I remember learning about music for the first time in the second grade. Our music teacher was named Mr. Coble. I distinctly remember being lined up with my classmates and being taught how to tap our foot to the beat of a drum in a recorded piece of music. This was not a problem for me; I could hear the tempo as plain as day. But I noticed almost none of my classmates got it. Everyone was moving their feet out of sync. I remember feeling both bemused and powerful. Why is this so hard for them? Why so easy for me?
My next distinct musical memory was discovering The Art of Noise on MTV in 1985, sitting on the plush brown carpet of our living room floor one Saturday afternoon. I was 10, so maybe this was just a few years later. I was transfixed by that weird little girl busting up a piano in some abandoned train station. I was instantly hooked to the sound of a syncopated electronic drum, fused with this odd imagery. It was like no other sound I knew, and brought out feelings inside that I liked. I made frequent trips to my local record store as a young teen looking for new albums by them.
By the time I was 16 in 1991, techno had hit the airwaves on US shores. I distinctly remember this, too. I was tuned into my favorite station at the time, NYC based Hot 97, and suddenly they began reporting on this new form of music that was taking the world by storm. This thing was called Techno, and they introduced it by playing a rave song by Quadrophonia. It was the first techno song I’d ever heard. I’m sure most DJs remember their first time too. I went nuts. It was like a switch had been flipped in my head, and I instantly knew my calling. I didn’t know how, or why, but I knew that this was it. This sound is what I was put on this planet for.
Within that year, I would begin to discover what it meant to mix music. Now, let me go back a bit by saying that I was heavily into pop music those days. I knew all the top songs between that blissful ten year stretch between the mid 80s and into the mid 90s. Anything in the pop world that came out before 1984 or after 1996 I largely find useless. But I found the music between that gap of time to be timelessly moving. I’m sure my age played a big part in it too. It was a great time to be a teenager (musically speaking, anyway).
Well, it was around 1992 when I discovered the art of the mix. Due to my interest in pop music at the time, I was heavily into radio, and had an idea that I wanted to be in radio when I grew up. On weekend nights my favorite stations had DJs on and they played dance remixes of the pop songs that I knew in this peculiar way. They would mesh into each other with no beginning and no end. Hearing that for the first time was equally as intense as hearing techno for the first time. This was my calling! Mixing music was magic. I wanted to be part of this magic. I wanted to know everything about it.
So I did. I got a job at my local record store on Long Island while still in high school. At the time major labels were sending promo vinyl to the store and the managers didn’t know what to do with them, so they gave them to me. I still have those records, and I cherish them deeply, because I used them to learn how to mix. I grabbed my mom’s belt driven turntable from the den downstairs and brought it into my room. It had some rudimentary pitch control. I was already messing with music mixing tools on my Commodore Amiga computer, and had it hooked up to a cheap DJ mixer a Jamaican guy named Ray from Richmond Hills, Queens helped me buy when I was 14.
I met Ray on the Internet before there was an Internet. I spent my teen years surfing around on what we used to call bulletin board systems (or BBS), accessed from dial-up modem. I was crazy into technology those years. But it was those BBS systems that helped me get into the more underground, inaccessible forms of electronic music, especially because a lot of people from well known hacking groups in Europe were posting animated musical demos flaunting the Amiga’s graphics capabilities. It was a magical time.
I spent the rest of my teen years locked away in my bedroom discovering all this stuff. I couldn’t get enough of it. My mom used to come busting in my room complaining about the smell, opening every window whenever she could. I didn’t care. I wasn’t interested in the outside world. I wasn’t interested in making friends or learning about anything that didn’t have to do with electronic music or communicating with people via all this new technology.
Well, I did have one very close friend growing up. Her name is Kristina. We were inseparable from the ages of about 5 to 15. I remember hanging out with her one weekend night. We were in her brother’s car, driving around somewhere on Long Island. I had them put on Kiss FM because I liked their DJ that night. I showed her how they blend songs from one into the next. She looked at me and said, “Oh, that’s cool.” I said, “This is what I’m going to dedicate my life to!” She kind of looked at me funny.
Nobody around me seemed to get it. And increasingly, nobody seemed to get me. Discovering my sexuality during those years only put a finer point on how isolated I felt from the world. There was a lot of fighting in my house growing up. It wasn’t terrible, per se, but there was some dysfunction. I was picked on a lot in school. I was the little kid, frequently called fag. My room over those years was my refuge. My dad, the audiophile he is, handed down to me one of his old amps. I used it to blast the music away until I couldn’t hear the fighting downstairs, or the doubts in my head about where I stood in the world. Everyone had their escape. Mine was music and technology.
My two main takeaways from those early years were discovering my coping mechanisms, and then a promise I made to myself. When I was 16 I finally accepted the fact that I am gay. I remember the moment like it was yesterday: I was in the back seat of my family’s minivan as we pulled up to some vacation house we had rented in New England. A ton of thought and soul searching went into every personal decision I made about myself, even by then. And I remember thinking, well, you can try and fight this all you want. Nobody around me seems to understand it or accept it, but this is who I am. Because of this strong link I felt towards electronic music, I learned to embrace the things that came naturally to me. So I made the decision right then and there to always be true to myself, no matter what.
One thing my father taught me growing up was to understand, listen, and respect what was going on inside me, and to express those things when appropriate. Although my parents split by the time I was five, I feel so lucky he stayed close to teach us some valuable lessons. He gave me the tools and the building blocks to learn how to handle all kinds of shit on my own. Based on my upbringing and my personal circumstances, I learned how to be self reliant. And this is what helped define the independent soul that I am today.
Coming soon: College & Early Career