THERE will come a time in every great artist’s career where they are asked to tell the story of their success. For Sam Griesemer and Jerome Potter of once-underground DJ duo DJDS, that story can be summed up neatly as: before and after Pablo. As in
DJDS joined West and a cadre of musicians, songwriters, and producers in working on the project, earning the Los Angeles-based pair co-writing and co-production credits on five tracks, a subsequent Grammy nomination, and vaulting them to the upper echelons of the music industry.
Today the duo is in their bright, if rather minimalist, studio inside a 1920s apartment building on the ever-bustling Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown. While comfortable, it’s a practical space as DJDS has kept the focus on their DAW, or digital audio workstation.
The greatest luxury seems to be an expansive view of the city, a benefit of good windows and being on upper floor. Though it’s been almost two years since The Life of Pablo sessions, what they took away from the experience is still fresh on their minds.
“As an artist when you get those times to really be a student and learn, it’s the most priceless thing ever,” says Sam. “It’s nice to have a little bit of perspective. In the moment it felt like an insane journey.”
"He knew exactly how we were going to fit in weeks before we caught up."
Kanye contacted DJDS in early 2016 and immediately booked them for recording sessions every day for the five weeks preceding his album’s release. It was a rigorous schedule that required the duo to put other projects and their lives on hold, but they knew it would be worth it.
“We were going to the most high level master class on production, songwriting, and dope music,” says Sam of the sessions. “In retrospect, we feel most grateful for that. If we had gotten to do it and learned everything and no one ever knew except us, it still would have been the greatest gift ever because of what we were able to learn.”
“It taught us about what happens behind the scenes and showed us how that creation process worked,” Jerome adds. “I feel like we definitely came out of that with way more confidence but also less ego than before. The door opened into this different level, but the only way you stay here is just grinding.”
For those still debating if success is a virtue of talent or hard work, according to two guys who have seen a superstar and his crew in action, it’s both. “It’s this combination of having something really special inside and also just coming in every single day, outworking everybody else,” says Sam. “You see that with everybody who’s really up there. They keep showing up, and keep going at it, and keep working through the shit the world never hears like all the demos that get scrapped. They just keep going, going, going.”
“I remember right after, we had this whole different perspective. It wasn’t self-congratulatory; we were more driven than ever to apply the things we had learned in the studio to what we were making. That work ethic of those five weeks is something we still maintain to this day.”
“[Kanye] played us a bunch of tracks and was catching us up to speed and said, ‘I want you to think about everything that you’ve ever loved about music; this album needs to be all of that, all at once, all the time.’"
IT’S fair to say both Jerome and Sam had a fairly decent work ethic before the Pablo sessions too. Having started their music careers separately, they met in 2010 when Jerome (aka Jerome LOL) sought out Sam (aka Samo Soundboy) at a show he was DJing in LA’s Chinatown. “Maybe three people came, including Jerome,” Sam laughs. “There was nowhere to go but up.”
“The next week I went over to Sam’s apartment and listened to music for a few hours,” Jerome says. “We had a lot of common interests and musical similarities. From there it was like, let’s have fun. Things just kind of snowballed from there.”
The two worked on a few tracks and as a cheeky homage to their neighborhood sports venue, named themselves DJ Dodger Stadium (later shortened to DJDS following a formal cease and desist request from the baseball team). Through word of mouth and SoundCloud, they began building an audience. “We were going through it blindly but I think our instincts were right,” Sam says of those early days.
Not wanting to limit their presence to online-only, they also put on shows around LA’s burgeoning underground warehouse scene. Their parties were a way to promote their music and also give their fans an IRL experience.
“We were navigating the real shift in what was going on in the music industry, but we were so naive and new to it we didn’t have anything to compare it to,” says Sam. “You talk to people who are a little bit older than us and for them, there was such a huge shift from people buying physical music. We never really existed in that era.”
While the trappings of mainstream success were dangled before them once or twice, they say they were too inspired by the energy in the DIY scene of the moment to be bothered. “We watched EDM become a huge thing but we never really felt like that was something that we related to or that was interesting to us,” Sam says.
“We were consciously like, okay we don’t want to be doing these big festivals, let’s have our warehouse parties and keep it more underground. That felt a lot more exciting to us.”
As their musical partnership grew, they honed their sound and their skills, amassing a compelling discography in the process. In 2011 they formed a label, Body High, and recorded an EP primarily so they had something to release. Their first album,
While they couldn’t have known it at the time, the work they did during those first six years together was their ad hoc audition for Kanye West, preparing them for the opportunity of a lifetime that underground artists rarely get. It’s not hard to see why a pair of artists who act on their instincts, eschew popular trends, and feel at ease in the digital world would appeal to Kanye West, but the more specific reason wasn’t initially obvious to DJDS.
“Kanye had heard something in what we were doing that he knew was going to be really useful for what he wanted to do,” Sam explains. “He gave us the confidence to be a part of the whole thing. That’s just something that’s part of his insane, extraordinary vision. He knew exactly how we were going to fit in weeks before we caught up.”
DJDS has since become an in-demand production duo for a variety of artists —
“If opportunities come up we like to meet with people and hang out with them,” Sam says. “There’s a lot of hanging out and talking about life stuff. Usually it just naturally happens. The beauty in collaborating with people different than ourselves is that they come in with a different perspective and we can learn from them. It’s fun for us to defy expectations of what somebody is supposed to sound like to tell stories together.”
“We always want to keep evolving and keep changing,” Sam says. “What we’re working on now comes from this thing that Kanye told us on the first day working together,” he pauses to laugh at himself for namedropping.
"That work ethic of those five weeks is something we still maintain to this day."
“He played us a bunch of tracks and was catching us up to speed and said, ‘I want you to think about everything that you’ve ever loved about music; this album needs to be all of that, all at once, all the time.’ It sounds so big but it actually does help focus us. It’s hopefully why none of our stuff ends up as easy to label or categorise.”
For a production duo that began their career as DJs throwing parties, there’s a small irony in how success means they no longer have time to party. “We’re not in clubs getting bottle service,” Sam points out.
Still, Jerome adds, they do leave the studio on occasion. “If we get some time to hike, that’s a good reward.”
Kanye would approve.