This article was originally published in the August 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
There’s no better evidence that your friends and community value you than having them help replace the tools of your trade, in this case sound equipment — the life blood of Ahmad Shakir’s career as a DJ and sound designer.
Last year Shakir, perhaps known better as DJ It’sJustAhmad, was distressed when much of his collection of professional sound equipment was essentially ruined when an outdoor event came to an abrupt close due to a nasty summer storm.
Fortunately, Shakir wasn’t injured, just heartbroken. Even more fortunately, his friends came to the rescue.
“I started a GoFundMe campaign after I was informed that I was not going to be compensated for my equipment being damaged at an event that wasn’t called (even) as it started raining and quickly became a torrential downpour with high winds,” Shakir says. “Thankfully, my friends cared enough to help me. I was amazed that I met my goal in less than a week.”
His gear is better than ever, and once again, Shakir will play a major role as resident DJ for the 2017 Jersey Fresh Jam, the area’s premier urban arts/hip-hop event, happening Saturday, August 12, from noon to dusk at TerraCycle, 121 New York Avenue in Trenton. (Rain date Sunday, August 13).
Now in its 12th year, the JFJ is free and open to the public and features 50 or more graffiti writers/artists from the Trenton scene and beyond creating art on the spot, with live music, DJs and MCs, dancing, and vendors.
As of mid-July, Tang Sauce, Sunnie Allen, and Age of Extinction were just a few of the performers slated, with special guest Brooklyn-based Masta Ace just announced. The Jam also welcomes about a half-dozen noteworthy DJs from the tri-state area. (See jerseyfreshjam.com for a list of all the performers.)
Shakir himself will be providing the musical backdrop as Trenton’s wizards Leon Rainbow, Will Kasso, Dean Durb, and A.B. and Peter Rodriguez create mind- and eye-boggling work.
“I’ll also be putting together a set with an MC named ‘ShoreShot’ for the Jam,” Shakir says, who got started with the JFJ in 2009. At first he was just playing music while people were painting and enjoying the art. Then he was asked by Kasso to substitute for one of the main DJs who was unable to participate.
“I did a good enough job so that eight years later I’m still here, still the resident DJ,” Shakir says. “I also book acts for the event, DJ for the majority of the performers, and I provide all of the sound equipment for the event.”
“For one day, it takes months’ worth of planning,” he adds. “In fact, I’m already planning and thinking about next year’s even — what I can do differently to help keep it fresh.”
Thanks to Shakir, new this year is a separate event featuring singers and musicians, happening the evening before the JFJ, Friday, August 11, at Trenton Coffee House and Roaster at 750 Cass Street. Shakir has dubbed the Friday event “Jersey Fresh Coffee.”
“I wanted to shift the direction, with some different kinds of acts from the Jam,” he says. “These are singers and musicians who, like me, grew up in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, kind of the heyday of hip-hop culture.”
“Instead of just rapping, they’ll sing and play instruments, and there may also be people painting — that whole coffee house vibe,” Shakir says. “There are so many artists who want to participate in the graffiti jam, there’s just not enough time in the day for everyone who wants to do it. So this will shine a light on other people who want to take part.”
“We’re trying to grow the event, and maybe some time in the future the Jam could be a whole weekend of celebration,” he says.
Shakir was born in Trenton in 1978 and raised by his mother, Nadirah Shakir, who recently retired after more than two decades as program assistant and office manager in the department of psychology at the College of New Jersey.
Extended family was nearby as well, including his great-grandmother and grandmother, who seem to have been as hip about music as Shakir.
In fact, his grandma’s home, especially her music room, was a kind of sanctuary for young Ahmad, who absorbed her collection of 33 and 45 rpm records, 8-tracks, and even reel-to-reel high fidelity tapes.
“She listened to what her children and grandchildren listened to and liked it,” Shakir says. “She had this great collection of music, all kinds of things. I could not reach my hands out and find something great.”
Shakir himself started collecting records and cassettes at a young age, frequenting the Sound of Trenton as well as the former Ace Record Shop on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
“I’d be there maybe three days a week,” he says. “I’d get $3 for cleaning my room, or scrounge some change from my grandmother — I kept the change when I went to the store for her — and I’d go buy comic books and cassettes. I was in media heaven. I could read and listen to different artists tell me about growing up, and I felt like I was a part of a larger world.”
“The first two things I bought were cassettes of Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad,’ and LL Cool J’s ‘Bigger and Deffer,’” Shakir says. “I played one of them until I wore it out.”
In his youth, he compiled a collection that rivaled that of his elders, with music by Jill Scott, Janet Jackson, Vanessa Williams, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Run DMC, as well as rock of the 1990s — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Metallica, Dinosaur Jr., and others.
Then there were the more sophisticated discoveries, like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and especially the Jimi Hendrix/Band of Gypsys live album, recorded at the Fillmore East in January, 1970.
“For me to have heard that album and that level of musical complexity when I was so young, it blew my mind,” Shakir says.
He adds that he plays or has attempted to play several instruments, but to no avail. “I play a lot, poorly,” Shakir says. “At one point I was trying to learn piano and also was teaching myself basic music theory,” he says. This ability has helped him with his DJing career, however, and has set him apart in one way. “I’ve had the opportunity to DJ with musicians, who would ask, ‘what key is this in?’ (about a song) and I would know,” Shakir says. “Although software does this now, I used to do it.”
As far as falling in love with sound equipment and DJing, Shakir says, “I was working at a store that had a pair of turntables, and the owner let me try (them); I never stopped.”
“I bought all my DJ equipment like new, floor models or blemished,” he explains. “I bought a high-end mixer for next to nothing, then a pair of high torque turntables and DJ headphones, and I never stopped practicing.”
One major influence is the Roots — but not the superstar incarnation they are now, known as the house band for “The Tonight Show.” Shakir probably prefers when they were young, scrappy musicians busking on South Street in Philly. “The thought that these guys met in school and put a band together, that was a huge influence,” Shakir says. “Just Questlove on his own, as a producer, drummer, and composer, made me think, ‘wow, I want to get a band together.’”
He also praises the Trenton-based Poor Righteous Teachers (PRT). “They were a really influential group to me,” he says.
For a while Shakir moved away from Trenton when his mother bought a house in Browns Mills, and he attended Pemberton High School for three years, graduating in 1997. He then moved back to Trenton, and planned to study computer graphics and fine art in college.
Shakir, who also has considerable talent as a visual artist, was offered a full scholarship to the Philadelphia Art Institute but turned it down. “I did the research, and Mercer County Community College had an arts program that was on par if not better than the program at the Philadelphia Art Institute,” he says. He started at MCCC in the fall of 1997, but, like many working adults, Shakir was juggling at least one job while in school and was unable to complete his degree.
Then there were setbacks during the next decade. His mailroom job at the College of New Jersey never became full-time/permanent, and a multi-faceted position he had with the former Purdue Frederick pharmaceutical company in Princeton became a dead end.
Meanwhile, it was about 2008, and the economy was spiraling downward. “I was almost 30 (in a relationship) with a child on the way and trying to figure out what I was going to do,” Shakir says. “I sat in my room and looked around and saw that I had all this equipment. I had been DJing as a hobby since 1999. More and more people were asking me to DJ their parties and special events, and I was making more money DJing, so it just shifted from there.”
With his partner, Chareese Yarbrough, Shakir had a son, also named Ahmad Shakir, known around town as Ahmad II or Little Ahmad. In addition to working for the New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles and being a busy mom, Yarbrough is an aspiring voice actor.
Nowadays, Shakir is quite in demand as a DJ and sound designer/consultant, and the many hats of mobile DJing make for a busy full-time career. “DJ It’sJustAhmad” spins not only in central New Jersey but in Philadelphia and around the tri-state area. He was recently in Brooklyn performing with the Trenton-based Latin alternative hip hop duo Agudos Clef at Afrotaino’s Summer Bash and teamed up with them for one of the Levitt series of concerts in early July.
“I’m busy in the spring, summer, and fall, and even in the winter around Christmas, when everyone wants a DJ for their holiday parties, and usually all on the same day,” Shakir says. “I just started DJing at Grounds For Sculpture’s First Fridays, and I’m also doing First Fridays at Trenton Social — been doing that for about six years.”
As far as his contributions to the various positive, creative activities in Trenton, Shakir has been a member of the SAGE Coalition artists collective for years (he is their resident DJ), and in fact, shared his skills in the class, “The Art & Culture of the DJ” earlier this year. He has also been associated with Isles, Inc., the non-profit, urban green development organization founded in 1981.
“I’ve been involved in all kinds of events, in and around the city, helping to shed light on the arts community as a whole — things like bike welding and gardening in addition to music and visual art,” he says. “We’ve done a lot in a short time, and with very little money. So it’s led me to being part of other organizations, like Artworks, and the Trenton Downtown Association, and more recently, ‘I Am Trenton.’”
Earlier this year Shakir and his son were recognized by the I Am Trenton Community Foundation. Founded in 2007 and known for its series of billboards, I Am Trenton celebrates and builds pride in the city by recognizing individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the positive growth of the capital city.
The two were spotlighted with their larger-than-life smiling faces, photographed by Bentrice Jusu, on a billboard at East State Street and Logan Avenue.
“It was a real surprise for me, and a joy for my son, and it all happened as randomly as rain in the summer,” Shakir says. “Seeing the two of us up there was real to say the least.”
Ahmad Shakir (DJ It’sJustAhmad), Jersey Fresh Jam, TerraCycle, 121 New York Avenue. Saturday, August 12, noon to dusk. Free.
Jersey Fresh Coffee, Trenton Coffee House and Roaster, 750 Cass Street. Friday, August 11, 7 p.m. to midnight. Free. 609-379-0549.
Visit Shakir on Facebook at facebook.com/ahmadrshakir.