AbJo on his creative journey, influences, and the importance of community

Although AbJo’s ambient beats will make you feel complex emotions, he’s more of a minimalist when it comes to his creative process.

For instance, you won’t find him nerding out over VSTs very often, for he doesn’t use them unless they significantly enhance his workflow. Also, AbJo’s DAW of choice is Reason, over more common alternatives like Logic or Ableton – through many years and many DAWs, he’s inevitably drawn back to Reason’s hardware-emulating interface.

After 20 years of making music, AbJo’s creative philosophy embraces the simple truths of hard work, deeply knowing your musical influences, making the most of limited resources, and trusting your instincts. If the producer’s craft is a lifestyle, AbJo has lived it since day one. Below, AbJo shares insights from his formative years and other invaluable knowledge from his creative journey.

To start, tell us a bit about your story as a producer – how did you start making beats?

The journey started long before I cared about being a hip hop producer, much less a music producer. But looking back, I think I was always headed in that direction, one way or another.

I got into playing and making music relatively early, in elementary school. By the time I was in high school, I was already playing multiple instruments at a fairly exemplary level, by my mentors’ and peers’ opinions. I was also not only writing and helping arrange music in my performing arts school, but also playing with community orchestras and gigging jazz bands that were breaking in neophytes at my level. I studied everything by Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Mingus, Bird, Chick Corea, and Quincy Jones to learn to arrange, all while I spent 12 hours a day with headphones glued to my head listening to The Roots or 50 Cent, Nas or Jay-Z, The Neptunes or The Diplomats, De La Soul or The Lox, Erykah Badu or Jill Scott, The Pharcyde or Souls of Mischief, and anywhere in between, only then realizing that Timbaland, Pharrell, Dilla, Pete Rock, Madlib, and the like were the real stars of the show, in my book at least.

One thing lead to another, and I found myself aligning with MIDI keyboards and MPCs more than violins, trumpets, and timpani. Then came MySpace, then SoundCloud where I could put my beats up, and then I suddenly became part of this new thing called Soulection and the rest is history…

What DAW do you use? Is there any particular piece of hardware that you can’t live without?

Reason is by far my favorite, which by the way, has not always been a DAW, and for which I’ve always managed to get flack from other beatmakers and producers for using standalone. I’ve rocked with Ableton or Logic for a minute as well, but I always end up back to Reason. Something about it… my workflow is perfect there, something I just don’t get with other DAWs. I’d mix and master myself out of ProTools or Logic, but I’ve only done that with maybe 2 or 3 projects in my entire career, and unless otherwise prompted, it’ll stay that way, haha…

Your tracks achieve a compelling balance between analog and electronic elements. There’s a warm and dusty boom-bap element in a lot of your hip hop beats that many producers aspire to create. What are some of your go-to tools to create this vibe?

A lot of that just comes with learning those elements and how to create them from the stock sounds and library in Reason or Ableton. I’m not a big fan of VSTs unless they allow me a better workflow than I already have in some area of my process. Serato Sample, for example, is perfect and exactly what I’ve been looking for, especially having come up with Serato and Traktor DJing since their inceptions – it’s a great way to visualize how you’re chopping up your samples in a practical sense. Otherwise, I make do with what I have and let my now 20 years of musical and audio production experience take the wheel and steer, you know?

Some of your projects (for example Vibraçao Comigo) sample instruments and records from around the world, from Brazil to Japan. When making a beat, how do you decide what to sample? Moreover, do you have any favorite approaches to manipulating or chopping up your samples?

Simple: I let my ears do all the work for me. Nothing else matters to me other than what works and what else works together with it. Sure, I had a big picture in mind and smaller pictures developed, but a lot of what I do is just tying together my stream of consciousness into something cohesive. Shoot first, ask later, and review and revise after. I put my emotions and feelings first before I try to make sense of them, and then stuff like #VIBRA or Vibração Comigo becomes the end product.

You seem to be on the road a lot – how does traveling or being in another country or city shape your music or sound?

It shapes everything about my craft – I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t traveled as much as I have. It started even before I was making beats or producing, traveling in high school to perform in competitions across the country or backpacking during and after college, playing free or very low-paying beat sets in any bar or venue that’d take me. Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the U.K., Ireland, France, Spain, Germany… they’re all places that allowed me to develop aesthetics in my music.

Community is something that a lot of producers rely on – a peer group or family of people that inspires and challenges us can lead to amazing musical growth, collaborations, and projects. What does community mean for you as a music producer?

You can’t survive, let alone thrive, without a community to structure yourself in. I’ll admit that at times, me, myself, and I are my community and I’ll be driven by my own devices, but I always end up reflecting the groups, cliques, and niches of my community at large because we always bolster each other to be better, to know more and do more. I wouldn’t be where I am without Soulection, for instance, because that community provided me with more than a simple support system; they’re a resource for me, my craft, and my career. I’m motivated by them to step my game up every time someone on squad receives a Grammy nod or gets featured on FADER and the like, the same as when someone from squad is proud of my latest work or feature on Splice (for instance, haha).

Lastly, can you share three tips for new and aspiring producers?

Stick with your guts, always get extra cords, cables, and adapters for your gear for when you’ll need them (you will, trust me), and don’t ever get too comfortable. Better yet, replace that one with my new favorite quote by one of my favorite DJs / producers of all time, the magnificent DJ Jazzy Jeff, “Die empty!” In other words, express yourself, often and always, until you can’t anymore – don’t hold on to anything, leave everything on the table.

Groove to the contemplative, dreamy sounds in AbJo’s “Chroma” sample pack.

January 14, 2019

Ayesha Chugh Ayesha is a DJ, music producer, and former talent booker based in New York City. She is currently working on the Content team of Splice.