Big J. Beats Is an Unusual DJ: "I Wanted to Take the Computer Off the Stage"
The album art for Computer J. Fox appears to be straight out of the '80s. On it, a Patrick Nagel-style woman crouches over a soft-pink desktop computer, its clunky screen and keyboard juxtaposed with her sleek frame and Jem and the Holograms blue hair. A listen to the record reveals a continuation of the throwback theme, from synthesizer melodies to excerpts from Revenge of the Nerds and a decades-old clip of David Letterman broaching the topic of computer technology.
Courtesy of Big J. Beats
So, who is Computer J. Fox, exactly? "Originally, I toyed with the idea of changing my name to Computer J. Fox," says producer Justin Alvarado, who performs and records as Big J. Beats. "I had about half of the album produced, and I was playing it for people as Computer J. Fox." But explaining the album as a new persona or alter ego became tedious, so he eventually scrapped the idea and released the record earlier this summer under the Big J. Beats moniker, which he's used since before he moved from Pueblo to Denver in 2008.
The record is a departure from Alvarado's usual soulful, sample-heavy work, and that's intentional, says the producer; he wanted to teach himself how to play keys while experimenting with '80s sounds in order to manipulate them into a hip-hop setting. Stretching his creative muscles, he moved from a laptop-and-Ableton-centered setup to a sampler/loop pedal/effects processor to make the new record.
"I'm a DJ originally, but I was never the guy standing behind two turntables when it came to performing," he says. "[With Computer J. Fox], I wanted to take the computer off the stage but leave the essence. Basically, I wanted to be anti-computer without being totally anti-computer." The resulting record is both smooth and glitchy, punctuated by the humorous film and TV clips Alvarado culled from his past.
In physical form, Alvarado took Computer J. Fox's '80s aesthetic to an even deeper level by releasing the album on cassette. It's no secret that tapes have been making a slow comeback within niche-music circles, but the producer says the format choice was more out of necessity than anything. "Consumers want something tangible; my cassette release of Computer J. Fox basically became my method of putting my music in someone's hands," says Alvarado. "Nobody wants a disc." The cassette simply became a carrier for the album's download card.
Aesthetics aside, moving into this particular throwback realm shows another side of the producer's work. When he began making music in Denver more than five years ago, he was one half of the hip-hop outfit 1984; the other half was his friend MarkyBias. The two were constantly switching up the roles of MC and producer. A chance connection to local hip-hop scene-maker Whygee gave them their first show, and the act took off from there.
But Alvarado says he was producing so much music that he needed another outlet to release it all through. That's when his Big J. Beats solo project -- which he describes as "a niche of very soulful, sampled-based work, like 9th Wonder or DJ Premier or Pete Rock" -- became fully formed. Last year he released American Gangsters: Jay Z & The O'Jays, a remix of the seminal Jay Z record reimagined through the work of the O'Jays.
With Computer J. Fox, Alvarado hopes that fans of his hip-hop style and followers of his newer, '80s-inspired work can come together and mutually enjoy his ever-expanding experimentation in sound.