Born in the Bronx and raised in Queens, DJ/producer Nickodemus’ work undoubtedly represents some of the rich cultural heritage he grew up around – his own family being of Southern Italian heritage. He started djing at the age of 12 and consequently immersed himself in the New York music scene, leading to him famously founding the Turntables on the Hudson club night alongside his djing partner Mariano in 1998, now considered more of an institution than a club night. Nowadays he is busy making music and travelling around the world to play to excited crowds.
I was lucky enough to catch up with him recently to talk music production as a dj, the Cuban Manana festival and… hugging pizzaiolos.
Can you think of any specific moments as a child that may have helped shape your life path in music?
Hearing music with the family, my parents were a young couple and they always had a lot of friends over and so music equated to festivity and fun, and everybody being happy. That was a quick association that I learnt with music, and of course the music they were playing was all the funky Latin and African based stuff, like Earth Wind and Fire, Santana, Manu Dibango and Tito Puente, they were into things with rhythm. It’s funny, I was just talking to my dad and I was talking about going to Cuba – I can’t get him to go anywhere – but when I said the word Cuba his eyes lit up because he knows that that would hit him deep, with the rhythm and the music in general over there, and he also rebuilds old cars and knows that Cuba has a lot of old cars from the 50s [laughter].
Looking back on 17 years of ‘Turntables on the Hudson’, what can you say about it now, what does it represent to you?
Well, we just lost one of our best friends in the crew and his memorial in a way represents exactly that. We all started it at the same time and he never missed a party. The amount of people that that party connected was absolutely unbelievable. Even just yesterday I ran into two friends that had met at TOTH, and my friend who passed away was the one who had got them in in the first place, because they didn’t have money. They just told me that yesterday and I was like, I wonder about the people who are somehow connected to each other because of the party that we don’t even know about, people who got married or went on to have kids you know, or who maybe went on to become djs and create a career for themselves and have even brought their kids to the party, and now their kids are influenced by it! These are the things that I feel so blessed about to do with TOTH. So how did it come about, was it an organic thing or did you have a fixed idea about what you wanted to do? It was very organic, we were all young like 19/20 years old and on the scene in New York in a big way at the time. We were all going out to parties and djing all over the place. We knew so many people and we knew what we liked and so we made a decision to make it happen every week, instead of sporadically like we’d been doing with different concepts of music. We just wanted to open it up and play whatever we wanted, like house, break, funk, drum n bass, techno, hip hop… and I think it was really needed at the time. Everyone was so focused only on one kind of particular genre.
What is about djing that still inspires you?
The main thing for me is the ability to tell a story. Being able to play for the crowd is one thing, but knowing that there is music for every kind of emotion, thought and occasion, within a club or within a restaurant, whatever setting you’re in, and remembering to dig deep in our complete history – that we have right at our fingertips is important. Being able to express yourself or to try to relay what people want or feel at one given moment you know, that’s the art of picking music and then telling a story, and then knowing how to line it all up in the right way. So it’s great to hold down a dancefloor but the story is important, you know I’ve seen djs who can’t mix who’ve got the best deck sets I’ve ever seen [laughter]?
You are a producer as well as a dj. When producing music does your dj persona greatly influence the outcome or would you say that they are 2 mutually-exclusive traits of yours?
Being a dj completely shapes how I make music. I have the dancefloor in mind all the time, like keeping a nice steady rhythm; big beats, big kick drums, are very important to me – I come from the club culture. Being a dj was like having a head start on making music, I’d learnt so much without realising it, about rhythm and mood and feeling and all those things. It was like I had a catalogue of samples within. It gave me confidence, now though I’m able to make almost anything I wanna make without worrying about the dance floor, out of self-expression, and djing really gave me the confidence that I needed to start. So you’ve grown as a producer then, you can see how you’ve grown as a producer? Yes, it’s not just dance music anymore, it never always was, I was always thinking about something or making a dedication to somebody, but now I feel I can take out the beat once in awhile or do something with a string section – I wouldn’t have been able to get there without djing and learning from those basics.
There is no doubt that the evolution of technology has had many positive impacts on the music industry, would you say there are any negative impacts?
I see more positives because there’s so much more access to the mystery of making music. When I was growing up I thought it was impossible to understand, I used to think ‘how do they do that?’ It was out of reach for me, I didn’t own a studio, I didn’t know anyone. If you weren’t encouraged or didn’t go to music school and things of that nature it could seem really obscure and mysterious. Now we can make music on our cell phones and make music on our iPads and I love that aspect of it. The only negative aspect of that is that there’s not a lot of quality control, although I guess there doesn’t need to be really – I like the fact that people can do what the hell they want and express themselves and get it out there to the world, like why not? [laughter] To have the freedom to do that is still positive but I guess the negative thing then is that it’s harder to find the really good stuff in a sea of abundance.
You have travelled the world over with your trade. Do you think the average American person knows just how influential and popular American musical art forms, for example funk or hip hop, are throughout the rest of the world?
I thought about this the other day. I think probably they don’t understand how influential it has been over the years, not just what it’s like now. To think that Fela Kuti was so influenced by James Brown for example. Our music and art culture is one of the biggest exports and most influential things we have, it’s unbelievable how much it’s spread around the world, like the fact that breakdancing which that started in the Bronx only 40/50 years ago can be found in most parts of the world today. I think people are aware but it’s always good to remember that that’s from our culture in America, like ‘Wow, really? That’s kind of amazing!’ [laughter]. It is incredible, and additionally the fact that breakdancing did not come from any kind of commercial endeavour, it was all about people expressing themselves with what they had available to them. Yeah, I mean I have met a lot of people outside of the US who are really aware of the significance of these artistic movements, from an outsider’s point of view. It’s like when I go to Napoli and I freak out over the pizzas there, I wanna hug every pizzaiolo and take pictures of him with his pizzas you know? And they’re like, ‘what’s wrong with this guy, get out of here!’
The word spirit in ‘We Be Spirits’ refers to the way spirits are considered in some parts of the African continent; beings we are connected to and influenced by but who are not necessarily part of the physical realm. What does the word evoke in you and how do you relate to it?
It evokes a kind of collective unconscious of any particular thing. When I think of the spirit of the drum I think of all the drum, rhythm, energy, dance that has happened. Like all that energy that has been passed around and used and tapped into, and that it’s there for us to always reach out and tap into if you call for it you know? Also when leaves change in autumn for example there’s a spirit at work there. It exists in all of us, like an invisible fruit from a tree. It comes from all our roots, everybody’s roots, and that’s the beauty of it.
Do you have any exciting projects on the go that you can tell us about?
This totally relates completely to what we’re saying because I’m gonna get involved with this ‘Mañana Festival’ in Cuba in May 2016. It’s a festival about music, education, collaboration. I know a little bit about Cuban music and its global ancestry from Africa and the Middle East for example, and all these elements that created Cuban music which in turn influenced everybody else as it moved back to Europe for example, and so this festival will be a really important focal point of all the things I’ve ever done. I’ve worked with kids before, I’ve worked with live musicians, dancefloor music, and so it all kind of comes together. I think this is gonna be a really amazing project and time and I’m so happy that I’m finally able to go to Cuba. Will this project be taking place over a period of time in Cuba? It’s supposed to be taking place in the first week in May, there’s a kickstarter out now to make that happen. Watch this space!