“If D.J. Berrie rocking the party, put your hands up,” hollered comedian Bill Bellamy from the D.J. booth perched above the dance floor at the sleek celebrity watering hole tenjune last week. The writhing crowd of meaty dudes and shiny-topped trophy girlfriends barely seemed to notice, too busy swilling from bottles of Grey Goose vodka and tucking their boobs into designer corsets to pay attention.
Mr. Bellamy’s next call into the mic—“Girls, if you’ve got a thong on, put your hands up”—was answered with a slightly more uproarious response before D.J. Dave Berrie, a baby-faced D.J. dressed in a baggy gray sweatshirt and graphic black T-shirt, flicked his fingers on his laptop to queue a remix of rapper MIMS’ current hip-hop chart-topper, “This Is Why I’m Hot.”
“It’s definitely more of an industry night tonight,” Mr. Berrie shouted over the music, nodding toward the V.I.P. section, which included long-locked Taryn Manning (best known for Hustle & Flow, but also of the recently canceled Drive) and comedian/erstwhile women’s magazine subject Aisha Tyler. “I’ll try to keep them happy,” he said.
Mr. Berrie, 21, is just one of a burgeoning breed of D.J.’s. Young and rich—Mr. Berrie’s late father made his fortune as the marketer and manufacturer of the Troll doll in the 80’s—they wield their natural-born connections to money, promoters and marketers to secure some of the most coveted D.J. gigs in the city.
It used to be that scions of wealthy families would grow up in Daddy’s image to become pampered workhorses. Or maybe, if his parents were particularly artsy or intellectual, he would be supported while pursuing an M.F.A. or multiple terminal master’s degrees. Connections were always useful for getting into top-notch schools, or climbing corporate ladders.
But today, as we know all too well, the young and trust-funded are often after fame, having secured their fortune as babies. Most of them can get that fame just by going out enough during the week and insulting Lindsay Lohan (what’s up, Brandon Davis!) when there’s a camera around. Yet there are still those wealthy young’uns who manage to develop a work ethic. Today, instead of claiming the corner office, they hunker down behind a set of turntables in a D.J. booth.
Mr. Berrie started spinning at parties for his friends at the New Jersey private school Dwight-Englewood, nabbing his first paying D.J. gig at just 15 years old at then–hotspot Dorsia through a manager friend. He ripened at Boston University, playing at Beantown clubs and house parties, before dropping out to come back to the city, where he lived in his parents’ basement for six months. He honed his mixing skills by studying recorded sets from Jazzy Jeff (yes, that Jazzy Jeff) and D.J. AM (the current media darling who dated Nicole Richie, lost an Olsen’s twin worth of weight and is currently hailed one of the best D.J.’s in the country). Eugene Remm, a partner at EM Group, heard him spin at a promotional event for Heineken beer and hired him to be “the sound of tenjune.”
Now, as Mr. Berrie is tailed everywhere he goes by his manager, an urban-clothing designer, P. Diddy’s ex-assistant and his model/aspiring actress girlfriend, “it’s like watching an episode of Entourage,” Mr. Remm said.
Indeed, Mr. Berrie rides on the well-tailored coattails of D.J. starlets like Mark and Samantha Ronson, the offspring of socialite Ann-Dexter Jones and the stepchildren of Foreigner’s Mick Jones. The ridiculously attractive Mark (holla!) has gone from his humble roots, spinning in college dive bars in Poughkeepsie, to become a successful producer and celebrity fave, recently D.J.’ing at TomKat’s wedding, while D.J. sis Samantha apparently “wants to know what love is” with Lindsay Lohan (according to Page Six, the L.A. buds are dating).
(Speaking—again!—of Ms. Lohan: Though she may not have been born a trust-funder, she is one of a set of celebrities—including Madonna, Tommy Lee, That ’70s Show’s Danny Masterson and Good Charlotte’s Joel Madden—who like getting behind the tables every once in a while, too. In fact, she’s taking a turn at tenjune tonight!)
Lola Schnabel—the sometime filmmaker, sometime artist and sometime dater of Middle Earth kings (her relationship with actor Viggo Mortensen ended in 2003)—is the lady of the pack. The daughter of painter Julian Schnabel recently nabbed a residency at the Chelsea Hotel’s newly remodeled Heather Graham hangout, Star Lounge.
Say the words “celebrity D.J.” and, more often than not, the name Steve Aoki—or D.J. (ahem) Kid Millionaire—will be the first to people’s lips. Mr. Aoki, 29, built his career through his L.A.-based indie-rock record label Dim Mak Records and an urban-streetwear clothing line, Dim Mak Collection. An energetic former hardcore kid, Mr. Aoki is heir to the Benihana sushi-restaurant chain, brother to pint-sized model and Sin City actress Devon Aoki, and best buds with Ms. Lohan, who occasionally drops an MP3 or two with him at his regular Sunday-night residencies in Los Angeles. He is frequently flown to N.Y.C., too, to D.J. at such high-profile spots as high-roller club Marquee, hip-hop hotspot Stereo and tenjune, not to mention Fashion Week.
“I love Lindsay—she’s a very good friend of mine,” Mr. Aoki told The Observer in a phone interview. “Any time that she wants to D.J. with me, or wants me to D.J., I’m going to do that. I’m happy to do that—I mean, depending on the situation.”
Mr. Aoki insists that his father never invested in his business and is tired of the “haters” making assumptions about how he became successful. “Any sort of success that people have, it’s easy to blame it on the easiest thing for people to think of,” Mr. Aoki explained. “It’s the juiciest and gossipy thing to talk about, and they’d rather do that than talk about our ability to stretch a dollar or work it out in other ways to make a success.” Becoming shriller, he insisted: “They can go back and look up the records—I don’t give a fuck!”
But despite Mr. Aoki’s claims, many D.J.’s are getting their gigs simply because of the celebrities they know, the socialites they date, the promoters with whom they schmooze or their namesakes—and not necessarily their talent or skills.
“We probably started booking Steve because we knew his sister,” said Richard Thomas, the marketing and promotional director for Marquee. Mr. Thomas says they pay guest D.J.’s upwards of $10,000 for a single night in the booth.
“D.J.’ing is incredibly hard to break into without connections,” said D.J. Todd Mallis, who has residencies five nights a week at top-notch clubs in the city, including Marquee on Thursdays and Bungalow 8 on Tuesdays.
Mr. Mallis, 26, taught an introductory course at Scratch D.J. Academy, the Jam Master Jay–founded amateur-D.J. school, on how to break into the business. “I lied and said to make a mix tape and get it into the right hands,” he said, while spinning at a tsunami-relief event organized by Petra Nemcova, a supermodel acquaintance, on the shimmering rooftop garden of Ian Schrager’s Gramercy Park Hotel.
Mr. Mallis, dressed in Dior jeans and a white T-shirt, dropped a “cool, sexy New York” set for the BlackBerry-bearing and Prada-clad crowd, with smooth jams like Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That” and that Peter Bjorn & John whistle-themed song that is transitioning from being brilliant to becoming overplayed. Too bad belly-dancing music interrupted his set when Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones made a quick circuit through the party.
But Mr. Mallis said the celebrities don’t faze him. His laid-back, unpretentious demeanor has attracted celebs including Kirsten Dunst, Jennifer Lopez, Benecio Del Toro and Scarlett Johansson to hop behind his swanky turntables. “I’ve never really been star-struck,” he said, the red colored beads on his Tibetan peace bracelet jingling from his wrist while he maneuvered the turntable. “When I see these people in this environment, they’re just clubgoers and there to have a good time, get drunk or whatever is their high for the night, and release a little.”
His father, Harvey Mallis, was the vice president of sales for Perry Ellis for 25 years before moving on to Concept One Accessories, which designs and markets such glitzy fashion brands as P. Diddy’s Sean Jean and sports-team caps that so many D.J.’s cock to the side. His cousin, Fern Mallis, brings sauntering models down the catwalks for Fashion Week as executive director of 7th on Sixth.
“My parents gave me everything I’ve ever wanted,” Mr. Mallis admitted.
Mr. Mallis surrounded himself with promoter friends from his stuffed-up prep-school days at the Upper West Side’s Dwight School, which counts among its alums Paris Hi
lton and almost all the members of the Strokes. “The culture there was really about going out to the clubs and the nightspots, into the city a lot,” Mr. Mallis said in a phone conversation from his Chelsea home. “Something about it intrigued me, but it wasn’t going out. I wasn’t really into experiencing things outside the [D.J.] booth.”
Mr. Mallis got his first set of turntables when he was 16 and fed a serious record-collecting addiction, financed by his parents and by working summers as a lifeguard at a private pool in his parents’ building in leafy Fort Lee, N.J. (which Jay-Z calls home!). He attended the University of Maryland before coming back to New York to study fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, expecting to fall into his father’s well-tracked footsteps.
But in 2000, when he was 20 years old, the boyfriend of one of his model friends (Mr. Mallis remembered her name as Brooke but said, “I don’t even know if she’s alive right now—she had some heroin issues”) was opening a new club called La Peru and booked him to D.J. every Friday night.
His parents occasionally helped him pay the rent for his Village apartment while he left school and mined the record shops. Soon he could afford to pay his own way by being hooked up with gigs through friends like Hamptons promoter Jeff Goldstein and Jen Brill, fashion photographer Terry Richardson’s girlfriend and “Director of Mischief” at the Maritime Hotel.
Six years later, he works mostly from home as a music director for the B.R. Guest restaurant group, which includes making pleasurable background-music playlists for the Union Square lunch set at Blue Water Grill, and D.J.’s five nights a week at the top clubs in New York, providing the latest new rock and hip-hop tracks for celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Tobey Maguire to get down to at the premiere of Spider-Man 3 last week.
But it’s not all glitz and glam.
“D.J.’ing sometimes can be frustrating,” Mr. Mallis said. “You can work incredibly hard to create an energy in a night. You put forth a lot of yourself; there’s nothing to show for it.
“People in New York are not going out because of the D.J. They’re there to be seen buying their bottle and listen to the same songs they’ve had on repeat in their office or in their car or iPod. When it’s unfamiliar, when you’re trying to break that new record, they don’t want to hear it. They neglect to realize you’re putting yourself out there, and it’s not easy,” Mr. Mallis sighs.
“But when I’m up there doing it, I love it. At the end of the day, at 1 o’clock in the morning and they scream—it’s a great feeling.”
So what about that scrappy D.J. subculture? The parties in the basements, the scratch battles, the block parties?
Where are the D.J.’s who aren’t playing the same three Hot 97 chart toppers for celebrity clients, businessmen and strictly guest-list crowds?
They’re there, albeit exactly where they should be: in the underground; in warehouses, in house parties, in … Brooklyn.
On the first Saturday of every month, D.J. Eleven, D.J. Ayres and Cosmo Baker are expected to bring innovative sets to their party, the Rub, at the spacious, down-home local rock club/bar Southpaw in Park Slope.
“There were a lot of people in the neighborhood who were sick of the douche-bag Manhattan D.J. crowd,” D.J. Ayres—a.k.a. Ayres Haxton, 30—told The Observer by phone. He was en route to his Park Slope apartment from a one-night promotion spot for Puma sneakers in Boston. “It’s real music, real people, no bullshit at the door … and we encourage dancing. At the places in Manhattan, it’s all about the bottle-service shit. We serve tall boys instead.”
And the people who come to the Rub aren’t looking to flex their tongue or flash a nipple at camera-wielding “partyographers” like Merlin Bronques of Lastnightsparty.com, or to peep at celebrities dancing behind velvet ropes.
“They come because they want to see what we’re going to do,” Mr. Haxton explained.
The Rub crew, unchained by promoters and club owners, stuns the down-to-earth, hip-hop-head crowd by crossing geographical boundaries, time periods and musical genres to mix cultural fragments into a dance beat. Classic reggae mingles with Bay-area “hyphy,” 80’s pop nuzzles with soul jams, and classic rock gets down with Black Sabbath during their epic sets to bring the 400-plus crowd to rapturous heights.
“They’re expected to do the unexpected,” said Scott Melker, a Philly-bred D.J. who has guest-D.J.’d with the Rub and spins on Thursday nights with D.J. Eleven at Gallery Bar.
Mr. Melker worked as a magazine editor in Philadelphia and owned his own publication, 101 Magazine, before garnering enough gigs to work full-time as a D.J. two years ago.
D.J. Eleven, a towering San Francisco Bay Area D.J. who sports signature black-rimmed glasses, came to New York six years ago, “doing the worst shit you have to do to D.J. here”—like lugging his own turntables to “the dingiest bars” and dealing with drunken girls screaming requests in his ear. “It sucked for three years,” explained Eleven, who asked The Observer not to print his real name.
“Everyone is doing their own thing and out there for themselves,” he said of D.J.’ing. “Nobody’s looking out for you.”
Mr. Haxton lived on the same floor as Mark Ronson as a freshman at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. Inspired by Mr. Ronson and other area D.J.’s like Paul Nice and D.J. Ease, he took up turntabling in his dorm room. When he moved to New York, he worked multiple jobs, writing for magazines, working in book and Web publishing, D.J.’ing weddings and putting out the monthly mix tapes, promotional remixes, unreleased tracks and full-album previews burned onto CD’s that help some D.J.’s make a name for themselves.
Now Mr. Haxton works as a D.J. full-time, with residencies at the Canal Room and Southpaw. He said he doesn’t mind that the well-connected club D.J.’s get the big spots, mostly because they are restricted to play mainstream hip-hop tracks and can’t get as creative as he can on his mixes.
“If you’re making $800 three or four nights a week, pretty much playing the same set, you build it like you’re building a mix tape, and people come back every week to hear you do it because they just know that that’s hot,” Mr. Haxton said. “They’re not motivated to make mix tapes.”
Mr. Melker developed his stellar mixing talents in Philadelphia, “where if you don’t have skills, you get booed out of the club,” and found the overcrowded New York D.J. scene daunting, simply because so many kids were in the clubs doing it, which can generate copycatting and trash-talking.
Mr. Melker said Mr. Berrie dissed a live mix of his, then copied the introduction to it to play at the club. “Unbeknownst to him, I was downstairs in the same club,” Mr. Melker wrote in an e-mail. “He’s got skills, he will likely blow up. But doing other people’s routines? One of his ‘specialties’ is his Oasis Wonderwall Mix into rent (with the tipsy beat behind it). You can see the exact same routine on DJ AM’s myspace page!”ass=”text”>“A lot of them bite ideas from each other and recycle shit,” Mr. Haxton explained about the major club-D.J. scene. “But at the end of the day, it’s a skill that you have to learn.”
Eleven said he doesn’t worry about celebrities taking up the big D.J. nights because they aren’t good enough to keep the party going. “People will say, ‘Oh hey, Heidi Klum is D.J.’ing, I’m going out!’” he quipped. “‘Oh, I’m here—she sucks, I’m leaving.’ In the end, the big clubs have to look at the bottom line.”
Mr. Melker, Eleven and Mr. Haxton, though they might admit to wanting to get paid as well as the socialite and celebrity D.J.’s, said they have no desire to get into their business. “I don’t have a real big interest in that. More for me, it’s about the music that I like,” Mr. Haxton explained.
Somewhat surprisingly, Mr. Aoki agrees, because beyond the hobnobbing with Lindsay Lohan and the double-digit-paying gigs, it all comes down to having a good time. He’s not concerned about becoming the most mind-blowing turntablist. “As far as those types, do you really want to watch a guy doing a guitar solo for 45 minutes, or do you want to see a guy play songs that make you pee your pants?
“The model isn’t like: We’re going to make this amount of money. It’s always a creative reason; it’s doing art for art’s sake,” Mr. Aoki explained. “With D.J.’ing and clothing and the record label, the whole idea of it is one big party.”
Party on, Steve.