DMV Producer Judah Talks Wale, the Decline of Go-Go, and Working Smarter
After years as one of the DMV's busiest hip-hop producers and perhaps the region's most dutiful cheerleader, Timothy “Judah” Matthews is trying to figure out what comes next. He's still got plenty to say, but he's trying to be more efficient in how he says it. His website, For the DMV Only, still posts all the local music that it can get its hands on, but sometimes it looks like it's on autopilot. He's got a relationship with a major label (EMI), and is only a few months past the release of a smart and idiosyncratic album, P.U.S.S.Y., but he sounds like a man who is looking for some different challenges. We talked recently about how his career has stacked up, how the DMV is doing and the lessons that up-and-comers would be wise to learn. Here's an edited version of the conversation.
Washington City Paper: Are you actually working on music right now?
Timothy "Judah" Matthews: I’m not right now ... I’ve kind of relaxed, and chilled with the current climate. There’s not really nothin’ out there that’s really holdin’ me. People bring artists to me, and I haven’t really been intrigued with any artist, I really haven’t been inspired by any artist. The game is just crazy right now. Nobody’s sellin’ records, a lot of producers are doin’ stuff for free. No creativity. There’s nothin’, man. And it’s just draining. ... I’m really just taking time to fall back. I’m actually switching over from the [Akai] MPC to the computer-based stuff. I stopped messin’ with the MPC a little bit and I’m messin’ with the Maschine now and learning that. I’m using the Maschine and a plugin, I tried Reason and I didn’t really like the way it worked. I like the Maschine because it feels like an MPC but it’s just software.
So I’ve been just getting back to stuff that I love, like BMX bikes—I build BMX bikes, design BMX bikes. I’ve been ridin’ those and traveling, going to talk to music people, and just livin’ life, man, having fun and meetin’ people and doin’ some things that I want to do now. I’m still doing music, but it has to be a good situation.
WCP: When you’re not doing music, what are you doing to make money?
J: Well, I still have the studio [The Syence Lab, based in Temple Hills, Md.], the studio’s been open for 12 years now. The studio is still goin’ full steam, y’know, it’s constantly booked, four or five times a week.
WCP: That’s your base income, then?
J: Yeah, the studio, and also I have companies, too. I have a real-estate company where we rent out rental properties to people that have been displaced by fire, earthquake, flood—through the insurance companies. I have property all over the DMV, y’know, where I rent property out to people that have been displaced by natural disasters.
WCP: That’s what I’ve always found interesting about you. Whenever I bring your name up with people, they’re like, “he’s got all his bases covered.” You don’t have to grind away at music. You can do it when it moves you.
J: Right, that’s the whole thing, like, I’m 33, I spent my whole 20s in the studio. Every day. Makin’ beats. On a keyboard, in a studio, makin’ beats. Eatin’ bad. ... And I said, "In my 30s, man, I’m not gonna do that." It’s been good to me, but I’m tryin’ to work smarter, not harder. Music got me the money to buy homes, and rent 'em out, to do stuff to make money.
WCP: Do you think hip-hop has become more welcoming to people who are beyond their 20s? Do you think it’s easier to be an older player in the scene, the industry?
J: Nah ... I really think it’s the other way. It’s really becoming age discriminatory toward people that are getting older. Like, they want Jay-Z out the game. They always say, “Let the new guys in, the young generation.” If you really think about it, in the whole grand scheme of things, I’m still a young guy in the game ... I always look like at it like, you know what you know, and if you have something to offer people, people will always be willing to pay you for it, or they’re gonna want to come get your advice on it, or want you to be a part of it. So, age ... it doesn’t even matter, that’s how I look at it, but the industry as a whole, they tryin’ to get the young’ins in there, make some money, use ‘em for a couple years, and the next thing you know, it’ll be a new young’in.
WCP: It’s probably easier as a producer...
J: Much easier! ... When people come to my studio to work with me, I try to give them experience. We sit and talk for like two days, we get up and go get something to eat, we vibe out and really have a conversation about life, just everything. I kind of make it an experience for the artists that I’m working with. And, y’know, we just make some dope music, I believe, and people like the environment that I set ... that’s what it is. They come for the experience.
WCP: You’re not shy about that. If you watch your Twitter feed ... you make a point of saying, “Here’s some wisdom, here’s some smart things that I have to say.” And to me, the big step that you took in the last year or so is that you started reviewing albums on your site. ... The one that sticks out is Fat Trel. Did you catch any heat for that, what prompted you to take that step to write about it? You sort of explain yourself in the review, but I want to hear more about what made you take the leap.
J: I was just trying to give my point of view, the producer’s point of view, as somebody that’s been in the scene for a while and really trying to progress the scene. ... I wanted to come from a producer’s standpoint ... as a businessperson and entrepreneur, like, how do I look at [the record]. ... I wanted to see what the new generation was doing, and I always heard about Fat Trel, he came to the studio a couple times ... and he was just getting so much press, not only from Washington City Paper, but the Post, everybody. And I was like, I really hope this project is good. So that’s when I said, let me take a listen. Because I really don’t listen to that vibe of music all the time, know what I mean?
WCP: Did you catch any heat for what you wrote? Have you talked to him since you wrote it?
J: I haven’t caught any heat. Definitely his team sent it to him, and I know he’s read it ... honestly, from a younger crowd and especially his demographic, he looked at it like I was, y’know, hatin’ on him and this and that, but if you really intelligently read the review and really understood what you was readin’, it wasn’t really hate at all.
WCP: And that’s hard, y’know, I review albums all the time, and sometimes it’s hard for people to see the love in what you do, because you spend all this time with a record, and you want to be honest about it, so I kind of know what you’re up against there.
J: Right, right. So I didn’t really get any flak, per se ... a lot of people are y’know, scared of him for whatever reason, but I’m not scared of him. I’m not scared of anything ... because the truth is the truth. When other people tell you, “dawg, you hit it right on the head,” know what I mean, you can’t fight the truth. And that’s the truth, [the mixtape] was weak in so many areas. And nobody would tell him that, because they’re afraid of him. But I have nothin’ invested in his career, so, why would I be afraid, you know what I mean?
WCP: You’re one of the more knowledgeable people about DMV hip-hop. You’ve done a lot of things to bring the scene together. What’s your view of what’s going on right now?
J: We’re in a state of limbo right now. We’re in a tough place because if you notice, say, three or four years ago, y’know, we had a lot of eyes on us. Wale was just breakin’ through with some things, and you had people like Tabi [Bonney] with a big record and video play ... everybody was just comin’ out with some dope projects ... Diamond District ... everybody was comin’ out with something. And right now, I honestly think that that momentum has slowed down greatly in terms of quality projects that garner national attention. Now you hardly have any projects that are getting any national attention, I mean, X.O. has been basically quiet for a year or two years? ... I mean, they’re probably trying to do another Diamond District right now. Oddisee put out a pretty solid project, but besides that, it’s been virtually quiet, nationally. Now regionally, you’ll get a couple records—Boobe, all those guys ... but that’s been regionally. There’s only one person with a deal right now ... Wale.
I always say there’s this thing called the put-on factor. Because if you notice, Kanye remixed Chief Keef “I Don’t Like,” right? So, since then, from Chicago, who has gotten signed? Chief Keef has gotten a deal. Rocky Fresh, who came to me four years ago, asking me to do beats for him, got a deal. And there’s another guy, I hadn’t even heard of his name, but he got a deal with Def Jam. [Ed. note: Lil Reese signed with Def Jam in June.] So you’re lookin’ at three Chicago artists within the last few months that got deals. It’s just a different climate.
WCP: But let’s talk about Wale for a second—he did get put on. Why didn’t it stick? Why didn’t other people get signed after him?
J: Some of that has to do with the music that was comin’ out. A lot of it has to do with the fact that—I personally believe that if you’re in a position where you can shed light on other people, you do it.
WCP: He does, right?
J: I mean, he does when it’s advantageous to him. He does when it’s advantageous to somethin’ that he’s doing. ... Prime example: He had an album that came out, he has an affiliation with Board Administration, correct? But he had nobody from that label on his album. You could’ve got an artist some publishing, you could’ve got an artist a national look—they could’ve been part of a gold album—which I think it just went gold—so y’know, it’s things like that, that you see. Y’know, when Mike Jones came out, Paul Wall was on his album, Chamillionaire, like, they really did things for each other. They really put publishing in people’s pockets and get ‘em national attention. It’s kind of odd, that that’s your team, but yet, your artist—Black Cobain—is not on your album.
WCP: Do you think that’s something that keeps repeating itself here in the DMV? Or that this time around, it’s more a matter of the right people being in the right places, but people not bringing them along? Because when you look back at Black Indian’s era, it almost seems like there just weren’t enough. The scene wasn’t big enough.
J: Right. And nobody was really rappin’ like that. But rap wasn’t big, it was go-go. So if somebody did have a deal—which Black Indian did—they wasn’t rappin’, they wasn’t tryin’ to be rappers, so they didn’t really care if he helped them out or not. ... it was a different time.
WCP: So not many people are really successful commercially, but it seems like there’s way more music than ever. It just seems like so many people are putting out songs in the DMV. Mixtapes, albums... what’s going on there? Are people getting the wrong idea about how easy it is to make a career? Where’s that all coming from? Why such a surge in product?
J: I think that, just the ease of having the Internet, just everything at your fingertips. ... You’ve got guys out in the street, sellin’ drugs, and they like, “Oh, I wanna rap today.” You know what I mean? “And then I’m gonna bring my boy, and I’m gonna make him rap, too. And then we just gon’ shoot a video, and put it on YouTube.” And it’s just like a domino effect. They’re like, “Oh, I could do that! ... My boy can do that! Let me bring him in and he can do that!” ... everybody sees it, they see how easy it is, you get a camera from Best Buy for $500, shoot a video and upload it ... You can get Garageband and record vocals in it, and you can put an album out on your own, it’s just so easy.
WCP: Do you think that’s a good or a bad thing? You’re from D.C., you know what it’s like to grow up around here. Do you think that it’s a good thing that it’s just so easy?
J: It’s a gift and a curse. Because the gift is, you’re able to be creative and get it out, and you don’t need a record label to do it for you. And back in the day, if you wanted to put a record out, you had to go through a label, or A&R, to get it out for you. But now you can get your creativity out—shoot a video, shoot a movie if you want, put it on the Internet, you can do whatever you want. And I love that. But then on the flipside of that, anybody think they can do it, and they do it—and it just clutters everything up. And the people who do have talent, and are really sayin’ something... you don’t know who’s who.
WCP: So if you could take one of these guys you described ... what would you sit down and tell somebody like that?
J: Honestly, I’m gonna break it down to you like this, Joe, the first thing I would tell him—I would tell him to get a job. Get a career. In 2012, get a career. Really have a career, because I’ve found that when you have a job, and you're makin’ music, when you’re makin' music it’s not about money. It’s about, “I love doin’ it, I do it when I have free time, I do it because I want to be creative.” Because you know you have a paycheck coming in every two weeks. But when you don’t have no paycheck comin’ in every two weeks, and you’re makin’ beats, you’re like, “Damn, I gotta sell these beats! I gotta sell 'em.” And it’s so stressful. So my thing is, to get a job, because it’ll make makin’ music so much easier.
And then on the flipside of that, I would tell ‘em to really look at how to ... I wouldn’t say budget, but really just plan your work and work your plan. Really sit back and think about how you wanna do this thing, and really what you’re in it for. Because a lot of people get into it when they’re 20 years old, and they wake up and they’re 35, and they still don’t have any savings. They still don’t have no health insurance, they still don’t have a house, no apartment, like, they don’t have anything to show for 15 years of trying to be a rapper. And that’s real! So you really gotta think ... about the reality of things, and then you can alter the reality and really figure out where you’re going.
WCP: What about go-go? From your vantage point, how’s that relationship evolved into, between DMV hip-hop and go-go?
J: In 2012, go-go isn’t even the same as it once was, know what I mean? Go-go has become like, crank or bounce-beat type go-go, but back in the day they were makin’ songs that had melodies to 'em, they were arranged in musical ways. So I don’t think go-go really has the value that it once had, because it’s just not the same. You have a lot of young’ins who, before, y’know, everybody wanted to start a band. Now, everybody wanna be a rapper ... and nothin’ has that value.
WCP: How does that make you feel, though? Because, you’ve made your name in hip-hop, and you’ve done a lot for the scene here, and obviously hip-hop is important to you. How does it make you feel to see that maybe go-go has been ... not corrupted, but go-go has definitely been altered by hip-hop. I mean, early go-go informed hip-hop, so it’s not like that relationship is new, but it seems like go-go is losing a little bit. Is that true?
J: It has lost! You know what I mean? Like, it has lost a lot over the years, a lot of pioneers have died, a lot of violence throughout the years, a lot of change in the music, the locations, the crowds ... what it stood for, a lot of that is gone. You know what I mean, it hurts me, but at the same time, it’s like, I think everything has to go through this cycle, where we have real strong go-go or hip-hop, and then it gets watered down, and then it comes back around ... it’s just cyclical. ... But it hurts my heart. I have a niece that’s 16, and she wants to go to the go-go, and it’s just not the same that it was back in the day. You went to a real live show. Go-go at the Capital Centre. I wish every young’in today could really understand what go-go at the Capital Centre was like. ... Young’ins haven’t witnessed like, a real-live go-go at that level. Go-go at the Capital Centre! ... People don’t really think about where it’s been and where it could be again. Because it was something so great ... these live brass sections ... choreographed movements ... know what I mean, it was crazy. We don’t have it no more.
WCP: So, technically, at least on paper, you’re a young man for a while longer here ... having seen all this and done all this, where do you want to be when you’re 40?
J: You know, honestly ... as I start—I call it “fadin’ to black”— like, I really just want to start on a family, have some kids, really, just enjoy the fruits of my labor. Really just enjoy it. I think personally my legacy is kind of written here ... and I’ve done some wonderful things outside of the [DMV], too, as far as music and stuff. I really just want to fade to black and do some other things. Still run the studio. Just have a family and travel and just do other things.
WCP: So you’ve got all these experiences and wisdom to share. What would you say to a kid who doesn’t think you have anything to offer?
J: I said this the other day, and I’ll say it again to you: I can’t tell you how to be Kanye West. I can’t tell you how to get 80 grand for a beat, or 200 grand for a beat. And I can’t tell you how to be like Swizz Beatz. But I can tell you how to sell music independently, sell beats independently, and take that money and go buy property and go start businesses, and then you can go have your portfolio be worth $1.5 million. I can tell you that, but I can’t tell you how to be Kanye, and I can’t tell you how to be Swizz Beatz. But I can tell you something else that’s real-life, know what I mean? ... I really want people to know that they can create their own economy. You can create your own economy doing this music thing.