WORDS AND PHOTO BY PATRICK JODOIN
If you’ve had the fortune of catching one of American hip-hop producer AraabMuzik’s appearances in the Nation’s Capital, you’re likely aware of the mesmerizing, sometimes dizzying, and always adrenaline-inducing experience of watching real-time electronic drum programming.
If you’re confused by the above sentence, here’s a little primer: a lot of the contemporary hip-hop beats you hear were composed on a Music Production Controller, or MPC, the industry standard sampler and drum machine. It features 16 rubber pads which the user programs with samples and drum sounds to put together a hip-hop beat. Some may instead use the Maschine digital audio workstation—it all comes down to the user’s preference.
The Maschine and MPC are typically put to use in a studio environment, but producers like AraabMuzik and Toronto’s Fresh Kils have popularized their use in live performances. Their real-time “finger” drumming videos tend to rack up an obscene number of YouTube views and draw big crowds at club appearances.
There’s an Ottawa-based producer/DJ who has been getting attention as he gives the finest in live drum programming a run for their money. In fact, a true showman and master of his craft, this Ottawa Maschine wizard regularly performs blindfolded.
Jonny Henry, a.k.a. Circabeatz, has been in Ottawa’s music scene for a long time. He came up as a traditional drummer in various hardcore bands, such as If Tomorrow Comes and I Refuse. After some time on the circuit, he decided to switch gears and focus on working as a hip-hop DJ around town and on CHUO FM’s Cypher show on Friday nights.
He says the similarities between the two scenes outweigh the differences.
“One thing I noticed is when local hardcore bands put out a record and performed it, the crowd really knew the words for every song,” he says. “And for hip-hop, locally, I didn’t see that as much . . . But as a similarity: the energy of a live show. If [it’s] put on right in the hip-hop world, mosh pits, stage diving, crowd surfing, etc., can still go down just like in the hardcore/punk scene.”
Like many DJs, Circabeatz’s work on the turntables morphed over time into original music production. His love for drums would again resurface.
Circabeatz says his time as a hardcore drummer has informed his current work on the Maschine.
“Most of my beats are driven by the drums or are drum-heavy,” he said. “With my live finger-drumming routines, the drums are the main piece that is done live.”
He describes his sound as “energetic, hyper hip-hop from a drummer’s point of view” and it must be seen and heard in person. Circabeatz’s influences include the aforementioned AraabMuzik and Fresh Kils, plus SkiBeatz, DJ Premier, and locals Jeepz and DJ So Nice.
DJ So Nice is also a frequent collaborator and together they’ve won beat battles as the production duo Qualified Pros. Circabeatz also regularly performs with So Nice and MC SawBuck, playing the drums—actual drums, he’s come back around full circle—in their live sets while The Kid Gorgeous plays the electronic drum pads.
Circabeatz stays extremely busy. Apart from regular DJ gigs, he’s boosting his profile as a force to be reckoned with in the live hip-hop production realm. His record in live beat battling is 6-0.
“Mostly I just perform beat showcases these days,” he says. “Maybe nobody really wants to battle me!”
One can’t fault his competition for shying away. The man regularly composes flawless beats before spellbound audiences with just his fingers and a Maschine—while blindfolded