OutKast's MR. DJ: Dungeon Master

In 2008 you can find the lesser-known third member of OutKast, David “Mr. DJ” Sheats, doing grown man things. Whether that means exercising his green thumb outside in the yard or sweating in the kitchen getting his chef on, it’s all about maintaining his peace of mind. Tonight he’s multitasking a meal of basil chicken, cornbread, spinach and brown rice while talking with AllHipHop.com about crafting some ‘90s southern Hip-Hop classics, and resurfacing in the game alongside Common, Mos Def, and another OutKast double album. It’s taken the DJ turned producer 15 years to get to this point, and like he points out early in the conversation, things weren’t always this good.AllHipHop.com: Before you were producing OutKast tracks alongside Big Boi and Andre, you were on the road with them as their DJ. Was there any indication back then that you’d be producing hit records?Mr. DJ: Naw man. To be honest, back then I didn’t know anything about producing music. I guess deejaying is an aspect of producing in its own right, and I’ve always been deejaying. I was about nine-years-old when I started scratching on my mom’s turntables at the crib. But I had no ideas I’d become a producer until about ’95, which was based on a lot of inspiration from Organized Noize. Dre, Big and I used to always sit around and watch them make beats starting from scratch, listening to all kinds of records. It just seemed like so much fun and I guess it was the natural graduation.I was the DJ for pretty much all the OutKast albums but the last two. That’s when I turned it over to DJ Swift and started to produce. My first records were 8Ball and MJG’s In Our Lifetime album, which I produced half of. I also produced the Goodie Mob on tracks like “Black Ice” and “They Don’t Dance No More.” That’s what made Big and Dre come back to me like “Let’s make a production company,” which is when we founded Earthtone 3. AllHipHop.com: As the DJ back then, were you already getting the vibe that you guys were onto something big.Mr. DJ: Man, we did a Howard University show in Washington, D.C. That was our first show, and “Player’s Ball” had been out for maybe two or three months before we started like a two-year promo. When we did “Player’s Ball” for the first time, and we got such a great response we knew were on to something.AllHipHop.com: Fourteen years as a producer and most people probably wouldn’t recognize your production name, let alone what you look like. You’ve said before that “longevity is a lot better than being famous.” Do you feel like not being “famous” helped you achieve longevity?Mr. DJ: That’s yet to be seen. I do understand that it may inevitably be the time people recognize who I am, and I hope that it doesn’t curse me or change the way things go. But I don’t think it will, cause it’s all about the person and how you handle it. I do understand that in order to achieve the level I’m trying to achieve, you do kind of have to step out a bit. So it’s a catch-22. But I hope it doesn’t affect my longevity. I do think that being behind the scenes has preserved my sexy, if you will (Laughs). It preserved it, because you don’t burn out as fast. When the spotlight’s on you that means people are watching you, and just as soon as your tap-dance starts to slow down then the lights turn on. If nobody even sees me, the curtain is still closed and you just hear me tapping back there, then you’re still waiting on the curtain to open. So I hope it doesn’t jinx me.AllHipHop.com: You can get away with a lot more if nobody recognizes your face.Mr. DJ: Yeah man, exactly. I can go to the grocery store, I can go to the mall, I can drop my kids off and not have a problem. I’ve watched things change for Big and Dre in that aspect, and I just hope that I can somehow make it all happen together.AllHipHop.com: It must be a trip for you when “Ms. Jackson” comes on somewhere you’re at, and you hear a girl say “This is my favorite song!” Mr. DJ: Yeah! (Laughs)AllHipHop.com: Do you just bite your tongue?Mr. DJ: Yeah I just let it play and enjoy the fact that somebody else enjoys it, because that’s what it was when we made the music. When I make music, it’s cause I enjoy it and I’m having fun. I never make it with somebody else in mind. So I never tell people I did it. And surprisingly I’m pretty much around the same people all the time, I don’t really have a big circle of friends. So the people I’m around, they know, and that’s comforting enough for me. AllHipHop.com: A lot has changed as far as music production since Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, or even “Bombs Over Baghdad.” What’s different for you now in the studio as far as equipment and your creative process?Mr. DJ: You would be surprised that I still have a turntable, an MPC 3000 and one keyboard. And it’s in that order. Sometimes I open up my Reason and grab a few drums at the end of a track to just put a face on it and brighten it up. Because of the computer age, tracks are a lot brighter and sonically sound. They’re not as full and girthy as the old tracks, because we used to record on two-inch. So now I have to go in and put some brighter drums on top of my drums, but for the most part I still go in and do it the same way.AllHipHop.com: Do you mess with a lot of live instruments too?Mr. DJ: Yeah. When I make a track, I start with sounds from records. Not necessarily samples, but sounds for inspiration. There may be somebody that hit a crash and blew a trumpet at the same time on a record, and I’ll just get that little part and then go play it. That along with other noises makes music, and I just improve on all of it with live instruments. I play a little bit of everything, but I’m not the best at it. I can make an MPC sound like anything though. I’ve got all my same guys that do instruments that we’ve always had play on the OutKast records, except for when I went and lived out in LA for the past two years.AllHipHop.com: What was going on out in LA?Mr. DJ: I was out there for two years doing the West Coast Camp David, but I just shut it down. At first it was very productive, but then it turned into a party everyday, no sleep and girls all the time. So I had to shut it down, and come back to Atlanta and get focused (Laughs) It wasn’t all in vein though, cause I met Common out there and that’s how we got that thing going. And my next door neighbor out there was the guy who draws Family Guy, so him and I and a guy who does the scripts for The Simpsons got together. We put together a company called Camp Tune and we’re doing a Camp David cartoon right now also. We’ve got the mock-ups right now so hopefully we’ll be able to bring it soon. I can’t say too much about it right now, cause I don’t want anyone to steal our ideas. It took a big leap forward around the time the writer’s strike came into effect, cause nobody was working. AllHipHop.com: As far as publishing goes, have you learned and changed any of the ways you do things now?Mr. DJ: You know what, I was blessed from the start to have a great attorney that has always looked out for my best interest. Cause to be honest, for the first six years I was doing music I didn’t understand publishing and didn’t take an interest in it until I started to see how big the royalty checks were and how much the publishing companies would give to sign you. It started to make me wonder, “Hey, why are they giving me this much money?” So I started to pay more attention to it, but thankfully I had a great attorney that had me pretty straight on that end. AllHipHop.com: Because of the variety and I genre-spanning style of your music, you must get calls from a wide range of artists, whether Hip Hop or R&B or whatever.Mr. DJ: Yup, I do. I’ve worked with everybody from Lenny Kravitz to Michelle Ndegocello, to the Backstreet Boys and all the way down to Eightball & MJG. I’m looking for some country though, I’m ready for my first country person to call, cause I can do it!AllHipHop.com: Alright, let’s talk about Common. You’re producing half of the new album?Mr. DJ: Yup, about half.AllHipHop.com: His last two albums were influenced by a lot of Kanye, so what do we expect from this one?Mr. DJ: Man…I think I’m just giving him a little bit of my pizzazz. It’s kind of electricish…wait, I don’t want to call it electric. It’s more trip-hoppy to me. Hip-Hop on crack maybe. Yeah, that’s what I would say it is. It’s dope. It reminds you of an OutKast album in that it’s timeless music. Sometimes you listen to an OutKast album and you don’t get it for two years, then you’re like “Oh s**t, I just figured out what he said!” or it takes that long to just really start to understand it. I definitely feel like people will be able to tell I had a lot to do with it.AllHipHop.com: Is there anything about working with Common that’s different from the other artists you’ve worked with?Mr. DJ: Well I was surprised by just how down to Earth he is. I had pre-conceived notions of what he would be like, but he’s a cool dude and he understands good music. He’s a real melody type of person. Not to say that’s different from Big Boi and Dre, cause they’re like that. But his process is different. He doesn’t sit there and write then and go in and put lyrics down. He’ll pick a track that he likes and go in his car and ride with it. He’s definitely a perfectionist as far as his vocals go, he’ll lay them like 13 times. At first I didn’t understand it, I thought the first time was good. But after he goes back and does it again and he’s finally done with it, I understand why he goes back and does what he does.I’ve been on tour with him, going from city to city. I met him in New York and we worked there for a week. Then I went back to California and worked with him there, and we even went to Miami and worked in Miami a little. So we’ve been moving around catching different vibes. It’s cool cause some of the verses he laid have been in different cities, and you can tell he’s catching a different vibe in each city. And the music is really dope, Pharell got down on the music he did for the other half of the album too. It all ties in together real well.