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4 min

Cajjmere Wray makes you sweat

DJ takes to Pride stages & beyond

TALL COOL DRINK OF WATER. DJ/producer Cajjmere Wray spins us into Pride and beyond. Credit: Paula Wilson

As a six-year-old in his native Simcoe, Ontario, Cajjmere Wray would be asked by his mother to play some records to entertain her friends at her frequent house parties. “Go spin the hit songs,” his mother would urge, pointing to the family’s one-turntable stereo system.

Little did she realize how much he would take to spinning the tunes. “I knew which songs made her friends get up and dance,” the now 28-year-old openly gay Toronto resident says. “It freaked her out. I would do it for hours on end.”

From such humble beginnings, one of Canada’s top DJs has emerged. Last month, Cajjmere Wray, known largely for his stint at Toronto’s Five nightclub, was awarded the title of best resident DJ at the end of a nationwide search called Canada’s Ultimate Smirnoff Vinyl Warrior, a fan-driven on-line competition that culminated with a final live showdown at the Guvernment that had Wray facing off against DJs from Edmonton and Vancouver.

As Canada’s champ, he will soon represent the Great White North at the International Smirnoff Experience, a global showcase planned for a yet-to-be-named European locale.

But that won’t be his first foray into the European DJ scene – he recently spent time spinning in Milan. And he keeps busy here at home. In addition to Five, his local gigs now include Friday at Lo’la, Saturday at Byzantium and the last Friday of every month at Montreal’s Sky Club. And look for Wray all over Toronto Pride this year, spinning at Heat, the Rise water party on Sat, Jun 25 at Sunnyside, the DJ Central Stage on Jun 26 and Five later that Sunday night.

He’s also produced music for Toronto’s Fashion Week, produces his own tracks, remixes tracks for other artists, owns his own record label and even holds down a 9-to-5 office job to support his musical habits.

Wray’s next big adventure is the release of his new record, The Late Nite EP, on his D’Lish-Us Music label. It’s a two-track disc: He describes the first as circuit house, “that big 3am sound,” and the second as electro house, club music that mixes ’80s style electronic sounds with a house beat.

The record release party – not a CD release party, since he always issues his releases on vinyl, as well – is slated for Sat, Jul 9 at Byzantium. Believe it or not, after all the success and accolades, he’s nervous as hell. “I’ve never produced anything like this before. And it doesn’t matter how great you think you are, or what you think the reaction will be to your music.”

Russell Palloo, former general manager of Five who entered Wray in the Vinyl Warrior contest, says that this is an example of just how “down to earth and humble” Wray is. “He has a unique understanding of music, the crowd, the beat and how to take it and put it all together and entertain people. Plus, from a business perspective, he’s very driven.”

Wray says that he enjoys producing his own tracks as a way of putting something back into the musical pool that he pulls from for his DJ sets. “I have a passion for creativity in music,” he says. “It’s something I wanted to do since I was a kid. Just playing is not enough for me. I’m always buying records, so this is my way of contributing back into that well of sound that’s out there. Contribution is the key.”

Wray has been making musical contributions since his teen years. At the age of 11, he added a cassette player to his turntable and started DJing school dances and local parties. At 16, he played his first club gig, where he discovered the two-turntable sound system and mixing board. “I’ve always been technologically inclined, so I picked it all up pretty quickly.”

In part by accident, in part by design, Wray stuck to straight clubs and didn’t spin at a gay club until 2000. One day, he was hanging out at Pope Joan, a lesbian bar that used to be on Parliament St, and gave his latest production to the DJ there, thinking nothing of it. But she liked what she heard so much that she asked him to spin there the very next week.

Wray did take her up on the invitation. But then, as he put it, “I took a step back.” Although only five years ago, Wray explains that at the time it was still taboo for DJs to straddle the line between straight and gay clubs. But he couldn’t resist the invitation to spin at Pope Joan for Pride that year. “I have never heard women scream so loud!”

That led to a number of other gigs at gay clubs, and eventually his regular Wednesday night spot at College Night at Five.

As Wray has continued to spin at both gay and straight clubs, he has noticed that clubs and crowds have become more mixed in the last five years. “It’s a Toronto thing. The acceptability level is just changing so fast. Everybody’s just jelling,” Wray says. “I even saw two gay men kissing in the middle of a straight club last month. I nearly shit.”

But do gay and straight crowds demand different music and sounds? “The straight scene loves their progressive sounds, rock house and high energy tribal sounds with fewer vocals. For the gay scene, it’s more vocals and a lot of circuit house. But some straight people like the sound at the gay clubs, so they don’t give a shit anymore. They want to go where they like the music, so music is making a difference.”

And what about the lesbian crowd back when Pope Joan was still going? “Lesbians love their vocals, and they still want some Nine Inch Nails or AC/DC thrown in.”

Wray notes that the crowd at the Guvernment the night he won the contest was also a very mixed crowd. So how did he decide what to mix? Surprisingly, Wray never uses playlists and always chooses what to spin off the top of his head based on the crowd in front of him.

“I gave them an electro house feel,” he recalls, “very current, but not too hard and not too soft.” He says he had a “kick ass” reaction to his final set of the evening, which included his production reworking of Brit band Blur’s “Song 2.”

Although he says he was optimistic about winning, he didn’t take it as a given. But when they announced his name as the victor, he admits it was a “waiting-to-exhale moment.”

Wray claims not to let victory go to his head. “I don’t have much of an ego,” he says. “That’s what keeps me grounded and level-headed.”

It’s an attitude that influences his music as well. “I give people what they want, not what I think they should want.” In that respect, not much has changed since he was spinning the hits for his mother’s friends back in Simcoe. “It’s the same thing now as it was then. I still feed off the same energy as I did as a kid.”