Mr. DJ: Legendary OutKast producer opens up

A chat with the man behind several OutKast hits.


In the cast of prominent characters who comprise the OutKast and Dungeon Family lore, the name David "Mr. DJ" Sheats typically doesn't come to mind, and that's how the man bearing the namsake likes it. Almost 40 years old, Mr. DJ got his start in the music world as the first DJ for OutKast. Later, the cousin of Rico Wade helped form the production team, Earthtone III, along with Big Boi and Andre 3000, and went on to produce some of the most memorable OutKast records. With Earthtone III, Mr. DJ won a Grammy for his production on "Ms. Jackson," and the group's Album of the Year-winning Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

After Earthtone III disbanded, Mr. DJ branched out on his own, rocking with the likes of Common (Universal Mind Control), Mos Def (The Ecstastic), and J. Cole, while building his Camp David imprint from the ground up and enjoying a life of relative obscurity compared to his former production partners. As OutKast kicked off their 40-stop festival tour, we sat down with Mr. DJ in the house he helped build, aka Stankonia, to talk about the highs and lows of Earthone III, his favorite non-OutKast recording session, and how getting drunk at a wedding got him his first Grammy.

Before you became the OutKast DJ, did you have big aspirations as far music goes?
At first my goal was to just stop stealing cars and being a knucklehead, and do something better with my life ... Organized Noize, we grew up watching them do our beats. Dre and I, we used to mimic them. So, when we got drum machines the blunt would be hanging from our mouth, ashes everywhere. Once we made a few hits together Big Boi realized it and was like, "Shit, I think we should start Earthtone III. We should start a production company together." It was history from there.

What was your first memorable recording moment as Earthtone III?
I think the first song that we did as Earthtone III was "Elevators (Me & You)." Dre started the beat on the bus - we were on tour. It was dope and we knew. We rode city to city with that same beat playing and playing. When we got back to the studio that was the first thing we dropped in that B Room in Stankonia.

What particular song or album stuck out to you in terms of your own growth as a producer?
Aquemini. That was the album I did, "Da Art of Storytellin,'" parts one and two. At that point I realized that I had something to offer or what I was valuable. __
What stood out about those two songs in particular?
"Da Art of Storytellin' (Part 1)" the opening was really this woman's voice saying, "No, no, no." I put on 16-level and it's like, "Nooo, nooo, nooo." So then I had a chance to take the keyboard and play over the top of that.

"Da Art of Storytellin' (Part 2)," I had not too long before that tried ecstasy. The next day I was kind of on the after effects of that and it took me to another little place. That's my favorite beat. It's a really serious song. If you listen to the words of "Da Art of Storytellin' (Part 2)" it's talking about the end of the earth. Dre says, "Mother earth is tossing and turning and that's a sign." He's tired of people fucking her and never showing appreciation and busting nuts when they're done. We always talked about if Armageddon broke out we're all going to meet at the Dungeon, and we're going to have our guns and we would fight.


Did you have a favorite album?
Aquemini, because it was a growing time. It was a transitioning into an adult time for us. Big was having problems ... his aunt died and she was like his mother. We were turning into adults, had adult problems. Not that all the albums weren't real truthful, but that was a real album.

What was the in-studio dynamic?
Everybody could do a little bit of everything. Big was definitely really good with the hooks - charisma and memorable hooks. Dre added the seriousness, and I just added the beats, and the music. I was kind of the workhorse of the music.

Was it tough getting three different egos to record together? Was there a schedule?
We're night owls. Dre takes forever to record. You can't put anything on the schedule because he's going to record when he's going to record. For the most part we all worked at nighttime. We'd go to the strip club, Magic City, come back to the studio, stay till six or seven in the morning.

Aside from work ethic, did anyone have any weird studio rituals/superstitions?
Big has a ritual: He takes off all his jewelry before he goes into the booth. He says he does it because he wants to be regular and not go in with all of the superficial things on so that the rhymes are pure.


So Earthtone III had it's successes, but when did you realize that your days of recording together were coming to an end?
I think it was after the Stankonia album. Really, it was a strong finish. Everybody had a lot of input therefore we made good songs. Everybody was at their creative max, which I think in turn caused everybody to kind of branch off and start to do their own thing because now you have your individuality and you want to express that.

On that particular album was there a record that really stood out to you as far as the recording process? You did win a Grammy for "Ms. Jackson" ...
We were coming from a wedding and we were having a conversation about how relationships are funny, how being married is funny. Dre already had the %22Ms. Jackson%22 beat down. When we got back to the studio I was a little tipsy and went into the booth and went, "Ahhhh-woooooo," and we recorded it and we actually turned that around backwards ... The piano trailing off symbolizes a marriage from the time that it's good to when things fall apart.

Speaking of things falling apart, what was the most humbling thing for you to deal with when Earthtone III stopped recording together?
When we were making music together there was a lot of income coming in ... It's almost like the Internet, when you have always been under one umbrella - there was nowhere to direct the traffic to. So, then you're sort of left on your own. Being under an umbrella and not using your own name you kind of have to start all over again and that makes you work harder.

What's the biggest non-OutKast song you can remember recording?
The remix to Lenny Kravitz's, "Again."

Did Lenny come to Stankonia?
I got a phone call and they said, "Hey Lenny likes the 'Again' record. Can y'all come to Miami to his house?" Big and Dre said they couldn't go. I got me a little chick and I Goddamn got on a plane and they flew me down there. I had butterflies. Lenny Kravitz came to the door and I was like, "Hey I'm supposed to ... I'm the DJ," but I could hardly talk. Then we went into this cool ass house, his house. To go inside the studio you have to stand in this capsule, it closes and opens up, and on the other side you're inside a studio. There were dolphins swimming in water behind us. It was the most surreal shit I had ever seen! There were all these lights and he had these holes in the wall that you could climb up in. Yea, thank you for asking that question because I just relived all of it!

Even with Dre and Big not really recording here together anymore, why has Stankonia remained a creative epicenter that carries so much influence in ATL still?
Stankonia and the name, it's a symbol of Atlanta because we were the first ones to claim Atlanta and make Atlanta be respected on a larger scale. Before that, you had Jermaine Dupri that was here. Kris Kross, rest in peace to Chris, love those guys, they represented a kind of Naughty By nature New York style. Da Brat was representing West Coast style, so nobody was really representing Atlanta till we did. Stankonia symbolizes that.

The gang's all here for the 20th anniversary of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and OutKast as a whole. What do you hope music fans will take away from the celebration and this festival tour?
What I hope comes out of this whole resurgence is that the younger generation gets a chance to know that there is a different kind of music, wholesome music if you will, something that provokes some feeling. This generation doesn't know about that kind of music and what influence it will have on your life. It's more relatable to their lives than the music they're listening to now.

Yea, Dre always griped that folks thought Stankonia was the first OutKast album ...
Yea, so when they see the older generation going crazy and selling out these tours and they hear about it, they'll say, "Who the hell is OutKast?!" Then they'll go back and hear it and be re-introduced to music again and maybe this shit will reset. Because right now I don't know what the fuck is going on.


You're almost 40, and going even harder than before. What drives you?
I was doing music before I knew that it would pay me. I did it because I liked watching my cousins and them do it. I'm not a vocal person, so anything that I can do to make and influence people without having to talk myself - I love that.__