The veteran Madison deck-destroyer talks with us about a few of his favorite tracks.
While we here at Tone Madison would never expect a DJ to simply dump their entire record bag full of secrets out in front of us, our goal with this new column, Aces (as in “aces up the sleeve”), is to chat with some of our favorite local residents, as well as visiting guests, about a few of their favorite, fail-safe floor destroyers.
Our last couple installments of Aces were grounded in the world of house and techno, so we were excited to shift gears and have a more hip-hop- and reggae-oriented chat with veteran Madisonian DJ Nate Foulks, better known as Vilas Park Sniper. Whether he's throwing down dub and reggae records with DJ Trichrome for Reggae Pon Di Corner at Alchemy on the third Saturday of every month or jamming hip-hop, funk, and soul for Uptown Saturday Night at Genna's on the second Saturday, Foulks is committed to putting on a performance beyond the selection and will shred the decks with old-school scratching techniques. Additionally, he can be found injecting mood into Merchant, Natt Spil, and Lucille every month, as well as sporadically going back-to-back with DJ Zukas for their pop-up residency Disco Brunch. We talked with Foulks about cutting his teeth as a DJ in San Francisco, the pressure of DJing breakdancing battles, and how playing in a Rush cover band was the high point of his musical career.
Tone Madison: How did you get started DJing? What is your background?
Nate Foulks: I was in bands when I was younger, but I got sick of band dudes. My buddy got a four-track recorder and we had more fun just layering tracks and making spacey dub reggae and trip-hop tracks. It was the ’90s and turntablism was everywhere, so we started laying whack scratches down over everything. Once I moved to the Bay Area, I was hooked. I saw DJ Shortkut, Apollo, Vin Roc, and all these famous battle DJs play party sets at this tiny little basement spot called Club Deco every Tuesday for a $5 cover. I absorbed everything I could about party and trick mixing and I still practice those same techniques today.
Tone Madison: What sort of bands were you playing with and what did you play in them?
Nate Foulks: Funk, Blues, Reggae and Rush. [Laughs] I played guitar, bass, and keyboards.
Tone Madison: Whoa, you were in a Rush cover band?
Nate Foulks: We did "La Villa Strangiato" at a battle of the bands in high school and nailed it. High point of my career, musically. I still make music for my day job but nothing as Vilas Park Sniper. I use Ableton and Protools at work... I’m a media producer. I do a bunch of sound design for product videos and commercials.
Tone Madison: When would you say you started to dive full-on into DJing and move out of making your own music?
Nate Foulks: When I moved back from San Francisco, around 2000. I just wanted to DJ. I was kind of over music production at the moment and was all about scratching.
Tone Madison: As an audience member, this is actually my favorite part of seeing you throw down live. Obviously, the modern era of DJing has generally become less performative over the years and someone can actually have marginal success without having to learn all of the insane techniques. I saw you spinning dub and reggae at Alchemy one night and you were so into it, flailing about, and shredding the decks. That sort of energy is infectious.
Nate Foulks: Yeah, I love DJing. That’s my release. So even if nobody is watching, I still have to get it out, so to speak. [For me], switching to Serato just made those old tricks a little easier and you get to have doubles of every song!
Tone Madison: Your residencies sort of run the gamut between dub and reggae, funk, soul, hip-hop, and disco. Is it pretty intense to constantly be shifting between genres and preparing new sets? Or, are you at a point where you can usually just select on the fly?
Nate Foulks: I always select on the fly, unless I’m doing a tribute or a breaking or popping battle where I need to be thorough.
Tone Madison: How'd you get into DJing dance battles?
Nate Foulks: I've been doing break battles for over 10 years. I was the resident DJ at Breakin' The Law—Wisconsin's largest and most prolific breaking competition, rest in peace. Over the years, I've ventured into popping, all-styles, and funk-style dance battles. DJing battles is far and away the most difficult thing I do. It takes a ton of practice, preparation, and concentration. But the reward is ridiculous. A hype battle leaves me charged for days afterwards. The energy is completely contagious.
Tone Madison: What exactly is it that makes these dance battles more difficult than a typical DJ gig for you?
Nate Foulks: B-boy and B-girl battling is a pillar of hip-hop. It's part of the foundation of the culture. So, its tradition carried down, of which I'm a student at best, but mostly a spectator. I know Chicago B-boys who have three generations of break-dancers in their family. It's no different than hockey is in Canada—it's a family affair. So, DJing at these events is a delicate matter that I take very seriously. This is a real-ass scene too, where you get called out constantly if you fuck up, you're wack, or you're faking or biting. A room of dancers, spectators, and a host will stop everything, look right at you, and boo. It pays to come correct. That pressure doesn't exist at other gigs.
Tone Madison: OK, so let's move onto the tracks you've selected. First, we've got Kendrick Lamar's "King Kunta," which is definitely one of my favorites from To Pimp A Butterfly. What is it that keeps you coming to this track and where would you be mostly likely to spin it in a set?
Nate Foulks: I play this one when I want to boost the energy for the people at the spot or even just for me. I love this record. Kendrick Lamar is fearless. He didn't try to sound like anything hot right now. Its crazy beat sounds like James Brown's "The Payback" and Lamar's flow is all over the place, but very clever and fundamentally impressive. It just gets me hyped up.
Tone Madison: Agreed. One thing that really hit me with this album is that there are seemingly no butter notes throughout the entire thing. He didn't go for any low-hanging fruit here—no easy hooks.
Nate Foulks: I got that Outkast, Mobb Deep, or Tribe-level timeless-classic feeling the first time I heard that album. I’m a big fan.
Tone Madison: Let's move on to Chaka Demus & Pliers' "Murder She Wrote." What's your relationship to this one?
Nate Foulks: It's the first proper dancehall song and video I ever heard or saw. I've been watching this track kill dance floors for like 20 years. The beat is hypnotic and the chorus is so addicting. It will never be played out, in my opinion. To this day, people sample the shit out of this one.
Tone Madison: The reggae, dub, and dancehall DJ scene seems pretty microscopic when compared with the house and techno community, but it seems to be one of your main outlets.
Nate Foulks: Reggae has always been there for me. My older brother Jim got me into reggae in middle school. When I started collecting records, it was pretty much just hip-hop and reggae. Before that, I'd make cassette mixes from dub CDs that I'd spend all of what little money I had right after high school on. When I was in San Francisco, all the Hip Hop DJs played dancehall too which had a lot of influence on me.
Tone Madison: You actually picked another reggae jam, a contemporary one called "Spanish Town Rockin'" by a young Jamaican emcee called Chronixx.
Nate Foulks: Yeah, Chronixx is one of a few artists at the forefront of a roots reggae revival. It's so refreshing to see the younger generation in Jamaica give such honor and respect to the roots and culture that began the reggae movement. Jamaica has its own version of Lil' Wayne or Young Thug but Chronixx has shown that he can be lyrically conscious and just as popular
Tone Madison: It seems like most of your opportunities to spin reggae are kind of in a more mood-oriented DJ setting at a bar or restaurant. Do you ever think about starting a more free-form, full-on dance party for that sort of thing that's relative to the DIY house or techno warehouse scene?
Nate Foulks: I've been dreaming about it ever since Jolly Bob’s stopped doing reggae. I played there every Saturday for seven years and it was a full-on bash. I'm eager to get a proper dancehall night back in Madison. Even if there are rotating DJs, I just want to involved. There are so many displaced dancehall fans in Madison that would love a permanent home.
Tone Madison: OK, so I see our last jam here is Zapp's "More Bounce To The Ounce," one of my dad's favorites. What makes you keep coming back to this one?
Nate Foulks: It's timeless. I've been hearing it since roller-skating birthday parties and it still bangs. It has the ability to take the party to the next level. It’s a staple at popping battles and it also works great at weddings. It has an undeniable groove. It's relentless to the listener because every negative space is so funky and it constantly changes. Zapp didn't invent the talk-box [vocal] effect, but their style started the autotune and vocoder trend used by T-Pain, Kanye West, and everybody else, which is ever-present in contemporary popping music. as well as hip hop in general. Zapp and Roger's talk-box use had a lot more influence than Peter Frampton's. Oh, and the bass line still shakes speakers, which doesn't hurt either.