A Sit Down With DJ Mark Farina
Mark Farina is one of the most talented and tenured DJs active today. With a career spanning three decades, the Chicago-born/San Francisco-based musician has been a leading advocate for Chicago house and the underground scene while acting as a genre-prenuer for his signature Mushroom Jazz series, playfully blending elements of jazz, soul, hip hop, and house in a pleasant amalgam of grooving, laid-back vibes.
Known for his Chicago house, acid jazz, and downtempo works he is embraced by fans from all over the world. His House sets have been described as the jazzy side of Chicago House mixed San Francisco style. Farina has continued a tradition of releasing a series of CDs under the name Mushroom Jazz for many years and has been performing hundreds of shows worldwide each year.
How did you become a DJ?
Ive been going to clubs since the age of 16. In the mid-80s all DJs had vinyl, which I collected too. When I saw a DJ beat matching around 85 in Chicago, I was hooked! My friend and I hijacked his dads Radio Shack mixer, I brought my pitchless, direct drive turntable over and BAM! We had a DJ set up and began practicing using our finger to slow or speed up the records.
Whats your usual process like for finding the artists and music for these compilations?
For each of the volumes I hit up a lot of people I know that make the sound Im looking for and see what new goodies they have. One slight difference is that for the earlier volumes I would be searching record stores for tracks, whereas now its definitely more digital. Back then I also didnt personally know all of these artists like I do now now I can just hit them up for new stuff whereas in the early 90s I was buying these records myself. Its definitely a mix between asking people for their new stuff and searching digital streaming services for the sound I need.
Do you prefer playing festivals or at clubs?
I like both, theyre both very different. I like being face to face with the audience in club set-ups. Its fun when youre at the same level with your crowd and theres no kind of gap between you and the people. Its just your DJ set-up and right behind is the dance floor, directly attached to the booth. And then at festivals you can get bigger sound systems, which has its benefits. And also at a festival you can get to play with a bigger line-up, like kind of old rave days when you got to play with five or six other people. That is fun as well and I kind of miss that from the rave days: being on a big bill with a bunch of friends. So theres advantages to both. At festivals, too, theres more of a chance to get new listeners involved. At clubs it tends to be more people in the know, who know whats going on, than people who are coming out for the first time. But at a festival you get some that are coming for other shows, who might not have heard of you, but then end up at your set and maybe become a new fan. So festivals are good for reaching a new audience base.
Could you name a few of your influences?
My biggest influences are downtempo and early '90s New York hip-hop, anything from De La Soul to A Tribe Called Quest. In terms of hip-hoppy stuff, that was my biggest influence for downtempo; but then at the same time, there was a lot of UK acid jazzy stuff coming out, labels like Talking Loud, a lot of the English trip-hoppy stuff.
How has your style and sound evolved over the decades?
My principles have stayed the same: nice beats, sweet melodies and interesting samples. With almost 30 years of House Music to tap into, theres a lot of vintage options to sort through. Now with CDJ-200s, there is more room for creativity in the mix than just being able to play what is pressed on vinyl.
"House music has always been such a vast term, so I tend not to overcategorize genres. I just like certain tempos."
How do you feel about the evolution of DJ culture?
Of course from starting in the late 80s and early 90s there was only one way you could play and it was vinyl. And now things have become sort of blurred of what a DJ is actually doing, in terms of what software theyre using and what theyre mixing with. There are so many different types of hardware a DJ can use now. When I think about a club atmosphere, its kind of helpful because you can actually see what the DJ is doing. Sometimes at festivals, when someones off in the distance, it might be hard to decipher exactly whats going on. I mean I think all the real mixer DJs, all the true mixers, it is still about selection. You cant take bad songs and mix them together well and make them sound good. So if someone can at least select good songs I think people are becoming more aware of those things as time goes by, that there are those technology tricks, so to speak. So obviously it comes down to selecting good songs, you know. It doesnt necessarily matter how much youre mixing them. You could have all the great records, but you also had to mix them well.
Who are some contemporary hip hop artists that work well in your music/sets?
I still find all my still favorite influences and I tend to go back and find stuff that I didnt discover so much at the time. I mean I get asked that question a lot, what kind of hip hop are you into? And I feel bad; just tend not to like a lot of newer stuff. I mean like the older guys when they do some new stuff and I mean the newer generation that is almost kind of getting old now like people under the stairs and Jurassic 5 and a couple groups that came later on passed that sort of early 90s hip hop boom. But when Im searching for hip hop samples to add to stuff I still go back to like Erik B and Rakim and that era I find more of what I like than the new hip hop really. I was working at a record store back in that period, I still like the sampled based hip-hop style. I used to buy more records than I needed luckily, I was selling mix tapes and I had a credit at the record store. I was playing way back when I was DJing like 2 full nights a week, like downtempo, where I would play from like 9 pm to 4 am, so I used to go and buy stuff just for one instrumental and now Ill go back and discover the vocal a lot of time. I used to buy a record just for one instrumental that we really liked like a 3-minute instrumental that maybe I wouldnt listen to the vocal. I just bought a lot of stuff back then like theres old stuff to rediscover that I never quite had the time to fully get into. There used be so many obscure hip hop 12s and that seems, at least in my circles, never got super popular sort of went off the radar.
Do you feel that the fusing of genres is imperative to musical evolution?
The fusing of genres is always a good thing Ive always gone by Do what you want to do and if it happens to lump different genres together so be it. When I started, Chicago house was just Chicago house. Now theres a whole bunch of different sub-genres that stemmed from it. I dont think it matters what sub-genre you subcribe to, just enjoy the music youre playing.
In your travels have you ever experienced part of the world that influenced your music more than others?
I think that every place I have been to influences me. I feel lucky that I get to go around and to see these microcosms of people's existence. We go to places and we usually know a couple people there, so we aren't like tourists, there's just somebody even if it's somebody we have met for the first time. Like a DJ will bring us to a restaurant or to get coffee. So it's kinda cool, you get to know people and not just show up at an airport with your tourist book and your app, like, 'Where do I go?' I like to record shop in every place that I go. You always find something somewhere else, or you get to hear an opening DJ. They will always be playing something different. That's just music where you get cultural influences too.
How do you keep your music fresh and current while maintaining that unique jazz element?
It's a routine of just finding new music that's got on since day one of the vinyl days. Like looking for new stuff, in this day and age there is just such a faster pace of the music and it comes and goes. A song will be around all week and then two weeks later you have moved on to something else. So, I am always looking for new stuff, you are always kinda keeping up with your buddies and friends that you have known for 20 years that have done music. Then you also have to keep your eye out for the new kid on the block so to speak. So it could be some 'joe shmoe' from the countryside of Macedonia or it could be some kid from suburban Philadelphia, you just never know where a good new track is so you gotta switch it up. There is just a lot more stuff to look through than you know. When you used to work at a record store you would get a box in of this many releases and maybe three or five copies of each... that was it for a week. And now you can just sit there for hours and click through like promos that you know a lot of which to say the ones to keep on the smaller side of everything. Sometimes you are just as glad to not like something because then you don't waste your time downloading it.
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