Nightlife

The hustle and heart of M!KEATTACK, the man making Las Vegas dance

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The smile is signature M!KEATTACK, who’s developed his DJ craft in the Las Vegas club scene over the past decade.
Photo: Fred Morledge

It’s 1 a.m. at Marquee, and M!KEATTACK has been DJing for nine of the past 13 hours. He’s got another two and a half to go before he’ll help shut down the main room at 4:30, but for now he’s enjoying a 90-minute break while the night’s headliner, hip-hop heavyweight DJ Khaled, takes the reins.

“Break” has a different meaning to a guy like Mike. While he could take advantage of a private balcony and complimentary bar tab, he stays close in the booth, watching intently and taking mental notes as Khaled drops the latest bangers and gets the crowd hyped.

That ethos and a relentless seven-to-10-gigs-a-week schedule have earned Mike a reputation as the hardest-working DJ in Las Vegas, one who has opened and closed for everyone from Calvin Harris to Ne-Yo to Fun. He played for Jay Z and Beyoncé during MayPac weekend and warmed up for the Red Hot Chili Peppers on New Year’s Eve. For the one or two hours Harris, Kaskade and other reigning club headliners spend behind the decks, they’ll earn more than Mike does in a week.

Still, the industry is carried on the backs of homegrown DJs like Mike. They warm up crowds for headliners and keep the party going—and drink tabs running—long after the main attraction has ended. That’s in addition to filling last-minute slots, covering late arrivals and drawing fanbases of their own. But for the 31-year-old Mike, who after a decade in the game says he makes enough to live comfortably, it’s never been about the money.

Mike was introduced to a pair of turntables at a friend’s house in seventh grade. “That was the first time I got bit by the electronic-music bug."

Mike was introduced to a pair of turntables at a friend’s house in seventh grade. “That was the first time I got bit by the electronic-music bug."

“It’s about just making everyone have a good time,” he says. “I mean, I have a really fun job. When I’m on the decks, it’s not work.”

That’s not to say he isn’t working hard. Like a surfer catching a wave, momentum is everything: There’s a narrow window, a fleeting moment to harness the crowd’s energy and attention as control of the music changes hands. Mike strides to the booth and drops the swagger-heavy Jay Z remix of Panjabi MC’s “Beware of the Boys,” his return to the decks underscored by CO2 cannons, air-horn blasts, a parade of go-go dancers and a shower of confetti—lest you forget he’s here to bring the party.

But the crowd isn’t sold just yet. The dancefloor thins in Khaled’s wake as clubgoers retreat to tables to reassess the night. Main-room gigs like this, with A-list clientele in attendance to celebrate NBA Summer League, can make closing particularly high-pressure and unforgiving. Locals and regulars might recognize Mike, but to others he’s just the guy playing after the guy they came to see.

“A crowd like this, you gotta work hard. [DJ Khaled] wore them out,” Mike says, one hand on his laptop, the other on the mixer (he traded turntables for a CDJ years ago after confetti and other club accoutrements kept ruining his equipment).

Anyone who knocks DJs for being “button pushers” hasn’t seen M!KEATTACK. Many call his energy infectious, and it is, but perhaps the better word is relentless: Mike sets the pace, and sooner or later the crowd catches up. He’s constantly moving, weaving between equipment to mix, scratch, add effects (more air horn!) and otherwise enhance each tune in real time, but just as swiftly blowing it up and moving on after 30 seconds if he doesn’t think the crowd is feeling it. A remix of 2 Chainz’s “I’m Different” sparks some movement, but its successor, Snoop and 2Pac’s “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,” gets cheers. All the while, as he hones in on the flavor of the night, Mike dances harder than anyone on the floor, taking his hands off the equipment only for a little shimmy or body roll as he flashes his electric smile. Twenty minutes into the set, he pauses to towel off sweat, the first of many times he’ll do so that night.

And then—it happens. Waka Flocka Flame’s “Grove St. Party” comes on, and the crowd gets on Mike’s level. Hands go up, glowsticks come out, bodies start grinding and, within minutes, a parade of sparkler-lit servers are delivering a comically large bottle of Champagne to a table. But Mike isn’t a hip-hop DJ. He’s an open-format expert, comfortable playing a wide range of genres. His success depends as much on an ability to read and connect with the crowd as depth of music knowledge. It’s less about sound and more about feel.

Mike gets the Marquee crowd hyped.

Mike gets the Marquee crowd hyped.

Mike’s versatility helped land him a hip-hop-focused residency in Marquee’s Boom Box Room in 2013, which has since evolved into his current main-room gig on Monday nights. His ease in adapting to and manipulating the energy in just about any room has been central to his brand in the increasingly cutthroat world of Las Vegas DJs. That, and maybe his hair.

“My name, my teeth, my smile and my hair,” Mike says, listing the trademark features he insisted on including in his logo. It’s easy to see why. His bright grin and luxurious ’fro are the first things you notice, physical extensions of the spirit he brings.

“How you present yourself, the energy you present, the way you engage the crowd—those are the keys to success,” says Pedram Niazmand, artist relations manager for Tao Group, which operates Marquee. “Mike has unique features that stand out. A lot of times people overdo it. They oversell the music. It has to come naturally, and it does with him. He knows exactly what level the crowd is at.”

In an industry and city that breed both competition and guarded personalities, Mike is refreshingly candid and enthusiastic. He accents his texts with cartoons of himself paired with catchphrases like, “Can’t stop won’t stop!” Like any true Las Vegan, he’s an observer, and says people-watching is his favorite part of going to nightclubs. He’s more soft-spoken than his emoji-and-exclamation-point-peppered online persona suggests, but is just as quick to smile and hype his friends.

“DJing here is a competitive sport. There’ve been a lot of people, high in the business, who have told me I’m too nice, that I need to be more [selfish]. I can’t,” he says. “I don’t think that’s ever gonna affect me. I think it’s gonna help me out. Because I walk into a club and people freaking smile, ‘Yes! M!KEATTACK’s back!’ And that’s the best feeling ever.”

His personality and talent have earned him a breadth of opportunities and support virtually unheard of in a notably possessive industry. But after 10 nonstop years, he’s ready for more—chiefly, expanding his reach through production. It’s a step full of new challenges, from focusing his sound to landing an agent to answering the question: How does Las Vegas’ hardest-working DJ work even harder to reach the next level?

*****

Two hours after Mike gets home from Marquee, he’s up again at 7:30 a.m., taking care of his 8-month-old son Madden while his fiancée Mandi gets ready for work. “Sorry I was napping & I’m now trying to put the baby to sleep,” he replies when texted about meeting up. “#dadlife.”

His odd work schedule actually helped him transition to fatherhood, says Mike, with son Madden and fiancée Mandi.

His odd work schedule actually helped him transition to fatherhood, says Mike, with son Madden and fiancée Mandi.

Becoming a father has meant Mike’s schedule is even busier, though the odd hours and grueling pace of being a DJ have ironically smoothed the transition. An average day might mean getting up around 5 or 6 a.m., going back to sleep at 9 a.m. and then, on the three or four days a week he has a daytime gig, getting up again two hours later to drop Madden with one of his grandmothers on the way to the venue. Mike usually has a stretch of two to four free hours in the evening to nap, grab food and see his family before leaving for a six-hour club show at night. It’s a grind that, up until last month, also included a 4-8 a.m. after-hours slot Saturdays at Artisan. That doesn’t leave much time for sleep.

“Honestly, I don’t mind. It gets me up early, and I need that,” he says. Entire days off are rare—about every other month, he estimates—so he makes the most of every hour, whether spending time with Madden, running errands, hitting the gym or souping up his 700 horsepower Lexus SC300 in the garage. But the bulk of Mike’s days are taken up answering emails, scheduling shows, negotiating bookings, updating social media and selecting music for his next set—an endless cycle of self-management and promotion that keeps his career running.

It’s an unglamorous part of the grind that doesn’t feature in the popular narrative of the hotshot Vegas DJ stepping out of a limo and into the club. But that’s not far-fetched; many of these guys belong to agencies that handle the heavy lifting for them. Mike prefers to speak for himself, to stay hands-on and in control.

“I’ve had some people reach out, but … I’ve never been good at asking for anything,” he says. “Especially when it comes to gigs. I’ve never, ever asked for a gig. I’ve always been booked, because of my branding and reputation. I want that to speak for itself.”

Staying up on new music is a job unto itself, one he does through subscription record pools like Direct Music Service and streams of live festival sets from DJs he admires—the Skrillex-Diplo project Jack Ü is a current favorite. His music library contains 24,951 songs, and counting. When asked what he listens to in his free time, the answer is surprising but understandable: “Talk radio!” he says, laughing.

Mike’s hustle is driven largely by passion, but also necessity. He hasn’t had a “day job” in nine of the 10 years he’s been doing this, and that’s rare. Las Vegas’ ascent to nightclub and dance-music mecca has made it a hotbed for rising DJs, but as clubs shell out extravagant paydays to lock down residencies with the biggest stars, there’s less money for the growing number of local openers. While a headliner might make tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per set, an experienced local DJ will make around $400-$1,000.

Bringing some extra brightness to Daylight.

Bringing some extra brightness to Daylight.

“Clubs don’t [necessarily] have a budget to pay us. It’s just, ‘This is what it is now, you can take it or leave it,’” Mike says. “A lot of DJs don’t have the ability to say no.”

The focus on established headliners and a particular emphasis on producers have also created a glass ceiling for much of the local DJ community.

“It makes it harder for you to make a name for yourself when you have the biggest DJs in the world playing every night,” says Geoff Goode, aka DJ and producer G-Squared, a veteran of the Boston DJ scene who relocated to Vegas six years ago and has become a club staple. For all of its challenges, experience in the Las Vegas club scene makes for valuable currency in the DJ world. “Vegas is the best place in the world for DJing right now. There’s a certain amount of luck—it’s about who you know, not just skill. But when you get the opportunity, you have to be ready to rock it.”

*****

Hours before playing with DJ Khaled at Marquee, Mike was posted up poolside at Hideout at Downtown’s Golden Nugget. The daytime set is decidedly more casual in pace and clientele (more MBA than NBA), but six hours with no break is still a challenge. The marathon set is quintessential M!KEATTACK party rock, touching on anything from The Rolling Stones to the Beastie Boys, and the crowd is jumping.

“Some of these younger up-and-coming DJs will come in and play all of this Top 40 new stuff, but they’re not seeing the 40- or 50-year-olds out there,” he says. “That’s where an experienced DJ will come in and really know how to set the vibe and cater to everyone. That’s something I’ve always been really good at doing, and I don’t mind it, because I love music.”

No gig is too big or too small for Mike. He could get by on fewer bookings, but he admits he has a hard time saying no. “It took me a while to have that click—that it’s better to get exposure than fuss over a paycheck,” he says. “I’m sure Tiësto has rocked a small party before.”

At the pool during the day or through the night into the next morning, Mike's energy is relentless.

At the pool during the day or through the night into the next morning, Mike's energy is relentless.

Mike’s current bookings range from Marquee’s main room to Daylight at Mandalay Bay, Alibi Cocktail Lounge at Aria to STK at the Cosmopolitan. The fattest paychecks are on the Strip, but he makes a point of keeping Downtown in his lineup, with regular weekly sets at the Gold Spike and Golden Nugget. It’s a nod to where it all started for him.

“There’s a nostalgic, local feel to those sets. People know you there,” he says. “And there’s no better feeling than that.”

*****

M!KEATTACK was born Michael Mohammednur, the third of four children of Eritrean immigrants who relocated from Las Vegas to Reno when he was 4. A self-described “rambunctious teen,” Mike was more interested in making graffiti than making music, a skater kid who was into break-dancing and going to punk shows. That changed when he was introduced to a pair of turntables at a friend’s house in seventh grade. “That was the first time I got bit by the electronic-music bug, the first time I heard real LA- and Chicago-style hard house music.”

After moving back to Las Vegas his junior year of high school, Mike fell in with the Bargain DJ Collective through Beauty Bar’s weekly party Fantastic Damage. His first gig came when the late DJ Aurajin asked Mike to fill in for him at an ’80s party. “I said, ‘Are you kidding?!’ I was waiting tables and asked my boss if I could get off. I told her—this is my big chance.”

That Beauty Bar set was so successful that it led to a regular Thursday night stint with pal Chris Curry, giving rise to the wildly popular Atomic Saturdays at the now-defunct Red Room. It was then that Mike became M!KEATTACK, pumping up his natural exuberance and matching it with showmanship built on reactions from the crowd.

“It caught on like wildfire. There was a huge line to get in. People were sneaking in; underage people were trying to get in,” Mike says.

Casino nightlife players couldn’t ignore the buzz. In 2009, Mike got enlisted by the Palms to help launch weekly locals party Snitch at Ghostbar, where, among several regular gigs across the property, he landed his first solo residency.

“He brought a cool factor,” says Bronson Olimpieri, former VP of Nine Group. “At that time Palms was a crossover property, so when music and the city started changing from hip-hop to EDM, it was difficult to get someone to play other stuff. Mike could play everything from hip-hop to rock to, like, Peaches. He had everything and helped define the sound of that night.”

Mike landed his first Strip residency at Encore Beach Club, then broke into the lineups at Wet Republic, Pure, Lavo and more. “I was the only DJ that was working with everybody, because I just had relationships,” Mike says. “I didn’t have to climb up a chain and have all these bosses.”

But as clubs pushed more and more for exclusivity, his popularity lost him several residencies. And during the recession, with venues shuttering all around, there were times when Mike didn’t have a single gig. But he never stopped working to create opportunities, and the same relationships that helped him grow helped him survive. His reliability and commitment to the craft won out: Operators now opt to share the wealth rather than risk losing him over turf wars. He’s in an enviable place for a local DJ, which is to say there’s not much further he can go in Vegas.

*****

On a recent 110-degree afternoon, Mike spins a sleek set of house and techno for a crowd of hundreds at Daylight at Mandalay Bay. Sunday fete Sundown has been heralded as the hottest new party on the Strip, its hip underground stylings slowly encroaching on commercial EDM’s clubland hold. And there, at its center, is M!KEATTACK. He’s riding high on the success he’s earned through so much sweat, but can’t help asking: What now? For himself, for his family, for his satisfaction as an artist.

The coolest.

The coolest.

“There are the really expensive out-of-town headliners and then locals. There isn’t much in between for locals who have built up and established themselves,” muses veteran local DJ Tina T. “It’s like you just get stuck and hit a ceiling. I think once you’re labeled as a local, you’re kind of put into that group and price range.”

But there are reasons she and so many others have stuck around. “Because we’re bringing all these big DJs in, that to me only helps us breed our culture and make it bigger and bigger,” she says. “If you’re a resident and opening DJ in Vegas, you can use that to be a headliner elsewhere.”

Mike plans to travel more in the year ahead, but his most immediate focus is on production. In a market as saturated as Las Vegas, that has become a distinguishing factor—and a competitive edge favored by industry gatekeepers. “Production reaches a lot faster than playing shows and connecting,” Tao’s Niazmand says. “One track gets so many plays, so many fans.”

Mike’s packed schedule and self-management duties have made finding the time nearly impossible, but he’s dedicating a room to production in his family’s new home. He concedes that he may finally need to join an agency. For an artist whose success has been based on his versatility and independence, though, the prospect of focusing on his sound—and perhaps asking for help—is daunting.

“I prefer to let my DJing speak for itself,” he says. “But times change and people forget. There are people out there who don’t know I was crowned ‘Best DJ in Vegas’ or throwing these crazy parties or have this strong local following. I need to polish all that up.”

Dusk settles over the pool at Daylight, marking the end of another week, another crowd wrung out from the sonic assault of M!KEATTACK. There’s uncertainty in the lull, in the quiet between gigs when you can think about the bigger picture. But like any good DJ, Mike knows its his job to move with the moment.

“I don’t know what’s next, or what it’s gonna sound like,” he says. “But whatever it is, it’s gonna have soul. It’s gonna have rhythm. And it’ll definitely feel good.”

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