I was fortunate enough to catch Run the Jewels’ gig last December at Opium Rooms in Dublin. Aside from the two emcees in the group, a familiar face was in charge of DJ duties for the night. Trackstar the DJ began working for Killer Mike and eventually progressed into Run the Jewels as the group was formed. He is far from just being hired help. He appears in music videos, live on Conan & David Letterman, and just about anywhere that RTJ have made their mark. We were lucky enough to get to chat to Trackstar about his early career, Mike and El-P and his various other projects.
-Where are you from?/When did you start DJing?
“I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and moved to St Louis for college where I started DJing at my school’s radio station KWUR. I ended up staying in St. Louis and working in the hip hop scene there for ten years, and that’s where the first decade of my life as a DJ happened–I like to say Gabe is from Madison but Trackstar is from St Louis.”
-Can you remember your first show?
“I do remember my first off-campus DJ gig. I was working my part time job and met a rapper/promoter named John Harrington, who is one of the greatest dudes ever–I told him I was a DJ and he booked me to play at an upcoming show with his group the Midwest Avengers, as well as an incredible duo Bits N Pieces, both of whom are legendary acts in the St Louis underground rap scene. I don’t remember all the details, but I know I played some rap music and I must not have sucked too bad because I ended up working John a ton more over the years lol.”
-How did you become the DJ for Killer Mike and Run the Jewels?
“I’ll try to tell the short version, but it’s a great story: Basically, sometime in 2008 I read a Killer Mike interview where he gave out his phone number at the end. At that time (now too) he was my favorite rapper, so being the go-getter I am, I called it, expecting a fanline of some sort. It turned out that was actually his number, he answered the phone, and we had a conversation that led to me doing a Best of Killer Mike mixtape with The Smoking Section in 2009 called Anger & Ambition, which he hosted. From there, he and I did shows sporadically for a couple years before I became his official tour DJ and moved to Atlanta. My timing was amazing–six months later he and El dropped R.A.P. Music, and the next year when they formed Run The Jewels I became the DJ for the best rap group in the world.”
-Aside from RTJ, who has been your favourite artist to perform with?
“I’ve been rocking with my StL crew (Tef Poe, Rockwell Knuckles, Gotta Be Karim, Family Affair, Wafeek, Black Spade, Vandalyzm, among others) for 10+ years, so I’d have to say them for sure–having Tef and Rocky open up five dates on the RTJ2 tour was definitely a huge highlight of this entire experience for me. They performed as a duo under the name David Ruffin Theory–I presented their project, which I highly recommend and you can check at www.davidruffintheory.com. You may have heard Tef’s name recently, he’s been one of the leading voices in the Ferguson movement since Michael Brown was killed.”
-Mike and El seem like pretty easy going guys. What’s it like touring with them?
“The guys you see onstage and in interviews is who they are 24 hours a day, so it’s constantly entertaining and enlightening. It’s basically just like listening to RTJ2 overall–heavy conversations about serious issues and a constant stream of ridiculous and immature jokes, all with an undercurrent of love for each other and our fellow man.”
-You are about to play Sundance, Coachella and Madison Square Garden with Jack White in the next few months. Do you like stepping out of your comfort zone to play to crowds like this?
“I definitely do, all of these experiences are just unreal–I never even imagined doing anything like this. Folks are always saying I’m living the dream, but honestly my dream was to work at Vintage Vinyl in St Louis and do cool rap stuff around town with my friends. The crazy thing is, we’ve been playing so many crazy festivals and huge crowds over the last few years that shows like that aren’t that far out of my comfort zone anymore, although there was definitely some butterflies before stepping onstage at MSG–that was some historic shit.”
-Touring the past year has brought you across the world and you were on Conan and Letterman. What has been the defining performance for you so far?
“That’s a tough question, there’s been so many amazing shows…I think I might actually say it was a show we did in Salt Lake City this past summer, opening for the Wu-Tang Clan. Wu was such a huge part of my growing up as a rap fan, getting to watch the show from onstage, and meet them all (and get my copy of Wu-Tang Forever signed by everyone) was definitely one of the coolest moments–something I never would have imagined in 1997 when 16-year old Gabe was screaming all the words at their show in Chicago when they were touring with Rage Against the Machine.”
-What is the best thing about your job?
“The travel is great, but most places we go we don’t actually get to see anything besides the airport, the hotel and the venue…so me being me I’m going to say it’s definitely getting to meet and even become friends with so many artists I was a fan of growing up. Mike and I toured with Big Boi, and with the GZA, we’ve brought guys like Bun B, Q-Bert, Z-Trip and Zack De La Rocha out to perform with us, and I’ve met so many legendary MCs, DJs and producers who I looked up to while I was coming up like Q-Tip, Scarface, Jazzy Jeff, Rakim, way to many to name…not to mention a couple guys named Jaime and Mike lol.”
-What is the worst?
“Definitely being away from my ridiculously supportive wife. Camille has her own successful jewelry business which keeps her busy, and she meets up with us on the road as often as possible but it’s still rough being gone basically six months out of the year. We all deal pretty well with the grueling schedule and day-to-day insanity, but I think Mike and El will agree that being away from our ladies is the hardest thing about the touring lifestyle.”
-What promoted your decision to create your Rap Fan clothing line?
“On the first Mike & El tour for RAP Music and Cancer 4 Cure, I wanted to supplement my income at the merch table, so I tried to come up with something that wasn’t purely self-promoting (more universal than just a shirt that says DJ TRACKSTAR). I wanted something that was true to who I was, and I realized there was nothing more consistent or meaningful in my life over the last twenty years than my identity as a rap fan. Fortunately, it turns out a few other people could relate to that sentiment, and it’s gone pretty well.”
-Do you have another mixtape on the way anytime soon?
I’m always working on multiple projects at once that are somewhere between 10% and 80% done–right now I’ve got three or four in the works but I don’t have any clue right now which I’ll finish first, but there’s some cool concepts I’ve got brewing and you’ll see them pop up eventually on The Smoking Section (or my twitter, or Instagram, or Facebook).
-If you weren’t a DJ, what do you think you would you be doing instead?
“I went to school for business, but I could never really see myself in a suit and tie…I’d probably have still involved myself in music somehow entrepreneurially, or ended up working with kids in some capacity. I did a lot of work with youth through hip hop while I was in St Louis, and definitely saw that as an alternate career path if DJing didn’t work out. Fortunately I haven’t had to figure that out quite yet.”
Run the Jewels will play Forbidden Fruit Festival at Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin between May 29th-31st. Have your fists and guns at the ready.
Photo by binaire.tv