It’s only been two years since DJ and producer Cozmic Cat (aka Paula Burrows) began her infiltration of Toronto’s beat scene. But the spin superstar’s savvy mixing, master scratching and slick mash-ups have already established her as one of the city’s finest. She’s on deck everywhere from the Raq-n-Waq billiard hall and Savour parties to the launch of Hotsteppin’ — her new monthly soul/funk/dance party at the Concord Café with DJ John “Ginger” Fox and African drumming by Tavia (the next one is Sat, Jan 27). She also guest DJs at Denise Benson’s Synchro-Nation New Year’s Eve party at Andy Poolhall.
From Philly With Love, the record label she and DJs Jon Gill and Lorne launched in 2003, kicked off with FPWL: Volumes 1 and 2. The stellar releases clinched the trio a spot on industry kingpin URB Magazine’s Next 100 list in 2004. The label is slated to drop its third compilation, Commonwealth, in January.
“We were getting bored just DJing every night,” says Cozmic Cat, “and we were all fooling around in our home studios, making tracks. So we decided to join forces and start a label, release an EP. It was a great learning process and so much fun. We laughed, cried, fought, broke up, made up and drank a lot of beer, swore we’d never do another vinyl release. And here we are.
“Commonwealth is a bootleg party mash-up EP — vinyl only, for the DJs out there. It’s all very hush, hush. But the tracks we mash are fun, booty-shaking and creative!”
From Philly With Love is an apt tag, given Cozmic Cat’s torrid seven-year affair with Philadelphia’s turntables. Though the London, Ontario-born maverick messed with vinyl back in high school, it was after love moved her to Philly in 1996, that things really started spinning. “I was drunk, out partying. A friend said to the owner, ‘My friend’s better than your DJ,’ and the owner said, ‘Okay, you’re on next Friday!’ Just like that. My hands shook most of the night. At one point, I accidentally lifted the needle off the record. There was dead silence and the entire dancefloor stopped and looked up at me. It ended up being a great night though, and I kept the gig!
“It was all hard work. I was a nobody but I felt I had skills, so I hustled and hustled — lots of free gigs, handing out fliers. My nickname was The DJ Who Never Sleeps, because I was always out there pushing my parties, building my crowd and supporting other DJs. My philosophy has always been ‘Work hard and share everything,’ and things really came to me that way.”
The payoff was lovely. In 1999, Cozmic Cat was named “DJ on the rise” by the Philadelphia City Paper and in 2000, she really cleaned up, scoring Best DJ with Philadelphia magazine, the City Paper and Philly’s Citysearch.com. The attention gave rise to a host of exclusive gigs, high on swank and celebrity. Though she turned down a gig spinning for Coyote Ugly’s film auditions (“It was in a football stadium and it involved white T-shirts and water — let’s just say, really not my thing”), she’s done time spinning alongside the likes of De La Soul, KRS 1 and The Roots’ ?uestlove, for various celeb royalty like P Diddy, Eminem and Justin Timberlake. The starship lowdown?
“Jill Scott used to host and sing at some of my DJ/band parties. She was always cool, very down to earth. The Rolling Stones locked themselves away in a VIP bunker but the drummer came out — he was grooving and partying hard. At one point he had all these girls pouring hot wax on his body — pretty hilarious. Jamie Foxx used to call me DJ 416. He got in the DJ booth one night and started making jokes on the mic. Then he started going through my records, trying to DJ — and people, he cannot DJ! I had to tell him to step off because he was killing my old-school hip-hop records,” she laughs. “John Waters told me he liked my tunes, which made me grin from ear to ear. And Gwen Stefani requested dancehall, more dancehall — that girl knows her reggae music!”
With her career in full swing, Cozmic Cat packed up and headed back to Canada in 2003.
“The change was hard. I gave up a whole lifestyle, good money and, most importantly, good friends. But I was burnt out, feeling depressed and unfulfilled. I needed more depth to my life, to reinvent myself, to regain the Paula that had become lost in the DJ Cozmic Cat persona.
“I took a big break, almost a full year. My records were in boxes and I let go of the industry. Coming back to Toronto was tough. I didn’t really know the city, or a lot of people. Everything seemed really small, quiet and European.
“As Canadians, we’re very comfortable. We enjoy quite a high standard of living and there’s a basic security and ease about our quality of life, whether we see it or not. In Philly, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is very wide. Everyone’s hustling and there’s this amazing, frantic, scary energy in the air — either violent or creative, but quite urgent and full of forward motion. It’s calmer here, and I’m glad for that.
“I also appreciate the multi-cultural face of it. I found Philly to be quite black, white or Puerto Rican. It gets boring after awhile. People always said I didn’t sound African American. When I’d say I wasn’t, they’d stare blankly, like ‘Well, are you alien, then?’ It’s a vacuum-sealed nation that doesn’t really look outside. Philly’s very close to my heart but I’m really glad to be living in Toronto. I feel more alive here, exposed to so many different viewpoints and lifestyles. It’s refreshing.
“DJing has always been really social for me. It’s not just about hiding behind two decks and pumping out beats. It’s a great way to connect. I’ve met so many people from around the world through music. It’s beautiful.
“Happiness is a smooth mix that builds energy, gets and keeps people dancing. It’s a great feeling for me to drop tunes that belong right there and keep the vibe positive. I like to take people on a journey, even if it’s only three square feet of dancing space. I love to mix the records well, but I’d rather listen to a good selection by a DJ who can’t mix for shit than a bunch of weak tunes mixed and scratched flawlessly by someone who can’t read a crowd and is lost in their own ego around a tune they think is fierce.
“I like to party with crowds that are open, eclectic and with-out attitude, with people who can truly let loose and have a good time.”