Interview by: Martin Bauman
You may not know his name, but chances are you’ve heard his music or seen him perform before. T.Lo has been deejaying for Shad since the very beginning, and he’s also responsible for producing some of the London emcee’s most beloved songs: “Rose Garden,” “Telephone,” and more recently, “Always Winnin.” Pretty soon, there will be another batch of songs to add to that list. The Mississauga native has been working on a collaborative EP with Shad for the past several months, and it’s almost ready for the world to hear.
The story of a touring deejay (or any band member, for that matter) is fascinating to listen to. They’ve been there through it all, from the humble beginnings to the peaks of success. When it came to T.Lo (a former Scribble Jam champion and DMC Canadian champion in his own right), we had to learn more. We caught up with T.Lo to talk about the upcoming EP, memories of the smallest shows he and Shad ever played, digging for records, and much more. Listen to the podcast above and read the interview below.
TCUS: What was your introduction to hip-hop?
T.Lo: My introduction would have been through deejaying. A lot of people say this, but the movie Juice is impactful for a lot of deejays. That was huge. Before that, I remember being in grade five or six and my buddy [asking], “have you heard this?” He played me some Wu-Tang, and I was like, oh my gosh. That’s when I really got hooked into it.
TCUS: Who’s your favourite Wu-Tang member?
T.Lo: That’s a toss-up, man. It’s gotta be between Rae, Ghost, Meth, and ODB.
TCUS: You grew up in Mississauga. Tell me about your experience playing piano as a kid.
T.Lo: I started off playing piano, but the way it was being taught was through the Royal Conservatory, and I wasn’t allowed to play too many contemporary things, so I lost my interest. As soon as I saw that movie Juice on TV, and another buddy of mine was talking about turntables, and hip-hop, and all that, I was like, I wanna do that.
TCUS: How quick was that turnaround between seeing Juice and becoming aware of turntablism, and then actually trying it out for the first time?
T.Lo: Well, as soon as I saw scratching, like most people, I found my parents’ turntable and started scratching records – [only] to soon realize that [I was] ruining the records. I didn’t even know about having the felt slipmat, and the proper needle, and stuff like that. I damaged Thriller – which I replaced soon – and some Sesame Street record, which was fine. But the transition was maybe a couple years. I couldn’t [go to] my parents and say, “I want turntables.” That’s a tough sell, so I had to get my own job. I worked at Burger King for years [laughs], and I got my first turntable, which was a Gemini BD40 – I’ll never forget that. I was trying to battle on that, unsuccessfully.
TCUS: So this would have been around high school?
T.Lo: Yeah, this would have been around grade eight, grade nine. I started getting into scratching and deejaying, and going to a lot of house parties and seeing local deejays rock out and do their thing. I was kind of lucky, because at my high school, there just so happened to be three deejays and deejay crews. I was able to kind of sit back and absorb [from them]. Even at our talent shows, there were deejays.
SUBLIMINAL went to my high school. He’s the one where I saw it [up close], live. He was doing the tricks, and he entered DMC [Disco Mix Club], and that was a huge deal back in the day. Also, later on, [I learned from] Dopey – who’s from Sauga too. He was a huge influence, [along with] the Turntable Monks and those guys.
TCUS: Tell me about the influence on you of guys like D-Styles, DJ Krush, and Kid Koala.
T.Lo: Kid Koala, 100 percent, is a huge influence – just to see him use a turntable like an instrument and really manipulate sounds, and create new compositions. D-Styles, for sure. He’s one of the funkiest in terms of turntable music. Those guys inspired me to flip my routines into compositions, so I came out with a CD in 2008 called Rough Waters, which was basically me experimenting with turntables and making music.
I had to create boundaries, so I used only what was available to me in my basement, and I used an MPC 2000XL – which I was learning at the time – in combination with scratching and chopping breaks and stuff. So that was kind of me getting into the whole play aspect of it, taking some of my battle routines and seeing if I could extend them into songs.
TCUS: When did you pick up the MPC?
T.Lo: Actually, I got the MPC through JD Era’s camp – he’s from Sauga too. He had a producer who had an MPC in-house, and it kind of just moved within his producer camp, so I got it passed down to me from Spinz. I think Spinz works with Airplane Boys and stuff like that, too. But he was like, “yo, I’m not using this,” so I was blessed with that. That’s how I started learning.
TCUS: You already mentioned DJ Dopey and the DMC World Finals. In 2007, you went across the seas to represent Canada in London, England for the Finals. What was that experience like?
T.Lo: That was a great experience, man. That was something I wanted to [do since] grade nine. It was a dream, you know? So yeah, I went down for the head-to-heads, and DJ Shub won the six-minute, so him and I both got to go and represent Canada. That was cool. We got to bond a little bit, and just meeting all the other deejays from all the other countries was an experience. I’ll always keep that close to me.
TCUS: The year after that, you went to Scribble Jam. You won the deejay competition in its final year, so you’re the Scribble Jam deejay champion for eternity. How significant is that to you?
T.Lo: [Laughs] It’s funny you mention that, actually. Yeah, that was interesting. I was actually with Shad on a whim. I had a bunch of routines in 2008, and I’m like, you know what? Screw it, I’m gonna go. I’m gonna take a 16-hour Greyhound to Cincinnati and try it out. It just so happened that it was the last Scribble Jam. The competition was great. Shiftee was in the competition too.
We crashed at [a friend’s] house, and it was an experience as well, just bonding with the U.S. guys and seeing turntablism on that level. That’s where I met D-Styles too, and the 1200 Hobos. They show love to Canadian turntablists, man. [Skratch] Bastid had won it like three times, so it was good to represent and to win. There’s some money as well, so that was nice.
TCUS: I was reading another interview of yours with UGS Mag, and you mentioned how when you started learning how to play the turntables, it took you eight years to come up with a good, solid routine. Tell me about those struggles.
#worst when people who can't even operate a mixer, blend tracks, or scratch: DJ in public – study the craft and practice posers!
— T Lo (@tlolife) May 10, 2013
T.Lo: Oh, man. In the beginning, it was hard, because nowadays, you can pretty much watch the history of DMC online in one afternoon. You can be like, “oh, I can actually see what this guy’s doing.” It’s not a big mystery; the curtain’s kind of pulled back. Back then, you just had online streaming on dial-up Internet, and if you were lucky, some of your friends might have a videotape, and you ‘d have to over there and watch it. Stuff in general took longer to master. Nowadays, there’s six-year-old kids who can scratch like experts.
TCUS: Let’s go back to your time at Wilfrid Laurier University. You meet Shad, and on a whim, you invite him over to your place to freestyle while you’re behind the turntables. What was that first encounter like?
T.Lo: That was actually a breath of fresh air, because the hip-hop community at Laurier at the time was very small. It’s a small campus, you know what I mean? So just meeting people who are interested in hip-hop is rare, and meeting somebody who took part in one of the elements was even more rare. So when somebody told me that he rapped, I was like, “really? He can’t be good” [laughs].
I told him to come over and freestyle, and it was amazing, man. He pretty much freestyled off the top for an hour straight, and that was fun, because that’s the essence of hip-hop, right? So I was like, this is amazing. I just stumbled upon somebody who I respect lyrically and is great. It came out of nowhere. Now we’re here, ten years later.
TCUS: JD Era’s another Laurier guy. Who did you meet first between the two of them?
T.Lo: I met Shad first, because Era is a little bit younger than us. When I met [Era], he was this young kid, and he was hungry. Actually, I first encountered Era at a battle at Square One. He was only 16 at the time, and I was doing the deejay battle. I won the deejay battle, and he won the emcee battle. I was like, who’s this kid? He was really fierce too, just coming off the top. I swear it was written.
But yeah, I actually met him first, but we didn’t really have a relationship at that time. I was like like, okay, this kid is crazy, and he’s from Sauga. But it was only later on, [after] I met Shad and developed a rapport with him, and contributed to his first album, [that] I started working more closely with Era. It was in the same proximity, so it was easy for me to juggle at the time.
TCUS: Going back to Shad, you mentioned in that same interview how when you saw him for the first time, he looked homeless. Describe his appearance at the time.
T.Lo: [Laughs] Yeah. He was wearing a toque in the concourse, he had like three different layered sweaters – just refusing to wear a winter jacket – and bundled up hobo-style with a backpack and tattered jeans and stuff. I was like, yeah, I don’t know how good this guy’s gonna be [laughs]. But he turned out to be one of the best.
TCUS: Being a former Laurier student, what can you tell people about Phil’s?
T.Lo: Well, the big sell of Phil’s was the dollar beers. Everyone knows that. I remember people used to come down from other universities to go to Phil’s on a Wednesday, because Wednesday was the only hip-hop night. I remember at the time, I think Surreal was holding it down. It was a good time, because you’re not really hearing hip-hop a lot in university. You’re hearing a lot of more mainstream or rock classics, so it was packed. You’d see a lot of people there.
TCUS: You mentioned knowing Shad for ten years now. You’ve been together through a lot of his career. How significant and surprising was the JUNO win in 2011?
T.Lo: Oh, yeah, because look who was in it, right? We definitely didn’t expect to win. We were just happy performing and being there. But man, I was surprised. After we performed, it was funny, because they told Ian [Koiter] and me, “there’s no seats for you guys.” We were like, “okay, fine.” I was just happy to be there, you know? Somehow we smuggled our way in. I was sitting at another table, they were sitting at their main table, and I think Ian hijacked another table. When the hip-hop category was announced, I jumped from the table and ran over. It was a pleasant surprise, and it’s definitely helped.
TCUS: What has been the most surreal moment that music has led to in your life?
T.Lo: I think just the amount of people that you’re able to reach out to with what you love to do. Getting that response face-to-face when you’re on the road and seeing how it affects people in a positive way [is special]. Every time I’m doing a show or out on the road, that’s surreal to me, because I never thought that I’d be travelling this much. I don’t have a travel bug or anything like that, so just being out and doing the music is surreal in and of itself.
TCUS: Let’s talk about this EP that’s coming out between you and Shad. What can you tell us right now?
T.Lo: Well, the first track we did together was “Rose Garden.” From then on, I’ve been honing my beatmaking skills, ever since I dropped Rough Waters. It’s a product of us on the road, joking around, [and some of] the conversations we have. Some of the topics touch on some serious things; most of it is pretty loose. But it’s fun. It stems from [the music] we both connect with, which is the classic boom-bap sound. It’s just us travelling over the past couple years and kicking jokes. That’s about it.
TCUS: You know Shad better than perhaps anyone outside of his family and G. What has been the greatest cause of his success?
T.Lo: His work ethic, his honesty, and his consistency. He really does care about his fans, you know? He comes through with the music, and when we do shows, he connects with people. He really gives it all to his fans, and I feel that’s why he’s where he’s at right now, because he’s developed that loyal fan base. They’ve learned to trust him, and he’s revealed himself and built this relationship over time. He’s put in that work, you know? We were running around Canada doing shows for two people, ten people… we were just talking about that in the car, you know? We perform with the same amount of energy whether there’s two people, or 500, or 1,000.
TCUS: What’s the smallest show you’ve ever played, compared to the biggest show you’ve played?
T.Lo: Saint John, New Brunswick. I think we were rolling around with Charity, [Shad’s] sister. She was tour managing us at the time. We performed for three people, I think. But at that time, it was maybe ’08 – before TSOL and I think just before Old Prince. We were just happy being out there, seeing Canada and playing music. [Laughs] That show was funny. I remember there were three guys there, and the sound guy just left.
Some of the bigger shows… we’ve seen a steady progression in terms of the venues we’re playing every album. I’m really thankful for that. One important thing too is he’s been able to connect with generations, you know? We connected with our peers out of the gate, but now at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver, the lineup was around the building, and I was surprised. I saw kids from eight years old [up]. That’s something about his music too; it really connects with [anyone from] eight to 80.
Now with this EP, we’re kind of honing in on a certain sound that might appeal to a certain [crowd] – I’m talking about the more boom-bap, soulful sound. It’s just a product of being on the road, and me digging. I try to dig whenever I can, and a lot of the source stuff is from the road.
TCUS: As far as your own deejaying and production goes, what’s your goal for the next five years?
T.Lo: Just keep on making music and getting it out there, and getting better. Just trying to hone in on being the best that I can be, get my music out to as many people as I can, and work with as many artists [as possible] that want to work with me and feel the sound. I guess I got that battle bug from the deejay stuff, but I did that Battle of the Americas beat battle and got a good response from that. [I’ve been] networking with other producers and learning from them, and just listening to music and researching music. But maybe [the goal is] taking production out to the next level and getting my music out.
TCUS: Let’s end off with a rapid fire round. What’s the craziest spot you’ve ever found records while travelling?
T.Lo: The most unsuspecting place was in Prince George. We were doing a show there. It was like a thrift store, and I just didn’t expect them to have soul records, because I thought, who has soul records in this mountain town? You never know what you’re going to find anywhere, so you should always look. I’ve found records [everywhere]. Value Village is pretty good. You’ll find some stuff there.
TCUS: What’s your favourite record in your collection?
T.Lo: I’d just say the most recent record that I’ve been listening to is the Willie Hutch Fully Exposed one. It’s the record Three 6 Mafia used for “Stay Fly.”
TCUS: What’s the most money you’ve spent on a record?
T.Lo: I spent $100 on a Nina Simone record.
TCUS: What was the first record you ever bought?
T.Lo: Oh! The first one I got was actually two on a trip I took from Sauga to Brampton. I got it from DJ Depot: Outkast’s “ATLiens” single, and on the flip side, “Wheels of Steel,” and then Trigga tha Gambler and Smoothe da Hustler’s “My Crew Can’t Go For That.”
TCUS: What are your top five albums of all time?
T.Lo: Beats, Rhymes and Life, the Black Album, The Listening, Stakes is High, and I’d have to say Fantastic, Vol. 2.
TCUS: Final question. What’s your favourite inspirational quote?
T.Lo: I would just say, “it’s 50 percent mental and 50 percent physical.”
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