[Interview] DJ Nu-Mark talks “Broken Sunlight,” memories from Jurassic 5, and making music with toys

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Los Angeles, California native DJ Nu-Mark is walking towards the sunlight these days. Six years after the disbanding of the critically-acclaimed group Jurassic 5, the deejay/producer is in the midst of releasing his debut solo album, Broken Sunlight, following the release of 2004’s Blend Crafters and Hands On. Nowadays, Nu-Mark experiments with children’s music toys, rewiring them and constructing full DJ sets around them. He has toured the world, remixed songs for Nas and Damian Marley, and even created songs for Saturday Night Live’s Lonely Island. The Come Up Show caught up with DJ Nu-Mark to discuss his latest album, reminisce on Jurassic 5, and talk about his toy set, among other things. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: Before we get into talking about your Broken Sunlight series, I’d like to dig into your background a little bit. You got your first pair of turntables at 12, what initially drew you to deejaying?

DJ Nu-Mark: I was playing drums at the time. I’ve been playing drums since around 7 or 8 years old, and around the time where I was 12 or so, I was in a band class at school. You know, they had like a jazz class in junior high, and my best friend at the time played bass in the same band. We’d go to his house after school, and practise breaking [laughs]. We were breakdancing back then. And his uncle was a DJ who lived with him. So he would be mixing and giving us mixtapes, but I never really thought to look at what he was doing until this one tape where he kept repeating parts. I kept asking my friend Chris, like, “yo, how is he repeating all these parts?” You know, it was all brand new in the 80s, so it was pretty mesmerizing. So once I saw his uncle deejaying, I was just hooked, that was it. I moved from playing drums [to deejaying]. I mean, I still play drums now, but not the way I used to. But that was the transition, really. That’s what really got me hooked.

TCUS: And his uncle was called DJ Earl?

DJ Nu-Mark: Yeah, yeah.

TCUS: What make were your first turntables?

DJ Nu-Mark: They were a pair of Technic Servos. The pitch control was like a wheel at the bottom of it, there were no numbers or anything, and it was belt-driven. Really terrible turntables, but it was good to cut my teeth on some bad equipment before I got the [SL-]1200s.

TCUS: Take me back to January 16, 1988, your first show.

DJ Nu-Mark: Oh, yeah. Wow. That was a house party; from the age of 15 to 22, I did nothing but house parties. And [at] that first house party, we didn’t even have crates [laughs]. We set up the turntables on an ironing board, and stacked the records from the ground up to our hips. [Laughs] It was real, real janky, man. But it was one of the funnest parties ever, it was amazing. Once I got bit by that bug, I realized, “okay, I need to start practising, getting my skills together, and getting sets together.” I was hooked. There was a lot going on at the time musically, a lot of creative new genres were coming out. But hip-hop, especially, was really taking the forefront.

TCUS: And you went by Bumrush Productions at the time, right?

DJ Nu-Mark: Yeah.

TCUS: Now, aside from your solo work, you’re most known for your role in Jurassic 5. How did that group first come together?

DJ Nu-Mark: J5 is two groups formed as one, plus me. Unity Committee and Rebels of Rhythm were both the groups, and then I was the last member. Most of the members met at the Good Life Cafe, here in Los Angeles. It was like a freestyle cafe where people would sign their name on a list, and they would get up and perform in front of a crowd – a very small crowd, I should say, because it was like an herbal cafe. It had vitamins, and stuff like that in there [laughs]. Everybody went there. Freestyle Fellowship, Volume 10… tons of groups from LA came out of that spot. So most of the [Jurassic 5] members met there, but then there was a night at a place called Rodolfo’s, that was kinda like a semi-open mic night with live musicians, and emcees could get up and jam with [them]. And I was the DJ for the night, so I met the rest of the members there. Cut Chemist had a beat, and the guys really enjoyed it. And he decided to get his group, Unity Committee, together with Rebels of Rhythm on one joint. And it turned out so well that we all decided, “why don’t we make this a group?” Because everybody worked well together.

TCUS: What’s your favourite memory from the years with Jurassic 5?

DJ Nu-Mark: I think the live performances, really, will forever stay in my mind. Our first time going out to Belgium, playing in front of 20000 people, was just bananas. Especially when you don’t know what you’re worth, I guess, until you go there. That was pretty much my fondest memory, performing live and reaching different countries, and seeing how far our music actually travelled. This was kind of pre-internet, so it was kinda hard to get a pulse on what was really happening [worldwide].

TCUS: What was the most surprising place that you found where people were listening to your music?

DJ Nu-Mark: That’s a tough one. Maybe Kuala Lumpur [laughs]. I don’t know, I mean, there’s been a lot of really funky places where I [think], “wow! This is kinda cool!” You know, music reaches so far.

TCUS: True or false: You have a sandwich named after you, called the Uncle NuNu.

DJ Nu-Mark: I do! It’s at my favourite sandwich place, called Hy Mart Sandwiches on Lankershim and Riverside, here in the valley of LA.

TCUS: And what would be in an Uncle NuNu?

DJ Nu-Mark: It’s a chicken gyro, with tzatziki sauce, tomatoes, onions and… yeah, I believe that’s it.

TCUS: Getting back to music, one thing that makes your live performance unique is your use of musical toys. How did that idea come about?

DJ Nu-Mark: In the middle of performing with J5, there would be like a DJ solo in our shows. And it started out with me covering classic hip-hop songs with odd instruments, whatever they used, like a kalimba for “One Love”, or a xylophone for “Peter Piper”. That kind of spilled over into me playing this one toy called Music Blocks, that my ex-girlfriend gave to me. It was her son’s, actually, and I was like, “holy shit, this is a crazy toy!” And then once the group disbanded, I kinda figured, “what would happen if I filled the entire stage up with toys and rewired them into my DJ rig? Would that make for something entertaining? Would it be visual enough for the audience?” And I guess the rest is history. I’ve been going at it, collecting new toys, [and the] more and more I travel, I find new things, and keep incorporating them into my shows.

It’s been proven to keep me on my toes, that’s for damn sure. Because when a toy breaks, it’s not like when a mixer breaks [and] you can kind of repair it right away. If the toys go, they go. You’ve really gotta finesse them; they’re very volatile. Put it this way, traveling with them in the airport is just nerve-wracking. [Laughs] My palms are always sweating, waiting for them to come out of the conveyor belt, like “ohh, what did they do to my luggage this time?” So it’s been interesting, that’s for sure.

TCUS: You’re also working on a coffee table book right now, what can you tell me about that?

DJ Nu-Mark: Yeah! I’m working on a book on where I found each one of my toys, the things I like the most about the toys, what their functions are, their quirks, why I dislike them, and the problems I’ve had – everything I can think about with each toy I’ve found, and there’s a story of each one. And I’ll put a DVD in the back of the book with the toy show, as well as a DVD of how I made the current album I’m working on. So yeah, just a little something fun. And I’m actually planning to meet with a guy in Germany who just did a toy book that’s very, very thorough. We kinda have two different views on the toy things, but we’re gonna sit down and talk a little bit. Yeah, it’s quite a vast world [laughs].

TCUS: Moving from your toy collection to your record collection, you’ve got over 35,000 records in your collection. What was the first record you ever bought?

DJ Nu-Mark: I think the first one I bought might have been “Roxanne Roxanne” by U.T.F.O., but that wasn’t the first record I owned. I got records from my parents, obviously, but the one that stood out the most was “Monster Mash”. And yeah, I used to listen to that record front to back, and I kinda liked being scared [laughs], I was scared but I kinda liked it. That was my first one that I really remember.

TCUS: What’s your favourite place to dig for records?

DJ Nu-Mark: Well, I don’t really dig the way I used to dig, just because the internet really took over with that. I would say when I was digging, it would be Japan or the UK. Japan, you know, they’ve very much completists, and they keep their records in mint condition, and if you’re looking for a Nite-Liters record, you can pretty much bet that they’d have every single Nite-Liters record. They were just very thorough. Whereas the UK, if you’re looking for that rare gem, you would find it if you went to the right dealer. And you would also pay for it, because their economy was so much stronger than ours, and still is so much stronger than ours. You’re always kind of paying out of the teeth when you go out there, but you’ll find [rare gems]. These days, I’ll pretty much cherry pick on the internet, just filling holes in my collection that I’ve always wanted. Because thrift stores, and flea markets and stuff, just don’t have what I’m looking for anymore – they used to, but not anymore. It’s all on the internet now.

TCUS: The technique of digging for samples, as well as producing a record, has changed a lot in the past ten years as the internet and digital audio technology has evolved with software like Pro Tools and FL Studio – you’ve mentioned this yourself. As someone who grew up digging for samples in record stores and flea markets, I’m curious what your take is on this shift from analog to digital.

DJ Nu-Mark: I pretty much welcome it. You know, if you don’t bend with the times, you’ll just get left behind. And when I dwell too much on the past, in my past experiences, it just never works out for me. The old saying goes, “if you don’t bend, you break.” So for me, in life really, but in the music game especially, it’s all about being flexible and moving with the times, and embracing technology. I’ve been fortunate enough to have that attitude, and I really welcome the whole Pro Tools generation, and Serato. It’s now up to my mind to create what I want to create, because there’s really no more limitations. And that in itself can be pretty confusing, I’d say, because not having any limitations can be pretty overwhelming, man [laughs]. I’m from the school of the 8-track recorder, or a 4-track recorder at that, so you’re like, “what if I could do this?” And you try hard to get it – you don’t quite get it, but you come close. Now, the sky is the limit. You can do whatever you want, so it’s a little intimidating. You can do anything you want, so what are you going to do now? It’s like “whoa, oh my God” [laughs].

TCUS: Sort of like a paralysis of options, almost.

DJ Nu-Mark: Yeah, yeah, I think the dilemma now isn’t really technology, it’s like, “okay, what are you going to do with your mind? What can you dream up?”

TCUS: Let’s talk about your latest album, Broken Sunlight. What’s the concept behind this project?

DJ Nu-Mark: I created this record when a lot of things in my life were kind of fractured, or broken, or falling apart – whatever you want to call it. There’s that, and then there’s the [action] of me breaking up [the album] into six different pieces. There’s just a theme of breaking going on in my life, for whatever reason, so I came up with Broken Sunlight. I kind of look at myself as the sunlight, forging ahead through crazy times. Yeah, I might be fractured, or have cracks in me or whatever, but I’m still walking forward. I guess it’s more of like a mantra, you know what I mean? It’s a positive thing, really, at the end of the day.

But like I said before, I broke [the album] up into six 10” singles. I’m on the third one now. At the end of the cycle, I’ll be releasing the album with a DVD of me on the road, as well as me in the studio, collaborating with some of the artists that were on the album. And yeah, that’s pretty much it. I’ve been having a great time collaborating with all the different artists.

TCUS: Can you take me through the artists that you’re bringing onto this album?

DJ Nu-Mark: On the first single, I collaborated with Bumpy Knuckles [“Dumpin’ Em All”] and Large Professor [“When You Sleep”]. For the second one, I did something with TiRon and Ayomari [“Feel The Way About It”], and I did a song with J-Live [“Tonight”].

And then for the third one, I acquired the multi-tracks for Ernie Hines’ “Our Generation”, and I did a re-edit of that. And I included an instrumental, a drumapella, and an acapella as well. And on the B-side of that, I did a collabo with A-Skillz [“The Fever”]. Coming up, I’ve got a collabo with Chronic, and a collabo with an upcoming emcee named Haas, out of LA. And I [also] did a song with Aloe Blacc and Charles Bradley. That’s not naming everybody, but that’s the general gist of what’s going on in my world over here.

TCUS: You mentioned Large Professor, “When You Sleep” is one of the tracks that I’ve been playing on repeat lately. What was it like working with him?

DJ Nu-Mark: Oh, cool! It was amazing. I mean, he’s definitely a golden-era hero to me. He’s like a top five… [laughs] when I created the wish list of who I wanted to work with on this album, he was in my top five people that I want to work with before I die. So he had to make a presentation on this record. He’s just funky, easy to work with, super creative… I still think he has the best vocal pocket of any producer that rhymes. He’s just funky, you know? He just embodies hip-hop to me.

TCUS: You also mentioned TiRon and Ayomari. I was kind of surprised to see them on there, and excited too, because I was a really big fan of their previous album. How did you link up with them?

DJ Nu-Mark: Well, you know, I’ve been seeing a little bit of a disconnect with the new school artists and artists like myself that are from the middle school. So I kind of wanted to close that gap, or attempt to do that. And I was a fan of theirs – TiRon’s flow especially, I think he has a lot of potential to go pretty far in this game if he walks the right path – but yeah, I figured I would cold-call them and reach out to them, and see if we could make something happen. And it worked out.

TCUS: One thing that’s always intrigued me about producing is that, to some extent, you’re leaving it up to the vocalist – whether that be an emcee or a singer – to convey the message of the song. When you’re working with these artists on your album, and you’re striving for a consistent theme, do you have a direction in mind for each song, or are you kind of saying “here’s the feel that I’ve come up with, let’s see where they take it?”

DJ Nu-Mark: I try to stay a little bit within the theme that I mentioned before, the Broken Sunlight theme. It doesn’t just represent my problems, it represented the music industry crumbling, and the economy crumbling, and whatever’s in that emcee’s life that might be falling apart as well. I wanted a truthful record, really. To answer your question, I didn’t just let them run with it. I kind of steered them in a direction that I wanted to talk about; I didn’t want it to be a happy record, or a joyful party record. Although there’s one cut that’s kind of a party joint. But for the vocal bits on this album, I wanted it to be a truthful tale of something deep that’s happening in their life, or around them.

TCUS: This is a tweets of yours: “An artist shouldn’t have to die or break up for you to enjoy their music. Appreciate them now.” Can you talk about this?

DJ Nu-Mark: [Laughs] Yeah, well I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen it a million times. As soon as a group breaks up, or an artist dies, everyone’s like “oh man, he was the best! I wish he was still alive,” or “they were the greatest! I wish they’d get back together.” Why don’t you just appreciate them now, while they’re a group? Buy their records, go to their shows, support them! Because they may not be around tomorrow. It was kind of out of frustration, just seeing all the greats being talked about. I really had Dilla in mind when I was saying that. And yeah, I get my share of J5 people, like “ohh, J5 should have gotten back together,” all that. So it’s just like, when we’re here, embrace us. And be in the present, be in the now. Enjoy what’s in front of you, instead of wanting what you constantly can not have.

TCUS: It’s funny that you mention Dilla and J5, because those were the two names that immediately came to mind when I saw that tweet. I was thinking, yeah, Dilla for sure.

DJ Nu-Mark: Yeah. Well, Dilla was one of those artists that in my opinion, the heads were talking about. Like, my close homies, and anybody that I would be like “yo, listen to this crazy beat,” like “oh my God, this guy’s ridiculous!” But [Dilla] didn’t really blow up until he passed away, unfortunately. So it just gets a little nauseating, you know? That’s it.

TCUS: Last year, you were inducted into the Zulu Nation along with 9th Wonder. What was that like?

DJ Nu-Mark: It’s a little bit of a dream come true, actually. I mean, Zulu Nation basically wrote the script for this whole thing. And the artists that were repping Zulu Nation when I was young, buying records and starting out deejaying, I really looked up to. Native Tongues [Posse], to put it concisely [laughs]. It was an honour.

TCUS: You’ve been involved in the culture for a long time, and not only that, but you’ve become quite a respected figure – I think that induction would speak to that. What advice would you give to artists coming up now?

DJ Nu-Mark: I don’t know, man. It’s such a different time. Be flexible, that’s for sure. Don’t be afraid to try new things. I think a lot of artists are already on that path. As far as marketing though, and the business side of things, I don’t know. It’s such a different world. You’re pretty much relying on the internet now to get your name out, and shows of course. I’d say really focus on a good, tight show, because that’s one of the last means of generating income for an artist these days. If you have a good show, you can be around forever. James Brown played all through Europe in the late 70s and early 80s, when people were tired of funk. They wanted to hear new wave, and rock, and hip-hop. And Europe was still embracing him, because he had a tight show. If you have something that people can sink their teeth into, live-wise, then you’ve got a career.

TCUS: Well, that’s all from me. Is there anything else you wanted to say to the people out there?

DJ Nu-Mark: Yeah! If you want to buy product or merchandise, or anything directly from me, I’m selling everything direct to my fans on my website www.unclenu.com. I’ve got a lot of cool stuff up there, USB drives in the shape of a DJ needle, and all kinds of craziness. And yeah, thanks a lot for having me, man.

TCUS: Well, thank you very much, and best of luck to you in the future!

DJ Nu-Mark: Thank you, you too.