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How DJ ItsJustAhmad Became One of Trenton's Hardest Working DJs

Image via Jimmy Giambrone

When it comes to the Art and Entertainment scene in the city of Trenton, NJ, there are a few constants: murals from Leon Rainbow, Will Kasso, and the SAGE Coalition. Good drinks (and better company) at watering holes like Trenton Social or the Mill Hill Saloon. Great art exhibits at Artworks. One thing you'll also notice is one person: Ahmad Shakir, a.k.a. DJ ItsJustAhmad, who is probably on the 1s and 2s, giving up the funk while educating the masses. You've probably seen one of his DJ master classes at Art All Night - Trenton, or caught him backing up acts like Old Sol or Agudos Clef, or just providing the sounds at the monthly Jersey Fresh hip-hop shows at the Mill Hill Basement, not to mention spinning at Trenton Social for the last five years. It's just inevitable; if there's music to be played, it's probably the 38-year-old Ahmad with his fingers on the decks and in the mix, or providing an extra batch of sonic oomph to some of the area's finer hip-hop acts. Sure, Trenton's only 7.648 square miles of land—everyone is going to meet each other at some point; but at some point, one has to wonder how Ahmad went from a selector in a pool of DJs to That Dude around #TheTown.

Here's his story, which surprisingly enough involved hating DJing initially.

"I've been into music as far back as I can remember," he tells us. "My uncle was a DJ; 100% aggravated me as a kid growing up." That's what happens when your Jack & Jill bathroom is shared with an uncle who's practicing his mic skills while you're trying to sleep (although when the weekend rolled through, and his uncle had gigs, Ahmad assures us that he got his sleep on). Through what his uncle was playing, and being a (late) '70s baby, Ahmad got to see hip-hop grow from the ground up, although the sounds of house and DC's go-go scene also touched his uncle's decks...decks he wasn't allowed to put his fingers on. Pioneering groups like DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince or Eric B and Rakim helped Ahmad notice the familiar melodies being thrown atop these raw, aggressive hip-hop rhythms. "It was music, as far as the stuff that I know, and the things that I got into, started to become the same thing."

As Ahmad grew, so did his appetite for the pillars of hip-hop: he'd tried his hand at graffiti, and was rapping from time to time. He also was an avid comic book fan, and had aspirations of being a drummer. Somehow, there was something about the turntables that called his name. Even though Ahmad had a DJ for an uncle, it wasn't until he was around 13 or 14 years old that a kid moved in across the street who had his own ghetto DJ setup that Ahmad was actually able to touch the equipment, even if that hands-on experience didn't last for long. "I put my hand on the record for the first time really trying to scratch, and all I had in my head was 'Brand New Funk.'" Needless to say, that didn't go too well, and his homeboy would let him come over, but anytime Ahmad got NEAR the decks, he was told not to touch them. Foiled again.

While Ahmad wasn't able to fully indulge in his love of the turntables, he was in what he calls a "very pivotal time" for him, musically, with remixes from legendary producers like Pete Rock (as well as interesting bits like 120 BPM techno tracks, including a Sesame Street remix) that really pushed what Ahmad thought could be done sonically. Ahmad would go to his friend's house to make cassettes of all of this music he was loving, and it was only then that his friend would let him use his turntables. Fast forward to 1999, and Ahmad's years out of high school, and a casual stroll through the Burlington Center Mall turned into him discovering an urban apparel store called Any Wear across from a Sam Goody that not only had an open mic cipher on Friday nights, but was also part-owned by Divine, the original DJ for Trenton's legendary hip-hop group, Poor Righteous Teachers.

Coming out of the "real" golden era of hip-hop, the more independent/underground sound of 1999 and 2000 was emerging, with New York-based acts like Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch as well as California-based groups like Hieroglyphics and Dilated Peoples also getting shine, which appealed to Ahmad's personality. "I was always told that I had a real West Coast way about my demeanor," Ahmad says. "Real just chill and laid back. A lot of the stuff that I listened to was now the norm on the East Coast." It was that "golden era of hip-hop that was turning into white gold" that incorporated more of the scratching that he loved growing up alongside the DJ set-up that was installed at Any Wear that reignited his love for DJing. Now a manager at Any Wear, Ahmad could be found not only on those turntables during the week, but he was a force behind the turntables during the cipher; he had no issue with telling a wack MC that he needed to step down, usually cutting off their mic to emphasize his point. He would also study the DMC DJ battle videos, featuring the likes of the X-Men and the Beat Junkies, which helped him perfect the scratches and tricks that he showcases during the aforementioned Master Classes or just during live shows. How did these years of studying music and DJing on the job turn into being That Dude all over #TheTown, though?

Like we said earlier, Trenton is small. While making mixtapes with a couple of rhymers in the city, Ahmad meets Hustle Emcee through some mutual friends. Their working relationship turns into Ahmad DJing for Hustle at the 6th Annual Jersey Fresh Jam in 2010, and in typical DJ fashion, Ahmad ends up spinning for most of the MCs on the bill. That's how he formally linked up his SAGE brother Will Kasso (although he'd met Will years earlier because, well, Trenton is small). "I ended up spinning Jersey Fresh that year, and I've done it every year since. From that, we formed SAGE," the Trenton-based collective that describes themselves as "a diverse group of visual artists, fabricators, musicians and teachers who are dedicated to initiating, planning and establishing inner city beautification projects." With all of the work that SAGE does, since their formation, Ahmad's only missed one SAGE event, and that's only because he was performing with SAGE members in Philly in the Black Collar Biz-fronted band Old Sol.

As Ahmad describes it, being the DJ in a band like Old Sol or Agudos Clef is much more involved than one may realize. As he puts it, "you could be the guy that's really lazy and just plays the track and shouts 'get your hands up.' Myself, I've played the role of DJ scratching while the band performs, I've done background vocals, I've sung on a chorus, I've even done a few ad-libs. I do anything that I possibly can to make sure that I'm not just that guy standing there." You'd be playing yourself if you described what Ahmad does as just standing there, though. One key to having a DJ like him on your set is that, with his rich musical knowledge, he knows the perfect sound to throw into a song to make it that much tighter. It was Ahmad who felt the need to add Evidence's "illest high" line to John Michael's Black Collar Biz-featured track "Like A Drug." Your run-of-the-mill DJ isn't thinking on that level, which just makes a DJ like Ahmad that more valuable.

So what's Ahmad doing now? Well, aside from doing so many events within the city of Trenton (including DJing at Monster's Ball at Artworks on October 22nd), he's working on some of his own projects, including delving more into the world of remixing. "I know a lot of emcees," Ahmad explains. "They're always asking me if I make beats, and where they can find beats. On the same hand, I have a lot of producer friends who want to shop their beats to emcees. So I [figured] I'd put together a project combining both. My boys illa'Quation and Zar-Hotep gave me some beats that I've been hanging onto, and it clicked one day." Ahmad's taking acapellas (or making acapellas) from emcees he knows, and throwing them onto the beats his producer friends are lacing him with, and turning them into brand-new tracks.

"I'm going to keep doing those," Ahmad continues, "and I'm going to put out a remix project. Hopefully through either their fan base or my fan base, they find each other. I'm trying to bring these guys [together] and say 'here's your introduction to him.' It can be a thing." It's a huge step for a DJ who went from looking up to Trenton-based DJs like the iconic Fatha Ramzee, to now considering those same DJs his friends and peers. Ahmad, being the talented DJ that he is, has also been known to drop the odd mixtape, like his 47-minute mix of "music performed, produced, inspired by and sampled by Kanye West" entitled "itsjustahmadmixingkanye."

One of the keys to that Kanye mix is the idea that Ahmad likes to throw in the music that is sampled by these hip-hop producers into his live sets. Ahmad's an educator on the decks; "I started to understand the mindset that Bambaata and Kool Herc had. You need to educate the people that are listening. It's not a 'should,' you need to. It's part of your job as a DJ. You're not only a party rocker, but you should know how to do everything under the sun. You should know where the music you're playing currently came from. It's all in the presentation," which you see during Ahmad's live performances.

When you're in Ahmad's presence, you could get the impression that being That Dude on the decks all over Trenton is what he'd be willing to do until the record stops spinning, but he does have loftier goals. "By the end of the year, I want to release my own production," he says. "I want to do my own thing and be comfortable enough to release it."

Over the last six years, Ahmad's grind and skills on the decks have taken him across the tri-state and into the "top DJ" lists of anyone who's seen him perform. You can't deny his talent, and you can't stop his hustle; it's not a matter of "if," but "when" Ahmad decides to really show the world what he can do.

Do you want to book Ahmad? Shoot him an email at itsjustahmad@gmail.com, and be sure to follow him on Facebook, SoundCloud, and Mixcloud. And if you're in Trenton, buy your tickets and party at Artworks for Monster's Ball, which will feature a DJ set from DJ ItsJustAhmad himself!

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