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Straight Outta the Garden: A Conversation With Eco Hip-Hop Pioneer DJ Cavem

The producer/DJ/midwife/high school teacher/organic gardener/chef is trying to bring health and wellness to the ’hood through vegan beats and environmental rhymes based on green living

These days, everybody seems to be getting more active, lifting, spinning, stretching and meditating their way to greater well-being, while sipping on homemade kombucha and bingeing on handfuls of nuts. 

But that’s mostly just hype. Because the truth is, plenty of folks still inhabit food deserts without access to fresh produce and quality ingredients. Some of them live in the ’hood, too, where they may have to depend on a liquor store for their fruits and vegetables. It’s for them that vegan rapper DJ Cavem drops tracks like “Sprout That Life.” Essentially, he’s trying to bring health and wellness to the homies through what he’s dubbed eco hip-hop, or vegan beats and environmental rhymes based on green living.

Let’s be real about it, though, DJ Cavem (full name Dr. Ietef Vita, which is pronounced Eye-tef) isn’t exactly the first rapper to go vegan. Jay-Z flirted with the lifestyle. Drake claims he’s vegetarian. Common was vegan for a while. Kanye say he is, for his kids. Stic and M from Dead Prez definitely are and have been for decades. Their track “Be Healthy” set the blueprint for all the wellness in conscious hip-hop to come.

DJ Cavem, however, doesn’t just rhyme about eating greens and grains, he sees digging in the garden as climate action and a way to fight for environmental justice. (In addition to being a producer, hip-hop artist and DJ, he’s a midwife, educator, organic gardener and chef as well.) He also spits bars directly about seeds, broccoli and his veggie van — like, for instance, in “Sprout That Life,” a single off his latest album, Biomimicz:

I got so much so much seeds, I got no more land
Pull up on your block in that veggie van
Keep my broccoli local, like I always did
This that eco hip-hop, healthy for them kids

Any rapper who earnestly drops bars about beta carotene and leafy greens could come off as corny. But DJ Cavem’s work is not — for two reasons. First, his beats are catchy and the track has legit lyrical hooks. And second, health and wellness is something black people need to be speaking with each other about. In fact, it’s urgent, as a lack of access to good health care and a preponderance of food deserts in our communities has resulted in diets insufficient for our wellbeing — and much worse, early death.

When I recently caught up with DJ Cavem, he was on the road at Georgia State University, where he’d just performed and led a workshop at a Department of Education conference on STEM. It turns out DJ Cavem began as a high school teacher; as such, he often gets asked to help inspire educators who are considering how to best reach students with innovative approaches, like hip-hop. He also often performs for them with his homemade vegetable sampler he uses to make live beats. 

That’s right, DJ Cavem samples veggies the same way other DJs sample a drum. It’s hard not to imagine a new world after you see a brother rhyme over a sample of broccoli and arugula. 

You’re the godfather of your own hip-hop genre. How do you know it when you hear it? Or better put, what qualifies a track as an eco hip-hop beat?
I wouldn’t say everybody needs to go out and record their albums under solar panels in a geothermal yurt. [Laughs] But I’d definitely say the concept requires they consider the environment around them, and that they acknowledge and speak for the ones who don’t have a voice. Also, talking about how health and wellness are important. Talking about the concept of water conservation. What sustainability looks like in the ’hood. You have to think about it down to the full carbon footprint. I think that conversation is dope. We don’t always have to be on the protest. A lot of eco hip-hop is about how we redefine and transform the image of wealth. 

“Spout That Life” is a fun, catchy track. But I’m curious about people’s reactions to it. Do they assume it’s a clever analogy for a pot farm, or do they get that it’s an earnestly green message you’re laying down?
It’s the dopest thing — I’m a DJ, producer and an emcee, so I get to see it from all different perspectives. As a DJ, I’ll put the song in the rotation after a Migos track and people still keep dancing. I’m like, “Aight, cool.” It’s meeting the criteria. By the time the second verse pulls up, that’s when cats are like, “Oh, snap!” Then they keep dancing. But also, parents love it. They finally got some music they can listen to in the car with they kids on the way to school. The grandparents too, bruh. I bridge that intergenerational gap through music. That was my goal. 

I assume you know DRAM and Lil Yachty’s track “Broccoli.” For them, broccoli is weed. Now that track, fresh and green as it is, that’s not considered eco hip-hop, correct?
Man, I think everybody is doing everything they supposed to. My li’l homie Jaden Smith is a good friend of mine. We got the same birthday and been in the studio together. He’s another artist who’s incorporating small tributes to things like sustainability in their lyrics. All these young kids, they really pulling up. There might be some fear in it when they talk about the need for a plant-based lifestyle, but it’s also dope that they even mention it. Even if it’s as a joke. Because we’ve been joking about drinking Cristal. We’ve been joking about popping cash. Joking about so much incriminating information that OGs didn’t talk about. These young kids kinda disrespect the old code. They softer. But when it comes to talking about sustainability, I praise that. 

You were brought up on the Golden Era of Hip-Hop, a more conscious time. When you first heard Dead Prez’s “Be Healthy,” did it inspire you?
It was definitely good timing in my life. That was around the time when I first started to tour. I remember touring with them — we did community events as well as albums and tours. DP has inspired a lot of people, including myself. It wasn’t that cool to talk about wellness back then. Then you got Prodigy closing that track out. And we just lost Prodigy. It’s still like, “Yo, y’all better take this health shit seriously.” 

I mean, we’ve lost Phife Dawg to diabetes. We lost Guru to lung cancer. We lost Big Pun to obesity. What happened to Nate Dogg? I mean, I can go on down the line. All these OG gangsta rappers dying by the plate. Dying from a lack of connection and from a lack of being open to our vulnerability. Like, not everyone got to be Iron Man. We gotta organize our people to accept wellness, and not as some corny selfishness, but for all of us. 

Speaking of needing armor, you grew up in Colorado. Not many people think of hip-hop when they think of Colorado. What was it like growing up a hip-hop-loving black kid in the Mile High State?
Ah, man, I’d say there was a big West Coast influence. I’m an ’80s baby; I was born the same year as “South Bronx” dropped — 1986. [Editor’s Note: KRS-One’s “South Bronx” dropped in 1987.] Not to say that that album was a major influence in my life. That would be more like Native Tongues (Jungle Brothers, De la Soul and A Tribe Called Quest). I grew up on Arrested Development and Digable Planets. But I lived in the center of the country, so all the artists came there to get their clout. 

It’s hard to get your clout in New York, because you’re playing for locals. So they’d come to Colorado to get they clout. It’s the center of the country on your way to L.A. I grew up with a lot of gangsters. After the truce happened, like in 1991 and 1992, everybody in L.A. went to Vegas or Denver, they brought the Bloods and the Crips from the West Coast. Then some of the Vice Lords came out from Chicago. We got ‘em all, until everybody was catching bodies. 

There was OGs from the ’hood, and I got put onto that conversation. But then I found other things like the Nation of Gods and Earths. I started kickin’ it with the rastas. I was that young kid looking for knowledge of self.

To bring music to the people, you formed Plant Based Records along with your homie, Detour Evans. Working together you produced live music using a “beat machine made with golden beets and broccoli.” What does that mean? And how does one make beats with broccoli?
That’s why I’m at this STEM conference: I connect copper wire to vegetables that are conductive to electricity, and I make beats with beets. So all my beats are organically grown. My thing is I came out growing food. I was straight out the garden. This ain’t no transition for me. The way white people glorify selling crack, I glorify selling kale. I got songs about it. Like, I’ll be in the kitchen juicing and bumping my own tracks. Everything is really synergistic. I make beats, I grow beets, I make beats off the beets I grow. Then I chop ‘em up, my beats and my beets. It’s like a closed circle, bruh. 

When you say making beats off beets, is that similar to bioacoustics and the “cognitive ecology” of the MIDI sprout?
Yeah, bruh. There’s that MIDI device. Before that, we actually did a test performing with the whole idea. Of course, you influence influencers, ones with capital, and they made that happen — seemingly formulated from my idea. And that’s dope! I love having that kind of impact.

That is dope. But I still don’t get how you make a beat from a vegetable? I mean, I know there’s evidence of plants doing what could be considered singing. Technically, though, how do you coax music from veggies to make beats?
Yo, so I turn the vegetables into full-on MIDI devices. Instead of using a keyboard, I have like a vegetable MPC, and I can take all my own original samples. Then I make beats on it. I have a homemade MIDI device that was designed and created by my partner, Detour. He’s a world-renowned painter. He does portraits for Letterman and Jay-Z. But he’s also an engineer. So we designed this together for an interactive performance piece. There’s a TED Talk about it.

You’ve been a forerunner for the eco-sustainable and wellness movement for two decades now. Finally, along comes Gen Z. And they’ve been able to push eco-consciousness undeniably into the mainstream. What’s that been like for you to witness?
I’ve been doing this since I was having to find lemonade in a liquor store. That was the freshest thing I could find in the ’hood. It’s a different vibe now. And that’s what it’s about — creating a different economic market that creates opportunities for holistic wellness at the same time as we sequester carbon in the ’hood.

The environmental issues in my community are police brutality, water safety and gentrification –– those are things that are more realistic environmental threats for urban communities and for people who are underprivileged. The lack of green spaces and deforestation that happens in our communities, we’re dealing with psychological issues that trace back to the fact the mental wellness is provided by the gardens, the flowers and the parks that we don’t have in our ’hood. My music is a testimony for that part of the movement. Create culinary climate action and redefine the image of wealth using hip-hop culture — that’s the mission. 

It’s important how you connect the ’hood to the greater issues of environmental protection, climate change and ecological justice, the same issues that Greta Thunberg has made newsworthy. Do you find that people grasp that the ’hood is part of environmentalism, too?
We grow food for the game. We take this seriously. Like, we gangbang for the planet. We pull up, and we ain’t sweating everybody who’s not composting, y’know. But we do ask people to refuse, before they even have to recycle. Bring your own cup, bring your own bag. If you’re gonna make an album, make sure it isn’t just gonna be a piece of plastic in the future. That’s why I dropped a whole album on packets of seeds, making it the first USDA-certified organic hip-hop album. It’s with beets, kale and arugula. We’re trying to use things that are transformative. And everybody has a different kind of vibe for how we transform our communities.