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August 27, 2019

Raj Smoove, The Greatest DJ In The World, Takes On The New Orleans Music Industry

Raj Smoove has never had a “real job.” No summers mowing lawns, no part-time gig stocking shelves over the holidays, no late-night restaurant shifts in the French Quarter. At age 14, he was hired by a classmate to spin records at a birthday party in the East. Today, he’s arguably the city’s busiest DJ.

But don’t just take my word for it. The man who Grammy-winning rapper Lil Wayne dubbed “The Greatest DJ in the World” boasts a remarkable CV: in addition to prestigious residencies at the House of Blues New Orleans, the Ace Hotel and Blue Nile, Raj is an official DJ for the New Orleans Pelicans basketball team and the game-day DJ for the New Orleans Saints football team. He’s appeared at Essence Festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, NBA All-Star Weekend, the National Urban League Conference and the National Black Journalists Association Convention.

Raj reads rooms and enlivens dance floors with genre-less fluidity. He can delight the ears and feet of discerning hip-hop heads at venues like the House of Blues’ Foundation Room, but also animate the gyrating hips of Caribbean music fans at Soca Fête. You know that feeling, when you’re already enraptured by the music coming from the DJ booth, only to be swaddled by the joy of hearing exactly the right song at the right moment? That’s what Raj Smoove does.

“You can’t say ‘New Orleans DJs’ without mentioning Raj. No way. No how,” Mannie Fresh tells me. Fresh, an icon of New Orleans hip-hop and a household name in rap music, has witnessed Raj’s star rise since its onset. “His contribution to New Orleans hip-hop is nuts. Just seeing him DJ, it made me up my game. A lot of people just play the hit records, but he knows when to play a record that no one else would even dare try to play.”

An example of Raj’s audacious DJ style happened when the National Urban League Conference came to New Orleans in 2012. Raj was hired to DJ the official after-party. It just so happened that Stevie Wonder was in town, and he made his way to the Conference after-party at Metropolitan, where a magical, extemporaneous moment was captured on film. In a video which has since gone viral, Raj plays a bounce beat on the turntables while Stevie sings “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).” It’s a sensational example of Raj’s ability to read a room and the energy of an icon like Stevie Wonder. Like Mannie Fresh says, Raj wasn’t scared to throw a record on and see what happened.

“Stevie’s people came over to me and said Stevie wanted to know if I had some beats because he wanted to get on the microphone and do something. I started out with some old-school break beats. Then, I dropped a brown beat, and everybody just lost their mind. It was all just on the fly,” Raj remembers.

Unlike American cities like Chicago, Detroit and New York where DJs and producers are as famous as their MCing counterparts, New Orleans isn’t really known for its disc jockeys (nor, to a lesser extent, its hip-hop producers). But for those who grew up when local DJs like Slick Leo and Money Fresh were architects of a new sound, the DJ has been as consequential as anywhere else.

“I think we’ve always had great DJs down here,” says Raj. “It’s just, in Chicago you have house music readily identified with DJs and in NYC you have East coast hip-hop readily identified with DJs. Bounce music down here didn’t get identified with DJs until, maybe, the 2000s. We always had DJs on the scene, but it wasn’t until you had DJ Money Fresh, Mannie Fresh, Slick Leo, Suave Productions in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that they started being recognized some. We even have the term ‘going to the DJ,’ which is going to a block party, but you had a DJ on the street. I think, nationally, we haven’t had a lot of breakout DJs, but it’s always been at the core of hip-hop, so that means it’s always been at the core of New Orleans hip-hop as well.”

Raj Smoove has taken his predecessors’ blueprints and consistently expanded on them for two decades. In 2000, he became the official DJ for the Cash Money Records/Ruff Ryder Entertainment tour. That was followed by a tenure as the in-house DJ and producer for Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment, an era when New Orleans rap music was front and center in the mainstream. He appeared on two of hip-hop’s seminal television shows, BET’s Rap City: Tha Bassment and 106 & Park, and produced several tracks on Lil Wayne’s platinum-selling 2004 album Tha Carter. He also hosted Lil Wayne’s 2006 mixtape Lil Weezy Ana. His own compilation, 2001’s Raj Smoove Redefines Bayou Classic, features Mannie Fresh, Mia X, 5th Ward Weebie and his fellow Psycho Ward DJ-producers.

Before working side-by-side with hip-hop superstars, Raj Smoove was playing around with future Oscar winners and Pulitzer-nominated composers. His father is Roger Dickerson, who in 2014 was named the recipient of OffBeat’s Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music Education award. His mother, Sara, is a dedicated and accomplished educator with a fine arts and humanities background. As an only child, Raj was blessed with a foundation built on education, dedication and the pursuit of development.

In the Shadows of Giants

Raj—born Roger Dickerson II—was a toddler surrounded by giants of New Orleans music. In addition to his Pulitzer Prize-nominated daddy (for the 1972 Louis Armstrong requiem, “A Musical Service for Louis,” and 1976’s U.S. Bicentennial-commissioned “New Orleans Concerto”), Raj grew up with Allen Toussaint and Ellis Marsalis as his elders, reared by the sounds of future Academy Award-winning composer Terence Blanchard who took piano lessons from his dad.

Dickerson, Sr. says his son was only two or three when he began showing an inclination for music. A young Raj entertained himself with musical toys for children, but it was an unorthodox instrument he picked up which truly showcased his budding prowess.

“Terence Blanchard was taking lessons from me in high school and Roger was there,” Dickerson recounts. “We turned around and Roger had his oatmeal boxes set up on the floor. I said to Terence, ‘Play a tune with him.’ And he did.”

Some of Raj’s earliest musical experiences also happened at Allen Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studios in Gentilly, where he jumped on the couch while legendary musicians cut legendary records. Toussaint’s son, Clarence (whom most call Reggie), looks back fondly on the kid who was always around.

“I think I’ve known Raj since he was five. He was a little annoying. You can tell him I said that. Very annoying,” Reggie says through a chuckle. He says Raj was always “edgier” than his parents, a precocious kid who was articulate and armed with a complex musical vocabulary from birth.

“From early on, you could see his knowledge of music and how things blend,” says Reggie. “I thought he would end up playing [an instrument] but when you see him mixing, putting tracks together, the context of the music he puts together, you see his background. He would also poke the bear a lot. It was like he had no filter, and it’s just who he was. He didn’t give it a second thought. I put him in the category of Kanye West…our Kanye West. Because Kanye’s music vocabulary is so large, and he knows all of the intricate parts. Raj just sees music differently from most DJs.”

Reggie remembers seeing Raj DJ for the first time. He’s unsure whether it was Essence Fest or Jazz Fest, but he hired him to play records off the strength of his mom Sara’s endorsement.

“I sat back and watched the set from the audience, and I watched the crowd, and I watched his intensity, how he felt about it. You could see how he felt about the music, and then you could hear people’s response, and I thought, ‘Oh, okay, he has that. He has that gift.’ But with him, I kind of knew that whatever he was going to do musically, it was going to be successful because the other part was so refined. He still was an annoying little kid, though.”

Piano and drum lessons were part of Raj’s childhood, but he never had much interest in becoming a musician, at least not in any traditional sense. As a young child living in Atlanta while his mother earned her doctorate, Raj saw the 1984 movie Beat Street, a film in which the protagonist is a DJ.

“I had the Beat Street soundtrack. It was Volume One and Two, the yellow cassette and pink cassette. That was my first experience of really understanding what a DJ was. At that time in hip-hop, the DJ always got the top bill; that was a subconscious thing on my mind. The DJ was the hero.”

A few years later, Raj heard Live at Union Square by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (Will Smith). On that record, a 17-year-old Smith introduces Jazzy Jeff and his “transformer scratch.” The technique, so named because of the manipulation of sound to mimic the theme song of the popular 1980s cartoon “The Transformers,” became a keystone in the development of DJing as an art form known as turntablism. Hearing it was a turning point for Raj.

“I was a child during the eighties, so The Transformers—Optimus Prime and all that—was a huge thing and Jazzy Jeff starts doing the transformer scratch so I’m thinking ‘I want to do that. I can do that.’ At that point I had the idea in my mind, I wanted to DJ.

As fate would have it, someone broke into our house and stole all my Nintendo tapes and console. Luckily my parents had insurance so with the insurance check, I got a DJ mixer. They would have these electronic fairs coming through the Superdome, and they would sell off-brand equipment, so I got another little turntable and I got another record player from my stereo component set. So, at that point I had two turntables and a mixer, and I’m listening to Rob Fresh—he used to DJ on FM 98. They were live on the radio during the weekends, and it would be like a real show—they were scratching and back spinning. They had a Sound Warehouse on Chef [Menteur Highway] by my dad’s house, so I would go over there and buy Rob’s records to try and mimic his mixes and try to figure out what he was doing.”

Raj began practicing his scratching whenever he could, inspired by things like the “kick, kick, kick” sounds on MC Lyte albums. He perfected the cross-fader and line switches, back spinning and more. It was in 1997, he thinks, that he had his first “aha” moment as a live DJ. He and Psycho Ward, whom he calls New Orleans’ Wu-Tang Clan, were opening for Wyclef Jean at the House of Blues. Raj decided to test out some of the tricks he’d been practicing.

“It was a whole under the leg, behind the back, go switch the other leg, turn around, behind the back, stop the record kind of routine. And I nailed it. And the whole crowd went ‘Aaaaah!’ When Wyclef performed and got on for his set, they called me back on stage to get down with him. That was one of the great moments.”

Though Raj didn’t end up pursuing the classical and jazz music of his father, their careers share similar trajectories. Dickerson, Sr. gigged with high-school bandmate Ellis Marsalis; Raj gigged at high-school social functions. While dad played piano at clubs in the French Quarter, Raj’s late teen years and early twenties found him gigging Uptown, Downtown and all over New Orleans.

“I feel like I’ve been, not necessarily walking in his footsteps, but our lives have had a lot of the same parallels,” Raj says of his dad and himself. They both attended McDonogh 35 High School and Dillard University. Dickerson, Sr. was a Fulbright Fellow at the Akadamie für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Vienna, Austria. Dickerson, Jr. was offered a scholarship to Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business.

“My mom is a very free spirit, an artist and is the ‘whatever you want to do, follow your dreams’ type, so she was always supportive [of my DJing]. My dad was a little bit more suspicious. My dad’s a classically trained jazz musician, symphonic composer, and his son was doing rap music, which was the new trendy thing. I feel like my dad appreciated and respected it, because he gets it. He gets that things evolve in music and all of that, but he also knows how hard it is to be a career musician and make money off music because he’s been doing music his whole life, too.”

While performing with Wyclef Jean and carving out a name for himself on the local circuit, Raj was just as focused on his academics. Heeding his parents’ advice about getting his education, Raj graduated from Dillard in 1998 with a degree in Mass Communication and Business. After college, he continued DJing and used his former childhood home in Gentilly as his studio (which still operates today as Mirabeau Yeaux).

Commitment and Focus

Once Y2K rolled around, Raj was faced with an existential crossroads: accept a full ride to business school, which he had already deferred for two years to see if he could “make this hip-hop shit work out,” or join the Cash Money/Ruff Ryders tour. Well…

Raj remained committed to pursuing his music career. “What do they say about John Wick?” he asks rhetorically. “That he’s a man of commitment and focus. I’ve always tried to stay ahead of the curve, and just by trying certain things, I’ve become the standard bearer.”

Raj was one of the first DJs in New Orleans to integrate laptops and Serato programming into his sets. At that time, Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city, taking with her Raj’s record collection. Just before the storm, Raj was offered a promotion from mixing on 104.5 FM to being music director. “Then Katrina hit and blew everybody everywhere. So our core audience was spread out all across, and they ended up never coming back. Katrina blew everything away, and I was one of the first ones back to the city, DJing as soon as the clubs started opening back up.”

During a temporary displacement to Chicago, Raj began building up his music collection and landed gigs in Atlanta, Houston and the Windy City. At home, things were slow to pick up.

“Things came back in full swing in ’06 or ’07 because the colleges came back. It was popping again for a nice minute. But it started tapering off because we weren’t getting the refresh of the college population and that really funnelled everything—people would come as freshmen and refresh the cycle. But then people were like, ‘I’m not sending my kids to New Orleans after the storm,’ so that started drying up. By 2008, the people that got there before the storm started graduating, and that’s when the drought started hitting and things started to slow down. It was a really clean break.”

Temporary setbacks now behind him, Raj John Wick-ed his way through his career with the help of a devoted fanbase. As Mannie Fresh puts it, “Raj had this crazy mad following, like wherever Raj Smoove was playing, that’s where New Orleans was going. During his early rise, even up to this day, he has this cult following behind him.

“You know, he has to go down in the books as one of the New Orleans DJ greats. If we say Slick Leo or whoever else, we have to say Raj Smoove. When he started DJing, it was a turning point in hip-hop. He started DJing when his younger generation took over where we left off. When it was just like, okay, music is starting to change. New Orleans’ sound is starting to change, because New Orleans was a jazz city for forever. Raj helped change that. He’s somebody who’s from our school and a student of it, hanging around me and [DJ] Wop and all that. I feel like, in order to be great, you gotta go left sometimes, and that’s what he does, the stuff that everybody else is not doing.”

Turning the Tables

Over the course of his 30-year career, Raj Smoove has conquered the DJ world several times over. His legacy is cast in stone. What excites him more now is using all of that experience to benefit the local music industry. In addition to having recently launched a label imprint (Parkview Records) as well as being a writer, studio engineer, manager and married father of four kids under four-years-old, Raj is on the steering committee for the New Orleans Music Economy Initiative, or NOME.

“NOME is a collection of professional creatives that are, with the help of GNO Inc., trying to spur intellectual property in publishing and copyright stuff in the city, which really is what the whole music industry revolves around,” Raj explains. ‘Having people here actually making money off their intellectual property is something we want to make a reality for New Orleans.”

He’s also gearing up to launch his own creative consulting firm, The Gentilly Agency. Expected to launch in Fall 2019, the agency will put a formal name to the behind-the-scenes work Raj has been doing for other artists. Eventually, the agency will offer artist development, management, booking and more.

“I’m realizing everybody has to pitch in and help the diamonds in the rough get the tender love and care they need to bloom and develop,” he says of his decision to start an agency. “There’s a lot of talent here, and they just need a little buffing to make sure all their ducks are lined up so they can be marketable. I feel like there’s a lack of mentorship. People don’t know how to become effective because they don’t know professional etiquette; they’re not around people that do this professionally. People will say ‘I do PR.’ I’ve found there are a lot of people who don’t know what they mean. By having an agency, I can involve other people and it’s an identifiable entity that’s not just ‘Oh, Raj does this, Raj does that.’ It’s something people can be a part of. It’s a movement. Everybody likes a movement.”

On September 22, Raj will showcase some of the artists he’s working with when he performs at the National Fried Chicken Festival. There, he’ll share the stage with Caren Green, Xeno Moonflower, Bobbi Rae, DeeLow Diamond Man, Kris Batiste, GG Pender and Paco Troxclair.

With all he has going on, I was curious to hear how Raj Smoove would define his own legacy.

“It’s hard for me to know how people see me. I know how I see myself. I have all these memories of what I’ve done, and I’m like, ‘Damn that was amazing.’ I’m just looking at what I have next, what’s on the table.”

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