Hey, DJ: Zebuel

The soul, funk, and bass impresario talks about his new album, current favorite songs, and his upcoming party at The Great Northern.

As the mastermind behind the Smoked Out Soul collective, producer/DJ/guitarist Zebuel combines his bluesy Memphis roots with classic soul and funk beats to create experiences he describes as “old-school taste, new-school bass.” He recently released the album River City Sunset, which uniquely combines elements of electronic music production with live instrumentation to form what sounds like a modern day Boogie Nights soundtrack. We got a chance to talk to Zebuel about his soul/funk remix party, album influences, and what tracks he’s currently bumping in his spare time.

 Zebuel’s official album release party takes place this Wednesday, Oct. 26 featuring live musicians and DJs at The Great Northern. Catch Smoked Out Soul every 2nd and 4th Wednesday at Monarch.

Congrats on the release of your recent album River City Sunset! How are you feeling about it?
I feel great about it! I’m getting a lot of positive feedback, so I can’t complain. I put a lot of time and energy into the album, so to see it come to fruition has been awesome.

Does it feel good to be able to release it on your own Smoked Out Soul label?
Definitely. It’s always been a dream of mine to start my own label. I’m looking forward to curating a sound, putting out more records of my own and records from like-minded artists.

A lot of people told me not to do it. They said it was too hard, too much work, and not worth it. But I feel it’s better to try something and risk failing then to never try anything at all. Just following through with an idea and creating something is a success in and of itself. I’m excited to watch it grow! Shout out to Ingrooves and Oz Mcguire of Mixto Records for their help in launching the label.

What were some of the inspirations going into this album?
My goal was to make a record that fused live music with modern-day production techniques. An electronic album that sounds less robotic and more organic. A record that you can cruise to, bump in the house or at a party.

My inspiration comes from reggae bass lines, 808 kicks, blues guitar, g-funk era synthesizers, drum breaks and horn lines from old funk records, southern hip-hop, and any music that has an uplifting vibe. I also did some field recordings of birds, crickets, creeks, and rivers, so I guess you could say nature inspired it too.

How did you go about choosing collaborators?
I’m fortunate enough to know some awesome musicians and producers here in Northern California. Pretty much everyone on this record I play with in various bands or projects. If I felt like a track needed something I knew who to call. All the horns were from guys that play in the Smoked Out Soul project, Will Magid and Teddy Raven. The live bass is Sam Ravenna and the keys come from Todd Holway, both of whom I play with in a band called The King Tide. I co-produced a couple of the songs with my good friend and amazing producer CharlesTheFirst. If an artist has a good vibe and a good sound, I’m always open to collaborating.

What was an unexpected challenge you ran into crafting this album?
I’d say mixing was the most challenging thing. I explored a lot of new territory for this album so it took a while to finish. It was pretty much done over a year ago, but I took my time and made sure I was happy with all of the sounds. I replaced lots of samples with live instruments and I learned a lot about recording and mixing multiple parts together in the process. There are so many layers in some of these tracks that it was it was a challenge to blend. Four-part saxophone lines as an example, and figuring out which part you want to shine and which should sit back in the mix. Normally I produce and mix all of my own songs, but I hired my friend Phil Jahns to help out with this one. We went in to Jingletown Recordings in Oakland to work on their SSL board. I read an interview with RZA from Wu Tang about electrifying your songs by running them through an analogue console. I had to give it a try.

As a guitar player but also a DJ, what are similarities between the two?
In both DJing and playing guitar you have to feel the crowd and be able to switch up the sound based on the vibe at the time. Improvisation is a great skill to have in both areas. I think tension and release is a key concept as well, both as a DJ and a guitarist. Also, understanding how your part fits in with a band has really helped me as a producer. Everything has it’s own place in the frequency spectrum and the rhythmic pulse.

You also started a party portion of Smoked Out Soul at Monarch. What’s the atmosphere like at this party for those of us that have never been?
I think what makes this party special is that there is something for everybody. Whether you’re into live music, bass music, or DJ culture, you’ll find something to dig. It’s a funk and soul remix party, but the beats are fat. It’s exciting too! Live musicians and DJ/producers collaborate with special guests and featured artists every second and fourth Wednesday. You never know whose gonna come through or what sounds you’re likely to hear, but you know it’s gonna be funky. The central theme is “old-school taste, new-school bass.” The unifying factor and jumping off point is soul music, but besides that the format is wide open. You’ll hear hip-hop, electro funk, boogie, nu disco, house, bass music, all blessed with soul samples.

It’s been met with almost instant success. What’s important to you in keeping soul/funk vibes alive in the Bay Area?
I think being from the Memphis area has me hooked on soul music. Every time I go home I spend a day at the Stax Museum soaking up the vibes. That music just has a timeless sound that brings people of all generations and backgrounds together. A few couples I know even fell in love at Smoked Out Soul parties.

I love looking out and seeing folks from the community connecting, musicians and DJs networking, people smiling and dancing their asses off, getting excited about new sounds. I feel like putting a new twist on classic music is a way to pay tribute while doing something different. I have a lot of respect for all of the artists and promoters out there keeping the Bay Area funky and full of spirit. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of work, but I feel it’s important and honorable to be a purveyor of art, music and culture.

This coming Wednesday, you’ll be throwing an official album release party at Great Northern. What does a live Smoked Out Soul set look like?
After getting asked to play a festival as Smoked Out Soul last summer, we had to come up with a live set, so we did. It’s the same vibe as the party but we have an actual set list with horn parts and song forms. We focus more on original songs, remixes and edits along with tunes from fellow producers that we remix live. It’s still DJ based but features two horns, live guitar, drums, and percussion. We will also have Donovan “Gordo Cabeza” Hall from Motown on Mondays scratching records with us along with some other special guests. Will Magid is kicking off the night at 9 p.m. followed by Jazzy Fox, SOS Live then Gordo and Timo from MOM DJ’s. It’s gonna be lit!

Lastly, what are four current tracks on rotation for you? 

“While I’m Alone” – Maze ft. Frankie Beverly

“God Make Me Funky” – The Headhunters

“Finesse (Hey Baby)” – Flamingosis

“Wagwan Tho” – Starslinger

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