UC Berkeley student Ellis Newton talks DJing in the Bay Area

versaam_ellis-newton-courtesy-copy
Ellis Newton/Courtesy

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Name: Ellis Newton (Stage name Versâam)

Age: 22

Hometown: Long Beach, California –– a bustling LA County city that, despite its eclectic music scene, is not where Newton found his musical inspiration. The Bay Area inspired Newton to become serious about his music.

Current Residence: Newton lives in Fulton House; his music lives on Spotify.

What he’s listening to: Roy Ayers, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Consumers Park by Chuck Strangers, Anthology by Knxwledge

Who He is: A UC Berkeley senior and a musician, to put it simply.

His Voice: Ellis Newton steps into PIQ Bakery with a vibe that greatly rivals what I had previously experienced. I expected to meet the jubilant Versâam persona I saw as a DJ for student rapper Kahj, bouncing to his beats as he danced behind the turntables, sun-soaked in the vibrant red lighting. Instead, here, on a mellow Italian cafe patio, Newton is sweet and reserved, sitting across from me with his arms crossed loosely, his face reflecting complete composure.

As I sip on a latte, a little bigger than I anticipated, and organize my notes, Newton patiently waits for me to start the interview. After some preliminary questions about his major and year, I offer a little segue into my first real question: “How did you get started making music?”

“The hip-hop and jazz music form — I’ve always been fond of it,” Newton says. “It came after a certain point, my sophomore year of college. I had a moment where I knew like, one, I’m capable of this, and two, I would be very good. So I saved up some money and I got some gear and I spent like a long time learning and before I knew it, I had something.”

As someone who is fairly uncertain about all decisions, artistic or otherwise, I am intrigued by Newton’s confidence in his talents as a musician. I tell him that I am impressed.

From here, our conversation jumps around. We talk about Newton’s busy schedule and the importance of finding a balance in his life. A big part of Newton’s day-to-day routine is running.

“I’m a runner. I’m running till I die,” he says. I am awestruck when he informs me that he finished a nine-mile run right before our interview. I tell him that I would probably be in the hospital if I tried to run a mile. He offers a cool chuckle.

Again, he sparks my interest with a topic completely unfamiliar to me. Newton explains that there is a crossover between his track family and the people he collaborates with on music. He also mentions that he connects most with both the Black music scene and the Black athletes on the Cal track and field team.

“You kind of live in a vacuum when you are on the team,” he says. “Sometimes it’s difficult to keep things in perspective because you’ll see a lot of Black athletes around you but you forget that that percentage of athletes doesn’t match the percentage of students in proportion.”

He continues, “I want to give a shoutout to the entire Black community here at Berkeley. I know there’s not a lot of us but we’re doing well. I see you, Black magic.”

Returning to the topic of his music, I ask what he wants his music to say to his listeners.

“With my last two projects I made, Pisces Tape and Ellsworth, I intended for them to be narratives,” he says. “I want it to take them somewhere. Perhaps they felt this way when they were 20 years old in the park in Illinois and it was a cold day and the flowers were just blooming. I don’t know how a listener is going to interpret it but I hope that it can strike deep chords.”

Newton translates the same values to his performances as well.

“What’s important to me is that it’s active,” Newton says. “I like to bring people into the music. If I can make the audience feel what I’m feeling in the moment as well as when I was making it then that is a successful performance.”

As he says this, he begins to dance a little. Watching him dance for all the patrons of PIQ on that Sunday afternoon, I see that my initial impression that he is quieter offstage was wrong.

Newton’s personality as a student and interviewee is not different than his persona as a DJ. Sure, the exuberant Versâam is more of a performer than the man jamming to the sounds of cars screeching down Shattuck Avenue before me. But I suddenly realize that Newton has kept me engaged throughout this interview, just as he does with his audience when he performs.

Versâam and Newton are one and the same: products of their environments, adaptable and playing to the crowd, talented and articulate. But in the simplest sense, they are both artists.

Newton says that being a DJ and producing beats requires him to be a “walking filter.” Whether it be nature, samples from an old album or sound effects from “Super Smash Bros.,” he is always listening for a possible beat.

I mention how cool it is that he can find inspiration in anything. All he says is, “Isn’t that what art is?”

Contact Maisy Menzies at [email protected].