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Walking the PowWowStep: An Interview with DJ Shub

By Chris Illich

This past December DJ Shub (formerly of A Tribe Called Red) released his first departure from the group, his powerful PowWowStep EP. The EP is titled after the genre that Tribe fostered, and it blends traditional Native American Pow Wow music with contemporary electronic music, and has picked up an Indigenous Music Award for Best Instrumental Album, Shub has also been named DJ of the Year (2017) from the Canadian Organization of Campus Activities, and his music video for “Indomitable” was nominated for Best EDM/Dance Video at this year’s Much Music Video Awards.

DJ Shub will be rolling into St. Catharines for the upcoming Celebration of Nations on Saturday September 9 at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.

So for those unaware, would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got into music?

I grew up in Fort Erie, and I played a lot of instruments growing up. Turntables wasn’t my first instrument growing up, I actually started out playing guitar and drums. I played in some bands in high school and then in my last year of high school I traded in my drums for turntables and started to DJ.

So I started battle DJing, which is a lot different than what a normal DJ does. It’s almost like a rap battle. You go up and compete against other DJs. My first DJ battle was in 2005 but I didn’t win until 2007. I entered a competition called the DMC (Disco Mix Club) that is a really old established DJ battle in the world. I won the Canadian Championship in 2007and ended up travelling over to England to compete in the World Finals. I was kind of like the DJ Olympics, I think there were 31 countries participating and I ended up placing fifth. That was kind of my pinnacle of my DJ battling career. After that I made the move to Ottawa and started DJing with A Tribe Called Red [ATCR] and started producing for them.

From there, what was your decision to leave ATCR a couple years ago (2015), and what was that experience like?

Things just weren’t working well within the group. There’s a lot of touring, and we were touring nine months of the year and it was a lot of time I was away from my family. And anyone that knows me knows I’m a huge family guy, I can’t be without my family for a long time. By that time we had won a Juno and different awards and I just wanted to try and do things on my own. I wanted to be with my family more, and have the opportunity to be my own boss and decide when I want to tour and how long I want to go for. I just went with it and it’s working out really well.

So when did you start working on PowWowStep?

The first song I started creating when I left the crew was ‘Indomitable’. I just kind of wanted to continue what I was doing with Tribe. I knew that there was going to be people who were looking for that sound and I didn’t want it to go stale. That EP was actually finished almost a year before I released it last December.

Was that the first time you really worked on or produced a project on your own?

Well, I mean, I don’t want to ruffle any feathers, but I was always producing it on my own. The other guys, they did their own thing, one was a visual artist and one was a political guy who would always be on Twitter arguing with somebody. Making the music was me. I had some input from them, but it was majority me. So it wasn’t a big deal.

Even thought it hasn’t been a year since the release, how does it feel to look back on PowWowStep? You’ve obviously won some awards. You’re out touring, receiving glowing reviews and talking to people on the phone about your music…

I knew it was going to be a challenge to begin with because I’m trying to break out of the shadows and be my own brand – I think that was the hardest thing to do at first. I wanted to get to a point where I wasn’t billed as ‘formerly of a Tribe Called Red’. I’m starting to get noticed as a solo artist, which I knew would take time. But I think it’s going to take a couple releases to let everybody know that this is me and this is the music that I’ve been doing and that I’m doing my own thing. It’s moving that way slowly but surely.

You have a distinct sound to your music, do you plan to continue with that sound on upcoming releases, or are there other things you’d like to do with your music?

As an artist I always like to think outside the box and go in directions I’m not really all that comfortable with at first. Right now I’m working on two projects. One is called the Smoke Dance Project.

Sorry to interrupt, but is that related to the song on the record?

Yeah, that is a preview of what the next project is going to be. Smoke Dance is a different kind of dancing and singing compared to the big Pow Wow drum that people are used to. It’s actually inclusive to where I’m from, Six Nations, I’m Mohawk, and it’s a really fun and different song and dance. I get to experiment and go outside of the BPM (beats per minute) ranges that I’m comfortable with. I’m working on doing a whole show that showcases that style of music with smoke dance singers and dancers. I’m looking forward to putting that together and touring that as well.

You mentioned that you want to get singers and dancers up on stage with you for that production. Do you do that already?

Usually I have a dancer that comes with me and performs with me. I have a couple of go-to guys. Josh, (Classic Roots) usually comes along with me when he’s available. I also like to get local dancers, I like to give them a chance to jump on a big stage and show what they do. It’s always good to have that sort of local feel, because there are so many different ways that people dance based on where they live. Even when Classic Roots is with me I still like to find local dancers to come up and join in.

Sorry, to get back on track, what was the other project that you mentioned?

I’ve been collaborating with Boogie the Beat from Winnipeg. He is a monster producer. He is one of the better producers that I’ve heard do Pow Wow Step stuff. This album, we’re just putting it together but I’m really excited about that release too. There will be a lot of new music out this year for sure.

So I read online that when you come through on tour you like to go to schools or do workshops with youth. What do you try and portray when you go and speak with youth?

I’ll be doing a workshop at Celebration of Nations. I think at those youth workshops I can talk and talk and talk, but them most important thing that I like doing is listening and answering their questions. I try to tell them as much as I can, and my main message is to never give up and surround yourself with positive people, which can be sometimes hard to do, but as soon as you start surrounding yourself with positive people, the things that you are trying to do will come out positively. It’s so much easier to get things done when you’re around positive people. That’s what my main focus is. And don’t give up with anything you want to do. It’s important for people to understand that anything is possible. So while I do talk about those things, I mostly want to listento these kids and what they ask. I try to answer as many questions as I can. But it’s really important to me to listen to these kids because sometimes people don’t listen to them and things happen the way they do.

You’ve done some live collaborations with Buffy Saint Marie in the past. She’ll be in town here for Celebration of Nation, is that something that audiences will be treated to?

I hope so. I’m not sure what direction it’s going to go but Buffy and I have an awesome relationship now. Three years ago we jammed for the first time and I showed her my music. She fell in love with it and we’ve kept in contact since. I just sent her a song that I showed her when we had a show together in Ottawa, hopefully it will become a collaboration because she was in love with it and I told her to take it do what she wants with it. She is awesome, she is such an inspiration. She’s one of those legends, I remember meeting her for the first time, and now she sometimes calls me on the phone. I get Goosebumps thinking about it. My parents listened to her records when I was growing up, so it’s insane. But, it’s how cool how amazing and humble she is, she’s such an amazing woman. I don’t know what the direction will be for the show, but anything is possible.

DJ Shub performs at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on Setpember 9 as part of Celebration of Nations. More information can be fouBy nd at celebrationofnations.ca.

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