‘I feel DJ-ing is a progressive, entrepreneurial profession’

‘I feel DJ-ing is a progressive, entrepreneurial profession’

By Taru Bhatia | | 2 September, 2017
Aaron James, DJ, disc jockey,  Lil’ Kim, Indian audiences, India tour, Sheryl Crow
Aaron James.
Among New York’s most celebrated DJs, Aaron James, who has manned the turntable for more than 20 years now, speaks to Taru Bhatia about performing on the big stage, and his India tour.
When did you start your career as a disc jockey?  What was inspiration back then?

A. It seems like a lifetime ago, 23 years I think. But before becoming a DJ I was more or less happy with just living in New York City and doing whatever it took to make a living. I was certainly a music fan and had an expansive taste with everything from acid jazz, trip hop, hip hop and R&B, to jungle, break beat, and house. But at the beginning, I can’t honestly say that I was inspired to be a DJ by anything specifically. What inspired me mainly was the incredible euphoria - along with the accompanying nervousness and fear—that washed over me on my very first attempt.  I had never before fully experienced those twin sensations and it moved me beyond measure, to the point where I knew that I had stumbled upon something very special, which was to become my calling.

Q. Share with us some of your memories that you consider the highlights of your musical career.

A. A flood of memories come to my mind. To name just a few, I’d say the time I played on the plays at Burning Man more than a decade ago. It was just another worldly experience never to be forgotten. Also, the 2008 Rock The Vote Tour in the US, crisscrossing more than 50 cities, while helping to register over 2.4 million voters in the largest youth voter drive in American history, all while opening up for, or otherwise collaborating with, some of the biggest acts of my career who were also partnered up with the tour. Names like the Beastie Boys, Sheryl Crow, Eve, TV On The Radio, Santigold, Bootsy Collins, Talib Kwele, Jack Johnson, among many others.  One more occurrence that stands out from the rest would be one in New York very early on in my career—a private VIP event which had me as the opening act for performances by John Digweed, Sir Elton John, Groove Armada, and Lil Kim. That was just too incredibly surreal.

Q. Was there ever a turning point in your career?

A. It’s a tough question to answer, but I would have to say the aforementioned event with John Digweed, Elton John, Groove Armada, and Lil’ Kim, which was a super swanky private party for the famed photographer Dave LaChapelle in an old theatre in Midtown Manhattan. I’m not sure if I could ever top that one but I have spent the better part of two decades now trying.

Q. How are the Indian audiences different from the audiences in the West?

A. The Indian audience is just as lovely and special as any other. I see this as universal, despite our many cultural differences around the world. Put people in a club, on a dance floor and you’ll notice the commonalities substantially more than what sets us apart. Also, I’ve always been fond of Indian audiences and they definitely come ready to dance and not stand around looking pretty.  They are full of power, to hit the floor and get the party started.

Q. Tell us more about your recent India tour? What can the audiences expect from these shows?

A. Thus far I’m having an absolute blast.  And looking like before all is said and done, by mid-September, I will have played in eight or more cities across the country, making this one of the longer tours I have done here or anywhere.  New Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, Shillong, Guwahati, Kolkata, Chandigarh, and hopefully Jaipur—all within a three-week window. As for the audiences expectations, being an open format DJ has allowed me to access markets and work at venues that have different music policies. Basically it depends on the city and the booking, for example in Mumbai with the two venues I’m working with, Rodeo Drive and Luna. I’m working with an expectation for commercial hip hop and R&B, twerk, reggaeton, and dancehall, the club hits basically. In some of the other markets I get to wear my other skin as they say, and rock the deep-house and underground-house vibe.  When you’ve been in the game as long as I have, and have such diverse taste in music, it keeps the job fresh and interesting to play different styles for different audiences. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It is a very progressive career in the sense that if well executed it allows us to in a large extent, get off the grid in regards to any traditional way of making a living.

Q. How is this India tour different from your other tours here?

A. Well, having done a number of them in India to date, and having earlier lived here for a few years—I think five in total—the real joy for me on these tours is being able to catch up with all my friends in their respective cities.  Having lived in New Delhi, Mumbai, and Goa and having visited so much of the country over the years, I’ve made quite a few friends, some of my best friends in the world actually, lifelong mates.  So getting to catch up with them is an absolute joy and the real sweet icing on the cake. Probably, that is the reason why I keep coming back here, again and again, and will continue to do so as long as I can.

Q. You have worked with Elton John, Eminem, Pitbull, Lil’ Kim, Sheryl Crow and many more. How was it, sharing the stage with such luminaries?

A. The experience of working with some of the biggest names in the industry has been like jet fuel keeping this journey alive. It has propelled and inspired me along the way to be a better DJ and to work harder to always improve. It has also been an incredible joy and honour. I am very grateful for each and every one of these opportunities to take it to the next level. I hope to have many more before I’m done.

Q. Do you feel a crowd is actually able to appreciate the intricacies of DJ-ing?

A. I think it all depends on the context and the expectations.  For an ordinary club night in the typical commercial venue for example, I’m not sure the average audience member is too concerned about the method or level of difficulty involved, they just want to hear the hits. Keep it simple. For musical acts that have made a name for themselves using all kinds of creative methods, albeit new technologies or any one of a wide variety of live elements, I feel the crowd is absolutely in tune at those shows with the living laboratory of new sounds coming out of the booth. The method and complexity therefore means a great deal to them as they have come to appreciate that as the primary selling point for that act or the artist.

Q. What about DJ-ing as a career? Would you recommend it to others?

A. It is a very progressive career in the sense that if well executed, it allows us to, in a large extent, get off the grid in regards to any traditional way of making a living.  We can be our own boss; decide our own schedules, which jobs to take or turn down, and define and re-define ourselves on a regular basis.  Most of the time I very much feel this job has a true entrepreneurial spirit to it.  Going in this direction for me was like jumping off of that treadmill I was being groomed on for just running, running, running, but never quite going anywhere. One could of course argue that I left that corporate-type treadmill life behind only to get onto a different sort of treadmill, with its own limitations and monotonies, but at least it’s a treadmill I very much prefer and it better suits my particular spirit.  

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