Who You Mad At? Me or Yourself? marked the return of DJ Funkmaster Flex to the mixtape game. When he wasn’t feeding the streets with new music he was maintaining his number one spot on radio, creating a series of successful projects for TV, building his website In Flex We Trust, and making sure his presence is felt in the digital arena. “There’s DJ’s younger than me that ain’t in the digital space at all,” says Flex. “The problem is these DJs think just because they send out a couple tweets that they’re in the digital space. Nah, you idiot.” His understanding of how things work has allowed Flex to stay ahead of the competition for over two decades. Here the legendary, Bronx-born DJ talks with Life+Times about why he felt it was the right time to return to the mixtape game, the role of radio in the digital era and why he lives by the mantra “adapt or die.”
Life + Times: After so many years of not releasing a Funk Flex project, what made you put out Who You Mad At? Me or Yourself now?
Funkmaster Flex: I looked at the landscape and I kind of wanted to bring a new twist to the game. I felt I was ready and I felt there were a lot of artists that I wanted to work with. That was probably the most exciting part, and the biggest reason. I felt there were a lot new artists out that I hadn’t worked with that are on the mixtape.
L+T: There are 56 songs on the tape featuring everyone from Uncle Murda to Mr. Vegas. How did you pick the songs that made the final cut?
FF: I wanted it to be a super, super collaboration between Internet stars, radio stars and some stars that just pack out venues, but don’t have a deal yet. I felt that the digital space has made a lot of stars and I wanted to work with them. I look at people that have kept themselves relevant and were hot before the Internet crept in, so that’s how I thought about it. And then I wanted to put a lot of sounds together. I wanted East, South, West. I wanted Reggae, R&B. I was just trying to be very diverse, because I’m diverse. That’s what I wanted this tape represent. Before I sent people tracks I told them this was going to be something that they weren’t use to. I was taking them out of their comfort zone. That’s how I approached a lot of the songs.
L+T: Who You Mad At? Me or Yourself? was released exclusively on your DJ Funk Flex app. Why did you choose to release it via your app?
FF: I had offers from labels. Usually when I put these projects out I sell gold or platinum, but I knew through the app I’d have no restraints. I just wanted to make the music the way I feel and the way it feels to me in my heart. I wanted to present that to the people. I didn’t want publicists’ influence, label influence, record label presidents’ opinions. I made what I felt was strong and in about six weeks I’ve done 200,000 downloads with my app and I’m up to 40 million page views. I mean business out here. This makes me understand that this sound is wanted you know? I didn’t want to go through the websites and let people download. I wanted this mixtape to go out there for people who love hip-hop. The people that downloaded my app love hip-hop. I think putting music out on the web or on Twitter is a stone-aged way of doing it. I think the phone has become your TV, radio and computer. People always have their phone on them.
L+T: In Flex We Trust is a really popular site that covers a variety of things. What made you start it?
FF: I’m a big fan of the digital space. I have a wide variety of stuff that I like. I’ll go from a Huffington Post to a Gawker to Rap Radar to World Star Hip Hop. I got into the digital space, because I felt I would have to go to four different sites to get my needs, for music, for sports, for news, so with In Flex We Trust I wanted to create a site that covered a lot of what’s going on in music, sports, technology, chicks. I didn’t know it was going to become so big. I’m doing like a million uniques a month and like 10 millions pages views. I’m a fan of the things we put on the site. I think what people thought I was gonna do was just do a Hip Hop site, but I wanted to be a little more diverse. I wanted to create something that kind of didn’t exist. I didn’t want to go in anyone’s lane. I like doing it. I have a lot of great bloggers that are passionate about their craft and they really know what I’m into.
L+T: Sites like In Flex We Trust, Rap Radar, You Heard That New, 2 Dopeboyz, etc have become the go-to destination for finding what’s new and hot in music. In your opinion, how have these music sites become such effective sources for music discovery?
FF: Before there was the digital space there was Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito. That JAY Z and Big L freestyle – it came from Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito‘s radio show. That’s one of the most legendary freestyles ever. Those guys for years really molded what the Internet is about. Rap Radar, You Heard That New, Hip Hop DX, InFlexWeTrust are offsprings of Stretch and Bobbito. They were underground, exclusive. The fans made the decisions and they served it up from freestyles to unknown artists. That was the original Internet – Stretch and Bobbito. Even though it was a radio show, their mindset was the way these websites think – put everything out there and let people decide.
L+T: That approach of putting everything out there and letting the people decide has made music so accessible. Do you think that’s part of the reason hip-hop fans look to the Internet for new music faster than they do radio?
FF: Radio was never the first line of defense. Radio is not your first place to hear an artist. Radio is the place where you hear the best of what’s coming up. A good way to compare radio and the Internet in 2013 is Macklemore, Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifia, Kendrick Lamar, up-in-comers like Action Bronson, Joey Badass, Chris Webby, A$AP Rocky, A$AP Ferg – it’s all coming out of the Internet. It’s going to different places. These guys are selling out some venues and selling some merchandise, but once they start to play the radio game they begin to sell units and become stars. I think the Internet can make you known, but the radio and TV game still makes you a star. But every artist has been a little different. With Wiz Khalifia the “get high” crowd was definitely into him, which helped push him forward with the college kids, but radio gave him something else. “Black and Yellow” gave him something else. I think each star breaks differently via the Internet and then radio picks it up.
L+T: That ties into the conversation Hot 97’s Program Director Ebro and Rap Radar’s B. Dot started a few months ago. Do you agree with Ebro that radio is the “major leagues?”
FF: Maybe a good way to add on to what Ebro said is that the Internet or the digital space is like the major leagues and radio is like the All-Star game. You can have a very successful career in the digital space and never get played on the radio. Just ask Macklemore. He was very successful before he hit radio. It’s just a weird space. You can ask 20 kids in the same room where do they get their music from and they’ll tell you a variety of different places, but those places are on the Internet.
L+T: You seem to really have an understanding of the digital space.
FF: As a DJ I don’t considered myself as someone who does things first. I consider myself adapting. I believe in adapt or die. I adapted to making big clubs with The Tunnel. I adapted with making a commercial mixtape for a label. I adapted by getting into the car business. I adapted as a DJ going to Pop radio when no DJ wanted to go to Pop radio. I adapted when it came to putting out street mixtapes and websites. It’s “adapt or die.” I don’t look at it as being innovative. I look at it as I’m a DJ and I want my DJ skills and my opinion and what I’m into to be heard on the biggest platform and right now the digital space equals the biggest platform and the coolest platform. This is the phone era. The phone is the most important equipment in the house. It does everything, so I wanted to play in that space. I play in the desktop space with In Flex We Trust and I wanted to play in the phone space and I wanted to play in it good.
L+T: Simon Cowell said “DJs are the new Rockstars.” Yes, he was talking in terms of EDM DJs like Skrillex, David Guetta, deadmau5, and others, but there was a point where the same could be said about hip-hop DJs. Do you think the hip-hop DJ can once again be the rockstar?
FF: I think with hip-hop DJs – you have to be willing to work on your craft forever. I think some DJs like the fact that they DJ, but they want to turn it into being a personality or going on TV and that’s good too, but I think more people right now use DJing as a stepping stone for what they really want to do, because they know when you say “I’m a DJ” you get a lot of attention rather than “I want to be good at throwing these records on and exciting the crowd.” I think that’s going to be hard, because I don’t think the guy that buys a Seratto today wants to be doing the same thing in three years. He wants to use it as a stepping stone for going somewhere else with it. Does that make sense?
L+T: Definitely, and I guess you and a few others paved the way for some of the younger guys to see that being a DJ can be used as a platform to launch other careers. You were number one on radio, number one in the clubs, had platinum CDs, had hit TV shows, started poppin’ blogs – so how have you been able to maintain success over such a long period of time?
FF: I’m content. I love what I do. I love conquering new things. I’m not afraid to try something new. In that process of not being afraid I also know that as a DJ you’re a messager and your job is to present the best new music to the people who follow you, who want to be what you’re into, so that’s my craft. I never – no matter what, in making albums, mixtapes, tv shows being a DJ was always at the forefront for me. And I think that’s what the key to my success is. I love being a DJ. I love it. Loving it keeps you excited.