Mel Debarge on DJ Dreams & Big Breaks

The first thing Mel Debarge offers is a wide toothy grin and smiling eyes. He lights up rooms better than ConEdison with his charisma and DJ skills. I met him when he worked at Marquee, and seeing him there was always a pleasurable time. One day he was picking up bottles, and the next I looked up and he was DJing—and he was good. He is now managed by dGi, and they’ve taken him to places he might never have dreamed of. They don’t manage everyone. To be in their crew you have to bring more to the table than a crate of records or a serato computer program. dGi DJs have ability, personality, reliability, and respect, and that translates into big gigs and big money. Mel’s story is a dream come true in a world that often leaves people short.

When did you think you could actually make the transition from service to DJing? I remember being behind the bar thinking about what record I would play next if I was the DJ. I remember imagining how loud I would turn up my booth monitor speakers and day dreamed about how long I would keep a hit record play out. Of course this would all have to depend on the crowd’s initial reaction to the music on that particular night. Would I be worried about the record skipping just as people started getting into it? I constantly asked myself what record is this and how come I don’t know it? I simply remember always rushing to jot down names of songs or artists I hadn’t heard before. Notes to self on whatever I could find: my phone, a credit card receipt, sometimes my hand. Some nights I would pray for the beers in the bar fridge to run out just so I could make my way through the crowd towards the storage room and I could feel that energy, people dancing, laughing, having a great time. I knew what I wanted to do, and every night I wondered how I was going to pick up all the broken glasses in a way that would not hurt my hands, so that when my turn to make that night into an event came—in the way only a DJ can— I would be in perfect shape to do just that.

How did you come to DJ? Growing up in a musical home was a privilege. My mom loved salsa music, R&B, and anything with soul in it, like Celia Cruz or Stevie Wonder. My uncle was a Disco DJ in the mid 70s all the way through the 80s. I was around it all. I learned how to put a needle on a record at an early age. As I got older I slowly steered away from the charm of it all, maybe just took it for granted but it would be years until I fell in love with music again and found out what it really meant to me.

Did you catch the bug at the club or did you dabble prior? By the time I got to high school I was DJing school parties, but I realized that I did that just because I could, not because it was what I wanted to do, especially not as a career choice. It wasn’t until I left for college when I finally felt like I was comfortable with what DJing really was. I would be lying if I said that Japan (where I went to college) is where I decided I was going to deejay for a living. Japan was the first place I made money doing it. Well that, and teaching English to middle-aged Japanese women who loved American movies. As the school year came to an end, I would come home, year after year, and spend my entire summer working in clubs. Around that same time, I was fortunate enough to become friends with Richard Fleming, who now runs Marquee. As luck would have it, he was my counselor for orientation my freshman year of college, and also the person who got me my first club job in the Hamptons working at Conscience Point.

Tell me about your start in the glamorous nightlife industry. It wasn’t glamorous at all. I was just a sweeper and a runner, but it was at the hottest club in the Hamptons at the time. What did stay with me was the music, the bright lights and colors, the energy in the air, the smiles, how one person could make all these people in one space be in sync with each other to the sound of a record. I remember that moment like it just happened. I was in the middle of the dance floor and I looked up towards the DJ, then looked around at the people. At that point I knew that was it, I needed to find a way to get up there and do what he was doing. As time went on, I moved up in the club ranks and found myself delivering mixers (usually following a female who was always taller than me without heels, and who was always an actor/model/fashion anything) and cleverly maneuvering around the militant and detailed manager, Patrick, while I studied what was going. I realized I had a long way to go and a lot to learn, but somehow being in the presence of great talent night after night, I knew I would one day get there.

DJs in NYC are a community. Tell me about breaking into the ranks and making friends with them. Throughout it all, I was blessed to listen, study, and learn from true artists like Stretch Armstrong, Mark Ronson, and Cassidy. Stretch could make any two records work anywhere—it was like second nature to him. He kept me intrigued when he walked in with yellow manila envelopes filled with records. It wasn’t until much later in my career that I found out those were records in UPS folders sent by the record labels. Mark Ronson would play rock and hip-hop back-to-back, and not lose the attention of a soul. He also inspired me to look beyond the realm of what pop music was at the time. Mark was the first person I heard play not only the hit hip hop records of the time, but also the original it was sampled from. DJ Cassidy not only believed in my art enough to give me the opportunity to open for him numerous times, but he also showed me the importance of mixing and having a musical story to tell. All these artists have one thing in common, and that is the talent to bring out their art, their personality through the speakers.

How did you commit your career to it? It was not easy. There are always obstacles, but it’s always worth more when you go for what you believe in. I know it may sound like a cliché, but it’s the ultimate truth. There have been ups and downs, lefts and rights, those who doubted me, non-believers, and of course the occasional “I made Mel DeBarge who he is today” and “wasn’t he behind a bar last week?” All of these obstacles, quips, and doubts I have embraced with open arms and smiles. I cannot take full responsibility for how I ended up doing this as my career. I can say that I’ve worked hard at getting better at my craft, and also at accepting that some things are just out of your hands. It took me a while to understand that, but once I did, it made me a better person, and therefore a better artist.

What about your big break? Cassidy called me one Friday afternoon and said “I need you to work tonight upstairs at Marquee. I’m doing an event and can’t make it.” I of course said yes—Friday night at Marquee was all Hip Hop and a very ‘happening’ night. I prepared my Vinyl in my crates, all 6 of them (totally unnecessary). Arriving 2 hours early gave away my eagerness. Little did I know that that night was going to be THE night that was going to change my life. At around 2 am, when I thought the room was at the highest energy point of the night (rookie mistake), I get a text from Cassidy saying his event ended early, and he was bringing the whole party to Marquee. What I didn’t know was that the event that “ended early” was Beyonce’s birthday, and that Cassidy would end up bringing Jay-Z, Jermaine Dupri, and many others alongside the birthday girl to continue celebrating at Marquee. I wish I could tell you more about that night, but I don’t seem to remember anything else but that I forgot what order my records were in, forgot how to turn the volume up on my headphones, how I could not stop thinking that everyone was staring at me, and how I must have downed 5 Red Bulls in the span of 15 minutes. The only thing I do remember is that the next day I had come out with a manager, the start of a deejay career, and the respect of my peers.

Tell me about DGI A big part of what I’ve done thus far is not only due to my DJ abilities, but also to being a part of dGi Management. dGi has helped me grow immensely. Damon Degraff and Yoni Goldberg are the architects behind me career. The boutique agency has been a perfect fit for me because of what their target goal is: to let each one of their talents shine through in their own way, to look far beyond working “regular club nights,” and bringing together a slew of DJs with different talents and strengths. I’ve had a chance to share my art all over the world. Technology. Can anyone be a DJ? Every time I read a piece about a DJ or anyone in the entertainment industry, the same question comes up: “How do you feel about Serato? How do you feel about everyone becoming a DJ, celebrities and personalities included?” I don’t see anything wrong with it. The art is going to speak for itself. A program is not going to make anyone a better DJ, in fact, I think it’s the total opposite. Serato has brought a lot of changes to the art, but the thing I miss most is going to record shops and talking to fellow DJ friends and brushing shoulders with people who have an amazing knowledge of music. I hate that I don’t go to Rock & Soul, Bleecker Bob’s, or The house of Oldies as much as I used to. Serato has helped destroy that, destroy vinyl culture. I remember going to Rock & Soul and asking Music Mike about a record I had heard the night before. I didn’t know the name of the record, nor did I know the lyrics, but I could hum the melody and Mike always knew what the record was. Not only that, but he would also recommend a record that would go with it as well as the original it was sampled from. The very important, one-to-one learning part of DJing is rapidly becoming extinct. With that said, I would also add that musically, as a DJ, you simply must know every record on Off The Wall, know who Kurtis Blow is, and Kraftwerk. Otherwise your art will never be complete.

Have you succeeded or is there more to reach for? Regrets? A very wise person once told me “Don’t confuse fame with success.” I’m very grateful for what I’ve achieved this far, for all the people I’ve met, and the places I’ve been. I’m grateful for all of it. My personal goals tell me there’s a lot more to do, a lot more personal as well as career growth to be done. The same wise man asked me if I regretted anything, and I answered NO. However, as I think about this, I think there is something I actually do regret, something I would change, and as soon as we’re finished, I’m going call that wise man and say. “You know what, I regret not documenting every little thing from pressing the Start button on that metal glassware washer behind that bar to pressing the Stop button on the Technic 1200 in the DJ booth at L’arc in Paris, this morning at 5:30AM.”