Juan Gomez is a deejay, photographer and researcher of African and African-derived musics, who recently traveled to Zimbabwe as a member of the Next Level team. We spoke to him before his departure about deejaying as a form of research, how culture can bring different generations together, and what hip-hop has meant to him in his own life.
People often have a superficial idea of what hip-hop is about. So with things like deejaying, they think it’s just about playing records. But you are also really committed to the research aspect of deejaying: finding rare records, and trying to understand the culture behind them.
I always tell people that I’m a product of hip-hop. I’m originally from Nicaragua, and I came to the U.S. when I was young. And hip-hop was a natural thing to gravitate towards when you’re in limbo and balancing between cultures and feeling lost and alienated. Hip-hop was there at the right time. But as a result, I think that hip-hop opened up so many doors because of just how naturally syncretistic the music is. I mean it takes from so many different elements: Jazz, Soul, Funk and everything else. I think that kind of stayed with me.
And so as I moved forward, hip-hop has meant so many things to me at so many different times; I travel and you meet people through hip-hop. It may be that Tupac is really huge in Africa, for instance. That may not be the music that I necessarily think is the best representation of hip-hop, but I can understand the spirit, the shared experiences and the shared understanding that the general music conveys.
So when I started getting into deejaying, it really was just birthed by my interest in finding what the source was for the music. But as I dug deeper, I realized that it was just sort of a rabbit hole. So it started with finding the obvious examples, like stuff like the Isaac Hayes record that was being sampled by Public Enemy. And that started opening up so many doors for me, and it allowed me to appreciate so many different kinds of music.
Flash forward to what I did in Ghana, which was digging for records on a whole different level. Just literally going to villages, knocking on doors, to chase down the stories of aging musicians, that were pretty much passing away. Every other month you would hear about an old musician that would pass away while I was there. And you’re like, “Will I get to this musician in time?” It was kind of the same concept of me looking for the samples, like “that Pharcyde song,” or “that Dr. Dre beat”. It was the same sort of thirst I had: “Oh, I want to find out more. I want to find out what that is.”
It seems like you think of hip-hop as an intellectual model for learning about a lot of other things…
It’s basically having a foundation for learning more. It would be taken a lot more seriously, I think, if we looked at hip-hop as an academic tool – for my generation and the generations that have come after me, you know what I mean?
I grew up very poor, my family came to this country seeking asylum, and there’s just a whole host of things that come with that. But even just being poor and brown and in the inner city, [that] means that hip-hop was school for us. You know, you talk to people – and it’s so cliché to hear it now – but people are like, “hip-hop taught me how to do A, B and C,” you know? “Hip-hop taught me how to read,” or how to behave, or how to be. You know, you hear this whole host of things that people attribute to hip-hop in furthering their own skill set. And it’s 100%. And that’s not true for everybody, just like school isn’t for everybody. But I definitely treated it like school. It was my seventh period after I got out of class. I just put my headphones on. And that’s how I learned.
I think it’s always like a living, breathing thing. You know, the culture itself is never just stagnant. Nothing is permanent, in that sense. I love to see where it’s gone. It’s like Common said in “I Used to Love H.E.R.”, she went out west and became gangster, and all this and that. You have to let the culture do what it’s gonna do, and you appreciate it for where it goes. And the birth and rebirth as younger generations come up.
And so I’ve used hip-hop as a tool for me to apply to other things. I play a lot of new African music and Caribbean music nowadays. I get told all the time, “You play dancehall like you’re playing hip-hop,” or “you play African music like you’re playing hip-hop”. And I’m like, “Yeah, ‘cause that’s my foundation and that’s who I am. I’m a child of that.” So you just apply it to whatever interests and settings that you find yourself in. It’s what lets me feel comfortable in my skin, sometimes. I have that foundation.
Is that one of the things that you’re looking forward to working with when you go to Zimbabwe?
I think culture itself is something that you can use in many facets of someone’s life, and many facets of your everyday intersocial interaction. For a lot of people, hip-hop and music in general gives them purpose. And if we can refine that purpose, if we can empower that purpose, and through hip-hop no less – something that’s been so fundamental in my life – that’s something I definitely look forward to.
I’ve had similar experiences in other settings and it’s always great because this music has been taken on by other regions and completely made their own. So for me I’m kind of walking into this experience like “OK, I understand what hip-hop means to me, as someone who grew up in California,” or “I understand what it means to someone who lived in New York during this era.” But what does it mean to somebody who is from Zimbabwe? How did they internalize it? That’s kind of a cool thing to look forward to. I’m interested in seeing how my experience fits into all of that.