Noisy traffic lanes buzz cacophonously, scores of people lost in conversation, taking photos, following every star sign. City tour and nightlife street promoters are poaching for clueless suckers they can make a quick buck off. It’s a Thursday night and Hollywood Boulevard is notoriously busy, as always.
We meander through the streets, crisscrossing swiftly to the more spacious, emptier parts, and walk into the Redbury Hotel lobby. Seconds later the elevator doors open, producing the lean statuesque figure of DJ EZ (pronounced E-Zed) sporting his signature black Nike baseball cap.
It's the start of the Londoner’s first ever North American tour and though he tells us he has been to the States before for vacation, this whistle-stop tour doesn't leave much time for relaxing. “I’m just doing short one-day trips, so not going to have a lot of time to do sightseeing – just hit the plane, do the gig, eat and sleep,” he says, as we make our way over to the bar. “It’s my first time in LA though, and from what I have seen so far I love it! I tried Chick-fil-A for the first time today. They have this great sauce that I can’t get enough of!”
Humble, softly-spoken, self-made and focused, Otis Roberts [EZ] embodies all the traits that most 'DJs’ today seem to leave behind in their private jets. The UK garage legend is a bonafide, DIY traditionalist with a diverse portfolio spanning over 25 years. In fact, when DJ Mag is scheduling this interview, we notice that EZ has a phone number listed on his social media channels and website - rather unusual, since you'd expect him to have a full team to look after his career.
He thinks differently. “That’s not my personal cellphone number, it would be rather overwhelming if that was the case,” he laughs. “No, that goes straight to the office. I’ve never had a manager or a booking agent. I’ve got an agency for my USA bookings now, but throughout my entire career no major companies or agencies have managed me. I find it more rewarding to do things in-house. I’m a very hands-on kind of person and so I like taking control of things. It’s pretty much like a nine to five job.”
Sustaining his DJing career has been no easy task. He started off as a pirate radio DJ in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, back when it wasn’t possible to host online mixes like it is now on SoundCloud and Mixcloud. There was no one hit wonder or faux button pushing to score him a residency or touring deal, just good ol’ fashioned hardwork. “I miss the pirate radio days because it was no holds barred, and there was a lot of freedom,” he tells us wistfully.
With the rigid laws in London banning any kind of illegal radio activity, he explains how ever shifting tech developments helped keep the pirates one step ahead – to the point where one of the largest, Rinse FM, now has a legitimate FM license. “There was a lot of new technology come into place. You could broadcast from one area, and then not actually be there. [Originally] you would set up a transmitter and all the equipment in one building, making it quite easy to track you. [After] you could be in one place, like this hotel, and broadcast 10 miles down the road.”
It's his impeccably curated Pure Garage compilations, his radio show on KISS FM UK and, most recently, his Fabriclive 71 mix that have been instrumental in establishing himself as the go-to tastemaker of garage music – plus his incredible skills behind the decks, scratching, cutting and blending with an array of skills clocked up after innumerable man hours behind turntables.
“When I first started DJing I was playing all kinds of music, but I settled for Detroit techno and a lot of the old house stuff,” he tells us on his roots. “That’s a sound I was really into back in the day – Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson.
I was into a lot of jungle and hardcore back in the late ‘90s as well. But then I came across this local radio station that played a lot of slower-tempo stuff. This DJ was playing a track from one of Todd Edwards’ early releases on Nervous Records. So when I heard it, I was like, 'What is this man? This has got some serious groove!' I started doing my homework, listened to radio shows and have been hooked ever since. So you could say it was Todd Edwards that got me into garage.” This might surprise those who only know Edwards from his collaboration on Random Access Memories.
The inimitable bouncy two-step beats and soulful melodies of Disclosure have given rise to a whole new range of undiscovered producers. However, with so much media attention geared around electronic music, the number of new genres being forced into being is shifting focus away from the foundation of it all, at least in EZ's eyes. “All the newer stuff is so good, but I don’t like that it’s being labeled, like deep house, jackin’ house, there are so many different names right now.
But it all has the underpinnings of garage. That’s the beauty of it, because it has a softer side and harder side, so I’m happy to be in that genre.” When asked about any future projects and productions in developments, a cheeky grin pops up on his face. “I can’t say too much, but I am looking to release another compilation this winter though.”
It’s approaching half-past eleven and EZ’s set time draws near. Tonight, he’s playing at SOUND Nightclub’s latest monthly party, Night Bass, hosted by Trouble & Bass head honcho AC Slater. We leave the Redbury when EZ’s ride arrives. His face is brimming with excitement, ready to kick off this tour. “I’m all about the energy. I’m looking to create the highest atmosphere ever. It takes a special feeling to read the crowd, you know.
There are a lot of DJs out there who play a set for themselves. For me, it’s all about reading that crowd, catching like one or two of them, and creating a chain reaction. If you can get a group of guys or girls and make that connection with them, then that’s it. It also comes down to a few key tracks.”
While in the car, we engage in a game of rock, paper, scissors. We've been discussing a DJ's ability to mind read crowds, after all, so decide to test him. In the span of 30 seconds he crushes us three times. Make of that it you will... As we enter the club EZ walks in first, shaking hands with the security guard and making his way to the booth.
Star Eyes is deploying some blatantly whomp-tastic, booty shaking bass tracks. There is a fierce, high-octane surge of energy whirring around SOUND’s avant-garde, glitzy underground ballroom. As Star Eyes closes out her set, AC Slater takes control of the mic and introduces EZ.
There is a baseline hand-off of sorts – music simplifies into a driving beat with just the right amount of bounce. Within seconds, the playful “DJ EZ theme’ erupts from the Funktion One sound system, cryo blasts fill the floor with smoke, a funky bassline kicks in, bottles pop, dancers take positions and the crowd cheers emphatically. Like a true legend, EZ rampantly mixes his set up, shifting from old school piano melodies to crossover friendly bass music, and the crowd is hypnotized. EZ’s concentration doesn’t break. It takes years of dedication to reach this level, but at this stage in his career EZ makes it look easy.
words: RISHABH BHAVANI