If you ask Tampa Bay hip-hop’s most devoted artists, emcees and fans, you’d be hard pressed to find someone more widely recognized, respected and revered than James Sandman. And he’s earned every ounce of the admiration.
In comments to Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Gat$—a young Tampa rapper whose rocked west and east coast stages as part of the Florida-born Rolling Loud Music Festival—called Sandman someone “who’s created pathways for new voices and perspectives in Tampa and abroad before I was big enough to pick up a mic.”
Sandman, 49, has been playing local rap records on the radio for the last 29 years. He started at the University of South Florida’s WBUL in 1992 where he used to walk into voicemails left by members of the then fledgling Wu-Tang Clan, which was looking for spins. Sandman was most recently at 95.7-FM The Beat where he spent 15 years (and countless Sundays playing exclusively local music as part of his “Future Flavors” segment). That was until January when he became one of almost 900 employees laid off in a move iHeartMedia called a “new organizational structure” and “technology transformation,” which aimed to modernize the company (and by transformation, we guess iHeart meant trading humans for machines).
Throughout it all, DJ Sandman had one mission: to share the music he loves with the community. And while home will always be Tampa, Sandman’s journey has taken him across the globe (he toured the European club and festival circuit) and to countless stages in Tampa Bay where he’s shared the turntables with countless legends like Grandmaster Flash, Tampa’s own Charlie Chase, Talib Kweli, Nas, KRS ONE, DJ Premier, Raekown, Wu-Tang and more.
“There was definitely sadness,” Sandman told CL about the layoff. He always wanted to be on the radio, but being on the air in your hometown took it to another level. Having that just pulled out of your life with a phone call where someone basically says, "We don't need you anymore. You're done. Thank you" was jarring.
“Being able to talk to the people every day,” Sandman added, “was definitely something I was gonna miss by not being on the air every day.”
But Sandman, as he’s been doing for three decades, kept it positive. In his mind—and the the mouths of his friends, family and community that lifted him up after he lost the radio gig—it was him and the work he did that made the radio great. And it turns out someone was still looking for Sandman out there anyway.
Shortly after the layoff, Sandman (who recently landed a gig mixing twice a month remotely on a different 95.7 The Beat, KPAT in California) was approached by Jorge Brea, Founder and CEO of Symphonic Distribution, a global digital music services company based in downtown Tampa, which has landed on Billboard’s independent music “Power Players” list multiple times. Brea, like many others in the Bay area, is a Sandman fan, and he wanted to know if the DJ might be interested in partnering on a local label that could give artists, mostly locals, not just digital distribution but the natural promotion Sandman’s been behind for his entire career. Their visions aligned, and within a few weeks the framework for Illsboro was born. Sandman said the imprint, which launches this week, will deal in hip-hop, but also in soul and R&B, reggae and Afro-beat.
“Concentrating mostly on hip-hop, but all of those all of those, there's no discrimination. I love all of those genres of music,” Sandman explained. His love of local music—and not just Illsboro artists—will be on display in a new “Future Flavors”-esque “Next Up” program, but it will really shine in the label’s catalog.
The first release will be a new single from once Tampa-based emcee Dynasty. After that will be one from old-school Tampa rapper, OG Bobby Wolf (who pressed and distro’d a 12-inch single with Sandman in the early 2000s). New music from St. Petersburg rapper Mighty Jai is on tap along with more new songs from Funkghost (of Tap, Ghost and Phobia fame) plus the return of Tampa underground scene champs The Rukus. Dynasty, who’s now in Los Angeles, has appeared on tracks with DJ Premier, and she took Sandman on those aforementioned European tours. She considers her DJ to be hip-hop royalty.
“When it comes to the culture he’s a DJ, teacher, supporter and leader and he has done so much in and for the Tampa Bay hip hop/urban music scene,” she told CL. “He is one of the few using their reach to further the culture and genuinely help artists on their paths. From bringing legends to the city and creating opportunities for people to engage with them to giving airplay to local artists on major radio, he is THAT guy. I’m honored to call him my DJ and to have traveled internationally with him over the years.”
Thousands of songs come out daily, and while the digital revolution means anyone can pay a fee to DIY release their music to fans across the globe, there’s still that element of having to wade through the web of influencers, record pools and DJs who play the records not just on their shows but in the clubs, too (if and when they ever open again). That’s where Sandman’s 30 years in the business come into play; all he’s ever wanted to do is show others the music from his hometown that made him feel happy.
“When it comes to songs, I'm drawn to artists that put their life into their music. They tell their stories, their experiences through music—and as a DJ I love to see the way some records make people gravitate towards the music,” Sandman, who’s never made a big deal about the fact that he’s never once drank or smoked, explained. “It is exciting and fascinating. It's kind of like a high. It's my vice. Music just gives me a feeling that I would think that drinking and smoking gives to other people.”
Sandman may have felt low after that brutal iHeart layoff, but he—and the community he’s surrounded himself with—kept his spirits high. At a time when we could all use a boost, it looks like Sandman found his. So he’s naturally using it to lift everyone up along with him.
Read more about Illsboro in a full Q&A below.
What year it was specifically that you started at WBUL—you know, after listening to all those Kenny K tapes?
My roommate,Caleb Barnum, he had a show on WBUL, so that's kind of how I got into it. I used to hang out with him there for a little bit, I want to say I started my own show in '92, '93? I would say '92. I was popping into Caleb's show in '91 when he was doing it..
So since '91 or '92, you've literally been playing rap records that you thought were important locally on the radio. Going on 30 years here, of you listening, not just listening, but playing Tampa rap records on the radio for 30 years. And now you get to do it under the umbrella of your own label.
Yeah, and it's not gonna just be Tampa Bay hip-hop—that's the focus, but there’s room for other places—we can put on music from other regions even other counties. We'd love to put out music from Europe, but the focus is definitely Tampa.
OK, and real quick. What's your title at Illsboro? Labelhead?
Yeah, Jorge actually just made my business cards and it just says "Label owner."
And how’d that connection happen?
He kind of reached out to me about it. We sat down a couple times and spoke, and I was feeling his vision, he was feeling mine, and we just put it together. The first time we talked about was probably at the end of January. We had a meeting in February.
OK. And the kind of back up, you got laid off, but then had to go on a planned vacation.
I went on vacation the next day.
You're a positive person. You're always looking forward. But getting laid off from a job that you've had for a really long time, I assume, is pretty scary. Did you feel any of that? What were those days and weeks like after that? Was there sadness or an uncertainty or, you know, was there any of that kind of floating around for you or is your optimism kind of reign supreme there?
There was definitely a sadness. I always wanted to be on radio, but being on radio in your hometown where you grew up and being able to talk to the people every day—I was definitely sad that I was gonna miss being on the air every day. But I did keep a positive attitude because I a my name for myself as far as in the hip-hop scene and being a DJ and a promoter. I made my name before I was even on the radio, before I was on 95.7 The Beat. So I kept that in my mind; my mindset was, "I made the radio great, and I'm still gonna be great, regardless, without them."
So I did have sadness, but that was kind of my attitude. My friends and family supported me, supporting that attitude because they're like, "You did all this stuff before you were on radio, while you were there you were an asset to them." So I was like, "I made the radio great." That's what I was tweeting and stuff like that for a little while. At the same time I didn't know what direction I would go in. I knew I was still going to do hip-hop, of course, and still promote and everything I just didn't. It was still uncertain because you got that sadness when you've been on air for so long. And then all of a sudden, with a phone call, it's just gone, like, "We don't need you anymore. You're done. Thank you."
And in the six months in between then you’ve DJ-ed a lot.
As soon as the pandemic hit and everything closed I was definitely doing my Saturday night livestream.
Talk about this vision, how long it's been in your brain, and what it's like.
Well I mean I've always been an advocate and promoter of local music. I've always promoted artists. I've worked closely with artists—songs that I loved and artists that I believed in, I always tried to push them to the industry locally, but also to DJs nationwide and to the record label reps that I speak to. I will always share artists’ music with those guys. That was one of the big things with Dynasty. When her and I clicked, I really really went hard, not just locally but within the whole world—the whole industry—like sending the records to DJ Premier, to big name DJs, to college DJs and all these markets. I've worked in radio for so long that I have a lot of connections, and I know how people work records. So I was just trying to apply all what that I learned with local artists. I always wanted to put out music. Even in the early 2000s me and Bobby Lee or Bobby Six Killer. He was like a real dope MC here in Tampa. We pressed up our own 12-inch and tried to service that, and send that out the DJs. I've always been trying to put out music.
And I'm definitely familiar with Symphonic—matter of fact, Dynasty's last album, she put that out through Symphonic—I've been a fan of what they do and the fact that they're based here in Tampa, which was great. So they pretty much reached out to me to see what I had going on after the radio. Jorge kind of had a vision in his head of a local of a local label for a long time. He told me he's always wanted to do it. They have several labels under their umbrella, and he knows there are a lot of hip-hop artists putting music out in Tampa. He saw what I was doing and how I was pushing artists then I was promoting artists, and he kind of thought that I'd be perfect for this venture, for Symphonic and I had to team up and launch a locally-based label with a national distribution.
It was two things really. I was hosting "Future Flavors" on Sunday night on 95.7 The Beat, which was a half-hour segment where I'd play local music. He was a fan of that show, and he told me that a lot of artists are fans of the show. He saw all the love that the community gave that, so he wanted me to continue that as well. So that was kind of in our first talk. As far as doing a "Future Flavors" type show.
So he said, "You should continue this." So it's called "Next Up," and it'll be locally-based music. Instead of weekly like it was on the radio, it'll be monthly. We'll feature records that are big in the city, records that are underground, records that we're just trying to promote. They're going to distribute that nationally as well like on all the streaming platforms—kind of like a podcast, but more music involved in it.
It was definitely his proposal. He brought it to me, we talked a couple times, and I saw it as a great opportunity to push the local scene even further. And "Next Up" will go national, wherever people hear their podcasts.
People love categories. Thankfully the "urban" term in music has been abolished, but since people like to put music into bins, what kind of music will you be playing on "Next up," and also releasing through the label?
It's gonna be hip-hop soul, R&B, even reggae, Afro-beat as well. Concentrating mostly on hip-hop, but all of those all of those, there's no discrimination. I love all of those genres of music. We're gonna try to try to release, release records as such.
You learned a lot about promoting records through your three decades on the radio, but how's that process changed over the years, and how will that well of knowledge manifest itself as you promote artists via Illsboro?
Now it's all online-driven, there's influencers and the fans have access to it. But the problem is is getting them access to it and—and I don't even know how to say it...
Coming up and being in radio for so long and learning how major labels and major independent labels promoted music, I still have all that instilled in me. That's still effective to a sense because there's thousands of songs that come out daily. Unless you have a strong network to get your music to people, it's a lot harder. I have the ability to get the music that we release—not only on all the streaming platforms—but I'm also going to take these records and service them to the DJs to the influencers and other markets service them to the record pools where everybody gets their music from.
I think that's important because it's kind of an advantage. If an artist was to say go through Illsboro. People can just do it on their own through CD Baby or Tunecore; they pay a yearly, or monthly fee to upload their music. Their music's there but there's no one really pushing it and promoting it to the industry, to the tastemakers and to the DJs. So, I feel that I'll have that advantage with Illsboro as far as getting the music out there even further and getting more ears on it. Illsboro will just have a better push then you would just putting it out yourself and paying in like a you know a monthly or yearly fee that those other companies offer to put your music on Tidal, or Apple Music or Spotify.
The release schedule has Dynasty on there and Bobby...
OG Bobby Wolf. Used to be Bobby Six Killer and he's been playing with his name.
So I see that on the schedule. Is there an ideal for how many records you do want to be putting out throughout the year, or are you still feeling that part out?
Still feeling that out. I know that the first release will be a new Dynasty single. I'm excited about that. And, like, like you said, OG Bobby Wolf, who's someone that I worked with, out of Tampa, a long time ago. He's in Atlanta right now, but still really active in music. So we'll put his project out, and we'll also release music from Mighty Jai in St. Pete. I love Mighty Jai.
I love Mighty Jai. His music, his messages just the way he thinks. He was one of the first people that I reached out to because he actually doesn't have a lot of music out for people to hear. He was one of the people that I immediately reached out, like "We got to get your music out here."
So right out of the gate, Dynasty, Mighty Jai, OG Bobby Wolf—that's about done, we're just mixing the records down right now, and that'll be done this week—and I do wanna say, The Rukus, they've been underground hip-hop champions in that scene. They haven't put out any music for a while, so they're on board and they're project is almost done.
And also Funkghost, who was one of the artists back in the '90s that I was pushing under Tap, Ghost and Phobia. We got them mentioned in Source magazine back in the day, some other big hip-hop publications as well. He's been doing a solo thing for a while, and he has a new project ready to go as well. So definitely putting that out. That's really what I have on board for now.
I really really wanted to put out Buck Sosa's project. He's probably one of the hottest artists in the streets right now in Tampa, but 300 Entertainment beat me to it, but I want to do an interview with him on "Next Up."
Yeah, I was thinking about all the records you've played over the years and the local music you put on "Future Flavors"—you've played it all from Tom G, to Fre$h P, all of it, and even though some of them won't be signed to Illsboro, you can still play them through the "Next Up" platform.
Yeah I mean of course I'm going to focus on the music we release, but there's other people doing things in the city that I'm still gonna promote and push them through the platform.
How are you feeling right now? What does it feel like looking back on the scope of your career? Are you nervous? Where's your head at right now? Everything rolls out this week.
Honestly I'm excited. I feel blessed that I've been able to continue to do music and to push music, and the city has been behind me and shown me so much love. It's like a wonderful feeling, man. I'm a little nervous as far as the state of the whole entertainment industry right now during the pandemic. Everyone's nervous because we don't know what the future is gonna hold.
But I'm excited to be a part of this venture; Symphonic, they have a great team. They've been doing big things in the industry, Billboard's listed them as power players in the industry. And they're based in Tampa, which is exciting, but they have offices all over—Columbia, New York, Denver. Tennessee. I think even L.A. as well. Yeah, yeah, they're all, they're all over the place.
I think like anybody in Tampa, knows how much you've amplified the voices and celebrated the Black community, and I ask this because of the time that we're in right now. And let me reiterate: There is nobody in Tampa that could say that DJ Sandman is not an advocate for the Black community.
But is there any nervousness about being a white label head for a label where many of the artists will be Black? Me, personally, I feel like there isn't anyone in hip-hop who won't stand by you, but I was just thinking about critics who may not be familiar with the local scene here or the way you've built a career.
Yeah yeah I know what you're saying. I grew up in hip-hop culture, you know, musically and. And I know that hip-hop culture is Black culture. I mean I'm not worried about it at all. I know where I stand. I know where my heart is. I know that this community has always loved and supported me, and I've supported everybody, you know.
Nope, I totally get it, and I just ask because I’ve learned that there’s always someone out there ready to attack anyone for any reason.
It's hard to say because there could be people that don't know me, and they don't know what I've done... I'm not really nervous about that because I know who I am, what I love, I show love and I've been getting all that love back.
You're also a voting member of some awards, Grammys? BET awards?
Just the BET awards right now, not the Grammys. BET awards and Soul Train awards. I want to say it’s been for the last six or seven years. And the BET hip-hop awards because those are different from the BET awards.
Thinking about the records that you love and have loved, and hope to discover—what is it about those records that makes you want to be behind them? The records and the people that make them, I guess.
That's a tough question, too, man. It's the stories that they tell. I'm drawn to artists that put their life into their music. They tell their stories, their experiences through music.
When we spoke before, I said when I just started DJing, I wanted to just play the music that made me feel good—I just wanted to share that with other people.
Artist stories and the passion that they have for their music—it kind of draws me to it.
Being a DJ, it's about how other people react to the music as well. I mean there's records that are just braggin' and you know just just some street stuff, but the way that the way that people gravitate toward and react to it is exciting and fascinating. It's kind of like a high. It's my vice. I don't drink. I don't smoke. Music just gives me a feeling that I would think that, you know, drinking and smoking and give to other people.
Yeah, yeah you've never you've never drank or smoked.
No, no, never, never, ever.
That's interesting because in some scenes, there are straight edge folks, and that sobriety and discipline is kind of a big deal and part of the identity, but it's never been part of your identity.
Right. And I've spent my life being in clubs and bars and, you know, and hip-hop, but I've never personally done it. Just the music and the feelings, you know that that I get from the music I kind of attribute it to maybe that's what that does for other people.
And tell me if this is too personal of a question, but what why don't you. Why haven't you done any of that?
I really don't know. That's a hard answer. I just never did.
I do remember when I was in high school and all my friends started drinking. Getting blackout drunk always kind of turned me off and kind of made me not like alcohol. Seeing what my friends went through and kind of what it did to them.
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