‘Behind the Beat’: Getting to know Sensible J (REMI/House of Beige)

Justin ‘Sensible J’ Smith is a producer and percussionist whose talents you may have seen along with musical partner in crime Remi. They’ve been touring extensively around Australia and overseas since the release of Remi’s acclaimed debut album Raw x Infinity in 2014.

An avid music fan with diverse music tastes and influences of his own, Sensible J has been able to pour a broad base of technical knowledge when it comes to musical production and flavour into music that is becoming more and more beloved both within the hip hop community and outside it.

When it comes to his career as a musician, producer and now label head (Remi and Sensible J’s music label House of Beige now houses releases by artists including Hau Latukefu and Man Made Mountain), Sensible J opens up about his journey…

How did you first get into music – what led you to the drums (and do you play any other instrument)?

My parents. They were in a band together back in Cape Town, South Africa. The house I grew up in in Melbourne always had instruments (bass, guitar, percussion, etc) and records around. As a kid, you’re instantly attracted to anything that makes sound and for some reason, I was always attracted to banging on the pots and pans. My folks saw/heard this and bought me a lil’ kids drum kit when I was four. As a teenager, I got into playing a lil’ bit of bass, guitar and keys. I’m very basic on those three!

Who do you find yourself being influenced by as a musician and what is it about their work that drew you in initially?

There’s so many to chose from! I know it’s almost cliché nowadays to say this, but I’m gonna say Questlove. (I think it’s great that he is pretty much a pop culture icon now, ‘cos he is a super nerd!).

As a drummer who loves hip hop, that’s initially what drew me in. The drum sounds on The Roots’ albums are always great and always changing – I respect that. They challenge their fan-base (like Radiohead), don’t stay stagnant and put out great music into their 40’s.

Are there any key albums that stand out as having formed your musical tastes and approach to making music now?

Jay Dee – Welcome To Detroit
Radiohead Kid A
Fela Kuti – anything!
Common – Like Water For Chocolate
Flying Lotus Los Angeles

Though people may associate you predominantly with drumming live with REMI, it’s the production aspect of your work that I think is particularly interesting to delve into – how long have you been working with Rem and how would you say your production style has changed over the years (if much at all)?

I’ve been working with Remi since the end of 2010, I think. I don’t think my ‘style’ has changed a lot since I started properly making beats in 2007. It’s always been all over the shop and what I’m feelin’ right then and there.

We still use some beats done in 2008-09 on some projects I’ve produced (I never tell folks if a beat is a new or old one, cos they’re all ‘new’ to them). Right now for Divas and Demons (forthcoming Remi album), I’m trying to make it more musical (100% cliché, but the truth!), with more organic sounds. Always combining samples with live drums, bass, synth and guitars.

Photo: Zarina Yess
Photo: Zarina Yess

We know that music can be a way to channel energy, it can be therapeutic and inspiring. What do you think it is about percussion, beat-making and the technical aspects of arranging music that can have this affect on a musician like yourself?

It’s hypnotic and completely can zone me out from what’s happening around me. I can get stuck on certain parts of songs and keep rewinding for an hour (not my own songs!). Making beats is the most fun thing to me. Making something out of nothing. A simple percussion pattern, then just adding to that is the path I’m on at the moment. I’m attracted to crusty sounding and technically imperfect rhythms.

We’re living in a technological age where aspiring producers and artists of all ages now have a wider selection of fellow artists to be inspired by thanks to the internet, but they can also get their own work out into the world far easier with Soundcloud, YouTube, etc. Do you think this is a benefit or can be a hindrance in disguise?

It’s definitely both. I love the fact that it is nowadays so easy for a kid at home to use some software they got for free with a laptop, to make music. It’s basically a studio from the 90’s for free on a laptop! Plus, with the internet, if you hit a creative block, it’s so easy to hop on YouTube and find ANYTHING from artists you love, from studio, to live, to interviews. All those things help inspire me and spark my brain for making beats.

The downside is mainly for the music consumer – way too many options! It can be overwhelming. Also, it’s made music a lot more disposable, with the volume of new songs and albums coming out every day.

Photo: Michelle Grace Hunder
Photo: Michelle Grace Hunder

You and Remi are also now involved in the label side of things with House of Beige– what spurred the idea to head into this area of music and how have you been enjoying being able to help foster other musicians’ careers?

Basically stubbornness! Not wanting to be told what and when to put music out. I would hate someone asking me for a single, because I have NO IDEA how to make a “single”. I don’t need that sort of stress, so we started our own label! If we dig our songs then we’re happy, and that’s what we try and push.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve always thought it would be cool to have my own label and with us feeling a bit like outsiders in the hip hop scene in Australia, we thought we would try and start a lil’ movement with our friends who make similar left of centre music. It’s basically strength in numbers. I love helping with friends as we’ve made many missteps and tried to learn from them.

What are you looking forward to with House of Beige in 2016?

Touring the country with other House of Beige acts. I think that’s the key in getting the name and movement out. We’re trying to be like a modern “Native Tongue” (Australian label). Man Made Mountain have been on tour with us around Australia, then they go on to support Dylan Joel around Oz after that. They will definitely win folks over, I think.

What have been some of the biggest challenges for you as a muso, especially over the last few years with touring and dealing with a rising profile behind the music you’re making? How do you keep grounded?

Basically having the time to do all the things I want to do, properly. I like to be prepared and with touring from place to place, without breaks, it can wear you down mentally and physically, especially if you don’t eat and exercise well. I even drink tea on stage while I’m playing drums!

I only got to quit my day job in June 2015, which I had been at for 16 years, so that helps me stay grounded! I love making and playing music, and I’ve also seen how quickly you can fall off. That motivates me and keeps me going, especially when I wanna sit at home and watch the NBA for a week. I don’t wanna be lazy, because someone else will easily take our place as there are so many young folk coming up making cool stuff.

Header Photo: Andrew Boyle

Keep up to date with everything House of Beige, HERE.

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