When DJ Enferno won the coveted U.S. DMC Championship in 2003, he accomplished a feat that many in his field dream of — and propelled him into 2nd place in the World Finals. His innovative “Live Remix Project” caught the attention of Madonna’s tour director, and landed him an integral role in the Queen of Pop’s 2008-2009 “Sticky & Sweet” tour. Recently, he talked with BlogCritic Justin Kantor about how he got started; his motley array of musical influences; and the methods he employs to keep crowds workin’ the dance floors.
You graduated from college with a marketing degree. How did you end up pursuing music?
It’s kind of funny how that worked out. DJing has been the most steady job I’ve had in my life. I started when I was 16 — throwing high school parties, and then I did college for four years, and then, clubs. It’s always been a thing I had on the side,
It was my goal to get the best education along the way, so my parents actually made me apply to a magnet school. If you know Alexandria, you probably know the school, Thomas Jefferson High. Apparently, I’m a brainiac, so I got in there and went to UVA afterward. At UVA, I thought I was going to get into the business world on the corporate marketing side, but I ended up doing a lot of theatre in college as well, so there was a third life for me.
I had my DJ life, my school life, and I spent a lot of time doing theatre. I was doing shows, acting. After a couple years doing that, I went into the corporate world. I was a networking engineer before I quit my job and pursued DJing full-time. Everything comes around full-circle. I know that sounds cliché, but right now, I’m using my marketing way more than I did in the corporate world, because I’m running my own business.
You had a musical background to begin with: you were classically trained in piano. Did you ever think of being a professional musician? What initially appealed to you about the DJ aspect versus the musician aspect?
Yes, I took lessons between the ages of 7 and 18. I actually took a couple years off and then went back and took some jazz. In that time, I actually thought I would have a lounge act, on a weeknight, playing jazz piano. As far as DJing goes, it’s a whole other side of music. My interest in that started out from just going to parties when I was younger, I was this young kid following my big sister to parties, and I saw these guys you’ve never heard of that first gave me the idea to do this. They were mobile DJs, which means they were setting up like I did when I was in high school, and they would spin records.
So, I thought that was the coolest thing to watch and listen to — how the music gets going, but there was never a break in the music and it sounded so seamless, almost like a soundtrack. I was about 14 at the time, and I was making mixtapes. When some people think of mixtapes, they think, “Oh, I’ll put some love songs on a cassette tape and give them to my girlfriend.” That’s not what I’m talking about. Without turntables, I would never think of myself as a DJ. I used to take cassette singles in a boombox and put a blank cassette in the other side. I would record snippets of cassette singles or songs off the other cassette deck so that it was actually like a mixed CD, as if I had turntables. I was even rearranging sections of songs.
Just doing it the manual way.
Yeah, and also recording it, because my boombox was awesome! You know how they had that little “click” when you start recording? Well, this one had no click. I loved it, and I would make these mixtapes that were on-beat, for half an hour.
You didn’t lose the time…
Right, and the interest was always there. Listening to radio also influenced me, because at the time I was too young to be exposed to nightclubs. I was influenced at a much younger age, because of a lot of the stuff that was on Pop or Rock radio. If you had asked me back then if I would make a career out of it, I would have told you that you were crazy. It was for fun.
Going from that day-to-day mentality of doing it and moving to when you won the DMC Championship in the US, what were the steps that got you to that point?
In a nutshell, it was a lot of practice; and I was kind of a glutton for nerves, or putting myself in a terrifying situation. I was terrified to death, going into these DJ battles at first — everything is on your hands and your needles. It’s very nervewrecking, but the more I did it, the more I wanted to go back and perfect what I did.
After work, I would come home and practice for four hours down in my basement for my next battle, and this would continue until the next battle, and I’d just keep getting better and better. Eventually, in 2003, I was fortunate enough to win. It was just a lot of practice.
How would you describe the DMC Championship to someone outside of the DJ’ing world?
I was kind of at the very edge of this golden era that I was lucky enough to be a part of: the golden era of DJ battles. Back then, it was like the Olympics of DJ Battles, that’s the best way to describe it. It’s a worldwide competition involving dozens of different countries, each with their own national champion, and the only way to become the national champion is if you get to the national finals. The only way to do that is to win your regionals. You go to a regional battle, you go to the nationals, and if you win the nationals, you represent your country at the worlds.
You went on to be the runner-up in the world finals, right?
Yes, I got 2nd place that year.
What were some of the criteria that you were judged on? Did you know what they were looking for?
When you’re in it for awhile, you know exactly what they’re looking for. It’s a mixture of different things. You have a six-minute set. Six minutes may seem like a very short period of time, but for the amount of technical progress that’s coming along, it’s actually a lengthier battle set. It’s an extremely technical thing.
The judges look for a number of things:
1) How does your set sound musically? Does it sound like a bunch of noise, or is it easy on the ears? Take scratching, for example. If people don’t know how to do it, it sounds like noise — even for people who know how to do it, if you do it too much in the wrong place.
2) Is your set creative in the song selection?
3) Is it technical? How well can you execute different moves? The layperson might think, “How many different moves can there possibly be?” but there are a lot more than you might think. One way to describe it is, that needle is so small, and if you look at a groove, that’s really thin. When you put the needle in that groove, it’s going to sit there, and you spin the record back and forth and see if the needle jumps. Now, add some nerves and see if you can keep that needle where it’s supposed to be. It’s kind of like being able to bring the record to very precise points while being able to maneuver different faders and knobs on the mixer very precisely. It’s a very technical process.
4) They also look at showmanship. They want to know if you’re confident. Do you look like a winner? When you do your moves, are you staring at your records, or are you looking at the crowd?
Those are the important criteria that go into the DJ battles.
When you mentioned the criteria of the song selection, it made me think of the fact that there is a very eclectic selection of styles in the music that you mix these days on your mix CD’s, like All of the Above and So Fly. Was that something that you came out with from doing DMC, or had you always listened to a bunch of different styles?
I’ve always listened to a bunch of different types of music. I grew up on a lot of radio, and it was a lot of Pop radio or Hip Hop radio, but it was also Rock. I love Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, and I even love Radiohead. Back in the day, I listened to artists like Dr. Dre and 2-Pac, Biggie Smalls, and even guys like Teddy Riley, then even way back to guys like Stevie Wonder. If you look at my set during that time frame when I won 2nd place at DMC, there’s actually a decent amount of diversity as far as the record selection. It wasn’t just Hip Hop records, which is what a lot of people were doing at the time. The music that I pick now is an extension of what my musical tastes are, and it always has been.
One thing that stands out about your sets is that you have a lot of different tempos going on. You mix a fast song with a slow song, and then pick it up again. Is that something that you do consciously? How difficult or easy is it to do that when you’re playing at a club?
It’s always a conscious decision, because at the clubs, I’m always having to watch the crowds and see what they’re reacting to. At the same time, it’s not an absolute decision. There are times when I want to do something where I move it to half time to switch it up, and move up and down the BPM range. I love doing that all night if I can, but sometimes the crowd is such that they want to stay at a BPM (Beats Per Minute) for a little bit longer. Maybe they want to stay at 128 BPM or a Hip Hop tempo for a bit; you can kind of tell.
There are times when I move it up and down a bit, and if they don’t dig it, I bring it back down. It’s always a game-time decision, and I want to say that it’s more of a challenge to move between BPM ranges within genres than it is with one genre, one BPM range. Anybody can move between those BPM ranges in the genres, but it’s not necessarily going to sound good if they don’t know how to do it. You can give two DJ’s — an experienced one and one that’s not experienced — the same exact playlist. I guarantee, the more experienced one will find a way to make it flow better.
Ultra Dance 11 has recently been released. This is the first commercial CD compilation that you’ve mixed and released with an official label. Were the songs selected for you, or did you have the freedom to choose what you want? What exactly is your role in putting that together?
My role in that was basically being the mixer. I had no say in the licensing. I’m given the songs and what I hopefully did well was figure out how to make those songs flow and sound good as a whole piece, as opposed to saying, “I’m just gonna play this track and then play this other track.” It’s kind of the same approach that I always take, looking at the songs as a group and saying, “How can I make this section work with that section, or how can I make the keys work?” I always try to pay attention to the key of the song that’s being mixed. Most people don’t realize it, but if they hear two DJ’s, and one guy mixes and pays attention to the key — I mean, you have to pay attention to the feel of the song.
But if you have somebody who pays attention to the key, and it’s compatible with the key of the next song, it’s the segue from one to two, or even playing both of them at the same time. If you have another DJ playing the same songs, but who puts them in a different order and the keys don’t match up, a layperson is going to listen to it and won’t know why one DJ sounded better than the other. Unless they’ve got a musical ear already, they’re probably not going to know what it is that makes it sound better. It’s just another technique that I use to mix, especially on CDs. That’s basically my whole strategy.
You had an experience visiting a Virgin Megastore that had a profound impact on you. Can you tell me about that?
That was actually my first time in Paris, in 2005. I’d only been there for a couple of hours. I had a gig in Lille, and after I won the DMC, they asked me to come out there and judge a DJ battle. I had a couple of hours to kill and went to the Virgin Megastore there. I saw a guy there, maybe in his 40s. What was really cool is that he was creating rhythms and sounds through the use of looping. I didn’t know how he was doing it. He would tap on something and then it would kind of echo, and then that would be looped, and that would form a rhythm and he would loop something else on top of that. Then, he would get on his keyboard — and he was an amazing piano player.
That got my juices flowing, because I couldn’t play piano like that guy. I’ve seen similar performers with guitars and even turntables, where they would scratch something and loop it, and then scratch something completely new, but I’d never seen what he was doing, and I’d never seen anybody do that with keyboards and turntables
So, I was thinking, “This is right up my alley!” I’m not as outstanding of a piano player as this guy, but I know music, and I can hear music in my head and translate it to my fingers and I can DJ. So, I thought, “What if I combined my turntable skills and my DJ skills?” They’re two different things. Turntable skills means how well you can scratch and do things with the turntables, and then you have the DJ skills, which is how well you can put sounds together and put different vocals on top of beats and make it flow so that the crowd gets it. All I needed was to figure out the technology and then there you have it! That was kind of like the starting point of me thinking about my “Live Remix Project.” I didn’t find out until earlier this year, through the Ableton software website, who the guy was! His name is Bugge Wesseltoft.
What is the difference when you do your “Live Remix Project” versus a typical DJ set?
It’s very different, because instead of playing music for people to dance and get drunk to — which is all good and fine, it’s for the purpose of performing music, to watch and appreciate, listen and possibly dance to. It’s like a band. Chances are, you’re going there to see them perform; you’re going out to see this group get together and perform the music that they came up with.
As a listener, and not just to party.
Exactly. As a listener and someone who appreciates the performance of music. It’s very different, and that’s why the “Live Remix Project” works better at live performance venues, like SXSW or even the Winter Music Conference. I’ve performed it for a club crowd, too. In some ways, some of them get it, some of them don’t. Some of it sounds kind of like club music because of the DJ influence. But it’s definitely not a pre-recorded composition. Everything is being composed live. For example, something that people see right away and identify with is if I play a keyboard. If they can see that, they can see me moving my hands across the keyboard and say, “Oh, that’s actually happening now and being looped and processed.” It’s almost this empty slate that gets filled in, where the music gets created in front of the audience, and that’s the appeal.
Is there a lot of room for improvisation in it, or do you have to have everything set in your mind beforehand?
There’s as much room for improvisation as I want, and as the crowd will be into. Does it happen all the time? Depends on what the crowd is into, because of the structure. For example, if the crowd is there to watch, but they’re also there to dance, if you improv and maybe draw on the song structure too long, it might mess up the groove or the flow. You know what I’m saying?
But the way I built my rig, if I want to keep one section going, I can keep it going as long as I want. If I don’t want something, if I want it to be completely different, I can. It’s not like I’m locked into a set every single time. It’s something that, just like with DJ battles, it’s important to rehearse over and over again the exact same way like a band would. For example, when I was on tour with Madonna, you rehearse something exactly as it should be over and over and over again for the repetition, to always make sure you get it right. Then, finishing up from there always becomes easier once you have that repetition in your mind.
Getting that gig, Madonna’s Sticky & Sweet Tour, a couple of years ago, was a really big deal. How did you come into that?
Everything started with my “Live Remix Project.” If I hadn’t been doing that, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. Somebody had seen my performance video, referred me to a booking agent, got me a meeting, and that’s how I got in. The musical director for the tour happened to be at a gig I was doing one night in Orlando. He had gotten his gig with Madonna two weeks prior to me. I got a call the next morning at the airport and I had no idea who this guy was. He told me, and we started the conversation there. I sent a video to him and he sent that to some of Madonna’s people, and eventually, she approved everything. I ended up getting a text message from him and then a call, saying that I got the gig — maybe a week and a half or two weeks later!
That would seem like a long time when you’re waiting for an answer on something like that.
It was an extremely long time, and I couldn’t tell anybody about it until I got it.
What was your life like from day to day when you were on that tour,?
It was very intense, and it was a very epic experience in the sense that many things happened in that time frame — and it was a long timeframe. I got married in April 2008, and I actually had come back from rehearsals for my own wedding. They let me go home, get married on the 21st, then I was back on a train to New York, where I met Madonna for the first time.
Just going from being extremely excited to really nervous, to really confident, and then going to really excited again. It’s like a roller coaster of emotions, going up to that first show, and then for basically eight months out of 2008, I was gone. My wife got to come out with me and spend some time in New York for a couple of months, and we got to see each other when she came out to shows. It was very difficult to be away from home, but it was such an amazing and worthwhile experience.
The scope of your role on that tour — you weren’t strictly DJing, right? You were involved in a couple aspects of the creative process of it?
Yeah, that was really a fortunate thing, and I didn’t expect that coming in. I thought I would just be coming in by myself and doing my thing, but my onstage role was adding scratches or segues to songs, with effects on them. I would beef up the sound and add another layer.
Would it be vocal, too? I know she did “Like A Prayer” and at the beginning, there was a line from “What It Feels Like for a Girl”?
Yeah! You’ve seen the show, then?
Yeah, I saw it live and I have the DVD.
You’ll notice it on “Like A Prayer”: there’s scratching on some of the breaks, when she’s dancing — that’s me. There are other parts that you can’t really tell, like I’ll add ambient swooshing sounds and turn the filter from low to high and add echoes and stuff like that at the beginning of songs for dramatic effect.
I didn’t realize that part was live, because from where I was seated in the stadium, it was hard to see what was happening onstage.
That arrangement of “Like A Prayer” was actually my idea. That’s kind of my little claim to fame there, because I had worked on it on my own, and this is before we started the main rehearsal process. I worked on this arrangement with those keys. It was like a mash-up with this song called “Feels Like Home”– which actually samples a song by Felix featuring Jomanda called “Don’t You Want Me,” and I always thought that would sound good with “Like A Prayer.” So, I actually had the beginnings of that done and they ended up using it for the show. It had a lot of meaning for me. It’s such a big part of the show, so, I never got tired of that. People would hear those keys and her vocals, and go nuts.
What were your impressions of Madonna, working with her? It’s something that a lot of people would love to do. What did you take away from that experience?
It was such a learning experience for me, and it was really an honor to be not just in the presence of her, but everybody around her. I learned a lot from collaborating on the remixes and seeing the whole work ethic. I tried my best to be a sponge, but at the same time, contributing as much as I could. You can’t put a price on that type of thing.
So that takes us up to now. You’re doing the Ultra Dance 11 Tour. What can people expect when they go to see you in this tour? Are you spinning things specifically from the CD?
I do spin some of the tracks from the CD, but not necessarily. I bounce around from region to region, and certain crowds like certain things. It’s always about the crowd for me, and how well I can work with them and throw in certain things that they might not know they want — but when they hear it, they end up loving it. It’s kind of the same techniques that I always use for my DJ sets, where I’m interacting with the crowd on a musical level; where I know I can tell a lot of times what they want, and have that little song and dance where I’m throwing things at them and spinning things that they can handle, that’s new to them. Anybody can go up there and say they’re going to play all this new music, but if you don’t do it right, you’re going to go up there and piss everybody off. But if you do it right, everybody will be extremely happy and maybe even a little inebriated by the end of the night.
Do you think the future of DJ’ing is a bright one? Are there any concerns you have? It’s changed a lot in the last few years, as you’ve mentioned.
Here’s the thing: Technology is the biggest driver of change, especially in the DJ world. Technology has really changed the way that DJs spin, the way that DJs interact with crowds, the way that DJs travel, and it’s made it extremely easy — compared to what it was before — to DJ. Basically, anybody with a laptop, some MP3’s and 500 bucks can now become a DJ by picking up Serato, which is a DJ software, and playing. I don’t want to sound like the old man talking about, “back in the day,”, but it really used to be, in order to get into the DJ business, you had to spend a lot of money, and you had to keep spending a lot of money. You’d shell out $3,000 if you wanted a pair of TECHNICS, $1,200 turntables, a mixer, some speakers, and an amp. I know that seems like a lot of money, but it’s not — because you’re spending $200-$400 a month on records. You add that up over a period of years. I calculated one year, just for fun, how much money I’d spent on records, and it was, like, 30 Grand! That was seven years ago, so there were a lot of barriers to entry. Because it’s easier for more people to become DJ’s, it can be a good thing and a bad thing. You can have a lot of inexperienced DJ’s coming up.
I was interested in learning more about the DJ’ing field, and visited a local DJ company that does weddings and special events. I was told that a lot of times clients have the misconception that you just take an iPod up and play a mix of songs, so some people might have the mentality that it’s kind of easy. But then, you don’t get a quality set.
Exactly. The quality will suffer, and it’s probably suffering right now. In some ways, it hurts the market, and in some ways it makes the best DJs stand out. Because, in the end, there’s going to be less quality out there, and it’s not to discourage people from trying. But I don’t have a problem at all with a young DJ that’s coming in and doing his best to get into the market, maybe playing some gigs for free. I don’t have a problem with that; it’s economics. If the promoter wants to hire that person, that’s fine. It just depends. The only way that can become a problem depends on who you are. If you are, for example, just the person going to the bar to get drunk and don’t care, then it’s not a problem at all. But if you’re the type of consumer that wants to go out and have a more quality experience, then you’re going to find it harder to find those quality guys. It’s kind of like flooding the market with more inexperienced players. It can either go really bad or really good, so it’s just more players in the market. For me, I’m honestly all for young DJs learning and trying to learn the craft and the business.
Do you use the vinyl strictly for the scratching, or do you use the vinyl for any of the playing aspects? I was wondering how that plays into it, since vinyl has seen a resurgence lately.
I honestly don’t even use real vinyl anymore. There’s this technology called Serato. Imagine if you had a laptop that holds all of your music. If you wanted to bring six crates of records to a gig, you physically had to bring six crates of records to a gig, and you’d have maybe 500 songs to choose from, then you would have to physically bring all of that to play it.
Now, with Serato, imagine being able to hold not six crates of records in your laptop, but 20,000 songs that you can play — and you can virtually assign them to a physical turntable. It looks like a record, but doesn’t hold any sound on it. Then, imagine being able to manipulate those two pieces of virtual vinyl where the actual songs that you choose are on them. You don’t have to have the actual vinyl, you have the music on your laptop. That’s the technology that’s standard now. It’s not something that I thought would be standard when I started out 19 years ago, but that’s what it is.
I there anything upcoming that you’d like to mention?
I’m working on my own production. If you look at the “Live Remix Project” as something that I do in a live setting, my actual production is the same thing — just in a studio setting. I’m working on remixes, as well as original songs.
Do you think it will be mostly instrumental, or with vocals?
Well, for the original stuff, I obviously can’t sing myself — I’m telling you right now! The concept is a mixture of remixes, but also sample-based originals or even vocal-based originals, depending on who I collaborate with.
I look forward to hearing it and I hope I’ll get to see you live. I watched some of your videos on YouTube. It was cool to see the DJ’ing behind the equipment.
Cool! I just uploaded a whole bunch to my site. I started putting all of the club stuff together with my live remix project videos too, so if you go to that YouTube.com/DJEnferno page, you can check that out and see what the difference is. It’s got highlights of club gigs that I’ve had.
For an audio version of this interview, please go to Blogtalk Radio.