As one of the most sought-after party rockers in the region, DJ Knife has no choice but to spend most of his week around club hoppers who get hammered as part of our nightlife routines. That hasn’t changed since he stopped boozing himself two years back; still, until now, Knife wasn’t sure how he would carry forth with his best-known series of mixtapes that fall under the umbrella title Strange Brew, a name that he concocted in his drinking days.
For his Strange Brew 6 outing, Knife decided to go back to beer—not personally, but commercially to push the brand. For the aspect of his plan that involved hops and alcohol, he turned to the Everett-based Down The Road Beer Co., which produced 500 exclusive cans for the effort.
With the release party this Saturday, we asked Knife, as well as Down the Road’s head brewer Donovan Bailey and creative manager Brendan Van Voris, about what they put into the mix.
Take us back to the first Strange Brew. What were you doing? Where were you living? What were you drinking?
DJK: The first Strange Brew was roughly eight years ago. I was living in Jamaica Plain, and I was probably drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Where were you DJing mostly at that time?
DJK: Pretty much split between the Milky Way and Good Life. I just wanted to do a mix with as many different genres as possible. I had been pigeonholed as a hip-hop DJ and I wanted to get out of that. I was listening to a lot of different kinds of music, and I made that first one to prove that I could do more.
Why was this the project you chose to set that new precedent?
DJK: I felt like it was a good title to represent a bunch of different things that kind of don’t belong together.
How did you launch the series at first?
DJK: There was nothing big. I kept it really small and put it out on CD. That was basically it.
Can you explain to our 18-to-25-year-old readers what the mix CD scene was like at the time?
DJK: This was the beginning of Soundcloud and DJs reaching a larger audience in general. I didn’t see it as a series until people liked it and I saw that. Then I did part two about a year later and people really enjoyed that one. This is my signature mixtape brand.
Music-wise, what was the maturation through the different installments?
DJK: They’re all pretty similar—they have very upbeat music up until the middle, then there is a breaking point, it’s slow, then it picks back up again. As for genres—it’s literally as many genres as I can pack in there. It’s one hour and the goal is to take as many genres as possible and mix them perfectly. … It’s punk rock, trap, footwork, indie dance, house, classic rock, afrobeat.
How much does it resemble an actual set that you would spin at a club?
DJK: Zero. But I do record it live at Good Life, and I do it over and over again.
What’s the planning like?
DJK: It’s awful, it’s painstaking. It’s like playing a video game over and over again until you beat it and get it perfect. That’s the only way I can describe it. I’ll probably practice that full hour 30 times. I’m not doing this stuff with [the music production software] Ableton, I’m doing it live. If there’s a mistake, I start over at the beginning. That’s why it takes so long to do these mixes. I start picking songs out like seven months before the mix.
What makes something a Strange Brew track?
DJK: I’ll say this—I don’t put a lot of hip-hop on them because at this point, hip-hop has such a short half-life. The songs are only popular for two weeks.
Doesn’t that make it harder since hip-hop is easier to mix than a lot of other genres?
DJK: Yes, but I’m looking for something I can put out physically. The songs have to be timeless.
When did the actual brew come into the equation?
DJK: Two years ago I did Strange Brew 5 and decided to brew my own beer.
When did you stop drinking?
DJK: Two years ago.
And yet here you are with another Strange Brew compilation.
DJK: Yes. This is the big thing where Down The Road came in. Two years ago, right before I got sober, I did Strange Brew 5, and I was still drinking heavily. I brewed my own beer at my apartment, and in order to do that you have to sample it along the way. I had barrels all over the place.
How did it taste?
DJK: I thought it was okay. Other people tasted it, and they didn’t die. But this time, even though I stopped drinking, I wanted to take it to another level and get a local brewery behind the concept. And since I can’t sample the beer to make beer anymore, I looked around and that’s where Down The Road came in. I brought this to them in February and now it’s coming together.
You’re not drinking anymore, so what input did you have on the actual beer?
DJK: I wanted it to be an IPA because of Good Life. When people want a random beer there, IPAs sell the best.
What does it take to make a short-run beer like this actually happen?
BVV: This was a no-brainer—bringing in someone who wanted to make beer and do a release party with us. … It’s something that you would expect to be a stick in the bike spokes, but it’s really not. It runs smoothly. … This was a modification of a recipe we had—we just tweaked it for his usage. It turned out pretty damn good.
DB: It’s kind of a take on our Seventh Star IPA. The Pukwudgie is our session IPA, which leans toward the New England stuff. Seventh Star is a good balance between a fruity juicy thing and something more bitter like a West Coast IPA would be. Sometimes [doing small batches] can be a hassle—sometimes you dump a lot of beer. You have a base, then we play around with the hops and the amount of hops.
How do you describe the result in this case?
DB: A little bit of pine, a little bit juicy, some melon, a little bit of berry. Not too much tropical fruit but a little bit of citrus.
Who did the artwork?
DJK: [Jason Burke]—he’s actually a famous craft beer artist. He does artwork for beers all over the country. Ink and Lead Designs—he’s all over the place. He was doing artwork for Fresh Produce and I found him that way.
Do you have a favorite Strange Brew mix after all these years?
DJK: Number two and number five, and now number six. And I’m not just saying that.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.