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DJ Mr. E

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

Mr. E has truly become a staple of the legendary names out of San Francisco. Balancing a hectic lifestyle DJing and managing his nationally famous restaurant, Papalote, he still manages to stick to his roots and stay grounded doing what he loves. He took a break to speak with SF Station during an interview at his restaurant. Catch every first Saturday at SOM for The Foundation.

SF Station (SFS): When did you start DJing and how did you get into the hip hop scene?

Mr. E (E): I started DJing when I was 13 in San Rafael. I just really got into the music. I moved here in 1980, and hip hop was the first music I was exposed to. The guys around my neighborhood were really into breakdancing and stuff. My friends were talking about this music and dance style from New York and told me to check it out, and I really got into it. Early Dr. Dre and Herbie Hancock "Rockit" really got me into the DJ part of it.

SFS: Did you start out with turntables?

E: Nah, I started out with a home stereo system and tape deck.

SFS: Oh, old school!

E: Yes, very old school. I didn’t get my first 1200s until ’86 and that’s when I got my first real DJ gig.

SFS: When did you start DJing around SF?

E: In ’89-’90, I worked with a group called Friday Night Live, which was a group that created alternative activities drug- and alcohol-free for teens. I was a counselor and also DJed most of those events. Then I started doing warehouse parties in SF, but I moved away.
I lived Santa Rosa for two years around ’96 and a promoter from San Francisco heard me and was like, “what are you doing in Santa Rosa?” She introduced me to Beat Lounge, which was a legendary party at Club Deco, and it was legendary because it highlighted all the turntablists that are famous now like QBert, Mixmaster Mike, and Shortkut. They would get their jam sessions on downstairs. The upstairs room was more a mix selection and dancing, and that’s where I was. So, 1996-97 I started at Beat Lounge. And from there, I started promoting parties elsewhere in the city.

SFS: You obviously collaborated with tons of Bay Area staples, but you are now a staple, as well…

E: I guess, you know! I always feel like I’m a small person in the biggest DJ pond in the world, and I’m happy with that. I’m just glad to know these guys. A lot of things came out of that, and I’ve been able to become a successful promoter.

As a DJ, I can dictate how a night should be or how it should carry out. I can put the right DJs with the right talents at the right time so a person can come in and hear a whole story through the night and not just an hour’s worth of DJing every hour. That’s kind of my recipe.

In ’91 and ’92, when I moved to Santa Barbara, I started promoting and we did the longest running 18-and-up hip-hop party in Santa Barbara for three years.

SFS: That’s impressive, especially in Santa Barbara!

E: Yeah, it is, but random! You just have to make the best of where you are at. After that, I lived in Seattle for three years and ran a nightclub with my cousin at his restaurant. Having gathered all that knowledge parallel to the restaurant business, as well, I was able to come here and be successful right off the bat.

SFS: What brought you back here?

E: This is home. I could have blown up in Santa Barbara and Seattle, but I had no desire to do so. I didn’t want to be the biggest DJ in Seattle; I wanted be among the best in San Francisco. My objective wasn’t to be well-known, it was just to be among the best so I can be better.

SFS: Who are some of your favorite collaborations then?

E: Locally, I would have to say Shortkut because he’s been the most influential DJ for me not only technique-wise, but also selection-wise. I think he’s one of the only guys that can kill a backpack hip-hop set and destroy a reggae set, then kill a breaks set, and then scratch. That versatility is what I admire.

Other guys like Jah Warrior Shelter — those guys are super fun and they really took me in when I started bringing in some reggae — not only embracing reggae as music, but the culture and the message. It went hand in hand with what I was inspiring to be.

SFS: Since you have been around for awhile, restaurateur and DJ, do you have any memorable stories?

E: Since I do the restaurant, promoting, and DJing, I get stories I can’t even fatho I’ve gotten to see some of my biggest idols in hip hop. Slick Rick, Mos Def, Common, Black Sheep, De La Soul — just everybody. Slick Rick eating at my restaurant blew my mind!

SFS: How do you balance the two?

E: When I first opened the restaurant I was here all day, everyday, 7am to midnight, 8 days a week! My sanity was tested, but had it not been for my outlet, which was the Beat Lounge I would have gone nuts. The music allowed me to do this and now this has allowed me to do music. I just have to really prioritize and make sure I’m fulfilling my hobbies as best as I can.

SFS: Do you have any words of wisdom for the younger generation trying to get into the local DJ scene?

E: I think with anything, you have to first learn your history so you don’t make the same mistakes and you know what you’re doing and where it came from.You have to know where people came from and know who you are as a DJ to define and clarify why you want DJ. Do your research.

Nowadays it also goes back to breaks and original foundations of music, and vinyl is a big thing because it’s scary now how easily someone can become a DJ and how loose that term has become. Right now, you can go to a store — you don’t even need turntables — and you can just buy a laptop with iTunes and go play out. Right now technology has the BPMs and music programs that will blend it for you.

Ultimately, when I talk to older DJs who are skeptical of newer DJs, we know there is going to be a day where everyone is going to have all the music available to them at anytime. It’s how you are able to deliver the music and how you can move the crowd, and how original you can be at delivering the music to your audience. That’s going define who you are as a DJ.
The main thing is don’t expect anything, and work hard. A lot of DJs will call someone up and say, “Yo, can you book me?” But that’s just not how it goes.

SFS: Seemingly, you have to earn your DJ rights?

E: Yes, you have to create your own path and style, and slowly work hard at it — never stop. People always talk about paying your dues, and I personally feel like you never finish. If you get to one level, you have to pay your dues to get to another level. And lastly, if you blow up, never ever forget where you came from and how you got there. Someone gave me a break and every DJ that’s world famous got a break and worked shit once. You gotta always remember to respect the hustle.

Be sure to catch Mr. E every first Saturday at SOM for The Foundation, and open your ears at http://www.mixcrate.com/papalote415