Build Your Heaven–An Interview with Damar Davis

What moves culture forward? Oxford Languages defines culture as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” We believe while the collective expression creates culture, it’s the tastemakers, disruptors, and revolutionaries who move culture onward and upward. In spirit of The Year of the Tiger–unbreakable confidence, crystallized vision, a hunger for justice–we couldn’t think of a better person to be our first feature of 2022: Damar Davis, a tastemaker of elegant style and master of rhythmic groove that keeps us dancing at the revolution

Damar Davis is a house producer, DJ and founder of Salon Recordings. In this interview, we unpack his wild and winding journey as a musician–from his touring career as a drummer, to the founding of his own label, and all the struggles and beauty in between. 

This interview took place on a warm winter morning in Atwater, Los Angeles (1/23/22). Tap in for some style game, music industry insight and inspiration to create your own lane for POC to thrive. 

RAPID FIRE

Last project in your music library 
Jay-Z The Blueprint II. The production on that goes crazy

Go-to fashion pieces
Fresh ass white tee. Ben Davis gorilla pants. Wallabee Clarks type shit. 

1 word to sum up your vibe / energy for 2022
Urgency

DEEP QUICKIES

Favorite childhood memory 
My whole family does music. Either, professionally or at church. Being in the family choir – not necessarily singing, but playing the drums in the church choir. 

What inspires your fashion style?
Man… Anything from 90’s Snoop Dogg aesthetic to Pharell Bape era. But also, being comfortable is super important. I’m really down with busting a sweatsuit if I’m on the way to the airport with some Jay-Z Air Force 1’s type shit. 

The places you’ve lived and their influences in your life
I used to live with Mike [location: Downtown LA], and that was super pivotal in my life because I just broke up with a girl who I thought I was gonna be with forever. That place reminded me of true independence. That’s where I made the step of changing the trajectory of being a drummer and working my way towards production. 

So LA was super pivotal for you? 
Fuck LA *laughs*

DAMAR’S STORY

Tell us about the arc of your music career 
Moved out to LA to go to music school–to go to MI. And mainly I moved out here to be a drummer, a touring musician. Then I got in projects like “Vex Ruffin” on Stone’s Throw. I was in this band called “Stranger,” which they ended up changing their name to “Lo Moon” on Columbia. Then after that, I was in a band called “Zipper Club” which is on Epic [Records]. Then I was like, fuck this band shit. Ain’t no money in it, tired of being broke. Decided to start my own label–making beats and DJ’ing. To have my own shit, because ownership is super important. 

Racial consciousness is important in my creative work. I want to ask about your experience being Black and in these music spaces. Namely, Rock bands and now Electronic, but is it tiring to talk about?  
Nah it’s cool. I actually like to talk about that– it’s important. 

Ok, let’s dig. What are some challenges you face and how you overcome those challenges? 
It’s not an easy answer. Growing up being in bands that are predominantly, you know, white people type shit. It’s like, Black people didn’t really fuck with me because I was playing rock music, you know? Obviously I wasn’t white. So at a certain point, my white friends didn’t fuck with me because I wasn’t white. So I’ve always lived in this grey area of truly trying to figure out who Damar is. Even with producing electronic music, although I do and can produce every style, it’s just.. I exist in this world, where most people associate dance music with caucasian people or EDM shit. The truth is, techno/house music is Black music. We created that shit. So, that’s why Salon exists. That’s how I learned to cope with it. Instead of complaining about having opportunities or getting booked, or being able to exist in these spaces–I feel like if they don’t wanna invite me to the party, I’ma have my own party. And since I have my own party, not only can you not get in, you’re gonna wait in this long ass line and be like, fuck I wish I got in.  

You mentioned before that there are stereotypes behind Black men in music and how they approach you or assume about the kind of music you make. What is that like for you and what are those stereotypes?
I’ve played with artists like T Mills as a drummer, and his whole aesthetic back then was predominantly a rapper. And his fanbase was mostly white kids from the suburbs. He’s eating and caking and making bread off the Black mold. It’s always been really difficult cuz although I can, it never really came natural to me to make R&B or hiphop shit. So I always existed in this world where the majority of people that either know about my shit or care about my shit, don’t look like me. In a nutshell, it’s learning how to be 100% comfortable with who I am in my creative space, so regardless of how people look at what the fuck I do, I know that I’m vibrating at such a high level, that I can’t be affected by the bullshit. Because I’m so confident with my god-given talent and my work ethic. At the end of the day, it’s hard you know what I mean? Because I want Black people to fuck with my shit, but if they don’t, I’m not gonna cry about. At least not in front of people *laughs* you know? 

What about when people meet you and they automatically assume you’re a rapper– 
OH BRO YOU RAP? YOU MAKE BEATS? SEND ME SOME BEATS! I feel like that’s just shallow racism at the end of the day. I have white homies that make really good R&B music, that are like, the soulfullest people that I know. And people approach them and be like “Oh what do you make? You tryna be like Nirvana or some shit?” You know what I mean? And even for me to hear that as their friend, I’m like.. That’s fucked up. Music doesn’t necessarily have a color. But I think you should definitely respect the origins of it. It’s just shallow racism. 

Do you feel the need to correct and open people’s perspectives about it? 
I used to. When everything went down and there were riots in LA and all that shit. I started to exhaust myself to the point where I was like “Nah you’re not doing the work–you’re not educating yourself on how that’s racist and blah blah blah” but I’ve just came to the conclusion that America is America, and as long as I’m doing the work–that’s all I can control. I can build my heaven. I can build my surroundings to how I want it to look. It’s all a mental perseverance. It’s all a mental game at the end of the day I feel like. Tap into your chi bruh. 

So we talked about the challenges of being a Black man in the music space you’re in. What about the joys? 
Not even to say or sound cocky. But when someone is tapped in to who they are 100% or confident in what they’re doing – no one can fuck with you. Like how people have that corny saying “No one can be you. Just be your authentic self.” Like–that is real, you know what I mean? At the end of the day, if we’re being honest, everything comes from Black culture. Then it gets pumped out to the mass media however they want it to be perceived. But being an African American male in the creative space, nobody can fuck with you because you are the sauce. Without us, it don’t exist. Like, at all. I’m not tryna be racist or anything, that’s just facts. 

What’s the origin story of Salon?
Salon started pre-pandemic. I had a residency at The Line Hotel. I realized there’s this open lane–a need and a want–for this type of music and for it to be presented in a specific way. I feel like once I realized it was needed and necessary, I never took my foot off the fuckin gas. There’s so many labels, parties, that do exist in LA, but there’s nothing like us. Our mission is to continue to put out music by POC and push that as much as we can. And [music by] transgender people and females especially. There’s so many dope females in LA and around the world that put out music that really don’t get as much love as they should. And that’s what we’re here for. We want to put on females that DJ, that are sick, that do the work. Even if they are beautiful, they are also talented with their shit. That’s something we stand by. There’s parties that continue to have all male lineups. Not to say we don’t fuck with it, it’s just that it’s not cool.

What about the name?
As I’ve matured and been in different projects, I’ve always gravitated towards things that are classy. Just the word Salon makes me feel upscale and classy. So when it comes to things we put out– the content–we want it to be at a certain level and aesthetic. So that’s pretty much why the name exists– because it sounds sexy. When people think of Salon, I want them to think “Man that shit is fly, make sure you get a fit off when you go to Salon, just in case, cuz you never know.” 

How has your relationship to sobriety affected your life/creative process? 
At the end of 2019, I was making music and MDing with this artist. The base of our relationship was partying. We would go to the club, get fucked up on drugs or whatever the fuck. We would go to the studio until super late. I realized I continued to make really dumb decisions– like life changing decisions that would fuck up shit. It was probably the last day that I was in Berlin and I was broke as fuck. I didn’t have money for cigarettes or anything and was like “Bro fuck this shit. Fuck how I’m living– I can’t live like this anymore.” So I came back to LA and just quit everything cold turkey. Slept in off and on for a month and didn’t do shit. When I came out of that– I had choices to make. Solid choices. Since I’m not gonna party and go out that means I’m not gonna hang out with certain people. So I had to start picking up working out habits or playing soccer. I say all that to say, when you quit doing these things at such an unhealthy level, it helps you mold your life to where you can actually function and be productive. I’m not saying you have to be sober to be productive–because some people can still get fucked up and be super successful–but for my personality and the person I used to be, it was like a blessing to get off of drinking. I grew up in skateboarding, working in streetwear industry, where getting fucked up and partying was celebrated. I realized at a certain point–I was losing.

When you’re not in the right mindset–like me being in bands, playing with these people–you’re taking bricks away from your castle–to help build someone else’s castle. And when I was not sober, I was taking the bricks I needed to build what I needed to be successful in life, to other people. And so when I was doing that, I was struggling. But now that I’m not partying like I used to, I’m like “well instead of me giving this to you, Ima build my own shit.” And that’s the difference for me, being sober and not being sober. I recently started drinking here and there. But from taking that two years of not fucking with anything. I can do it at a mature level. I can have a drink and chill and not wild out and go on a bender. 

What was that like going sober and then throwing parties weekly? 
Bro it was fucking crazy. But at that time since we were in lockdown for so long I was so determined. I spent years traveling, touring and playing drums for people. And they were signing big pub deals or getting signed labels and getting paid, living in fucking Atwater. And I’m struggling everyday to buy cigarettes or shoes or to look fly when I’m on tour. In the back of my mind I was thinking – if I could go through all that bullshit, I could go to this party tonight, play dope, and take my ass home. I don’t need to be fucked up. Cuz what am I gonna do when I’m fucked up? Some stupid shit, you know? 

Do you have any rituals or routines?
I work out every day. Me and my dog go for at least a 2-3 miles run everyday. I feel like that shit in itself puts your mind at a clear space that as soon as you get to work, not only are you energetically ready to get to work, but you’re ready mentally. And then hot yoga is the shit too. It’s expensive as fuck but it’s the shit.

You released an EP in November, DUENDE. How was the creative process and release?
The creative process has been super fucking crazy to work on my own solo shit while simultaneously run a brand and record label. It’s really hard to set aside time to create and learn to wear different hats. I struggled to make that project. I strive to make 2-3 EPs a year. That came out Q4, and it was fuckin like pulling teeth to make that shit. But when it was done it was crazy. It felt crazy to know all the shit I went through to finally put it out. It felt like the end of a chapter. It felt like the first time I read The Alchemist. You knew you were going to look approach life different because of the bullshit you had to go through to get to it. 

How do you feel about promoting your art? 
I don’t hate it and I don’t love it. But coming from being in my last band, which was Zipper Club, I learned, in that world, how important it is. To not only be marketable, but to do promo runs. For example, before we went on our first big tour, we went to Shazam, then we went to Epic in NY, then we went to Billboard–just so people could listen to our shit. It’s not that it’s fun, it’s just that it’s necessary and part of the game. But do you feel whored out? 100% But if you are claiming you want to be in this industry, it’s necessary. But is it fun? Absolutely fuckin not. 

What are some projects you’re currently working on and looking forward to?
Q1 for Salon is really dope. We got new tees dropping. By the time you read this interview they’ll be out. Our monthly party comes back [in January]. In February we have a special collab coming out. I don’t really wanna say names on that one or exactly what’s happening. 

Can you give us a hint? 
Man, if you know me and my history with the skate industry–it has something to do with that. In March, I’m taking Salon to Texas for a festival, doing a collab with [REDACTED]. That should be fun. And that’s Q1. Trying not to go crazy, make shit happen. 

That would be my whole year’s accomplishments
Time is one thing you can’t get back. I don’t wanna say I wasted time, but I had to learn a lot shit the hard way to realize I was bullshitting and not living to my full potential. With that being said, I still have so much work to do–getting better at my craft, being a better boyfriend, human being, brother, son, uncle– all that shit. But I’m fucking way better than the person I used to be. If I stay focused, which I will, we’ll keep doing dope shit. We have such a solid team. The music is good and I feel like that’s the one thing that sets us apart from people with brands or labels. They always have a good marketing plan and huge budget–sending their clothes to famous people, but the music is wack. With us, it may take us a little longer, but everything is genuine. From the music to the clothes, to the design. It all hits home. 

––

Special thanks to Damar Davis for his art, insight and creating space for POC in the music game.
Follow him on Instagram, Spotify, and Apple Music.
Follow Salon Recordings and stay tuned for their big moves this year.

Words and Interview by Roxanne Roncal
Photography and Visuals by Monsieur Leisure

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