Musician, heal thyself

DJ Nasir finds and spreads the beat-driven cure.

SARCOID IS A RARE autoimmune disease that attacks the lungs and then travels through the body. And as Nasir Rasheed found when he was diagnosed with it this past summer, the illness realigns your priorities as well as your insides.

DJ Nasir

Free Activation Series Vol. 2 (Sweet Mother)

“One reason I don’t have a residency anymore is because being in clubs so much wasn’t helping my health, with all the smoke,” the 32-year-old DJ, producer, and indie-label mogul says over a chicken and rice dinner at Belltown’s Cyclops. (He’d spun Saturday nights at I-Spy before falling sick.) “Also, I think if you become a resident too long, you end up burning yourself and your audience out.”

In that case, perhaps Rasheed’s dismissal from KCMU, where he rotated a slot with fellow DJs Riz and Masa, was a blessing in disguise. Unfortunately, it coincided with the onset of his illness. “Everything around me was falling down,” he says. Still, he’s aware that his on-air opinions didn’t exactly help. “What got me fired was that I said, ‘Don’t bother going down to the Showbox or the Last Supper Club if you like the music I play, because those places are crap,'” he says. “The week before, I’d polled listeners and told them to e-mail me or call [KCMU program director] Don Yates if they thought I should have a regular position on Sundays. He didn’t appreciate that.”

Rasheed has plenty else keeping him busy now that he’s recovered from the illness and the firing. For one thing, he’s branched out as a DJ, playing New York, Iceland, Tokyo, and London within recent months. For another, his record label, Sweet Mother, is thriving, having picked up Japanese distribution via the label Beans, which owns some 60 stores in addition to supplying megachains like Tower, just in time for the release of the new compilation, Free Activation Series Vol. 2. A sequel to Sweet Mother’s 1995 compilation, Vol. 2 finds Rasheed mixing a relaxed hour of downtempo flora, jazzy fauna, and tropical drum-and-bass that bubbles in the background and blossoms up close.

MUSIC WAS AN EARLY passion for the South London native, a passion born, oddly enough, from health problems. “I came down with hepatitis and jaundice after a trip to Pakistan when I was six,” Rasheed says. “I was in the hospital six months, and my parents bought me a transistor radio.” The lad became hooked on jazz; later came hip-hop and his first DJ experience at a friend’s birthday party when Nasir was just 14. “I wanted to be a DJ for two reasons,” he remembers. “Passion for the music and because I thought it might help me meet girls.”

Rasheed met a lot more girls in the late ’80s, when some friends began throwing parties at London hot spot Africa Centre, where Soul II Soul got their start. The science student spun obscure ’70s funk, but still viewed DJing as a hobby. “I’d convinced myself that I couldn’t really do it full-time: ‘It’s just a distraction; I have to finish my science.'”

He finished in 1990, coming to the States to attend graduate school for biochemistry at Washington State University. “At the time, in London, Seattle was considered a really cool place,” he recalls. “I misread the map and didn’t know Pullman was 300 miles east of Seattle; I thought I was coming to a different city.” He became disillusioned with Pullman (“The one thing I liked was that I got some good jazz and funk records there”) and after two years headed to Seattle to work at the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center.

Shortly after his arrival, came a realization. “I went to Re-bar and heard the DJ spin and thought, ‘I can do this.'” Approaching local promoters Jared Harler and Alex Calderwood with an acid-jazz mix tape made on borrowed equipment, Rasheed soon found himself dubbed Funky Nasir (a play on the classic breakbeat tune “Funky Nassau”) and spinning Friday nights at Re-bar. “I was in Seattle by September and DJing by December,” Rasheed says. “I needed to meet people, and I thought it was the only way.” In 1995, Rasheed, Calderwood, and Harler began Sweet Mother, releasing “On the Rocks”/”Lazy Sunday,” a 12-inch by Sharkskin, a.k.a. Nasir and hip-hop DJ B-Max.

Since then, Rasheed has both settled down (he and his wife Shannon, a makeup artist, have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Sunnah) and grown more ambitious. Sweet Mother has made a national name by creating collections for the likes of *Wallpaper magazine, Miami’s Standard Hotel, and Nordstrom department stores, and it will be issuing local IDM whiz kid Plastiq Phantom’s debut full-length, Enjoy the Art of Lying Down, in January. The label is also about to open a downtown office, its first.

A refreshed Rasheed is optimistic about the label’s future and his own. “Most professional DJs come into their own in their 30s,” he says with obvious relish. “I’m 32, so I figure I’m just getting started.”

A CD release party for Free Activation Series Vol. 2 will take place at Nation on Saturday, December 2.