DJ/producer DJ Criminal is an American that now resides in Thailand. Criminal has spent time in various countries throughout Asia and goes digging for records in each nation he visits. Criminal recently dropped a 13-track album titled “The Smugglers Candle.” The title is in reference to the moon that acts as his light as he smuggles records from one country another.
The Smugglers Candle is produced entirely by DJ Criminal and features appearances from Sean Williams, A-F-R-O, Annie Lockwood, Akil the MC, Slug, Blueprint, Barfly, Jennifer Charles, Carnage the Executioner, and Illogic.
The Real Hip-Hop spoke to DJ Criminal about his run ins with The Taliban, being portrayed in a movie by Macaulay Culkin, and his new album, The Smugglers Candle.
TRHH: Why’d you title the new album The Smugglers Candle?
DJ Criminal: I was living and working in Afghanistan. I was going on a drive with a co-worker. It was another American and she was kind of joking around and saying how some of the supplies were getting over the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan. She looked at me and winked and said, “the smugglers candle.” I looked back at her and asked, “What are you talking about?” and she said, “the moon.” I just thought it was a cool concept to make an album about. My home is in northern Thailand near the Golden Triangle. There is a lot of smuggling historically in this area. When I would go back and forth between Kabul, Bangkok, and Chiang Mai where I live, I would have to hide records that I was bringing back from Kabul.
The amount of vinyl that I was bringing back into Thailand was so much that I ended up getting a large full-body vest made that had pockets on the inside. There were four pockets on the inside and I could carry about 100 seven-inch records – 25 records in each pocket. So, by the time I would hit Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport I would have to go through Customs. I would just fold up the vest, they couldn’t see any of the records, and I could just smuggle them into the country without paying any taxes [laughs]. That’s kind of where it all came from and I just thought it was a cool concept. The thing about smuggling, which you can hear on the album, is there is good, bad, and gray smuggling. There is a really big difference between trafficking and smuggling.
Trafficking tends to be quite negative, dark, and bad. Smuggling can be very good. There is medicine that is being smuggled right now, there are people that are being smuggled right now – some good, some bad. There are weapons that are being smuggled, there is food that’s being smuggled. Smuggling can be a good thing. That’s kind of what I wanted to show people with the album – smuggling that’s going on around the world and how it’s sometimes misinterpreted and misconstrued. When someone hears the word “smuggling” they might just think “drugs” and that’s not the case. From my time living in the Golden Triangle and Afghanistan, there are some Robin Hood smugglers out there and some Robin Hood smuggling going on. I just thought it was a cool concept to go off of. Because I had the unique experience of living in these places and seeing these sorts of things. I came to the conclusion, that I wondered what these guys listen to when they’re you smuggling. I wonder what their playlist is. That’s how it started.
TRHH: Did you have any interactions with the Taliban in Afghanistan?
DJ Criminal: I did. They were not good [laughs]. I did four consecutive tours in Afghanistan, four years straight. I guess the first interaction I had with them was I got mortared on a base in Kabul. They sent over mortar shells – bombs. Myself and my co-workers had to go hide with some Australian security forces while the base was being mortared. The next encounter I had with them was at the airport in Kabul. I was going on vacation back to Thailand. I was just sitting at the gate area where you wait to board the flight and a Talib, as they called them at the time, came up and started yelling at me. At that point in time I didn’t speak any Dari, which is the national language of the country. Nor did I speak any Pashtun, which is what most Talib’s speak. So, I didn’t have anything to say. I was just sitting there. A white dude at the airport getting yelled at. It’s a very small airport — like two gates — super small. An airport employee came over to me and was like, “You should not sit where you’re sitting. Let’s go hide you.” They moved me to this back room. Those were the first two experiences that I had with the Taliban.
TRHH: Why would you even go there [laughs]? Like, why?
DJ Criminal: I left the States in 2007 and I’ve been living in Thailand since then. I’ve always gone and done side hustles and work for foreign governments and military for loot. I did some work in Tokyo, I did some work in Saudi Arabia, it was 2017 and I was on an island in the Philippines with my buddy who I became friends with way back in 2007 when I came to Thailand. He got a call to go to Afghanistan to do private military contracting. He called me up in the morning and was like, “Get your ass downstairs! We can get a deployment to Afghanistan.” I was like, “Alright, sweet. Yeah, let’s do it.” We decided to go to Afghanistan and do a deployment there. It’s the private military contracting world and at the time Afghanistan was the spot you wanted to be.
TRHH: I’m glad you survived.
DJ Criminal: Same. Same. You would go to work, go back to your room. I had my turntables in Kabul and I was able to collect a lot of records when I lived there, which was really nice. I would definitely do it all over again. All the Afghan’s that I met with and worked with were just amazing people. I’m still in contact with many of them. After the Taliban retook Kabul I was able to get several Afghan’s safely to Pittsburgh where my parents live. They are now working and living, which is really cool. So, that was nice to get a couple of them to a safe city, get them employed, got them hooked up with a couple of my friends, and linked up with my parents.
I was running an aviation training course the last year that I was in Afghanistan. They had female pilots and generally females weren’t supposed to be working or doing anything like that at all in Afghanistan. We were trying to include females into the workforce and into the military over there. One of the female pilots is now in Pittsburgh. She got a car, she got a job, she’s hustling every day. In reality, it sucks because it would be much nicer if she was gainfully employed with her Afghan former military. For right now it’s pretty cool to see that she’s safe, driving, working, and has access to equality that she certainly wouldn’t have back in Afghanistan.
TRHH: The first single “It’s Easy” with Barfly has a very different sound. How did that song come together?
DJ Criminal: That song is like super old. I first made the beat back when I was living in Saudi Arabia, so this must have been pre-2017. I probably made that beat in 2016 or 2017. I remember finding and hearing the sample and instantly feeling like, “Oh, I’ve got to put drums behind that.” I jacked the vocal sample. It’s a vocal sample and an oboe I believe, then put drums behind it. There were two rappers I was considering getting on it. I’d had always wanted to get Barfly on a track. I’d worked with him prior when I was living in the States. I sent it to him and asked if he could do something with it. He said “yeah” and put vocals on it within a week. That song has been finished for like seven years now. I wanted to do a video for it and my buddy that lives here in Chiang Mai is a videographer and does a lot of work for Netflix and stuff. He’s a great photographer. He grew up in Nepal and was back in Nepal visiting family and friends. I asked him if he could shoot some video for the song and he said “yeah.” That’s how it all kind of came together.
TRHH: Why did you choose to have some of these beats as instrumentals instead of having emcees rap over them?
DJ Criminal: The one instrumental that strikes out, the last song on the album, that was an old track and I think maybe years ago I sent it to Illogic and he ended up just not selecting it. I felt that the samples on it alone were enough to make the song whole. The other instrumental that sticks out, which is the title song The Smugglers Candle, that sample doesn’t need a rapper on it or a singer. The same sample doesn’t want a singer or a rapper on it. That sample doesn’t want anyone on top of it. It doesn’t need anything. Maybe a little bit of scratching here and there, but that sample is not made for a vocalist.
TRHH: What’s in your production workstation?
DJ Criminal: I’ve been using the MPC Live. I used to have a Yamaha Motif. Generally, nowadays it’s MPC Live and turntables. That’s strictly what I use. Depending on the song, I might bring in some live musicians. On this album “Siam Deception” has a live bass player. A guy named Tom “The Bass Man” Wilson — a British dude, an amazing bass player, plays in a bunch of gypsy bands out of the UK. Generally, as far as gear goes, it’s just an MCP Live and turntables, that’s it.
TRHH: What’s your favorite song on The Smugglers Candle?
DJ Criminal: Probably “Mountain Tops” just because of my history with Blueprint and Slug. I used to intern at Rhymesayers, so I’ve known Blueprint and Slug for many, many years. Jennifer Charles who is on the hook, is on one of my favorite albums ever, from a band called Lovage with Dan the Automator, Mike Patton, Kid Koala, and her. I had been trying to get her on a song for well over a decade. I was able to get her on this track with Slug and Blueprint. I’d say Mountain Tops is my favorite song as far as the music is concerned.
TRHH: The album seemed to have a somber tone except for the songs “The Know it Alls” and “H.Y.L.A.” Take me into the creations of those songs and the origin of their samples.
DJ Criminal: [Laughs] Yeah. That’s perfectly said because I agree exactly. I was hanging out with my friend the other night having beers and shit and he was saying, “I want to listen to the whole album.” I was like, “This is not a happy album.” I said, “Yo, bro there are only two songs on here that are remotely like party jams or dance songs.” So, regarding your question about Hope You Like Awesome and The Know it Alls — The Know it Alls, I found that sample from a Thai record.
I do some much digging over here that I have no idea where that record came from. It was from a seven inch that I found. I know that because the guy that did the filming for It’s Easy, Jesse Rockwell, had this record that I had him holding onto for me for a while. He was like, “Get this shit out of my apartment already!” I went over and got all these records he was holding for me, went back home and listened to them and I was like, “Oh, damn, this is the original of The Know it Alls.” As soon as I found that record and heard that sample I was like, “This is just perfect. This needs to be a beat.” I made the beat, hit up Carnage and A-F-R-O, and got them on that.
Hope You Like Awesome, that sample came from a Hungarian artist. I like to describe this dude as the Elvis and James Brown of Hungary. This dude makes some fire, fire, funky grooves from the 70s. I found several of his records just hunting. There is a bit of a backstory to Hope You Like Awesome. In 2009 I was living on this island down south in Thailand and these two dudes from Hollywood came to the island I was living on. They went out on a snorkeling trip that I was on as well. One of them was this dude named Seth Green. I’m not sure if you know who he is.
TRHH: The actor?
DJ Criminal: Yeah.
TRHH: Yeah, I know him.
DJ Criminal: So, he came to the island I was staying on and went on this snorkeling trip. They were like, “You’re American, why did you move here? What do you do here?” I was like, “Yeah, I moved over here a couple years ago and this is what I do – chill, party on the island and go out on snorkel tours.” They asked if they could come and party with me that night. I said, “Yeah, sure. You’re more than welcome to come and join me.” Then they made a movie about that night. My homie that I worked with at the hotel hit me up when I was in Afghanistan like years later and he’s like, “Bro, did you know Seth Green went back to Thailand and made a movie about that night that we took him out and went partying?” No, I didn’t know. I hit up Seth on Twitter. He had Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone play me in the movie.
TRHH: What movie is this?
DJ Criminal: It’s called “Changeland.” Again, the movie is like a reenactment of the entire night that we all had. His friend is named Dan. Dan was there the night happened and his nickname is “Hope You Like Awesome.” I wanted to make a song with some Easter eggs in it for this dude Dan. I still talk to these guys, we still message each other on Twitter and Instagram and shit. They’re just such nice dudes. It was kind of crazy waking up one day and my homie was like, “Dude, you know Macaulay Culkin is playing you in a movie?”
TRHH: [Laughs] That’s bizarre.
DJ Criminal: Right. So, that’s the backstory for those two songs on the album. Which as you have already said, they are the most boom bappy, happy songs of all the tracks on the album.
TRHH: Who is The Smugglers Candle album made for?
DJ Criminal: It’s made for anyone that wants to take a trip and do some illegal things and not get caught by the cops. That’s who it’s for. It’s for anyone who wants to break some laws, not get caught, and smile about it. It’s music to smuggle to.
Purchase: DJ Criminal – The Smugglers Candle