Exclusive Interview with DJ Ascension (06/26/2015)

If you attended this year’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, then you may have walked by or possibly even attended a show or two (or three) at the Kalliope Stage.  If so, you may have been mesmerized by a certain DJ whose style was unlike any other by incorporating live instruments, rapping and mixing rock with bass.  Well, if you were wondering who this amazing DJ was… we have a treat for you.  His name is DJ Ascension and he is based out of Scottsdale, AZ.  We were afforded an opportunity to pick his brain and I jumped at the chance.  After catching his set on Thursday around midnight, I wanted to find out who DJ Ascension really is and what makes him tick.  His style was so distinctive and really needed to be shared with the world to those who are not aware of his genius.  A musical virtuoso, DJ Ascension would impress not only myself but hordes of people who gathered at the Kalliope Stage prompting a social media outcry to bring him back to the farm in 2016.  So sit back and enjoy the ride given by DJ Ascension as he takes you on a musical journey through his trials and tribulations that ultimately brought him to this year’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.  I can only hope that he will make it back with the Kalliope Stage for next year’s event and impress more Bonnaroovians.

Concert Hopper: How did you decide to take this path as being one of the few DJ’s with an Associate’s Degree in the field?

DJ Ascension: “Well it wasn’t actually my decision; it was more of God’s, the universe or some higher power if you will.  I was on the path of being a firefighter.  I had my national certification in structural fire science, aircraft rescue fire science, EMT, wildlife firefighting… the list goes on.  At the time, I was also a carpentry foreman running a crew of fifteen guys building custom million dollar homes up in the mountains of Arizona.  As well as a professional snowboarder and a fighter pilot in training.  Had my hands in a lot of different things as well as DJ’ing a little bit off to the side on the weekends.  I got into a car wreck with my friend at the time who was driving.  We were about a block away from my house when we hit a patch of ice on the road.  I warned him ahead of time, ‘Hey you should slow down there is ice up there.’  And he was like, ‘No, I got this.’  He lost control and hit a power pole head-on.  This accident derailed the path that I was on and it took me 3 ½ years to walk again properly.  During that recovery time, the only thing I really could do was DJ.  So fortunately I landed a residency at a club in Show Low, Arizona called Absolute Distraction.  And as soon as I could wobble around I would go into the club with my record bag over my shoulder and my walker.  My legs were in braces from hip to ankle, so I would go in there with this walker and record bag like an 80 year old man saying ‘You guys ready to party or what??!’  I would grab the Velcro straps on my leg braces, swing them up onto a stool next to me, sit there and rock the crowd for 6 hours on every Thursday, Friday and Saturday for a few years during my whole recovery and rehab.  Towards the end of that, I found out that 2 ½ hours away from me was this guy, DJ Ruthless Ramsey the turntablist.  This guy is incredible!  He does more with a cassette tape than most guys can with a record…. He just goes crazy with it.  So it turns out this guy was teaching college accredited turntablism classes.  I was like… ‘Wait? What?  There is a college class in scratching records?! I’m in!’  So I started driving down 2 ½ hours one way every week for two semesters taking these DJ classes at Scottsdale Community College.  Turns out that this was 10 years in the making as the director of the DJ turntablist program, Rob Wegner, had been working on this for little over a decade.  These classes had first became accredited and then there was a certificate offered… like a college level certification like welding, nursing, etc.  And as of the end of last semester it became recognized by the National Board of Education as an official Associates of Art and it was integrated with all the core classes… for an Associate’s Degree in Live Performance Disc Jockey Techniques.  And as of last semester I was the first recipient of this degree and currently one of two people in the world that have an actual degree in DJ’ing.  So these classes incorporate turntablism, live digital DJ techniques, studio production, public speaking, marketing, audio production, studio recording, and live summary enforcement.  There is an entire curriculum for this career path now that has never been done before in the world.  I’m super honored and blessed to be the world’s first recipient and be the ambassador for the Scottsdale Community College DJ degree program.”

CH: Your musical style is very diverse and unique as you play many instruments and incorporate them into your performance, how did you formulate this complex live performance and perfect it?

DJ: “Thank you for noticing that for sure!  It’s been a big collection over the years really.  I was a band geek all throughout school, I played the trumpet from 5th grade all the way through college.  I received a full ride music scholarship into college with it.  I kind of dipped out of that program when they asked me to do show choir.  I wasn’t a big fan of jazz hands (laughing).  I’ve been a musician my whole life in high school; I started playing guitar, drums and bass.  Was a drum major in my high school band and was also the conductor in a concert band.  Moved all around the brass instruments and just tried to play as many things as I could.  Just wanted to master all these different tools to play music with… and then about two years out of high school is when I was first introduced to the turntable.  I got hooked instantly!  That bug bit me real good.  So I would go to my buddy’s house and use his gear, but it turns out that he had a psycho for a mom and it wasn’t really a safe place for him to be in.  So I told him to come live with me on the one count that he brings his turntables and he could live for free! (Laughing)  He moved in and I full access to the turntables.  We would mess around in the studio with keyboards, trumpets, guitars, and sampling stuff with my cassette tape.  Just trying to incorporate everything, so currently I am using Ableton Live 9 with Serato Scratch LiveSerato Scratch Live is a reel to MP3 interface, so you basically have time coded vinyl records that actually are real vinyl records but that have binary code information on them.  And anything you do to that code by manipulating the record, it does to the MP3 file in your computer.  In Kalliope’s case, I do the same thing except with CDJs because obviously they have 70,000 watts of bass and the needle would just fly right off the record.  In Kalliope’s case, I use the CDJs as a controller so I’m able to manipulate audio files through the turntables.  They also incorporate the trumpet skills that I’ve had for over a decade now.  And then when I eventually release my first album, I’ll be able to incorporate the guitar and some drums.  I also use my iPad wirelessly out in the crowd to manipulate sounds and do really cool stuff.  It’s always fun to hand someone the iPad and tell hit that button right there… then it changes everything! Then they are like, ‘What?! I did that!’  I love to really interact with the crowd.  That’s why I also rap on the mic and MC… just try to get the crowd into it as much as possible.  Because it’s a wild ride!  The music that I play is really diverse because my background is so diverse.  I’m full blown ADHD, so by formulating these musical journeys where you can tie into different genres, like going from Dub-step to Classic Rock and making it all work, flow together and it all makes sense.  It’s a really fun process for me. I absolutely love doing that style of an open format where it is a bass heavy festival DJ set, because you look out into the crowd and it reflects the music.  So you can see the young kids up front going nuts between the M Track that I drop.  And then a few minutes later, the older people in the back going crazy because of the Steve Miller Band or some Classic Rock.  So it is always a constant ton of fun… one of my favorite moments out there on the farm was when I dropped Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and the whole place was like, ‘What?! Where did this come from?!’  (Laughing)  I just love the shock and awe by taking people on that journey… within five minutes they are asking, ‘How did we get here?’  But I like it! This is dope.  So DJ sets nowadays are a lot of guys who just push play and wave their hands in the air.  It just ramps up and up with a build-up and then the drop.  I try to totally switch it up and take people on a natural ride where it looks like a sound wave going up and down.”

CH: What was your schedule like during the week at this year’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival?

DJ: I arrived on the farm on Monday after flying in from Scottsdale, AZ.  And the first couple days we were setting up our own base camp in artist camping.  Once we got our site situated and the tarps over everything… we pretty much rain proofed everything.  Then we got to kick back, unwind and have ourselves a little fun.  And then Wednesday it was get to work time and we were building Kalliope herself.  We had to unpack everything from the truck trailer… the gear, lights and the beams or trestles that goes across the roof and everything like that.  Pretty much had to build her on site.  Putting up the sign, the railings up on the upper deck, building the DJ booth and everything that goes on the light trestle.  One of the audio engineers put up the actual trestle himself and normally he does all the wiring but after working for a few hours out there in that heat he had to take a break.  So we ran all the cables, electrical and DMX signals for all of the beams you see across the top of Kalliope, so pretty much got her built up all on Wednesday.  We did a sound check and everything was good to go fortunately.”

CH: You played Kalliope on Thursday PM/early Friday AM at the 2015 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, what did you expect from this set? Were you surprised at the turn-out/reaction to your amazing set? (Those horns tho!)

DJ: “Well I came into it with a festival mentality and I actually changed up my whole set.  A lot of it was done live… I do not like pre-planning.  Because you never know what kind of crowd you are going to be in front of until you are there.  A majority of my shows, I have some bullets in the gun but I do not exactly know which one I am going to fire until I get there and see the crowd.  I was really blessed in that I got to hang out at Bonnaroo on the farm for a solid four days before I even played.  I got to learn about who has played and who was really good last year.  Just really getting to know the farm and feel the vibe of everyone as well.  I got to cruise around in Big Red (the world’s largest Volkswagen Beetle) which is part of the Walter Production crew and Kalliope and all that.  So we got to cruise out to the greeting station where everyone is entering the festival and give everyone High-fives! They are all dancing to Big Red’s music and it was that experience that really helped me shape my set because I got to see the kind of people that were coming into the festival.  There were young, old and everything in between… and even people bringing families in.  So I really got to absorb Bonnaroo and feel out what music would be best in the situation.  And so that is what really helped me shape my set and influence the music that I was going to play.  I have goose bumps right now when you asked me about my reaction that night… I was blown away!  I played a couple of shows in my ten year long DJ career and that was the BEST CROWD EVER… I cannot believe how insane everyone was going.  After hiking in for like miles… sometimes 2 miles away and plus they’re camping out there with 100 degree heat and humidity, just some horrendous conditions.  And just losing their minds all the way till sunrise… freaking out you know?  Losing their voices screaming… just going absolutely insane for every drop.  It was a really big rush for me playing that and knowing what is coming next… wait for it.  Wait for it.  Then boom!  Drop it on them and just watch the reactions!  It is the best crowd I’ve ever played to… I am fully in love with Bonnaroo at this point.”

CH: What was your most memorable moment at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts festival as a performer and just being on the Farm in general?

DJ: “Oh man the whole experience was just so amazing.  Having the access that headlining artists have, gives you the opportunity to meet and hang out with incredibly talented people.  Meeting Reggie Watts was a big highlight for me…  Hanging out with Cherub in their trailer till like 10 am the next day was also a big highlight.  At one point I found myself in some random campsite with Rudimental jamming out on the ukulele that Michael Bolton’s nephew brought with him.  I was just pinching myself sometimes, like is this happening?  Rudimental is right there playing drums and singing while I’m strumming the ukulele and jamming with them.  I love how personal Bonnaroo can be and just like super intimate.  It is not like any other festival where you are ushered in and herded around like cattle.  Then you are shoved out the door… that is kind of like it is at Coachella.  One reason why I stopped going to Coachella.”


CH: What is in store for the future for DJ Ascension?

DJ: “Oh boy, well I am finishing the album and getting that released with some original music.  Stepping up my remix game and just continuously honing this craft.  A lot more studio time, live production, messing with gadgets that not a lot of DJs have and just separating myself apart with the natural talent that I was gifted with.  Getting exposed to the world and taking this international is definitely my next step.  Having already done Burning Man and Bonnaroo… coming up next month I have the San Diego Pride Festival.  With the recent announcement of equal marriage nationwide, the San Diego Pride Festival is going to be insane!  We are already expecting 300,000 people but now it is probably going to double with everyone coming into the country and just celebrating that huge victory for the LGBT community.  It is amazing being a straight ally raising awareness for equality, I really excited for that.  They have me booked on the Hip Hop stage one day and headlining at the Euphoria Dance Garden another day.  And then they just booked me up to the main stage, so I’m going be the DJ playing in between these huge headlining acts.  And probably sharing the stage with the host, Carmen Electra and in front of hundreds of thousands of people.  I’ve been to a couple of Pride Festivals before and the LGBT community just loves to party!  They know how to get down!  It is completely uninhibited.  They are an amazing crowd as well.  This will be my first San Diego Pride Festival and I’m really excited to play.  I’m a little nervous for that one with all those people… I love to be nervous though before a show.  That is what keeps me sharp.  Keeps me right in the flow.  Also, I am now teaching at Scottsdale Community College… they hired me on as an adjunct faculty member.  I teach Digital DJ Performance Technique (MUC137) with DJ Transzit.  They just brought me on to teach another class as well, Live Sound Reinforcement I (MUC197): setting up live sound systems and doing in-house engineering for bands.  And just traveling the world… I want to get some stamps in my passport and what better way to do it than playing music for people around the world.  I am really excited to enrich my character and my soul by experiencing different parts of the world, different cultures and communities.  Sharing incredible times and moments with people through music.  Another thing is my residency on Party 103, a global radio station out of New York City (www.party103.com).  I am a resident on there (and very fortunate) with Bad Boy Bill, DJ Starlite, DJ Ruthless Ramsey and so many incredible artists from all around the world on Party 103!”

CH: Are you hoping to play Bonnaroo next year?

DJ: “I really hoping that everyone writes their local Bonnarovian congressman and gets me on the set list for the next year.  I know there is a lot of fans on Instagram and other social media sites that are asking if I am coming back next year.  They are super stoked about it… I have a really bright future with Kalliope and the Walter Productions crew.  I’m really stoked to be a part of them and wearing so many hats with them.  I’ve become a really fun and integral part of the entire Walter show…  So by standing in Kalliope and being such a fun integral part of Walter Productions, I can say that there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be coming back to Bonnaroo next year.”

We would like to thank DJ Ascension for taking the time out of his day to talk with us about his unique experience at this year’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.  He is a really wonderful human being and full of love for his fans.  It is a special thing to meet someone who has a true and genuine sense of compassion for not only his craft but also for the people that gather around his performances.  I feel that his career is going to be a very productive and prosperous one that will produce an inimitable style to an already burgeoning genre.  If you were lucky enough to catch him perform this year… you can say you saw him first!  We wish him much success with Walter Productions and the fact that this can help bring him back to the farm so he can melt the minds of new and old fans alike.  We also want to wish him success in everything he does from teaching at Scottsdale Community College, the San Diego Pride Festival, and his residency with Party 103.  Basically success to anything that he applies his talents to in the music industry.  It could not happen to a nicer guy!

Listen to his Bonnaroo set.

Check him out on Facebook.

You can also follow him on Instagram @djascension

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