Depth of Fresh Air: The Boundless Beat Making of DJ Mentos
Speaking with DJ Mentos, or listening to one of his beats, mixes, or DJ sets, means looking directly into the infinity of music. The accomplished Richmond-via-New York beat maker, whose real name is Zak Young, understands as deeply as anyone I’ve met how boundless recorded music’s history is, and his drive to help others explore it is relentless.
When he’s not working in graphic design and website development, he’s crafting beats for Richmond’s most talented rappers to spit over, including two winning albums in collaboration with standout emcee Noah O: The Rain in 2016 and a 2019 full-length as The Analog Suspects. Or he’s curating mixes, like the Flute Funk compilation he made for Wax Poetics magazine that’s approaching 50,000 plays. Or he’s performing at the all-vinyl Wax Buildup dance parties, reading the room to decide which is the perfect track to spin next. You might instead find him in your podcast feed — contributing to Richmond’s vital Cheats Movement Podcast, or hosting his own, I Know You Got Soul. He’ll even send personalized recommendations: “I text my friends and say ‘The next time you’re hanging out with your significant other, listen to this album,’ or, ‘The next time you’re on the treadmill, listen to this.’ It’s almost annoying, but they’re all grateful.”
His latest offering is an endlessly re-listenable instrumental long-player entitled Fresh Air, and we sat down over lunch to chat about compiling those beats, paying tribute to other producers, and what is likely the world’s first hip hop air freshener.
Does it feel to you like there’s a moment happening around instrumental hip hop?
It’s interesting. In the beginning, you had hip hop beats and production before people had the ability to do it at home. You had to have relatively expensive studio equipment. So there were no hobbyists making hip hop beats. That wasn’t a thing. Gradually, that became a thing, and people had the ability to dabble in it. As beat making moved from studio equipment to home computers, it opened that door to a lot of people. I was doing it a little before then. I started on hardware. I had an [AKAI MPC2000XL] and then I transitioned to computers pretty quickly, because I like computers…
There have been people for a long time now who make hip hop beats and instrumentals as an artistic expression, and it’s just a question of whether people are exposed to it or not. When Pete Rock puts out an instrumental album, people who don’t normally listen to hip hop instrumentals will listen to it. Then obviously you have a slew of independent and unsigned artists who are just doing it for the art form of it, and that’s been going on a long time. But there is a popularity now.
How did you decide on Fresh Air as the album title?
Fresh Air was a combination of breathing in fresh air — like a breath of fresh air — with a play on Mentos [tagline] “The Freshmaker.” I also wanted to put out something physical. Noah O has been inspiring me a lot because he’s putting out all his projects on CD, tape, vinyl, [and] he does limited run t-shirts, hats, everything… So I [thought] “I could make custom air fresheners, and that would be a pretty unique piece of merch.” I don’t think anyone’s made a hip hop air freshener before.
How do you decide what to work on, given all your creative outlets?
Making beats and making music fills almost a therapeutic void. I’ll give you an example. [In July], a famous producer from California [Ras G] passed away. I was a fan of his, but I hadn’t listened to his music in a while. So I started re-listening to all his old music. [Meanwhile], I was listening to a garage rock song with a bass line that I thought would make a good loop, so I stopped what I was doing, looped it up, slowed it down, added drums, and within an hour, I had made a song in tribute to Ras G… As I was working on it, I had an idea for the artwork, I did it, I put it out on Soundcloud and Spotify. This all happened within the course of three hours, four hours. I felt a strong creative urge and just went with it — I allowed myself that space to be creative and enjoy the process.
That must be really fulfilling — being able to converse musically like that.
I was always really critical of myself. And I recently reached a point where I gained a new level of confidence in my ability, and that opened up this whole different world, where instead of [asking whether] this is good enough to put it out there and call it a tribute to an artist I admire, I feel confident that it is. Whether it gets five plays online or 5,000, I don’t really care. I’m also past that. I’ve sort of, in a weird way, come into my own recently as an artist, whether other people see me that way or not.
Where does your drive to share music come from?
My dad played a lot of music for me when I was really little, and I cherished that. But growing up and listening to hip hop, there’s a real shared camaraderie between old school hip hop fans. When we talk about the early Def Jam days, or the golden era Native Tongues time to Wu Tang and Biggie, we all shared something really special. There’s a love of that shared musical experience. But I also love talking to people about music that I don’t even necessarily like… I think there are people who love music, there are people who are sort of indifferent, and then there are people like me who are obsessed. I wouldn’t compare it to a drug. I wouldn’t compare it to love, or food, or shelter. I guess for some of us it’s spiritual…
There’s a lot of music to discover. That’s the other aspect — there’s music to listen to again and again, and then there’s that high of finding something that first time. That I would compare to a drug, because when you discover something that you had never heard and seen and it resonates with you on that deep level, that’s so exciting. That’s what I want to share with people. So whether I’m DJing, or making beats, or texting a link to a friend, I’m trying to give you that high that I got.