In our new series, we shine a spotlight on those usually hiding in the wings, first up the New York DJ turned music maker you need to know.
Joey LaBeija opens our new series featuring creatives operating in the shadows, behind the decks, curtains and scenes. It’s time for the most exciting DJs, producers and directors to take the front seat they deserve. Right under the spotlight.
Sometimes you can have it all and be it all. An NYC queer nightlife icon, DJ under the name of a legendary ballroom House of LaBeija (you’ve seen Paris Is Burning, right?), celebrities’ hairdresser and pop star on the rise. The list goes on and on but it comes down to two words. Joey LaBeija. He’s a one-of-a-kind shapeshifter whose creative portfolio would give goosebumps to anyone digging modern culture. Ever since, back in his nerve-wracking hair salon assistant times, he put fingers to decks for the first time, there was no going back. Two months after releasing a mix on SoundCloud, he got booked to play in Japan. The rest is history.
Joey embodies his home area of the ever-changing Bronx, New York. He grew up in a Puerto Rican neighbourhood and kept on venturing out of it in search of punk, scene kids and disco. ‘Till this day, LaBeija is always on the run for the next kick and a way to express himself. 2019 was a breakthrough year when back then DJ/producer debuted a deeply personal break-up record, TEARS IN MY HENNESSY. Today, Joey LaBeija is ready to redefine pop and R&B with no regard for anyone’s expectations.
We caught Joey on his housewife day (even icons need to do chores) and midway a pop banger blasting out of his speakers to chat about his crazy journey in the industry so far. Just like his music, he’s rebellious looking but a sweetie at heart. Anything he’s serving, from DJ sets, fab fashion to pop tunes, we’re gonna eat it up.
Your journey with music has started behind the decks. Even though you’re making your own tunes now, do you still think of yourself as a DJ?
When I first started making music, I was like ‘I’m quitting DJing. I don’t want anybody to think of me as a DJ’. I’ve got a very one track-mind like that but then I realised that I actually enjoy DJing. It’s such a separate thing. It’s my first love so I’ll never stop but I’m definitely more focused on making music.
I can imagine that making music and playing it comes from a different kind of headspace. What’s your approach to both?
I’ve never ever been a DJ that plans my music. I just show up. Before a gig, I just sit down for an hour and download a shit-tonne of music. Then I stick my USB to the computer and just go to the club and pray. That’s even when I’m playing really high paying gigs, big shows and corporate events. Anytime I’ve ever tried to plan music, I don’t even use that playlist so I just go into it because it’s off of feelings. I wouldn’t say I’m a crowd-pleaser, I definitely please the crowd, but I think it’s more so because I play for myself. You just never know what I’m gonna play. I’ve played Alanis Morissette in the club more than once and people loved it.
You’ve become quite an icon in the NYC queer night scene, what’s your relationship like with it now?
Becoming a DJ has ruined enjoying going to a club because I’m pretty socially awkward in big settings. I get really bad social anxiety. That’s where being a DJ has been the best part of it. I can enjoy the club but not have to interact with people because I’m sequestered behind the DJ booth. I do love the club playing it but going out I don’t enjoy it because I just don’t see people enjoying themselves, especially here. In the UK, I really enjoyed going out because everybody is just really in it. Nightlife is a real thing there. Here it’s just more about showing where you’re at. I don’t go out because I could just watch it on my phone the next morning. When I’m in London I don’t come home ‘till the sun comes up and I go to McDonald’s and get breakfast and then I go to sleep.
Your newest single ‘heels’ is out now. What’s the story behind it?
I made it in February or March of 2020. At the time, I had moved back home with my parents during the lockdown. I didn’t really have a life and even after the lockdown was lifted, I didn’t do much because I was so scared of killing my parents from hanging out with somebody. I was bored and sad because I was so far away from everybody. I just started practising writing down all the things that I wanted in life and trying to make myself feel better. Then I was feeling a disconnect from my music that I was working on because I was still making sad stuff but I didn’t feel sad. I was so focused on getting my head together and so I was like “what if I practise like doing what I’m doing and writing all the things that I want in life as if I have them in a song”. I got stoned and I imagined what it would be to be in love with somebody perfect for you. Then I met my boyfriend three months later so that’s cool. It’s one of my favourite things that I’ve ever made. I’ve always wanted to make music like this but I could never put it out. I was so scared of what people would think because I’m a DJ and then a club producer. I just thought maybe it would be too left field to put out R&B music but I just said fuck it, let me do it and I’m really happy.
What has influenced the new Joey LaBeija’s sound?
All of this new music, I was so inspired by late 90s and early 2000s pop music. I was listening to so much NSYNC and when I was in lockdown some Aaliyah, 702, Timberland and Missy, between their production and writing, they’re probably the biggest influences on the way I make music. It’s Timberland especially.
‘heels’ feels like a new chapter in the Joey LaBeija story, both instrumentally and lyrically. What caused that change of direction?
All the music that I made over the last two years just leans that way naturally. Everything sounds similar but nothing is the same. Some things are still a little more dance-driven but for that, I was actually just listening to all my demos now. It’s nice to hear everything together. It just sounds like my version of what pop and R&B should sound like.
Are the demos a part of a bigger project then?
I thought maybe it would be a cute idea to put it together as a mixtape but all of my music that I’ve put out so far has been bodies of work. I’m not blowing smoke up my own ass or tooting my own horn but a lot of really good songs that I’ve made have gone under the radar or didn’t reach as much of an audience as they should have because they were put out in the body of work as a project. I just don’t think that’s how people consume music anymore. Personally – I’ve always been this way since I was a kid and I’m in my 30s now – I like to listen to somebody’s body of work from beginning to finish as it should be listened to. I feel like that’s how an artist wants their project to be listened to. I know that’s how I do. From now, I’m just going to do a single by single so it can be digested one thing at a time. The internet has ruined everyone’s attention span.
Both as a musician and DJ, when playing live you can access a special kind of power to move the crowd, let them release their emotions or escape the real world for a while. How does it feel to be able to do it?
Oh my god, honestly DJing and performing is the one time where I’m actually just 100% me without having to think about it. I shut down and blackout. I’m in a whole different world. I’ve never realised that until my last few gigs because it’s been so long since I’ve played. It’s me in my purest form because it’s just straight feelings. No second-guessing. No syncing. No planning. It’s the moment. I got really sad during lockdown because playing music, whether it’s DJing or performing, it’s become my favourite thing ever. It’s like you’re creating energy in a room. That’s a very special experience that a lot of people don’t get to understand.
It’s spiritual in a way.
It takes me like an hour. I don’t really drink, I’m just like a stoner but when I’m done playing, I feel almost wasted because I’m always shaking after. I need like 30 minutes to calm down because it’s such a spiritual high type of thing.
You don’t even need drugs to feel it.
No, there’s been plenty of times. I’ve cried more than once after a set because not only I’m creating energy but feeling the energy back from people. It’s a magical thing.
The way you present yourself is always very cool and coherent. How important is fashion to you when it comes to creating your identity as an artist?
New York has really shaped me. I grew up in the hood. I’m Puerto Rican and it wasn’t the safest neighbourhood. I went to high school in a rich neighbourhood with preppy kids but then I hung out downtown with scene kids. I was emo and used to listen to hardcore music but then would also go to hear club music, at the club, at raves. All of that has really shaped me into who I am as an artist, fashion-wise, the whole nine yards. Also, going to London and the punk scene over there. I just feel like, for the most part, it’s New York really. Even the way I DJ: in New York, you have your window open and you just hear cars driving by with the loudest music, that’s kind of what my DJ sets are like. You’ll hear reggaeton one minute, rock ‘n’ roll the next and then hip hop. You have access to so much here from so early on. I’ve been taking the subway downtown by myself since 11. You really have this giant city to explore. I didn’t appreciate or understand that until I was older. The only thing I regret, not necessarily regret, but I just wish I knew, is that music could be a path for me earlier in my life because music is always meant so much to me but I didn’t know it was an option as a career. My family was working middle class and really just wanted the most for me and my sisters. My parents didn’t go to college and they really wanted us all to go to college. I didn’t. I went to beauty school instead but I didn’t know that like that was a potential job and then I did and I started DJing. Two months after I put out my first mix on SoundCloud, I was booked in Tokyo and then I was like ‘oh this is a job, cool’. The rest is history.
The music industry can be harsh at times, what has motivated you to keep on pushing for your spot in it?
This was about 10 years ago, I was an assistant at the hair salon and being an assistant is the hardest job because you’re being bossed around by a bunch of crazy hairdressers. I just wanted to be a hairdresser so badly but I had to go to my apprenticeship. I decided to just teach myself how to DJ so I can enjoy my time off. It gave me something to look forward to when I was at work. I would wake up at 7 in the morning and start DJing before work. Go to work and then come home and DJ more.
Who’s your favourite DJ right now or have you got anyone you look up to?
DJ-wise, the people that I discovered made me realise that I could possibly DJ because they bridged all the gaps between the music that I listened to. It was like Total Freedom, NGUZUNGUZU and Kingdom. They inspired me to become a DJ and now they’re friends of mine which is great because. I remember watching Boiler Room and being like “these guys are great” and they kind of motivated me to be a DJ and having the respect of them means the world to me. I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for them.
Since you carry the name of LaBeija, what are the dynamics between you and the House of LaBeija? I know that you’ve never really been that active in the ballroom scene.
When I entered the house, I was Susanne Bartsch’s personal assistant. I would just be at the clubs and some of my friends were in the house. I was starting to DJ and they invited me to meet the older people. Some of them have passed away and are no longer with us, but they were like “you should DJ in the name of the house”. I’m too shy to walk a ball. That is so out of my head. That is so not me so I DJ in the name of the house. I don’t really have much of a connection with them anymore because it’s a younger generation and a whole bunch of people. The people that put me in the house have started a bunch of the categories that we know now. I’ll forever be a LaBeija. Even when I’m ordering online, I forget to put my real last name. When I’m ordering something on Amazon or something for the dog, I put Joey LaBeija. I’m like “you can use your real name, Joseph”. It’s the same for me. They’re both the same people and with this new music, this is the first time where I’m treating Joey LaBeija differently from my real self because they are such different people in my head now that I realised. For so long it’s just been me.
If you could perform anywhere, where would it be?
When I used to have a studio, when I wanted to take a little break in between making music, I would watch videos of some DJs. They would DJ unlike the rooftops of castles in France and Italy. I was like ‘wow this is amazing but why is it only house music?’. No shade to house music but it would be so much fun to do that but with the music, I play. I love house music and I love electronic music but it’s so typical for those types of things to happen at those types of venues. It’s so rare to hear somebody playing like Latin music or rock n roll and rap music on the roof of a castle on an estate, acres and acres of land. That would be really cool.