Interview with Oras Washington

Updated: Mar 20

Oras was born in 1965 in Richmond, California. In the 1980’s he DJed at KDVS, the UC Davis student radio in Davis. In 1986, he met a 14 years old kid named Josh Davis after he began calling into Oras’ show. The two became friends and Oras acted as a mentor to Josh, serving as an important influence while he developed his DJ skills. After graduating from UC Davis, Oras continued to DJ and also worked as a comedy promoter for several years starting in 1992. More recently Oras has returned to DJing full time and he continues to perform regularly.


DJ Oras mixing with the same Technics 1200 which Josh used to train with, as a teenager

Jon

You're a big figure in Josh’s background, can you tell me how you met?


Oras

When I was at UC Davis University, California, I was also a DJ on the campus radio. I'd been DJing since I was 16, and continued to do it on radio, and I was one of only a few DJs in the Sacramento Valley that actually had a mix show. Josh was at the local high school in town, the Davis High School, and he came down to the radio station. It was a campus radio, so it was kind of easy to pop into the studio, and he was just a bright-eyed kid. He was really cool. He was a nice kid and he said he was interested in music and DJing.


He used to listen to a radio station called KSOL located in San Francisco, which is about 75 miles [120 km] away from Davis, but at night time you can get kind of a clear signal and hear the radio. So, this was his only source of Hip Hop music that he could hear 'cause Sacramento didn't have a real scene besides myself. And he used to listen to that late at night and record some of the music off of that.


He spent time going to the record stores buying records, and he had a little component set that had a record player, a radio, and a tape cassette deck all together. He said he had been experimenting with stuff, that he wanted to be a DJ, and he would make tapes teaching himself how to scratch. He was able to maneuver and manipulate this little cassette deck to where he was able to kind of, do a little bit of cutting and scratching on it, and he was kind of able to rig it where he could actually overlay different sounds. It was really creative. It was like, this kid was able to do kind of amazing things with a little household component set.


Jon

It was very basic, but he did some amazing stuff with that.


Oras

Yeah, he brought me a tape, and I listened to it. It wasn't so much the quality, but the ideas, the ingenuity for somebody that age just to be able to create those type of things with what was given to him. So, I asked his Mum if I could bring him over to my house in Davis and let him play on my turntable for a couple of days just to practice. But it wasn't that I was able to teach Josh anything, because Josh, once he was on turntables, he was kind of unleashed to unlock his full potential, or the beginnings of his full potential of being a DJ.


Jon

You mean that he was focused already, even at such a young age?


Oras

There was a natural progression, meaning that he never had turntables to work on. So once he actually got on turntables, he kind of knew what to do with them already. And he would do things that actually, at that time, I couldn't do. Because I was a mixer, I wasn't much of a scratcher. I could scratch a little bit, and you know, mixing in that radio station was quite difficult, because it wasn't the typical setup, you know: three turntables and a mixing board, or two turntables and a mixing board that was all the way to the left, so I'd have to rig it myself to make it sound decent. But I always knew it that he was gonna be special, and I asked his Mum to take him down at the radio station where he met up with a few people that I knew who were working for record labels.


Jon

Was it common for people to come over at the radio station and watch you playing?


Oras

Not really, I sometimes had a few friends who would come over and watch me playing, but when I started at the radio, my slot was late at night from 3am to 6am. Later, I was the top DJ so you know, I was able to play from 3pm to 6pm and that's when Josh was able to listen to my shows.


Jon

What kind of setup did you have? Technics 1200?


Oras

Technics 1200, yeah. And I think If I'm not mistaken, if you ever look at my profile on my Instagram page, I think those same turntables are what I use now, because I had them refurbished and repainted. So if you look at those turntables, they look brand new, but those are the ones that Josh used way back in the day. They still serve me, and I still rock a house with them when I'm doing major gigs.


But at that time, I'd been DJing a total of maybe five years, because I was between 20 and 21. I could beat mix better than most people, but in terms of scratching and little tricks, he knew more of that stuff, like he could probably outdo me in that time ‘cause I think he even taught me a little scratch. He knew exactly what to do, it was crazy!


Jon

Like he was gifted is what you mean?


Oras

Yeah, he was really gifted. Like I said, he taught me a little back up scratch that I'm like "Woah, wait a minute, how did you do that?" and he had just gotten on his turntable, and that was the creative side of Josh.


Jon

And he didn't have any turntables at home.


Oras

No, he didn't have anything but the components set. So, I think I let him borrow mine for a week or something like that, just to practice.


Jon

At that time, was he already trying to produce his own music?


Oras

He was still kind of cutting teeth in terms of learning the craft. You know, finding out what equipment is what, in order to make beats, in order to do things. At that point in time his creative juices were just starting to flow. But with him, it was just a matter of time. You know, he was a sponge in terms of finding the music that he liked, and he was just really avid about collecting music, finding the resources, the actual equipment to actually learn the craft.


Jon

You went to dig in record stores with him, I guess?


Oras

Yeah, I think I took him down to Berkeley just so he could dig through the crates one time, and just see the stuff you can find. The place to go is like Berkeley, California, where they have Rasputin Music and all these different stores, where you could just find so much stuff.


Handbill for the Run DMC's "Run's House" Tour, Oakland Coliseum Arena (June 26, 1988)

Jon

On June 26, 1988, you and Josh went to a Def Jam show at the Oakland Coliseum Arena [that was the first time Josh went to a concert].


Oras

At the Oakland Coliseum, yeah. We went to a Def Jam show because while I was working on radio I had met a few people that worked for record labels that I was able to connect with, like the people at Def Jam, and I took him down to a concert out there and brought him around and introduced him to a few people.


Jon

Can you tell me more about that event?


Oras

Yeah, so what happened was, one of the guys that worked for Def Jam, he promised [to get us backstage]. Will Smith, Fresh Prince, and all these popular rap groups were there, and I met up with the guy that was supposed to give us the backstage tickets, and then there was some commotion at the concert. We never got a chance to get backstage, so we got invited to the after party over by the hotel in an adjacent city called Emeryville. So we were there and we were just kind of watching the celebrities come in and Josh was just kind of wide-eyed as we were meeting a couple of people here and there.


It was cool to be able to introduce Josh to people and just kind of let him soak in the atmosphere. He was kind of cool. He was quiet, but he was real wide-eyed. But it was also a situation where, again, there was a fight at the little hotel because all the girls were trying to get celebrities and stuff was going on, and I had to usher him out of there. Because my first objective was to protect Josh and make sure his Mama didn't come looking for me if something happened to him.


Jon

But nothing happened?


Oras

No, no, no. You know, if I got the responsibility looking after Josh then that was what was going to happen.


Jon

You were reliable, kind of like a big brother.


Oras

Yeah, I was reliable. His Mum understood that's what his interests were, and she also understood that I was going to keep him safe, and I think that was one of the biggest things because, you know, the rap industry is kind of terrible in a lot of ways.


But the thing is I've heard that I kind of got Josh started. I don't really think that. I mean, I was able to give him an access to certain things, but his talent was so already there. I don't take credit for Josh becoming Josh. I was more of an influence, but Josh was so talented when I came across him, and it was humbling to be able to just say, “Hey Josh, let me help you with whatever you need to get started”. You know, I don't want to overplay what my contribution to Josh was.


Jon

I think that you were very important for him, as well as other people like Alex Mejia, Mike Nardone, or Christopher Rivers.


Oras

Yeah I remember Chris Rivers. Chris was influential, because he was actually doing recording at that time and he was a rapper. He gave Josh the opportunity to create beats and stuff like that [his first demo tape was released with the help of Bigger Than Life Productions, Chris Rivers label].


Jon

He had a band called Swee D and The Livin' Large Dancers.


Oras

Yeah, he had a really good song out too. I really liked it. But I think it was cool for Josh. He was able to meet different people and actually start to branch out. I've really kind of watched his career grow, and I'm very proud of what he's become.


First tape on Chris Rivers' label BTLP that helped to produce Shadow's first demo tape

Jon

Can you tell me who was Chris Rivers? Was he also from KDVS or was he going to UC Davis?


Oras

Chris and I, we know each other because he's from Oakland as well. But Chris was recording with Swee D. Chris was the music producer and Swee D was the rapper. I don't remember his real name. I think it was Darrell or something like that. I was kind of getting out of Davis then. It was ‘89 when I left Davis, the Fall of ‘89.


Jon

When you graduated


Oras

Yeah. I went back to the Bay Area, so Chris started the relationship with them. And Chris had one song, it was a really cool song, kind of like the Sir Mix A Lot type of songs. It was really fast, like 120 beat Rap. Those kind of rappers were real popular, rapping fast but over a faster beat.


Jon

And I think that you introduced Josh to Paris [Oscar Jackson Jr]?


Oras

Yeah I did, Oscar and I were on the radio together. And when he started evolving as an artist he put Josh onto, I think Tommy Boy, and he was instrumental in helping Josh get started with doing some of the things that he did when he first got a record label, because I think Oscar also recognized the talent that Josh had.


So, Oscar, he was a very talented young man. He wasn’t just an artist. He was very smart, he was very educated. You know, even though he was running Scarface Records and a militant rapper, his father was a Doctor, and he went to a very influential high school in San Francisco. So, he wasn't no dummy. He had business acumen and then also the ability to recognize the talent that Josh had.


I was also in a couple of videos of Paris [Break the Grip of Shame on The Devil Made Me Do It, Tommy Boy, 1990], and then he introduced me to a lot of people like Digital Underground, and a lot of the Bay Area rappers that got popular.


Jon

So you introduced him to Paris, but how did that happen actually?


Oras

I don't have a real vivid recollection but, Paris and I, we always hung out together. I don't know if it was at the radio station or just when Josh was hanging out with me, you know? But somehow they linked up through me.


Jon

Can I ask you what Josh was like as a teenager?


Oras

You know, he was a real humble kid, and I just remember Josh was pretty smart, kind of a wide-eyed kid, just really into his music. You know, I would honestly say, the only reason why I spent time with him was that he was such a good person.


I last saw him a little over 10 years ago. I was actually getting ready to move and I'd put my records for sale on Craigslist. This guy wanted to come and look through a lot of the stuff that I had, and he was a friend of Josh, so they came by the house together and I was able to get a picture with Josh and everything.


First time Josh and Oras met up again after the KDVS years

Jon

When you took that picture 10 years ago, was it the first time that you had met again after your time at KDVS?


Oras

Yeah, I hadn't seen him in years. I had kept in contact with him a little bit, but once I got married and had a kid and everything we kind of lost contact. Just through the grape vine I started seeing DJ Shadow and a lot of the stuff he did in record stores, but Josh was still in high school, and then he was going to college. You know, life takes its own little turn, I was a family man.


When we met I was basically just a college student. I enjoyed the craft, and I was in the music business. I chose a couple of different paths, but Josh was very focused in terms of what he wanted to do.


Jon

What did he want to do?


Oras

I think he wanted to be a DJ, but the thing is that DJs can go a lot of different directions. Like I'm still a DJ, because I do a lot of parties and do a lot of different things, and I wanted to be in the management aspect and work with artists.


Josh's ilk is of the creative side, meaning that he wants to make music. And he found a niche for what he likes to do in terms of his creativity. His popularity is so big in Europe, as opposed to out here, because there's not much diversity out here. His footprint was major in Europe, and it’s amazing how European cultures embraced Josh out there.


This is the bottom line for anything that I'll tell you. I knew that Josh was focused. I think that he had a work ethic, and his focus was unwavering in terms of knowing that he was going to be successful. Because it's hard to make it in this business, and there's so many people with the talent that don't make it, and so many people with talent that don't get the notoriety because they're their own worst enemy. But it looks like he did the things that he needed to do, and he found his niche.


There is no one like him. He created his own lane, and to me that speaks to everything that we talked about and the creation of Josh and DJ Shadow. He created his own lane, his own style of music. Everybody has the door available to them, and the door available for artists is to replicate what other people have done. Josh did his own thing in the way that he wanted to do it, and he created his own music, his own niche, to where he's revered by people all over the world, and that to me is amazing.


That to me is what is so great about what we're talking about today. Because his uniqueness started at that young age, and I’m honored to be an influence, somebody he actually remembers to this day. Because that makes me feel good that in some small way, I played a part in helping him becoming who he is today.


Jon

Thank you for your time, it was great talking to you.

Oras can be contacted via his social media pages: Facebook and Instagram

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Conducted by Jon (eikimono) on August 11, 2020

Transcription and editing by James Gaunt

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