it's safe to say that the majority of the audience tunes in for a specific reason, and that's to get something that they're not getting anywhere else on the radio. That definitely makes me feel good that I'm a part of this type of organization.
What goals do you have for 2011? Where do you see yourself by the end of the year?
Well (pauses). I'm not one for making plans (laughs). I never really made plans before. I'm not planning anything, but I definitely hope to get more global actually. Definitely more national. At the end of the day, global. I want to travel and perform in different parts of the country, and different parts of the world as well. That's definitely the ultimate goal, just to keep going.
Do you see yourself staying in St. Louis and branching out in the city or would you consider moving to another city?
Yeah. I don't rule anything out. If I stay I definitely want to be the kind of performer where I'm able to travel wherever to perform and just come and rest back here, and still do my events here as well. I don't necessarily have to move away to do that. I do plan on spending some time on the east coast. If not there then definitely Chicago to get exposed to more music, different styles, and to make more connections. Whether or not that lasts a long period of time or if that's just a short month or so, it really doesn't matter. The main focus is to just to keep providing a good performance, good sets with a plethora of music that basically just evokes good feelings. That's about it.
Have you had a chance to do any gigs outside the city or work with anybody in other cities?
Yeah. I've been fortunate to play in Atlanta and down in Miami. Miami Beach I mean (pauses). Or maybe it was South Beach, I'm not sure. It was at this convention in Florida. Texas and Brooklyn, New York with my man DJ Center. I really want to go out to L.A. and see what that's all about, and overseas obviously. I'd love to go to London, Japan, Africa, all of these places. As far as the states I've definitely been fortunate to venture off here and there.