Here’s the story behind a talented producer/DJ representing New York City in a way that bridges the old guard and the new. Eli Escobar has been working non-stop on his craft since the 1990s. And with two albums, multiple releases and a slew of residencies he has finally come to a happy place as reflected by his latest work.
Photo by Kenny Rodriguez
I feel like there’s been a lot of buzz about you, especially in the last few years. I know you’re a staple in the New York club scene, but I don’t know much about your history. I thought I saw in an interview somewhere that you were once in a hardcore band?
Well I’ve been living in New York all my life. And from a young age I explored every genre of music you can think of. I was in a band in high school, but we weren’t just hardcore. We had a lot of different influences and our music didn’t reflect just one sound. Sort of like my DJing I guess. That was around ’91, ’92, and around the same time I became really interested in DJing, got a pair of turntables and started practicing at home a lot. I was mostly into Hip-Hop more than Punk music or whatever. Back then in New York it wasn’t unusual for people in different scenes like that to coexist together.
I had a lot of records because I had been collecting records since like the early ’80s when I was super young. Any money I had I would take it and buy 12″s, so I already had a pretty decent little collection. I taught myself how to DJ, I kinda just figured it out pretty fast… you just pitch the record so that it matches the tempo of the other and then make it work!
When I got to college there was a pretty good party scene. Not like the way you think of a party college, like drinking beers and frat boys, but more like Hip-Hop, Reggae and House Music. I went to SUNY Purchase. So we had really good parties on the weekends. It would be crazy – we’d have like Afrika Bambaataa and KRS-One, all sorts of crazy people coming quite often for these parties and shows. And then I started to DJ at those parties. I was hanging out with older people that were DJs and they would let me open up and get down with them. So that was kind of like my Don’t Look Back moment.
You had mentioned also that because you weren’t really interested in the 9 to 5 grind you wanted to support yourself entirely with music, so you did some gigs that had more mainstream music?
Yeah I paid my dues so to speak. I started DJing professionally the minute I graduated college. So that was in 1997, and at that time there was still a separate clubbing culture. We used to call certain music “club music.” There’s a whole generation of people (and this is very true of Chicago too) who learned about songs from clubs and not from the radio. So at that time I was still DJing for people that were anywhere from their early 20s to their 40s, which means some of these were people that had been going out in the late ’70s and ’80s.
The climate was different back then. When I started DJing (what is now I guess what you would call “open format”), the music was still great. But yeah, you gotta eat. I cut my teeth as a DJ playing whatever gigs I could get, and playing for the crowd that was there.
That’s a really admirable thing, having to keep up with all that music, both underground and above.
Yeah and it’s the kind of thing where once you stop it’s kind of hard to go back. Like if for some reason my career went into a standstill and I had to go back to grinding it out five nights a week in Top 40 clubs, I wouldn’t know where to start. It does take a certain amount of work to stay on top of everything. And also to know how to play it right. It’s hard work! It’s actually a lot harder than playing music you love. Playing music you love is easy!
You know how when you go out all the time everything can be a big blur and there are so many nights that you probably don’t remember? Well I remember the first time I went to The Loft Vividly. People looked at David Mancuso as a kind of minister.
Tell me about some of the clubs that helped your formative years as an artist.
There were a lot of experiences I had in New York, you mentioned Shelter and Body & Soul and I was massively influenced by Danny Krivit and Timmy Regisford. I also had DJ friends like Rich Medina and Citizen Kane and we would go to Dance Tracks together.
Citizen Kane brought me to David Mancuso’s The Loft, that was awesome. You know how when you go out all the time everything can be a big blur and there are so many nights that you probably don’t remember? Well I remember that night vividly, the first time I went to The Loft. I remember at least five of the records he played that night. It was the first time I heard “Stand on the Word” and I remember the next day finding a copy of it. That was awesome.
Really? Wow! What kind of crowd was it there?
I was young at the time so everyone seemed older to me. I think what I remember most about the crowd at The Loft was that it was one of the first times I would say I was at a predominantly gay party. And what was really striking to me was how everyone was singing along to a lot of songs that I thought were so obscure, that only super obsessive Disco record collectors knew about them. And I saw that these records really meant something to them. People looked at David Mancuso as sort of a minister. Back then his parties were every month. That was one of my top 10 all time clubbing experiences.
What are some of the residencies that you have and was it hard to infiltrate what I guess you would say was the current order in New York clublife at the time?
There’s a huge benefit to growing up in New York City. We were going out when we were in high school. I was basically going out since the early ’90s and I just knew so many people in the club scene that I don’t ever remember it being hard. And right away I had my Fridays and Saturdays locked down. Back then I used to dream about how amazing it would be to only DJ and do your thing, not just being the House or resident DJ at a club. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but I know that the climate in New York started to change. In the late 2000s the bottle service thing started to get really played out. A new group of young people started to go out and moving into New York, like the gentrification in Brooklyn. They wanted a dancefloor and good music to dance to.
We started Tiki Disco in 2010 and before that I had a party called “Work” at this place called SubMercer in 2009. So I think it was just a matter of me sticking it out. People knew that I could do lots of different things. By that time the climate started to change and the stronghold that certain people had in the House Music scene changed. There just became more room for other people to fit in.
I think my longest residency was at Bungalow 8 which was like a legendary club and it might have been seven years I was there. I also have regular recurring gigs in Dallas and Miami, and in New York I play every Wednesday at Le Bain at the Standard Hotel, Tiki Disco is every other Sunday from spring to fall.
Don’t focus on being “well-known.” I think that’s a mistake. You should really want to be making music. You should feel like it’s an essential part of your existence, like breathing.
I was really curious about this shift in New York City nightlife. My memories of clubbing in New York were always limited to Manhattan and I know everything now is supposed to be outside of it, specifically Brooklyn.
I think there was stuff that was starting to happen in Williamsburg in the early- to mid-2000s. At the time I used to say, “I’m not going to Brooklyn!” It was a foreign idea to me then to go clubbing anywhere other than downtown. Like I said before, I think there was this new generation of kids living here and they weren’t going to the same places that people like myself who were in my age range or older who were going out to Shelter or Body and Soul.
I remember the couple of times I did try to go to a party in Brooklyn it was just so far and so hard to get to unless you had a car!
Yeah I’ve gotten very used to it. In the beginning I would be like, “Oh God I gotta do this again?”, but now I’m on the L train a few nights a week – like, “Yup, this is my life now.”
Do you think Manhattan will make a comeback?
Yeah! I think the main problem in the scene is there is this big divide. I think the best party in New York is in Manhattan in my opinion, which is Sundays at Flash Factory, the party is called “Battle Hymn.” They have a good cast of DJs and I’m very lucky to be one of them. And a lot of the people that I see at the Brooklyn parties are just never setting foot in there. I think a lot of people have the mentality that “Manhattan’s corny, Brooklyn’s dope.” It’s unfortunate because there’s still more of a vibrant weeknight scene in Manhattan, while Brooklyn is very weekend-oriented. It’s strange that people in their 50s are happy to go out on a Monday night and party, whereas millennials in Williamsburg are home except on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s strange, I think a lot of it has to do with tradition.
So with your music, when did you officially start producing or were you always doing that at the same time you were DJing?
My mom tutored me in violin when I was four, then moved me to piano and I stayed with that for a long time. Then I switched to guitar, and when I got to college I started out as visual arts major but after one semester I switched it to being a music major because my school SUNY Purchase had a whole digital recording setup in the music building. That was in ’93 and I started making beats right away.
My first record came out in ’99 and I’ve been steady releasing records since then. But I think I started to really get attention almost like 10 years later.
You just released your second album “Happiness” and a lot of these songs reflected how things were going good in your life – you just had a son?
Yes I had a son, my first album was successful, but mostly it was just having a son. That was the highlight of my year. I’ve been traveling pretty much nonstop for 10 years now as a DJ and just this last year I was reflecting on that and feeling happy and lucky.
Lastly, do you have any advice for upcoming producers?
I’ll tell you this kid emailed me recently on Facebook and he was like, “I really admire you and your music and I wanted to know if you have any advice on how I can become a well known producer and DJ.” And I said, “Don’t focus on being well known.” I think that’s a mistake. Everybody wants what they want in a different way, and I’m definitely the tortoise in the race. I think in the end that’s better because if you take your time and you really work hard you’ll be proud of what you end up achieving. Whereas if you just look for a quick fix you might burn yourself out in a year.
You should really want to be making music. You should feel like it’s an essential part of your existence, like breathing. It has to happen for you to keep going.
As far as the DJing side of things I always thought the best thing to do is to be a club person. You have to like going out, you have to know people in the scene. That was always to me the most important thing: if you know people, it’s so easy. A lot of people will be like, “Well I’m not DJing tonight so I’m staying home and watching Netflix.” Like I’ll do that too sometimes but a lot of times I’m like, “Oh my God I’m not DJing tonight I can go see DJ so and so!”
Up next, Eli Escobar will be releasing a remix EP (with contributions from Mike Dunn, Kon, Soulphiction and Honey Dijon to name a few), followed by the single “Music” in early 2017.
Published in 5 Magazine Issue 140, featuring Eli Escobar, Booker T, Ant LaRock, Closer To Truth & more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full Access to Real House Music.