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Q&A: DJ TJR

An electronic music OG who's been repping dance beats since the '90s...

DJ TJR owned 2013. His bullying electro calling card 'Ode to Oi' stomped onto the playlist of every big name DJ out there. Somehow he raised the stakes with his following cut, the boisterous party smasher 'What’s Up Suckaz', scoring a Beatport overall No.1 and festival ubiquity in the process. Next up was a hugely popular mix for the Diplo & Friends show, and somewhere along the way TJR grabbed a platinum record, courtesy of Pitbull turning his earlier chart topper 'Funky Vodka' into a huge pop behemoth. DJ Mag caught up with the larger-than-life jock in the middle of an Asian tour, and found a charismatic veteran who lives, breathes, and (rarely) sleeps dance music.

What are you up to right now?

“I’m just trying to write some riffs. What I usually do is just sit in my hotel room and work out music. I’ve been trying to learn how to be on the road and make use of time, just coming up with a riff or an idea that I can develop back home, cos I kick myself if I get home and I haven’t got anything written. The tough part is, I use a Virus TI, I’ve used that for six years, that’s my workhorse, and I still haven’t found a VST to match it. I’ll use Sylenth now, and tweak it just to have some sort of similar sound. So what I’ll usually do is take the drop from a song I really like now, and throw it into a track, and then try and work a riff around it, like something really catchy.” 

So who makes the best drops to write to?
“Well, right now I use my own 'What’s Up Suckaz', but for a long time I used Chuckie’s 'Who’s Ready To Jump' — it’s not cos I want to use that drop in my track, it’s just that it’s so hype! Like, it comes in 'WHO’S READY TO JUMP!!!'  And whatever you bring in after that, it better be super big and hype, cos otherwise it’s just gonna be flat. So I know that if I can make something to match that energy, it’s gonna work.” 

With your DJ style a lot of people assume you’re from a hip-hop background, but that’s not the case right?

“Right, I learnt all my DJing, all my scratching, from watching old house DJs like Bad Boy Bill, the guys out of Chicago. Those guys would scratch and do turntablism with house music. In the '90s when I started DJing the DMC was at its peak, and guys like Craze and A-Trak were inventing new scratches every year, it was real exciting, and I would practice crabbing and flaring and everything, but I was like, I wanna do this over house music! So when I discovered guys in Chicago were doing that, I developed my style based on them.” 



In the late '90s America was such a fertile place for dance music, but it stayed really underground —  did you ever expect the scene to get to the point where it became the mainstream?

“No! We’re in the digital revolution now, this is a new era. The way kids can share music and download programs is totally new. When I was DJing in the '90s I could never produce because it was so expensive. I mean, to buy a sequencer, to buy all this stuff, it was thousands of dollars! And records were like ten bucks a record! It was just way too much money. Those barriers to entry were completely eliminated by the internet and the way everything went digital. Now looking back, dance music was just too ahead of the curve in the '90s — it was so far ahead, and now technology has caught up, creating the perfect storm for it to explode into the mainstream.”



Do you feel at all nostalgic for the underground scene of the '90s?

“Well, I’m not bitter. I feel lucky to have experienced the scene when it was very underground, when it was organic. And maybe people were a little bit more open-minded back in the day. When you’d go out, people would always want to hear something new. Now when I go out, people just want to hear what they know, they just limit themselves. I wanna be surprised when I go out. If I play a festival and I play the main stage, or the electro stage, I never stay there after I finish, cos I know I’ll just hear all the same shit — I’ll go to the techno stage, or the deep house stage, or the bass stage. I wanna hear new shit! So in that aspect I miss the '90s, where people were really excited about new things. Now they want to know exactly what they’re going to hear, which can hold you back a little.”



Maybe that’s because when music breaks into the mainstream you get this base of people coming out who just want to hear the hits they’ve heard on radio...

“Exactly, that’s probably what it is.”



DJ TJR

One of the ways that dance has really gone mainstream has been rappers taking underground beats and making them into chart hits… a lot of artists I’ve spoken to would never let Pitbull on their track, but you decided to. How do you feel about that now?

“Well… when 'Funky Vodka' hit No.1 on Beatport, I really didn’t know what my future was going to be. I only had a few months left of money saved, and I had no idea what was gonna happen. I’d moved out to California to try and make things happen, thinking this is the last chance for me with music. So when 'Funky Vodka' hit, it was like a ray of hope. I was like, OK, maybe I can keep this going. Maybe I can make this happen. And then when I found out Pitbull was interested in turning it into a mainstream song, I knew that a) financially it would help me get to where I needed to be, and b) it was a different world — Pitbull’s fans are not into underground dance music, so to me it didn’t bother me.

I mean, I don’t mind Pitbull, I think he does great for a mainstream audience and I thought it’d be a great story to tell when I’m older anyway. So I was like, here’s an opportunity. After I made the decision I had all these crazy things happen, like being in a music video - like when would that happen in my life? I was in a legit mainstream video, just drinking, having fun…I just sent my mom a platinum record a couple of weeks ago, and those are the little things that make me like, man, I’m glad I did it, I’m glad I experienced it, rather than saying, 'ah no, it’s not cool, my peers won’t think the same of me', I mean, whatever.” 



Have you experienced much of a backlash since?

“Yeah, online a lot of people bashed me and hated on me for it. I was told through my management to expect to get that kind of reaction. Sometimes it’s just gonna happen, your fans aren’t gonna like a decision you’ve made or maybe they won’t like a song you made, but I think you’ve gotta just let the pieces fall. I got a pretty good backlash, but I guess people didn’t know my background story, or where I was at. I’ve been making music for a long time, so I understand that, man, when certain things come you need to grab them.”



Are you going to produce more tracks for mainstream pop acts?

“Yeah, I mean, I’m doing that now. I can’t name names but I’m getting involved in pop music. My only goal in life with dance music was to have it as a career, so I never had to step foot in a corporate environment ever again, I never want to have to go back to a life I hated. So now I’m getting presented opportunities to work with all different people, and I’m like, yeah, why not. At the same time I’m not trying to be a David Guetta — I wanna do it on the side, but I also love making more underground music. I’ll try and do pop stuff, but I‘m not having my name stamped all over it.”



And what have you got coming up that you can talk about?

“My next single is with Benji Madden from Good Charlotte, it’s called 'Come Back Down,' that’ll be out before the end of the year. I’ve got like five originals done and my management is trying to figure a release schedule out for them. I did a track with Dirt Nasty called 'Polluted,' and I did one called 'Ass Hypnotized' which we’re finishing up the vocal on now, and we’re just trying to get the release dates finalized. I’m pretty much in the dark, I’m really bad at this sort of stuff. The management do a great job, I just don’t pay attention!”

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