Those tuned in to the local club scene in the 1990s will remember Ray Velasquez. In addition to hosting Nocturnal Transmissions, a Saturday-night, electronic-music program on the much-loved Lawrence station KLZR (the Lazer) 105.9, Velasquez was a pioneering DJ at venues in KC and Lawrence from 1983 until 1999, when he moved to New York City. There, he has kept up the pace, with regular DJ gigs at Manhattan clubs and lounges, and has performed alongside such names as Paul Oakenfold, Paul Weller and Suicide.
Velasquez returns to Kansas City this weekend for shows at the Jacobson on Thursday and the Riot Room on Saturday. The Pitch dialed him up last week at his home in Brooklyn.
The Pitch: What are your regular gigs in New York at the moment?
Velasquez: My regular Saturday night is at Mono + Mono, which is a jazz-themed place in the East Village. It's this huge, cavernous, gorgeous restaurant, and there are something like 30,000 jazz records that line the walls of the place. But it's closed for the next two months. About three weeks ago, the roof of the place literally caught on fire at the end of my set. I was packing up and climbing down from the DJ booth when they evacuated everybody. I walked across the street and saw flames shooting 60 feet in the air. The DJ booth was the first to go because it's elevated.
Do you tend to spin at lounges and trendy restaurants?
Lately I've been spinning at Sen, which is a nice Japanese-cuisine type of place in the Flatiron District. But I'd say hotels and lobbies and lounges are probably my specialty. I'm hoping to find a rooftop gig somewhere in Manhattan this summer. I think that'd be a good fit.
On Thursday, you're doing a set at the Jacobson, which is kind of a trendy restaurant downtown. Can you talk about how you approach a room like that?
Yeah, so at the Jacobson, I'll be doing Groove Indigo, which is a format I've been doing every week here in New York since around 2000. The roots of it actually go back to playing in KC way back when. I had a night called Blue Monday, which was kind of acid-jazz-oriented. By the mid-'90s, it had evolved to include jazz-flavored house and downtempo breakbeats and even some drum and bass. I would do it at Liquid Lounge, which is this club that used to be on Southwest Boulevard. Groove Indigo is now all those elements, mixed with even more stuff: jazz funk from early to mid-'70s, some really gorgeous, brand-new deep house, lots of which has a European flavor. What I really care about is emotional content — I'm not really interested in genre. But yeah, Groove Indigo works best in a sophisticated cocktail, dining environment — it's conducive to cocktails, dining, dancing. There's even an element of seduction involved, I think. It's kind of like a sort of social lubricant. I want it to make it easier for people to relate to each other and enjoy each other's company.
Then on Saturday, you're at Riot Room. Did you ever play there when it was the Hurricane?
One of my early gigs was on that patio when it was the Hurricane, in 1986 or so. I would have been playing stuff like New Order, Cure, OMD, Simple Minds back then. It was quite fun. This is the first time I've played there since then, I think, which is like, what, 25 years? So all this stuff is fun. It's crazy — I can't believe how long it's been.
How will that set differ from the Jacobson's? Probably edgier, I would think.
Yes, I always try to adjust my format to the creative vision and concept of the space. So at Riot Room, I'll be doing Sabotage, which has a harder edge. I had a drum-and-bass night in the late '90s that always had kind of a punk-rock ethic to it, but also with some big beat and rock. I'd throw in, like, the Clash or something. So this will be similar to that — more dance-oriented. Sabotage was created out of my interest in not being linear when it comes to music and emotion. Do you know what I mean by linear?
Like, not varying tempos over the course of the set?
Right, exactly. At the time I was developing Sabotage, a lot of club nights would be DJs doing the same BPM for, like, six hours straight, and I find that incredibly uninteresting. There'd be no swelling or diminishing of energy, little emotional exploration. So I wanted to explore drum and bass, downtempo, and these other styles that were not steady house music. I wanted to mess with people's perception of what dance music is, and kind of try to prove that electronic music can have a punk-rock feel to it.
You've been a DJ for more than 30 years. Are there any trends in DJ culture now that you're particularly fond of or disgusted by?
DJ culture is — well, for one, I'm really happy that you used that term. "DJ culture" was not a term that existed when I was coming up, and I think it's really great that the world of DJs has come so far. But I think the culture has also reached an odd place. And I wrote about this a long time ago. In the mid-'90s, I said, "In the future, everybody will want to be the DJ. Everybody will want to be behind the decks instead of in front of them." I mean, we've reached a point where everybody has access to the technology that allows them to express themselves. But just because you have a stethoscope doesn't make you a doctor, you know? The tools are readily available, but a lot of people aren't taking the time to really figure out how best to use them.
As for trends in the actual music, I think EDM is to techno as Olive Garden is to Italian food. EDM is basically bad pop music from bad pop stars being remixed by global performers and DJs. There are, of course, good remixers and bad remixers. A good one will hopefully enhance a song for the dance floor, and a bad one will make it formulaic. And we're getting a lot of the latter. But there's an amazing amount of great electronic music out there right now. The new-disco trend of the past few years, I've thought, has been pretty fun — making the vibe of traditional disco more contemporary. And I'm still massively into ambient music. It's wonderful how someone like Brian Eno is still releasing ambient albums that are really quite good.
How tough is it right now in New York to make a living as a DJ?
I've been very fortunate ever since I got up here. At this point, my schedule is basically that during the day, my work is getting work, and at night, my work is performing. I've got a place in Brooklyn, in Carroll Gardens, that I've had since I moved up here, so I've been able to keep affordable rent. And the neighborhood is beautiful. Smith Street, the main street through the neighborhood, actually reminds me a lot of Mass Street in Lawrence. And really, the neighborhood overall reminds me a lot of Lawrence. There's an anchor of families that have lived here for generations but also this influx of young creatives that have moved in over the past 10 years. But the young people aren't intolerable like they are up in Williamsburg or whatever. So it's cool. I sometimes say I've always been a New Yorker, I just didn't live here until 1999. But at the same time, I'm fiercely proud of my KC and Lawrence roots, and I draw upon that a lot in my creative life.