An iconic NYC nightlife champion, “Tiki Disco” co-founder Eli Escobar reflects on his long and storied career as a club DJ and recording artist while preparing to spin for several exciting events in a rapidly evolving nightlife scene.
Thotyssey: Hello Eli, thanks for chatting with us today! I know you’re in the middle of a well-deserved vacation now… has summer been treating you well so far?
Eli Escobar: Late spring and summer started out on such a high note. Getting back to DJing and nightlife… words can’t do justice to how exciting, healing, therapeutic and even moving it was. I always knew I needed this, but I never realized how much I’d fall apart without it!
In the last couple of weeks, I have felt a little uncertain again. It reminds me of the last weeks before lockdown, just thinking to myself, is this ok? Am I being responsible? I care so much for the nightlife community, and I don’t ever want to put anyone in an unsafe environment. I’m trying my best to navigate it, just like most of us are. For August, I will mostly stick to local, outdoor parties.
It’s a very strange time for nightlife, with everyone trying to navigate personal responsibility and safety issues. During the first (hopefully last) lockdown, were you angry with the DJs, promoters, etc. who tried to carry on with parties, or did part of you get what they were going through?
Of course I get it. More than anything, I wanted to play music and be around people, etc. But it did feel like a huge slap in the face to those of us who were doing the right thing, and sacrificed so much, to see others just go about their business. More than anything, I just feel like blatant disregard for people’s health and safety is somewhat unforgivable. I did get angry a lot; I won’t lie. Right now, I am trying to focus my energy on being a bit more understanding of how complex all of this is, and how there can, at times, be grey areas in this discussion. It’s not always black and white.
So, that brings us to your origin story! You’re a native New Yorker… what neighborhood did you grow up in? And, what was the first music you loved while growing up?
I grew up in Manhattan, on 97th between Columbus and Amsterdam. I’ve never lived anywhere besides Manhattan, which is sorta ridiculous, but here we are. The first music I can remember really falling in love with and identifying with was in the early 80’s. It was stuff like Culture Club, Duran Duran and all the British New Romantics. This is also the same time I discovered hip hop, and of course Thriller was like the main event of those years.
How did you begin as a DJ?
I started making pause tapes in the early 90’s for me and my friends to listen to while we got high and stuff, at house parties–this is high school. Then I started clubbing at the same time. So my interest was there before I ever got turntables. Typically, I was the kid at the club who was peaking at the DJ (before everyone in the club watched the DJ, lol) and trying to understand what they were doing.
I got my first hand-me-down turntables from a friend in the summer of ‘93, and I already had a good record collection, so I just started to learn it right away. I taught myself to mix an acapella over a beat on my first day, and was hooked! After that I did parties at school, and started in clubs by ‘97.
Have you seen over time a big division happening between gay and straight nightlifers, as far as their appreciation for club music?
I think it’s getting better now, actually–the division I saw was more like in the ‘00’s. There are definitely certain venues where I’ll know I’ll get more of a straight crowd, but I really feel like usually I’m playing for a good mix. That could be just my crowd, though.
I think as far as appreciation for club music goes, I don’t like to generalize at all. There are always exceptions to rules. But I think the tradition of club music and nightlife serving as an escape for oppressed people, or as an outlet for releasing all the pent up anger, frustration and fear in a positive way that gets passed down and continues on. So in that sense, you can tell when the music you’re playing touches people in a way that transcends just going out and getting wasted, or going out to hang with some friends. It goes way deeper than that for a lot of people.
What are some other big changes that have happened in nightlife since you started, from a DJs perspective?
There’s a lot! I been DJing a looooong time, haha. I’d say the focus on DJ’s is probably the biggest change. I feel like when I started, I was aware of maybe ten DJ’s at most; I was more into going to certain clubs or parties. No one ever faced the DJ, or even knew where they were!
Digital DJing, of course, has completely changed everything. It’s an old story by now. Also, ticketed parties… I don’t remember that being a thing. You took your chance at the door wherever it is you wanted to go. We also used to go to lots of places in one night: two or three, more sometimes. So getting tickets for a party wouldn’t have made much sense in those days.
I’m not saying anything is better or worse. I think nightlife in New York has been amazing for the past decade or so. I think we will look back at the recent years (minus Covid, of course) as a real moment in nightlife history.
How would you describe what a night of DJ Eli Escobar, where you have complete creative control, might sound like? As in, what do you really love playing today?
Everything! Ideally, I like to play all night; six hours or more. And I am so obsessed with dance music. I like to cover the entire spectrum: disco, house and techno, and all the things in between. I also love to elicit more emotion out of the crowd than maybe the standard DJ would, so I play a lot of moody stuff–sad and melancholy dance songs. New wave stuff, definitely, like Talk Talk and Erasure, towards the end of the night. But I’m also really moody, so it all depends!
And have you had an all-time favorite DJing experience?
Oh, that’s hard! Off the top of my head, there’s one night I did with Stretch Armstrong at the old Happy Ending, the same day David Bowie died. We decided to do a tribute party for him late in the day, and just spread the word as quickly as we could. It was packed, and the emotion in the room and how it impacted the way each song resonated with the crowd was magical. We didn’t only play David Bowie, but a lot of other music that we felt you could connect to his influence, or by artists you would consider his contemporaries.
It’s always hard to explain in words what makes a certain night so special, and makes it stand out. It was the perfect mix of the right crowd, the right music and a particular moment (even though it wasn’t a happy one) that you knew would only happen once.
You’ve also recorded and produced a lot of original music over the years, including remixes and full length original EDM / house albums. How do you enjoy that process?
Making music for me is a very sporadic occurrence. I don’t plan it, and I’m not like a “go to the studio every day” type of person. I basically get bursts of inspiration and creativity, and make tons of stuff… and then stop again for months, haha! Luckily, I seem to get enough done to have a steady stream of music come out. I do enjoy the process when I let it happen naturally, in the way I just described. Getting hired for remixes or making music because I feel like I have a deadline or something never really feels great to me, and usually doesn’t result in anything I’m too proud of.
On Saturday, August 7th you’ll be on the high seas care of the Circle Line for “Coke Yacht,” which looks to be an amazing boat party.
Coke Yacht is so fun, and I get to play all my favorite dramatic 80’s music. I think it’ll be my fourth time doing this party. I’m really excited!
“Tiki Disco” is a long running, traveling party that you’re still so well-known for. How did that start?
Rather innocuously, actually. Andy Pry, who was working at Roberta’s, invited me and Lloyd to DJ with him in their backyard. This was 2010, and parties in Bushwick were not really a thing yet; outdoor Sunday parties were happening, but like only two others. The party started pretty low key, but by the end of the summer we knew we had something special on our hands. When we started season 2 , there were about six times as many people there, suddenly!
We kept outgrowing locations, so we moved accordingly. Now we are back at Knockdown Center (we did a few dates there in 2013 before they were legal), which is amazing. It feels like a nice place to have somewhat of a rebirth after the pandemic lockdowns, and being at the same venue for more than five years. We’re also on the Elsewhere roof, which is so lovely and fun!
The next “Tiki Disco” will in fact be at Knockdown on Sunday, August 8th from 2pm to 10pm! What’s in store for us?
Just fun. We’ve always been the least pretentious party in the world. Musically, I think we try and create moments and memories. We really like to color outside the lines as far as what people expect a disco or house set to be. The crowd last time at Knockdown was amazing; I felt a whole new energy in there! I’m fairly sure we had a lot of first timers there, which makes me so happy and proud. I love seeing all the familiar faces of course, but knowing the party is still bringing in new folks and we can expose them to music they may not know–music we care so much about–is a beautiful feeling.
I love being back at Knockdown as well because the space is so unique. And we have a special connection to the venue, having been there the first year. I absolutely cannot wait ’til August 8th!
This should be a great month!
August is gonna be sorta chill for me. I decided to stop touring and doing indoor gigs now that the Delta variant is spreading, and cases are going up again. But there’ll be more “Tikis,” and I’m playing various other stuff around the city. And “Battle Hymn” will be back at the end of August!
The best. She really creates a family vibe, and I feel so lucky to be a part of it. I’m in awe of her too, and how hard she works. I think she totally trusts me and the other residents, and it’s amazing to have total freedom when you work.
Well, I did one at the beginning the summer and there were a lot of young people there, too! I confess that I haven’t really loved much of her music in a very long time now, but I won’t ever get tired of the glory years. I was obsessed with her as a kid–like, seeing Desperately Seeking Susan opening day when I was 10 years-old, and posters all over my wall. I think her catalogue is sort of untouchable, too. I mean, there’s not too many artists who you can play a whole night of their music, and still realize you forgot some songs afterwards!
We’ll be there! So finally, to close: what’s your best advice for a new DJ trying to break in to the scene today?
I dunno! There are so many different kinds of DJ’s now, and so many different goals they may have. I would say, learn how to play more than one genre of music. Practice a lot before you start playing out. I’ve heard so many DJ’s who are clearly learning how to play in the club, and it’s really not cute. And always go out all the time to hear other DJ’s, and experience different parties. If you’re trying to get booked, it’s important to actually be part of the scene, and be in tune with what music people are responding to–and how a room can get built up throughout the course of a night.
And one last thing: try and find places where you can play, open ’til close. You can really only understand how to open a room, close a room or play prime time that way… with that experience.
That’s all excellent advice! Thanks, Eli!
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for DJ Eli Escobar’s upcoming appearances, and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Resident Advisor. Stream his music on Soundcloud, Spotify, and all streaming platforms.