“I DJed my first party when I was in Grade 6 for the school Halloween party,” says Jamal, one of Toronto’s hottest young DJs and must-have opener for visiting big names in the DJ world.
It’s a long way to go from pimply-faced goblins in the ‘burbs to the top of star DJs’ lists. “The challenge to opening is you have to be aware of what tracks you think the headlining guy is going to play and steer clear of them,” he says. “Some guys respect you more because you built the vibe of the room without using any of the tracks they want to use, that really means you know what you’re doing. Opening is a whole different game. You set the room. I’ve seen people leave the club early because the music isn’t working for them.
“There’s a whole trick to it and some guys learn it and some don’t.”
Jamal opens for superstar DJ Billy Carroll at Pride’s Last Dance party at Circa on Sun, Jun 29. He is also playing a bewildering number of other parties — nine at last count, between Wed, Jun 25 and 30 including Prism’s Babylon Pride and Aqua parties, nights at the Barn and Statlers, Pride’s Central Stage on Saturday and opening for another superstar, Offer Nissim, on Mon, Jun 30 at Fly.
Whether opening or headlining in his own right, Jamal relishes a strong connection to his audience. “Paying attention to the crowd is really important. You can be in the middle of mixing four songs and not look up and not realize that the crowd is looking at you with the expression ‘What are you doing?'” he says with a chuckle. How many of us have given that look at least once only to be ignored?
“It’s like a ping-pong game where you throw something out to them to see if they react and throw that energy back to you. So in a sense the opener has a lot more work on his hands. That headliner’s job is easy if you’ve done your job.”
Jamal has worked hard to get his name and his music recognized. “At first I remember doing my own parties because when you’re new it’s very hard for people to give you that power and put you behind a turntable for the first time. So when I was doing afterparties I knew the DJs well enough to pull them in with me to listen. No one knew me, but I knew them,” he says.
“I really started watching guys like Sylvain Gerard and Mark Falco and my friends Justin Parris and Luscious used to take me to System Soundbar when Steve Ireson was hosting. I started to really feel at home there. Once I got to know Shawn Riker and Gaelen [Patrick, manager of Fly] I slowly fought my way up. I was doing the scene of ‘Here’s my demo! Here’s my demo!'” Once Adam Pardy and Ireson let him spin at It’s a Boy’s Life, their popular Sunday night at now-defunct It Nightclub, Jamal never looked back.
Growing up in Scarborough to Trinidadian and Venezuelan parents Jamal moved downtown when he turned 19 and was coming out. “The whole crossover thing with all the homophobia was a big thing for me. Looking around at the Mark Falcos and the Corey Activates I wanted to come up with a name for myself. I decided to just go with my own. For me it was like, ‘Hey, I’m out, my name is Jamal and this is who I am.’ It was a really brave move. My family still hasn’t been able to accept me being gay, which is fine, but it’s so weird because when they call I don’t think they ever clue into my name and recognize I’m really doing well as a DJ.
“But that’s the whole Scarborough thing, so I don’t blame them.” But things change, if slowly. His sister Googled his name and figured out a few things. “Lately my sister has been phoning, asking, ‘Why don’t you invite your sister?'” he confesses with a proud smile.
Covering all aspects of his career has given him a needed edge with the competition. “I’m pretty much my own mini-business manager and my own PR person, which I think has left me a little bit stronger than a lot of the other guys because they can be very shy and sometimes antisocial. Whereas when I walk into the club with my friends, I know everyone and have to say hi,” he says with a laugh. “I think that really works to my advantage because I’m always in the middle of all the promoters and organizers.”
But it’s very much a social game to stay at the top of everybody’s list. “The thing with the gay scene is it’s very picky,” says Jamal. “It’s almost like they choose who they want to see succeed, which is strange. You kind of have to force them to like you and pick you, otherwise you get stuck with not being heard, or you get your two years of fame and then you disappear. A lot of that is how you play the game. Even when you’re not DJing you have to be at the party — those are the ones you’ve got to be at — because you need to show your face. So that if the manager needs to book a party for next month he thinks of you. I think that the Toronto clientele has really started to take notice and realize that we have a lot of talent here.”
So how do you stay fresh in the ever-evolving music scene? “I have musical ADD,” he says. “I like my electro and my tribal, really like certain vocals and I love to delve into the dark and aggressive stuff as well. I have a vast variety of music in my library. I like a lot of different sounds, so I guess that’s what keeps my sound fresh. I don’t play the same way every time you hear me. I think that’s one thing that’s important about being a DJ, especially with a gay clientele, there are so many different styles of music you have to try and give everyone a little of what they want. But there’s always the understanding that you’re not going to be able to make everyone happy. You try to please everyone, but sometimes it’s impossible. What you gotta believe is, ‘If I didn’t get you this time, I’ll get you next time.'”
As an avid clubber he knows both sides of the turntable well. “I love to dance and when you go to a club and you’re not being ‘served,’ it sucks. There are only certain DJs capable of entertaining me. So if I’m one of those entertaining DJs for someone else, if I can actually get them to have the time of their lives, then that’s what I enjoy most about being a DJ myself.”