by Jon Warech
photography by Gary James and Alex Markow | March 9, 2015 | People
As the madness of Music Week hits Miami, Ocean Drive takes a behind-the-scenes look at the hidden life of world-famous DJs.
Dutch EDM DJ R3hab working the crowd with beats at Miami Beach nightclub Story.
From the dance floor looking up, the life of a DJ seems fantastic. They travel around the world, sipping Champagne on private jets, then crack their knuckles and take their post behind a motherboard of buttons that sends trance-inducing beats bursting out of speakers the size of a Honda, while confetti shoots out from cannons, dancers fall from the sky, and lasers shoot across a dance floor. Afterward, they party with celebrities until the sun comes up. If it feels like a fantasy, it’s because it is one.
It’s 8:30 pm on a Friday night, in a town sluggish from an intense December and January that blended Art Basel into a New Year’s Eve party into a high season that seemed to last forever. Everything is moving a little bit slower in Miami as the city recovers. The exception is a man by the name of R3hab (aka Fadil El Ghoul), a 27-year-old Dutch EDM DJ who arrived in Miami on a flight from Amsterdam after a stop in London. He races to check into his room at Epic Hotel in downtown Miami in order to catch a minute of alone time before his journey of a night begins.
But it’s too late—90 minutes on a tarmac, plus an hour in customs, means the nap will have to wait until tomorrow. “The hard thing about traveling is that it’s just tiring,” he says. “There’s no direct flight from Amsterdam, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in first class, business class, or coach, it all sucks when it’s 10 hours.”
Unshaven and with hair purposely disheveled, R3hab wheels a carry-on-size bag through the hotel hallway and clutches a six-pack of pressed juices. Hanging on his shoulder is a backpack containing every necessity in life—his laptop, Bose noise-canceling headphones, and an eye mask and neck pillow for that rest he so desperately craves. “This is a nice room,” he says, before pushing aside three cupcakes left as compliments of the hotel. “Eating healthy is very important.”
Both Avicii and Afrojack were hospitalized during last year’s Miami Music Week, proving that, if you let it, deejaying can be a dangerous sport. “It’s important to stay in shape and eat healthy because we’re always on a plane,” says internationally celebrated DJ Cedric Gervais, who estimates he travels 270 days a year. “If you don’t eat healthy and you don’t work out, you’re going to get sick and you’re going to miss gigs.” Missing gigs is obviously not something that arguably the world’s most popular DJ right now, Calvin Harris, did last year—Harris raked in an estimated $66 million last year, according to Forbes.
On this day, there’s no time for workouts. A classic creative type, R3hab produces when the feeling hits him, and that time happens to be right now. He hunches over his laptop, hands moving like a classical music conductor as the music spills out and he puts together his set for the night. The procrastination is all part of the creative process. “I’ve played a big festival for 50,000 people and didn’t really prepare, and then two hours before, it clicks and it’s all done in a magical hour,” he says. “Or I can sit there and try to prepare three weeks ahead and nothing comes. When you start worrying about these things, then it doesn’t fall into place.”
R3hab at Story.
The music is only part of the package when it comes to a DJ performance. “There are multiple things that we look at when we decide which new guys we are going to try and push forward,” says Adam Russakoff, executive producer/director of business affairs and talent buyer of Ultra Music Festival. “One of which would be music. Second, which is really important to me, would be the performance—the engagement of the crowd, the energy that they bring and how they present the material.”
As R3hab hops into a chauffeured SUV with his tour manager, Wisa, his energy is fading. He has a show at Story nightclub in a couple of hours, and his eyes start to close during the car ride. Keeping him awake is Instagram (R3hab himself has 383,000 followers and counting), an obsession for most here in America, but part of the job for DJs from around the world. “Branding is the biggest thing, and with today’s technology, social media is a big part of that,” says Brooke Evers, an Australian model-turned-DJ with 295,000 Instagram followers and several magazine covers under her belt. “Promoters always say, ‘Can you put the flier on your social media?’ They don’t ask about anything else.”
R3hab was part of a group of Dutch DJs such as Hardwell, Nicky Romero, Afrojack, Chuckie, Laidback Luke, and others who exploded onto the music scene from the same generation. “Afrojack was the one to really pop off internationally,” he says. “He saw a certain talent in me, took me under his wing in 2011, and we started working together, and everything slowly came along.”
Gervais, a Miami resident for 17 years, had a more old-school approach. He was the resident DJ at Living Room, Nikki Beach, and then Space before getting noticed and climbing the ranks. “That way is dead,” says Gervais, who now has multiplatinum-selling singles and a Grammy on his résumé. “Today, you have to make a big record and get signed to a label or with an agent. Being a resident in a club is not going to take you anywhere. But I’m glad that I had to make people dance every night. Today all these young kids that are coming up are missing the experience of being a real DJ and actually knowing how to play for a crowd.”
With technology the way it is, almost anyone can be a DJ. Software is cheap, the Internet makes the music accessible, and social media allows for a brand to be created all from the comfort of an aspiring star’s home. “The barriers to entry to be a successful artist are all but removed these days,” says Russakoff. “What I like about it is it allows anybody with some musical ability to get creative with all the tools that are available to them. Money isn’t a factor anymore, which is great. It’s purely talent-based.”
Becoming a successful DJ is a different story. The fact that it’s so easy to give it a shot makes competition fierce and saturates the market. “It’s very difficult for anyone without the right backing to make it now,” says Louis Diaz, talent buyer/musical director for Space Miami and The Opium Group. “I stay away from the up-and-coming. I book shows that sell, and for them to sell, they’ve been proven over and over again.”
A late meal (his first of the day) at Michael Mina 74 gives him the chance to kick back with friends before his gig.
Which means those already in the inner circle, like R3hab, don’t have to focus on the competition. “It’s a waste of time and energy,” the DJ says as his car pulls up to the Fontainebleau for a pregig meal. It’s now 11 pm (or 5 am Amsterdam time) and R3hab sits down for his first meal of the day at Michael Mina 74. “It’s a 15-hour diet,” he jokes before he and Wisa tuck into roasted bone marrow, a Japanese wedge salad, Michael’s tuna tartare, lamb meatballs, filet mignon, grilled Colorado lamb chops, and white miso sea bass.
The energy changes with the help of a good meal and the arrival of Biz Martinez, the music director and talent buyer for LIV and Story, two of the top-10-grossing clubs in America, which reportedly pulled in more than $70 million last year. All of a sudden, R3hab has a friend and his spirits are lifted. They crack jokes at each other’s expense and talk about typical guy stuff. Then Mo Garcia and Purple—two of the people who make LIV and Story tick—show up, and it’s a party.
“If you can make them feel comfortable, they’re going to play better,” says Martinez. “These guys are constantly traveling, and they want to see a familiar face; they want to feel like they’re at home. How we host them and how we execute their vision in the market is why they continue to come back.”
By the time R3hab, Martinez, and company roll up to the back alley of Story, then head up the stairs to the back of the stage, it’s 1:30 am. It feels like the night should be over, but somehow it’s just beginning. “The way I look at it, deejaying is the dessert for the meal,” says DJ Michael Brun. “It’s the most immediately gratifying experience of being a DJ and producer.”
Within seconds, R3hab is working the crowd with beats. At first they stare in amazement, snapping photos at a rapid pace, but then he lifts his hands to the heavens and the thousand or so people in the packed house start dancing like no one is watching. As the night ticks on, sweat pours off the brow of R3hab, who at this point hasn’t had any real sleep in roughly 24 hours. Fans screaming at the top of their lungs makes the job seem more shvitz and clamor than glitz and glamour, but models do meander into the DJ booth to say hello and remind him why he loves Miami, and servers parade around roughly two dozen bottles of Dom Pérignon throughout his set to buyers at prime tables on the dance floor who are adding to their previous purchases of vodka and tequila.
Painted girls dance, lights flash in sync with the music, and confetti drops at just the right times throughout the night. The don of LIV and Story, David Grutman, pats R3hab on the back as he kicks into a second gear, and Jojo Lahoud and Mo Garcia keep the VIP crowd partying. “Miami is a huge stop for any DJ,” says Sujit Kundu, owner of Skam Artist, an agency that represents talent who regularly make their way to Miami. “Clubs like LIV, Mansion, Story, and Wall put Miami on the map.” They also set the trends for clubs around the globe.
“I really don’t think anyone in the world offers the programming we do in terms of all the superstars that we have and all the upcoming artists,” says Martinez. “LIV is one of the most well-known clubs in the world,” adds Brun, who first played there in February 2013. “To be able to headline there was a big deal. It’s a milestone. When you are able to headline at LIV, you’re at a certain point in your career, and it increases your overall value on the market.”
In 2013, Ultra Music Festival sold out both of its weekends, with more than 330,000 people in attendance.
And as we roll through 2015, the sounds will change—less noise and more deep house and chill vibes, according to industry insiders—and the stars will move up and down the charts, but Miami will continue to set the tone, especially with Winter Music Conference and Ultra Music Festival, in their 30th year and 17th year respectively. In 2013, Ultra sold out both of its weekends with a combined total of more than 330,000 people in attendance from 95 countries.
“Being the first festival of the year and arguably the most credible EDM festival in the US, artists invest a lot of their time, effort, and energy into using Ultra Miami as a showcase to lay out their path and set what their message is going to be for the year,” says Russakoff. The message sent on this night was that the party stops for nothing. R3hab blasts the EDM tracks and ignites the crowd until 4:30 am. He jumps, he dances, somehow finding a spark after all his travels. “I think you feed off the energy of the room,” he says as he steps out of the DJ booth and down into the bowels of Story nightclub. “I was a little jet-lagged and tired, but the good thing about music is it gives you energy.”
After the show, that bed in the high-end Epic Hotel has to wait. Adrenaline keeps R3hab up at least an extra two hours after a set. So on this night, his head won’t even hit the pillow. Instead he’ll party with Jojo and some of those models from earlier, in the VIP green room of Story. He’d keep going, except there’s a 7 am flight to catch to Las Vegas for another show, where surely a nap is on the agenda. Because after a night in Miami, there’s no better place to sleep than Vegas.
additional photography by worldredeye.com