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HAMMERTIME — An Interview with H.A.M.’s Helen Harris

Photo by Quentin Belt

This Saturday, April 28th at Public Assembly, Memphis rapper La Chat will return to New York under an absolutely brilliant booking alongside London producer Girl Unit, and New York’s very own House of Ladosha. Back in 2010, on his FACT Mag mix, Night Slugs artist Girl Unit featured Chat’s “Smoke Junt,” an epic, orchestral weed anthem next to his own DJ Toomp-style productions. Opening for Chat in her first NYC appearance back in January, House of Ladosha (check our Cluster interview here) weaves original productions with their own reclamations of heaters like Rick Ross’ “B.M.F.” where Dosha Devastation proclaims, “I think I’m Kate Moss/Naomi Campbell/up in French Vogue/you know the pose.”

Standing behind this pose, bespectacled underneath the ease of a killa Cam bucket hat, is the orchestrator of this ingenious triangulation–DJ and founder of H.A.M, Helen Harris. In anticipation of H.A.M.’s second “Memphis in Brooklyn” party, Cluster correspondent Juliana Huxtable sat down with Helen to get behind the acronym, and tell us what the deal is.

H.A.M. is a party that has grown from a small gathering of people with an avid love for southern hip-hop, to a trans-regional showcase serving as a platform for performers and DJs from various parts of the south and NYC. The ringleader of it all, Helen Harris, is a soft-spoken Wisconsin-born and bred DJ and trap music enthusiast. As a former member of OMG Michelle (for those who remember), Helen has established herself as a jack-of-all-trades in NYC nightlife, having basically done it all: dj’ing GHE20 G0TH1K, working in the studio with KINGDOM, and throwing a series of her own parties (BADUSSY, SLOW GRIND, H.A.M.). In advance of this weekend’s H.A.M. party, I stopped by her Crown Heights apartment for some smoked pork sausage, potato salad and a quick chat about the music she loves and the only party in NYC that’s managed to get La Chat on its bill.

—Juliana Huxtable Ladosha

Juliana Huxtable: Why H.A.M.?

Helen Harris: H.A.M. stands for Houston Atlanta Memphis and those three cities have their own special legacies and a lot of really unique and talented rappers come from those places. Many of my favorites. It is an acronym for a word that I have a lot of appreciation for. There are a lot of different ideas about the origins of H.A.M., but I learned about it from Atlanta rap years ago.

JH: How did it first come together? Was it started by you or were others involved?

HH: Its definitely a collaborative thing. Adam [Radakovich] and I both have a lot of fun DJ’ing and just playing what we like to hear when were out. While I love a lot of different types of music, something that I actually feel passionate about is southern rap. The sounds of it are just very exciting to me and I wanted to be able to just play it because a lot of times when I would go to an event that someone invited me to come play at, they didn’t necessarily want to hear what I wanted to play; they tell me to play things that would keep people dancing and spending money. Rap music sort of has a tendency to clear dance floors and empty out venues. But, we just decided to go ahead and make a space that was dedicated to that and try to attract people that either like that or want to be around while thats happening and its been pretty successful. We have other friends who really enjoy the music too and I’ve made new friends and figured out that there are other people doing stuff that involves promoting southern hip-hop culture. A lot of different people have their hand in it at this point for sure.

JH: Do you feel like, In NY, you’re the only party really focusing on trap music?

HH: At this point . . .Actually, when we first started doing H.A.M., I didn’t know of any continuous party where that happened. I knew that the guys who do Ballers Eve radio threw parties sometimes. They have the Grits n Biscuit party; the people who do that are alumni of schools in Atlanta. Its something they started down there and started doing it up here. People who moved up here go and people like myself go aswell. I know about that and the Trap Rap Fridays that started up last month. I think theres going to be a new party at Public Assembly that’s just down south music, but it might be more of a bounce music thing. . .but it still counts

JHDo you think the this rise is the result of a specific cultural moment? Why are people starting to pay attention to this now?

HH: I grew up around all kinds of people, but I grew up in the suburbs for a lot of those formative years. I think something that happens is that for certain [periods], rap music is pop music and then its not and then it is. I think right now it is again. After crunk happened, people were obsessed with crunk and lumped all southern rap under that word without being able to differentiate. I guess the point of growing up in the suburbs is that the crowds that I’m around are super mixed and people have indie tastes [that are] generally geared towards stuff that white people make or listen to. People pick it up and the set it down, but now its being picked up again. I think it also has to do with the music. Crunk was super intense, very danceable music. When I moved to New York, people were really into Baltimore club and Lil John samples.  People have always liked Rick Ross here. The things that are obviously super dancey and really big -the sounds are big and take up the room – they always want to hear that. You can mix that with other stuff. With trap music, its such an epic sound. Its actually epic. That its not as hard for people to figure out that they should be dancing or that they could be dancing to it. So people who might not have wanted to hear rap a couple years ago for a whole night want to hear it now. But there are also people saying I really love this this is what I wanna do and they’re standing up for what they love and making fun nights that feel good.

JHHow did you initially link up with La Chat?

HH: I’ve been obsessed with her music for years but, about 3 years and a little bit of change ago, I was like Im going to get La Chat here, I’m going to have a La Chat Concert and it kept seeming super impossible. One day I just wrote her and she wrote me back told me how much it would cost and was really straightforward but I still didn’t quite figure out how to do that – bring an artists from so far who has established themselves and I love and respect her work, so I didn’t feel right inviting her till I had something to offer in exchange for her time and her performance. This January, I was having a special birthday and Chayda – my best friend, my sister – she said for your birthday I will give you a plane ticket to bring La Chat here. I was like Shut Up. Within a couple days, she and I just pulled it together because she remembered me from before cuz most of the time she’s doing shows in the southeast – maybe she’ll go to places like Chicago Detroit, Oakland – places with country black people. Laughs

JHHow is it working with her?

HH: Its really a pleasure because she’s a hard working woman who’s really good at what she does. I think because shes so good at it and because she’s working so hard she’s not nasty or mean. She’s serious but still fun and sweet. Its incredible because the reason I love La Chat so much is because I actually like her words. As an MC, she’s super talented and almost nobody else can touch her. She talks about so many different types of things, but what she talks about consistently is being a hard worker and doing whatever it takes. Basically I was like Well let me just do what she says. And we did it. We pieced it all together. I would like to do other things with her as well, but we’ll see how that comes along.

JHIs H.A.M. something that you’re looking to make a staple ongoing party? Is it something that goes as your interests come?

HH: I don’t intent to quit doing the H.A.M. party anytime soon. As a DJ, for the majority of the time that I’ve been doing that, I’ve been playing other peoples parties and my own events were kind of spotty. I would have an idea and I would like it, but I didn’t really stick to too many things except for Slow Grind, which is an annual party, so its easy not to drop it or get bored with it. Its been exciting watching H.A.M. grow and treating it professionally. Its very different from stuff I’ve done before and I want to keep working at it. I hope it leads me to doing other things that are still involved with this music and this culture. H.A.M. has also started to become a platform for shows. This summer, I plan to do an ongoing daytime barbeque –  cards, dominoes drinking type situation. I have some really good ideas about that, but I don’t want to speak on them . . . I’ll just want to make them happen.

JHDream Collaborator List?

HH: I would like to start putting out mixtapes with brand new music from some of my favorite rappers with different themes. I would like for some of these rappers that I really love who haven’t tapped into all of their demographic be able to reach out to different audiences. It would be a dream for me if Girl Unit and La Chat worked together and did a remix or an original track. That would be amazing. I would love to see some of the people who are so recognized in the south to be able to make it abroad performing. To bring what they have far away. I think it’ll happen. Remember when the white kids brought the blues men to England? I think were’ going to see that kind of stuff happen again. I think there will be – is that considered a renaissance? Whatever it is . . . an awakening or new fixation. People like this kind of music everywhere, but I would like to see some of my favorite artists who are working independently get paid well to do shows in places they haven’t yet.