“Learning how to DJ in The Tunnel was the biggest life lesson,” Cipha Sounds tells Rap-Up.com of the famed New York City club where he got his start. “Not music [lesson, but a] life lesson. I literally got ice and bottles thrown at me in The Tunnel if I played a bad song.” Those kind of stories may seem like big white lies, but this Bronx native truly experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly on the come-up at the venue. There, he met veteran Hot 97 mixer Funkmaster Flex, who saw talent and tenacity in a young Puerto Rican dude with a knack for blending records.
Not only did Cipha serve as a stellar intern for Flex back in the day, he took notes and applied the elder DJ’s music industry-savvy ways to his own career. The turntable specialist, who’s also a comedian—he runs a monthly stand-up series called “Don’t Get Gassed” at Carolines in the Empire State—was able to score his own mixshow on Hot 97. Now, 14 years later, he still has his own spot on the station, serving listeners with the latest from big name rap stars and soulful crooners, but with an added bonus—he has his own morning show, “The Cipha Sounds & Rosenberg Show with K. Foxx.”
His voice is synonymous with radio, but Cipha’s also graced TV and movie screens over the years. A role in the 2002 Spike Lee-directed film 25th Hour as well as gigs on Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show” and MTV’s “Direct Effect” are all a part of his massive résumé. He’s even had a hand in formulating the careers of artists like In Essence, Nina Sky, and The Kid Daytona. While his focus always has music at the forefront, seeing his comedy career soar to new heights is a priority on his agenda.
Read on as Cipha Sounds explains why Childish Gambino gives funny guys a good name, where a song about flaunting the middle finger fits in at a party, and what helping “hustlers” on the streets really means.
1. How long have you been a DJ?
I started when I was 15. I wanted to be a producer and I thought you needed to be a DJ to be a producer. All the hot DJs were producers, like DJ Premier, Pete Rock. Professionally, I would say when I was about 20.
2. What are you currently working on?
I don’t DJ as much as use to or I want to because the game has changed so much. To be honest with you, it doesn’t pay like it used to. I’ve been working on my radio show, which I still get to DJ, my comedy shows, my stand-up, and also now I do a lot of improv comedy. I have a monthly show at Carolines on Broadway. It’s called the “Don’t Get Gassed” series. It’s usually on a Tuesday towards the end of the month. I’m working on starting an L.A. set of comedy shows as well. So I have my Monday through Friday 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. morning show and I also DJ on Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., which I literally made my boss give me a slot so I wouldn’t lose my radio mixing skills. I have to play all the regular hits and everything, but I tend to play in a style that’s more like a fun, interactive kind of party style. I’ll also throw in some alternative records, and I hate the word alternative. The latest one I was really big on was Childish Gambino. I try to break from the playlist like that. That’s my little angle.
3. How did you get your first big break?
I used to work with DJ Riz. He taught me the ropes and he used to be down with The Flip Squad, which was Funkmaster Flex’s first DJ crew. So he was managed by the same lady named Jessica Rosenblum. I used to always be around him and go to Jessica’s office so she needed a DJ to open up at The Tunnel when Flex and everybody used to do The Tunnel on Sundays [in the ’90s]. The other DJ, Big Kap was always late every week. So she hired me to DJ from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. That’s how I met Flex. He just took a liking to me and put me under his wing.
4. Moment when you knew you had made it?
I think when Angie Martinez would call me personally to fill in for her as opposed to my boss calling me and saying, “Angie’s gonna be on vacation. Can you fill in?” Like to the point where she would call me herself and say, “Are you open next week cause I might take off?” And before she told the boss, she would ask me to fill in. That’s when I began to feel like, “Oh shit, I’m somebody over here.” DJ-wise, I had a lot of them but I would say when I became the DJ of “Chappelle’s Show.” And when I got an MTV show, “Direct Effect.” Before that, I was DJing a lot, I was traveling, I was making really good money but that’s all in the same circle, the DJing, touring circle. Then I would DJ for artists, like I DJ’d for Lil’ Kim, I DJ’d for Jay-Z a few times, going on the road. But when Dave Chappelle asked me to DJ for him, I thought the door to the non-hip-hop world kinda opened up, like mainstream. I consider myself like a real hip-hop DJ, kinda underground, in my mind. I worked at Fat Beats Records and I worked at Rawkus Records. “Chappelle’s Show” at the time, we didn’t know what it was gonna be but he was famous, like he was in movies and shit. I was like, “Oh, shit. This is crazy!”
5. Favorite artist right now?
Childish Gambino. He’s like the first guy to ever prove that you can be a successful comedian and actor and your love of hip-hop shines through and you actually become a successful rapper. Everybody wants to be a rapper and it’s corny, but he shows that he’s sincere with it and he could be big in different genres—and he’s good, too.
6. Artists to look out for in 2012?
I’m having a hard time looking out for new artists because they don’t promote themselves nowadays. It’s like they get a following and you have to go find them, where it used to be they would try to find you. They would try to do interviews and get on shows as much as they could. I’ll put it like this, Internet is powerful but I don’t think it’s as powerful as word of mouth. To me, word of mouth is more interesting when someone would literally say to you, “Did you hear…” It’s lacking emotion and sincerity when it’s just words on a computer screen. There used to be one big ass loop. Now there’s thousands of tiny little loops. Some of them connect and some of them don’t. With a song, I would say A$AP Rocky was the last person that I liked his music. But I also don’t like drug music, like all this slow ass drug music lately. When someone said, “Check this music,” I did want to go check it though. “Pe$o” is great and “Get Lit.”
7. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
I’ve maintained the ability to still be here though all these celebrity DJs came in and took the real DJ work, all the fake ass celebrity DJs that now have Serato. What I do now is completely different and it’s because I had to change up my style. Getting the morning show on Hot 97 is one of my greatest accomplishments. I didn’t think it was possible and I didn’t think I would ever get a spot on Hot 97 because I was under Funkmaster Flex’s wing. Now I’m full-time right next to him and Angie, the two people who taught me how to do this. It taught me how to use my personality, but always have the DJ mentality. A DJ mentality is like, watch your back. I equate everything to a DJ gig. If you don’t get to the club early, the kid before you is gonna play all the hits. You have to get your money at the end of the night, so it’s better to get your money beforehand instead of chasing around promoters and managers. You have to know how to read a room. I know how to walk into a room in any situation and know what type of people are in there. I learned that from DJing.
8. Future goals?
I feel really blessed I get to entertain people for a living so I want to continue to do that. I also want to help people. So I realized when I was young, the best way to try to help people is to get famous ’cause people listen to famous people more than they listen to their teachers or their parents. So that’s my goal. I want to help out kids in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in. Keep kids out of trouble. There’s so much negative influence. People say the music shouldn’t affect kids, but the music affects kids so much. I’m not against music, I’m all for it. Everybody doesn’t have to sell coke. I’m not saying every rapper is negative, but there are a lot of ways to get your goals accomplished and I want to help kids figure that out. There are a lot of kids that are geniuses when it comes to marketing or salesmanship. But they don’t have a proper education and can’t get a job in that so they take it to the streets. When a kid says he’s a hustler, that just means he’s an entrepreneur. He just doesn’t know how to do legal business. As far as comedy, my main goal is to take improv comedy, which is the whitest form of comedy, and somehow bring it to the ‘hood. Def Comedy Jam was like that for black stand-up comedians. So I’m trying to figure out how to bring improv comedy and theater to our type of people.
9. What record always gets the party started?
I would say “Put Your Middle Fingers Up” by the Crooklyn Clan. I play that no matter where I am. It’s just super energetic. I feel that when I’m at a party and it’s kinda dead, this is the record that I use to jumpstart the party. If you can get everybody to put their middle fingers up, they’re breaking free from their workday or whatever was stressing them beforehand. It’s like the key to opening up the party.
10. What’s your advice to aspiring DJs?
Take time to actually learn the skill and respect the DJs that did it before them. Every DJ, when you start DJing you have to know how to use equipment. Like these fuckin’ DJs that use one turntable and their laptop on the other side, I want to slap the shit out of every single one of them. Get two turntables, you lazy pricks! That is the worst and it’s such an insult. Also, you have to go buy records every week. So you have to make money, then put the money back into the craft. Now there’s this download shit but understand it wasn’t disposable and respect the craft. Main thing is you should be an apprentice to an older DJ. That’s the best way. Don’t just have your music in a laptop and be like, “Oh, I can DJ in a club.” You have to learn up under somebody.