Photos and interview By Kaitlyn Overton
Cliff Callender is a writer, rapper, producer, and DJ based in Brooklyn New York. He was been striving in this game since he was 17, and ever since then he has only been going up. He is currently producing and DJing for the electric Hip-Hop quartet known as Black Space Odyssey. He has also toured and produced with hip-hop artist eXquire. In the interview below, I try and explore how multi-faceted Cliff really is, by delving into his touring lifestyle, and his creative process.
Q: When did you Realize you wanted to start producing, and what was it that sparked the interest?
A: damn, deepest first question ever. Probably about when I was 15-16 I was really bored in high school so I would write rap verses in school and I always wanted to record them, so I researched how do it. I couldn't afford the beats, so I just made them myself.
Q: Do you have any particular piece that made you realize this is what you wanted to do?
A: There was a song I recorded called Mask when I was about 17, it was about putting on a mask to do what you had to do during the day, a black kid too smart for his own good so putting on the mask of a thug to be around thugs, and I just put it on the internet as a teenager and a guy from Texas was like 'this is amazing I want to press it up', and he pressed a bunch of CDs and vinyl's and sold them- and I got my first royalty check. I was like oh shit this is real, I got addicted from there.
Q: How did you end up in Black Space Odyssey?
A: Well, me and the lead vocalist Brendan work at a DJ production school together, and I was also throwing events, and at the time Black Space Odyssey was just him and a drummer. I asked them to preform at an event I was throwing, and after they were done they asked if I wanted to be in the band with them, and I needed to step out of my comfort zone, and try something new- so I said yes. This was about a year ago.
Q: How long did it take to produce Kushstorm?'
A: About 9 months, it was all self done, producing, writing, recording in my living room- working in the sweat shop. We wanted to do something different and honest and that we could approach live. We wrote all of the songs intending to have open parts we can all play with. I'm not used to that, I make rap beats. So it was definitely took me somewhere different.
Q: And as far as influences?
A: I would say we are all really big hip-hop fans, but it's not underground hip hop sounding at all, it is more live electronic. I am a big Soulwax fan, it's like Soulwax and Chromeo, but we rap shit. Like, if Chromeo grew up in the hood type shit.
Q: Are you happy with the album??
A: I got something completely different than what I was expecting from those guys. I am so happy. It took me to a completely different place.
Q: Were there any differences throughout the process?
A: Oh yeah, definitely. Most bands of the luxury of finishing the record and giving it to someone else to mix, and that becomes an objective ear. That says like "you're this loud, you're this loud" - and in this band I am that guy. So Ill hand off a mix and someone will say "I need my part louder" and someone else will say "my part needs to be louder" so it became a really delicate balancing act, but It taught me a lot about dealing with personalities and emotions, so I'm glad I went through it,
Q: You write as well, what creative processes do you go through while writing- is it sporadic, or planned out?
A: As far as lyrics are concerned, the best lyrics are impromptu. I write the best stuff on the train, Something triggers a thought, something makes me upset, something makes me happy- and it goes. As far as beats go It is sporadic, I have a studio at home so whenever something pops up in my head I just get up and work. I am big on artists be able to record at their house.
Q: is your studio at home low key, and is that where you record with the band?
A: yea, we record vocals and guitars there. I grew up in studios so I learned early how to put a studio in your living room.
Q: So, Kushstorm was produced in your living room?
Q: Wow, it sounds so clean. I would have never guessed it was recorded in a living room.
Q: Tell me about the best experience you have had producing for a hip-hop artist and any stories?
A: I did a record for my good friend eXquire and it was originally a beat I made for a beat tape and he was like "oh I'm gonna write for it", and I'm like that's exciting enough, and then he's like "I'm gonna get more people on it and you can mix it", I'm like 'cool' and he sends me a session file back and it's like Danny Brown, Flatbush Zombies, Nacho Picasso- Like 3 people I look up to, so I freak out for a bit, and it became this week long process of like calling these guys and talking to them about what they want in the mix and what to add to and it was dope. For hip hop this doesn't normally happen, to manage all these different sessions from around the globe and it was my first time doing that. Big shout to Ex, he brought me to a lot of different experiences I never would have had.
Q: You said that that song took a few weeks, is that typical?
A: No, not really. It was one of those things where there voices are all so different, and there is 5-6 people on it, so I just wanted to do everybody their due diligence. Sometimes a record takes an hour to mix, sometimes it takes three weeks. You gotta take the time. You don't want to email Danny Brown a shitty mix, like that's not fun. It's not going to end well. So, I took it really serious.
Q: What about some memorable moments while you were touring DJ with Esquire?
A: I went on the Into The Wild tour which was the tour that LP & Killer mike went on right before they became Run The Jules, so every stop was some crazy psycho fan shit, like LP getting X too drunk in Texas, stage diving in San Diego and no one catching us. It was like the apex of punk rock and rap. That's why I like Underachiever shows, they have the same kind of feel. Every day was a trip with that guy. We were gone for about a month and a half.
Q: Tell me about how you touring with them got initiated
A: It was one of those things where I asked him if he needed a DJ years ago and I was spinning for him for that long. And he's an interesting artist to work with, he kind of free forms his sets so you have to know his shit, and he trusted me with that. So when they told me to go on the road, I had to go on the road. It was a lot of fun.
Q: Do you have a particular favorite night with them?
A: it was two nights- The first was low key as hell, we were in Houston Texas and we finished the set and I'm chilling with killer mike, smoking a blunt in the parking lot and a fan comes up with a 2L drink of syrup, and he's like "yo mike I got this for you, appreciate you" and mike's like "thanks man that’s low that low " and we ended up hanging with the guy for the night and Mike didn't even drink the shit. He wasn't hanging for the lean, he was respecting his fans coming out and showing love, that shit was real. The second night was going to a strip club in Portland w killer mike- that's where I'll leave it.Portland's dope and Killer Mike is fun in a strip club. I hope to have many more experiences as such.
Q: Where in New York City is your favorite place to DJ and why?
A: I could go one for the bigger ones, but the two for me were Santos party house when it was still around and it was always a good vibe. And Max Fish, just because it has so much history and like I would spin some of my favorite hip hop staples from the day only to find out they were already in the room, it was one of those places that I always had a good experience at. So I appreciate those spots.
Q: I never made it to Santo's Party House
A: Yeah it's sad, and that's like one of the reasons why I am leaving New York, I pass a lot of streets and it hurts to walk past blocks where my favorite venues used to be. I was like "I got to go to something somewhere else"
Q: Do you thing moving to California will help make you transcend with your music?
A: I can’t write as much here anymore, I have experienced this energy so much and I need something new.
Q: How do you plan to continue Black Space Odyssey across coasts?
A: I realized it will kind of be the same. I work on something and then I send it to somebody, and then our vocalist writes to it, and then I usually record them. So, he will probably end up just recording himself because he is very capable of doing that, and when it comes to recording guitar and drum parts, I'm gonna fly back and we will do it all at once. I actually think it will be better because you get more of a chance to sit with the songs, and kind of internalize them. I think it's kind of our key to get to a weird place.
Q: So typically a lot of the music that comes from BSO is developed separately?
A: yeah, I mean we see each other every day. So it doesn’t have to be like that- but it just works. When we are together we Jam the shit out of them. So we stay in the sweatshop in bushwick for weeks. We get cohesive, but the separation helps.
Q: how often do you play live together?
A: I would say lately we have been doing 8-10 shows a month. It's pretty heavy. We're really tired. A lot of new York, Connecticut, philly, jersey.
Q: What was your favorite day out of all of your shows with BSO?
A: Vermont. It was like a reggae and hip hop festival with Roots Underground, and we got asked for an encore and no one knew us before the set. And also just camping in Vermont. Such a chill hippie experience and that is what I am all about. If you are here next year go to Manifestivus. So dope.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: yeah, I have been sitting on this rap album that I kind of wanted to put out in New York, but now I want to wait because I got word that there is a musician in Cali that I might be able to work with. He is going to add a lot of layers. So I'm going to wait and it will probably drop in the Spring. I produced the whole thing, it's called 760 Eldert lane, that's my first apartment, it's some jazzy hip hop shit.
Q: You are so multifaceted, but out of all of your talents what would you say you are the most passionate about?
A: I feel strongest as a Dj but I feel the most passionate about song writing, I have been djing forever so I'm good at it. But producing and making something whether I'm the artist or not, from ground to finish. That shit gets me excited.
Q: and what would you say that you have to work on more?
A: Music theory. I grew up in Brooklyn where there were no music programs or anything like that. So if you wanted beats you had to sample. So I can play by ear but I want to be able to read and write music. I want to start scoring. So that’s why I need to go where it's quite and focus.
Q: How many hours a day do you work on your music?
A: the whole day. Seven days a week. After this I am DJing from 10-4, I will probably get home around 5, and I'll still be wired so I'll work on a blog posting until about 6. nights like this I usually sleep from 6-10 and start again in the morning.
First let me say I had to take all these with my iphone 6, I couldn't get the Canon in.
Being in general admission for The LIfe of Pablo was surreal. The energy on the floor from song to song kept pulsating and you just went along with it with everyone else. It's like you're at a big house party that Kanye happens to be performing at but that's also one of the more impressive art installations I've ever seen. The lighting design is amazing, it transforms the arena into a giant karaoke bar with everyone screaming every lyric as loud as possible with the lights pulsating on beat. The moving floating stage had lights underneath it, when you were under there it felt like it was just you and whoever else was dancing around you because the lights blocked everything else out. They had security guards following it around the floor so it was hard to move around it. There was a general haze over the whole arena, partially from people smoking on the floor and from the fog machines. During Ultra Light Beam the whole floor was flooded with smoke while a giant beam came down from the ceiling with the stage carrying Kanye came slowly closer until he landed back down on the floor and went backstage.