Will Smith: One For The Books

“I had a bit of an unusual childhood.”

Date: January 8, 2017
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“I had a bit of an unusual childhood. I always think I was living many people’s dreams at the age of ten.”

It’s less the words themselves and more the matter-of-fact manner in which they’re delivered – as if a child living every adult’s dream was only slightly out of the ordinary – that’s amusing. As I would learn, though, such disregard for conventional reality was par for the course in our highly tangential discussions, which ranged topically from hysterical quests to discover clandestine Balinese beaches to exhaustive examinations of epistemology. What most impressed me about him, though, was that with every bold claim he made, he was absolutely correct.

William David Smith is a communicator. Tête-à-tête, he injects his fellow interlocutor’s name so subtly, so eloquently, that they cannot help but be certain they are the sole proprietor of his full attention. Smith is an entertainer. His laugh is hyperventilation depicted hyperbolically; it begins in a vast crescendo, peaks with a fleeting inhale-exhale succession worthy of making any pulmonologist squirm, and subsides as he presses on, sans relief. Of course, anyone who’s met him knows he’s more than a capable storyteller. In the span of sixty seconds, he can transition seamlessly from his internal struggle to build a career as a young man (“I realized I wasn’t going to be a lawyer or banker”) to that afternoon in his boyhood when he allowed a runaway tractor tire to smash into a neighbor’s wall, demolish their greenhouse, and relieve their small pond of all liquid and piscine properties in one fell swoop. “There were not a lot of rules growing up,” he says without a hint of sarcasm. More than anything, though, Will Smith is a musician.

Will Smith, Founder of The Books
Will Smith, Founder of The Books

Smith is also the founder of The Books, a unique collective of global DJs he’s hand-picked from cities including New York, LA, London, Montréal, Sydney and beyond. As a result of the ubiquity of social media today, The Books’ DJs’ duties have been split into equal parts performer, thrill seeker and social influencer, a trifecta requiring not only technical mastery of the music but also a very particular set of personal qualities, including those Smith describes as “Super outgoing,” “Pushing the boundaries in many creative fields,” and “Not scared to do anything outlandish.” At its core, though, one glaring aspect of The Books is unique: every DJ on its roster is female, which means Smith, the ebullient twenty-something, is, by definition, an outsider in his own organization.

Raised on a rural farm thirty miles west of Oxford – sensibly one of the last places on Earth you’d expect an electronic musician to emerge – Smith has never seen fault in being the exception to the rule. He warmly recalls performing at drum and bass raves at the age of nine; though nightclubs had explicitly hired his older brother, Charley, Will would take over later in the night and keep the unknowing crowd entertained until closing time, at which point their mother would pick both boys up in her car around back. “From a really young age I had such a strong love for music,” Smith says, reminiscing upon the daily summer dance parties that arose in their secluded farmhouse, courtesy of himself and Charley booming electronica from an old record player as their mother cavorted through hours of housework. “My whole family was music mad.”

Hearing that, it may seem inevitable that Smith would carve out a career in the industry, yet the arc he took to get where he is today is meandering at best. Just as outgoing as the DJs he represents, Smith recalls the transformative day his parents brought home a piece of software which allowed him to make original music from scratch. “It just suddenly opened up a huge new field for me,” he says of the realization that he’d only been experimenting with the tip of the creative iceberg until that point. Fully immersed in the software henceforth, he spent the next several months in front of a computer screen, unwilling to let anything, including his friends, waver his focus. “I did nothing else apart from play on this software the entire summer holidays. While everyone else was playing video games or outside playing football, I had this.” Little has changed today: in the face of unlimited opportunity, Smith applies a ruthless filter for distractions to keep himself on course with laser-like precision.

Still, curiosity for new experiences is central to the human condition, and these days Smith satiates much of his with travel. When I ask him where he’s spent his time since leaving the UK and becoming nomadic two years ago, Amsterdam (for a gig), Mexico (to visit Charley), Miami (Art Basel), France (to do some professional cycling), New York (meetings), Mallorca (more cycling) and Tokyo (another gig) are just a few of the places he rhymes off. His travel style is more than a bit slapdash, which can throw him into less-than-favorable situations, such as when he arrived at New York’s unexpectedly chilly JFK airport in mid-January. “I turned up there with no clothes for the cold – I was wearing every one of my t-shirts in the airport,” Smith laughs. It didn’t slow him down, though; today, New York is one of the territories that The Books covers best.

In many ways, Smith’s journey is that of the quintessential starving artist. He’s unwilling to compromise his vision or work for others; he’s certain that what he’s doing is right, even if no one else sees it that way; he’s prepared to endure any hardships necessary to hone his craft. Yet what sets Smith apart from others is his propensity to act before logic can derail his train of thought. He’s a doer in the purest sense, someone who conceives an idea and executes on it, not indiscriminately, just with an inordinate amount of zeal and stride. For every tale he has of playing in front of a sold-out crowd, he has two more detailing months spent crashing on friends’ sofas while scrounging together meetings with anyone willing to give him the time of day. He may have come from nowhere, but he’ll never tell you he’s a self-made man.

It’s no wonder, then, that Smith has adopted the outlook he holds: that we live in a world where our consequences are a direct, expedient result of our actions. The fact that he’s chosen Hong Kong as his current home base only further solidifies the notion; as welcoming as it is, the city’s frenetic pace can be equally callous if you allow your focus to go astray. If there’s ever a place that permits alienation in the midst of hyper-social surroundings, Hong Kong is it. Stranger in a strange land – how will you ever find your way?

Being an outsider is nothing new to Smith, though. It’s just the way he likes it.

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