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."
Once he stops spinning and starts answering questions, Vasquez comes alive under the fuchsia-color spotlight. One fan asks his opinion of the South Beach club scene. Another asks about Tenaglia, eliciting boos from the crowd. A charismatic Vasquez fields the queries tactfully. Hard to believe that a few hours earlier a more serious, almost bashful Vasquez was struggling to recall how he reached the level where he could call himself the best DJ in the world with a straight face.
"It got to the point in Lancaster where I was down to one friend. We hated Lancaster so bad that we'd go downtown and make fun of people. We were so miserable living in that town we had to get out," Vasquez explains. He sits by the pool of Miami Beach's Tides Hotel recounting his teenage yearnings to run off to New York City and work as a fashion designer.
He did make it there, in the early Seventies. "I had this friend who had moved to New York and she kept encouraging me to move," he says, "so I just up and left. I had this fantasy that I was going to run away to New York and be a big designer and drive around in this car with models." Vasquez (then still known as Donald Mattern) began classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology and worked with top designers Stephen Burrows and Giorgio di Sant' Angelo. He struggled, doing grunt work such as picking up pins in the showroom. At one point, determined not to go back home, he went on welfare. He later attended beauty school, worked in salons as a hairdresser, and did freelance fashion illustration. Finally a friend persuaded him to relinquish his fashion dreams and go to work at Downstairs Records, a store on 47th Street.
During this period Vasquez became a regular at nightclubs, where he would dance and listen to music. After he met Larry Levan, who spun at the Paradise Garage; popular DJ Shep Pettibone, who frequented Downstairs Records; and graffiti artist Keith Haring, whose assistant was a friend of Vasquez, he began to engulf himself in the DJ life. He would spend hours at the Garage watching Levan work. He took over a radio show from the busy Pettibone on a popular New York radio station. When Haring debuted a Pop Shop in Japan, Vasquez went along to play at the after-party.
The Garage closed in 1984, and Vasquez began spinning at house parties, eventually starting his own short-lived club, Bassline. After Bassline shut its doors in the late Eighties, he was approached by the owners of the Sound Factory; he became a partner and worked as a DJ for six years until the club's demise. Although his immediate competition during those days were the seemingly ubiquitous DJs David Morales and Frankie Knuckles, Vasquez had no problem finding another job. He quickly moved on to work at the Tunnel and the Palladium before landing his gig at Twilo (he's been there for a little more than a year), located on West 27th Street -- oddly enough, in the same space the Sound Factory once inhabited.
Adopting the name Junior Vasquez came just as easily. "I wanted to leave all the past behind," he says. "When I began DJ'ing, I started calling myself Junior, and a good friend of mine had the last name Vasquez." Two years ago he trademarked the Junior Vasquez moniker; last year he legally changed his given name. "I waited until I had something to prove with that name. I waited until I had some achievements," he explains. "I didn't want to offend my parents. I wanted their approval."
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Endorsement came from more than just his family: Celebrities began paying attention as well. Madonna frequented the Factory in the early Nineties, looking for dancers to add to her tour and listening to Vasquez, whom she subsequently commissioned to work on the single "Vogue" and to remix her songs "Secret" and "Bedtime Stories" from the 1994 album Bedtime Stories. Vasquez was already familiar with studio work; he had been recording his own albums and mixing for lesser-known artists. Working with Madonna brought him his first taste of mainstream success. Soon others, such as Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, and Cher, came calling. In 1996 he was tapped by John Mellencamp to co-produce his Mr. Happy Go Lucky record. Vasquez says the high-profile, highly profitable phase of his career has slowed down lately, but he remains philosophical. "I'm doing other things," he reports. "I can't be a remixer forever. I can't be the number one DJ forever."
Now he is recording and releasing only his own work. A few months ago he put out his second album, Junior Vasquez, Vol. 2, a double CD of remixes, including his version of the Beatles' "Come Together" and Dolly Parton's cover of "Peace Train," by Cat Stevens. He is also producing Cher's next album. Between studio sessions Vasquez remains happily ensconced at Twilo, where he spins, creates dramas by cooking up rivalries with other DJs, and provides soundtracks for brief shows featuring his favorite drag queens. His life may be hectic, but he is acutely aware it could all end tomorrow. "Working on Saturday night is a total spiritual experience for me," Vasquez explains. "It doesn't interest me to go out on Saturday night. I couldn't enjoy myself. I'd be listening to what the DJ is doing. I couldn't have fun."
Vasquez plans more fun in the future by opening his own unpretentious record store "for the young kids, for DJs, and for friends of DJs." Looking forward to his sixth decade, he foresees himself working as a DJ and continuing to explore an art form that many musicians consider invalid. "As DJs we create the scene and we create a type of environment. We as craftsman put certain things on somebody's record and put it out on the dance floor. Mixing is a talent. I don't claim to be the number one DJ, but if people want to give me that crown I'll wear it. I'm not humble any more," he laughs. "I just work hard every Saturday night.