Invasion of the Dilettante DJs
What does it take to call oneself a DJ these days? At New York's hottest clubs and parties, socialites and celebrities are manning the turntables (er, iPods). And not everybody is happy about it.
On a chilly night in New York’s East Village, DJ Harley Viera-Newton strides through Lit Lounge, where she is spinning tonight. Flannel-clad, hirsute young men lean over one another to greet the 21-year-old New York University student, her slender figure poured into a black minidress, her long hair unkempt. Since she began booking gigs three years ago, Viera-Newton has signed with Elite models, starred in campaigns for Uniqlo and DKNY and become Dior Beauty’s house DJ, playing her favorite pop and punk tracks at its events and inspiring an on-the-go makeup palette clutch. “I’ll do some crazy event uptown for Dior, in a gown, overlooking Central Park,” she says in her charmingly ambiguous accent (the daughter of a record exec and a Brazilian model, she grew up in London, then moved to L.A. at age 10). “And the next day I’ll be here with all my friends. It’s a fun mix.”
Viera-Newton is part of a youth tide hitting the turntables of Manhattan, armed with style, social cachet and, ideally, a modicum of musical taste. DJing—and the visibility that goes with it—has replaced handbag designing as the go-to profession for It girls and boys. The flock of hobbyist DJs for hire includes A-list models Jessica Stam and Agyness Deyn, actor Leo Fitzpatrick, artist Nate Lowman and rock-royalty spawn Alexandra Richards. They work fashion shows and store openings and have residencies, or regular gigs, at nightclubs—often based on the fact that a promotable name brings press and the right crowd to a venue.
Unsurprisingly, New York’s more venerable DJs are not pleased with the influx of pretty-young-thing competitors. Until recently the field had a high barrier to entry: DJs had to buy expensive turntables, amass a huge record collection and spend years learning sophisticated scratch-and-mix techniques. But now anyone with a laptop or an iPod can download hundreds of songs in minutes and “spin” a set with a mere click of a button. “Being a DJ used to take a lot of dedication—now all it requires is a little computer savvy,” says Jahi Sundance, 30, who began DJing in New York 15 years ago. Adds fellow full-time DJ Jesse Felluss, 31, “Do I think there is animosity there? Absolutely. It’s good for filling the crowd to have names, but the party suffers because they aren’t as good as guys who do this for a living.”
But backlash from the professional community clearly hasn’t lessened the appetite for this new strain of DJ. Mandie Erickson, director of public relations firm Seventh House, has hired Deyn and fashion designer Benjamin Cho, among others, to spin at her clients’ events. Part of the attraction, she says, is proximity to gossip-column fixtures. “We’re all voyeurs—everyone wants to get into someone’s head, and music is such a personal way [to do that],” says Erickson. “You realize that they love the Smiths like you love the Smiths.” Even more valuable may be the DJ’s pals: Samantha Ronson’s fees spiked to more than $25,000 after Lindsay Lohan started accompanying her to gigs (a source says that Ronson’s rate has dropped to $15,000 postbreakup).
For the past year, Richards, 23, daughter of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, has been charging upwards of $10,000 per party (the going rate for a nonceleb DJ is between $250 and $400 for a club engagement, and about $1,000 for corporate events). “I grew up in a very musical home—it was symphony in the morning, and when I got home from school it was reggae, and then rock ’n’ roll at night,” she recalls in a gravelly voice, explaining that she’s recovering from a cold. In a restaurant near her SoHo apartment, she’s dressed in black skinny jeans and a leather jacket over a sweatshirt, nursing a double Jack Daniel’s and a bowl of butternut squash soup. (Her illness has, she triumphantly mentions, helped her finally quit smoking—though a few months later she’s sneaking cigarettes alongside the DJ booth at now defunct nightclub Mr. West.) Despite her success—events for Audi and Hugo Boss, residencies at nightclubs—Richards insists DJing is a sideline. “I’m considered a model, you know, to me at least,” she muses, noting that she paints and is working on a jewelry line. “I [DJ] for fun.” Unlike most hobbyists, however, she uses Serato, a program favored by serious DJs that connects a laptop to turntables, mimicking the feel of spinning with vinyl records.
Richards is honing her new skills with a little help. Her manager is Rachid Kallamni, 25, who, after working as a nightlife promoter, started his own company, Rachid Kallamni Management (RKM), to capitalize on the demand for stylish young DJs. Most of the talent he represents are under age 25; his roster includes Chris Jones, son of Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones; Jamie Biden, nephew of Vice President Joe Biden; Artem Emelianov, a Latvian-born male model with razor-sharp cheekbones; and Kallamni’s childhood friend Nick Cohen, who launched a line of “shoewelry” (sneakers laced up with gold chains). Cohen is tiring of his grueling schedule—he often has four gigs a week and is scheduled to fly to Moscow with Richards to spin at Fashion Week there—but DJing has been a boon to his shoe business. “Nightclubs are the best places to meet people,” he says.
Kallamni uses his connections to land his DJs at exclusive Manhattan venues—1OAK, Avenue, Southside, Butter, GoldBar—and provide a support system for them. “Rachid’s guys actually would come with me to an event and make sure that I was working [Serato] correctly,” Richards says. A fellow RKM talent, DJ Equal, gave her private lessons.
Another neophyte, Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of romantic-comedy director Nancy Meyers and screenwriter Charles Shyer, and an aspiring writer herself, is less preoccupied with the technical aspects of the trade. “When they ask us to DJ, it’s, like, to bring a certain amount of people and a certain kind of crowd,” the baby-faced 22-year-old blond says, taking a sip of her drink on a Thursday night at the SubMercer in SoHo. Behind her, two white iPods glisten unattended on the turntables as “Someone Great” by LCD Soundsystem blares. A foot from the booth, Gossip Girl star Chace Crawford perches on an ottoman, chatting with a raven-haired publicist. “I’m not a DJ by profession; I just want to do it as a hobby, for fun,” Meyers-Shyer explains. “I don’t want to discredit that a lot of people do this as their job.” She adds with a sly smile, “It all comes out as the same thing, really.”
The mere existence of such amateurs is exasperating enough to the “real” DJs who are losing gigs to them. So when Paper magazine nominated Kirsten Dunst’s ex Matt Creed—whose modus operandi is alternating tracks between two iPods—for the Best DJ category in its annual nightlife awards, the nod irked many. “My DJ friends were all really upset,” says Kallamni, who maintains that his brood, even Richards, veers toward the side of real DJs. “I’m not trying to say [Creed’s] not a great guy, but to sit there and just press buttons—it’s not [being] an actual DJ.”
Actually, Creed doesn’t disagree. “It’s not fair,” he admits, adding with a defensive edge in his voice, “I didn’t ask to be nominated.” On a Friday afternoon the actor and filmmaker is hanging out at downtown bistro the Smile, where he has been working on the budget for his new movie. Two years ago Creed, 26, started DJing at the Beatrice Inn (which has been closed since April due to building-code violations, much to the chagrin of the chic, celeb-heavy set that frequented it); soon the nightclub’s patrons began booking him for corporate events and benefits, occasionally for as much as $4,000. “I do feel guilty when I get paid a lot of money, showing up with two iPods,” he says. “But I love music, and my knowledge of music has gotten me to where I am now.” Creed took up DJing for the same reason many of his creative friends, including Lowman, did: the money. “It paid for one of my first short films, and it’s given me the freedom to have my days to write,” he says.
As more dilettantes turn their hobby into a paycheck (count Madonna’s boy toy Jesus Luz among them—she reportedly footed the bill for his lessons), the recession is increasing the tension between the pros and the dabblers. “You have more DJs fighting for fewer nights,” says Tim Martell, 30, a New York–based professional DJ. “It’s not how good of a musician you are; it’s how much money you can bring to the bar.” Felluss concurs: “There are a lot of guys infinitely better than these people who get paid $5,000 a night.” Nevertheless, Paul Sevigny, co-owner of the Beatrice Inn and a skilled vinyl DJ himself, hired hobbyists—even those of the iPod ilk—for his club, claiming they fit with its intimate atmosphere. “There’s not some guy 15 yards above the crowd, sending down music like the hand of God,” he says. “If there is a pause here or there, a couple seconds between a song, it sounds a little more personal.” But, Sevigny admits with a laugh, “DJs do so little to begin with. To not use records seems, you know…. Maybe you can do a little bit more.”