Eli Escobar is nothing if not authentic. Earnest, curious, and effortlessly cool (despite his seeming unawareness of this undeniable truth), he is a DJs DJ and a NYC institution in his own right. Climbing to relevancy by spinning in some of the most culturally relevant New York clubs over the last two decades, his productions across the who's who of electronic music labels have cemented his legacy as a great one.
Above all else, Eli is a serious music nerd. I caught up with him in Tokyo at a legendary local haunt called Beat Cafe. Behind the bar at this basement music mecca is a bookish Japanese gentleman named Katoman, who can rifle off details about seemingly every album released in the last century. Band members, years, singles, critical reception, along with the cultural context surrounding the release. Watching him talk shop with Eli over gin and tonics felt akin to watching Coltrane and Miles share a stage; incredibly humbling and infinitely enriching. Two masters on a plane that few can reach.
Despite these ambitious accolades, however, Eli Escobar is about as humble as you can be. He cares little for traditional successes, as you'll read below, instead focusing more on sharing his love of music with those willing to show up and dance. Chatting with him was an immensely pleasurable experience, as his heartfelt delight and easy-going nature lead to a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be a professional DJ and love it.
Eli Escobar has finally paired up with the ever outstanding Nomi Ruiz on a dedicated project, titled Eli & Nomi. This fearsome twosome has been featured on each others records for years so it's about damn time they've joined forces in a big way. Their first release is out on Classic Music Company, although it's vinyl only for the next few weeks! You can cop it in the meantime here, but be quick as it's already sold out of a few online record shops! In the meantime, peep the words below.
Magnetic Magazine: Which New York City neighborhood best reflects your sound and why?
Eli Escobar: Downtown. Because when I was growing up everything was downtown. It wasn't just clubs, it was fashion, art, anything. I was envious of kids that grew up downtown. When I was in junior high school, kids from downtown seemed like they were just cooler without even having to try. When I look back on it now, I think the kids I grew up around were cool, too, but when I met kids from downtown, they dressed better, they were edgier. I became friends with girls and they'd make me mixes and they had all these alternative groups I didn't know about. Then once I started going clubbing, which started when I was 15 or so, we would all go downtown. Every club was there. The minute I was old enough to move out of my mom's house, I moved downtown and I'm still here.
MM: What did your parents think when you made DJing and producing your focus?
Eli Escobar: They were very encouraging. Both of my parents are artists. In particular my dad was really supportive, he's a little bit more open minded. My mom didn't really understand what I was doing when I started making music with samples. "Well I don't get it. Are you actually writing music? Are you playing any instruments?" She was a little critical of it and she'd be like, "But that's stealing." Whereas my dad, who is a weird old artist guy, would just be like, "It's like collage; I get it." I think I've tried to talk to my mom about it since my profile has risen. I'll tell her that people in such and such part of the world have told me what my DJ sets have meant to them or whatever. Above anything else I think that really impresses her.
MM: Do people treat you differently now than when you started?
Eli Escobar: Yeah. One of the things that's happened without me realizing it is that I've become old. People message me in New York telling me that "seeing you DJ ten years ago changed my life." So that's a really interesting thing. To all of a sudden realize that you've gotten to that point where people have been influenced by you. I feel really honored. To be honest, I don't give a fuck about playing a festival or a song charting on Beatport or whatever. I mean that's fine, but really what I care about is the DJ in New York who heard me play and then started their own party. That's the ultimate success. I care more about New York than I care about any of this other stuff, you know what I mean?
MM: Left-field question. Do you have a favorite Madonna era?
Eli Escobar: Oh, it changes. I would say that the first album would be my go-to answer, but I really do like the Erotica era. I don't think the album holds up entirely, but the songs that do hold up really might be my favorite. Also, I like what she was doing during that time, which was sort of like opening up a conversation about sex. I don’t think it went over very well, but in hindsight, it was pretty awesome. She was challenging people's ideas of who they could love or how they wanted to love.
MM: Do you feel that there is a strategic element to DJing?
Eli Escobar: No doubt about it. I'm always three songs ahead of what you hear going on. Every night is different, though, but there's some nights when I feel like I need to be ahead of the crowd.
Eli Escobar: There are a whole bunch of reasons. It might be because I feel nervous that the crowd isn't willing to stay with me. I play a lot of vocals so I'm like, "all right, I'm going to play this one song that doesn't have vocals that's like a bridge to the next song." Because for me, I have to play some songs that make sense thematically and then, if I want to change up the theme, I have to play like a drum track or an instrumental to let everybody breathe. But if I feel like the crowd is not necessarily the most patient crowd, I'll be like, "All right, but I have to play that little segue thing really quickly," and get to wherever it is I want to go fast. Whereas other times I know if the crowd is really with me, I can take my time and really build up that segue into the next theme. Those are the really good nights.
MM: Do you have different styles?
Eli Escobar: Definitely. I still love to play hip-hop and if I'm playing a hip-hop party for a little bit of an old school crowd in New York, I'm song to song so I'm definitely not thinking ahead. Way different but just as natural. It's like if you grew up speaking two languages, right? And whatever your native country was, you left it for a while, but when you go back you pick it up like that. That's how it is for me if I'm spinning a hip-hop set with older New York people.
MM: Do you notice when you misread where the crowd wants to go?
Eli Escobar: Oh my god, it's like the worst feeling. If a song falls flat or something’s not clicking you notice it instantly. Sometimes it's just the way it’s gotta be. But I'm not the kind of guy who's like, "Well, you guys don't get it. I'm going to do this anyway." I’ll fumble around trying to get it back. That's just how I am. I respect DJs that could be like, "This is what I do, and hopefully you guys will feel it. " I'm not like that. I'm like, "Fuck! I've got this room and I'm going to bust my ass to make this shit pop off." You know what I mean? I always try.
MM: Have you always been this in touch with your artistic and emotional self?
Eli Escobar: Yeah, I think so. When I was in high school I was really into visual art. Drawing and painting. I used to have my four tape decks set up so I could record loops and try to make beats, or make my really shitty little demos. Although you ask me that question and I look back on it now, I can see that I was not so good at expressing myself verbally back then. But I made sure I got it out, through whatever art I had to do.
MM: Do you find that if you are sad and reflective that your sets change?
Eli Escobar: I used to play this club every week and the lighting guy and I got pretty tight. He is this really cool guy who had worked in some incredibly seminal New York City '80s night clubs like Paradise Garage and The Roxy. He used to say, "You kind of remind me of guys I used to work for back in the day. From the bass line on the first song you play, I always know what mood you're in. I can always tell what kind of Eli I'm going to be working with tonight."