DJ Harrison is in the midst of a lifelong experiment, one that challenges the notion that everything in music has been done before. A gifted multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, beat-maker, DJ, recording engineer, and producer, Harrison has made a career out of crafting intricate soundscapes that boldly clap back at that assumption. With Solar Music, the latest album from his band, Butcher Brown, due out on Friday, October 6th, Harrison recently gave Live For Live Music a glimpse into the arc of his astonishing and prolific career in a free-ranging interview tracing the forces that shaped his life.

Best known as the keyboardist for the celebrated Richmond, VA jazz/hip hop-fusion quintet Butcher Brown, Harrison’s voluminous body of work spans sonic environments that include experimental ’60s revivalist jazz and silky Voodoo-inspired grooves; gritty, lo-fi, hip-hop loops steeped in the traditions of J Dilla and Pete Rock; and a hazy Sly Stone tribute captured on 2016’s Slyish. Wearing his producer’s mantle, Harrison has created a vast catalog of compositions with such music notables as rapper/producer/songwriter Phonte; renowned singer/drummer/producer and former member of legendary 70s funk group Slave, Steve Arrington; and rising R&B star Joyce Wrice.

He also contributed to recordings by high-profile artists and Grammy-winners Jack White and Nicholas Payton, the latter of whom recorded his critically acclaimed Numbers with members of Butcher Brown at Harrison’s Jellowstone Studios in Richmond in 2014. Additionally, he captured the attention of Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and jazz-fusion guitarist Charlie Hunter, who brought Harrison (on keys) and Butcher Brown bandmate Corey Fonville (on drums) on for their acclaimed 2021 LP, SuperBlue, and its newly released follow-up, SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree. Both Harrison and Fonville were also members of Elling’s touring ensemble, playing venues around the world in support of SuperBlue.

A dedicated student of Black American Music, Harrison reflects a deep reverence for the foundational genres that birthed popular music through his work with Butcher Brown and his other various projects. HazyMoods, Harrison’s 2017 debut on Stones Throw Records, and Tales From The Old Dominion, his 2021 follow-up, are love letters penned to honor the ancestral music and culture that encompasses slave music, gospel, jazz, swing, blues, folk, R&B, soul, rap and hip-hop. Earlier works including 2013’s Monotones, 2014’s Stashboxxx, and the Vault Series—Harrison’s heroic attempt to catalog hundreds of songs he wrote between the ages of 19 and 24—also celebrate and reimagine textures of vintage sound.

Continuing his decades-long journey back to the future, Harrison and his Butcher Brown bandmates (drummer Corey Fonville, bassist/composer Andrew Randazzo, trumpeter/saxophonist/MC Marcus “Tennishu” Tenney, and guitarist Morgan Burrs) are set to release Solar Music, their eighth full-length album, via Concord Records on October 6th. Harrison, who juggles numerous solo projects at once, is also poised to release even more new tunes via Stones Throw Records including Shades of Yesterday, a cover album honoring a diverse range of heroes such as The Ohio Players and Donald Fagen.

Related: Butcher Brown Shares Roy Ayers Recreation “This Side Of Sunshine”, Preps World Tour [Video]

Harrison credits his many successes to an insatiable curiosity for making music that began when he was just three years old. Born Devonne Andre Harris in 1988 to a music-obsessed mother and radio DJ father, Harrison’s upbringing in and around Richmond, VA, a crucible of black culture and music, helped breed his wide-open approach to music. First came drums, then the piano, then bass, combined with an early fascination with physical media and making music that would become a life-long passion nurtured by supportive parents.

As a youngster, Harrison became fixated on the vinyl records that filled his home. “My dad would come home with these records and as a child I was like, ‘What are these black discs? What am I hearin? Like, what is going on right now?'” he explained.

“Him and my mom would describe it to me, ‘Well, Devonne. You know these people in that picture on the cover are the band and these are the people you’re listening to right now,’” he continued. “And from that point on, I got fascinated about how records were made. That became kinda my path, my mission, my lifelong experiment. I was just trying to figure out how to make records.”

Harrison continued to explore that path throughout his formative years as a young student and musician. In middle school, he toyed with a number of instruments including the clarinet, bass clarinet, tuba, trombone, and trumpet. He was also a member of the school band and jazz ensemble. “I hopped around on different instruments,” he recalled. “It was always a thing of mine trying to figure out how instruments work, how microphones work, then how to make records, and then make music together.”

But it wasn’t until high school that he discovered he had perfect pitch, or the ability to identify or produce a specific musical note without any reference. A high school orchestra instructor made Harrison aware of this rare gift (just one in ten thousand people have it) when he was 14. He and another teacher conducted a number of experiments in which Harrison effortlessly identified and played back a series of notes simply by hearing them. From then on, Harrison dove headlong into analyzing and dissecting music. “It just became this thing for me,” he said. “I’m analyzing choral [work] at 16 and trying to put different things together and arranging certain things for the jazz band.”

Harrison mused that he always had perfect pitch but never knew what to call it even as he was learning to play different instruments. “I learned the notes on the keyboard,” he said. “Like, I could play a Marvin Gaye song. I could play his melody back when I was like five or six years old … not knowing what the actual notes were. I knew the pitch and the actual frequencies before I knew the notes. It was weird that I learned music kinda backwards.”

Like most young people growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, when the dawn of the internet and the rise of hip-hop were becoming part of modern music’s psyche, Harrison become enamored with the genre and the sampling at its core. Wanting to master the techniques he heard back then, he and his good friend, fellow beat-maker/producer Xavier Laster, launched a beat battle project.

“It was so funny, because we chose Miles Davis,” he recalled, “and we took this Miles Davis song from The Sorcerer—it’s like an alternate take, the song was called ‘Limbo’, and basically, me and him, we were just like, “Cool. We’re gonna take this same song and we’re gonna, like, sample and chop it up. Once you’re done, and once I’m done, we’re gonna, like, play for each other our final results.’ Both of us are still making music, but that was the defining moment of what our styles were gonna be like. It became where everything is going right now.”

“Like, everyone’s gonna be using DAWs (digital audio workstations) and using different samples and using different things to make music that is not the same as recycled,” he continued. “But, you know, coming up in the age of hip-hop with the sampling situation, … for me to kind of carry on where music is going, I kind of have to understand every aspect of the industry, and whether or not it’s sampled, or making the sample. I’m just trying to really understand every aspect of the process.”

Understanding every aspect of music’s processes has turned Harrison into a bit of a mad scientist. He first learned the science of making music while he was a college student in Virginia Commonwealth University’s jazz studies program. There, he also crossed paths with some of his future Butcher Brown bandmates while simultaneously immersing himself in Richmond’s diverse music scene.

“Once I got to VCU, I was playing gigs—local gigs with teachers and playing gigs with local people in the community,” he reminisced of that time, “and I started picking up on knowledge and different songwriting techniques from different people. But then it became this thing of, I was able to put a name to certain things, like connecting the dots in a way. I was able to say, ‘Oh. Okay. Well, for me to tape or record, or whatever, I need a certain kind of compression, or I need a certain kind of effect to get this going on.’ That’s when I learned where the effects were. I’m still kind of figuring my way around how to use different effects and whatnot, and there’s been a lot of different engineers I’ve been hanging out with that have shown me the way the past few years.”

“I was just so fascinated with the process where I’m gonna figure out how to turn an idea that forms in my brain not even into a CD or a cassette tape, but I’m gonna, like, try to formulate it to this black disc, to vinyl, because that’s the media format that I grew up on that I was first introduced to,” he added.

Prior to enrolling in VCU, Harrison had already connected with Marcus Tenney and Corey Fonville and was experimenting with recording while still living as his mother’s house in Richmond. These early explorations laid the groundwork for what would become Jellowstone Studios, the nerve center for both Butcher Brown and the vibrant Richmond music and recording scene. Aside from Butcher Brown’s and Harrison’s solo projects, various significant homegrown works such have been recorded there, such as The Climb by funk fusion outfit Future Prospects, This Is Love by R&B jazz/fusion vocalist Sam Reed, and Spiritual by Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Nigel Hall (Lettuce).

Related: You Have To Give It Away: Nigel Hall Traces His Path From Addiction To Reinvention [Interview]

Jellowstone’s name reflects Harrison’s love of Hanna-Barbera animation and combines the name of Yogi Bear’s fictional home Jellystone with Yellowstone, the national park that inspired the cartoon. Located in a nondescript house in a normal residential Richmond neighborhood, the studio has served as Harrison’s home/sound lab and an on-again, off-again crash pad for his bandmates for more than a decade. In that time, Harrison has purposefully maintained a casual, playful atmosphere where creativity thrives.

“I think it just became this thing where I just wanted to have a playground to fertilize different creative ideas, whether it was my ideas or somebody else’s,” he said. “My house has always been like the epicenter for meeting up for a tour, or just recording rehearsals, or just coming through and mixing a song, or just providing a safe space for people to be creatively free. And I think that, as far as Jellystone goes, I think it’s actually like a campground. Like, people can come here and stay, and they can cook food in the kitchen. They can just kind of come here and be theree, be themselves, and if they wanna come create and just, like, make a record, or just make a song, or even if people just wanna come here and just get away… You know, it’s just a modest neighborhood, but it’s mine and I just wanna be able to provide that safe space for myself and other people.”

As Jellowstone grew, so did Harrison’s reputation as an innovator. He earned recognition from his heroes, like hip-hop trailblazers Madlib and Questlove. In 2020, Harrison experienced a career-defining moment when jazz stalwarts Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter came knocking. Harrison first met Hunter through bandmate and fellow Hunter collaborator Corey Fonville. Harrison recalled both the initial encounter and his eventual contributions to the SuperBlue recordings with wide-eyed wonder. “So, Charlie Hunter calls me,” he said, “and in my head, I’m just like, ‘Okay. This is Charlie Hunter.’ Like, the guy played on ‘The Root’. He played on D’Angelo‘s Voodoo. D’Angelo is also from Richmond, Virginia too. He’s a huge inspiration to me and my sound and everything.

“This is during COVID times,” DJ continued. “We all had to like take tests and we had to take certain safety protocols. Like, I’m thinking, ‘Charlie Hunter is coming to my house!’ Yeah, it was crazy. He’s got the hybrid guitar and is playing bass and guitar, at the same time.  I gotta run all the lines and make sure we’re recording everything properly, and I’m thinking they’re just coming through to record some demos. And then come to find out, what I recorded at the house and what ended up being mixed was on the record. That became the shit that got nominated for the Grammy. It was 2021.

“It was just like a labor of love type situation,” he added. “Just the fact that, between Corey and Charlie and Kurt and Kurt’s management and his team, the fact that they trust in my judgment recording here at the house, the fact that they wanted to use that as the product, I was kind of floored by that. I’m still kind of in disbelief to the point where it got nominated for a Grammy. I’m really thankful to be able to have the opportunity to play with [Kurt] and tour with him and to be able to be a part of his brand. And, you know, Charlie, too. I’m just thankful at this point. I still wake up sometimes and just be like, ‘How did I end up in this situation?’

“And I also gotta say something about Adrian. Adrian Olsen is the engineer for the new SuperBlue record and a bunch of other records. I never went to grad school, but if I were to say what my after college education was like, it was going to record with Adrian, because he always had had the gear, he always had the resources, but he was never afraid and never shy to be able to say, ‘Oh yeah, this is how you use this, and this is how you do this.”’

Exhilarating as these moments may have been, none have produced as much excitement for Harrison as he gets from the synergy he shares with his Butcher Brown bandmates. Whether in the studio or live onstage, the quintet synthesizes vibes as much as music. Together, they capture the intangible forces that bind humans together, delivering memorable live performances and multi-dimensional studio works that defy description. Harrison attributes the band’s successful alliance to hard work and what he describes as “the value within the unseen.”

“What I mean by that is you can’t see what you can’t see—what brings all of us together,” he explained. “You can’t see what it is about the music that draws you to it, but the fact that we’ve all been friends for a long time, we all know each other… We all are, like, really close with each other, and I think it’s one of those things where it kind of just permeates it. It just comes through the music naturally.”

When not touring or recording with Butcher Brown, Harrison resides in a state of perpetual motion, working on numerous solo ventures while overseeing projects for Jellowstone Studios and its imprint. He continues to feed an insatiable appetite for discovery and inspiration, which manifests itself through his massive and ever-growing collection of sounds, samples, and music. It’s a lifetime habit that’s out of his control, Harrison said.

“It’s not really up to me,” he explained. “It’s like this higher power. It goes back to the spiritual aspect of it. Everything that I sing, or that I play, or that I do is just an extension of a higher power. I feel like I need to obey what the world and what the Earth is telling me to do. … I just want to be able to do my part and honor the calling—the same calling that my orchestra teacher called all the music teachers in my school to tell me that I have perfect pitch; the same calling that had me look at a black record and just be like, ‘How does this work?’ I have to obey that. It’s hard for people to understand sometimes. I’m a source of creativity, but I’m also just a conduit.”

DJ Harrison and Butcher Brown are in the midst of a fall tour in support of Solar Music that will see them play dates in the U.S. as well as in Europe and Israel. Click here for more information. To keep up with DJ Harrison including new releases and solo appearances, visit his Instagram feed and Bandcamp page.

Click below for a complete list of upcoming Butcher Brown Solar Music tour dates. For ticketing information, head to the band’s website.

Butcher Brown 2023 Solar Music Tour Dates
10/12 – Reno, NV – University of Nevada, Reno – Nightingale Concert Hall
10/17 – Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
10/18 – New York, NY – (Le) Poisson Rouge
10/20 – Charlottesville, VA – The Southern Café and Music Hall
10/21 – Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe Live (upstairs)
10/22 – Pittsburgh, PA – Club Cafe
10/24 – Minneapolis, MN – Dakota
10/25 – Chicago, IL – Sleeping Village
10/26 – Detroit, MI – El Club
10/27 – Indianapolis, IN – Jazz Kitchen
11/4 – Eindhoven, NL – So What’s Next?
11/6 – London, UK – The Forge
11/7 – Antwerp, BE – De Roma
11/8 – Berlin, DE – J.A.W. (Zenner)
11/9 – Mannheim, DE – Alte Feuerwache
11/10 – Técou, FR – Coco Jazz
11/11 – Groningen, NL @ Rockit
11/12 – Rotterdam, NL – Rooterdam / Bird
11/13 – Amsterdam, NL – Bimhuis
11/14 – Charloeroi, BE – Palais des Beaux Arts
11/15 – Paris, FR – Le Trabendo
11/18 – Eilat, IL – Red Sea Jazz Festival
11/24 – Richmond, VA – The Broadberry
11/25 – Washington, DC – Atlantis
12/5 – Seattle, WA – Madame Lou’s
12/6 – Portland, OR – The Get Down
12/7 – San Francisco, CA – The Independent
12/8 – Santa Cruz, CA – Kuumbwa
12/9 – Los Angeles, CA – Lodge Room
12/10 – San Diego, CA – House of Blues, Voodoo Room

View Tour Dates