Roy Davis Jr.: “As a DJ you need your fans!”
WECANDANCE 2016 was kind of an oddball festival this season. When you look at the mix of music and lifestyle that most festivals try to incorporate, every festival prefers a different ratio, and WECANDANCE clearly went all out towards the lifestyle side of that spectrum. But there were some awesome musicians playing too! Day one was headlined by none other than Roy Davis Jr., a legend and founding member of the Chicago house scene. We found him after his set sitting on a flight case on the stage where he just performed while Thang was already playing. After a well deserved rest he got down with the help of a walking cane and we whisked him to somewhere more quiet to have a talk about his roots, his hometown and his recent struggle with multiple sclerosis.
Photos by Noémie Boone, text by Elias Khan.
I follow a Surinamese tradition where people introduce themselves by introducing their parents instead of themselves. So who is your mother and who is your father?
My mother is Patricia Davis. She passed away about 14 years ago. She was the musical power and influence behind Roy Davis Jr. She played the piano and organ, and she sang in church. My whole musical side I inherited from her. My more artistic side, like drawing and painting, I got from my father. He’s a retired draftsman and ran his own drafting firm. He’s the level-headed one and thought me how to treat people right. My mother was more of a dreamer.
I might be taking the risk of limiting your huge repertoire to one song, but I would call ‘Gabriel’ one of your seminal tracks and also the one that scored the highest on the charts. On that song as well as on a lot of other tracks you collaborate with session musicians and vocalists, which brings a lot more soul in your electronic compositions. Is that the only reason?
No, you're absolutely right.
Do you play any other instruments yourself?
I play a little keyboard, some drums and percussion, and I fiddle around on guitar too in some of my older tracks. Why I collaborate with talented musicians so often is obviously because of their talent and musical knowledge. Nowadays, I first try to see if they respect themselves and the music. A lot of these guys don’t know how to handle the fame, so I always try to find out if they can handle the business side of things. Steve Graber was one of those guys. He’s a long time buddy of mine and he played saxophone on a lot of my tracks, like ‘Who Dares To Believe In Me’. He was already putting out his own music so that was one factor that said to me that this guy knows how to handle his shit. He was the one that, at the time when I was working with a lot of bands like The Believers, he would score out all the music and hand it out to the band members. It’s important to surround yourself with those kinds of people that know how to handle their business.
You hail from Chicago, which is arguably a very musical city. It’s not only the birthplace of house music and well known for its jazz, blues and soul music, but also newer styles like drill hip hop and juke/footwork. But Chicago has been hitting the news more and more often as one of the most violent cities in the US. How would you explain the connection between the love that comes from music and all the violence that seem to originate in the same place, the same city?
It’s so crazy because all those guys that are shooting each other are mostly between 13 and 17 years old. So it’s really young guys that are caught up in gangs. You can’t grow up in Chicago and not at least have some relationship to a gang, myself included. When you grow older and wiser you start to realize that that is not the way to go if you want to live a long life. They’re not necessarily bad kids, but it’s just so easy to get caught up in gang life over there. I have two younger brothers that I had to watch over constantly to keep them on the right path. To grew up to be great musicians in their own right and got out of that gang life.
Was music your savior?
Jesus Christ was our savior but music was definitely one of those pillars in our life, as for a lot of other kids in Chicago, that gave structure and meaning to our existence. Music expands your view on society and life. When you’re in a gang your whole universe revolves around your turf and its boundaries, while music takes away all that hate and makes you look further. Music erases boundaries.
If you could change one conception that people hold, or rather one misconception that should be corrected, what would that be?
People always think they’ve got all the answers ready. If more people would just accept that they are not perfect and don’t know the whole truth the world would be a much more pleasant place. It would mean that people had to allow themselves time to learn and discover in order to try and find out about the whole, holistic truth.
Would you change anything about your own life or career path?
To be honest, right now I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m perfectly happy with where I am today, and if I had to change anything about my past I wouldn’t be the same person that’s sitting here in front of you today. And it just so happens to be that I made peace and learned to be happy with this Roy and not some other one! I just found out that I have MS and that fucked me over for a while, not only physically but also mentally. But it also made me very focussed on living consciously and being happy with who I am.
You wrote a comprehensive post on Facebook to your fans explaining that you have MS and you wouldn’t be touring for quite a while. That was in May, and here you are again!
(laughs) That’s right, but you know it’s actually best for your joints and muscles to keep moving. That post wasn’t really about apologizing for canceling tours and all that. That was never really the plan. It was more like a thank you note to everyone that helped me out in that tough period, mentally as well as with donations and physical help. It was just an easy way to reach everybody quickly.
You released a track in May called ‘I’m Tha DJ’. There’s a vocal in there that’s kind of funny. “I’m that DJ! I do what I want! Where’s my people?! I need my people!” That kind of resonated with what you said about your fans and entourage just now.
You’re right. You know that was a rerelease from a track I did in 1996 if I’m not mistaken, of which I’m only just now discovering that I made them for times like these. ‘Who Can Believe In Me’ for example is one of those tracks that lifted me up in dark times many times.
Alright. Thank you so much for being here and talking to us.
It’s been a blast! Thanks.
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