Pictured from left to right, Cathy,Izabela, Rj Pickens and Marcin post interview after his Silent Disco set at SAMF14 at Soldier Field in Chicago.
1) How did you get into the EDM scene and who did you start out listening to?
“Well, I grew up listening to B96 in Chicago, amongst many other kinds of music, but I didn’t make the lifelong connection until I was 18 and I was up late and partying with friends as a freshman in college. An older friend that was a senior when I was a freshman put on a Chemical Brothers CD (“Exit Planet Dust”) and I was like “What is THIS??” I stayed up all night listening to it and then went to the record store and bought it the next day. It was all over after that.”
2) How long did you perfect your mixing skills before you landed your first gig?
“I started playing when I was 18/19 at house parties. It wasn’t so much about mixing at that point, but rather programming; thinking a track or two ahead, programming your dance floor and keeping the party going. After I had been playing parties for a while to more mainstream type crowds, I learned how to match beats and the technical skillset along that avenue.”
3) Did you ever experience that “I made it moment”? If so, when did it happen?
“I’m going to answer your question in a round-about way. I feel like a lot of people want to make progress in their craft or dj career or whatever, but I think people look at it the wrong way. Like, ‘I need to do all this stuff and then finally Boom – I’ll get to the end and its an instant reward.’ I don’t think this view is accurate, and I don’t think there’s one gig like “ahh I finally made it!”. I think it’s a string of small victories that you accomplish along the way. Then, after a while, look back and you think “Holy shit, I did all of that!”. That path is forever an ongoing path, you’re always learning and always wanting to improve. The journey is your destination. “
4) I see you have performed all over Chicago including Primary, Spybar, Soundbar, the Mid, and Castle, but mainly Castle. Would you say that Castle is your favorite place in the city to spin? Or do you even have a favorite club in the city to spin at? If so why?
“Well, I have a lot of history at Castle. That’s not only one of the first clubs I started going to religiously when I was of age (it was called Vision at the time), but it’s been a big part of me, as I’ve put a lot of time and efforts in over there in all my years. I first played there in October of 2005. At the time, Armin (Van Burren) was a favorite artist of mine, and I got to play the early opening set for him. That was my first gig at Vision, and it was a pretty big deal at that! I always wanted to play that room. It was (and still is) Chicago’s big room. Then, in a round-about series of events, I started working there full time, and over the years ended up doing everything there from marketing, promotion, online ticketing, to event flyers and coordinating and managing events. I booked artists, dealt with artist hospitality/logistics and spun there monthly as a resident. I lived, ate, and breathed Vision. That place will always have a special place with me because I put so much blood and sweat into it. I’ve definitely played at many other places along the way as well, and there’s unique features to all of clubs that I play at regularly. I’m fortunate to able to play a variety of venues in this city, and it’s hard to pick a favorite. But hands down, the venue I have the most history with is Castle.”
5) Besides Chicago, we see you were in Miami for the WMC and travelled around the Midwest. How do you feel the Chicago scene compares to the rest of the US?
“I mean. Im always going to love it here because it’s home, and we’re actually really fortunate to have what we have in Chicago, now more-so than ever. We’ve never had so many options, on any given week/weekend to see so many awesome artists. As a dance music consumer, it’s never been better times than right now. However, to answer your question: Every city is a little bit different, depending of what the city laws are. For example, as opposed to Chicago, Miami or Las Vegas have a 24-hour liquor license, so the parties go all night there because they can. Obviously, there needs to be a market for this music in place in each city in order for these events to succeed, but at this point, electronic music has never been more popular in America than it is now – all across the country. There are a few major US markets that I feel are a little ahead of the game though, because they’ve simply been doing it for a lot longer than the rest of the country. The cities on that list for me would include: NYC, CHI, LA, SF, MIA, and Seattle.”
6) You’ve been part of the Chicago scene for 14+ years, what do you think of the scene and how it has changed over the years?
“ Back in the beginning of my time here, there were a lot fewer of us. There were still a good number of us but stuff like Spring Awakening for 3 days, or even a one-day festival like this was unheard of at that time. Club and theater events were much more prominent. There was a large show/festival called PureNation back in 2006. That was a really big deal when that happened. It was a one-day event on Northerly Island for maybe 10,000 people. Everything else in the scene operated the same, but was to scale: fewer events, fewer large venue shows, or whatever but it was always still a great party. It’s nostalgic for looking back and being a part of all of it. I’m a little older now, and as I walk around I just see everyone having the best time of their life. Every one of these kids is counting down the hours to this event – people’s lives revolve around this. I remember being crazy excited about big shows in my younger years. It’s a cool feeling, and I’ll never forget it.”
7) What is your most memorable DJ experience/gig and why?
“I’m terrible at answering questions such as this one, and it’s because I’m very fortunate to have had so many amazing nights playing in this city (and beyond) with a multitude of top-tier artists. However, I will definitely say that there is no feeling like taking your crowd on a true journey through the course of your set, and having that organic connection with them where it almost feels like you’re playing puppet master, pulling on all the right strings and making the crowd respond in unison. I’ve made many of those types of connections with crowds and dance floors over the years, and it truly never gets old.”
8) Any advice you can give to young aspiring DJs and producers?
“I can suggest a couple things, for sure. 1. Do it for the reasons you want to do it for, and be happy with it. If you want to just play records cool, if you want to spin at your local bar cool. If you’re aspiring to do the artist thing and land bigger gigs with bigger headlining artists, it will require a lot more work. Whatever your choice, just do it for yourself and what drives you. 2. If you want to take the artist route, it’s never been so important to produce your own music. DJs now need even more material to set themselves apart from the masses of other DJs. Everyone who has a laptop can potentially be a DJ (and we’re at no shortage of people trying). 3) Only play the music that you love. Take the time to listen to the music you love and learn it. Nowdays, you have the ability to play any song in the history of music with the prevalence of the internet, so don’t just go cruise the Beatport top 100 and play the same cheese everyone else does. Dig a little deeper and play songs that truly move you, as that will begin to define your own artistic style of playing.”
9) What’s next for Rj Pickens? Any big shows coming up, any collaborations albums or remixes we should keep an eye out for?
“This month (June) is a big month for me. I have a lot of respect for the Pryda labels and collective of artists, and I actually get to play with all 3 of those guys this month. I played with Eric Prydz last night at The Mid, I’m Playing with Jeremy Olander next weekend, and with Fehrplay at the end of the month. I have RiverWest Music Festival coming up in July, a couple of shows in Detroit and Denver, along with a couple big shows here in CHI also. I have some tunes in the pipeline to be released soon as well. I recently did a remix for a buddy and fellow Chicago artist – Russoul (Cajual Records artist – Cajmere/Green Velvet’s label). He sent me a vocal track of his and I really dug it, and was happy to have a chance to give it my own treatment. Then, I’m looking to follow that up with a 2 track release of my own originals. I’ve got a number of other projects on deck too, and I’d love to give some more details on when those are coming, but we’ll just have to cross some of these bridges as they come, because sometimes there’s just not enough hours in a day!
Check out one of RJ Picken’s best sets below, as he opened up for Eric Prydz on June 13 at The Mid for an officially Spring Awakening Music Festival After Party.
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