Jus-Ed is quite possibly the hardest working man in house music. You probably know him as the Underground Quality guy – label boss, DJ, producer, radio show host. But to others he’s also the firewood guy, the lawn guy, the junk removal guy, the handyman guy and a devoted father and husband. He’s a people person, and even the most fleeting of conversations will elicit some kind of laughter, and probably leave you with a deep and lasting sense that this is a man doing what he loves.
Ed (full name Edward McKeithen) has been DJing on and off since the age of 10, but his first production didn’t hit the shelves until as recently as 2005. Since then he’s been in prolific form, with 33 releases to date, most of which have been pressed up on his beloved UQ imprint. His weekly radio slot on Myhouse-yourhouse has served as a platform to preach the virtues of underground house music, and Ed has used the position to give up-and-coming producers a boost (indeed some have reported getting label deals soon after getting the Jus-Ed stamp of approval).
We logged onto Skype for a chat with Ed, who, speaking from his home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, had much to say about going digital, DJ politics and how 2010 has been a watershed 12 months for his label.
This year you’ve started making more of the Underground Quality releases available digitally – what prompted the move?
It was a way to cut down on bootlegging. I was seeing my music all over different websites and blogs. I even saw people bragging and boasting about giving away this music illegally. One person wrote, ‘yeah it took me four hours but I hacked the code’. And this is my music they’re talking about; it’s pretty disheartening. At the moment Underground Quality doesn’t have a huge audience for digital music because I had a reputation of not releasing anything digitally for so long. But the fact is, going digital hasn’t been just a movement to make money- it’s a precaution against losing money.
So in your opinion does the importance of combating thievery outweigh the purist argument for vinyl only labels?
I’m not going to say it outweighs it, but what I will do is tell you what I’m doing. I respect what the public has to say, but none of that puts bread on my table, or puts diapers on my daughter. The bottom line is that I have to take care of myself and my family. Some people think that I’ve got a Dookie Rope and five finger ring and gold fronts and I’m pushing a Masterati around, whereas in actuality, I’m not. I’m $2 away from getting a job (laughs). People in music know me as Jus-Ed, but people at home know me as just Ed – the firewood guy, the lawn guy, the junk removal guy, the handyman guy.
You are a dad at home but people in the industry also regard you as a father figure. Levon Vincent, for example, has cited you as a major influence in his career. Is that something you’re proud of?
Listen, I’m a straight shooter, and I’d never call myself perfect. But when it comes to dealing with people’s lives, and maintaining relationships, I spend a lot of time keeping in touch and nurturing. One of the gifts that I have is that I care and I’m genuine. It’s because I’m a tortured soul, and my elixir is actually helping others. I’m not a religious person, but I am very spiritual. I’m a little wary of saying pride, but I have a sense of satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, when I see Levon and my boys and my girls doing well. When I see them progressing – and I don’t mean if they get a gig and get paid £1000 or whatever – I mean when I see them obtaining publishing, obtaining control of their music, being able to run their own labels. When I hear club owners tell me that they love dealing with the UQ crew, that’s what’s important. I’ve tried to set the whole thing up so it can’t be disbanded.
So Underground Quality serves a wider purpose than just releasing music…
I’m selling more than just vinyl or downloads. I’m selling what I bought into years ago, which is house music. There’s a certain way grass roots house heads carry themselves. They’re talented, they’re quirky and that often stems from some other passion, like jazz or classical music. It still is the only genre that offers complete and utter lack of pretentiousness. I’m not talking about the upper echelons of house music, I’m talking about underground stuff. I’ve never seen a fight at one of my parties, and that’s what I love about it. When I first discovered this stuff I never felt like I had to go and talk to a girl and get her number, I’d never be worried about whether I was going to score or not. It’s always been about the music, and me being comfortable in my own skin and being free. People are affiliated with Underground Quality but they’re not pigeon holed – everyone is autonomous. They have their own labels, but the bond that keeps us together is a love for one another; it’s nothing to do with the music (laughs). I say that with tears in my eyes, because at the beginning I had to find an impregnable way to run a label because this is how the scene got messed up in the 90s and 2000s.
“People are affiliated with Underground Quality but they’re not pigeon holed – everyone is autonomous. They have their own labels, and the bond that keeps us together is a love for one another”
I guess you witnessed that first hand, right?
Well it’s not just me coming up with this history – I spoke to people and I saw Shelter, I saw Kevin (Hedge) and Timmy (Regisford) separate, I saw Body & Soul’s John Davis and Francois K separate and disband. It crushed and dispersed the followers. That’s why the scene has taken such a big hit. I think you need to forgive and press on. Part of the reason is because of personal behaviour and politics – you can’t believe the fierceness in between DJs, in between promoters, labels, club owners. People saying things like ‘if you DJ for my party, you can’t DJ for this other party’… I don’t subscribe to that man. In America, Uncle Sam doesn’t give a fuck who you DJ for, you’ve got to pay them taxes (laughs). And I think, instead of getting on Resident Advisor and smashing somebody up because they don’t have education or direction, it’s better to set the example by physically doing something.
So the New York scene got pretty stagnant for a while there?
I could literally go to ten different parties in Manhattan the late 90s and hear the same records from the same labels. What excitement is there in that? I was happy when Shelter and Body & Soul. Danny Krivit is one of the best examples of how a DJ should be, and that’s totally approachable. If you don’t want to be bothered, don’t show up. He’s always accessible and he pushed the envelope musically, would always introduce something new. I would like to emulate that. If I’m Ed at home and I’m Jus Ed around the booth in a superclub or a little basement party, to me it makes more sense to be the same person.
How influential has being embraced by UK and Germany been in your career? How big a boost has it been?
A boost? I think they’ve given me a living (laughs). The recognition I received from Europe is actually getting me gigs here in the States. Technically I haven’t had a hit record yet, and I’m not striving for a hit record, because once it hits you have to sequel it. I’m in it for the long haul – I’m a grass roots kind of guy. It started in Germany, then the UK and now Asia. Russia was a big one; once we picked up Anton (Zap) and put him out, it was like building a bridge from the east coast to Russia. I knew I was making a connection but I didn’t know the magnitude of it was going to be like it is. I see more Russian producers becoming big in Europe and the States…
You had Nina Kraviz on UQ after Anton…
Yeah I had to have Nina! (laughs) And that was enough, because then I started to get an influx of Russian producers, but, you know, I can’t put out music non-stop. I’d love to but I might be tone deaf by all the garbage music I have to sort through!
This year you have also released 12”s from Tazz and Aybee. How did you get hooked up with them?
Tazz has been connected to me for a minute. He booked me to play in Montreal last year and sent me a couple of tracks. I played it on the radio show, and I was like ‘this is good stuff here, if you’re not doing anything with it I’ll put it out on my label’. As for Aybee, I met him by way of Fred P; he and Fred P go way back. Everybody loves the music that Fred’s making, and those guys are really broken beat masters, they’ve done broken beat and hip-hop for years, and Aybee is probably one of the best out there that I’ve heard. He did some work with Ron Trent and Prescription and other things. He’s a professional producer – he’s not like me, a self taught, banging around type of thing. He has knowledge and understating. What he didn’t have was a platform, so I used my little platform to get him out there with his music. Underground Quality is about taking individuals who, to use punter’s language, have been shitted on by the industry. UQ breathes life and hope back into them and lets their skills do the rest of the work.
And there was that Operator 12″ too…
I got booked to play with the Operator guys at Dunkel Bar in Copenhagen, and they handed me a CD, so I took it and listened to it, and hit them up almost immediately when I got home. It wasn’t until a few months later that I released their music though, because I go through a period where I need to check people out and see where their heads are, if they are really about the music and if they are dedicated to their craft. There’s nothing they have to do except for be themselves, and if I collect enough positive energy from them, if I feel comfortable with them, I’ll release their record. This business is too small now, so for me, you’re either in or you’re out.
What else have you got coming out on UQ in the coming months?
I’ve got releases coming from Owen Jay and Steffi. Steffi’s EP is going to be a prelude for her album for Ostgut Ton. Her EP is called Reasons, it’s a three player and it’s absolutely beautiful. She’s done a couple of other vocal tracks but I think this is her best yet. They are really well produced tracks, the lyrics are there but it’s not overbearing – it’s a lover’s track.
How did you hook up with Steffi?
The first time I played at Panorama I saw this hot Dutch chick with dimples and sunglasses sitting in a car chilling with a glass of wine, and I thought, ‘this is gonna be a party’! (laughs) So we got chit chatting, and I discovered she has this great energy about her. She said ‘I’m expecting you to bring it tonight, bam’! That was exactly what she said, bam, and that’s been our word since then, which was back in 2007.
Was it bam that night?
It was! And I’ve stayed connected with her since then. We developed a great friendship as a result of that. And it was never based on releasing a record, but now I’m honoured to be doing a release with her. It’s really dope.
You’ve released four of your own releases this year as well, so you’ve been quite prolific on the production front too. Do you struggle to find the time to produce with everything else that’s going on?
The other night I was talking to Patrice Scott and he sent me the parts to a track he has done. It was about 10.30pm when he sent them, and from 11pm until 3am I got the main idea – the meat of the track – done. Then I dropped the kids off at school, got my daughter breakfast, and sat down to work on the arrangement. I think I beat Omar S’s record, because he said something about making a track in eight minutes (laughs). I think the total time was about four and a half hours. That’s because when I’m in the studio, I’m in, I do what I got to do and then I’m out. I don’t have time to just hang out. I go to some people’s studios and they’ve got top notch equipment but then there are ashtrays, bags of weed and bottles and I’m thinking, ‘are you guys making music or are you just partying’?
“I’d never call myself perfect. But when it comes to dealing with people’s lives, and maintaining relationships, I spend a lot of time keeping in touch and nurturing”
What other responsibilities take up your time?
I’m constantly working. I sell firewood and I have a helper that I’m training to take over the lawn mowing and run the landscaping business. The firewood business is mine, because that’s what I like to do. It’s a year long job. I retired from snow plowing, because the fall and winter are really busy for DJing. I was on a big contract in snow plowing, but there were lots of other costs going into the business, and I grew tired of it. I couldn’t find anybody reliable to take it over, so I had to give it up. That is also the reason why you see me playing at more events these days, because in the beginning I only allowed myself to travel once a month. I was at work during the week, and going away on the weekend meant even more time away from the family. Priority number one is staying sober, then providing for my family – in that order. And music comes down under that somewhere. It’s important that I participate in raising my kids because that’s my real investment.
You also released a nice 12” on DJ QU’s Strength Music. Can you see yourself releasing music on other people’s labels more in the future?
Yeah as long as the money’s right (laughs). I mean listen, let’s be clear, friends, associates, brothers, sisters, they are all very nice words, but the bottom line is that Underground Quality is a business. If UQ is putting out your music, it’s made clear that this is a mutual venture. If the music is good enough to keep my label up front, that’s great, but it’s also going to give you an opportunity to achieve things that you couldn’t necessarily achieve on your own. It’s a grooming process too, because some people need to be brought up to speed before you throw them out there. For example, a young kid out of college is good at football and you give him $10 million contract but nobody educates him about the traps, he’s doomed to fail, or at least get into some serious shit. We are not nearly on that level but there is an element of success, and it’s important that I do the best I can to forewarn them. It also helps people appreciate and enjoy the success that they’re getting and keep both feet on the ground. It’s about managing expectations, because there are people out there who have one good record and think they are the cat’s meow. This is what I preach, but it’s not an exclusive discussion. This message is for the person who reads this interview and feels if they just had some help, they could make it. Well Jus-Ed can’t help everybody, but if you heed my words and reach out to somebody in your community and be patient, you’ll be amazed what resources lie just beneath the surface.
Interview: Aaron Coultate