Derek “DJA” Allen has been a silent killer for years, putting in serious work for Mad Decent as a producer and in-house engineer. He’s largely responsible for the success of RiFF RAFF and Three Loco, and is one half of Blood Bros. with Dirty South Joe, but his music catalog is a bit ridiculous. He has created music for and with artists including Travis Porter, Lil Twist, Lil Wayne, Tinie Tempah, 2 Chainz, Usher, Wale, Iggy Azelea, GLC, and Major Lazer.
He’s the poster child for organic success in the industry, as all of his accolades are on the back of hard work and humility. He’s still really excited about what he does, and it shows. We’ve quickly touched base quite a bit over the past year, and thought to have a longer conversation. Derek and I sat down to discuss the lack of proper artist credits in today’s industry, why he isn’t a household name, his involvement in one of the biggest labels in EDM, and his inspiration.
DJA, thanks so much for your time. Can you give us a little bit of a background on how you aligned with Diplo and Mad Decent?
Thank you guys, I appreciate it. I got started with Diplo through the Hollertronix mixtapes and seeing him at a few random parties in New York. I started bugging him with CDs early on, and then later when Florida was out I’d bug him with CDs while he was touring with RJD2 and playing weird drag show raves in parking garages in Kentucky.
And you were based in Philly at the time?
No, I was still living in Louisville. I never had a chance to see a Hollertronix in Philly, actually. But after a year or so of getting in touch with Diplo at shows and stuff, I moved to Vancouver. We had a mutual friend in Paul Devro. At this time I was all over the Hollerboard as well, like everyone else.
The Hollerboard is a blank screen right now. What did that forum mean to you?
The Hollerboard and Turntable Lab were a huge deal to me. I don’t know how I would have found out about anything without both of those resources. I honestly think some of my favorite creative people out today and some of my best friends came from the Hollerboard. It’s crazy. I went to school in Vancouver. While I was there I connected more with Diplo, who was just starting to do official remixes. I mixed his remix of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s song “Gold Lion,” and that was the start of us working together. When I got out of school, we stayed in touch – but only with me sending beats, helping with engineering, etc. But I then moved to the east coast, and spent some time interning with Disco D.
Were you around when he was mentoring Benny Blanco?
(Laughs) Yes, he called me because Benny was quitting. Benny was around. His management was in the same building, so he was definitely around. I met Spankrock, Santigold, and her boyfriend Trevor via Disco D, who are definitely friends to this day. Disco D, however, really wanted me to be able to do video editing and graphics – stuff I wasn’t really doing. So, I stopped interning with him and stayed in Boston, DJing in clubs and working at undergroundhiphop.com.
Around this time, Diplo got back in touch with me about engineering again. So I would go down to Brooklyn to work with him and M.I.A. on her second album. We worked on a few songs, one was “Big Branch,” which wasn’t used on the album. Not long after that, Diplo brought me down to Philly to work with him on a few songs, mixing and helping out with the remix production of “Paper Planes,” etc. We talked about Philly, and the idea of doing Mad Decent as a “real label.” He asked if I would move to Philly to engineer and produce with him, so my girlfriend (who is now my wife) packed up and moved to Philly from Boston. The first stuff we were working on was really glamorous, like scraping paint off the walls in this decrepit old building (The Mausoleum). It was like when the Ghostbusters moved into the firehouse and Egon said it should be condemned. I was like Egon. But we cleaned it up, and eventually he made that building REALLY beautiful. It has polished stone floors… it’s an amazing place.
Where was Devro at while you guys were working on music in Philadelphia?
So thats where we did all the shipping and receiving for Mad Decent, producing and mixing records, recording any of our friends or artists on the label, and pretty much everything else. We took lots of trips to drop Diplo off at the Philly airport in his old red Jeep. Devro was in Vancouver – he was a constant part of the label from the beginning. Whereas I was engineering and mixing and mastering or doing some additional production, Devro was – as he is now – a fantastic creative director and A&R. Paul would also come down to visit more and more as the years went by, coming to Philly for a few days while doing various shows. The only other really part of that story is that at the same time, Jasper from Turntable Lab became the label manager of Mad Decent, and he remains so to this day. We haven’t really changed the lineup – just added a few people. Again, for me to be working with the guy who started Turntable Lab, and the guy who started Hollertronix was pretty dope, and still is.
So you moved from Philly and Devro moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles at the same time?
No, not at all. I moved to Philly really early, like 2006 or 2007. No one moved or really went to LA that much until later. I was in Boston in ’06 DJing at Enormous Room with Certified Bannanas, Dr Claw, DJ Huggs, and others. I was also DJing at Good Life, and doing music for UGHH.com DVDs. I think it was early ’07 I moved to Philly, engineering and getting the label started.
And were you producing records the whole time, or focusing mostly on sound engineering and business?
I was always producing records, but I didn’t really know what to do with them. I always make music in a lot of different styles. So at the time, I was making random electro tracks, but giving them to friends instead of submitting to blogs. I did a lot of edits that I’d play out that ended up on Benzi tapes. I studied sound design in school, which certainly isn’t mixing, but I was always focused on producing, creative sound design and mixing equally.
When did the record placements start to happen for you?
Woo man, that was way later for everyone! When we started, Beanie Sigel was in the alley behind the studio doing a photo shoot next to Wes’s apartment. So I went out with some M.I.A. records and Blaqstarr 12″s talking about Diplo, M.I.A., and Baltimore club. Beans looked at me like I was out of my mind, but he took the records. I can’t remember their names, but there were some very successful producers in a big fancy studio near our building. And once Diplo went over there for a little party, and it was like “M.I.A. who?” So these were the early days. No “Paper Planes” Pineapple Express yet.
But rap and club were pretty much separate markets at the time...
Yeah, we were focused on remixes, label releases, etc. Of course I was making whatever beats all the time, but the opportunity to get beats to Beanie wasn’t really on the table (laughs). Cool he took the records, though.
He’s out of prison this year… maybe it’s a good time to hit him up to work on a song?
Yeah, I actually did a record with my buddy Emynd with Peedi Craak last year.
I didn’t know you were cool with Emynd? His bounce records are ferocious.
He and Bo (Bliz) are great friends. I mastered all of the Flamin’ Hotz records, including theirs, as well as a few mixtapes for them while I was still in Vancouver. But yeah, shoutout Bo and Emil and their party. I have a lot of love for those guys and we’ve had a lot of great conversations. White Tees White Belts. Maaaaan could not remember that. (Laughs). Thats been a minute.
I went to almost every one of those in 2006.
I have never been a dude who went out constantly. I was always a studio rat, but I went to a few as well. They were awesome. Late model, I guess, since it was 2007.
How did you make it from Philadelphia to Los Angeles though? And when did your production start getting placed?
I started coming out to LA, I can’t remember when, but it was to work on the first Major Lazer record. It was completed in Philly, NYC, and LA. I co-produced the song “Lazer Theme,” as well as engineering on that record. After that, I continued to come out to LA to work on various other projects, as Diplo was traveling constantly. Fast way forward to early 2010, my wife and I moved from Philly to LA. Once I got to LA, I had a few songs placed with artists who were dropped, artists who were pushed back, as well as continuing to work with Diplo and the label producing, engineering, and working on releases. I can’t remember what the first placement was actually, really Major Lazer and a lot of commercial work.
You and I have talked in the past couple of months quite a bit about Wikipedia and their denial of your submissions for your own records. What are some of the bigger records that you’ve produced that Wikipedia refuses to credit?
My problem with Wikipedia is that the community has over and over denied me to have a page, along with countless other friends of mine – some of whom are professional DJs with a large following and fan base.
Then why care about it?
The reason I care about it is because I feel Wikipedia should change their thinking a bit to be more like Internet Movie Database. What I mean is, Wiki currently seems to only want people who are notable to have a page, and they seem to define this by the amount of press a person has, along with a bit of the democracy of their users. But Wikipedia is really becoming a straight-up information source for a new record, movie, or TV show. When large releases come out, and I would like to read the full credits, it seems like they could go there. Or at least Wiki could do a huge service to the music community and industry by allowing the credits to be listed in full, instead of a sort of random list of what the users deem important. I had trouble with my credit for additional production on 2 Chainz’ “Netflix.” I am of course listed in the credits as Derek “DJA” Allen additional production, on a song produced by Da Honorable C-Note and Diplo. But because of the Wiki users, this can be almost impossible.
But my point is that we can use something else if Wikipedia is difficult, can’t we?
That would be great! I love things like Rap Genius, and do videos on there, but Wikipedia is becoming the top Google link for a movie or an album or something. It’s where most people get their basic information from since its sort of a new defacto reference manual for information something as random as an episode of a TV show or an old movie.
What are your suggestions for changing the way it works, then?
I’d like to see the whole policy of notable people, i.e. fame, be replaced by something more like IMDB – basically, the credits from an album release, such as the recent 2 Chainz album, would simply be listed on the page for the album with all credits listed. Some people talk a lot about who’s getting credit for what these days. This is a situation where the “old ways” of giving credit are still there, but that requires a physical CD. And more often than not, even a physical CD might not have one. But I guess physical CDs not listing credits is a whole other conversation. I would hope most of them just list them on a simple website, or have a easy to download PDF link. But who knows. PDFs in digital releases are there as well. There was one in the 2 Chainz’ BOATS II. So it would be nice if there was no discussion from Wiki. The credits are the credits. I’ve argued with people on Wiki about a damn production credit when they don’t have a physical copy of the CD or a PDF in front of them. It’s pretty stupid.
One would think the labels would care enough about this to sort it out…
There is a lot of crap on Wikipedia. The same guy who argued with me about my credit on “Netflix” was simultaneously arguing with another guy over an episode of Phineas and Ferb or whatever. I would not really expect labels to care about this. I would expect ASCAP, BMI, songwriters, producers, engineers, and managers to. Those labels have it hard enough as it is.