Contrary to what you might think, the life of a music journalist is typically not altogether very glamorous. While hanging out with rock stars sounds, in theory, like a cool thing, most of my job involves standing for hours at a time in dingy rock clubs, waiting for hours at a time in backstage dressing rooms for someone to show and talk to me, or—if I’m super lucky—flying to another country in order to stand in the middle of a muddy field for hours at a time during a music festival while teenagers try to sell me drugs (not that I’m complaining). So, when the offer to attend the W Hotels & burn 2013 DJ Lab event in Thailand floated across my desk a few months ago, it took me approximately zero seconds to say yes.
Now in its third year, the DJ Lab experience is essentially the culmination of a talent search that seeks to uncover a crop of hot young DJs and producers from around the world, offering them the chance to be whisked away to an exotic location and spend a week working with a team of high-profile mentors that will help them hone their skills and prepare them for the various complications and cosmopolitan demands involved with being a globetrotting DJ and/or music producer. Sponsored by the W Hotel group and burn energy drinks (a bright-red concoction that is apparently massively popular around the world, but too aggressively “energetic” to be sold legally here in the States), the DJ Lab experience allowed all of the visiting journalists, musicians, and industry professionals on hand a chance to not only hear a bunch of young DJs do their thing, but also get a rare view (for us, anyway) into the world of the W Hotels’ luxury properties—and to eat and drink a lot.
Getting to Bangkok from NYC is no joke even under the best of circumstances, but it’s particularly troublesome when a so-called “super typhoon” was expected to make landfall in Hong Kong on the same day I was supposed to be passing through. Once I safely made landfall a day late, the event took place in two different locations—the beautiful W Hotel in Bangkok and the hyper-luxurious W Retreat on the Thai island of Koh Samui. It was in Koh Somui that I had the most face time with the six lucky DJs that were chosen (out of over 1,400 applicants) to participate in this year’s program.
Hailing from such far-flung locations as Seoul, Turkey, and Mexico City, the kids in the 2013 DJ/Producer class seemed both genuinely stoked and a little bewildered by the experience. Each of them was given one-on-one studio time with the guest mentors—including Paul Oakenfold, Andy Caldwell, James Lavelle, and current Lady Gaga production cohort DJ White Shadow —as well as time to spin at various events throughout the week. Guests were offered their own private beach bungalows to stay in (each with its own tiny private pool, an amenity that I could not get over) and were given a selection of free activities and spa treatments to choose from. After receiving a very relaxing Thai massage, I nearly had a heart attack (literally) while hiking up a mountain to go ziplining through the jungle canopy a few hours later. All was forgotten though when I came back to my private bungalow to find a free iPod shuffle (featuring tracks from all of the DJ Lab mentees) and a selection of cookies waiting for me on my bed. Such was our life in Koh Samui… at least for two glorious days.
Luxuries aside, the point of our trip was to see the young DJs and hear from the mentors, all of whom had been cherry-picked by W Hotels Global Music Director Michaelangelo L’Acqua. During a series of Q&A sessions, we got acquainted with the mentees and mentors and got a healthy dose of brandspeak from the W Hotel masterminds, all of which seemed a small price to pay for being whisked halfway around the world to hear a bunch of excited young kids play and make music for a few days. Of all the mentees, I took a particular liking to Tatiana de León (who performs under the name T.A.T.), a young DJ from Mexico City who not only made some of the most interesting music, but also seemed to take the general absurdity of the entire event in stride. “I will show up and play music for anyone who wants to listen,” she told me at one point. “Still, I keep waiting for someone to come and tell me this is all a big mistake or some weird dream caused by my jet lag.”
Also interesting was DJ White Shadow, the Detroit-based DJ and producer, who shared his story of going from record-collecting geek and aspiring DJ to becoming Lady Gaga’s right-hand man and resident production whiz. More than anyone else on hand, he appeared both genuinely excited about his new job as mentor and still sincerely in awe of his current position as a tastemaker.
“I never had anything like this when I was a kid,” says White Shadow. “I never had anyone show me how to DJ or to produce music. If I can help someone learn something useful—or show them how to use a certain kind of machine without spending three months wasting time trying to figure out how to get the best sounds from it—then that’s cool. I like being able to tell people the stuff that I wish someone had told me. I mean, what’s the use of learning all this stuff if you can’t share it with other people? If you have any kind of knowledge and don’t at least try to pass it on to other people… that makes you a dick.”
In the end, the entire DJ Lab experience was a potent reminder of how a global brand like the W—a company that also now boasts a wildly successful iPhone app that people use to soundtrack their daily lives as if they were actually living inside a chic hotel—has managed to maintain a pretty astute curatorial vision when it comes to routing out new talent. Public spaces like hotels are, for better or worse, where a lot of people experience new music these days, so whether it’s simply a marketing ploy for a couple of powerhouse companies (burn is the Coca Cola Company’s globally leading energy drink), it’s nice to see such a chic investment in young talent. The six chosen winners for this year’s burn lab will not only record tracks for an EP (which you will no doubt be able to buy at a W Hotel near you at some point in the coming months), they’ll also spend the next year touring and DJing parties at various W Hotel properties around the world. Nice work if you can get it, especially if you are an aspiring DJ from, say, Bursa, Turkey (like Sezer Uysal, one of the lab mentees) who was previously spinning parties in his home city and posting Soundcloud mixes online in an effort to build a following. For these kids, being chosen for the DJ Lab is, quite literally, like being plucked from obscurity and being thrown onto the world stage.
On our last night in Bangkok—after a week of glamorous late-night parties and meticulously organized dinners (one of which involved being greeted on the beach by an elephant that promptly slapped my glasses off when I offered it some bananas)—everyone gathered for one last hurrah in the form of a huge event headlined by Paul Oakenfold, arguably one of the most famous DJs on planet Earth (and who also just produced the new Cher record!). I had a moment to speak with Oakenfold before his set, as he sat backstage in a huge, empty ballroom and casually nibbled on a sandwich, and I asked him how it felt to now be the elder statesman in a culture that he himself helped usher into being.
“The art of being a DJ—knowing when to put on a certain record so that the crowd not only hears you, but actually feels you—is kind of dying out,” explains Oakenfold. “I learned how to be a producer later in my career, but kids these days grow up actually making the music in their bedrooms, they want to be producers as well. The technology makes it so easy now for these very young kids to do things for themselves. The entire landscape of electronic music has changed… but it’s exciting. I feel very lucky to be able to give back.”
After a gourmet dinner in a nearby building that once apparently housed the Russian embassy, all the DJ Lab attendees—along with several hundred ticket holders—crowded into the hotel ballroom to see Oakenfold and the rest of the DJ lab mentors turn in fast and furious DJ sets in front of a crowd of revelers wearing glowing wristbands. I watched from the wings alongside several of the young DJ lab mentees, most of whom were chugging champagne and occasionally hugging each other and shaking their heads as if to keep reiterating, “We are in Thailand! Can you believe this?” Pretty soon I would have to slink up to my room and put my 30-something ass to bed, but I’m pretty sure all the kids stayed up all night.