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Haji Rana Pinya is known to some simply as Haj, and he is one part of the hip-hop collective known as Dumhi. Based out of Philadelphia, he has managed to create some incredible music with his group, who take on the traditions of the music and take it on a green, smoke-filled adventure. Haj is also branching out with a number of other projects, including the recent Fermented Spirits project with MicheleQJ, Demystification, and a great album he released under his own name, Yoga At Home Vol. 1 which features Sadat X, Von Pea, Che Grand, and Reef The Lost Cause. In a short time he has been able to execute these songs while slowly gaining a faithful audience, and as he looks towards doing more projects with Dumhi and other artists, it's only a matter of time before we see Haj doing things on an international level. Here is my interview with him, done on a binary level somewhere in cyberspace:
The Run-Off Groove: What are you listening to right now on your iPod or listening device of choice?
Haj: I just left Best Buy actually. I copped Heltah Skeltah and Jake One. Looking forward to hearing both. I've mostly been listening to the new Oasis record recently. Also a bunch of new Reef the Lost Cauze material.
Let's go back a bit. How did you get started in production?
In about 2000 I bought an acoustic guitar. I was always very much into music but I guess I was into beer, girls, and weed a bit more. So I breezed through high school, then shot through college... then joined the world of Corp America and then realized that I was completely miserable and needed something more in my life. As soon as I could play two chords on that guitar I started writing my own songs and as soon as that happened, I knew I needed drums. A cheap drum machine was next and then some software and then so on and so forth. Buying that acoustic (guitar) was the best decision I have ever made with my life.
Was there one particular artist that made you say "I want to be able to do what they're doing"?
No, not (just) one. I have always been amazed by the connection between musician and instrument. The way a musician can channel emotions through his instrument and transmit those emotions to a listener: I think it is one of the few true forms of magic that exists in our world. I want to be able to do that. Of course, the music I have released isn't exactly along those lines (ha ha). But that is prolly what initially drew me to music. As far as the sample based music: I would say I am mostly inspired by Prince Paul, MF DOOM, Madlib, RZA... it would be a long list.
As with anything hip-hop related, it has to be asked: did you have aspirations to become a rapper?
(Laughter) Nah, I know my limits. Aside from a few drunken freestyle sessions... nah. Rappers do have all the fun though.
What lead to the creation of Dumhi?
When I first started making beats I was working with a DJ friend of mine named Roger Riddle. We started calling the beats we were making around that time "Pickled Beats". As I started to build up a stash of my own beats, I knew I needed some kind of moniker or brand name or something to put out a project under. Dumhi seemed as good of a name as any.
People might ask the guys in Tanya Morgan "who is Tanya?" In your case, what exactly is a "Dumhi"?
Depends on who you ask I guess. At its most simple form, Dumhi is a state of mind. Smoke and listen to (or better yet make) some music. I wanted to have everyone who was interested involved in my early projects. In fact 2005's Vote Dumhi was initially going to be a compilation of various MC's laying vocals on my beats. The first two MC's who came over to record wound up staying all weekend and recording over nearly half of the project. Two more projects would also be put together with those same MC's doing the bulk of the rhyming. So to many people, ShamelessPlug, MashComp, and myself are Dumhi. To me.. everyone who has ever contributed to a Dumhi project (from the creation to the enjoyment) is Dumhi.
I hope that doesn't sound coy.
Nah, not at all, kind of a revolving door situation where it's always open to anyone and everyone. Outside of that, you are also doing a number of other projects. When putting together something, do you have to go into it with a different mind state than you would with a Dumhi project?
I don't think so. What I really try to do is to get a bunch of beats together and slowly let them sort of find each other until I have a general flow or theme or sound of some sort. Then listening to that I sort of get an idea of what voices and styles I'd ideally like to have on that beat. Maybe topics or themes for the vocals. Then I switch into a project manager role as much as anything. But all of the projects really have started with a bunch of beats which I have tried to lace together to make some kind of 20-50 minute statement with.
Let's talk about your means of producing. What is your gear set up?
Primary DAWS - Sonar & Ableton Live
Bunch of instruments I do not really know how to play
Bunch of records
I basically run things into the computer and manipulate them from there.
Is there a "secret" weapon that you always make sure to use with each project?
I don't think so. I do love sampling Billie Holiday tho.
Do you plan on expanding your set-up within the next year or two?
I actually just bought a new PC and a new audio interface. This will hopefully let me run more mics into my box and let me experiment more with recording real instruments. I am also going to upgrade to the newer version of Ableton soon and I also hope to get a nice keyboard in 2009.
One recent project I really enjoyed was the Fermented Spirits project you did with MicheleQJ. I believe you had said this one had taken a few years to finalize, how did it come about?
I believe Mike had heard some of 2004's The Pickled Beats Prhaject Nothigns Perfect and hit me up about jamming with a band he was just joining. The band didn't work out too much but it gave us time to kick some ideas around for a project. One day he came over with a couple keyboards and I started playing some Brazilian jazz music. We went through that stack of records and made about four good beats that weekend. Then four more the following weekend. Before long we had about 15 and the project started forming. It just took us another three-plus years to finish it (laughter).
Did it receive a good response?
Not really. We got a good handful of compliments on it but it sort of fell by the wayside. It is so hard for indie artists to make any kind of splash and we were pushing music which was mostly four years old so... I dunno. I dont consider it a failure in any sense but I def wouldnt call it a GOOD response.
Now how about Dumhi? You guys have done a small batch of albums, performed a number of shows, each of you are doing your own thing for maximum coverage, what is the next phase for the group?
I honestly don't know. There are no immediate plans for another Dumhi record (at least not with Dumhi = Haj, Mash, Plug, Flud & Brown). I do have contributions from all of them for my next project and they all have beats of mine for their projects. Like you said though, everyone is doing their own thing right now. We all still talk pretty regularly and we still make music together. Just have to see what 2009 holds.
I want to get into your new project, Yoga At Home. What made you decide to release this as the first installment of a series of EP's, rather than offer it as one or two full length albums?
Just trying something different. Like I mentioned..it is not easy for indie artists to get heard so I thought instead of trying to get 1 full length album out a year (which is still a pretty good pace) why not try to get three short projects out a year? Keep the music coming. Cut down on filler. People are gonna download it anyway, listen once and then either delete it or bury it on a hard drive... maybe with this short album they will listen twice.
The EP of course offers you a chance to share your productions, and for this one you were able to get people such as Che Grand, Soulbrotha, Doap Nixon, Random, Trek Life, Jermiside, Reef The Lost Cauze, and the almighty Von Pea. When you selected these guys, what were you looking for from them, specifically?
I just have a ton of respect for them. I am fans of their art.. admire their passion and work ethic... and most of them are friends of mine which makes it that much more special. As with anything.. I reached out to some folks specifically for certain tracks.. other just landed where they landed and it worked out. I honestly still geek out when I think about the folks who contributed to Yoga.
One of my favorite tracks is the one with Sadat X, "The Yoga At Home Theme Song". I wished Sadat would have offered another verse, but what he said in the song to me seemed perfect not only for what you've done in your music, but it seems to be a move to put hip-hop back to a more humble state. How did you hook up with him?
Mash Comp knows everyone. I was talking to him about some of the folks I was recruiting for this project and he said that he knows Sadat's people and shot an e-mail out.. I got an e-mail a couple days later, started passing files back and forth and boom. It's amazing really. Brand Nubian stayed in my car stereo growing up. He is a legend, and I asked him to pen a song about Yoga and involve weed smoking (laughter).. It really has been a great ride.
When you are putting together a project like this, do you ever go through the process of elimination, in terms of wanting to make sure your work is as tight as it can be without going overboard or wanting to add more to a song that may sound sparse?
Yeah I guess so. When I am working on projects I really listen to my own music a LOT. I dunno if that sounds like arrogance or ego or whatever but its really not.
When I'm in the middle of a project, I do that as well.
I just am constantly burning CD's and listening in the car.
Playing with sequencing one beat into another. Stretching beats and adding to some, taking away from others. Basically working and listening constantly. That becomes my quality control. If something doesn't excite me after 800 listens it prolly wont make the cut (laughter).
This is the first of a series of EP's, what should people expect with the next installment?
Well... my plans constantly change but right now... a new Dumhi Ep called Flowers is in the works. Its looking like it will be anywhere from 5-10 songs long and so far has features from Flud, Signifire, John Blake, Sabrina Cuie, and ShamelessPlug. All of those names might be familiar to folks who have followed the Dumhi projects at all. I am hoping to have this ready by January.
I am also close to having an EP finished with Mash and Vex. Some old songs, some new songs. This will prolly be a bit of an informal project that will hopefully be floating around the internet before the end of the year.
Then who knows? Hopefully Yoga at Home v.2 next summer.
I've noticed more hip-hop producers, or producers who define themselves as hip-hop, doing things that aren't exactly the norm, such as making music that may sound more like rock, or new wave, or whatever. While sampling from rock source is nothing new, there seems to be a specific move to cater to a certain sound or perhaps a demographic. Have you noticed this and if so, where is this coming from?
Do you think the diversity in a producer's cannon is a healthy one?
Eh. Ionno. Jimmy Rollins is versatile and Ryan Howard isn't so much but they were both MVPs. Meanwhile.. Steve Jeltz sucked in basically all aspects of the game so...
For myself I do take pride in doing some different things. I want to be able to work in different styles and still have pieces of me shine through the music. For me it's healthy. But ultimately the people it moves and the people it doesn't move will decide all that.
In 2010, are there things that you hope to be able to accomplish with your work, is there a list of people you'd like to collaborate with?
I just want to keep improving. Id like to get better on instruments and incorporate more playing and layering over the sampling. Want to be able to better develop themes and concepts with my projects and convey those to the listener without being blatant about it. My ultimate collab is still to do a DOOMhi album. Maybe that can happen.
Got to get that going.
Who knows? I do have a list but I don't want to jinx anything (laughter).
Hip-hop is dead, hip-hop is alive, hip-hop is here. There seems to be a lot of debate and arguments over this music and the community that creates it, what is it about hip-hop that makes people so devoted to the cause?
I dunno. Its really kind of crazy. I go back and forth from being obsessed to flat disgusted by it all. I always go back though.
If you went somewhere and somehow came across Raekwon's Killer tape, what would you do with it?
Pop it in and pour a little out for Shameek from 212.