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While some people lament turntablism is a dying art, it has recently received a major boost via the nimble fingers of D.C.-based DJ Enferno. During summer and fall, the 2003 USA DMC champion has rocked crowds numbering into the tens of thousands across Europe and the States, hitting the front of arena stages and letting loose on the ones and twos. Okay, so it might not be pure battle artistry — Enferno (born Eric Jao) is Madonna's official DJ on her current Sticky & Sweet Tour.
Long famous (and infamous) for cherry-picking subcultures, Madonna has parted ways with her longtime tour spinner, the high-energy disco queen Tracy Young. In the aftermath is an increased musical synergy between DJ and diva. Rather than simply warm up the crowds or hit "play" on a backing track, Enferno has had a strong hand in tweaking the show's sound.
"It's like she's brought this responsibility out of me that I didn't know was even going to be on the table," Enferno says by phone on a recent morning. (The Sticky & Sweet Tour is, apparently, mostly about work and not too much about play.) "As far as what I do onstage, imagine taking a band that's got a guitar player, a keyboard player, and tracks coming off the computer, and everyone plays all together. When you add a DJ, you add elements of sound, and you affect sound in a way instrument players can't. Then there's all the things I've been involved in offstage."
Though Enferno might not be a household name to casual clubgoers, he was hardly plucked out of obscurity. Beginning as a club DJ in the early Nineties around his hometown of Springfield, Virginia, Enferno quickly came to dominate the domestic DJ battle circuit and soon picked up a national DMC win in New York in 2003. He would grab a runner-up prize at that year's world DMC championships and score another international championship in 2004 in Tunisia. But then his focus shifted from pure battling — although he still considers himself a founding member of the Trooperz DJ crew (which also includes Miami's DJ I-Dee).
Beyond a heavy schedule of international party-rocking, Enferno's next pet creative endeavor was his Live Remix Project. A tech-toy geek's dream come true, it's a part-rehearsed, part-off-the-cuff live DJ/production mixup in which old hits are injected with new club-bumping life by way of turntable, computer, and keyboard. Trainspotters eat up its impressively innovative tangle of wires and software; dance-floor denizens are moved by its democratic multigenre, all-fun groove. This is what hooked Kevin Antunes, Madonna's musical director, when he randomly caught one of Enferno's appearances at the club Blue Martini in Orlando.
"We never met that night," Enferno recalls. "But he got my number somehow and called me up and said, hey, something about Madonna and Justin Timberlake, and I was like, 'I can't hear!' Then he sent a text message, and the text message said, 'This is Kevin Antunes, musical director for Madonna and Justin Timberlake. I saw your show. Give me a call.' He told me to pick out one of my live remix project videos and he'd send that to her. I gave him a video link to send, she saw it, and that's what got me the gig."
Madonna wanted Enferno not only to lend some flavor or street cred, but also to help rebuild some key songs from the ground up. "Kevin and myself would be given some sort of direction. We would work on the arrangement, the remix," he says. "We would be going back and forth with ideas, and we would come up with the product, and we would present this at the next rehearsal. It ended up being that whatever we'd come to her with, inevitably, she would end up making it so much better than it was. It was very much a three-heads-are-better-than-two thing."
Onstage, Enferno gets a little of the spotlight as well. Although he spends most of the set more or less as a member of the band, at one point in the show, he is called down front and center. "I wouldn't say it's a solo, because how much of a solo could you possibly get being on tour with Madonna?" he says. "But I do have a featured part where I'm on the front of the stage throughout the whole song." And although he won't discuss details, there are plenty of fan videos all over YouTube; without spoiling too much, it's a technicolor pop-art segment heavily based on the elements of golden-age hip-hop.
Which is only one example of why Enferno doesn't believe his beloved musical form will go extinct in the near future — it's just evolving. "I've been able to take the same principles and the same technical skills," he says, "and mix that up with actual live instruments and create music onstage. That's my progression."