Photo Credit: Alonso Tal
Smiles Davis is a smooth operator who emanates bright light and exhilarating sounds as a DJ and producer. Based in Los Angeles, the Grand Rapids, Michigan native has shared the stage with Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monáe, and has produced for artists Bosco and Tabi Bonney. We spoke with DJ Smiles Davis about her early days, dealing with rejection, and successful collaborations.
Tom Tom: How long have you been doing music? What got you into DJing and producing?
DJ Smiles Davis: Music is really my first love. I can’t remember a time when it didn’t play a massive role in my life. Music has been at the forefront of my existence since I was a dancer, from the age of 10, since I got my first job at Amoeba Records, since I produced my first record two years ago. My evolution musically has been rather natural, to be frank. It all stirred from the same pot. Deep down there is an inclination to just create a vibe for folks to think less and live more.
When did you make the decision to do music as a profession?
I get such a high watching a song get made. The creative residue it leaves behind, the inspiration from bringing things into fruition, which positively connects folks for years to come, is truly succulent. One of the greatest pleasures in life for me is watching the process of a song being created. Being in the studio, feeling the energy, watching the story unfold, then actually seeing it out in the world, being performed, actually having an effect on people. From start to finish, the process is rather sensual and addictive. Experiencing that for the first time was the ah-ha! moment for me that I wanted to do music professionally.
Where did the name Smiles Davis come from? You do have an infectious smile!
Stoned one night giggling over the pages in the autobiography of Miles Davis. Like, really, there isn’t much else to the story.
What type of gear do you use to produce?
I toggle quite a bit. You get to a certain place professionally, and you find homies willing to swap gear. My faves at the moment are the Prophet-6, a Wurlitzer, Roland Juno-60, the UAD plug-ins. But, to be honest, my secret weapon is my sound-design pen. I mean that metaphorically. I went to sound-design school at Point Blank, and enjoy creating sounds from other sounds; from field recordings. A big portion of my records are created from scratch or actual samples from my own voice. If I’m having trouble finding what I’m hearing in my head, I’ll sing it, or hum it. This trick has mad legs, and gives my sound noticeability.
When did you know that you were a producer and fully realized that?
I started having more seats at more tables the day I looked up from the textbooks I’d been buried in for several years. I kinged a session with a top-liner who had a ton of acclaim, far more than I did. It was intimidating at first, but when we finished three hours later and had a complete song with lyrics to submit for [an upcoming] Rihanna project, I knew I’d come to that place. Being able to fulfill requests like that put it in my head that I could produce full-time, that I could compete.
“Deep down, there is an inclination to just create a vibe for folks to think less and live more.”
Did you have any challenges transitioning into producing once you had been DJing?
Of course! It’d be a lie if I said otherwise. Big life changes like changing careers is scary AF. I cut my safety net pretty thick. Secured gigs? Cancelled. Not fitting the brand? Cancelled. Associates not understanding the vision? Cancelled. Sacrifice is real; it’s fuel for the fire, especially when creatives are involved. Swimming without a paddle and nearly drowning a few times just made me stronger, though. The thick skin comes in handy when I’m in a room full of men, trying to have my voice heard.
What is one of the most challenging things about being a DJ and producer? What about one of the most rewarding things?
Work-life balance is the most challenging thing for me. When you really get deep, when you put in the work, really, though, there is no time for socializing. Friends be salty, but it’s not personal; it’s me in solidarity experiencing commendable growth. I’m no good to my duties if my tools haven’t been sharpened. The most rewarding thing, though, is making music with my talented community, my friends, and loved ones.
Who would you like to work with?
Rihanna, Miguel, Drake.
How did you start working with Tabi Bonney and Bosco?
I met Tabi eons ago outside a bar at South by Southwest, long before big brands were fully infiltrating. We went on an adventure that night and spawned this idea of doing a project together. Our first collaboration was Postcards from Abroad, a mixtape we put out back in 2011. It was basically me picking my favorite records of the moment, chopping them up, resampling them, etc. Tabi did pretty well with that project, but it’s a far cry from where we have come. We polished and refined our sound to a very specific niche that’s true to Tabi’s heritage. He’s from Togo, Africa, and we wanted to pull him as close to his roots on this new project as possible. Le Bon Voyage is just that: an accurate sonic depiction of a young, black, creative emboldened by his culture and DNA. I stalked Bosco on the internet for a year, then offered to bring her to L.A. to work on Morning Blues. We’ve been friends ever since.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming artists?
Put your head down, and do the work. Stop talking so loud. The work will speak for itself.
What do you have coming up next?
I’m looking forward to developing as an artist.
Follow Smiles Davis: Instagram//Facebook//@djsmilesdavis
Check Out DJ Smiles Davis in Issue 35. Purchase a copy here.