It’s a sun-speckled Friday afternoon when I make my way up to DJDS’ K-town studio. For the duo who once haunted Downtown LA’s underground warehouse parties, it’s a serendipitous if not nerve-wracking day. Their third album, Big Wave More Fire, which they describe as their most ambitious project to date, is freshly released. With features from Amber Mark, Khalid, Charlie Wilson, Vic Mensa, Kacy Hill, The-Dream and more, it’s a refreshingly sparse and future-facing effort underpinned by a delicious dollop of retro R&B, and subtle sprinklings of frenetic Baltimore club and lush house. There’s a movie being filmed in the building, so the lobby is a mess of cables, frazzled production assistants and metal boxes full of equipment. The doorman, a charming one-time Don Juan named Larry, compliments my hair and directs me to the elevator bay where I ride the creaky metal beast up to floor ten before taking the stairs the rest of the way. The studio door is cracked in expectation of my arrival; the sound of a partially conceived, uptempo track seeps into the hallway. I knock a few times and offer a hesitant, “hello?”
A few moments later the music pauses and Jerome’s spectacled face peers from around the door. “Hey,” he greets. “Sorry about that. The music is really loud.” Sam, the other half of the duo appears from a back room and makes himself comfortable on a chair in front of the kitchenette. I opt for the couch, while Jerome nabs a chair in front of their towering production setup, which is likely where he’d been sitting before my arrival. Although it’s our first time meeting, there’s an unspoken sense of camaraderie between the two that immediately puts an outsider at ease; they have been friends for over seven years. “We met because I was Djing an event in Chinatown,” Sam recalls. “No one was there, but Jerome was one of two people who came through to see my show. We bonded over that.” On cue, both burst into laughter. Back then, neither could have imagined that Kanye West, one of their musical idols, would handpick them to work on his polarizing The Life of Pablo album, or that they would be responsible for producing the celestial gospel banger “Ultralight Beam”.
“We just had a lot of the same influences and the same ideas about music,” Jerome says with a shrug. At the time, the two were also excited about the Downtown LA dance scene, which was something like the Wild West in a city full of standard bottle service clubs. “So many of the parties and events we loved were built around labels or crews. They were all sort of serving a purpose to be a physical manifestation of the sound they were working on. You’d hear the stuff online or on a record and then you could actually come and see and feel what that sound looked like in the world as an event. For us, it was the most exciting part of LA. Honestly, I think if bands with guitars had felt that exciting we probably would have started a band with guitars, but it just so happened that underground dance music felt really necessary and vital, so that’s where we got our start.”
The two immersed themselves in the culture and adopted the stage name DJ Dodger Stadium. Burgeoning and full of vitality, the scene was not limited by the rules of an established soundscape. There were no purists to tell them what did or didn’t work; they took advantage of the freedom and cultivated a community around the music that made sense to them. This period of trial also birthed Body High, a personal record label that became a funnel for their work, and the work of friends. “In retrospect, we probably didn’t realize the value of it at the time, but having a label really gave us the ability to do exactly what we wanted, it was a really great platform,” Sam muses.
In 2014, they released their first album through Body High. Titled Friend of Mine, the 10-track offering was a journey through their sonic metamorphoses in the DTLA scene – it was also the genesis of what would become the DJDS sound and approach to production. “The way we’ve always thought about production is that it needs to be saying as much as the lyrics,” explains Sam. “We place a lot of emphasis on getting every single sound the way we want, and not having any excess that doesn’t have real purpose.” “Our first album we were in a dance music space that was very single-heavy,” Jerome chimes in, “but even back then Sam had this idea and way of describing our projects like a movie, which is how I was able to wrap my head around it. Thinking about it like that you really start to see the value in the album format because it gives you a great amount of time to get in and out of the story sonically. We still apply that same conversation from five years ago to our work now.”
For both, new album Big Wave More Fire is perhaps the most successful execution of this ideology. “All of our stuff is pretty narrative because it’s just the way we look at projects and conceive them. Even though we’ve always thought about things that way, I think with this album we really started to figure out how to harness that cinematic feel. I’ve always been one of those people who sees things as a story. A lot of times I feel like I’m looking at something happen as if it’s part of some larger narrative, so I can’t really picture being involved in an album that isn’t like that. We announced this album with an actual trailer to play into that, so it’s always in the back of our minds,” explains Sam.
The album’s roster of unique collaborators were sourced similarly. The pair asked themselves how each fit into the story, and how their creative approach meshed with the intangible feeling both identify as being inherently DJDS. “Everyone came to us in a different way but it’s down to the fact that we’re always looking to work with artists and voices that are really special. A little more specifically, we like stuff that’s a little rougher around the edges. A voice like Amber’s is such a good example. She has the most control and incredible range, but she also has this grit that just hits you,” says Jerome. Amber Mark, a young singer-songwriter from New York, appears on both “Trees on Fire” and “I Heard,” which also features up-and-comer Vory, who Sam cites as a current inspiration. “I’m learning a lot from Vory. He’s really young but he’s just one of these guys who is an incredible natural talent. Watching how he approaches different beats and rhythms and seeing how he finds different pockets and melodies is something special. He makes this very modern music that also has this incredibly timeless feel, and to me that’s the ideal. Anytime he’s in the room it’s exciting for me to watch what he’s going to do.”
Ultimately, it is this collaborative spirit and genuine excitement to create that helps coalesce the intangible thing that Jerome and Sam know to be DJDS. That, and an intricate layering of counter-balancing elements. The single “No Pain”, which features Charlie Wilson, Khalid and Charlotte Day Wilson is a perfect example. “A lot of times when people do a song with Charlie Wilson today they feel like they need to produce this sort of retro Bruno Mars sounding thing that’s riffing off of The Gap Band, or Charlie’s earlier eras,” says Sam. “For us, it’s more about the voice. What’s interesting is getting to hear a voice that has all of that history in it, but then putting it over something a lot more sparse and contemporary. And then to go even further, if you can have him and Khalid on the same track then you’re doing that even more. Now you’re getting this really young guy who is one of the bigger rising R&B stars with a guy who has been in the game for decades, so that creates a balance of its own. Then we’re like, ‘what do you do next?’ Well, you need Charlotte Day Wilson on it to kind of balance it all out. We just level it all out until it has that balance that feels like a DJDS song.”
DJDS’ ‘Big Wave More Fire’ is out now and available to buy or stream.
For more of our interviews, read our chat with The Weeknd’s creative director La Mar Taylor right here.