Top Minneapolis DJ Joe Maz uses his pop-music smarts, crowd-pleasing instincts and a few trade secrets to keep the dance floor alive, night after night.
As Timbaland's "The Way I Are" pounded out of Aqua's sound system on a recent Friday night, two women in skin-tight dresses clamored to get the attention of DJ Joe Maz. From his booth above the busy dance floor, Maz leaned down to hear their plea: They requested Britney Spears' latest bubble-gum hit, "Womanizer."
"Sure, I got you," he told them, and they scampered off with glee.
Maz loathes the song.
But in playing it, he obeyed an all-important rule in the life of a downtown club DJ: Keep the girls dancing. In the big mainstream clubs, if they're dancing, the guys will dance, too -- then everyone's happy.
Every weekend, thousands of people pour into downtown Minneapolis, filling its nightclubs and hoping for some dance-floor bliss. In this kinetic world, few people are more important than the DJ. It's a precarious existence. If he can't keep people dancing, drinking and spending money, then by next week he might be spinning records in his bedroom.
At 27, Maz is one of the Twin Cities' top club DJs, and one of the few who make a full-time living at it. That may be in part because of how artful he is at mastering the mundane, as he is required to do at Aqua. Personally, Maz loves electronic music, but on the job he has to play the Top-40 hits, and it takes skill to make Britney sound fresh every night.
"Of course there are times when you're going to have to play tracks that you really don't like -- such as the Pussycat Dolls," Maz said. "A lot of DJs come up saying 'I want to play what I want to play.' And you can do that, but you're probably not going to get into the big venues. You have to suck it up a little."
Maz (rhymes with Oz; his real name is Joseph Masurka), is stylish and tall, with short sandy-blond hair and a 5 o'clock shadow that hides his boyish profile. He spins at Aqua three nights a week -- Thursday, Friday and Saturday. His DJ style and constant hustle have brought him national exposure, too. Every other week, Maz plays in clubs nationwide as DiscoTech, a group he formed with Miami-based DJ, Danny Daze. They play Hollywood's famed LAX nightclub on Dec. 7.
Maz and Daze have made a name for themselves as remix artists, reworking pop songs with their own brand of fast-paced electronic dance music. They've remixed Kanye West and Donna Summer, and are the top-selling act on Crooklynclan.net, a popular web store for DJ remixes. And the duo just signed to Deckstar, an agency owned by Adam Goldstein, the biggest club DJ in the country, DJ AM.
For Maz, this lifestyle has its pros and cons. The money isn't bad -- he drives a 2008 Mercedes C-300. But DJs don't get health benefits.
Maz is surprisingly humble and soft-spoken, maybe due to his small-town childhood in St. Bonifacius, about 30 miles west of the Twin Cities. There are various paths to becoming a DJ. Maz started with weddings while at college in River Falls, Wis., and followed with various non-posh bar gigs (his first was in a Little Canada bowling alley).
But Maz wanted to become a big-time DJ. To do so, he would have to break into the Minneapolis club scene. His only problem: "I had barely gone downtown," he said. On a whim in 2004, he applied at one of downtown's most popular bars, Drink, and admits to maybe inflating his résumé a bit.
He got the job. Within a year he was spinning at downtown's hottest club -- Spin.
"That was such an exciting time. No sleep. I'd get to the club at 10 p.m. and there'd be a line out the door," he said.
The scene's most veteran DJ, 37-year-old John Kill (his real name) first saw Maz at Spin.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'Where did this guy come from and how did he fly under my radar?' " Kill said. "It was instant respect."
Kill, who now works at Spin, said the key to being a good club DJ is knowing how to keep the crowd intrigued.
Maz excels at this because he's not content with just playing one hit after another. He mixes, layers and blends songs. He likes teasing the crowd with an old song that's been sampled in a current hit (such as playing Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' " before Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music"). He spends hours each week at home, fiddling with these tricks, trying to find new ways to make the club nights seem interesting. At his Minnetonka apartment, Maz stays chained to his bedroom computer, mixing and remixing -- the carpet is worn under his desk.
Lately, he's been taking it a step further. For a twist, he's been creating original dance tracks that sample funny bits of audio, such as jokes from "Chappelle's Show," and then slipping these songs into his Top 40 set -- mostly for his own amusement.
For his latest track, Maz scoured the Internet, downloading funny quotes spoken by President Bush, which he'll splice into the beat. (One Bushism: "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.")
On a recent afternoon, he brought the audio clips to his brother Matt Masurka's house in south Minneapolis. Matt, 25, is a producer and part of DiscoTech. In his basement studio, the brothers used a keyboard and digital-production software to come up with a beat as bouncy and goofy as the Bush audio. It sounds like a cross between Timbaland's pulsating synths and corny carnival music.
"I can't believe we're making this," his brother said. "People are going to be so confused when it comes on."
"Yep, people are going to be like, 'Where's my Pussycat Dolls?' " Maz said. "Finding the right time to play it will be the tough part."
Taking over at Aqua
While Maz can be mischievous, he's serious, even studious, about his responsibilities to the club. When Aqua opened in April 2007, with John Kill as the main DJ, it immediately became a major player in the club scene. Shortly after, Kill left Aqua to go to Spin. Aqua's owners -- the Hark brothers -- then handed control of the club's music to their new DJ, Maz, who incidentally had just come from Spin. Today, Maz chooses the songs, oversees the fliers, books other DJs and consults with the Harks on any number of other club-related questions.
"If we don't get results, he feels like he's failing, too," said co-owner Steve Hark.
But back to that mischievousness. A couple Fridays ago, Maz had completed his Bush mix, which he named "Farewell George," and was ready to play it at Aqua.
On this night, Maz showed up to the club just before doors opened at 10 p.m. He wore a gray Members Only jacket, dark William Rast jeans, black-and-white Nikes and a chunky white watch.
Like most of his contemporaries, Maz doesn't spin real vinyl records. Well, he does and he doesn't. He's gone digital, with all of his songs playing from a laptop in the DJ booth. A software program called Serato Scratch Live syncs the laptop to his turntables, where two specially made vinyl records allow him to manipulate the digital songs. It's like the Nintendo Wii, but for DJs.
For the next four hours Maz is locked in the DJ booth, taking requests and doing shots, too. How do you make overplayed songs like Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" and Flo Rida's "Low" sound new? Maz finds a way: He blends their beats and lyrics together, as if the two booty-loving rappers are having a conversation about buns, hun.
"You're totally a slave to these songs," Maz said. "The way that I remain sane is by giving them my own touch."
At 1:30 a.m., Maz gets a sly look on his face. He just finished playing Britney's "Womanizer" and is cueing up "Farewell George," his Bush mix.
The beat explodes with whizzing synth sounds and a tumbling bass line. The crowd on the dance floor adjusts a little -- club music is all about the familiar, and no one has heard this song before. But they keep dancing and it doesn't take long before some of them realize it's President Bush they're listening to. They erupt in laughter after this classic Bushism cuts in:
"I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully."
Three minutes later it's back to the same club songs, and soon the night is over.
"That was cool," Maz said afterward. "It's so fun for me, working in the studio and then seeing the song played for a big crowd. I'm so lucky to have this job. Whenever I start to get frustrated I stop myself, because I'm getting paid to play music. It can't get any better than that."
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