Long before Deadmau5 donned the mouse-eared helmet that plasters billboards across the Strip, Las Vegas was already home to a diverse crop of underground turntable talent with styles ranging from funk to punk, from hip-hop to deep house. Today, the rise of million-dollar DJs headlining the megaclubs of the Strip present that scene with a unique set of challenges and opportunities as Vegas becomes an international destination for fans of electronic dance music. We sat down with DJs Miss Joy, Doodle Do (of duo Totescity) and Crykit, three locals who spin at venues from Downtown to the Strip, to discuss the state of the scene and what it means to be an underdog in the new EDM capital of the world.
What does it mean to be a DJ in Las Vegas right now?
Miss Joy (Joy Ngaosivath): To be a DJ in this city now means a lot of things. There’s a lot of different types of work, and it’s not just being one particular style of DJ that plays one style of music. It involves a lot of not just what you play, but who you are, as far as your complete package. I mean, anyone can be a DJ, but the branding aspect of how you display your music and your art, your resume, all those things fall in line with being a little bit more corporate-sided.
Doodle Do (Jeffrey Madlambayan of Totescity): You’re promoting your brand; you’re almost like not only a DJ but you’re a marketer, a booking agent, a graphic designer, and you kind of do a little bit of all of that just to sustain in this entertainment nightlife business in this town.
Crykit (Michelle Kolnik): I think there’s a lot of opportunity to be a DJ here. There are so many different venues and gigs and different types of genres that you can play, and I feel myself wearing like five different hats. I have to be this beautiful, sex-appeal, Vegas-style-looking DJ for one venue; another venue I can go in a button-up shirt all the way to the top and rock that venue with rock and hip-hop. So it’s great for the opportunity and that you can be different kinds of artists, I just feel that possibly there are signs, especially on the Strip, that you’re not appreciated and taken care of as much as another DJ that’s brought in from out of town, although you’re doing the same job as them. You’re having to get the crowd going and sustain that crowd and sell those drinks just like those DJs are doing, but you’re getting paid chump change.
Why do you think locals aren’t appreciated as much now?
CK: Right now everything is blowing up on 10 big names from over the world, like Tiësto and Deadmau5. I really honor and appreciate and respect them, because they’re producers as well as DJs. I get why they’re getting paid so much, but I really have no understanding as to why clubs feel they can pay the local people chump change.
DD: Also, I think the demand these days is not necessarily for what a DJ is normally. There was a social dynamic in creating that dancefloor and maintaining the dancefloor and getting that respect. Now, I feel like people who come out to the club see it as, what songs are you gonna play? If you’re a Calvin Harris, they want to hear your whole CD. They don’t want to hear a variety of dance music that may be underground or hasn’t been heard. They’re there specifically for that individual. So when a local DJ comes in there, it’s almost like, just a warm-up. You’re trying to just get people ready for the big name, so you don’t get that respect as much.
With regards to the rise of EDM and especially DJ culture in Vegas, do you feel a part of or outside of it?
MJ: I definitely feel a part of it. I feel like I’m in the forefront, the middle and [behind] it. To say something is EDM now could mean something completely different from one person to the next. I come from an EDM scene; I played nothing but underground music and breaks and all that stuff, but what happens when the underground music becomes mainstream? If you can hear it on the radio now, there’s nothing wrong with still thinking it’s good music.
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DD: I think if you’re a DJ, you love music in general and you love playing for people. So you’re always going to be like a chameleon; you’re going to change regardless. I mean, at the end of the day, the stuff that I play I don’t necessarily want to sit down in my room and listen to or make, but it’s all about making people dance. It’s the social aspect of the dancefloor.
Has the mainstreaming of DJing helped or hurt the diversity of the local DJ scene?
DD: You have to start small, I think. We tried a world-beat night last year and people just didn’t get it. A lot of it is Vegas. If it’s not fluffy and glittery, maybe they don’t see anything tangible with it, I guess.
MJ: A lot of people, they go to Hakkasan or Tao or XS because of the name, because it’s been thrown in their face to go there. But do they know anything about the music? Maybe not. But are they going there to have fun and get drunk and meet people? Maybe. Or are they going there for the DJ? I really think that it really depends on the marketing dollars that are being invested in a certain style or genre or artist at this point.
People are coming in for entertainment on all levels, and that’s fantastic. [DJs] just need to be very patient, do what they want to do and just keep on going. This might be a high point for DJs now, and when the down time happens, just keep doing what you love.
Do you think acts like Totescity are marginalized because you play music that’s very different from the EDM headliners?
DD: I guess it really depends how you look at it. The way we kind of started is we knew the saturation of EDM was coming. I mean I came from being in a band and the production aspect and wanting to go back into DJing. We wanted to begin with and create our own sound, and the only way we were going to be able to do that was by bringing the local scene back into it and not necessarily caring about the Strip. And then, the further we worked on it, we were still able to play genres that we were interested in. But the only way you can progress is going the way these ladies are heading, which is getting bigger and playing more venues.
Crykit: I really appreciate Downtown right now. That’s where I feel it’s harnessing all sorts of local artists and giving them the opportunity to be heard and be seen and to shine true to their artistry. It’s nice.
DD: It’s always been there though. If you’ve been here for more than 10 years, Downtown has always had the greatest DJs in Las Vegas. Whether it’s from Miss Joy to the Bargain DJ Collective. This is just a perfect time to shine, there’s so much opportunity involved in this city. I’m glad that we’re all a part of it.
MJ: My experience is, once I recognized that I wanted to work for people that respect me, work for people that understood my art and my style and did not dictate what I should look like, how I should act, where I should go, my life just became easier. And I think it’s a personal choice. It’s not something that happens overnight, especially when you deal with what the scene is made of. A lot of people talk so indifferently about the Strip. But there is a scene for that. There are a lot of intelligent people [there] who enjoy and love music, and I think as a DJ who’s been here for 13 years, it’s not about a venue you spin for or who you open or close for; it’s about the frequency of music that you are sharing with people. We’re all doing our thing, and that’s a blessing.
Do you feel like the popularity of dance music has created a sort of “one percent” in the DJ world?
DD: For sure. I mean you look at the top 10 highest paid DJs in the past two, three years, it’s always the same names. But they’ve been doing it for a long time and producing … For every certain few who just sort of blew up out of nowhere, started making millions of dollars, you can name at least five or 10 people who have been DJing or producing music for a very long time.
Crykit: I would like to see more appreciation and respect for local DJs on the Strip. Maybe it’s just my experiences with the venues I’ve been at, but to me, to open up your main club room for two hours, $150 is not cutting it. You’re making that off of one guy walking in the door.
DD: They’re paying so much with these residencies that they’re cutting everywhere else. It sucks that local DJs have to take that hit, but when you’re paying someone $30,000 a night, then it has to come from somewhere.
What has the DJ boom done for Vegas as a city?
DD: It’s opened up a lot of doors.It’s a mecca of dance music right now. EDC is even out here. I never thought it would be this big, to be honest.
MJ: I think culturally, DJing has really opened people’s eyes up to respecting what a DJ is. A DJ is a party-maker; they set the vibe; they set the mood. You can walk down the Strip and see DJs in every venue, from a clothing store to a cantina or bar. This city is so loud. And it’s not just about the shows on the Strip anymore, people have more opportunities to [come here to] check out DJs.
Crykit: Whenever I have friends come in town, they’re here to hear a particular DJ at a particular club. People are coming more so for the DJs.
If the pay is so low for locals now, how can you make a living doing this?
DD: I really think Downtown pays a lot more than other venues on the Strip. It could be anywhere from $200 to $500 a night for a small venue. Then when you throw events, you can make up to $1,000.
Crykit: I moved here two years ago from San Francisco, and being here is the first time I’ve been able to live solely off of being a DJ. I always used to have to have a retail job during the day or something else to make the money. It’s because there are so many opportunities to DJ here. It adds up.