The blue collar energy that Philadelphia provides builds character for its local artists. It takes a certain type of talent and dedication to win the attention and the heart of Broad Street but once it’s captured, it strengthens your confidence to shine outside of your of city.
That’s something DJ Lean Wit It has learned throughout his years behind the turntables. Whether was on Temple University’s campus, a Heineken Green Room event or even a local bar, the North Philly DJ has spent years perfecting his craft to capture the attention of not only his hometown, but in other cities and countries as well. And as DJ Lean Wit It prepares for a really huge set for the upcoming No Place Like Home event at The Fillmore on Saturday, August 18th — not to mention his warm-up gig at Spruce Street Harbor Park this Thursday — I was able to sit with him to talk about his early stages as a DJ and how a Philadelphia crowd separates itself from any other crowd in the world.
The Key: What influenced you, as a North Philly kid, to get behind the turntables?
DJ Lean Wit It: Well, at first it was just something to do. At the time I was already playing three instruments: violin, viola, and cello. I was in a theater company called The Rainbow Company at Prince Music Theater. I was involved in a lot music, so one of my mom’s friends had some old equipment and he offered an opportunity and was like “Yo, you know music and you know enough, so why don’t you become a DJ?” So that just became something to do and I didn’t fall in love with it until I got snuck into the old Fluid Nightclub when I was like 15 or 16. It was for the J Dilla Tribute party, I believe it was right around the time Dilla had just died. Mr. Sonny James, at the time he was going by DJ Statik from the Illvibe collective UGLYBASS, he was one of the DJ’s and DJ Jay Ski was the other DJ, and I got a chance to sit in the booth and just watch. I had never seen DJ’ing like that before. Everything was perfect. For one, they exposed me to Dilla records that I didn’t know, and I grew up on stuff like that listening to a whole bunch of different things. I was being exposed to mad records that I had never heard before on top of the fact that it was just the way they played the records. I had never seen DJ’ing like that at the time. Sample records, live remixing before serato became the thing for that. It was just different and after seeing DJing like that I said “This is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”
TK: Like many performing artists, a DJ must display some type of confidence in order to control a crowd. When did you realize that your confidence was high enough to meet that criteria?
DJ LWI: I was in musical theater first, so doing theater, acting, doing tours with the Rainbow company under people like Will Brock, Ozzie Jones, Lenny Daniels and Ricardo Martin prepares you for that. So I already had a particular confidence just from frequently being in front of 500 people. I started doing musical theater when I was like 9 or 10.
TK: Where did the name “Lean Wit It” come from?
DJ LWI: I needed a name and I danced. So remember when the Lean Wit It Rock Wit It dance was out? I used to dance and go to parties a lot, and went to Bodine and one of the DJ’s who used to frequent the party circuit here was named DJ Breeze, who used to DJ at 923, went to my high-school. He used to call me Mr. Lean Wit It Rock Wit It, because I used to do it like the dude Fabo. I took pride in my Lean Wit It Rock Wit It. I needed a name for a flyer, I was hosting a party that wasn’t mine, with DJ Freak Nasty and DJ Macky. At the time I was doing house parties, people’s sweet 16’s, cookouts and shit like that, but this was an actual party party. So they needed a name for the flyer and my brother was like “Why don’t you just call yourself DJ Lean Wit It Rock Wit It?”The name was way too long and after that first flyer, which I still think I have, I cut it down to DJ Lean Wit It and the rest is history.
TK: Temple University holds a special place in your heart not just because it’s your alma mater, but it’s also the place where you honed your skills as a DJ. Whether it was on Temple’s radio station WHIP, college bars such as Pubb Web and Maxi’s, big events on campus and endless house parties, it wasn’t hard to find you DJing. How were you able to network to become one of the go to DJ’s at Temple?
DJ LWI: It’s interesting. I transferred from St. John’s, I was already DJ’ing at a lot of places in Philly at the time. Around the time in my senior year of high-school, that’s when me and DJ Damage, Yogi, Feese, DJ YS, DJ Qlassick, all these dudes started being cool and when I graduated Damage invited me to play. Before the whole block party thing started to happen they used to do these backyard boogies and do lot parties. They did a lot party for Welcome Week and I came back from New York to do a set and after that I was in Stay Wit It, which is the entertainment company that Damage and Feese founded. So coming into Temple and already being affiliated with Stay Wit It went hand in hand. What really got me in the loop was Yogi having a job somewhere in Temple and not being able to do an event that was for MCPB [Main Campus Program Board]. I was free, he tossed me the gig and that really got me in the loop for everything because I delivered, and that was in 2010.
TK: You even started a DJ/production group called UGLYBASS Media. How did this collective come about?
DJ LWI: Well I grew up on house music, my mom listened to it a lot. Growing up, my Uncle Gary, when he used to DJ very frequently living in Philly, he would do house mixtapes then moved to Chicago ironically. [laughs] So electronic music was always a thing I enjoyed listening and dancing to, Damage being a hip hop DJ also wanted to show that he could do more than just that and it was just a platform for us to create and display that we could do everything and not be in a box. We did the UGLYBASS Music Festival because we wanted to create a platform for all the homies too because my crowd may not know you and vice versa. So it became a collective thing were homies got together and spun, on top of that me and Damage created that UGLYBASS in general because we were in a space where we were like “Nobody’s booking us for the things we want to get booked for so f*** it let’s do it ourselves.”
TK: A while ago you told me that sometimes people will tell you that you did a good job, but in your mind you think you could’ve been better. What does a good set to Lean looks like?
DJ LWI: [chuckles] It’s day to day man, because the definition changes. I could’ve communicated everything that I wanted to communicate, but not the way I wanted to communicate it, so to me it wasn’t a good set. There’ll be sets where I’ll get my points across, but it’s not the way I want to or as clean as I wanted it to be and I’m like “It wasn’t a bad set but it wasn’t a good one either.”
TK: How does a DJ prepare to have a good set?
DJ LWI: I think the greatest thing a DJ can do is study, because your greatest weapon is understanding context of the demographic your playing for and the room you’re playing in. A lot of DJ’s go into these rooms and have no clue what’s going on, don’t pay attention to the crowd and lose them easily. That’s when you get a room that was in a headlock to a room that’s naked or room where people are ice grilling you. It really boils down to understanding context, and lot of people don’t pay attention to that. You have to study the rooms. If I see dudes like Mr. Sonny James and Rich Medina go into venues or parties that they are about to play at before they play them, why ain’t I doing that? Study man, you are never too cool to study. If I see DJ Jazzy Jeff come an hour before his set and of course he has an idea of what he’s going to play but things change. You may expect it to be this and then it’s not this one thing you expected it to be so you have to be able to adapt. I feel like the best DJ’s are the ones that are able to adapt.
TK: You’ve been able to give a lot of good sets to your city. What venues in Philadelphia have gotten some of your best/favorite sets?
DJ LWI: My favorite sets in Philly have been played at frequently at Pub Webb, Saint Lazarus, Kung Fu Necktie and Silk City. Two of my favorite recent sets in Philly, one of them I definitely should’ve recorded was the Temple Alumni Weekend at Noto for the Alumni Day Party Nostalgia, and at Voyeur for Party For The Park.
TK: You’ve also been able to take your talents outside of the country to places like Nigeria, Spain and Germany. How does the DJ culture differ from here in the states?
DJ LWI: I feel like they care a lot more about music than we do, and that’s just because we have unlimited access to it so we take it for granted. Every time I’m in Europe, bro, I hear some stuff I’ve never heard of. Or not even that! I’ll hear album cuts, B-sides that I haven’t heard in a long time, or I’ll hear records that I’ve never heard at a party before and they’re working. It’s just because of limited access over there to media, they lack contexts for certain records. I remember being in a club in Germany for one of my friends’ birthdays. I don’t know what the club is called now, but I know it changed it was called Tube Station when I went a couple years ago, and this was when the Milly Rock was in and everybody was Milly Rocking! This was when “Panda” was a big record and I am the only person in the club Milly Rocking. It’s like 600 people in the room and I’m the only person in there Milly Rocking, everybody whips out their camera phones and I thought it was odd but I had to remember it’s certain videos that you can’t view in certain country. I remember trying to watch a J Huss video while I was in Germany, J Huss is a UK artist, and I couldn’t watch it there. Their limited access to music makes them appreciate it a lot longer once they get a hold of it. That’s why you have these artists who were hot 10 or 20 years ago are still touring over there, especially with like dancehall and reggae artists. Somebody like Sister Nancy or Barrington Levi are touring over there heavy, and the reason why is the appreciation thing last longer because they don’t have access to it.
TK: Your website has the phrase “Pushing Culture Forward” on it. What are the contributions that a DJ should make to help push the culture forward?
DJ LWI: Not be a tool. A lot of these dudes are tools, they play and do what they’re told. They’re looking at charts and letting charts dictate what they think they is good…and a chart should only be a guideline. Like I know these songs are hot and some of them are must plays, but this shouldn’t dictate what I’m doing all night. Here’s the thing, at some point you’re going to be playing to be playing for the common denominator as far as musical taste and they’re are a lot of one dimensional people when it comes to music. Of course you’re going to play records that are popular, but be a little different. You don’t have to play as if you’re Billboard. It’s really just DJ’s in my generation and that’s because a lot of them don’t practice. A lot of them like what DJ’ing does for them but don’t really like DJ’ing because you hear it. I want to make sure that I do gigs that I’m going to enjoy because if I don’t enjoy it then people aren’t going to. I try to put my heart on those turntables, I put my heart into my work and I want you to hear it.
TK: The upcoming show No Place Like Home will feature you, Dayne Jordan, Ill Fated Natives, Miles Chancellor and a bunch of other local artists. What is it about a Philadelphia crowd that makes it different from any other crowd that you’ve entertained?
DJ Lean Wit It: The energy is different, Philly is notoriously known for being harsh critics and being the hardest city to make it in, but once this city is on your side there is no way they’ll ever make you feel like a loser. They’ll legit be on your side and it took me awhile to get to that point. I could have a terrible week and Friday hits and I’m at The Saint and the energy of the people, the thank you’s for making their night great or whatever makes me feel great which makes my week better. By changing somebody’s mood helps change my mood, they’re literally doing me a favor by returning the favor. Philly’s energy in a party where they trust the DJ is almost unmatched.
DJ Lean Wit It performs live at The Fillmore on Saturday, August 18th. Tickets and more information can be found here. He also spins at Spruce Street Harbor Park on Thursday, August 9th, opening for Killiam Shakespeare; more on that event here.
DJ Damage, DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Lean Wit It, DJ Qlassick, DJ YS, Kungfu Necktie, Mr. Sonny James, Noto, Philadelelphia, Rich Medina, Silk City Diner, Temple University, The Rainbow Company, The Saint, UGLYBASS Media, Yogi