Space Resident Layla Benitez Has the Dance-Floor Pedigree to Back Up Her Sound

After moving south from New York City, Layla Benitez set her sights on becoming a resident at Club Space.
After moving south from New York City, Layla Benitez set her sights on becoming a resident at Club Space. Photo by Ro Orozco
A DJ's progression from novice to superstar can often trace a linear path, starting with informal sets among friends, moving on to residency at a nightclub, and eventually earning their stripes and traveling the world.

DJ/producer Layla Benitez prefers more of a zigzag approach.

A club residency often serves as a stepping stone to a career, but the 28-year-old Benitez initially leapfrogged that step and went straight to playing shows around the globe, her penchant for Afro and deep house motivating the world's dance floors.

Yet like virtually everyone else, when the pandemic put an end to bookings, Benitez had to recalculate.

In November, she packed her bags and flew to Miami from New York City.

"I was only supposed to stay for a week or two, but everything was shut down in New York, and the events were canceled for the upcoming month," Benitez tells New Times. "I was getting a lot of bookings down here, so I stayed down here for a little longer and set goals. I [wanted] to be a resident DJ at Club Space."
After connecting with Space co-owner David Sinopoli, she was given the opportunity to open for the Brooklyn-based duo Bedouin at the club's outdoor venue, Space Park, in January. Benitez kept the music and vibe in harmony during the event and officially assumed a spot on the Club Space roster.

Still, she soon learned that she had to readjust her way of thinking behind the decks. A resident DJ must never outdo the headliner; their task is to keep the music steady and maintain the flavor of the main act.

"Before I became a resident, I was like, 'I'm an Afro-house DJ. If you hire me, you're getting Afro-house,'" Benitez says. "After playing Space, I learned a value in adaptation, realizing I need to be more open as an artist."

By the time Benitez opened for Italian tech-house DJ Marco Carola, she'd updated her library with thousands of new tracks. She also brought a positive mindset to capture Carola's patented sounds.
click to enlarge Layla Benitez - PHOTO BY BRYAN KWON
Layla Benitez
Photo by Bryan Kwon
"I needed all new music. Nothing I had was going to work," she says. "Now, every time I play, I'm going into a set with a fresh perspective. I'm discovering that I do have a passion outside of Afro-house. I'm able to find my voice in every single genre."

Few clubs go to the lengths Club Space does to spotlight their resident lineup. After shifting to new ownership in 2016, the club expanded its openers and closers, mixing back-to-back sets among veteran residents like Ms. Mada and Danyelino with cameos by fellow locals like Nii Tei.

After the Bedouin event, the owners wanted Benitez to play back-to-back with all the Club Space residents — the better to build rapport and understand each DJ's method.

"I was nervous the first time I played with Danyelino," Benitez admits. "I went into it not knowing what to expect, but after playing with him, I was like, 'I need to go home and buy more music and be more prepared next time.'"

A graduate of the Parsons School of Design, Benitez continues to refine her practice with every set.

"I'm learning how to mix breakbeat. A lot of the residents have been helping me with that," she says. "There was one day where I met with [fellow Space resident] Bakke, and he showed me all these different ways to end a set."

Benitez has only been DJ'ing for four years, but her appreciation and skillset trace to her first teacher: her father, the dance-floor trailblazer John "Jellybean" Benitez.

"When I was around 12 years old, my dad would teach my sister and me how to DJ," she recalls. "He also taught me how to play on vinyl."

Jellybean held residencies at institutions like Studio 54, the Funhouse, and Palladium. In the '80s, he took New York City club culture mainstream and remixed songs for the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna. Jellybean is also regarded as the first DJ to have signed with a major label (EMI).

"My dad would bring me wherever he was traveling and I was able to go into the club — even if I was just staying in the booth with him," Benitez recalls. "I got to experience the life early. I have memories of falling asleep behind the booth."

With life slowly returning to normal, Benitez looks to continue her sonic evolution — and to keeping the dance floor moving and grooving.

"I feel like Space is a family," she says. "Anything I need, I know I can go to them They are such a great group of people, and such warm energy and so caring. I think a part of me wanted that there."
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Grant Albert is a writer born and raised in Miami. He likes basset hounds, techno, and rock climbing — in that order.
Contact: Grant Albert