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DJ, producer and UCSD ‘Blacktronika’ creator King Britt does it all: ‘He’s had so much impact on so many’

Music producer and  DJ King Britt in his UCSD music studio, Oct. 4, 2022
“As a DJ, there’s always an educational aspect to my performances — even if it’s unspoken,” says King Britt, who is an assistant professor at the University of California San Diego.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This polymath’s career began when he was a teenager. He toured the world for three years as a member of the hip-hop group Digable Planets. Now, the sky’s the limit

The worlds of DJs, academia, hip-hop, Miles Davis, Dua Lipa, electronic music, Sun Ra, cassette mix tapes and digital technology are all happy equals for King Britt, who in barely four years at the University of California San Diego has become one of its most popular faculty members.

“King has a real following on campus, and he’s had so much impact on so many students,” said UCSD student Stephen Burt, a 21-year-old senior majoring in structural engineering. “His ‘Blacktronika: Afrofuturism in Electronic Music’ is probably my favorite class, ever.”

“ ‘Blacktronika’ has been enormously successful with students,” agreed saxophonist and UCSD music professor David Borgo. “King is a wonderful artist and practitioner. And he knows the history of music so well.”

Britt’s praises are also sung by multiple-Grammy Award-winning producer Kamau Kenyatta, who has taught at UCSD since 1999.

“I have many wonderful colleagues, but King is one of the most universally well-liked,” said Kenyatta, a noted jazz composer and instrumentalist.

“King brings a similar creativity to his approach to teaching as he does to his music. Students consistently tell me how accessible he is, despite his demanding academic schedule. He’s always available to them and wants to connect, hear their music and help them develop it.”

Britt’s “Blacktronika” class is now open to all undergraduate and graduate students across the entire UC system. The weekly three-hour lecture class currently has an enrollment of 320.

Britt launched it as an online-only course in early 2020, at just about the same time the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of live events worldwide — including in-person classes at UCSD.

“I didn’t have to pivot online, because I was always online before the pandemic,” he said. “It works really well as a Zoom class.”

The only weekly course of its kind currently offered by an American university, “Blacktronika” digs deep into the often overlooked contributions Black artists have made to electronic music. The styles Britt explores range from Jamaican dub, Detroit house and British drum-and-bass to hip-hop, techno, fusion-jazz and the avant-garde.

“As a DJ, there’s always an educational aspect to my performances — even if it’s unspoken,” said Britt, 53, who is a self-taught keyboardist. He rose to international prominence in the 1990s when he toured extensively with the innovative Brooklyn hip-hop group Digable Planets, followed by a multi-month concert trek as the opening act for Nigerian vocal sensation Sade.

“On stage and in class, I like to show how all these different genres are connected through the evolution of technology, going from early drum machines to sampling and beyond,” explained Britt, a Philadelphia native.

“Even if I’m teaching about a new technology, I like to show the evolution of that technology.”

Britt will take a deep dive on Oct. 29 with his “Blacktronika: Where I Stand Festival,” the sequel to last year’s “Blacktronika: Sound for Humanity Festival.” While last year’s debut edition of the festival was an entirely virtual event with nominally priced tickets, the 2022 iteration is free for anyone who wants to attend and pre-registers.

Drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey
Drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey perform with UC San Diego assistant professor and electronic music maverick King Britt at UCSD’s new Epstein Family Amphitheatre. Their duo set at the Britt-curated “Blacktronika” festival will mark only the second time the two have played together live in concert.
(Raymond Boyd / Getty Images)

Drumming up a storm

To be held at UCSD’s new Epstein Family Amphitheater, the seven-hour “Blacktronika” event will showcase performances by Irreversible Entanglements, Xenia Rubinos, Georgia Ann Muldrow, Chimurenga Renaissance and 5hz, a group that features four UCSD music department graduate students — Kevin Green, David Aguila, Jonny Stallings Cárdenas, Pablo Dodero — and one 2022 graduate, Kathryn Schulmeister.

The festival will also feature a duo set by Britt and jazz drum master Tyshawn Sorey, a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” recipient and visionary composer.

This will be only the second live performance anywhere by Sorey and Britt. The two last year released “Tyshawn/King,” an online-only album of improvisations that was recorded at UCSD.

“Tyshawn and I first met at a festival in St. Louis,” Britt recalled. “We hit it off and were like brothers. At the end of the festival, I said: ‘We’ve got to record together,’ and he agreed.

“I flew Tyshawn out to UCSD, a week before the lockdown began, and we set up in a room to record. We had never played together before, and we just killed it! When you put two people together in a room who are good at what they do, energy happens.”

Britt and Sorey will also perform Oct. 30 in Los Angeles at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. They will be appearing as part of the “Blacktronika: Now is the Time Festival,” which is largely curated by Britt and features some of the same artists as the Oct. 29 UCSD event.

True to the spirit of their album, the Oct. 29 and 30 concerts by Britt (on an array of electronic gear) and Sorey (on drums and percussion) will be improvised on the spot — the better to encourage swift, real-time interplay.

“It will be fresh and in-the-moment,” Britt affirmed. “We don’t rehearse, we just go for it. There will be nothing pre-recorded, apart from a few (electronic) sequences I may do in advance, which I then may change on the fly.”

Will Britt and Sorey be headlining the Oct. 29 “Blacktronika” festival Britt is curating?

“Oh, no, not at all,” he replied. “We’ll probably go on second. I never like to headline my own things.”

Such self-effacement is another reason why Britt has struck a chord with so many of his professional collaborators and students. He created his “Blacktronika” course shortly after being hired in 2019 by UCSD as an assistant teaching professor in computer music.

” Students love it — and not just music students” said Borgo, who headed the UCSD music department when Britt came on board.

“There’s been a pronounced push to correct the very Eurocentric approach to music history and electronic music,” Borgo continued. “King offers a nice corrective — and an important reminder that people of color were innovators in electronic music.”

Added fellow music professor Kenyatta: “King is so connected to Black music, electronic and otherwise, and he’s connected to so many figures in the idiom. He’s connected students to artists around the world and the students love it.”

King Britt at ResFest 2003, The Sanctum, Tribeca Grand Hotel in New York City,
King Britt is shown in action at ResFest 2003 in New York City.
(James Devaney / WireImage)

Real-world experience

Beyond Britt’s perspective and depth of knowledge, he brings a wealth of real-world experience to the classroom, as befits a DJ who has performed for decades in clubs and concert halls around the world. In his work as a genre-leaping producer, Britt has done remixes of recordings by such diverse artists as Miles Davis, Meredith Monk, Solange, Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa.

As a composer, he has collaborated with Madlib, De La Soul and others, and has performed with the Sun Ra Arkestra, and former Ornette Coleman bass great Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Britt is also the co-founder of several indie record labels, including The Buddy System and Ovum Recordings.

“If you have any questions about any recording system or process, King knows the answers,” said Burt, who — in addition to “Blacktronika” — has taken Britt’s classes in audio production and mixing.

“If you need to know how to make a T-shirt or other merch, King knows how. He’s got great musical ideas, and he knows all about the music industry. And the number of friends and connections he has is insane!”

That contention is illustrated by the esteemed artists who have participated in “Blacktronika” by doing in-depth interviews with Britt as his students listen and watch in rapt attention. The list includes everyone from George Clinton, Flying Lotus and Jill Scott to Julian Priester, DJ Pierre, Roots leader Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Hank Shocklee, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 as a member of seminal New York hip-hop group Public Enemy.

“I show my ‘Blacktronika’ students how different technologies and genres developed, chronologically, be it dub, house, drum-and-bass or techno,” said Britt, speaking from the UCSD studio that houses all his keyboards, synthesizers and recording gear.

“And I present it all virtually, which is part of what makes the class so engaging. I have the best sound quality, which I couldn’t achieve in a classroom, and a large archive of videos and photos that I use. The way I put each class (session) together is that the first hour is the lecture, the second is the interview with a guest artist and the third is the DJ set, where I’ll play music by the artists I talked about in the first hour.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that Britt’s students are so enthused by the singularity of his “Blacktronika” class.

“King is an anomaly for UCSD. He pushes boundaries, but in a way that feels natural, not abstract,” Burt said.

“UCSD is known as a STEM school and research institution. A lot of its best work doesn’t happen to be around the undergrad experience. The school has more of a grad student/Ph.D. focus. But King has been nothing but supportive to every student he’s come in contact with. He’s always been such a community-builder during my time here.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. If you make music and like music, he’ll find a way to make a place for you.”

Burt laughed appreciatively as he recounted one of his first student-teacher experiences with Britt.

“When I turned in my first assignment in his production class, I accidentally sent him my entire music file of every track I’d made myself at home when I was 16 or 17,” Burt said. “He listened to them and then made a remix of one of the tracks.

“There’s no other professor who will take the time to go through your entire music catalog, listen to your (stuff) and then remix one of your tracks. That’s crazy! I was over the moon when he did that. He’s always been about: ‘You can do this’ and ‘This is good’.”

Music producer, DJ and assistant music professor King Britt at UCSD on Oct. 4, 2022.
King Britt has an extensive collection of electronic keyboards and vintage synthesizers that he uses for his recordings.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Barber shop debut

Intriguingly, Britt had no background in academia when he was encouraged to apply to teach at UCSD by his daughter and a friend. Then again, he never planned to become a professional DJ or a producer either.

His entry into the music world began when he was 6 and started to spin records after school, every Friday, at Roseberry’s Barber Shop, which his father co-owned.

“I wouldn’t say I was a DJ then, but I was a record ‘selector’,” Britt explained.

“I’d get out this crate of records they kept at the barber shop — my father would help me — and I’d pick them out and play entire sides of records. I learned the emotional attachment people have to music and how certain songs can make them happy, sad, melancholy or lift them up out of their seats.

“I learned at an early age that music is really powerful. That was like the activation, the portal that pushed me into other universes.”

Britt credits fellow students in his grade-school music appreciation class for introducing him to such rock acts as Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. He points to neighborhood block parties with such then-obscure young Philadelphia DJs as Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money as formative in his artistic evolution. And he credits his mother — “who doesn’t believe in baby-sitters” — for constantly taking him out to hear live music. In addition, she took him to rehearsals by progressive jazz visionary Sun Ra and his band “every month for two years.”

That proved pivotal, even though Britt was too young to enjoy or understand much of Sun Ra’s music at the time.

“I loved the costumes he and his musicians wore and the wild sounds they made,” Britt said. “And hearing the electronic sounds Sun Ra wove into his band’s acoustic instrumentation really pricked my ears up. It was foundational for me, creatively, at such a young age because it showed me what was possible.

“I also got more into progressive-rock bands, like Yes and King Crimson. And, at home, we were listening to fusion-jazz — Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Water Report. Then, I discovered Kraftwerk and early Detroit techno music, and that was it. Anything with a synthesizer on it, I was there!”

By the time he was in his late teens, Britt was attending Temple University as a marketing major by day and making mix tapes and working as a DJ in Philadelphia clubs by night. He became a buyer for Tower Records and started releasing his music himself. That led to his London debut as a DJ at the Brainiac club.

“I was 18 and when I got back from London, I was like: ‘Man this could be a career’!” Britt said. “Then, I made some demos with Digable Planets, who got signed and invited me to be the DJ in their band for a tour of Europe. I quit my job at Tower and ended up touring with them for three years, after which I toured with Sade. Then, I started my own record label with Josh Wink and the rest is history.”

Britt is now at work on a “Blacktronika” book, which he hopes to self-publish in late 2023 or early 2024. He also plans to launch his “Blacktronika” website later this month and now has a partnership as the “Blacktronika” curator for Google Arts & Culture.

“It’s a lot of work,” Britt said. “I have a lot of dreams.”

Blacktronika: Where I Stand Festival

Featuring: Tyshawn Sorey and King Britt, Irreversible Entanglements, 5hz, Xenia Rubinos, Georgia Ann Muldrow, Chimurenga Renaissance

When: Noon to 7 p.m. Oct. 29

Where: Epstein Family Amphitheater, University of California San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla

Tickets: Free. One ticket per person limit; advance online registration is required

Online: amphitheater.ucsd.edu/event/blacktronika/


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