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Lucky Breaks: How your favorite DJ made it big

Ever wondered about the backstory to your favourite DJ's rise to prominence?

  • Patrick Hinton
  • 19 February 2016

Making it big in dance music is no easy task.

A DJ career is forged from a black magic mix of raw talent and years of grind. And, to some extent, a moment of good fortune that points an artist in the direction of up.

Tracing a DJ’s origin and picking out a key juncture that helped them on their way undoubtedly makes for an interesting anecdote. Check out the backstory to 13 celebrated selectors below.

Alesso

In order to buy a laptop and start producing at the age of 16, Alessandro ‘Alesso’ Lindblad had to sell his scooter. It was a heart-wrenching decision, but one that thankfully paid off. Alesso got his break after his girlfriend at the time realised a frequent patron of the coffee shop she worked at was the father of Sebastian Ingrosso. She passed him a demo, he passed it to the younger Ingrosso who liked what he heard and subsequently mentored Alesso to stardom, the Swedish progressive house star revealed to Billboard.

Answer Code Request

Patrick Gräser was a keen skateboarder when growing up. It’s a hobby many kids indulge in, then grow out of, leaving fond memories of once pulling off perfect tres flips. However, one friend Gräser met down the skatepark in his youth – a boy named Marcel Dettmann – would have a life-changing impact.

He explained Dettmann’s guiding influence on his later musical pursuits to Mixmag: “Little did I know that meeting Marcel at that skatepark would turn into a friendship until present that led me to my career path.

“We lost touch in-between due to him relocating to Berlin first, but somehow we spoke again and hung out when we bumped into each other, just like the old days. As a mentor, he gave me advice and brought me on the right path, eventually releasing my debut Answer Code Request record. I can't imagine it to be any other way, huge respect for this guy.”

Brodinski

From the age of 15, Louis Rogé was attending Ed Banger and Yuksek nights, giving it his all down the front every time. Eventually his enthusiasm was spotted and he was invited into the inner circle of Paris’ underground, with his career taking off from there.

Busy P, Brodinski and Yuksek went down memory lane in the Brodi cover feature for Mixmag’s April 2015 issue.

Busy P: "We met Louis in his home town, Reims, during an Ed Banger party we had in a pizzeria. Louis was there in the crowd, screaming and dancing his ass off. We came back to Reims for a bigger Ed Banger event where we invited Erol Alkan. This time Louis was backstage, part of the crew. The kid had good taste. He was young, fresh and new. He was smiling, he always looked happy."

Brodinksi: "I was the kid going to see [Ed Banger] play at 15. I kept going when nobody else my age was. People were like, "what the fuck is he doing?”. I was DJing every Friday, every Saturday while I was at school. Then I started sending out mixes and making music with Yuksek. That was the start of it all.”

Yuksek: "When I met him he was really young and he had a big smile and huge energy. It was fun to work with him. The music we did together was really different from what I was doing by myself, and even though he wasn't a musician and didn't touch the gears he knew exactly where he wanted to go."

James Zabiela

James Zabiela was relentless in his pursuit to become a pro DJ, entering competitions and handing out mix CDs to any influential industry figures he came across. One day a mix came into the possession of Sasha and all his hard work paid off, with things snowballing from that point.

James detailed how this came about and how influential it was in establishing himself as an international touring DJ: “It was instrumental to getting me where I am now. Those mixes actually changed my entire life for the better. It was then fabric resident Lee Burridge who passed on a mix of mine onto Sasha and hounded both him and his agency to take notice of me, so I owe the pair of them eternal gratitude.

“I accredit the fact they listened to it due to going and meeting them, it’s not enough to just send out a SoundCloud link. You have to go and put a friendly face to your skills and show you’re not an arse or a complete weirdo, luckily in my case those things didn’t seem to matter.

“The same mix won the monthly ‘Bedroom Bedlam’ mixtape competition in Muzik Magazine, then judged by Mixmag’s current Editor-at-Large Ralph Moore! He was also in touch with Lee and Sasha about me so I had an amazing team spurring me on.

“I entered the competition previously and actually came in as a runner up. I was completely gutted because I thought I couldn't then win the thing, but after hounding Ralph on the phone, I was told by him and Clubs Editor, Karen Young (who subsequently went on to book me at Exit Festival) to keep on entering and not to give up. It was the encouragement I needed and again, gratitude is an understatement. I had lots of help over the years, John Digweed, Pete Tong and these guys are still helping out people out now which is lovely to see. I am a product of their goodwill.”

Kobosil

As a burgeoning producer Max Kobosil was a man with a single mission: to become a member of the Ostgut Ton family. He dropped out of his bachelor’s degree mere months before he was due to graduate to concentrate full time on music, and rejected the advances of a number of other labels with his sights set only on Ostgut.

It was inevitable that a producer with such talent and singular focus would reach his goal, but a couple of key moments helped Max on the way.

His first appearance on the label came about when he was drafted in last minute to feature on Barker & Baumecker’s ‘Silo’ remix EP after one of the commissioned remixers failed to meet their deadline. And then Ryan Elliott pulling out of a slot at late notice won Max his first booking at Ostgut’s home club Berghain. He was inducted into Ostgut Ton three months later.

Kobosil told this story to XLR8R, saying ”Of course I’ve been lucky—but it sometimes feels a bit like destiny.”

Lauren Lane

Lauren Lane recalled the impact that meeting legendary New York promoter Rob Fernandez at a party had on her career in an interview conducted for Mixmag’s January 2016 issue: “When I moved to New York and I was a teenager I was trying to find my place in the city and Rob welcomed me so much into the parties he was throwing. There was a really cool Saturday party called Asseteria which was like a melting pot of everybody from New York, whether you were gay, straight, old, young, etc. It was a really special time in New York because I feel it was still a really raw music crowd and he just welcomed me into his parties and I started becoming quite regular.

“When I first started DJing I said “I'm gonna be a DJ [at Pacha]” being all clueless, and he replied “Oh really?” totally entertaining that idea. Then he gave me my first gig actually playing on the Sunday night party. I remember him carrying my records, I could barely carry them, and he laughed at me and then I played. I was so nervous and my hand was shaking so hard that I had to just drop the needle and I wasn't sure if my set was horrible or ok. But afterward he booked me again and again and again, and literally started my career so I wouldn't be anywhere really if he didn't give me that shot so he's really special to me.”

Matt Karmill

Matt Karmil had been producing music for many years while living in various cities across Europe without making any progress in getting it released, until he arrived in Cologne and fortune brought him into the Kompakt family.

He outlined the situation to XLR8R: "I was in the city doing some stuff unrelated to the music I'm making now and I started to meet a lot of people connected with Kompakt. They were just nice people I met and became friends with though—I wasn't so ingrained in the scene there that I actually knew who they were until much later.

“I was also living in my flat in Cologne for about a year before I realized that my flatmate was Barnt. We'd meet in the kitchen and be hearing each other’s music through the wall and everything, but he's a very discreet person, so he would never just tell me about that kind of thing. It got to the point where I was listening to and loving records by Barnt without knowing they were being made a few feet away.

“[Popnoname] suggested I play some of my stuff to Ada, and she asked what labels I'd released on. I told her I'd been working on music for other people for years but that I'd never released a piece of my own music, and she just looked at me as if to say, “What?”. Anyway, she said she had this label and asked if it would it be okay if she released something.

“It all happened in such a nice way. It's all my friends or friends-of-friends; there's a real family atmosphere, and if you do music in that kind of environment, then it can be a really kind and loving thing.”

Move D

David Moufang had never mixed two records together when he first got an opportunity behind the decks in a club. The resident selector of a Heidelberg nightspot failed to show up to work one evening, and despite Mr Moufang’s lack of experience, he was familiar with the records available at the club and offered his services. That moment set him on a path to becoming one of the world’s best-loved house DJs.

He explained how it went down in an interview for Mixmag’s April 2014 issue: “The DJs of the club and the owner would give us money and we’d go record shopping and we’d bring back a receipt and the records would go into the shelves in the club. That’s how I came to DJ in the first place; I wasn’t a real record collector when I started, I was hanging out in the club regularly and they had two better DJs, one was a friend of mine, I was going almost every day and watching them and I learned what records they were playing and where they were in the shelves.

“One night the DJ didn’t show up and everyone was freaking out so I said “I’ve never done this but I know where the good records are, I can try if you want.” They were desperate so they said, “Have a go” and that was my first night. They hired me.

“It was different in those days, I saw beatmatching happening in Italy in around ’85, it totally blew me away but in Germany they were playing different tempos, more radio style, so on a technical level I could do this without practicing.”

Palms Trax

Jay Donaldson managed to land himself an internship at one of the UK’s most eminent record shops, Phonica, despite knowing next to nothing about underground dance music or club culture. The musical education he received while working there broadened his horizons considerably, expanding his knowledge across the spectrum of house, techno, disco and so on, moulding him into the widely-influenced selector and producer he has become.

He humbly recounted the story to DJ Broadcast when asked about why Phonica hired him: “Probably because I told them that they didn't have to pay me. I was kind of naive back then. House and techno had up until then not played a single role in my life. I was just able to recall who Joy Orbison was, never been to a club and I tell you what, I didn't even know proper clubs existed!

“Really, I was doing different things, but at the same time I was very eager to learn. One way or another I got myself in. They must have thought: 'He speaks English, isn't completely idiotic, let's hire him.' I learned so much. I heard Derrick May, Juan Atkins and the Burrell Brothers for the first time. I think a good record store offers the possibility to see the connection between all the different musical genres. I owe so much to Phonica.”

Richie Hawtin

Icon of techno Richie Hawtin span his first record in legendary Detroit club Shelter after DJ Scott Gordon had to go to relieve himself and pulled young Richie into the booth to cover. He landed an opening slot residency at the nightspot shortly after.

Scott Gordon details the story in the documentary Richie Hawtin – Pioneers of Electronic Music: “He would just stand there and watch. He was a quiet kid, a shy guy, wore glasses and was unassuming. In fact I’d go as far as saying he was a little bit nerdy.

“We would eventually start talking. I blew him off for quite a while as most DJs think they’re pretty cool and don’t really want to talk to anybody. Finally I gave him a shot; I think I had to go to the bathroom or something and I needed somebody to play a record for me.

“This kid was standing there so I just grabbed him and pulled him into the booth and said “Take over for a minute!” And that’s really where it started, because that kid’s name was Richie Hawtin.”

Sasha

Sasha had fallen on hard time and was close to giving up on the DJ dream when a chance brush with a Haçienda resident got him back on track.

He summarised the encounter for Ask Audio: “In the really early days gigs dried up a bit, and I was contemplating having to get a real job. Luckily I started to get booked again. I had a knack of being in the right place at the right time. I ended up moving into a block of flats where one of the DJs from the Haçienda lived, Jon DaSilva. He took me under his wing and I started DJing with him. Then I started to build a name for myself. It all came from there really.”

Svengalisghost

Svengalisghost never intended to release his music, but when his friend, legendary underground New York figure Porkchop, handed some CDs to Ron Morelli who saw the havoc they wreaked on the dancefloor a relationship with L.I.E.S began.

Svengalisghost’s laptop breaking down and hard drive being wiped nearly ended things before they’d even began, but Ron managed to take the only three 320kbps tracks from the CDs (most were 128kpbs) and mastered them for release.

Svengalisghost told us the story: “Producing was a way for me to release stress. Working 14 hours hanging lights as a lighting tech was brutal and I found music more immediate than stretching a canvas to paint. I never expected to have anything released. It was just a way to share ideas with Jon [aka Porkchop].

“[After my laptop broke] I had stopped making music because my experience with the computer seemed limiting and I really didn't have resources for gear until Ron approached me about a release and magically the gear started to gravitate towards me.

“[Without Ron Morelli getting a hold of my music] I wouldn't be here probably as no one other than Jon and Ron had really heard my tracks. After the release Ron asked me if I would be interested in touring in Europe and gave me a few contacts and setup a few shows for us. I got addicted to Europe and decided to stay. It's kind of bizarre as when he first approached me I was reluctant to release the tracks as I didn't think they were good.”

Throwing Shade

Throwing Shade was all set up for a career working in human rights law when she packed it in, for the time being at least, to pursue music full time after the opportunity arose.

She picked out the moments she landed her NTS residency and linked up with Ninja Tune for forthcoming EP ‘House Of Silk’ as backed by good fortune, explaining: “I got my NTS show back in May 2013. The way I got it was serendipitous because I went on Thristian's Dark & Love Global Roots show as a guest and the station manager was listening at the same time. He really liked it and called up as soon as we went off air and asked 'Who's that girl? I want to offer her her own show.'

“The Ninja Tune thing again was just another weird coincidence. One time when I was doing my NTS show the producer was this guy called Ollie who works at Ninja Tune, and we were just chatting in the studio and he said 'If you ever have any new music you want to send over you should totally do that,' so when I had a bunch of new tracks that I was sending out to new labels that had all been interested I thought I should send it to him to. Then he passed it on to Adrian who's the head of A&R at Ninja Tune and, as it turns out, was a big fan of my music already.”

[Photo: Cat Stevens]

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