Exile & Johaz Revisit Their Creative Process For The "E&J" Album
Exclusive: As Dag Savage, Exile and Johaz detail speaking for a faction of the West Coast that isn't exposed and challenging each other while recording.
Dag Savage is a two-headed Rap attack. Comprised of emcee Johaz and producer Exile, the Los Angeles duo first made waves with their 2012 mixtape Salvation distributed by Dirty Science. Since then, they have been honing their skills, dropping The Warning, a second mixtape in January, and are now set to release their first studio LP, E&J on February 4. E&J contains features from several West Coast artists like Ras Kass, MED and Aloe Blacc.
In just under two years, the duo has collectively made a name for themselves after individually enjoying solo success. Their respective work ethics are apparent, considering the range of material they have completed in such a short time. Dag Savage may not have the name recognition of other notable West Coast artists, but Exile and Johaz have achieved certain levels of respect in the circles that matter most for them. “I feel like we speak for a kind of West Coast that isn’t really exposed,” explains Johaz alongside Exile during a recent interview with HipHopDX. Adds Exile, “I think our music still has enough diversity to it that it may broaden the listener’s scope instead of only traditional types of Hip Hop cats are gonna listen to our shit, or only the new generations are going to be fucking with our shit.”
During the interview, Johaz and Exile opened up on numerous topics: from their fondness of certain drugs, to their creative process as a group, to what lies ahead for them as artists under the Dirty Science umbrella. Most apparent though, is their confidence in what E&J holds for them.
Johaz Says Revealing Details About His Past Abuse Was Therapeutic
DX: What’s the meaning behind the name, Dag Savage?
Exile: First of all, it was kind of like “damn savages,” but really it also describes our personality in a sort of way. A dag is a socially awkward person, and then a savage is a savage, so really with both of us it’s kind of like a yin and yang type of thing.
DX: Is one of you the socially awkward person and the other the savage?
Exile: I think we’re both the same. But if you see Johaz perform, you’ll know why he’s the savage.
Johaz: Why I’m savaged out? Yeah, it’s yin and yang, ‘cause sometimes I smoke a joint and get all quiet and weird or whatever, and then other times I’m just wildin’ out. So it’s kind of a description of both, but if anything I guess you can call me the fucking savage man [laughs].
DX: Johaz, on “For Old Time’s Sake” you really open up, saying: “Kicked out of class just for speaking out / But they ain’t know that my grandma was drinking out / And they ain’t know that my uncle Charles was tweakin’ out / Or how my real pops was puttin’ them beatings out.” Do you credit anything you talk about in that song as being influential in your growth as a person and as an emcee?
Johaz: Well, honestly on that song I speak about—not to let the cat out of the bag—but I speak about as a kid I was in a situation where I was sexually molested. And besides the people in this room, I could probably count on one hand how many people I told, and I carried that shit with me for two decades. It’s kind of like a release, ‘cause people don’t understand, man. You deal with all that type of shit pent up inside and it affects you, homie. You overcompensate for shit. Sometimes I try to be like actin’ hella hard, ‘cause in the back of my head I don’t want anybody to think I’m a punk or something like that. They don’t know shit about me, it’s just me in my dome. With all that shit man, it just feels like a release to get it all out…like a weight off my shoulder.
Exile: It’s therapy. Therapeutic.
Johaz: Therapeutic, man. I ain’t trying to have no act; I’m Johaz here, there. I want to be the same person you hear on wax that you see in person. He ain’t perfect, he’s righteous, he’s cool, he’s fucked up, all that shit. So at least with the project we ain’t trying to hold shit back. I’m not. I just want people to know the full Johaz.
DX: And it’s tough to talk about but it feels good to get it off your chest?
Johaz: Man, it does. It feels good, like shackles [ripping sound].
Exile: I think it really comes across too with his emotion throughout that song. It really comes through. Listening to it myself, I definitely had to hold back tears for that. I think I didn’t even hold them back for sure listening to it. When you’re coming from such a true place it’s hard not to hit a true place with the listeners too.
How Johaz's Upbringing Factored Into His Work With Exile
DX: You invoke powerful imagery by referencing the George Zimmerman trial, Fascism and Israel versus Palestine in your lyrics. And at the same time it’s also very literary music. Where do those influences come from?
Johaz: I just grew up... My step-pops, not my real pops, my step-pops was like a real intelligent dude, and my moms was too. But they’re products of the Civil Rights ‘60s movement. Even though I was into music, they would be like, “Okay, turn that music off. You need to read this. And here’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X; you need to do a book report on this by the time I come home,” and things of that nature. So when I was young I just remember driving from—‘cause I lived in [Tijuana] for many years, I lived in T.J. for like four-five years. And in T.J. I was the only black kid out there, so I had a lot of time to myself to absorb a lot of shit. My pops sometimes [would say], “You’re playing too much Rap, man. Bump this Beatles album for a second [laughs].” I was just exposed to a lot of shit.
Exile: You had time to focus on your own thoughts, ‘cause you were kind of isolated, ‘cause everyone else was speaking Spanish.
Johaz: Yes, yes, yes. And ‘cause my peoples just, they always kind of instilled being diverse, and just growing up in diverse environments. I’ve lived in suburbs, I lived in the ghetto, and I lived in fuckin’ T.J., so it’s just kind of like I’m well versed. Not in a box.
DX: So you’ve got the human aspect, but then there are artists and other individuals that played a role. You mentioned Malcolm X…
Johaz: Yeah. I mean, when I was growing up, the tapes my parents would buy for me was fuckin’ Public Enemy—shit they knew was going to send a message. I would have to sneak and listen to Too Short and N.W.A. I had it, but I had to sneak it and listen to it. So growing up, all my peoples would buy X-Clan, Public Enemy, KRS-One. Shit, curse word Rap? Get it out of here. I would find that shit broke up in my room when I come home [laughs]. I remember I thought I was slick, I had 100 Miles And Runnin’. I thought I was slick, and I used to be bumpin’ it at night like, “Slick, slick.” And then I came home from school and that shit was in a pile, broke up.
Dag Savage On Showing Both Sides Of Psychotropic Drug Use
DX: “Bad Trip” & “Drugs” are pretty self-explanatory tracks. Where do you draw the line between these songs and a lot of this turn-up, Molly Rap floating around.
Johaz: I don’t know if it’s all the way fucking separate, but it’s different. When we’re talking about drugs, we’re just talking about dope shit like, “My shit is that crack rock / Hollywood cocaine.” And then you know, we might eat some ‘shrooms or some shit like that. But we’re on some natural druggy shit or whatever [laughs]. It’s not super…how would you say it, Ex?
Exile: For me, I take my hallucinogens with respect. We’ll go out to the desert and say out loud to the universe what we want from this experience. We made our own San Pedro cactus, which is mescaline, and we’ll find the perfect little area on top of a hill, and I’ll pour it for somebody and they’ll say what they want from the experience. Then they drink it, they pour it for the next person and they say what they want out of the experience and drink it. That is one aspect where we take it with respect, and we’ll still do some childish-ass shit. But then we’ll realize that being childish under the influence of hallucinogens is still just as important and just as spiritual as taking things serious.
But then there’s also times where you do hallucinogens and you’ll be partying, and that’s where I think the “Bad Trip” comes in. Maybe it’s ‘cause you’re not taking it with that respect or there’s too many people around and you don’t know them personally. I think it was just a little tale of how things can turn bad when you’re doing a mind-altering drug like a hallucinogen.
Johaz: And just to touch on that, just in general we’re calling it “Bad Trip.” No disrespect to Trinidad James, but they’ll sing a song about Molly, but they’re not going to talk about if you keep taking Molly, you get sprung. You’ll kill yourself, turn weird or your face can break out, you know what I mean? It’s a bad trip, homie. You take enough of this shit, you’re gonna bug out. We not gonna sugarcoat it, like if you smoke crack, man, there’s a good chance three months from now you gonna be homeless [laughs]. So we’re gonna give you both sides. The, “Yeah, it’s fun, smoke a crack rock.” But at the end of the day it could turn bad too [laughs]!
DX: Those songs, and a couple others have kind of a psychedelic feel to them. What are your thoughts about that?
Exile: Yeah I take psychedelics a few times a year, and I think it is important for my growth as a human. To me it’s like a reset button; a mental enema if you will, and it let’s you sit back and take perspective on things. What I’ve learned, or how I’ve grown to see things through taking psychotropic drugs, is that when I first started, you would think about bad shit and you would bug out and have a bad trip. But I think I came to the maturity through psychotropics to be able to think about the worst shit of my life and be completely fine with it, and just see it for what it is and just be accepting of it. I think it allows me to be stronger as a man. And I think maybe that just happens to come through in some of my production. Sometimes I think I’m conscious of it, and sometimes I think it just happens.
DX: What do you like to listen to when you’re tripping?
Johaz: Well I’ll be honest, last time I did mushrooms—like heavy, heavy mushrooms—I had a real bad trip, so I don’t even remember what the fuck happened. It was bad. But if I do eat some mushrooms, I used to always like to listen to “I Am The Walrus” by The Beatles. You ever hear that song? “I am the walrus, goo, goo, goo joob / goo, goo, goo, goo joob.” And some Bob Marley Reggae shit, something to keep me real mellow. ‘Cause it’s all about environment when you’re doing shit like that, man. I remember I did some ‘shrooms, and I didn’t know I had to go to my aunt’s house. I went to my aunt’s house, and that’s how I bugged out; I had to act like I wasn’t ‘shrooming. She was talking and her mouth’s dropping and her eyes buggin’, and I’m sittin there like, “Yeah…” The next thing I know, I’m trying to call the hospital on myself but they was like, “No! No you can’t do that [laughs].” And then I had the mushrooms, I was like, “These fucking ‘shrooms!” I flushed it down the toilet, and then I immediately felt better.
Exile: There was times I was listening to Project Blowed shit. I was listening to The El Michels Affair—they have dope, deserty vibes—Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, and the Rolling Stones. Basically that, for that type of shit. And sometimes we’ll make our own music. There was one time, it was in the desert, the wind was blowing so strong and we were standing up at this little peak. My buddy put a flute in the air, and the wind started playing it; he was playing the flute with the wind blowing air into it. And that was pretty fucked up.
Exile Explains Creative Methods For Making Music With Johaz
DX: Psychotropics aside, the creative chemistry is palpable on every track. What’s the step-by-step process for the creation of a Dag Savage track?
Exile: Going through beats, and seeing what sparks [Johaz’s] attention or having him tell me what is sparking his attention, and then discussing concepts, discussing where we want to take it. Then sometimes he’ll just go off and write his own stuff, and sometimes we’ll bounce stuff back and forth and just try to get it sharp together as a team. And then we just record it...go off a vibe. Johaz is really good at just not even writing and just jumping in the booth, laying it down and just going piece-by-piece. He’ll sing a melody, and we’ll think of words for it, or he’ll think of them, or even just thinking of the right melody at first for the hook.
Johaz: Yeah, man, working with Exile, he pulls out the best in you, but he challenges you to your core. First recording with Exile, I was like, “Damn.” He’ll break you down if you not strong, and you’ll be like, “Fuck, I’m not good. I’m not strong.” With us, we might record four versions of one song and then come with the best idea...the best version. And that makes me a better artist. When I’m with Ex, I never be thinking, “This is the hottest rhyme ever!” I’m always like, “Yo, I gotta top this rhyme.” He’ll bring that out of you like, “That one’s cool, but it’s not as hot as this one.” So that’s kind of like, aside from how we do, it’s not really no formula. But I know at least with Exile, at the end of the day when we’re finished recording the song, that was the dopest shit. That’s a complete joint. Once we’re done, all that shit’s solid.
Exile: And going through doing different versions of songs, a lot of times things that he wrote that weren’t the ones we ended up using will end up working perfect to another beat too.
DX: So along those lines, it’s not as simple as Ex giving you a beat, and you saying, “This is my verse?”
Johaz: Sometimes. But with me, I like when Exile explains it to me. I’ll be like, “Yo, what do you hear?” When he explains it to me, that’s when I come with the best shit like, “Alright dude, this is what I hear in this,” and talk about this and that. He’s really the best producer I’ve worked with, ‘cause he really produces and get’s in there. It ain’t like, “Here go the beat and come back.” We get together and put that shit together.
Exile: Like “Bad Trip” for example, that was one of those situations where I was like, “This shit is definitely psyched out, and I could do some drugs to this or whatever. But what’s an original way to talk about drugs and not come off like you’re trying to hype drugs out? No one’s done a song about a bad trip really, so let’s do a song about a bad trip.” And then he went ahead and did that whole verse, and it was perfect, so it was good to go. And then the “Oh, ah,” [laughs] came up with a little melody and yeah, shit worked out. And then got his cousin, Gonjasufi is actually his cousin, he sang on that track.
Johaz: Big ups to Sufi.
Exile: The homie ADAD and Satyre.
DX: Having already done the Salvation album together, what, if anything, changed in terms of the creative process or the music itself?
Exile: Well to be honest, we just try to make the best songs. And in a situation where the album isn’t done but you want to drop something—like how it typically goes—you take the songs that aren’t on the album and make a mixtape. We actually had the album done pretty much before The Warning mixtape, which is our second mixtape. And Johaz just put a lot of it together pretty quickly. Then we also had... I don’t know if any of those were throwaways. We just kind of came up with those, didn’t we?
Johaz: Yeah, those are on-the-spot jams, really, as far as The Warning tape.
Exile: “Bangin Ass Drum Beat” and then “Smoke The Pain Away” were songs that were made for the mixtape. But like I said, from Salvation up to The Warning tape, we were just making songs and just trying to make the most complete album, for the album.
Johaz: We didn’t even talk about it like, “This is what we’re going to do.” We just continually kept making music.
Exile: But then once we had a solid core of songs, we were like, “What is this missing?” And I think “For Old Time’s Sake” was one of those ones where we were like, “We gotta have a song like this,” just a real heartfelt joint. And [Johaz] was the one who really wanted to use that beat and do a heartfelt beat.
Johaz: That put the icing on the cake right there.
DX: Then there’s a track like “Milk Box” which is dope, that shows up twice, on the mixtape and on the album. Why is that one unique?
Exile: Well I had done a remix to that. Basically, I thought I could come with a better beat for it. We had that one and...
Johaz: And basically was like, “Yo let’s just put it on there.”
Exile: I remember back in the day on maybe like a Steady B album, or like Boogie Down Productions, they would just have the bonus track in the middle of the album, or like the remix in the middle of the album. I used to like that type of shit, so we were like, “Let’s just do that.”
Johaz: No following the rules, man. We just do what we want to do [laughs]. If it makes sense to us, bam, there it goes. As long as we feel like people enjoy it, or sometimes fuck it, we like it, let’s just put it on there.
DX: Johaz, Ras Kass, who appears on the album, once said that college kids and prison inmates consume his music more than other demographics. Are you targeting a certain demographic or group with your music?
Johaz: Nah, man. I’m just putting it out there for whoever gravitates towards it. I guess I just make shit that I would want to hear if I was a listener. But I definitely don’t have like a “I’m trying to go for this market, or that market,” know what I mean? I never was like that. I mean, of course I wouldn’t want to go rap at an EDM party or something, but I like those kids. But whoever man, basically I’m just saying I don’t have a market that I’m trying to target. But with anything in life, being through your experiences will gravitate towards what you’re saying. So I feel like gutter mothafuckas are going to appreciate what I’m saying. But at the same time, it’s gutter mothafuckas with a conscience that’ll love your shit. ‘Cause me and Exile been fam for 14 years, but he got his whole set of people that he grew up with. I got my set of people I grew up with, and they got a lot of shit in common, but they’re totally different. Like gangsters, graffiti writers, we got comedy cats down with us, and we got a couple smoke-head homies. Whoever likes it likes it. If this dude likes it, then it’s all good.
Dag Savage Riff On Weather, West Coast Hip Hop & Dirty Science
DX: You both are from the West Coast, and so are most of the guests on E&J. Is Dag Savage a new brand of West Coast Hip Hop? Is it bigger than that?
Johaz: I feel like it’s some new West Coast shit. It’s definitely… I feel like we speak for a kind of West Coast that isn’t really exposed, ‘cause you got TDE cats, Odd Future Cats, and Dirty Science, we bringing something new too. We have our own niche of Hip Hop. So I definitely think it’s something new, but I don’t know. What do you think, Ex? I don’t think we going into it like…
Exile: I think we’re coming with something new, but still keeping the traditional aspects involved in what we do. I think the music we make will work for a listener who likes traditional Hip Hop, but also for Hip Hop listeners that like the new type of shit that may even be fucking with some Trap or something like that. I think our music still has enough diversity to it that it may broaden the listener’s scope instead of only traditional types of Hip Hop cats are gonna listen to our shit, or only the new generations are going to be fucking with our shit. I think we’re going to be able to have both those types of cats fucking with our shit.
DX: Switching gears, you have a music video for “When It Rains” which is also a dope track, and the video captures that rainy day mood perfectly. Why did you choose this track to make a video for?
Exile: ‘Cause Aloe Blacc sings the hook [laughs].
Johaz: [Laughs] It was a no-brainer, man. Aloe’s on the hook, you gotta make a video.
Exile: No but we’ve got Aloe doing a dope-ass hook on there, and I think Johaz did his thing, and I did my thing, and it’s the perfect track to throw on in the fall or winter time. It’s a good jam to throw on when the seasons change. For me, when the seasons change, there’s the way the temperatures change, the way the smells change and the ways you see things change will tap you back into the memory of when it changed when you were in junior high school. For me, every time it does. You get used to a season, and you forget about that memory, and you go into the next season and that gives you that type of memory. This season it gives you that memory, and then it comes full circle back to like a rainy day type of memory. Every time, for me, it’ll take me back to my childhood, to the type of music I would listen to or, “Damn I smoke cigarettes and smoke weed during this time, let me go do that.” It’s just one of those songs to carry you through the season and through whatever emotion the season brings about in your head.
So just because I knew it was one of those types of songs and because Aloe’s on it, is why I think we chose to do a video for it.
Johaz: Yeah, man. And rain—everybody remembers what they were doing in the rain—either you were stuck in the house playing video games, or you’re like, “Yo man, it’s a rainy day, let’s roll something up.” Or, “It’s a rainy day, let’s call the chick.” The rain brings a different type of emotion than any other weather, so I think we needed to express that visually. You can do a lot of shit in the sun, but in the rain it’s like a routine you’ve got to follow. So that’s why. Rain visually stands out.
DX: Ex, without revealing too much, can you tell me a little about how your record digging informs your beat creation? When are you looking for audio samples versus instrumental samples?
Exile: It starts with the music, and it starts with me hearing how the music could be transformed with some bangin’ drums behind it. Sometimes I’ll listen to a song and play the drums with it, and just try to imagine what I can do with the song, then that gives me everything I need to figure out what to do with it. Sometimes I’ll even pick out the drums first and even match a record over it. Or sometimes I’ll just make a dope-ass drum beat—like the goal is to make a drum beat that sounds like a song already—and then just go through a bunch of records to figure out what goes here and what sounds the best over it. Or I might just be like, “Fuck it, I’m going to break the keyboard out.” For “Bad Trip,” that was me just playing keys on that shit. And I actually sampled my dad’s drums for that song in particular. I sampled individual drum hits, like the kick, the snare and the high hat.
DX: You spit verses on “Don’t Stop” and “LL Cool J” as well as “Growing Pains” from Salvation and Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them. How do you decide if or when you’re going to rap on a track?
Exile: Well, for example, the making of “Don’t Stop,” and this is a little outside your question, but Johaz had this verse we were about to put on there. He was rehearsing his verse, but sometimes he’ll change his verse when he’s rehearsing, and I think maybe it’s to save energy for when we’re recording. So he was rehearsing his verse in this high-ass voice, and I was like, “Oh shit! That’s the shit! You’ve got to record it like that.” So if you listen to the song, you hear Johaz rapping in a high-ass voice. And I was just recording him. A lot of our songs aren’t planned out, and we just record them, but then his verse was done and that’s all we had. And it was like, “What’s next?” And I was like, “Oh shit, I could do a quick eight bars right here.” I think it was only eight bars, so I came up with it and Blu came up with his verse, and there you have it. If I think I’m going to sound good on it, I just speak up and be like, “Hey guys, I like to rap too. Can I do that?”
Johaz: See people don’t know, every time we have freestyle sessions, Exile usually wins. He can go a long time. When we freestyling, he be doing some crazy shit. So Exile got bars though. I mean Ex is a producer, but you know at least when I be kicking it, that motherfucker be going far with an ill-ass freestyle, so whenever he gets the itch…
Exile: Yeah, whenever we go out and get faded, and it’s usually in the car on the way back or the way to somewhere, we’ll just bar it up and freestyle. That’s what’s up. Or even if we’re just faded in the club like dancing with girls and whatnot, then I come around and see Johaz and I’m feeling good, feeling lit, I’ll just kick a freestyle real quick [laughs]. And sometimes those freestyles are so ill! I’m standing there like, “We should have recorded that shit.”
For something like “LL Cool J,” I really love sharing verses with cats. I love doing that, and I try to do that with all the albums I make, like the Fashawn, the Blu & Exile, now we have to do one for our album too, you know. So we’ll just sit down and go line-for-line. Every once and awhile Johaz will ask me to rap too [laughs]. But most of the time it’s me forcing my raps onto the world.
DX: Johaz, you’re affiliated with the Masters of the Universe crew and Dirty Science. Is there anything next for you to raise your profile further?
Johaz: Man, I’m just sticking to the script, just keep making dope music. My focus right now is this Dag Savage... Dirty Science that’s what I’m pushing. Anything I do will always be an extension of Dag Savage/Dirty Science anyway, so I’m just sticking to the script, just keeping it fam. That’s me, you’re always going to see Johaz, and it’ll always be Dag Savage.
Exile: And then the crew album…
Johaz: The crew album, the Dirty Science album, definitely. That’s what I’m looking forward to, really, getting all of us on a track and showing mothafuckas like, “Man, this is real lyricism at its highest level.” I’m fucking hyped on that. If anything, I just want to be like one of them Jazz players, fucking 70 years old with an ill-ass verse that’ll crush anybody, it don’t matter. I just want to keep elevating. Lyrically, I just want to keep elevating. I don’t care. I just want to be that dude that’s 60-years-old, goes to the basketball court and will still dunk on a nigga like, “I don’t give a fuck, nigga. I’m out here!” And that’s what I’m on.
So with this D.S. album, hopefully we all get to throw alley-oops to each other and get on the court with all the leagues, man. A lot of people have back-to-back championships, and it’s time for us to get in that bracket and get our ring. So that’s what I’m looking forward to, just getting our ring making a statute of the D.S. crew.