Music Entrepreneur

DJ Irie

Written by Saul Taylor

From collecting records in his bedroom to running a multi-million dollar events production empire, DJ Irie has become a mainstay of Miami’s influential entertainment scene. This music maverick and his clutch of companies never misses a beat in pursuit of opportunity.

How did you get into DJing in the first place?

As a kid, I always loved music and I started to fall in love with vinyl records and began collecting. I went to boarding school in Jamaica for five years and while I was there I got a head start on my collection. I was into reggae big time, hence the name Irie. When I came back to Miami I was buying hip hop, R&B and rock records — you name it, I was into everything. I had a collection of about 2,000 pieces of vinyl. I had to keep them all in my bedroom because my family were like, “We don’t mind you collecting vinyl but we’re not having them all over the house.”.

There was a girl that I had a crush on in school and she came to my house one day out of the blue. I was totally thrown off. I didn’t know what to do, but I was able to keep it together and show her around. I didn’t want to show her my bedroom because that’s where I had all the records and at the time collecting records wasn’t exactly the coolest thing you could do. She pressed me to see my room and I finally caved and let her in. I opened the door and her eyes lit up. She said to me, “Oh my gosh, look at all these records! I didn’t know you were a DJ, I love DJs!”. In those days the only pass you could get was if you were a DJ not a record collector. I’d never DJ’d in my life, but I looked at her and I said, “Obviously I’m a DJ, why do you think I have all these records?”. I just ran with it. It was in the run-up to the Christmas holidays and before she left she asked what I was doing for New Year’s, and I said, “I want to do whatever you’re doing, I want to hang out with you.” And she said, “Well, are you not working?”. In my head I’m thinking — working doing what? And she said, ‘Great, I’ll tell my Dad to book you for our New Year’s party. I swear to you I was still thinking — book me to do what? She says, “To DJ!” I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s what I do, I’m a DJ!”

At that point, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Thank God I had friends who were DJs and I just leaned on them. So I borrowed equipment and pulled up to her place. The reason I wanted to commit and go down this path was because DJing is a combination of skill, having that musical vocabulary and knowing how to read a crowd. The musical vocabulary and knowing how to read a crowd came naturally to me. I was just missing the skill part (laughs).

You didn’t have long to learn.

I didn’t have long enough to learn how to mix or scratch, so I just played like I did in my bedroom. I put a song on, I played the whole song, the song would finish. As a kid I had no problem getting on the microphone and speaking to people so I would just grab the mic and say, “Hey party people! That was a good one! But don’t worry because here’s another one!” (laughs). It was like listening to a top 40 countdown on the radio. That was my first experience. It turned out that the Dad was the general manager at Planet Hollywood which was all the rage at the time — you couldn’t even get in. He said, “You know what, we have such a great vibe down there, we want you to come and start DJing.”. That was my first recurring weekly gig, then things kind of snowballed from there.

What was your first big gig?

The Miami Heat [basketball team] approached me to be their official DJ and that was huge because at that time I was just doing nightclubs and radio. But to have the opportunity to play to 18,000 people per night was incredible. The first season I started with The Heat, Microsoft chose Miami for a huge conference at the arena. They sent their events people to the game to scout how the arena operates and they saw me performing and reached out to me. That was awesome. There I was sharing the stage with Bill Gates and Microsoft president, Steve Ballmer. I introduced them, brought them on stage and had their 15,000 associates going crazy.

When did Irie Weekend come into it?

I started with The Heat in the 1999-2000 season and one of the players I became close to was Alonzo Mourning and he did this event called Zo’s Summer GrooveIt happened every year in mid-July and I would DJ a lot of the events. I saw the impact that the event would have first-hand and all the things that they were able to do from the proceeds they raised. It was very inspiring and it got to a point where I started doing stuff for Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Taylor, Dan Marino and all these other celebrities.

I was working for brands as well when it hit me. I would like to be a change agent and a part of the solution. I wondered if I could put together an event on my own. I called all the people I had supported to see if they’d support me. It was a very humbling experience because all I’d hear was, “Yes, absolutely, we got you, whatever you need.”.

We did the first one in 2005 and we had a great show of support. We called it Irie Weekend, but it was just one event on a Friday night and then a golf tournament on Saturday and that was it. I mean, now it’s like seven events over four days. That took on a life of its own and started snowballing because we had so much great support from celebrities and brands and it was just a magical. Now we’re 15 years on.

You seem to have somewhat of the Midas touch.

It has evolved organically, either as an epiphany or out of necessity. My company Artist Related evolved because my office was getting calls and I’d often already be booked and have to say no. Then they’d ask for a referral. At first you’d tell them that such-and-such is really good and a week or two later they’d call us back and say, “Hey, you put us on to this guy who was great, we want to use him again.”. And we’d be like, “Okay great, why don’t you call him?” (laughs).

It hit me as an opportunity, because not only is there so much talent out there that haven’t done a good job of marketing themselves, but there are so many brands and producers doing wonderful events that don’t have relationships with the right DJs. We stood on both sides — we could come in and help bridge that gap and that was the approach. I know all the DJs on the market. I knew their strengths and weaknesses and we already had this huge platform of clients that we could leverage. For the average person doing an event who has a good budget and wants to book Justin Timberlake, they don’t know how to make it happen. Because of our direct contact with artists, we just need to make one phone call.

How do you look at events?

Every single event that I perform is not just a great opportunity to have a good time but it’s an incredible opportunity to meet key people. When I played the Fortune magazine 40 under 40 issue launch, I researched all 40 beforehand so I knew what they were into, what their business was, all that. I made sure I met every single one and I’m still in contact with about half of them today. I have done either sponsorship stuff or booked talent or done some sort of business with all 20 of them. I can’t tell you what that means to the business. It’s not just an event, it is a platform to grow opportunities. We don’t leave anything on the table and we really try to convert on every opportunity and make it exponentially bigger than what it appears to be.

What makes a great event?

One — great cocktails, that’s a big part of it right there, really great cocktails. Two — a warm and inviting ambience, the ambience has to be right. And three — the music. I’m not just saying that because I’m a DJ but the music is the soundtrack of your event. If you’re watching a movie and the movie has a horrible soundtrack you’re not going to enjoy it. As amazing as the storyline may be, as amazing as the actor may be, if the music sucks, the movie sucks. The music is the soundtrack of the event. If those three things are on point and up to par, more than likely you’re going to have a great event. All the other stuff is just gravy on top.