Sure, these days, everyone’s a DJ, but is everyone also a guitarist, a violinist or a drummer? There’s something to be said about having musically trained talent in the booth. We spoke to several DJs who have the experience of a real instrument as well as on the turntables.
Easy access to DJ education has drawn many aspirants to the profession, and Mikey Cross knows from touring around the world that being a successful turntablist required more than just passion. Playing acoustic guitar since his senior year of high school inevitably took the musician into a career with metal band Taking Dawn from 2007–2013. A desire to understand the EDM world led Cross to be part of Las Vegas–bred DJ duo MIICS with event promoter Mike Uriarte. Cross and Uriarte brought the same quality to their songwriting, productions and sets as some of the big names in the industry, and Cross chalks that up to hard work. “If you can learn fast—whatever; but take the time to create a unique sound. If you believe in it and are passionate about it, other people will [believe in it], too,” he says. Cross is currently working on an album and going back on tour in early 2017 after the album release; soundcloud.com/mikeycross.
Brothers Kariem Rodriguez and Kashim Quinones of Blacklab are self-proclaimed band geeks–turned–DJs, parading to classical and jazz pieces as part of the Palo Verde High School Marching Band. Quinones played trumpet, with Rodriguez on clarinet and saxophone. As such, they learned music theory from a young age. “At the time, it was boring and rudimentary, but it paved an understanding of tonal control and emotion, and how to convey that,” Rodriguez says. The two have graduated from the basics and since 2013 have been making a name for themselves as Blacklab, a DJ duo that played the Troubadour Stage as Insomniac’s Discovery Project winner at Life Is Beautiful 2016. Their presence in the drum-and-bass side of the dance music realm stems from an attraction to arcade game tunes, namely Dance Dance Revolution. See Blacklab on Nov. 23 at Bass Gravy at the Bunkhouse Saloon; soundcloud.com/blacklabmusic.
Tyler Simmons (stage name TSiMZ) was inspired to pick up a guitar after seeing the movie School of Rock at age 11. He became enthralled with the act of performing, so much so that he ended up touring with the band And She Whispered for three years. One year into his DJ career, Simmons uses digital audio workstations to help him cross over from shredding on a guitar to playing EDM and trap records, and he finds joy in trading sound files “like Pokémon cards.” While there was a time he looked at dance music from the outside, now that he’s on the inside, he realizes the focus is more on the music production than the person who is playing the tunes. “It’s not about ‘look at how amazing I can DJ,’” he says. And while the possibilities for how to start a new dance-music track are endless, Simmons has it ingrained in him to start by picking up his guitar. TSiMZ spins every Wednesday at Vanguard and on Nov. 18 at Hard Rock Live; soundcloud.com/tsimz.
Ansel attributes her gift for improvisation to her playing the violin since the sixth grade. She joined her school’s orchestra without telling her mother, hoping to later impress her into gifting Ansel with violin lessons for her 11th birthday. “Most expensive gift ever, as I continued for 10 years,” Ansel says. What started small has turned into a four-year residency performing with Rod Stewart at Caesars Palace. Teaming with DJs to supplement her show schedule, Ansel realized that both talents would mesh well. Her two live violin-and-DJ hybrid shows include a high-energy EDM mix that suits a party atmosphere complete with go-go dancers and a more chilled-out, high-end classic rock show for lounges and corporate events that covers hits by Thievery Corporation and Bitter:Sweet. Ansel will perform on Nov. 19, 23 and 26 at the Center Bar in Hard Rock Hotel, as well as on Nov. 19 at a The Who tribute show at Red Rock Resort; lydiaansel.com.
“Seamless” is one way to describe how a DJ might deftly move from a track to another using a mixer, but Robert Hathcock (stage name DJ R.O.B., “Right On Beat”) has reappropriated the word by jumping from the decks right to a drum set for his live show with the Funk All Stars. In fact,
Hathcock is skilled enough with a variety of instruments to be a one-man band. The seeds for success were sown at Las Vegas’ Eldorado High School, where jazz band students including Hathcock were encouraged not just to play jazz, but also R&B and Top 40 tunes, a range that has gotten him gigs at both Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. With 34 years of turntable experience under his belt,
Hathcock notes how his DJ skills are transferable when he’s jumping in with the band: “[Many DJs will] naturally know about tempo matching, downbeats and structure of song creation.” DJ R.O.B. and the Funk All Stars open for Evelyn Champagne King on January 20 at the Silverton; djrightonbeat.com.
Downtown’s 11th Street Records is just one of the many places to spot Mike Fish: He buys and sells vinyl there but also plays drums on the punk rock circuit in the band Fredward and DJs regularly at The Griffin and Punk Rock Bowling after-parties, among other soirees. And he plays especially loud to get the crowd riled up. “We started a mosh-pit [through] DJing alone,” he says, recalling one of his rowdiest gigs at Beauty Bar. To pull off something like that, Fish has to find out what makes the crowd tick. Fortunately for both his drumming and his DJing careers, Fish has developed a keen intuition about the vibe of a room. By observing the many niche tastes within the punk rock scene, he has gotten a feel for when to get the people dancing and when to instead play what he calls “beer-drinking songs” such as “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead. “When I hear that, I need to have a drink,” he says. Fish spins ’80s and new wave every Friday at the Griffin; fredward.bandcamp.com.
Esteban Carrasco (stage name EstoVega) began his music career playing piano at age 5; a few years later, his parents gave him a drum machine. When he got into DJing in his teens, he focused mainly on his vinyl-mixing skills because, he says, “a 14-year-old with a little allowance” wouldn’t be able to afford vinyl, the gear to play it and the gear required to produce music. Still, time brought Carrasco to producing, and today his weapons of choice are analog synthesizers. The musician likens the thought one puts into playing an instrument with the work that goes into producing new music by layering loops, vocal tracks and beats. Citing DJs such as Richie Hawtin as his inspiration, Carrasco has a specific, nuanced approach to his performances, weaving in the songs in the moment. “People in the crowd see a guy who’s actively involved in what they’re doing; it 100 percent comes through to me as a DJ,” he says. EstoVega spins each week at Surrender in Encore and twice monthly at Drai’s Afterhours; soundcloud.com/estovega.
Leandro “Lee” Vlastaris (stage name DJ Hollywood) considers himself an open-format performer, and was one of the people who made that style such a hit on dance floors around town. Vlastaris played virtually every brass instrument as a child, and owes his musical prowess to the knowledge he gained from such a young age. In his 27 years of spinning, Vlastaris says he’s noticed how the musicality of certain songs survive the test of time while others do not. “I’ve seen music make full turns,” he says. “When someone made [a song] in the ’70s and redid it in the late ’80s, someone redid it in the early 2000s and someone redid it today.” When it comes to newer DJs who want to take full advantage of the style of music they play, Vlastaris offers, “You have to do your due diligence with the history of [that style of music] in order to understand what you’re getting into.” Hollywood spins on Nov. 19 and 25 at Foxtail; beatclan.com.
Shot on location at Lawrence Creative Group, lawrencecg.com