Root For Yourself: The journey of Philly's DJ Rebel Foster - WXPN
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A DJ’s music selection can tell a lot about them.  The obvious thing would be how vast the variety of music they’re aware of, especially when they choose not to just follow what the music charts say. Second, it shows how fearless they can be, because it takes some courage to go against the grain — especially when you’re trying to get paid doing what you love.  You’re serving customers music that you like, along with songs they know and enjoy. The DJs who take on this risk of playing for themselves first end up reaping the benefits by standing out. That’s something Philly DJ Rebel Foster has learned throughout his career. Whether at The Blind Barber, Leda & The Swan, or The Saint, Rebel Foster finds a way of leaving a memorable imprint in this city with his music selection and mixes.

A career in music was always destined for DJ Rebel Foster. Raised by his aunt and grandmother in Chester, Rebel was exposed to soulful tunes from greats such as The Gap Band, The Beatles, Grand Central Station, Parliament and Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder and George Benson. Even his mother used to be a singer, both of his siblings are musicians, and he himself started off playing the saxophone and piano when he was younger. His journey behind a turntable started when Rebel was fifteen in a studio on Chester’s 9th Street. This led him to express interest in DJing to DJ Cory Ak, who eventually put him in a program to teach kids like Rebel how to make music and DJ to keep them out of trouble. A trip to Swarthmore College is where Rebel found a safe space called WSRN, Swarthmore College’s radio station, where he hone his skills in audio recording.

Since launching his 19013 Cypher event in his hometown, Rebel has always had a desire to create or be a part of events that bring people together through music and after his first paid gig for the Art Museum at Warehouse on Watts in 2016, he realized he could turn that into a career. Since then he’s been able to be heard in different venues from The Barbary, The W, The Fillmore, opening for talents such as Big Freeda and Jazmine Sullivan, and being able to connect with peers such as DJ Hvnlee, DJ AKTIVE, DJ Aura, and Matthew Law who has been big influence on Rebel’s career. He’s even created his own event All The Cutz at the Blind Barber. I recently got to talk to Rebel Foster about his early days behind the mixers, his music selections when it comes to spinning, and some of his favorite events in Philly.

Rahman Wortman: When was the first time DJ Breezy got behind the turntables?

Rebel Foster: [laughs] That’s funny. I was like fifteen. I’m from Chester and there was this studio on 9th Street, which was one of the main streets in Chester on the west side right near a car sales lot. There were a pair of CD-jays, like an all-in-one CD-jay controller, and I was inside the studio while other people were on the outside and I had no way of seeing anybody. The guy I was shadowing was DJ G Diddy and he had to run to the bathroom and asked me to hold it down. I just started hitting the jawn on the beat then went to the next song. That was fourteen years ago, and we didn’t have any laptops. I had to rely on my ears and beat matching making sure the cue points were on point. Before Serato you had to solely rely on your ears, I didn’t know what BPMs were until 2013! [laughs] I also had being a musician in my pocket so that kind of helped too; I didn’t have to know about BPMs because there’s always tempos and counts and that’s what I focused on.

RW: What comes to mind when you hear WSRN, 91.5FM?

RF: Wowwww! That is my stomping ground yo! [laughs] Bro I’m telling you, I don’t think God makes mistakes because He put me in places that I got exposed to so much. That was at Swarthmore College, which is 15 minutes away from Chester. It’s like a Bel-Air story because I used to fight a lot! [laughs] I was into some heavy shit man, and I was on my way to juvie, detained and in cuffs. But a week before that I expressed interest in DJing to this guy Cory Ak, who was heavy in the 90s running with Funk Flex and even toured with Eve. He was stepping away from the industry and started doing community work by mixing his passion for music. He started a program called Team Mac where he was teaching kids about music, DJing and stuff like that to keep them out of trouble. I was in band camp and walked up to his door with my saxophone, knocked on his door and told him that I wanted to learn how to DJ. He said come back next week, so by next week I’m in the school liaison office for fighting and he runs in the office saying, “He’s a good kid, I got this program and I’m going to take him with me.” Puts me in a van and drives to Swarthmore College. I met this Jewish dude named Dan Symonds who became my mentor and one of my closest friends ten years later. He was like we got this program called Chester Noise where we’ll teach you how to do radio and audio engineering. I was sixteen so I spent the rest of my high school years learning how to operate boards and record music and stuff. So WSRN is home based and a safe space for me coming from Chester.

RW: Your first shot as a curator was an event The 19013 Cypher. Was there anything that you learned from that event that you still use to this day?

RF: I think it’s rooted in bringing people together. I did it back home at Chester at the M.J. Freed Theater and I really wanted to do a showcase for DJs. It flopped because the DJs who were on the lineup didn’t show up. There was a rap group called The Frost that I was running with around 2016. I was DJing at their shows in Philly and they pulled up and showed love. Then at the time D-Ill who was like 12 at the time came through and spinned. My friends who were running a video game company brought screens out, so folks were playing Mortal Kombat. We had that as well as a cypher and people freestyling on another side. That was perfect to me.

RW: What event or moment let you know that DJ could be a career

RF: I was working at Uno’s Pizzeria in 2016. I hated it, like I know how to keep a job, but I don’t like working for people. I got an opportunity from a friend of mine named Chris Rogers who asked if I wanted to spin at an afterparty for the Art Museum at Warehouse on Watts. I was just a server making tips back then, so I was like “Yeah, I’ll spin for two hours for $150,” and he was like “Nah, let’s make it $300.” I did it, rocked it, got $300 which at the time was the biggest I made as a DJ. I felt like I was ready for it after something as small as that. When I think about the money I make now, I can say it made me realize that I can do this. What lit the fire under me was when I came back and told my manager about it and he was like “You know Brian, just because you make $300 now doesn’t mean you’re always going to make $300.” I almost let it get to me, but a year later I quit and started DJing full time. People just don’t be rooting for you and that’s okay. Don’t expect people to root for you, root for yourself.

RW: You seem to be another example of how tight the DJ community is in Philly. I have seen you rock out with DJs like Na$h, Kingspy, DJ Caution, et cetera. But I think the DJ you’re the closest with is Matthew Law.  What type of influence has he had on you as a DJ?

RF: Matt is my brother man, I love him. It started off as a fan, when I came to Philly for film school in 2012, I was talking shit about how I was a DJ to one of my classmates Kay, and she told me I should meet this guy PHSH. I like “Who the hell is DJ PHSH and what kind of name is that?” [laughs] She was telling me that he was good and showed me a promo of one of his Super Dope parties. He flipped the “Mystic Brew” by Ronnie Foster baseline with a Philly club song and I was like “This is the best shit I’ve ever heard!” When I was 19 turning 20, I was trying to find something to do for my birthday and Red Bull Threestyle was happening at The Trocadero on January 10th in 2013, which is my birthday. I told my friends that I wanted to go for my birthday. I go and see Gianni Lee, Shugga Shay, DJ Royale, Bo Bliz and Matthew Law. That was just like a full circle moment because besides Gianni Lee, all those cats I got to work with.

People like DJ Royale, Bo and Matt were people I ended up working with closely and formed good relationships with. So, Matt takes the win that night and I’m like this dude is sick. I started following him. One day me and my best friend went to World Café Live, and I met PHSH but introduced himself to me as Matt. I told him who I was and that I was trying to come up as a DJ too. The first couple of years of getting to know him was through the internet, sending him tracks that I liked and asking his opinions of a mix and he was so personal about it. Out of all the people I met in Philly, he was always approachable. I followed him down to DC when he and Sonny James did Body Rockin. They were like “What you doing here?” I was like “To support ya’ll.” I never asked them to get put on one time. I would just go watch them rock out at night at Silk City then go home and practice. I’m experimenting, incorporating a good groove with soulful baselines. Just tapping into the shit, I grew up with. When I started it was always chasing the hottest thing on the radio, versus what’s my foundation.

RW: That’s funny because that’s what I think sticks about you as a DJ is your music selections. The first time I noticed was either 2018 or 2019 at The Saint for a hip-hop event Taaj was throwing and you played a Lupe song. Even when I went to Leda & Swan you played “Ass Like That,” by Victoria Monet. A friend of mine went there while you were spinning, and he nearly lost his mind when you played Anita Baker! [laughs] I love when DJs play songs that I love that I wouldn’t usually hear at parties or events. What goes into your mind when experimenting with different songs?

RF: Honestly, I don’t know if it’s experimenting and more about being fearless. One position that I have as a DJ is to let everyone know that music is very timeless, don’t let anyone tell you that a song is old because these songs are going to outlive us. I had to realize that I have a relationship with this music and like any relationship you treat it well. I’m very big on the internet mixtape blog era, so I like deep cuts like that and when it comes to R&B I play stuff that makes me feel good. Anita Baker makes me feel great, I saw an interview Madlib did when he was in Rio De Janeiro on shrooms getting records and he was like “I do my shit for me first and then everyone else feels it.” I’m selfish when it comes to that, but I know how to meet people where they are.

RW: What 5 events in your career that have stood out to you?

RF: All The Cutz is really growing at Blind Barber. I’m really proud of that because I got a grant and started paying people to help me. Someone helped me with an EPK, put up a website, got a photographer involved and got a host involved and really being able to invest in myself to create dope events. Interna$hional Bounce is freaking amazing, I’m happy for Na$h. FNF [Friends N Fam] is always going to have a special place. I knew my career was booming when I couldn’t go to FNF. I’m excited to see what Reezy and Taaj are going to do at 700. Hnny Party because I’m proud of DJ Hvnlee. From my first introduction to her she surprised me with who she turned into. Bobby Flowers killed it with The Plantain Party at Silk City. Also be out on the lookout for RAIR with me and my homie Jabair coming up in June.

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