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DJ Quik talks sampling John Travolta, 'The Book of David' and Powerhouse appearance

June 24, 2011 |  5:04 pm

A discography full of gun-toting gangsta rap, gritty street tales and sunburnt Compton swagger aren’t necessarily the most dangerous things swirling around in the mind of DJ Quik, who's been crafting archetypical West Coast hip-hop for 20 years. The things he can do with a song from one of America’s most beloved teen musicals will shake you to your core.

It took a year to clear a smooth-talking sample of John Travolta from “Grease” for the glistening, Superfly funk of his song “Hydromatic,” from his most recent album, "The Book of David," but getting the expensive permissions was worth it, he says. The veteran MC, who co-headlines Powerhouse on Saturday in Anaheim sandwiched between Ice Cube and Wiz Khalifa, remembers running across the sample after buying the movie soundtrack on vinyl at Amoeba Music on Sunset on a whim.

On record, Travolta’s opening lines on “Grease Lightning” sounded delectably more rhythmic than in the film: “This car is automatic! It’s systematic! It’s hyyydromatic!”

“I just kept running [the record] back on that part,” Quik said, then mimicked the sample with a smirk and the exaggerated baritone of a sportscaster: “‘It’s hyyyyydromatic.’” Sitting at a Japanese restaurant booth in Hollywood in black jeans, fresh white T-shirt and cornrows, the 41-year-old rapper born David Blake uses his left hand over a sampler bowl of sashimi to suggest a DJ scratching a record.

Within hours of plucking the sample, Quik assembled collaborators Jon B., Dave Foreman and longtime co-producer George “G-1” Archie and put the entire track together in-studio, an example of the seemingly effortless mix of wizardry, industry know-how and outside-the-box thinking that allows Quik to center himself in the multifaceted position of rapper/producer/DJ.

For 20 plus years, DJ Quik’s ability to remain relevant in the rap world has relied on occupying a strange middle ground. Navigating the ill-defined purgatory between local legend and mainstream star has allowed him the kind of freedom to experiment and create innovative production chops that mingle with pimpish, permed-out bravado -- beat-knocking, G-funk anthems. In L.A.’s dynamic rap terrain, Quik’s strolling, summertime sound is the not-so-missing link between Dr. Dre and Dom Kennedy.

“What I’m really doing is balancing between all the music that I’ve learned and all the music that I’ve learned to teach,” Quik said.

He's had plenty of education. By the time he was 21, Quik had broken out of the underground circuit and the gang violence of crack-era Compton with his 1990 platinum Profile Records debut, “Quik Is the Name," which blasted its way into mainstream consciousness. Charismatic vocal delivery and his gang affiliation with the Tree Top Piru faction of the Bloods combined the street cred and radio marketability needed to climb.  He went on to craft a trifecta of gold albums -- “Way 2 Fonky,” “Safe & Sound” and "Rhythm-Al-Ism," between 1992 and 1998.

As well, he's been a consistent behind-the-scenes presence on tracks by, among others, Nate Dogg, E-40, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Janet Jackson.

Dropped from Arista Records in 2000 (which bought Profile in 1996), DJ Quik formed his own label, Mad Science Recordings. He released a crop of critically appreciated albums like “Trauma” (2005) and “Greatest Hits Live at the House of Blues” (2006), and also, in 2005 a re-released version of “Under tha Influence.” A collaborative album with Kurupt, “BlaQKout,” appeared in 2009.

Between albums, a multitude of personal and legal issues kept Quik from the limelight. Most noted among them was a five-month prison stint in 2006; he was convicted of assaulting his sister in November 2003 after altercation in which Quik says she threatened to kidnap his children.

But prison, which he describes as “overrated,” was only a partial answer for his recording hiatus.  A few years ago, the  rapper and father received custody of his 13-year-old daughter. The opportunity to take a break from his hectic lifestyle presented itself.

“I took time to raise my kid,” Quik said. “I got to know her likes and dislikes, her quirks, what she wants to be in life. I became a dad … being an MC.”

It's a big change from his experience familial relations in the past.  “My family was my Achilles' heel,” said Quik. One particularly bitter saga is distilled into a caustic tongue-lashing in “Fire and Brimstone,” opening "The Book of David" with terse keyboards, a stumbling drum track and lyrical venom aimed at his family tree and naysayers in the hip-hop world who fail to recognize his lasting impact on West Coast rap.

Other than revisiting his past,  Quik’s latest music commands an orbit of old school influences and hungry new talent. Besides featuring fellow Powerhouse headliner Ice Cube and longtime collaborator K.K. of 2nd II None, Quik employed the P-funk aura of the late Parliament guitarist Garry Shider and newcomers Jon B. and Detroit-born rapper Gift Reynolds, recently signed to Mad Science Recordings.

“The the beauty of Quik is that he never jumps outta his lane,” said Reynolds, 24. “He does what feels good for him. That’s how he stays relevant.”

-- Nate Jackson

Photo: DJ Quik. Credit: From DJ Quik