Mackenzie “MAKJ” Johnson is the latest addition to the XS roster. “He’s someone who’s getting a lot of buzz and putting out some amazing content,” says Robbert van de Corput (better known as Hardwell) of the young DJ who closed for him following a recent L.A. show. MAKJ’s also been working in the studio with David Guetta and Nicky Romero. The 23-year-old up-and-coming producer (also a Tryst resident) is set to open and close for Avicii’s next four dates at XS (someone at Wynn really loves “LE7ELS”) on September 7, 15, 21 and 28.
You started DJing at 15, right?
I was living in Macau, China, at the time while I was racing cars professionally.
I was really, really intense with racing from age 8 until 17, 18. My stepdad [Steven Ferrario] has a pretty solid name in the racing industry, and he’s won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France three times. He kind of wanted someone in the family to go into racing, and what kid doesn’t want to drive a fucking go-kart? So he took me go-karting and the rest was history. But with the economy it was really expensive to race in the states, so moving to China was the next best thing. China had a lot of international kids who raced in the Asian series, which is Russia, Bahrain and all the Middle East countries. It was a lot of fun being there rather than racing with just a bunch of rich kids in United States who just pay a lot to go fast, I guess.
You worked with the late DJ AM early on.
With Adam? Yes. It was cool because I used to do a lot of edits, and we worked on a few together. This was right as the whole DJ thing was starting to take off, but I never really thought that this could become a career until Hardwell first played one of my mashups on his radio show. I thought that was really cool, and I hit him up after getting his contact information and sent him some more stuff. I got really lucky in that some of these major DJs were like, “Oh, let me hear some of your stuff.”
So that was the early 2000s?
Yes, there was a whole group of us starting out: Jesse Marco, Marshall Barnes and Paul Purman [DJ Politik]. I actually used to be a hip-hop DJ, and played at 1 Oak in New York with Jesse. Not a lot of people know that I used to play hip-hop, and that’s why I feel like the stuff I produce is so accessible and it’s so friendly for DJs to use. I try to make music that is quick and to the point, so that the crowd doesn’t get bored. Sometimes I feel that everyone who goes to a club has ADD; they want to hear more and more, and that’s why someone like Diplo has progressed so quickly. Because a majority of these people who go to the clubs love to hear everything, and he does that so well. People don’t want to just hear a five-minute trance song. They get bored.
Playing “everything” also help you avoid being labeled as a certain type of DJ, too?
Exactly! Although I feel my production says one thing about me: When people come to see me live, it says something completely different. For example, at the Palladium [in Los Angeles], where I [recently] closed for Hardwell, I kept people occupied. I kept people wanting to be there. I play one-minute songs instead of five to combat this ADD.
How do you make a lasting impression on the crowd when you are only dropping shorter samples?
I play for the crowd, I don’t play for myself—it’s as simple as that. You go to a place and you have to cater to the crowd. One person could have a bad day, one person could have stepped on dog shit when they walked into the club, and that just sets their mood for the whole night. So if you cater to the crowd and they enjoy themselves, then they’re going to walk out the door and be like, “I had a great night after I stepped in dog shit.” The majority of these big DJs don’t do that. But only the biggest headliners can get away with that. I don’t want to degrade myself, but I’m still a no-name when it comes down to the general-market masses. And when I go to XS, I still have to play for the crowd, and I enjoy that. I enjoy taking risks. When I started at Tryst, every time I played there I thought how I could best engage the crowd. I looked at it like a challenge, and I think [XS and Tryst managing partner] Jesse [Waits] saw that. He came and saw me on Thursday nights and was like, “You’re not playing for yourself, you’re playing for the crowd, and I love that.” I play to the crowd, and I want them to leave knowing they had a great time.
How did you transition from just Tryst to adding an XS residency?
I had a studio session with Guetta and Nicky Romero actually here at the Warner Brothers and Jesse [Waits] was with Avicii that day. Jesse came in and saw me and was like, “What?” I couldn’t have picked a better person to walk through that door that day. Since then, Jesse has been a great mentor to me. He’s the dude that everyone told me, if I want to make it in Vegas, look up Jesse Waits. Adam [DJ AM] was talking about him six years ago, him and his brother Cy. This is just such a crazy opportunity. It’s nuts, just like a dream, man.
You also have a radio show.
I do. It’s on Evolution, which is iHeart [Radio] and owned by Clear Channel. It’s on every Sunday at 5 p.m. Pacific. Pete Tong runs it and it’s an awesome show. I’m also doing one of the parties at the iHeart Radio Festival this year and am really excited to meet different artists across different genres.
Hardwell has been dropping your new single “Hakaka” a lot. What does the name mean?
It’s a weird story about the name. You’ve seen Ace Ventura, right? Somebody goes “Hakaka laka.” I was just watching it one day and needed a name for a song and saw that. I think the term actually means “a good fight” in ancient Hawaiian or Polynesian. I really did the track as a producer track to show people that I can produce something other than the typical hard-style songs that are big nowadays. It’s simple and has a big kick with a really basic lead, and I’ve received a lot of support from Thomas Gold, Hardwell, Axwell, the Nervo girls and even Michael Woods! “Hakaka” was actually released on Michael’s label, which is really cool because he doesn’t release a lot of stuff on his label. It’s very boutique, and Michael has a really, really picky ear about what he releases. It has to kind of sound like his stuff, but when I played him the track he said he was blown away!