Seven Davis Jr. seems to have spent most of his life swimming against the current.
Born into the gospel world, the young Samuel Davis was initially groomed for mainstream musical success. He likens the experience to being constantly told that the earth was flat – in other words, he just saw things differently. It was a trait which didn’t serve him well. As his teenage years wore on, his natural inquisitiveness led him into the nether regions of the underground. When he began to show label executives the music he’d been making, they thought he’d gone mad.
From there Davis faded into the background, ghostwriting for hip-hop acts (he won’t say which), working as a session vocalist and writing scripts and poetry. It’s only in the past year or so, a little older and a little wiser, that the tides have turned in his favour. An early break came from Kutmah, who heard music Davis had made in the late ’90s – sleazy bedroom funk reminiscent of Dam-Funk and Sa-Ra – and convinced him to release it as The Lost Tapes Vol. 1. Soon after came ‘One’, a gorgeous disco-house number which became something of an anthem last year, and the recent, ruggeder P.A.R.T.Y. EP, which might be even better.
Davis’ iconoclastic spirit, busted-up grooves and louche vocals recall the likes of Prince and Kenny Dixon Jr, though his own personality oozes out of every pore. Few artists swagger into the limelight with such style and surety – perhaps his long road to success was a boon after all. Speaking via Skype shortly before a brief European tour, the LA-based Davis told FACT’s Angus Finlayson about his growing success, and how his love affair with house music began.
You were over in Europe just a few months ago weren’t you – and that was your first tour outside the US?
Yeah, that was the first time I left the US.
How did you find the response of the crowds in Europe compared to when you play shows in the US?
The crowds in Europe, they appreciate it more in a visual way. In the United States they’re kinda inward. They might be just staring at you or nodding their heads, or just standing there, so you can’t really tell what they’re felling. But over there everybody is like – you can tell they’re having a good time.
The show itself, how does it work? Is it just you singing over the beats, or is there more of an interactive element?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s me doing vocals, obviously, and then recreating the songs. Right now the set’s theatrical, so it’s kinda like a story.
When you say theatrical – are you a big performer? Do you like to really perform, rather than just playing the songs?
I mean I won’t be, like, reading Shakespeare, but – it’s like a skit between me and my computer. It’s a little bit sci-fi, it’s a little bit nerdy. It’s probably not something people do in the house world, but you know, whatever [laughs]. My favourite artists, whenever they perform live they always add something extra, you know? And I’ve done a lot of live stuff, so. I just kinda add an extra thing to it – and extra somethin’ somethin’ [laughs].
So when you’re not on tour, talk about what a day in your life might consist of. Do you work on the music full time?
I work for myself, and I’m very fortunate to not have to clock in. My hours are like whatever – these days I’m waking up around 3am. And I’ll try and – it’s probably gonna sound really weird – sometimes I’ll want to watch an artistic film, or I’ll work on a remix or a track, or I’ll rehearse, or I’ll have a meeting. [phone buzzes] Sorry, Kutmah just text me. A lot of the people that I work with are in another time zone, so usually when I wake up I have a bunch of emails that I’ve got to get to. But you know, it could be anything.
I gather you’ve done quite a lot of ghostwriting work in the past. With that, you’re working to a brief, to someone else’s requirements. Is that discipline a useful skill to bring to bear on your own music? Does it help during periods when you’re perhaps not feeling so inspired?
I learned a lot from doing stuff for other people. I learned about how I wanna do things, how other people do things, how I don’t wanna do things. Luckily I have no problems feeling inspired. Working with other people – some people aren’t so inspired, so that can be difficult. I can sit down in the studio a week and just pump out all kinds of stuff – then other people might sit down in the studio for a week and only come up with one thing, you know? So that can be challenging. But for me – I guess I know myself creatively so well, that if I get to a point where the ideas aren’t exactly what I’m thinking about, I’ll just shut it off, come back to it, and eventually it gets there.
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Has your recent success changed your approach to your own music? Do you start to think about what the audience is going to think of it?
No. Not as a disrespect to the audience or anybody, but the stuff that I do, I think what works is that I enjoy it and it’s coming from a very honest place. If I were to sit down and be like, ‘OK, I’m gonna make this for this kinda audience’ – I don’t like that. It’s like a dirty feeling that I get. Like I’ve done something naughty – and not in a cool way. For myself, I’ve got to do something that’s honest.
I wanted to ask about your upbringing, because it sounds really interesting. You’ve said that you were being groomed for mainstream gospel success as a kid. How did that come about? Were your family involved in that world? Did you show a lot of talent as a child?
Yeah, both sides of my family have always been religious, so it just kind of went through there. I was around a lot of talented people that happened to be in the gospel industry. And then I had always displayed a talent as a young kid.
Through the people that were around you, were you exposed to music as an industry – as a business – as much as a creative thing?
Oh yeah, I was exposed to it as a business right away – both sides of it, from a very young age. The people around me, they didn’t hold back with the realities of the industry.
How do you think that influenced the way you saw music? I guess a lot of young people would have a very naive view of the music world.
It was always annoying back then for people to be like, ‘this is how it is.’ I mean back in the day I guess the industry wasn’t as open-minded. You know, like when people tell you, ‘this is how it is, and it could never be a certain way.’ It’s just incredibly annoying. So I just remember as a teenager, taking it in and learning, but at the same time feeling like, ‘man, this is annoying’, you know?
Did you feel like you were always at odds with what they were saying could be done?
Yeah, it was one of those ‘the earth is flat’ type of things. I felt like people were telling me the earth is flat, and I felt like I was the one saying, ‘no it’s round, you guys are idiots.’ You know? It was that feeling
After gospel it seems like you moved through a few different musical worlds – jazz, then R&B, then hip-hop. What kept pushing you to move on to something else, seek out something else? Why not just settle in one of these worlds?
I think that’s the kind of person I am – even just in life. I want to experience as much as I can. I want to know about as many different things in life as possible. I’m still that way now. First of all I started off very sheltered with my music. So once I’d found out there were other things, I just kept searching and searching and searching – I guess collecting things and putting them all in one big pot, you know?
How old were you when you discovered house music?
I was probably 18 or 19 – maybe 20.
And how did you get into it?
I think I was teaching hip-hop, or in a hip-hop dance group, and we went to a rave. I think I moved back from Texas to California and we went to a rave. Well, basically that was techno. But we went to another party not too long after that were it was house. And it reminded me of hip-hop, so it tripped me out. Because I liked techno but I was like, ‘that’s not hip-hop’. But when I went to the house thing it sounded like actual hip-hop, R&B, soul, over techno – that’s what I was thinking at the time. So once I heard house I gravitated – I still went to raves, but I started switching, trying to find more underground, soulful type of house events.
I guess California’s not really renowned for its house music, but were there any particular clubs or DJs that drew you into it?
As a kid, a lot of the parties I went to… I don’t know if you know [San Francisco house DJ] David Harness? I actually know him from when I was a teenager. I haven’t seen him in forever, but I met him when I was a young house dancer. A lot of people in the Bay Area, San Francisco – Mark Farina, Miguel Migs. The Bay Area has a lot of good house music, especially in San Francisco.
Coming to this music as a dancer – do you think that influenced your perspective on it? When you’re making house now, are you still thinking of it as a dancer?
Yeah, definitely. Because the kind of house that I like is the kind of stuff that I would dance to. So when I make it I’m definitely thinking about it being something that you can at least dance to, or vibe out to. I hate, like, too, too deep house, you know? Where you’re just in this dead trance – I can’t stand that.
I read an interview with Jeff Mills recently where he was saying that he thinks people dance less now than they used to. Is that something you’d agree with? And is dancing something you still value?
As far as actual dancing – like doing moves – I rarely get the chance, but I still keep in touch with some dancers, so I know it still happens. As far as people dancing less, I don’t think so. Everywhere I’ve gone people have been dancing like crazy. Now, in America, yes, people dance less – at least in Los Angeles. People kind of observe, you know? They take it in. It’s more of a head high than a body high. But everywhere I’ve gone overseas, people dance. By themselves, too – they just let loose, you know? Over here you’ll see dancers or breakdancers in a circle and it’s kind of a group thing, which I love. But what I thought was interesting about overseas is that people were just kinda dancing with themselves.