Layla Benitez goes with the flow. Before landing her residency at Space Miami, she didn’t follow a clear-cut path in DJing and producing, despite her dad being an esteemed musician, songwriter, DJ and music producer.
In the ‘90s, Layla was more familiar with a DJ booth than probably considered normal for a child. Her father, John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez, brought her to the clubs where he was DJing on the condition she didn’t leave the booth. Here, she would crawl under the turntables and fall asleep for a disco-soundtracked nap. Now, she’s well accustomed to loud environments — an ideal outcome for where she’s at today. But before Layla landed her residency at Space Miami, it took a while to figure out what she wanted to do in life.
In typical Layla fashion, however, it happened organically. The last few years have been a whirlwind for the 28-year-old. She relocated from New York to Miami, accepted a residency at one of the most seminal clubs in the US, and moved away from her Afro house-led sound. Now, she prefers playing and producing indie-dance, citing Chaim and Jenia Tarsol as some of her favourite artists. But a typical Layla Benitez set could see her gliding through deep to tribal to progressive house, with club-ready melodies destined for a four-hour session she’s privy to at Space.
When DJ Mag talks to Layla over Zoom, she’s in her apartment in Miami, where she’s lived for the last few months. It’s a cloudy morning, but sunlight still seeps through the window behind her. She is entirely at ease, speaking thoughtfully and articulately. As a New Yorker, she’s relishing the laidback feel of Miami. “I love the music scene down here. I love the people,” she says. “It feels like home, and I honestly can’t imagine leaving at this point.”
Growing up, Layla absorbed the hustle and bustle of New York, but from an early age, she learned how to be still — long before meditating became mainstream. She attended a Quaker school, where her teachers implemented a mindful practice each morning. “We had to sit in silence for an hour before our day would start,” she recalls. “Kind of like meditating and putting everything aside before you really get into what is important to focus on. I think this is one of the main things that stuck with me."
At home, Layla trained in classical piano and gained an encyclopaedic knowledge of ‘70s and ‘80s disco, thanks to her father’s sprawling record collection. “I remember when he was home all day on the weekends, he would be DJing vinyl in our house, so even if I didn’t want to hear it, I’d still hear it — it definitely got into my head.”
When Layla was 13, John taught her how to DJ on a pair of Pioneer 900s. The same year, they went to Ibiza — John for work — where she was exposed to the Balearic scene for the first time. Intrigued with the island, she returned with friends in her late teens. The itinerary included stops at Pacha, Amnesia, Cocoon and Ushuaïa. Hearing DJs like Ricardo Villalobos and Luciano opened a new world of dance-driven sounds for Layla, and on the plane ride home, she had an epiphanic thought about a career in DJing.
Back in New York, Layla studied photography at Parsons School of Design. She DJ’d casually for friends and local parties before graduating with a BFA in 2012. She enjoyed photography, but her passion dissipated after her tutors constantly pushed the conceptual side of the craft. Unsure of what she wanted to do next, Layla took bartending jobs in New York, and her mind drifted back to music. “Music was something I was doing the entire time,” she says. “I was listening to new music every day. The second that I decided to focus my career on it — it was just natural.”
DJing professionally happened by accident. A friend booked Guy Gerber to play in New York, but his warm-up DJ couldn’t make it on the night. He asked Layla to fill in; she agreed. The set went well, and unknowingly, she left an impression on promoters in the crowd. “A bunch of people heard me play, and the following week, people were hitting me up like ‘Can you play this party, can you play that party?’” she says. “And I was like, ‘Yeah! Let’s do this; let’s just go for it’.”
Around this time, Layla hung out in her friend’s studio in New Jersey. She observed him making beats, and before long, Layla was producing her own. She explains how her classically trained ear was a bonus, but ultimately, music is embedded in her psyche. “I think there is a certain level of this [music production] that you cannot teach. It has to come naturally, it has to come from your soul,” she says. “I definitely have that.”
Outside the studio, Layla’s bookings snowballed, with stints in Mykonos, Ibiza, Turkey and Miami. Then, Covid happened. With her gigs culled, Layla moved back to New York, specifically Long Island, where she stayed with a friend who happened to have a studio. Layla delved back into production. But producing club-orientated sounds didn’t bring much joy. “During the first five months of Covid, I was focusing on producing music that was much more chill and more of a deep house vibe.” One of those tracks will appear on her forthcoming release on Lee Burridge’s All Day I Dream label.
When clubs re-opened in November 2020, Layla was booked to play in Miami. While she was there, clubs shut again in New York, so she decided to stay on for a few weeks. She met one of the Space owners, David Sinopoli, who offered her a residency on the basis she moved to Miami. A week later, Layla signed the lease of her current apartment. While a residency at Space was a turning point for Layla, it was also an initial learning curve. The club is known for programming b2bs among the residents, who vary in genre and technique. “I would go into Space at the weekends to not only meet the residents but to learn and take in what I could,” she says.
It paid off as Layla got more comfortable playing b2bs in particular, but she still feels those pre-performance nerves from time to time. “I think there’s always gonna be that feeling in my chest that I just want to do well,” she says. “I’m working on my confidence. I know I do well, and I am confident in the sets that I play, but I think caring is one of the most important things that I hope never fades.”
Next up, Layla will make her Coachella debut in April, drop her first release on All Day I Dream in the summer, return to Ibiza and Mykonos among other spots across the globe, and of course, remain a fixture at Space Miami. Taking stock, Layla fondly remembers a phrase her father said to her growing up. “If you find a career that you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” It seems like Layla followed his words to a tee.