The Next Act: Dan De Leon

By Michael Martinez

Argentina-born, Dan De Leon began his “creative” journey at the early age of 17 when he made history by becoming one of the youngest producers ever to debut a feature film at the 1997 Sundance film festival. Since then Dan has written and produced multiple music tracks, music videos, and films that have been seen in more than 20 film festivals in over 11 countries. These accomplishments are only succeeded by Dan’s passion for music. Dan produced his first track Show You which was signed under DJ Chus and released under Stereo Productions in 2007.

Dan’s productions have hit the BILLBOARD TOP 10 Dance Chart and have appeared on the world’s top DJ compilations including those of the preeminent GLOBAL UNDERGROUND (UK). His remix work includes BILLBOARD #1’s and numerous Top 10’s and Top 20’s for Nelly Furtado, Kristine W, Noelia, Debby Holiday, Salme Dahlstrom, Consuelo and others. In 2012 he founded his own label, PUMP Records, with a debut release collaboration “Ecstatic State” written & produced by Dan De Leon featuring Supermartxe’s Nalaya Brown & DJ Marco Da Silva. Dan’s heart-thumping high-energy House style has been enjoyed by the masses at some of the most prolific venues and events around the globe; including Matinee N.A., Avalon Hollywood, Victor Calderone’s EVOLVE, New York City Pride, CROBAR Chicago, G Music Festival Mexico, White Party Palm Springs, Winter Party Miami, NATION Thailand, and Atlantis/RSVP Cruises, just to name a few. Dan’s music can also be heard at any hour around the world on his podcast “PUMP RADIO”, which has been rated one of the top 40 worldwide. Even with his impressive list of accomplishments in film and music, nothing says more about Dan’s passion for music than to see him “in the music”.  Earlier this year I had the privilege of joining Dan at Sound nightclub in Hollywood with his mentors and friends — the musical duo of Chus & Ceballos. Over the course of that evening Dan gave me a lesson in sound that most young DJ’s could only hope to experience.

More recently, this past July I was able to catch up with Dan during Dore Alley weekend here in San Francisco, and here is what Dan had to share with Left Magazine…

I’d say you’ve been a busy, busy boy; but I feel like that is a huge understatement. <Dan laughs a little and nods his head yes> Oh… just a little bit.

Before we get into discussing current events and the excitement to come, let’s take a moment to rewind back to the beginning. While most 17 year olds are chasing tail and playing sports, you were producing a film that was seen at the Sundance Film Festival. So I was a very movie oriented kid when I was like 15, and I had a revelation; I felt like I was born to be in the entertainment business. I went to every movie every day of the summer, I spent my whole summer in movie theaters, and there was an absurd amount of movie watching. And in my senior year of high school I got involved working on this film. It was a world first a movie done by teenagers, so I spent about 2 years on this team with other teenage kids and mentors, and Hollywood mentors, and got a lot of help from big companies like Kodak and Panaflex. We made this feature film and it went to Sundance and that was really like a big door opening for me. The opportunities that presented themselves at that time were kind of limitless. I wrote a short script, directed it, and ended up producing it. I worked very, very hard at a very young age, for a long period of time, from graduating high school when I was 17 for 3 years until I 20 years old, I literally did not stop. I would work morning, noon and night, and then I even ended up quitting my job to work on film full time. It was a mess. So once I finally completed the short film and it was accepted by Outfest (the gay and lesbian film festival), and we premiered there, it was an explosion of film festivals and traveling and I kind of got swept up in it. I spent the majority of my time traveling to film festivals for about a year between 1998 and 1999 promoting the film. And it was great and it was a lot of work and fun, but I wasn’t focused on what to do next; and that’s when I started doing ecstasy. <Dan laughs>

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So I’m traveling around and hanging out with celebrities and going to parties with Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer and all these movie people and I wasn’t really focused on what I was going to do next. So I was thinking that if I was going to continue doing this, continue making movies, I needed to get focused and do something quick. So while I’m going to these parties I was thinking I could do a film or a documentary on being a DJ and the DJ culture; so I started learning how to be a DJ.

My best friend was teaching me how to DJ, we started on a script, and he would tell me what his life was like as a DJ and I started writing, and this was over the course of a couple years. I was really taking my time with it. Along the way I got a first draft of the screenplay written, and I actually got it to Sascha and Digweed and some other very important people in the LA electronic music scene involved, but I really didn’t know what I wanted.

The script wasn’t really finished, and I was just stewing on this. Then in the middle of this thing, my best friend who is teaching me how to DJ — my whole connection to the DJ life — is murdered.

And that became the big transition; it was the creative transition in my life. I felt what I needed to do was pick up the baton and learn firsthand how to DJ and finish the screenplay. At this point years had gone by, and I just felt like focusing on finishing the process. I finished my first DJ mix set, at that time we burned it to cd’s, <Dan laughs> and my first gig was spinning Halloween 2003 with DJ Alexander. That was the first gig I had ever spun. What struck me that first night; was that the reaction from the crowd was immediate and overwhelming. I had toiled for years working to build something creative, 2.5 years on the feature film, but the response came much later, and it was only then that you found out if you had done a good job! But with DJ’ing the response and feedback was immediate. Whether it falls flat, or everybody goes nuts, whatever happens you get that immediately, and you can get that every week! So the first part was deciding to DJ professionally, and then experiencing it first-hand that it was an immediate creative payoff as well. You know DJ’ing is like an everyday kind of art. It’s like being on Broadway. It’s more of an all day job and there’s something about going and being in front of a live audience. It’s different. It was more exciting than some of the other creative endeavors I had done, it really hooks you, it’s addictive. I got sucked into it. I loved the live performance element of it, and getting that immediate feedback, that really got me.

Which artists have been the most inspirational for you? I have to say from a DJ standpoint Sascha and Digweed were the first artists that kind of opened up my world; it was their set flow that really did it for me. The way they would build their night, was something I honed in on and really thought about a lot, and they were very progressive, and I’ve taken a lot of cues in my early DJing from them. But my largest influences stylistically have got to be Victor Calderone, Danny Tenaglia, and Chus & Ceballos, I mean those three artists have done the most to influence me. On a personal level, over the last 6-7 years after I started DJing and meeting a couple of people, like Paulo and Abel, have changed the way I think about the circuit. I think about what is doable and how you play to gays in a more sophisticated way. I’ve definitely learned a lot from them. Those are my biggest influences, that whole group.

In your DJ career, what have been some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way? <There’s a long pause> You know I would say my biggest challenge was realizing that it wasn’t just going to be a rocket ship ride to the top. This is something I’ve never really been asked before and I like that. When you’re young and you start and you have everything going for you, it’s easy to think its working and ‘I’m so great,’ and being the new kid on the block thing gets attention – especially if you’re not difficult on the eyes you’re going to get a lot of attention. And its going to be great for a while and then at some point you realize you have to show up and do the rest of the work and round out your creative repertoire to persevere, to make your career last. And I think every DJ hits that wall in the first year. And when the recession hit in 2007-2008 I really had to take stock of where I was going, and what I was doing, and take things more seriously. I didn’t think about mistakes I had made or opportunities I had missed until the recession hit.

What were the indicators you were doing things right? Whenever you put the work in and whenever you do the hard thing – that goes for spending more time on the production, more time on the remix, more time doing your homework before a set, more time thinking about what style or direction within your own universe is particular to the event you are doing, when you don’t take the easy path; you get the big payoff. It comes from every direction. That’s when you get the respect and that’s when people admire what you are doing and that’s when you inspire people the most. For me personally, having someone come to me and say ‘you’ve inspired me’, or ‘you’ve made me think differently,’ that is the biggest success indicator you can get. That is definitely the indicator, always.

I’d like to think we all have that one “AMAZING” night that we hold dear as the best night of our lives ever, what has been your most memorable experience to date in the job? Oh, that’s a tough one, there’s always amazing moments you never expect. The one that comes up first was my 30th birthday; I was spinning a pool party on the top deck of the RSVP Mediterranean cruise as we pulled away from the port of Venice, and the entire ship sang me Happy Birthday, and out came this wedding cake size birthday cake for me. For that to have been my 30th birthday, that was definitely one of the top 5 most spectacular.

You’ve worked with many incredible talents in the industry, anyone leave a permanent mark on you and your career? The people that I’ve worked with, um yeah, I have to say Chus & Ceballos and Victor Calderone have left an indelible mark. Working with people who are so professional and who have been in this business for so long is very likely going to leave a mark on you. I remember an amazing conversation I had with Chus about hanging up the party spurs, putting the fun aside, and every DJ gets to point to where you have to take things seriously, and if you plan on continuing for a very long time, you have to be able to enjoy the party without partying. I think about that all the time as I have transitioned into a professional mode myself.

Time to “PUMP” up the volume, let’s talk about your record label. So the record label has been one of those things I realized needed to do entering the “2nd act.” Getting that label up and running; it was a must. I chose to do the debut track with Marcus da Silva and Nalaya Brown called Ecstatic State and it was a herculean project, that took a very long time. It was very complicated. Marcus and I were in LA and the vocals were being done in Madrid. It was a ton of work but it was lots of fun, it was cool. I had a long time songwriting relationship with two people, Finbarr Massi and Sean Breathwaite – and we wrote the song together. Nalaya performed the vocals in Madrid, and, again, it was hard to do, but also an amazing experience.

You’ve also started promoting a new pool party in San Diego titled “FLAUNT” at the Palomar Hotel. For several years myself and a good friend of mine named Noir D Costas <Dan laughs> (that’s his pseudonym), we’ve been thinking about doing a party that merges everything we love about beach parties in places like Ibiza and the gay scene here in the United States. They have these all over Europe where you get global sounding music at a gay pool party, but we don’t have anything like them here. So we have been looking for the right combination of elements for long time, and everything came together, and we got it. We teamed up with Cavin Knight and Tristan Jaxx of Tristan Jaxx Productions and we put together a series of summer pool parties here in San Diego and it is a beginning, hopefully to grow into something larger in other cities, where we can bring the gay sensibility with a global sound for everyone. We are focused on the gay market since those are our people, but we wanted to create something that translates to a mainstream audience as well; something that feels inclusive, and where the music is representative of that. We wanted to bring together a lot of different elements – high style, inclusive vibe, global music with a gay edge, and bring in other brands that partner with that. We partnered with the Palomar, a Kimpton Hotel, Rufskin clothing, and Tristan Jaxx productions. It plays to everyone but definitely has a gay angle.

What other big projects are in the works currently? The Pump compilation album and I’m doing the River Raid in Guerneville, after that I am back in San Diego for Flaunt on September 14th and then I’ll be back in SF spinning the Castro Street Fair. I’m super excited, really looking forward to these events!

Ok… time to have a little fun and let’s get personal. I’m going to give you a few multiple choice questions first, please answer as quickly as you can…. <Dan shifts in his seat and looks eager> Yeah, I like that!! You got it, let’s go for it!!

Black, white, or gray? Black

Savory or sweet? Savory <Dan giggles>

iPhone or Android? OH! iPhone all the way! YASSS!

Swim trunks or speedo? Um…Speedo

What was the last song you were listening to today? Oh that’s a good one! <Dan checks his screen> Uh… Oh it was Ariana Grande Break Free

Naughty or nice? Naughty! All the way! <Laughs> Wait! Can you be naughty and nice? Like sweet and spicy?

Not unless we’re ordering Chinese food. YASSS!

Tofu or bring you “the pig”? Bring me the pig!!! Oh my god!! Is that really a question? <laughs>

ONSTAGE(a)
So to all the aspiring DJ’s and music producers out there, should they just buy a mixer and a set of CDJ’s: what’s your advice for getting started?
I have taught several people how to spin and I’ve helped some young DJs fine tune their craft, and I really enjoy that. Lesson #1 is if you want to do something – whatever it is – to get out there and do it. So, yes you need to buy the equipment, get some old fashioned cd players, not something on your computer, something you can touch with your hands, and learn to beat match first. If you can get one thing to mix into one thing without a train wreck, then you can move on to step 2. That’s the only real way you can start doing it. And those who give up, don’t love it enough. It’s hard. It takes years. I tell younger DJs when they start getting successful that it might feel good and it might look great and you might be popular, but you have to be ready for the long haul. It takes a long time to build up contacts, and get booked, and to get ready to be busy. Pay your dues and you have to plan for that. Whether it means doing another job on the side or doing something concurrently with your DJing to support it, then do it. You need to spend every min of your free time working on your art, making it your craft. You need to go all in with every spare second and it’s tough, so make sure you love it. You owe it to yourself to give it a shot. You have to spend time on doing what you love, so you don’t look back and wished you had done more.

As DJ’s become more prolific, what are your thoughts on putting your half naked image out there to promote your music? When it comes to the gay community, there is no doubt that sex sells, I mean no matter what – sex sells. Whether you’re Matt Damon or Kellan Lutz, or whoever, you’re going to be photographed with your shirt off. This is part of the way we market entertainment and there is going to be an element of that in any aspect of entertainment. However, in the gay culture, there is a premium placed on the male image, sexuality, and selling the sexy side of it. I’ve had long conversations with Marco da Silva about this particular subject because he was a dancer for Britney, and he’s a model, and does all these things outside of DJing; and he says he doesn’t want to DJ shirtless. I’ve never been one to DJ shirtless, I mean I’ve done it a couple times, but over the course of my career I’ve played that down, more like a straight DJ. I do low key. I generally wear a shirt, but lately I’ve been trying to push it; showing more personality by being more stylish. I think that if we can get away from the no-holds barred sexuality, get away from the jockstrap, and get more towards the fashion-forward personality side, I think it allows more cross promotion and product marketing opportunities. I think it speaks better of the profession and the artist and it says more about you as a human being. To be adored for being sexy is not as fulfilling ultimately as for someone who is being creative. I think you want to be respected for your work. By showing your personality you can be admired for your sense of style and for your craft as opposed to just being adored for your naked sexuality.

What is Act 3 about? What can we expect from Dan de Leon next? That’s interesting… hmm.. Wow. Act 2 has been about getting sober, becoming more professional, doing things I should have been doing a long time ago – starting the label, trying to produce more original material, being more focused, diversifying the remixes. I’ve made my way onto the Billboard panel, and getting deep into the nitty gritty of all the aspects of what I do. I think Act 3 will be bringing all that stuff together. So beyond doing a compilation album, Act 3 would be getting a little deeper, doing an artist original album, working even harder, really creating a sound within a production that really defines who Dan de Leon is. It’s also about extending the Flaunt brand more. Because you know I started a party before called Latitude, and then it stopped. I just stopped doing it. So it’s about bringing Flaunt to the floor, that’s why the compilation is called Flaunt, because I think that symbolizes bringing the elements together. Most importantly, it’s going to be about bringing it to the people in places like Los Angeles, maybe like Miami, and other big cities next spring and summer.

<As we were wrapping up the interview, Dan randomly blurts out> Briefs!  What? Briefs!   Didn’t we cover that with swim trunks or speedo? Yeah! But I like briefs! It’s all about the briefs! <Dan giggles>

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For tour dates and more information visit DjDanDeLeon.com.  Also check him out at Facebook.com/DanDeLeon


Special thanks to guest writer, Michael Martinez.  A San Francisco native, Michael got his first exposure to the club/house/circuit scene in the fall of 1999.  Since then, Michael has experienced a rare perspective of club nightlife from dancing on the podium to promoting and producing events.  These opportunities have afforded him the privilege of sharing company with some of the greatest party promoters and musical talents in the entertainment industry.

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