“I-Dee is one of my favorites when it comes to the young generation of deejays. I remember seeing him for the first time and thinking deejaying is in good hands. He's well-rounded and I'm confident his skills on the turntables will solidify his place amongst Turntablism's best!” DJ Rob Swift, X-Ecutioners, Scratch DJ Academy (NYC)
On April 27 at U Street Music Hall, DJ I-Dee out-dazzled his competition and owned the 2012 DMC Washington, DC Regional DJ Battle for the second year in a row. On August 4, I-Dee will represent DC in the 2012 DMC US Finals at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City for the chance to compete at the DMC World DJ Championship in London in September.
DJ I-Dee aka Isaac DeLima – known for his super-human speed, dexterity, originality, and infectiously upbeat comedic stage presence – was inducted in 2004 into DC’s legendary Trooperz Crew whose bragging rights include Enferno (Madonna’s tour deejay) and Geometrix (Beat Refinery co-founder).
While at one end of the deejay spectrum are pretenders who play pre-recorded sets, at the opposite end stands DJ I-Dee with real deejays with truly mesmerizing skills. Creating new music by beat juggling, cutting, blending, and scratching over music from soundtracks to hip-hop to rock and more in real time, I-Dee proves incontrovertibly that deejaying is a highly skilled art form.
Born in Fairfax, Isaac at age 10 sneaked into his older brother David’s room to play with his Technics 1200 turntables whenever he was out, but watching his brother’s VHS videotapes of Grandmaster Roc Raida’s 1994 DMC US finals set and the ‘98 DMC US finals ignited his passion. Growing up they listened to Caribbean, soca, reggae and West Indies music from their father’s Guyanese roots. Their mother, from Guatemala, listened to Julio Iglesias. “My ethnicity is very weird,” laughs I-Dee, “but it was a blessing to be exposed to all that, plus American music from Buddy Holly to AC/DC and everything else.”
Isaac played sax in middle and high school and was encouraged to play basketball because of his height, but dropped both to concentrate on deejaying. In 2000 after a year saving money from chores and mowing grass Isaac, 13, purchased one turntable and a mixer, and after another year got his second turntable. In 2001, David took Isaac to the DC regional DMC competition at the 9:30 Club where he saw future crew mates Quixotic place first and Enferno place second.
In 2002, Isaac, 15, completely self-taught with the self-discipline and mental toughness of an Olympic athlete, made the top ten of his first DMC competition. Later that year, learning that legendary DC battle DJ Geometrix worked with his sister, I-Dee begged her to help them meet which led to Geometrix adopting I-Dee as a protégé. Following high school Isaac attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miami where he earned a Bachelor’s in baking and pastries, and taught at the Scratch DJ Academy.
By the age of 19, DJ I-Dee had won the prestigious titles of DMC USA Supremacy, Scribble Jam and Gong World Supremacy. At 20, he retired from competition and started judging and performing showcases, and touring globally as a professional deejay on stages, clubs and festivals, and was recruited by the Beat Refinery before blazing back into competition in 2011.
In 2008, Roc Raida released DJ I-Dee’s debut 11-track artist album Solitude which featured collaborations with Royce da 5’9”, C-Rayz Walz, Ill Insanity, T.A.M.U, Rites of Ash, Jean Grae, and Wrekonize. I-Dee released his second album, “DJs Have Feelings Too … But They Can’t Rap” in 2010.
I-Dee’s current endorsements include Rane (mixers) and Ortofon (needles).
On Tap was honored to meet the humble but confident, serious but chipper world-renowned turntablist, producer and educator DJ I-Dee – in t-shirt, shorts, sandals, and his signature black and white Playboy cap – at a Vienna Starbucks on a sweltering post-derecho day:
On Tap: How old were you when you went to your first DMC regional at the 9:30 Club?
DJ I-Dee: 13 or 14. There were so many battles I tried to attend but they were 18+. Finally this one was all ages. The beauty of that regional was it was the last one of the tour so all the major competitors who didn’t win flew to DC. To be exposed to that for my first DMC was amazing, and DJ Craze and Scratch Perverts were there. The funny thing with Craze is that we’re friends now. When I moved to Miami, I practiced with him all the time. I asked him, do you remember when I came up to you in 2001? He said, nope! I was relieved because I said something really corny. I had a crappy deejay name I don’t even want to talk about and said something like, you’d better remember me because I’m gonna be here next year, and he’s like, yeah, yeah. But I practiced the whole year and my goal for 2002 – the first year I entered any competition – was just to make it to the top ten. I made it to the top ten out of 30 or 40 people. I could have started competing sooner but didn’t want my age to be a gimmick. I wanted to have some legitimate skill.
The routine was six minutes so the whole year went into that six minutes. I was going off what I saw in the DMC videos. Typically you want to demonstrate versatility. You don’t want to be too heavy on the beat juggling or the scratching. I didn’t know the technical aspect – the crazy Q-Bert-type scratches or X-Ecutioner-type beat juggling – but I had a good feeling for composition. That’s always been with me since the day I started so even though I wasn’t up to par with the juggling or scratching yet, the deejays at least appreciated the vision I had and what I was trying to do.
I didn’t learn any technical stuff until the end of 2002 when I linked up with DJ Geometrix. He was a good friend and co-worker of my sister. We’d spoken on a deejay messageboard and I was always starstruck. Once I found out my sister was friends with him, I was like, ‘please, I’d do anything to practice with this guy’. The first day he came to my house I was so nervous, my hands were shaking. The first time we sessioned he brought all his routines he was known for. For him to be doing his high-calibre routines at my place, I was amazed. I was really thankful to have him take me under his wing because there was no deejay school or anything like that.
OT: How much did you practice?
I-D: All I had was school, homework, chores. Once I had my set-up I focused on deejaying so it was at least three to four hours every single day, Monday through Sunday, over a year until I got to a point of maintenance where I’m learning one or two new techniques here and there. Once Geo exposed me to the advanced stuff, at that point I was going crazy.
OT: Where does your sense of humor come from?
I-D: Growing up I was always trying to make people laugh. I’m a master impersonator, too – actors, cartoon characters. I’ve gone as far as prank calling deejay friends. There’s one who didn’t talk to me for a year, it was so bad. Anyhow, that transferred over into my DMC sets and my stage presence and all that.
OT: Where does your battle career stand now?
I-D: Once I won the DMC USA Supremacy, from ‘06 to 2010 I was just showcasing and judging – the Ukraine, Czech Republic, everywhere. There are three national titles – team competition, the Supremacy which is the head to head one, and the six-minute which is the most prestigious. The teams and Supremacy were added in ‘99 and 2000. It’s almost like winning a gold medal in ping pong versus basketball, still a big deal but one of the lesser known. At the end of the day every deejay really wants the six-minute whether it be US or the world level because that’s where you’re etched in history. Only 22 world champions have won the six-minute since 1985. No one from this area has won. The closest anybody got was Enferno in 2003 who won the US and came in second at the worlds in London. I think I have it in me for one more year to try and do it.
Last year I came in second at the US nationals. DJ Vajra, the guy who won and went on to win the worlds just announced he’s not defending. Since the US is kind of on a comeback, whoever wins the US more than likely is going to be the frontrunner to win the worlds. I think I have an extremely good chance, so that’s been most of my focus, putting time aside for that. But I’m definitely in a different frame of mind compared to last year.
This year, I just want to have fun with it. Doing a showcase you’re doing friendlier, more crowd-appealing routines. You can do body tricks. You’re not trying to display an arsenal of tricks. With battling, you have a checklist of stuff you have to knock out, both for the audience and for the judges – it’s more mentally exhausting. Luckily I have my crew, Geometrix and Enferno, because whenever I’m unsure of whatever needs work, I just record my routine and send it to them, get their feedback. It’s pretty brutal, which I love. Last year they were like, ‘you need to X out 30 to 45 seconds, toss it out’. It might not seem long, but to come up with intricate patterns for 30-45 seconds can take up to two or three months. Luckily I had time. Whatever they tell me, I trust their judgment.
OT: What does it take to replace that 30 seconds?
I-D: You’re completely going back to the drawing board because you start with what you know and do that over and over and hope to accidentally come across something, or you might have to meditate and figure out how can you push the envelope. That’s when you’re extracting whatever creativity is left in you to do something no one else can do or that hasn’t been done yet. If I do come up with something cool, I look at footage and make sure no one’s done it. Over that five years a lot of people were telling me, you need to come back, but I felt I’d peaked at the time I’d stepped out, so I was like, the only way I’ll come back is if I can do something that tops what I did before. Also, last year was the first year that Serato was allowed. There were a lot of digital vinyl routines I’d been sitting on for years, so now I thought I’ll put a little more effort towards that and see what happens.
OT: When did you start going by the moniker I-Dee?
I-D: 2000. My initials and I added a hyphen and two e’s. I went through a whole list of bad names from Transformer names to cartoon names, but I was like let me just keep it simple. Also, I’ve always had a baby face and was always the youngest, always getting carded, so it kind of suited me. It was funny, the year I won the DMC US Supremacy in San Francisco, I was the only contestant under 21. They were like, “I-Dee’s going to London!” and the crowd’s cheering. And as soon as I was done, there were two bouncers waiting to escort me out of the venue. They were so apologetic like, ‘sorry, man, I know you just won, but we’ve got to follow protocol’. (laughs)
OT: You’ve taught at Scratch DJ Academy and Beat Refinery – do you enjoy teaching?
I-D: I love teaching. Even though I’m young I come from the vinyl era, so I’m big into technology but I’m also into paying your dues properly, learning the fundamentals. When I moved down to Miami I was also teaching at the Scratch DJ Academy there. I was already friends with DJ Immortal, the director. I’d been in the US finals and won the US Supremacy so he got me involved. I taught there until I moved back here in 2010. That’s when Geometrix said, ‘we’re finally opening a school here, I want you to lead the way with curriculum and teaching’, since I had the most experience. I had one student, Sharkbeat, who started last summer and recently graduated from the certificate program. It was almost like the cycle going forward – Geo taught me, and with this guy I would teach him something and instantly he’d pick it up. He went to the last regional and was intrigued. Whether he chooses to compete or not, he has raw talent so I need to extract it so he can hold his own, do whatever he wants.
OT: Where do you get inspiration for your music?
I-D: I think all the music I’ve listened to in the past helps me with the composition part of it. What I like to listen to is so random. I have to listen to Paul Hardcastle almost every day. On Pandora, I have Paul Hardcastle, J Dilla, DJ Shadow. From my childhood, I loved music at the grocery store. (laughs) The cheesy jazz and stuff you’d feel embarrassed to listen to but I could listen to all day – Kenny G, Yanni, Ace of Bass, VH1 stuff from back in the day. So I might do some cheesy ‘80s synth on top of a boom bap hip-hop beat. Faust put out the first turntablist album (“Man or Myth”) back in 1998, and DJ Shadow’s first album (“Endtroducing….”) are the foundation for deejay albums for me. Once I started getting into producing, I was examining those albums, especially how did they transcribe the scratching to
non-deejays? You can’t make it be a scratch over for two or three minutes. I can’t even tolerate my own scratching for more than 10 or 15 minutes. Those albums were beneficial and I felt I was able to find my own sound, not necessarily using their formulas, but being inspired off them.
OT: What software do you use?
I-D: Now I use a combination of Reason, Logic and ProTools.
OT: What was your relationship with Grandmaster Roc Raida?
I-D: He knew of me from the DMC’s. He judged a regional competition in ‘03 where I got 4th place, so he saw me from age 16 onward. That was the first time I met him. I was one point away from 3rd place, and placing was a big deal. Raida and Total Eclipse were judges along with two or three DC judges. What I heard was that everyone knew who won first and second, but they were unsure about third. Raida and Total Eclipse were voting against me, but the DC judges were like I-Dee did this and this. Ultimately it was a one point difference between 3rd and 4th. I was salty and bitter but everything happens for a reason. Then I won his first Gong Battle in 2006, and I already had the DMC title, so he was like ‘whatever you need, I’m going to hook you up, I’m going to get you PR, a manager’. He showered me with all this because he was in that situation at one point also, and he saw the potential in me, too. We would stay in touch, talk at least once every two weeks over a two-year period whether it be [about] my album, his family, what I’m working on, where I’m going. Whenever we got flown out to LA for the NAMM convention we’d have four or five days of just chilling, cracking jokes, breaking down what was going on.
OT: Did you ever tell him about seeing him on that VHS tape?
I-D: I never told him because that video and the Craze ‘98 video were the two most popular around that time that so many people got inspired off of. I was very fortunate for the relationship we had and I didn’t want to do anything to upset that. What’s funny is that when we started hanging out more in ‘06, even though he was a close friend I still saw him as a celebrity. At that time I was teaching Venus Williams, the tennis star, at the Scratch DJ Academy in Miami – she was injured and wanted to learn to deejay – I treated her like she was just another person and she liked that. Knowing that, with Raida, I didn’t want to be like, ‘oh, you did this routine’, but when other deejay groupies would come up and be like ‘man, when you did that salt and pepper routine, blah, blah, blah’, he’d be like, thank you, ‘thank you’, and that would be a segue for me to express my opinion like, ‘yeah, when I saw that third pattern you did, man, that was cool’. I was going about it cautiously, I guess.
OT: How did you come to be Raida’s daughter’s deejay instructor?
I-D: I think his wife found out about the Beat Refinery and sent me a simple message saying ‘Nyra’s doing this…’. I wrote back saying ‘here’s what we’ve got to do…’, gave her some times. We never charged for lessons, she would just come. They’re bringing back the Roc Raida Gong Battle as a memorial battle/fundraiser the day after the US finals, August 5, same venue, and she’s showcasing. She does have a lot of potential with the deejaying.
OT: Did you attend Roc Raida’s memorial service?
I-D: Yes, it was at a church in Harlem. I’ll never forget it because there were so many legendary hip-hop artists. I was bawling, head down, and Rob Swift came up to me, lifted my head and was like, ‘can’t do that, got to keep your head up’. All these hip-hop legends came – Fat Joe, Busta Rhymes, Lord Finesse. I’m pretty sure before they got big they were just musicians trying to make it. It was good to see them come back and pay respects and not forget where they came from. DJ Premier and Busta Rhymes gave eulogies and Rob Swift was last. Everyone was hurt, but my pain was more for his girls. I still can’t believe it. He was always nice, respectful, extremely humble. He practiced humility every single day. I think those traits really shine through his daughters. I think the deejaying aspect for them is just a bonus and I think that’s what he would want.
OT: How did your debut album Solitude – which Roc Raida released on his label Adiar Cor, come about?
I-D: Prior to the album he wanted me to put out a battle record. A battle record is basically a tool for deejays to use for competition with aggressive beats, sounds and samples to scratch with, some word play. It didn’t happen but he was the one who encouraged me to make an album and explained why it would be beneficial, it would cement my stamp on the scene. He explained I should look for collaborations and I lucked out. I had Jean Grae, C-Rayz Walz, Royce da 5’9” from Slaughterhouse … it was cool to work with artists I looked up to. It was weird, me, being put in the same boat, especially when I go to Europe. Their love for underground hip-hop is ridiculous. I think it was in Bulgaria, there was a line of people wanting me to sign their shoe, shirt, whatever, and someone had a 12” pressing of Solitude. I was like, ‘where did you get this? Is anyone selling this?’ He said, ‘no, I got it done myself’. I said, ‘the album isn’t that good. Why’d you do it?’ (laughs) He said, ‘I just love hip-hop’. Fans over there are crazy, crazy, crazy. In my opinion the biggest hip-hop festival in the world is Hip Hop Kemp in Prague, every August. The Roots headline. Authentic hip-hop, not the bubblegum stuff on the radio. I’m talking a sea of 20,000 to 40,000 hip-hop fanatics. It’s always a treat going there.
The second album, DJs Have Feelings, Too … But They Don’t Rap, shows versatility topic-wise. There’s a song about domestic violence, a track called IBS, one about no requests and other stuff deejays go through. It’s mainly comedy. Big difference between the first and second albums, almost like different people. The first one was me trying to be serious. The second one was me trying to let loose, like, now that I have your attention, here’s who I really am.
OT: What has your year been like so far?
I-D: The biggest thing is getting ready to make drastic life changes, going back to school to learn Chinese medicine – acupuncture, herbs – and getting ready to move to Australia. My girlfriend’s an Aussie from Canberra. I think we’ll eventually end up settling in Sydney. I love Sydney – the food, the weather, the beach. It’s been extremely hectic the past six months. I mostly did domestic dates – Las Vegas, LA, Tulsa. Tulsa was mostly a younger crowd, like ravers, so I did a two-hour party-rocking mix set and turntablist stuff at the very end.
But back to your question, I feel almost a sense of completion, at least with the battling because I started ten years ago, and that first set compared to the one I have this year is like full circle. I feel like I really can’t go any further beyond this, so win, lose or draw, I feel a sense of satisfaction with everything and I’m just kind of ready to move past it. But who knows? If I end up winning that might open up a new chapter. But for now I just want to get the set out of my system.
OT: The Beat Refinery’s going to miss you.
I-D: I’m glad I was able to help during the teething phase because that was the most crucial part, going through the growing pains, but this area needed this school. We’ve had students drive from Delaware because it’s shorter than going up to New York. It’s fun. I’m blessed to do stuff like this for a living.
OT: Any plans for another album?
I-D: I want to do another album once I can get back to the point where I can really just enjoy it again and not have to worry about pleasing this person or that person. Maybe next year I’ll start working on it. Before I make another album I’ll probably do an EP. I’ve been heavy on dubstep – 12th Planet, Skrillex, of course, Datsik. I have a friend, I’ll call him out – Kiddo – who’s an amazing dubstep producer who started out as a turntablist. He was a promoter who’d bring me out to New Mexico and then he moved to Vegas. His production is superb. He’s self-conscious of his work but I predict in a year or two he’ll be a household name in the dubstep scene. My EP might be one or two dubstep songs, or it might be completely dubstep, but typically when I get into that mode of making an album, same thing with the battle routines, I want each song to be completely different but still have traces of my style whether it be me sampling something or the particular drums or scratch I use.
OT: Do you have a favorite title?
I-D: It might be the DMC USA Supremacy in San Francisco in 2005. Being from the East Coast and going somewhere like San Francisco, the home of Q-Bert, at a very prestigious place, and a lot of big names in the house. Also, my goal was just to make top ten at a regional so to go as far as making it to US finals and then winning the US Supremacy title – to be at the position I’m at now, to be even close to winning the six-minute and potentially the world? It’s still crazy to me because I never would have guessed I’d be that close. I just wanted to be on the DVD for people to see my set. So winning the Supremacy in 2005 was the big highlight. Not only that, but it was a really grueling, tough battle. I came extremely prepared. The difference between the two is that the Supremacy is more of an endurance battle, so you’ve got to have 12-15 minutes of material and you’ve got to be able to switch. If you scope out your competition and you know the stronger dude, also you’ve got to look at the bracket, you want to make sure you save your strongest stuff for who you think might take you out.
Also winning the 2006 World Supremacy Gong Battle – Roc Raida’s battle – because there was DJ Premier, Pete Rock, DJ Scratch, DJ Spinbad. They were all on the judging panel so I wanted to enter just because I wanted them to see my stuff – I had some really cool routines. Like I remixed the Bob James theme from the TV show “Taxi,” turned that into a scratch composition, took a little break from it and turned it into an upbeat song. The audience looked like birds bopping their heads in sync. Those are the two. But the DMC, that’s the one. I’m going to give it one more go.
OT: On the surface you’re easy going, but what’s your mindset going into battle?
I-D: Yeah … I guess when I go onstage, it’s cutthroat. I’m doing whatever it takes to take you out. But outside of that, I’m always going to be humble because I always have respect for the turntables, and for anyone who does it, especially anyone who goes from the bedroom to the stage. Whenever I judge competitions it’s all about constructive criticism. If someone does really good – whereas five years ago they’d probably not even make it past a preliminary – I remind them that ‘I’m proud of you, great job, don’t stop practicing’. There are a lot of deejays who, once they win a title, they have a mindset like, ‘I’m content at this level’, especially if it’s a title they’re not deserving of.
With my comeback, I was like if I come back not only do I want to make a better routine than before but I also want to improve and learn new stuff. I don’t want to come with the same set of skills. When everyone made their predictions last year for the US finals, no one had me in their top three, given how much time I’d had off and what they’d seen me do in showcases because I was just cool and relaxed. But once they saw all the work come out, they were like, wow, not going to sleep on I-Dee anymore. I think the same thing applies to this year. I think everyone’s stepping up their game because of me. A couple more are coming out of retirement now. You can have set patterns and apply them on different songs, but that’s not pushing the envelope.
OT: What’s the most gratifying thing in your career?
I-D: Specifically with the turntablism, I’d say acknowledgement from my peers and getting the respect I deserve. When I won the US Supremacy and went on to the World finals, I left with a bitter taste in my mouth because everything is documented so when you look at the video, the guy I lost to repeated routines not once but twice. That’s a golden rule, especially if it’s on video – never repeat routines. Afterwards the judges were like, ‘we f—ed up’. The next morning they were like, ‘I’m sorry, man, but we can’t do anything now’, like the Olympics. If I had genuinely lost, like I did last year, I knew that, so same thing this year. As long as the best person wins, I’m fine with that. I put a lot of effort toward pleasing the crowd so I always know that’s going to shine regardless.
Right now I’m craving something more long-lasting. Years from now I’m not going to crave wanting to be in front of a crowd again to feel that sensation or whatever. I want something more. That I can tell my kids I was a champion at one point. I’m pretty sure athletes must feel the same way. I’m assuming they don’t miss the crowd as much as being part of the sport, the competition. It’s a different feeling. I don’t know if that makes sense. I’d want my kids to know I was a fierce competitor and I put forth everything I had into what I loved and I’d want them to do the same for whatever it is that they like. What I was doing, I was told I wasn’t supposed to be doing, so I was rebellious. In this day and age, who knows what the next generation might be into, but whatever it is, I’m all for it, I want to support him or her. As far as long-lasting feelings, it’s just about proper acknowledgement. I will miss competing more than the reaction from the audience.
OT: See any encouraging signs for the future of deejaying?
I-D: I’m really curious to see Simon Cowell’s deejay show whenever that comes to light. It could be extremely good or extremely bad. I hope when the mainstream sees it, they won’t just want to buy their children a bunch of equipment. I hope they’d want to do it the right way and take them to a proper school and learn the history and all that. Deejaying’s staying strong despite the celebrity deejays and people crapping on it. I think my generation in particular is going to have a better appreciation for it, and even the ones who don’t know much about it, at least they’ll know it’s more than just pressing buttons. I have a friend of a friend who doesn’t even know I’m a deejay who was talking about a place he’d been to where the deejay couldn’t mix so he’d start dancing but had to stop and start again. That gave me hope that people are getting more educated. On a mainstream level I’m curious about people’s reactions when turntables become a household thing on the same level as guitars and drums – normal instruments.
OT: Do you have an idea for an alternative name for so-called deejays who just push “play”?
I-D: Other than the word “poseurs”? I mean, you can’t really call them musicians because they’re not. If they’re producers just playing their production live, there’s a certain degree of respect for it, but as live musicians I really can’t respect them because it’s almost the equivalent of a singer or a musician standing there while their track is playing. It’s taken away from the art form. I saw the Paris Hilton set and heard Afrojack not vouch for her. He was like if you want to learn to deejay take the time to learn, respect the art form, the culture. That’s my biggest gripe which is why the deejay schools are important. DJ Premier said it best: You have to earn the right to use Serato. Simple as that. You can’t just be pushing buttons.
OT: Why do you wear a Playboy cap?
I-D: I’ve had this hat for nine years. It’s been through three or four washes – it’s extremely comfortable. I’ve used this in so many different promo shots, a lot of people have asked what happens if I lose it. I say, I’m not going to lose it – don’t say that. I’ve tried to find a replacement but haven’t found one. There’s no story, no message. It’s just part of me. I’m pretty sure I got it at some mall. Trucker hats were big in 2003. Looking back at footage, everything went well when I was wearing this, so it is kind of a lucky hat. I’d stress myself out if I didn’t have this for the US finals! (laughs)
Raise the roof for DC’s DJ I-Dee at the 2012 DMC US Finals DJ Battle on Saturday, August 4, 2 p.m., $15; Le Poisson Rouge: 158 Bleecker St., NY, NY; 212-505 -FISH; email@example.com. Follow DJ I-Dee at www.twitter.com/DJ_I_DEE and www.facebook.com/deejayidee. Check out DJ I-Dee’s video archive at www.youtube.com/user/djidee.