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Thursday, June 18, 2015

DJ Mackswell on How DJing Is a Dialogue and the Challenges of Pursuing DJing Full Time

Posted By on Thu, Jun 18, 2015 at 9:43 AM

click to enlarge DAVID DINI
  • David Dini
Growing up in the Bay when 2pac, Biggie, and Big Pun ruled radio waves, DJ Mackswell knew from a young age that he wanted to make a career out of anything that had to do with hip-hop. Collecting cassettes and CDs before the MP3 era, he would habitually memorize and recite lyrics to his favorite songs.

“As a lanky Jewish kid I knew that rapping probably wasn’t my lane into the game,” he laughs. However, enlightenment came in the form of attending a Beastie Boys concert one night and seeing DJ Mix Master Mike perform a solo. From that point on, he knew DJing would be the way he could get involved with the music he loved.

Now dedicated to DJing full-time, DJ Mackswell shared thoughts about being a resident of Mixologi, the digital age of DJing, and what not to do in clubs. He plays this Friday, 6/19, at Hawthorn for Mr. V and Saturday, 6/20, at Skylark.

How have you seen DJing change since you started your career?
Anyone from my generation or below would have learned to DJ, beat-match, scratch and more on turntables with vinyl records, regardless of what musical styles they were into. In the last several years, I’ve literally had people point to the turntables I’m using and ask what they are.

A little over 10 years ago, a digital revolution swept the DJ world and left turntable-based DJs like myself fighting to preserve the ways that we learned to spin. Today, you can download an app and “DJ” from a smartphone or tablet. With technology making DJing more affordable and accessible than ever before, the market has become flooded with newcomers. At first I was ambivalent to this wave of change but over the years I’ve learned to embrace the new competition and take advantage of all the new attention DJing has gained.

Even though you started your career out of a love for hip-hop, what styles of music do you typically spin?

I get asked this question often, and while I might be pegged as a hip-hop DJ, my answer is that the style of music in my sets are completely dependent upon my audience and the event I’m hired to play.

When playing out my musical tastes are an important piece of the equation, but are by no means the end of the narrative when it comes to deciding what to play. Some gigs I strike gold digging up nostalgia with classics from my generation's middle school days, others I’m catering to crowds with more contemporary tastes, while other times I’m bringing it way back with classic oldies, Motown and disco. DJing is a dialogue with the audience. The conversation could go in any direction and the subject is liable to change at any time.

How did you get involved in working with the Mixologi collective?
In 2010, after five years of living and working in Seattle I moved back to my hometown of Oakland. I was essentially back at ground zero in terms of having an active DJ network.

That summer I got asked to spin a backyard BBQ in Oakland at the house of a mutual friend. Coincidently, the Warriors official DJ, D-Sharp was spinning after me. After dropping my set for a backyard full of strangers I was approached by the BBQ’s organizer, Aaron, who at the time was still building out the music blog and event series that would become Mixologi. From that BBQ I became a mainstay at future Mixologi events and eventually earned the title as resident DJ. Since then Mixologi has launched over 30 heavily attended annual events in New York City, Los Angeles, and here in the Bay Area, all of which I’ve been fortunate to attend and DJ. This summer we’re excited to introduce Seattle into the fold. In addition to events we have a team of talented writers across the country that are committed to unearthing emerging musical talent and creating in-depth discussions around new releases.

What have you found most challenging in being an independent artist in the Bay Area?
About two years ago I left a comfortable salaried position at a marketing firm to pursue DJing full time. It was certainly a leap of faith, but alas, I’m still here, doing what I love and living in one of the country’s most expensive cities. However, operating independently in a tech-based economy fueled by venture capitalism can be isolating at times. I find solace and draw inspiration from a surrounding network of event producers, photographers, designers, and artists who continue to call the Bay Area home. When it comes to DJing, it’s not hard to look around and find motivation with groundbreaking DJ crews like the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and Triple Threat DJs all hailing from the same soil. Musically, the Bay Area has a rich history of rearing incredible talent and I find comfort in this as well. It is in my loneliest hours that I turn up the volume on my favorite Hieroglyphics, Too $hort, and B-Legit records.

Who would your DJ Dream Team would consist of?
I feel fortunate that I’ve gotten to play with these people I’m going to mention at one time or another. All are exceptional DJs and incredible individuals.

Tell us about your recent blend of this "Where is Shorty Now" track. What inspired the fusion of these artists?
I’m still getting my feet wet in the world of original music production, but I have been making my own edits, remixes and mash-ups for almost 10 years. These tracks were never intended to be released, but were created as tools for my live sets. This track is a simple blend of something old, KP & Envyi’s 1998 roller rink anthem, “Shorty Swing My Way” and something new, Jack Ü (Diplo and Skrillex)’s “Where Are You Now”, which unfortunately featured Justin Bieber. Although the Biebs isn’t my favorite vocalist, the production in this track was just too dope not to play with. I edited out most of Bieber’s vocal presence and overlaid the verses, hooks and bridges from “Shorty Swing My Way”. The result is a hard-hitting, new age blend with some fun, familiar, sing-along lyrics.

You've headlined shows and have also been an opening DJ. What's the biggest diffe
rence in each role?
Over the years I’ve come to enjoy opening and headlining slots equally. As an opening DJ you have a responsibility to slowly bring up the energy for whoever is going on after you without utilizing whatever singles are bubbling at that time. In the same vein, you have an opportunity to take chances, experiment, and get creative with your set since the event hasn’t quite reached its peak.

As a headliner it’s important to bring as much energy to the tables as possible. As DJs we get accustomed to being out at nightclubs, and festivals, but for everyone else who’s made it out, this is what they’ve spent their entire week or month working towards; dancing, celebrating, and having fun. When headlining, it’s our job as DJs to reciprocate that energy right back to the audience to the best of our abilities.

What's the worst club faux-pas you've seen?
Fighting or attempting to start a fight in a room full of people trying to have fun is the biggest vibe killer I can think of, and I’ve seen a lot weird things go down on the dancefloor.

What's coming up for you this summer?
Summer is my favorite time to DJ. With the exception of San Francisco, the rest of country is warming up, rooftops and patios are back open and the day parties are a plenty. Aside from flying to Guatemala to DJ a destination wedding in August, I’m really looking forward to Mixologi’s 5th Annual Day Party at the Phoenix Hotel. This event gets bigger and better every year and all are welcome!

Lastly, a current song you can't get out of your head is:
Love Taps is a duo consisting of NYC-based DJs Tanner and Self Help and they released their single "Back for More" featuring Maya Killtron back in March. Brother in Arms, an SF-based duo made up of J-Boogie and Deejay Theory were commissioned to do the remix and they absolutely smashed it. I’ve had the chance to connect with Tanner during my annual visits to NYC and I’ve shared bills here at home with Deejay Theory and J-Boogie. Collectively this track is an impressive piece of work.
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Christina Li


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