It’s the night before my first DJ lesson, and I’m looking around the kitchen trying to think of a name. DJ Frijoles? No. DJ Spatula? Ugh. DJ Sub Zero? I feel like an episode of Portlandia. Most of what I know about spinning is based on what DJs tell me over the phone during interviews. Such conversations are usually heavy on love and inspiration, short on specifics. To me, a mixer looks about as intuitive as the cockpit of an F-16. Basically, I’m screwed.
Or maybe it’s Aaron “Ikon” White who’s really in trouble. After all, the Light Group resident DJ and producer is the one who’s been tasked with transforming me from an occasional clubber journalist to a mixing machine. By the end of our sessions, I have to be ready to open a day at Liquid Pool Lounge at Aria without embarrassing myself or driving the dayclubbers away covering their ears. And we’re already off to a tough start.
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Sitting in Ikon’s small home studio between a pair of turntables and a keyboard, he asks me a few questions: Do I play an instrument? No. Did I play as a kid? One year of trombone and a few years of uninspired piano. What do I listen to in the car? KNPR. The enormity of the task at hand marches across Ikon’s face, so I try to think of something reassuring: Uh, I used to dance?
Ikon never planned to make a career out of DJing or a hobby out of teaching journalists to spin. He was enrolled at UNR, studying economics and playing frat parties for $25 a pop, when one of his professors pointed out the obvious—that his attention was more on the turntables than the textbooks. “He said, ‘You have a real passion for it,’” Ikon remembers. “He indirectly talked me out of school.”
If a teacher nudged him in the right direction, Ikon credits Vegas legend DJ Hollywood with showing him that he could make a living doing what he loved. After working at a DJ supply store and spinning in Reno’s clubs, raking in more cash than he knew what to do with, Ikon entered a DJ battle at Bikinis in Las Vegas and won the grand prize: a residency on the Strip at Tangerine.
That was 2004. Today, Ikon plays at Haze, Liquid, 1 Oak and the Bank. Over Labor Day Weekend he’ll spin six sets in four days (including the Weekly’s issue party on August 30). “It’s a rush,” he says of being in the DJ booth. “When you’re rocking a party and everyone’s singing, it’s fun.”
Ikon knows the feeling well. It’s been eight years now since he landed in Vegas, and he’s seen a lot change. Locals like to say that nightclubs age in dog years—3 is veteran, 5 is impressive, 10 is ancient—but the music they play grows obsolete even quicker. When he moved to town, Ikon says, every DJ was “either house or open format; and if you were open format, you were just hip-hop.” In the years since, he’s seen mashups rise and fall (“thank God that’s done”), seen hip-hop relegated to back rooms and dancefloors dedicated to EDM. Today, he says, the DJs are the draw—A-list talents who come to spin their own music, but it won’t always be dubstep and deep house blaring from the speakers. “In the next three years,” Ikon predicts, “you’re going to see all the big open-format DJs get swooped up.”
By the time that happens, you might see less of Ikon, too. He’s been branching out beyond the DJ booth, opening Feature Sneaker Boutique on Spring Mountain Road with a handful of friends in 2010, becoming a partner in Dope and D-List magazines in Seattle, where he frequently plays, and starting a label with fellow Vegas regular Exodus just this year. Their remix of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” has over 26,000 plays on SoundCloud. All these moves look to the same eventual goal: leaving the booth to become a full-time producer.
“I want to get out of the DJing business,” Ikon says. “There’s a shelf life for being a DJ. I’m at my peak right now.”
That’s a harsh realization for a lot of people, but Ikon isn’t shying away from the inevitable. When the ride ends, it ends quick, he says, so he’s moving into production, making the transition from late nights in front of a jumping crowd to studio days minus the bottle service. “I’ve had some really sh*tty jobs in my life, so this is it,” Ikon says. “I don’t possess any other skills. No one’s going to pay me to play golf.”
And no one’s going to pay me to DJ. Despite the small Thursday morning crowd, the laid-back vibe and the knowledge that I’ve been practicing this exact set for the past month, when I finally step into the DJ booth at Liquid I’m sweating. A friend has dubbed me DJ Secret because I’ve been keeping this experiment under wraps, hoping no one I know will be present if I make an ass out of myself. But Ikon doesn’t seem concerned. He hands over the headphones, promises to stay right behind me and offers a reassuring smile. Time to go.