DJ Contra began life in Munich, Germany, on the left side of the Berlin Wall. He spent his teen years around Washington, D.C., and as an adult, he finally wound up in Miami. Since then, he has traveled around the world, racking up passport stamps as the tour DJ for M.I.A. and, currently, Santigold. But more than that, he has gained musical knowledge and friendships created along the way. These days, his DJ sets reflect a global diversity and boast enough energy to keep the faithful at LIV and Purdy Lounge moving.
If you've read The Alchemist, you know it's not about the destination, but how you arrive there. Contra arrived by getting his start locally on WVUM's show The Underground in 2000. He took listeners on trips through his expanding crates, introducing broken-beat and drum 'n' bass sounds to hip-hop heads while taking advantage of record label promos to get up on new music. A decade later, he's doing a similar thing at select spots around the nation and with his weekly gig at the Dirty Hairy party at LIV — just on a larger scale, with some "open format" mixed in. At this point, we'll let the connoisseur of David's Café's steak sandwiches speak.
New Times: When did you know you wanted to become a DJ?
Contra: I don't think I've ever wanted to "become a DJ" — it's just something that happened over time. It started with hanging out at a friend's house in high school that had turntables. Then I went to being able to only afford one turntable and a mixer and learning how to mix with a radio and two records I bought. Then I naturally migrated into college radio, and from there I started playing at house parties, on to "alternative/indie" club gigs. Years later, I was asked to tour with M.I.A., and ever since, I've been DJing full-time. It's nothing that I really aspired to become.
What prompted your move to Miami?
Plain and simple: University of Miami granted me a much larger scholarship than other colleges I applied to. Had they not, I'd probably be 9-to-5-ing it somewhere.
How did college radio help shape you as a DJ?
It allowed me the relative freedom to continue playing solely music that I liked, as opposed to playing hits, like you would coming up in a club environment. I suppose that still today it gave me a stronger conviction towards playing different or at least new music, unfamiliar to an average listener.
On another side, it also stifled my transition into club gigs. I'd happily mix the b-side of some limited-edition Squarepusher 12-inch at peak time, oblivious to why people's faces weren't melting. Yeah, having to deal with the commercial aspect of a gig was something I had to learn to grow into.
How did you first connect with M.I.A.?
A friend of mine who I used to work with at The Fader magazine hit me up wondering if I was interested in DJing for her. Apparently, she was really unhappy with her DJ and needed somebody quick. At first I said no, because I had just started a full-time 9-to-5 graphic design job. Then, after an hour's lunch break, I called back and said I'd be interested.
The very next day, I called in sick to work, flew up to New York, met up with Maya, and we just kicked it and vibed around the city for a couple hours. I flew back the very same day thinking, OK, that was cool, I guess. Maybe a day or two later, I got a phone call from her management asking if I had ever been to Japan. A day later, I was back up in NYC playing the first of two sold-out shows with her at SOB's and hanging out in the green room with Missy Elliott and David Byrne and even Matt Damon. (Yes, apparently Jason Bourne is hip as shit.)
Between your tours with M.I.A. and, later, Santigold, what memorable experiences stick out the most?
I've got a ton of fond memories and crazy stories I've had the fortune of being a part of. From challenging and beating Chris Martin of Coldplay on his Ping-Pong table, to Ad-Rock and Mike D from the Beastie Boys taking me out for their "super sizzurp" (carrot and ginger juice at some hole in the wall in Virginia), to having Peaches take me to some crazy underground rave in Berlin.
I suppose a defining moment for me was at one of the "Get Out the Vote" concerts that Santigold was asked to be a part of. It was us, Jay-Z, and T.I. Obamarama was in full bloom, and this was also when "Swagger Like Us" was taking over the airwaves. The song, of course, samples M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," and when DJ AM, Jay-Z's touring DJ at the time, dropped the track, the whole arena went nuts! I just remember scanning the thousands of fans with their hands up and feeling so happy because it was on some full-circle tip for me.
Are you working on any original productions?
My own production is super under wraps. In order to have any sort of long-term success as a DJ, it's almost mandatory that you jump into production. As such, I'm getting my feet wet, but only a choice few are hearing anything that I've done aside from made-for-the-club edits/remixes. Thankfully, with the friends I've made, I've got a great base for constructive and knowledgeable feedback and help. It's a great look to be able to just call up Switch or XXXChange, both producers I hugely respect, and ask him about a bass riff or more likely, "How do I...?"
You're a resident at two parties that play for a diverse crowd — Dirty Hairy at LIV on Wednesdays, and Chocolate Sundays at Purdy Lounge. How do you prepare for those gigs?
I don't think I've prepared for a gig since my first house parties, where I had to get those records perfectly in order ahead of time because I wanted to impress so-and-so. As far as Purdy and LIV, they are really on opposite sides of the spectrum as far as Miami clubs go, but I approach them the same way, which is basically just to make it up as I go.
Both parties allow you to get inventive as long as you play within their parameters. At a party like Dirty Hairy at LIV, it gets interesting when you've got a headliner who pretty much covers all the hits as opposed to a more focused guest artist/performer. A week or so ago, Lil Jon was the headliner, and being aware not to stray towards anything resembling a hit parade for fear I may step on his set, I ended up treading into not just nonhit land, but never-been-played-before-at-LIV land.
It's that fine line between getting the texts from the management telling me to "stop playing weird stuff" to having people freak out on the dance floor and telling me how much fun they had, which is ultimately the most rewarding. Granted, had that set flopped, I'd be right back at Gaga and Guetta. So as far as preparation goes, it never goes how you plan, so why not just make it up as you go?
When one witnesses a Contra set, it's clear that you know how to keep all the different groups in check, from the Kendall crowd to b-boys and hipsters. Any tips on how you do it?
Thank you for the compliment, but really I can't think of any sort of tips I could share. I suppose the only advice I can impart is learning what the balance can be for each night or every hour of your set. You know that if you play a Peter Gabriel song, you're targeting a semispecific sort of partygoer, and if you play the new Ludacris, you're usually targeting a different audience member.
The question becomes, how large is the scope of tunes you can get away with playing without detriment to the party's vibe. The hope is, of course, not to just play the happy medium of Top 40 anthems and über-pop hits that everybody may like, but instead to be able to play something that typically targets one group and having the other enjoy it as well — or alternatively, playing something new to both groups and having them enjoy it. Given that Miami is probably the most segregated city I've ever lived in, in some infinitesimally small part, I hope to bridge some of those divides through music.