In early 2021, as the pandemic continued its vice grip on the music industry, DJ Williams found himself alone and back in his childhood home in Richmond, Virginia.
Just a year ago, he was absolutely flying high. Touring hard with longtime crew Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, and ensconced in his Shots Fired solo side-project doing mini-runs in cities around the country. Like so many peers and fellow creatives, performing live had long been DJ’s bread and butter. Now, his day-to-day life had come to a veritable standstill. Grounded and confounded, with funds drying up fast, Williams decamped from Denver back to RVA, pared down, and took stock of his life as he knew it.
Over the course of several months, isolated from nearly everything but family, DJ re-examined relationships: with himself, with a partner, with drugs and alcohol. Then, he made wholesale modifications across the board. He channeled the winds of change into himself and his art form. After much inner work and introspection, DJ released his latest solo LP Mistah Weems on March 4th, 2022.
“It’s not dark, but it’s different,” DJ Williams said of Mistah Weems.
The album arrives on the heels of last year’s Short Stories, a project that appears to have unlocked Williams’ own Pandora’s box of sorts. The fruits of that recording experience gave birth to the magic we now hear on Mistah Weems. It is a career-defining sound document, a proud, empowered collection of songs that reveal a brilliance long hinted at but not yet fully realized. That is, until now.
“This record is a reflection of my separation with drugs and alcohol, my separation with someone I once loved, a sense of finding out who I really am, a combination of confidence and being insecure, and quite possibly the most honest collection of music I’ve ever created,” Williams noted.
The latest album finds DJ inspired, vulnerable, and perched confidently in the director’s chair. He sailed his new songs to shore by bringing together various musicians from across his long strange trip on this rock, from Richmond homies to collaborators from California and Denver. Williams and co-conspirators coalesced to create a record that expresses DJ’s voice as a songwriter, artist, and bandleader. Mistah Weems communicates through songs that emote like a human being—not necessarily using DJ’s own words for the lyrics but undoubtedly beholden to his muse.
He called in a cadre of some of his most trusted cats in order to properly execute his concept for these cuts on Mistah Weems. This is his baby, and he knew what he wanted—what he needed—from a loosely-afflilated team.
Back in the day, Williams passion for music didn’t start by learning the guitar. His first instrument was, in fact, piano. He also played the clarinet, drums, and bass before eventually picking up the six-string axe in high school. As such, DJ has a firm understanding of what he wants from each contributor, on every individual song, and is able to communicate that on each aforementioned instrument.
Released via Williams’ independent imprint, Projekt Music, Mistah Weems features ten original compositions written by Williams, with guest appearances from DJ Harrison and Marcus Tenney (Butcher Brown), Eric “Benny” Bloom (Lettuce), Kim Dawson (Matador! Soul Sounds), Deshawn “Dvibes” Alexander, Shira Elias (formerly Turkuaz), Max Macveety (Lyrics Born), James Petralli (White Denim), Todd Herrington (Cris Jacobs Band), Dusty Ray Simmons, among others.
From the classic to the contemporary, one can pick up on myriad influences present in this music, but it’s clear that this is DJ Williams vision, his sound, equal parts a revival and his own arrival.
“I started writing this album a year ago today in my parents’ guestroom, hiding from the world. I had a lot to get off my chest and every song on this album is a release to all these demons I used to hold on to,” Williams said.
Opener “Ay BayBay” is an instrumental cut that finds DJ manning all instruments, unveiling a powerful groove with sublime guitar work, a dreamy excursion that invites comparison to Khruangbin and Hiatus Kaiyote, but neither quite on the nose. A similar description could be applied to the intoxicating title track, a lush, layered composition that resonates with ease. On gospel-tinged R&B number “I’ve Found Home”, Williams welcomes Denver-based artist Michelle Sarah to add both lyrics and vocals to the feel-good factor, with tremendous results.
“World Keeps Turning” is super sexy, a syrupy R&B jam that calls out to yesteryear, subtle Lenny Kravitz Mama Said-vibes spiced with the vocal stylings and lyrics of James Petralli & Raz. “Ballad of Donny Noble” claps back hard as hell with some swaggering, fat-back funk, featuring head-nod drums and a slick vocal from RVA bredren Dusty Ray Simmons, whose skills behind the boards mixing and producing is apparent throughout Mistah Weems. Butcher Brown’s bully on the mic, Marcus Tenney – another Richmond homie- shows up and shows out with a proper rhyme to punctuate “Donny Noble”.
KDTU fans will likely recognize “Monk”, a rare-groove banger that Karl D was fond of uncorking with his own squad. Williams’ version features some sizzlin’ organ from Butcher Brown’s resident genius, DJ Harrison, as well as an appropriately stylish trumpet solo from Lettuce’s Eric “Benny” Bloom.
DJ follows that funk heat with quite possibly the strongest song on the album, “Fearless”, another cut that feels like it’s snatched from back in the day, yet right on time for this moment too. Opening with stanky, chicken-scratch geetar riffin’, “Fearless” showcases the incredible pipes of Kim Dawson, who fans may remember from earlier iterations of Pimps of Joytime or, more recently, Matador Soul Sounds!. This cut is nothing short of phenomenal, an empowering joint that belongs on any and every playlist this year.
The ethereal “Somewhere I Read” is a boom-bap-esque passage that employs the everlasting words and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, laced over a succinct instrumental interlude that does much more with less. Williams chases the abrupt ending with a peculiar pattern that unveils “Never Enough”. From the 808 drumstep programming to the obtuse, off-kilter nature of the groove, this track is nothing if not an outlier on Mistah Weems. With the assistance of DVibes on keys and ever-sultry Shira Elias on vocals and lyrics, Williams splits the difference between the RZA, Jill Scott, Knxledge, and Lianne La Havas. I want to hear an entire project or album that sounds like “Never Enough”. File under: WOW.
“Back in Blakely” brings this wonderful record to a close, another dreamy-number like the opener, only this bookend channeling more towards Tedeschi Trucks Band than anything found in Houston. Nonetheless, the short, soaring cut is a lovely, emotive coda to a captivating journey of discovery with our humble protagonist Mistah Weems, by far and away the finest record in the ever-expanding DJ Williams canon.
Listen to Mistah Weems by DJ Williams via Spotify below or stream it via the platform of your choice here.
DJ Williams – Mistah Weems – Full Album