When there’s no scene to speak of, you need to improvise a little. Jorun Bombay knows this well. The Halifax vet has been promoting hip hop in the city since the middle of the ’80s, his self-bought equipment some of the only independent means for MCs and producers in the city. Bombay has seen it all: Changing formats, hype and backlash, publishing deals (mostly bad). What has never gone away is his interest in preserving its hip hop’s history. Ever since he realized the pitch-shifting methods behind Prince Paul’s madness on early De La Soul records, he’s always found inspiration from the genre’s yesteryear.
Over the past few, Bombay has been hard at work on the Instrumentals You Never Got series, in which he reworks classic tracks from the ground up. What started with LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells” has become something of a phenomenon, with Questlove, Z-Trip and Jazzy Jeff all playing them out. The Rock the Discotek series, meanwhile, sees Bombay painstakingly updating live recordings of New York parties from the late ’70s and early ’80s for a modern audience used to higher sound quality. We caught up with Bombay earlier this month to talk about the two projects, as well as hearing a few stories from his beginnings as a DJ and producer in Halifax.
You recently talked about hearing “Rapper’s Delight” in late 1979. When did you go from just listening to the music to actually making it?
About 1984. When I heard “Rapper’s Delight,” we didn’t have a name for rap yet. It was kind of like two highways coming into one: disco was dying out, and rap still sounded like disco. My reality at that point was, there’s no way I could sound like disco, because I don’t know how disco is made. There’s like a whole violin section and horn section and stuff. It wasn’t until 1983 or 1984 when Run-DMC came out and just stripped all of the music out of music, and just rapped over a straight drum machine. Once you could just be one man on stage with a drum machine plugged into the soundsystem, pulling out a mic and rapping, that’s when [I started].
At that early point, did you have friends interested in similar music or even starting to make music?
The friends that I was with, [our] understanding was that everything was a band. One of the dudes was playing pots and pans with drumsticks. My brother was on a keyboard, and I would take my jacket zipper and move it up and down to make it sound like scratching, because at that time I didn’t know it was from a record. I just heard scratching sounds, so we need something that sounds scratchy. That was the beginning.
I would take my jacket zipper and move it up and down to make it sound like scratching, because at that time I didn’t know it was from a record.
When we finally started going out to shows, like when Bambaataa came here, that’s when I started to see. I was too intimidated to ask how stuff was done, but I had a visual now. I met this guy named Digby D and saw that he had turntables. So I figured, before I even approach him, I would have to be somewhat on his level. By the time I felt like I was good enough to go in public to DJ, that’s when he came to me and said, “You do this too?” He only knew two other guys in the city that did what he did. I was like the third. He would let me go to his place, [show me] his equipment, and that’s when I figured out everything else.
When was this?
That would have been 1986. That same year, I went to a basement jam in Halifax. It was a group of people from all over the place that would just go out to this basement that had a makeshift sound-system and pieces of equipment all hacked and put together. That was the first time I ever saw or understood what a sampler was.
This guy Steve hooked up like a beat machine to a bassline machine to a sampler. He knew MIDI and all this stuff I had no idea about. I walk in and he had a keyboard, he’d talk into the keyboard and he could press the keys and he could manipulate his voice. I was just blown away, because that same year Eric B. & Rakim had just come out with “Eric B Is President.” The tape I had, he kept going, ‘Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-make’em clap to this.” I didn’t know how it was done and he showed me at that basement jam.
When did you get to the point where you felt like you came into your own as an artist?
To this day, it’s a record that is still getting me places: “Summajam.” It’s by Witchdoc and Flexxman. Witchdoc was my MC name. I was trying to make my own version of “A Rolling Skating Jam Named Saturdays” by De La Soul. It was my favorite song for the longest time – on a subject level, on a beat level, on what was sampled and how it was manipulated level. So I said, “I need a song that’s gonna have that same mood, so I’m gonna use the same recording techniques, blah blah blah.” I made that song, and it was done a year before I put it out. While I was waiting for it come out I would listen to it everyday and say, “I think this is the one.”
I got a publishing deal out of that. It was a bad deal, and I lost the rights to the lyrics. But I re-released it on vinyl [in 2005] and retitled it after talking to a lawyer. The publishing deal I had was only for the lyrics, I thought they owned the music too, but the music is all samples. They can’t own the samples. I remade it and I took the vocals out and I put it out under the title “Jorun’s Way.” To this day, people like Jazzy Jeff play it at shows.
I started around 2006. When did Serato come out? Serato came out around 2006 or , whatever. I already had in my mind that eventually I was gonna have Serato, and so I started remaking stuff because I was looking around the curve, and I knew that if DJs were going to be playing MP3s, you could pretty much play anything. So, instead of me just making my own stuff, which I do anyway, let me make some stuff that is in demand, that people have been asking for years.
I would say, “If you want to hear me play this again, come at my next gig and pay at the door.”
One of them was the “Rock the Bells” instrumental that nobody has. You gotta surprise people, you get more DJ gigs that way. Especially in this world where you can download everything. You have to have stuff that you can’t find anywhere else. So making those De La instrumentals was me thinking, “Okay, I wanna drop something on somebody like, ‘I bet you ain’t got this.’”
When I started doing the Serato thing, I started playing those [instrumentals] at parties and people were asking me, “Where can I get it?” But, I wouldn’t give it out, I would say, “If you want to hear me play this again, come at my next gig and pay at the door.” You know? You have to cater to everybody. I don’t really play on Serato anymore, I kind of had my fill on that. When I started going back to vinyl, I figured nobody else is gonna hear this, so let me just put it online and maybe people will catch onto it or whatever.
In 2012, you released a pair of mixtapes that basically found you restoring clips of live old school performances from the ’70s and ’80s in a pretty amazing way. Can you explain the process of creating those releases and hearing those tapes in the first place yourself?
It started when I did [a song called] “Rock The Discotech” with Ghettosocks and Timbuktu. I already had this idea to do this mixtape where it was gonna be the old school stuff. I had the recordings for a while, I got them back in the ’90s from Phill Most Chill. He was doing the [Rap Sheet “World Of Beats”] column but he also had a record out under the name Baritone Tiplove. The thing is, in between two of the songs on the 12-inch called Young Ladees Drive Me Crazee, he would play clips of these old school tapes.
Lisa Lee and Sha Rock were rhyming for like 25 minutes over one beat [and] there’s not one boring moment on there.
Knowing that Phill had these, I had in the back of my mind, “If I ever get a chance to talk to this Phill dude, I need to ask him about these tapes.” So I called him up and I introduced myself and I eventually got to the subject. He explained that he used to go to some of these shows before “Rapper’s Delight” was out. I was like, “You’re a real living dude that used to go to these shows? Okay, we need to have a whole conversation about this.” Because I didn’t know anybody in Halifax that could tell these stories.
At that point, I already had at the back of my mind that there’s gotta be a way to make the quality of the tapes better. Nobody knows about these things, I still listen to the Lisa Lee and Sha Rock tape where they’re rhyming for like 25 minutes over one beat and they got that echo machine. It was just a whole other world. There’s not one boring moment on there, they’re switching it up, they’re doing routines, they’re telling stories, it’s like reading a book.
It’s like trying to knit a rug that’s a kilometer long.
If this was about me, just enjoying the music, I would have just kept the tapes as is. But I wanted to make them presentable to people who do make quality an issue. I upped the quality just so you can’t complain and say, “I don’t get it because I can’t make out this or that or whatever.” Sometimes you gotta dumb down things for people. A lot of people are spoiled, they love their quality. Back when I started, quality was not even on the top five necessities. Number one was skills. Quality was not even an issue.
I would take the tape clip I wanted, and I would edit it so I only took what I needed. I would take the breakbeat, because they were going back and forth on the tape, I would take the record, when that particular part of the record would come in, I would beatmix it in until the sound phased. That’s when I knew I had the speed right. Then I would take the clips of that one part that would phase, and then take the clean breakbeat and put it over the parts of the tape until they all phased. I would add the scratches in later because they were a little harder to sync because they’re not electronically done. You could do it ten times and you still wouldn’t get it. It’s very tedious work. It’s like trying to knit a rug that’s a kilometer long, but the result is worth it.