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Miami

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Jesse Perez playing his first ever DJ gig

A few years ago we discovered a form of music that turned our world upside down. It’s called freestyle and we found it via an old Mickey Mixin Oliver show on YouTube. The music epitomises the more optimistic sounds of the eighties; big synths, heartfelt lyrics, 808 beats, catchy melodies – it became one of our favourite genres instantly. Over in Miami freestyle exploded during the eighties and it remains popular amongst Latin and Afro-Caribbean communities in particular, with regular play on select radio stations. Jesse Perez grew up surrounded by freestyle and, when he began to DJ, naturally started out by playing the music. We spoke to him about his love for the music, his beginnings as a DJ and the culture of ‘backyard parties’ in his hometown. To give you a taster of freestyle, Jesse kindly recorded a mix for us featuring some of his favourite jams – so make sure you hit the play button while reading all about the music that changed his life, and ours…

Shannon recorded one of the best-known freestyle records, and TKA were one of the genre's most popular groups
Shannon recorded one of the best-known freestyle records, and TKA were one of the genre’s most popular groups

“I think some of the first freestyle records came out around 1983, which is when I was born,” says Jesse, whose background is Cuban. Growing up in the eighties exposed him to the world of freestyle, a form of music that sprung up out of Latin communities in America, in particular Miami and New York. In Miami it has remained an intrinsic part of the city’s musical fabric, played in clubs, on the radio and at house parties ever since it first arrived back in the early eighties. “I remember it was still going strong in the late eighties, and in the nineties it was still being played on the radio,” Jesse tells us. “In terms of radio play in Miami, it never really fizzled out, there are still shows playing it now.”

As with so many young people, Jesse’s route into the music came via older relatives and the radio. Artists like TKA, Stevie B, Rockelle, Sa-Fire, Company B, Sweet Sensation and many more providing the soundtrack to Jesse’s childhood. The music transcended the Latin community and resonated with other ethnic minorities in Miami, “It was a huge thing,” Jesse notes. “It didn’t just appeal to one demographic. Before I started high school I thought it was just a Latin thing, since so many of the artists were from that background, but a lot of my black friends at school listened to it, too. That said, even though a lot of people from different ethnic groups listened to it, it seemed to be restricted to specific parts of America; Florida, Chicago, New York, LA, Texas… When I say Texas, I mean a lot of the Mexican population down there.”

As he got older Jesse found himself drawn to DJing, and he soon got his first gig; playing at his cousin’s first birthday party (the main picture in this feature is taken from that very party). His set up was about as basic as you could imagine, even resorting to using a mic to his ear instead of headphones. Of course, he played freestyle at that party, “The first parties I did were all freestyle parties. I didn’t play any hip hop or anything, just freestyle, which was pretty difficult as it’s quite limiting. But that was the music that made me want to DJ,” he explains. “So the first party I ever did was my cousin’s first birthday party, these are straight up backyard parties, it was a mixed crowd of people from the neighbourhood and our parents. I started saving up money and buying my own records, then I started to buy DJ equipment; I rented these speakers that didn’t sound very good but they looked like they sounded good, big ass speakers and some tweeters, and I would play parties with this equipment; playing mainly eighties and freestyle music.”

Jesse playing his first gig on the left, and a more recent appearance is shown on the right
Jesse playing his first gig on the left, and a more recent appearance is shown on the right

Having spent a lot of time with Jesse over the last few years, including a stint at his family home in Miami, DLTM got some insight into the culture of backyard parties; a self-explanatory term which nevertheless we quizzed him about so we could enlighten our readers as to what they’re all about. Jesse explains, “In Miami everything is really spread out, most homes had a decent sized backyard and there was a lot of space between houses, too so it was normal for people to invite friends over and have a party in their backyard. Every weekend in my neighbourhood at least two or three people would be having parties like that – they’d have a DJ over and spin all night.”

Adding, “Some people took it to another level, mostly college kids, by making them into actual events; they’d charge a few dollars at the door and I did a lot of parties like, for frats and people like that. They don’t happen that much anymore because there are a lot of crackdowns, but that was what set me up in the beginning, that’s how I started making money from DJing.”

At most of these parties, freestyle would be played in between other kinds of ‘urban’ music, from hip hop through to dancehall and, occasionally, some traditional Latin music, too. That whole period gave Jesse all the experience he needed to become a seasoned pro, the diversity of the parties and crowds meant that he quickly learned how to play many different styles of music and how to adapt to a wide range of party people, “I’ve done parties for everyone you can imagine; I’ve done parties for Jehovah’s Witnesses, where I couldn’t play anything with cursing or sexual content in it, which is really hard to do if you’re playing to a crowd that wants hip hop. I did all the dances at high school, parties for little kids, LGBT parties, swingers parties… all of them through the backyard scene. I learned a lot about DJing from doing all of those different kinds of parties.”

Sweet Sensation and Stevie B were freestyle superstars
Sweet Sensation and Stevie B were freestyle superstars

One thing we here at DLTM always try to imagine is how music is received in clubs and at parties, how do people dance to it? What did they wear? Whether it’s early house or techno, the formative years of disco, or freestyle, being able to picture how people responded to music when it was played at parties is very important to us. Jesse gives us a perfect description of freestyle dancing, “The way people danced to it was kinda similar to the way they dance in the disco scene from Scarface. There was no dirty dancing, there was a lot of b-boying, too. It’s just like how it is with house music, people don’t generally dance in a sexual way, they’re more into shuffling, or footwork, just doing their thing – as opposed to when I played hip hop or dancehall, then everyone’s grinding!”

Freestyle was huge in the eighties, but never managed to really fulfill its potential and ended up running out of steam. In fact, much of the music played on the radio in Miami nowadays was released back in the eighties. A combination of factors led to freestyle hitting the buffers, some blame the lack of commercial appeal of the artists involved, they were good but perhaps not good enough for the major labels and radio producers to support. A lack of ideas – if you spend an afternoon rifling through all the freestyle music on YouTube you’ll notice that a lot of songs have similar melodies, which demonstrates a general lack of creativity. Infamous freestyle producer and DJ, Mickey Garcia put it simply, “The market was saturated. Many of the releases were not very good songs or productions. The groups didn’t look professional enough. Radio saw this and decided to move on.” (From Fever Records)

Maybe it was for the best that the genre only flourished for a short time, a few golden years that have never been repeated. Its legacy is far-reaching, with everyone from Diplo to Masters At Work citing its influence. Jesse now tours the States and Europe on a regular basis, playing his own brand of bumping house music that takes influence from freestyle and hip hop. He runs his own label Mr. Nice Guy Records and has released with BPitch Control, Eats Everything’s Edible label, Hot Creations and several other high-profile outfits. He tells us that freestyle lives on in his own music, “I try to use a lot of the synths that they used back then, almost imitating that exact but in a different genre. Like my remix of Ellen Allien’s ‘The Kiss’, the synth that comes in halfway into the track is a synth you’d hear in a freestyle song. The keyboard that I used is from that era because I researched it and went out and bought it for like 50 bucks on eBay.”

Over three decades on, there are still annual concerts in Miami featuring some of freestyle’s best-known performers and support in clubs, on the radio and at parties across the city. Coming to the end of our chat with Jesse, we ask what the music means to him, “It means joy, it brings me joy because it reminds me of my childhood. The music sounded so pure. If you really analyse the vocals on those tracks the singers weren’t that amazing, but the songs sounded real, they sounded good. I hate to say it but a lot of music coming out now has a short shelf life, whereas the stuff they were making back then has a timeless quality, it’s never gonna die.”

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Danny Daze photographed in Amsterdam exclusively for Don't Lose The Magic
Danny Daze photographed in Amsterdam exclusively for Don't Lose The Magic

A few weeks ago, while in Amsterdam for ADE, Don’t Lose The Magic spent some time with Danny Daze, an artist who first began DJing in the fertile electro scene in his native Miami. We had a deep and personal chat about a health condition that has shaped his entire life, keeping him away from the drug culture that exists within the electronic music industry and giving him an early impetus to strive for success. And this is the resulting interview… (While reading this, DLTM recommends you flick on his Sunday Podcast set embedded in the interview below)

Can you explain what your heart condition is; what it’s called and what effect does it have on you?
Sure, it’s called Bradycardia and it’s led to DVT and something even crazier that I don’t want to talk about. It’s a condition that affects your circulation. My heart rate is resting at 35 beats per minute so anything that makes my heart go and up down could potentially kill me, which is the reason I don’t do drugs. I feel it whenever I drink Red Bull, or any kind of drink that has stimulants in it, or even alcohol. I often feel really tired. Usually your heart rate should be around 60 beats per minute, mine’s at 35, so… you know…

When were you diagnosed with it and how did your parents come to realise you had a problem?
I got diagnosed when I was a kid, when I was really young, around five or six years old. They noticed that I was really tired, always really really tired. I ended up taking medication for it, but now I’m good. In 2008 I had an incident where blood was coming out of my left atrium, it was leaking and that’s deadly, people die from that. Thankfully it was dealt with, I’m fixed and good to go.

Are you still on medication at all now?
No, no.

How do you keep yourself in check then, because we guess the medication helped to regulate your heartbeat?
It was used to regulate my heartbeat yeah, but other medication was also administered to seal any areas where there was a leak. My left atrium was pretty messed up for a while, so I was given the medicine to help seal it. But the medication I was taking most of the time was to help regulate. It thinned the blood, and I still bleed now, like all of a sudden I’ll start bleeding from my nose and stuff like that. I needed that medication to help prevent DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis). I’ve it and the reason I think I got it was because of the traveling. On eight or 10-hour flights I would never stand up once and that’s bad. Now I’ve started using compression socks. It’s a crazy thing, you should definitely use compression socks if you’re traveling a lot because it does happen. If I were to lift up my pants you’d see I have bruising up and down my legs from that.

So it’s obviously had quite a big impact on your life from an early age.
Well, I don’t think so because I’ve been born and raised a certain way and I don’t know any different. My mum would tell me, “You smoke weed, you’re gonna die”. I don’t think I would have tried those things anyway, so I don’t know if it’s affected me. For me alcohol is way more of a drug than a lot of the stuff that’s out there. The only obvious impact is that fear of dying, which is maybe more present for me than it is for most people. Last time I had a scare, I was on an airplane – I ended up fainting and woke up in First Class. I got hooked up!

You should try and pull that move one more often!
I woke up with a face mask on and we had to do an emergency landing, so that was pretty nuts. That was coming back from New York to Miami. We landed in Orlando, so I almost made it but we had to do the emergency stop, which is crazy because it costs the airline a lot of money.

Ok so it maybe hasn’t affected you because it’s been there since your formative years, but you do have to be conscious of it every day.
Yeah yeah, 100%. I can feel when I’m really tired and I do take notice of that. One of the things I really do have to look out for is diabetes. The blood not flowing right can lead to that stuff so I’m watching how I eat, trying to get as much sleep as possible…

It’s not easy when you’re DJing though, right?
Nah, that’s probably why I don’t party too hard also; I’m trying to sleep and conserve as much energy as possible.

Do you feel like having the risk of a premature death hanging over you from an early age has motivated you to push harder to be a success?
Subconsciously I think so, yes. I don’t have it ‘lingering over my head’ because it’s not a big risk, it would be far worse if this was a serious risk to my life. I’m not at big risk, it’s pretty common. A lot of athletes develop it because they need to pump less blood – their hearts are really strong. When it’s not treated or you don’t know you have it and you become, say, a heroin addict or you get hooked on sleeping pills, you’re done.

We hear you meditate a lot too, is that connected to the Bradycardia?
Not really, it’s more connected to alleviating stress – trying to relax and de-stress. This entire industry is pretty damn stressful. I’ve been doing it every morning I wake up and every night before I go to sleep for 10 to 12 years. I used to do tae kwon do and that’s what we did before and after each class. I really like the way it felt, it feels really good so I kept doing it. I try to spend half an hour doing it every day, but it depends how quickly I can get into a meditative state, I can sometimes be there for quite a while. Thirty minutes to an hour is my average.

Danny Daze with DLTM editor Marcus Barnes in Amsterdam
Danny Daze with DLTM editor Marcus Barnes in Amsterdam

What are the main causes of stress for you?
The industry, this industry… well, it’s not really the industry, it’s knowing when to stop. When you’re your own boss, when you have people depending on you to make money, like I’m trying to pay my mum’s house off, those are the things that stress me out. Knowing when stop is the hardest part; I start when my eyes open and I stop when they’re closed and that’s not good. I’m trying to have a normal day-to-day job and be my own boss.

We know how exactly the freelance life is; there is no end to the day!
You think there will be. You think it will end or it will get easier but the more you grow, the more you’re known, the more pressure you put on yourself. The more you can do, the more influence you can have, the more money you make… it’s just gets more and more. I’m trying to learn how to balance that; a real life, where I can have a wife and kids and this.. crap. It’s ego-driven, everyone’s trying to climb up that ladder and it’s stressful.

You’ve been involved in music for a long while now…
Yeah, yeah, since ‘99.

…this industry is different from the electro scene you were involved with to begin with, but have you identified any parallels between them; were there still egos and people who were driven by money?
Honestly, no. This is the bigger scene, whereas electro was a bunch of people who didn’t really care about blowing up, they blew up and made money somehow but it didn’t come from a conscious effort to do that. A lot of people that I know, that have been doing it way longer than me, are living in a tiny place really excited to get their hands on a new synthesiser. They’re not looking for the brand new Mercedes or wanting to dress as cool as possible. My mind state is still there; I own properties in Miami but I still live in a tiny little spot. I still drive a 2002 Mercedes when I could have a way nicer one. My mindset is still there because if you put yourself in a situation where you’re living in a nice house and driving a nice, brand new car, you might get lazy. I like to put myself in a situation where I still feel like I have to work to escape it. I think I’m gonna stay that way for a while.

This business can sometimes chew you up and spit you out if you’re not careful.
That’s the thing, I don’t know when this is gonna end. I’m constantly living on the edge, thinking, “When is this gonna end?”. It hasn’t yet, but thank God. I’ve been traveling since 2007, but still I’m like, “This has to end, this has to end”, but it’s not, it’s getting better and better. I’m not projecting into the future like, “I’m gonna be this big guy”, I’m just saving money and hoping everything doesn’t go to shit.

What do you think it takes to achieve longevity in this industry while maintaining your physical and mental health?
The worst thing is narcissism. You have to remember that the only reason you’re there is because of the people around you. I definitely think you have to be humble to maintain longevity. It’s not blowing up as fast as possible, making money, then dropping out because that’s gonna mess with your head. If you can be consistent and have a nice, linear rise that’s the biggest thing – the way to that is through humility. Just be humble. That’s pretty much it, and skills. Some sort of skills. You don’t have to be James Brown these days but you need to have skills of some kind.

Do you ever find it difficult being surrounded by people who are getting high?
No, I’m used to it. The electro scene was even worse – it was acid and micro dots and all of that stuff. I was surrounded by it and it doesn’t bother me. It’s even better sometimes because they’re sinking into the music. I don’t mind, I just drink! I get drunk as hell…

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