Hailing from the dirty, dirty south in the Mississippi Delta, DJ Ayres grew up in a house super-soaked with a multitude of musical stylings. From Muddy Waters to Michael Jackson, it was a new fad called skateboarding that would expose the budding radio DJ to the leftfield jams that he would ultimately become best known for. Walking away from a lousy nine-to-fiver, Ayres kicked mixtapes around with Ten Deep before starting a new wave of NYC club nights. From The Rub to Flashing Lights, Ayres has all genres covered, making him one of the most eclectic DJs on the scene today. We were fortunate to chat to the Rub-rat on the eve of his local tour with buddy Nick Catchdubs. Put yo hands in the ayre, it's DJ Ayres!
You grew up in Mississippi which is a city heavily influenced by blues and jazz? Was there a lot of roots music being played in your house as a young'un?
There was more blues than anything. Because my dad grew up in the Mississippi Delta, he didn't like Led Zeppelin or The Beatles or anything that seemed like it wasn't Delta Blues. That music was like stealing from the music where he grew up. So when he was young he would go and see Muddy Waters, BB King and all those guys before all the musicians started moving up to Chicago. That was when he was a teenager, so mostly what was played in our house was blues records but my mum would play the soundtrack from Cats and Michael Jackson's Thriller album - so there was a mixture of loads of poppy music as well.
Did this lay the foundations for collecting vinyl and essentially starting to play your own records out?
You know I think it honestly came from skateboard videos more than anything else. I've been a skateboarder since I was eight years old, so I think a lot of my identity came from that. I got turned onto a lot of weird punk and rap music that nobody else really listened to. A lot of it was mail order cassettes from skateboard magazines, so that started the buzz. By the time I got to college in upstate NY, back in the early to mid '90s, Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito were really big and hip hop was beginning to get huge. That's when I got really into buying vinyl to play on college radio.
We did hear you used to have your own radio show through high school and college?
Yeah, I played a couple of times on the RnB radio station in town during high school. That was just a friend's late night show. He played hip hop and Chicago House - he was really into vogue-ing! So I played there a few times. Then we did this weird youth panel sort of thing on the same radio station where we would talk about political issues - I'm really glad there are no recordings of that!
What year was this around?
I graduated from high school in '94 and college in '98, so when I was in high school, it was the time when a new school of hip hop (that era of Public Enemy and De La Soul) was coming out. That was obviously really big at the time...
It still is! It's DJs like yourself, that grew up in that era, that are still bringing those beats to the forefront. Is it important for you to keep heads schooled in the old, just as much as the new?
Definitely. You can't get away from it. When I moved to Brooklyn and started DJ'ing in the city in '98 you would never have heard a Tupac or Snoop Dogg record. It was really only outside of New York that the music was being played. It wasn't heard out and about here until at least 2000. That golden age of hip hop was all you would hear until the South completely took over. You had a lot of guys (especially the turntablist guys) who really leaned on that music a lot. It's great to hear it out now - but then again, it's like that type of music that your friends who stopped listening to music after university (like Pulp or Blur) wanted to hear. It's the same thing they liked ten or 12 years ago - they think that it's the best music ever. Don't get me wrong, it's great music, but it's not the ONLY thing.
Do you find it hard to drop new music when you play out, or are audiences more and more open to new styles?
Not anymore. Before people knew who I was, when I was just playing bars and bottle service clubs - those gigs where you have to be a good DJ, but you don't have to be a name that people know because you weren't the main attraction - back then it was hard. New Yorkers are really fickle so if you played two or three songs that they didn't know in a row (especially in the late '90s and mid-2000 when hip hop was getting really big with Puff Daddy etc) you would lose your job. In a sense it was a lot harder then than it is now - I definitely get a lot more liberties but at the same time it's still New York, you still have people who think they know more about DJ'ing than you do. At The Rub we have a really unique situation where we can get away with a lot, but then if you have someone come from out of town that thinks we do a certain thing and then they try to do it, it just doesn't work. There is a fine line - it's just a lot further left than the line usually is. But it's still New York.
For sure! Those 'Rubs' have gotten us through many deadlines at Sneaker Freaker. The mixes are so out of leftfield that we are constantly surprised! Is each session meticulously planned out, or is it more a free-for-all mash?
The mixes are pretty different from the club experience and when we play live, we play a lot more hits. When we make a CD we try to make something that has a lot more familiarity with it, so that a regular person would be interested in it - it doesn't go over their head or isn't too esoteric. At the same time you can get away with more. You don't expect people to be really drunk when they listen to a mix CD whereas in the club, people just want to hear their jams. We definitely try to keep it live. Cosmo, Eleven and I have been doing it for seven years now, and we like to keep each other on our toes. We know how to follow each other really well - but at times a song will surprise one of us, but the feeling is very consistent. We're playing pop music from the '60s up to contemporary - I don't think there are a lot of parties that will play Motown on the same night as you will hear Young Jeezy.
Is that spontaneity the main success behind The Rub then?
Yeah, you might know you will hear a certain song, but you don't know what time it's going to come on, what's going to be played before that or when it's going to drop!
Is that mad-cap formula hard to maintain each month?
The way that it works is that we started the night in a neighbourhood that didn't have any club nights. The guys that promote it grew up here so they had a lot of friends all our age that wanted to come out and hear good music. That, and the fact that they didn't want to spend up a lot of money or rub elbows with the 'bridge and tunnel' bottle-service crowd. So we had a built-in crowd from the start. The crowd has changed over the years, as all our friends got older they started to stay at home and not go out as much, so we have had to maintain a young crowd. We could have outgrown that club after two to three years because it was sold out every month for five years, but we really liked the owners and liked our deal we had there and the vibe is so good, that we never wanted to move it. Those conditions played as much importance to maintaining the night as the music did. We don't promote it all - we don't have flyers or anything - people just know it's on the first Saturday of every month, so they just show up.
And now you're starting Flashing Lights with Catchdubs! How do you keep up with it all and the travel?
Yeah we've been doing that since last September. I haven't missed The Rub or a Flashing Lights actually. I have missed only two Rubs in seven years. I schedule my travel around it all. I also have a 14-month-old baby, so I want to stay at home as much as I can. I try to keep it down to five days in the month travelling and the rest of the time I stay home.
You've been doing this for how long now?
Since 2001. I had an Internet job for a website that I was editing and then the Internet boom ended and the stock market crashed. While I was on unemployment, the Twin Towers fell and the whole economy in NY changed. I kept on DJ'ing and I never really went looking for a day job after that.
Where does the connection with Ten Deep come in then?
My friend Scott created the label and he went to college with me. Mark Ronson also went to that college - there was a bunch of people from Poughkeepsie around that time that I'm still in touch with and work with professionally. Scott and I lived two blocks apart in
New York in 1998. I would go wait at his house while UPS came with all his t-shirts and he would go into the city and work his day job. This is when I was temping and had a lot of time on my hands. I kind of helped out with him early on. Then we did a lot of mixtapes together, actually seven, which helped a lot as he had built-in distribution. He got them out through the clothing company. Now it seems really obvious that the street wear shops are centres for DJ culture but at the time there wasn't huge streetwear brands back then. So I got in on the ground floor with that so I was lucky.
Speaking of lucky, you get to return down under this month with your Flashing Lights brutha Nick Catchdubs. You must have a tight relationship?
I was there a year and a half ago. Yeah we work a lot together, we get along great. We worked a lot together on The Rub. He did a lot of The Rub flyers for the first couple of years and even guested there as well. Flashing Lights we do together. The Rub was more hemmed into playing more soulful music; we didn't really get to stretch out our electro/dance wings. That music has become a lot more popular in the US and NY especially in the last few years, so I wanted a regular residency where I could play it. Nick seemed like an obvious person to collaborate with and he has Fool's Gold, so he has a really good reach with a lot of connections that way. We're all on the same booking agency so we're able to make a lot of things happen through those connections.
Is that what we are going to hear? Raver tunes mixed in with some Rub grub as well?
Nick and I were just talking about that today. I like to play hip hop, not at Flashing Lights because it's a pretty specific style there, but when I'm out of town travelling I play a lot more house and electro than I would at The Rub. But I always make a point of playing hip hop. With The Rub we are getting more work playing hip hop because a lot of people can't do it anymore. You have guys that were great hip hop DJs four years ago, who now, all they play is electro. I love that kind of music, but for four, six, eight hours at a stretch, it just becomes way too much. At the music conference this year, a lot more people were playing hip hop again because they are starting to realise there needs to be a balance. The electro music is so new for us, obviously in Australia and Europe dance music has been four on the floor for over 20 years, but here Crookers 'Day 'n Nite' and songs like that made it cool to play electro and have dance parties. Everybody gravitated towards that, so people who weren't playing house music now don't want to start out playing hip hop and work their way up to it, they just bang it out all night, which gets old pretty fast. That's cool, but somebody has to play hip hop! And that someone will be me!