Ten questions with DJ Equal

Asheville native Elliot Heller (aka DJ Equal) is based in New York City but returns to WNC on Friday, May 24 for a show at Club Tetrus (130 College St.). RBTS WIN also performs a DJ set as Brutal Wizards. 10 p.m., $10.

In advance, Heller talks to us about his career, the New York scene, how he finds new music, and his travel tips.

Mountain Xpress: Tell us about your show at Club Tetrus.
Heller:It’s a dance party, it’s a DJ show. When I first moved to New York, I would come home a few times a year and I’d play a gig, whether it was supporting Toubab Krewe at The Orange Peel or doing my own thing at a smaller venue around town. I played last year at Carnavalito at Pisgah Brewing, but I haven’t done a club set in two years in Asheville. I’m stoked. It’s been a long time since I’ve got to see a bunch of friends and just show where I’m at as a DJ. I’m so stoked to have RBTS WIN on the bill. I’ve know [Cliff] from RBTS WIN since I was a skater kid downtown. They’re a great example of an artist whose music I try to slip in a set when it’s appropriate. I’ve had people come up and say, “What’s this?” I’m like, “That’s my home town! That’s what that is!” 

You moved to New York in 2004. What drew you to that city?
I always wanted to live in New York, from a super-young age. My sister told me that when she left for college, when I was 5, I made her promise that we’d live together in New York one day. We do both live in new York presently. It’s nice!

But I moved to New York to further my DJ career. I had a nice thing going in Asheville. I was heavily involved in the hip-hop scene, basically opening up for every hip-hop act and DJ act that came to the Orange Peel, playing the Wednesday night dance party at Emerald Lounge and whatnot. But there was only so much you could do at that time, in Asheville, as a hip-hop DJ.

I moved and it was exactly what I was looking for: being a tiny fish in an ocean of DJs. It forced me to adapt. I realized you can’t really make a living as just a hip-hop and r&b and reggae DJ. I learned to play rock and funk and soul. In the past five years I’ve really dived into electronic music and learned the history, learned what’s popular now in the commercial and indie.

Was it daunting at first?
It was definitely hard as far as getting work. That was slow process. But it wasn’t super-daunting. I had traveled to New York to DJ many times before I moved here. Plus, I have family and friends here. I made a point to learn the city as quickly as possible when I got here. I stuck with it and it paid off.

Growing up in a musical family, what attracted you to DJing as opposed to playing in a band?
I definitely wanted to be in a band. I got my drum set when I was 5 years old and was super into it. I played all the time with my older brother [Drew Heller of Toubab Krewe], but he had bands with people his age, and he’s five years older than me. I looked for kids my age who were really serious about music but couldn’t really find any that wanted to have a band. When I was 10 or 11, drumming became less of an interest and I got into hip-hop and skateboarding. One day I happened upon a turntable at the back of Hip Replacements and asked if I could take a spin and they said sure. It immediately felt comfortable and I loved it.

It wasn’t like a decision, though. I wanted to be in a band. Luckily, I’ve been able to fulfill that desire in New York. I’m not currently in a band but I’ve been hired as the tour drummer for some artists.

You talk in your bio about “Moving tirelessly between downtown NYC’s cutting edge music and arts scene and the West Side’s velvet rope dance club circuit has helped Equal develop his eclectic style.” Can you tell us a little bit about those two different worlds?
There are always clubs and events happening in New York. I definitely started out not doing any of the velvet rope clubs, because that’s a scene that takes time to get into. The art stuff, some of the gigs are like playing at an art gallery opening or a conceptual party with some sort of theme.

For years I threw my own parties. I had a business partner and we threw parties with different themes every week. Not much of a door policy — anyone could come. And people came because we were giving something different than you’d find in a club. I was playing not much commercial music. We were bringing artists in to play who were unknown at the time. My favorite party that we ever threw was for a music publicist who represented the GZA and the RZA from Wu-Tang Clan. The GZA was going to perform two songs. What ended up happening was Raekwon came [too] and they did an hour and a half of every Wu-Tang classic, taking turns doing to missing member’s verses. This club only held 150 people, packed to the gills, and no one knew they were going to get that. That’s just one example of the interesting, random things that can happen downtown on any given night in New York.

The velvet ropes — that’s a scene. It’s money, it’s people spending tens of thousands of dollars on bottle service, it’s way more structured, musically. Clubs have “do not play” lists. They have restrictions over what sound effects you can use. I love doing both [art events and high-end clubs]. I love playing for big commercial rooms. My only concern with any gig is playing exactly what will get the biggest reaction from a room. When there’s an opportunity to expose a crowd to new music that I’m feeling, and I know it’s a safe environment to do so, that’s great and I love that as well. And of course we all try to sneak in our favorites, even at a more structured club.

How do you keep up with music and discover new music?
It’s definitely the part of the job that takes the most amount of time. It’s my responsibility to do my own research, which can be from browsing blogs, looking at charts, looking overseas and seeing what’s trending or what’s popular. But I’d say the best way that I have is taking what I find and sharing it with my tight-knit group of DJ peers, and they do the same. I get some of my best stuff and most-played stuff from friends.

Is it really competitive?
I think most DJs have their own support groups of DJs. I absolutely try to help out my DJ friends and I have friends who look out for me, as far as trying to get work. But it absolutely competitive. There’s a great scale of different-sized DJ agencies out there. I’m competitive with myself, just to stay working and doing good gigs.

What about celebrity DJs? is that annoying?
No, celebrity DJs are great. They’re absolutely not taking away gigs form more traditional DJs like myself who grew up playing hip-hop on vinyl and spending all of our money on records and hours of practice. When people hire a celebrity DJ, they’re not hiring them because they’re necessarily a great DJ. I’ve had some great gigs supporting celebrity DJs and I’m thankful for those. I think you’ll see less of that in the future. It will peak. People want to hear music played well, and eventually it will return to DJs being hired for their selection and skill rather than being hired for their brand.

It sounds like you get to travel a lot.
It varies year to year. Since last August, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling. I really only work in New York two weekends a month, if that. There have been months where I’m in New York during the week, but every weekend I’m out of town, and I love it. I love to travel. It’s one of the top perks of the job, for sure. I don’t mind the long flights and the schlepping and the waiting for the promoter in some random country. It’s all interesting.

Where have you discovered a cool music scene, or what’s been a favorite trip
There’s been so many. I think Berlin has impressed me the most as far as the local nightlife scene. In everywhere I’ve been, there’s been the least pretentiousness in crowds there. I’ve been to very different types of events and clubs and generally, everyone is just there to dance. Not to say that they didn’t look cool, because they did, but they weren’t there to look cool, they were there to have a good time. It’s so refreshing.

Sydney, Australia — I’ve been there twice — they have a great scene. And there’s so much good music coming out of Australia. But I knew that before I went there. To play an Australian artist at an Australian club, you get a great reaction.

My other top places, if I had to choose, would probably be Tokyo and Iceland. Iceland is a must. It feels like being in outer space.




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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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