Our Chat w/ A Tribe Called Red

words by Sasha Brown


A Tribe Called Red has been shattering stereotypical notions of American Indian music since their start in 2010. Made up of First Nation DJs and producers (DJ Shub, DJ NDN and DJ Bear Witness) the group, who blends Indigenous powwow music with urban and electronic beats, has quickly gained notoriety and international recognition. Most recently, A Tribe Called Red won Breakthrough Group of the Year at the 2014 Juno Awards in Canada. Their unique music speaks to the evolution of Indigenous identity and the power of culture so Greenroom just at the chance to talk with them about it when they made a stop in Minneapolis earlier this year.

Greenroom: So one of the first questions we wanted to get started with was about some of your own musical influences growing up. What has had the biggest impact for you in terms of your own style?


DJ Bear Witness: I grew up listening to all kinds of music. I come from an arts family. I spent a lot of time at Indigenous people’s conferences and world music tours and all those sorts of things so I got exposed to all kinds of stuff. But as far as what my biggest influences are musically, I grew up in Toronto which is a huge Jamaican and western kind of community, so tons of Dance All, Soca and Reggae and all those things. So that’s probably my biggest influence in music.


DJ Shub: My biggest influence would have to be my brother, my older brother who is a DJ, so he kind of showed me the ropes, and I used to go around with him to old record stores. Growing up he’d always have the newest, latest hip hop record, so yeah, big influence on me for sure. And now my biggest influence is the people that we meet at shows and the way our music is like getting everywhere. It’s the most influential thing for sure. It’s pretty cool.


GR:  So one of the things, and I kind of a personal invested interest in this, espically in hip hop, there’s a tension between an older generation and a younger generation around what’s acceptable and what’s not, just in terms of the evolution of sound and identity. Here in the Twin Cities there’s a lot of tension especially in the Native community around hip-hop and what’s traditional and what’s not and just wondering how you guys, what that’s been like for you in terms of your music and looking at the evolution of Native identity, that it’s not stagnant. We’re always growing and evolving, but as far as the tension especially from elders and the older generation, how have you dealt with that?


DJ Bear Witness: It’s been super positive so far. We’ve managed to be like super multi-generational. You know, we hear about whole families like right up from little kids to grandparents listening to our music, and the person bringing it into the family isn’t always the younger generation. You know, I have people who it’s like their parents or grandparents who’ve said, ‘have you heard of these guys yet?’ So we haven’t run into any of that you know “what you’re doing isn’t respectful or isn’t right” you know. We haven’t run into any of that. Mostly what it’s been is people saying how much they enjoy it. I think we just came onto this at the right moment and it’s been like we came at a good time when I think people were ready for it to happen.


DJ Shub: No, like what he said, we’ve been able to bridge that gap, you know where people that come out to the parties -- if you look at our crowd it’s a multi cultural crowd that usually comes out to the parties. So I mean like originally people who didn’t normally listen to pow-wow music would now start listening to pow-wow music, and hear our songs and be like, ‘what is that, I’ll check it out’. I don’t know man, I just think because it’s mostly what we’ve put out, which is mostly instrumental like there’s no rapping or anything like that. For the new album that we’re working on, there’s going to be a lot of collaborative stuff where we are going to have people on it. So it’s going to be a lot different than the last two albums.


GR: In terms of collaboration, I know you guys have had a lot of support from Diplo, and so I’m wondering if you could tell me a little more about that, and kind of how that’s been in terms of you know your own experience?


DJ Bear Witness: Diplo has been amazing for us. Like he was someone for us that early on we sent our music to just sort of, you know, just check this out. He’s always been brought up to Ottawa a bunch of times like with a party up there that used to get thrown there called Disorganized, with all kinds of like wicked DJs. People that are like really big now who weren’t necessarily as big then. We got to see them in smaller venues, and Diplo was one of those people that we had met like years ago, and then once we started producing our own music we said okay, lets send it off and you know see what he says kind of thing. And right away we heard back from him and he was just like yeah, I really like this, e-mail me the tracks and I’ll post them and you know he tweeted about us right away and he posted our stuff on the Mad Decent website and it’s kind of been that kind of relationship that we’ve had with Mad Decent and Diplo where we’re not a Mad Decent artist by any means but we’re affiliated with them, and they’ll give us pushes and they’ll review our stuff and it’s been like a super, super positive relationship.


GR: So I guess on that angle too I think like especially with Diplo and a lot of those scenes, I know you guys have written some really awesome pieces that are cultural commentary pieces around dealing with cultural appropriation in the music industry, particularly with white fans, and so what’s been the experience for you guys in terms of responding to a white fan base who think it’s actually okay to show up in a headdress, for example?

DJ Shub: Well, like we still see that once in a while. We still see some hipsters show up in some war paint and stuff like that, or there’s whooping calling, a lot of people will do that. It’s cool now because it’s like the people in the crowd kind of take care of it, like they do their part. It’s not like they have a part to play, but they feel like they should say something and they do approach them. I’ve seen it happen many times where people have said like in the crowd, so we didn’t have to say anything. And that’s a big plus for our music, because like, it’s making, it’s opening that door for conversation to happen.


GR: Yeah, it’s like evolved to the point where it’s taking care of itself, versus having it be that awkward instance where it’s like this is politically incorrect.


DJ Shub: Yeah, well I don’t know if it’s because of us, but I think everything is just happening at the right time.


DJ Bear Witness: Yeah, yeah, it’s really cool to watch like how that’s evolved where there has been times where we’ve had to say some things to the audience, but like just the other night in Detroit, yeah in Detroit…


GR: Detroit is racist as hell!

DJ Bear Witness: Yeah, where there was some whooping in the audience and it was totally our fans who went over there and was like, you can’t do that. Or like where a little while ago in Guelph one of the people in the bar came up to me and said okay, I know you have this thing with people showing up in war paint and headdresses and stuff so how do you want to deal with that? Do you mind if we say something at the door? Like what do you mean, what do you want to do? Well like if somebody did that like we’ll just deal with that like I’ve got a really great bouncer he knows like the back round of what we’re dealing with like he can handle it. Like yeah, if you guys want to take that on, like amazing. Or another festival when we played in Vancouver Island where they had a thing on the website that said like if you show up with a headdress that it will be confiscated at the door.


GR: Seriously? Wow!

DJ Bear Witness: Yeah, and their reasoning was like that they were creating a safe and inclusive space for everybody and that was going against that.


GR: That’s amazing. I have to ask, is there something online that talks about that at all?

DJ Bear Witness: I don’t know about that specifically, but it’s a festival called Tall Tree on Vancouver Island.


GR: Nice. That’s amazing, yeah, that’s positive to hear. Then I guess to kind of wrap up, where do you feel like you of see yourselves in the next five years in terms of the evolution of your music, and the evolution of Native DJ-ing, Native hip hop? It doesn’t have to be super profound.

DJ Bear Witness : The “where are you going to be in five years” question is always so crazy because like we wouldn’t have expected to be where we are right now you know. Like where we’ve made it like at this point like we’ve completely broken like anything we would have imagined this project accomplishing, so five years from now I hope that we have continued to do this thing, but that we’re not in a genre of one anymore, you know. I want this thing to grow past us.


GR: It’s awesome to see all the different shows in the US where you’ve had different local Native hip-hop artists be able to open, and just giving them some shine, you know. Like I think about here with Tall Paul. It’s really easy to get kind of type cast as ‘the Indian rapper’, but your showing that it’s hip hop, it doesn’t necessarily have to be pigeon holed into it’s own category. 


GR (turns to James Jones): Are your traveling with them to open and perform as a Hoop Dancer? Did you want to say anything, like what you’ve been doing?


James Jones: Sure, I guess we just joined up with them in maybe, in November was the first time I did a tour with them, and now I’m just dancing. I come out during their set and I mix B-boying with hoop dance.


GR: I’m super excited to see you. I’ve seen your stuff online before, not to sound totally creepy, but like…


James Jones: Oh dope, man, yeah that’s cool cause like, it’s a really good mix because you know with what they’re doing with their DJ-ing, with the pow-wow, the traditional aspect mixed with their electronic stuff, it goes really good with what I mix my stuff with.  So you know that’s kind of how we came to meet up and talk about things.


GR: Awesome. And are you from Canada?

James Jones: I’m from western Canada, from Alberta, so Edmonton is my base.


GR: Edmonton, oh shit, the tar sands is like headquartered up there. 


James Jones: Yeah, we have a lot of stuff going on like, especially anti-pipeline, Idle No More and anti-Tar Sands, like there is heavy, heavy aboriginal activism going on there.


GR: How has that impacted what you do personally?


James Jones: I’m always thinking about it when I’m dancing. When I’m traveling, like when I’m traveling around I meet other people and especially natives, that’s always a big topic that comes up. They always ask what’s going on with tar sands and stuff like that. Its cool that you stay educated with that stuff and you gotta stay educated and spread it.


GR: And what about you guys, just last question, with what it’s like in terms of activism with Idle No More, the tar sands. How has that impacted what you do? Or has it?


DJ Bear Witness: It’s kind of part of what we do. It’s part of the responsibility of what we do like where we found ourselves, you know, to use the attention that we’ve gathered with the Tribe Called Red to talk about Indigenous issues. It comes with the territory.


DJ Shub: You know like what he said. We have to use our pedestal now, like if there’s something that bugs us or if there’s something that we feel like we need to show, we have the followers now, we have the people to make an impact of some sort. We help when we can, and if we need to say something, we do.


GR: Well thank you guys so much, really thank you so much for your time.