By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Life can be tough when you're known as the Madonna of the DJ set. Just ask Junior Vasquez, a man who has reinvented himself almost as many times as the pop diva. Vasquez is more than just a guy who plays records for a living. He is one of the world's best-known DJs. "I've brought [DJs] to rock-star status," he declares brashly.
And it's only taken him twenty years.
Junior Vasquez is neither a Junior nor a Vasquez. He's not Hispanic, nor is he from the Big Apple, the city to which he owes much of his success. He's 49-year-old Donald Mattern, originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, land of the reserved and decidedly unplugged Amish. He's a modest man of humble beginnings who fled to the Babylon of Manhattan, where he found fame, fortune, and a bevy of well-connected friends who abetted him in his quest to become a commodity. His gambit worked. Today Vasquez says he "doesn't get out of bed for less than $10,000."
Vasquez is a dependable man who has enjoyed long-time residencies at cavernous Manhattan dance clubs such as the Paradise Garage, the Sound Factory, the Tunnel, and the Palladium, where the square footage of his booth often rivaled that of a roomy New York studio apartment. He's a dedicated man whose weekends are now spent pretty much at Twilo, the club where he presides over a weekly gathering appropriately called "Juniorverse." The event begins late Saturday night and lasts until late Sunday afternoon. He's a tireless man who can boast of once spinning for an incredible 48 hours. Most of all, he's an enterprising man who recently trademarked his name and began shilling for Philips Electronics, a move he claims he would have been too arrogant to consider five years ago. Sure, it's difficult being big, but Junior always knew that celebrity was in store for him. Little did he know that stores, as in retail, were in his future too.
It's a sunny, breezy Saturday afternoon, and Vasquez has come to Circuit City in Hialeah on a mission: to conduct four one-hour DJ clinics that shamelessly plug the new Philips Audio CD-Recorder and to promote Philips's "Best New DJ" contest, which he has agreed to judge. Just off 49th Street, Hialeah's perpetually congested main drag, a white tent sits in the store's parking lot. Inside it's as dark as a disco. At the back end of the tent near the open flap stands not a bouncer, not a set of velvet ropes, but a bank of four large televisions all playing the same images. The volume may be turned down but the faces of Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and John Mellencamp are evident. They're obviously yapping about the great things their good friend Junior has done for them, from remixing their songs to producing their albums. A bank of colored spot- and strobe lights hangs from silver scaffolding at the front of the tent. Right below is a black platform, an altarlike setup that holds two turntables, a mixer, and a few other electronic gadgets. Fast-paced music blares out of the four large speakers flanking the platform.
Surprisingly diminutive, Vasquez (not much taller than five feet seven) stands on the platform, hovering a few feet above a crowd composed mostly of Latin-looking young males. The tiny titan spins records, varying the thumping tribal beat. He projects a downtown aura in his baggy navy blue corduroys and long-sleeve rust-color pullover. A couple of days' growth of salt and pepper beard covers his cheeks. His green eyes are bleary; earlier, during an interview, he admits that's more from an evening spent watching sitcoms (The Golden Girls is a favorite) than from a spell of late partying. A beige baseball cap bearing a large blue A tops his close-cropped hair. He concentrates intently as he holds one side of his headphones over an ear.
The disciples are there to pick up tips from their idol. Heads bobbing to the music, they gather around the stage. A few dance; most just stand in front, watching Vasquez reverently, somewhat stunned he is so close. They want to be just like him. "He's a god," says aspiring DJ Roly Aspuru, who attended all four clinics (two this afternoon and two yesterday evening) and asked Vasquez several questions. "He changed playing from just using two tables to adding samples and reverb and delay."
Jordan Flaste, who goes by the nickname "Jiffy," gushes with enthusiasm when asked why he came to see Vasquez: "I've followed his career for years. What he does is completely epic." Although Flaste doesn't want to be a DJ, he came to the clinics for a reason. For the past seven months he has run house-of-joy.com, a Website dedicated to Vasquez. While he and a friend flit around the tent snapping pictures with their digital camera, Vasquez continues to spin, wowing the crowd as he seamlessly segues from one record to the next.
At one point Peter Bivona, a.k.a. DJ Petey Boy, hops up on the platform to observe Vasquez close up. Vasquez is not fazed. Bivona has also attended all the sessions. At the end of the hour Bivona wins a drawing for a CD recorder. (He thought he had been filling out forms to enter the Best New DJ contest.) "I swear on Danny Tenaglia, it's not rigged," Vasquez giggles, making reference to his archrival, a Miami-born, New York City DJ who has mixed for Pet Shop Boys, Michael Jackson, New Order, and Madonna. Bivona is happy to win the equipment, but he is ecstatic about meeting Vasquez: "His style has been a big influence on me. Its tribal, hard-driving rhythm takes you on an emotional and physical journey. It makes you move. I've learned a lot of little techniques and secrets. That's what distinguishes the best from the rest."