To be honest, I’m nervous to meet DJ Ezl, Lezlie Kiaha. I’ve met other DJs in the past and I always feel a bit musically retarded after speaking with them. Some have also been snobby (with exceptions, of course), and to my disadvantage, my knowledge of hip hop music is sub-par, at best. I’m pleasantly surprised, however, to be greeted by Kiaha with one of those polite handshakes/kiss on the cheeks. She's really friendly, asking me if she can buy me a drink before the interview begins.
We make small talk and she apologizes in advance if she can't articulate her words properly. Nervousness is not a color I'd imagine for a DJ who's spun for the Downetowne audience before, but I think it makes me realize just how down to earth she really is. If there’s one thing that I love, it’s talking to a fellow music lover. During our chat we sling our favorite artist names’ back and forth (we surprisingly like some of the same people!), and while she explains the musical dynamics of a song she really loved, I suddenly feel like we’re old friends.
Kiaha's history with Downetowne begins about a year ago when co-founder Ruby Hong approached her for a demo. Kiaha had put it off for a while, busy with her various personal and professional commitments, but she knew she wanted to give something to her. Finally Kiaha put something together, sent it off, and was soon scheduled for Downetowne's Spandex party at Bar 35, marking her debut. "My mix tapes, I don't edit at all," she says."I like to be raw, the way people are going to hear it. So I made her [Ruby] a copy of my very first mix. I literally didn't move from my chair when I made it...I mean, she really took a chance on me and I'm really grateful for that."
Kiaha says she actually learned how to cut, before learning how to mix (I’m learning all kinds of new DJ slang). I guessed (correctly, in fact) DJ Ezl's name is derived from her real name, Lezlie. "I took the first three letters of my name and I played around with it and I got E-z-l. Easel. I was trying to make this connection, like, what's my story? And it just came to me. Music is my platform, it's my easel."
“I got into DJing because…well, I like beats,” she says with a smile, moving her hands as if keeping rhythm. “I started playing the drums in middle school and I always wanted to do something more with it. I had watched this movie called Juice starring Tupac, which was really popular back then. Anyway, it was about this battle DJ and I was completely taken aback by his skills and what he could do with his music. It really inspired me.”
I ask her if after seeing the movie, she went out the next day to buy turntables and decided to drop everything to become a DJ. She laughs, "No, no. It was too expensive! I went to school instead and got my degree in Graphic Design.I never thought of DJing as a career path for me, it was more like a hobby then." She adds, "I think I waited to pursue DJing until I could afford it and have a full-time job, you know, be on my own two feet."
But don't think Kiaha forgot about her passion for music during this time. In fact, quite the opposite happened. "Between the time I decided I really liked the art, respected it, and wanting to know more about it until now, I've been educating myself about different kinds of music, especially hip hop," she says. Going to school in northern California had its perks, introducing Kiaha to various local artists and the unique sounds of L.A. and the Bay Area. She enthusiastically lists some of her favorite artists, pausing at first as if each name triggered an important personal memory.
"What I really love about hip hop culture," she explains, "is that there's a message and I feel like the community has gotten so big. Coming from a disenfranchised culture, there's so many different elements to hip hop and I want to educate others about it."
Okay, so here comes the question that I have to ask any DJ, hardcore mixtape maker, and just other audiophiles in general: how do you create your setlist?
A thoughtful DJ realizes the weight of this question, and like DJ Ezl, she takes a moment to soak it all in. "Depending on the event, I'll put a bunch of tracks together and then BPM (beats per minute) them individually.Then I listen to determine which songs go together. It's not only about, though, it's about the message I want to convey to everyone. My goal is to open people's minds up to social issues about race, gender, and class, so I try and choose artists that emulate that kind of message. But it's all about balance, you know, and also what's going to get people out there on the dance floor." Ideally, Kiaha wants to get people dancing and hopefully thinking about those socially conscious messages laced between beats.
What I admire about Kiaha is her dedication to the craft and her message. For an hour set, she'll practice for days getting the timing right and making sure the songs all flow together. With most clubs I've gone to (there are exceptions, of course), my head is usually overflowing with mindless pop music by the end of the night. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with shaking your ass to catchy pop music, but I appreciate Kiaha's deliberate choices in music. It's different and I feel like it makes for an intellectually richer musical experience.
"I feel like through the music, this is my way of telling people it's okay to be feeling what you're feeling. It's okay to express those things. Maybe in some ways, it's my subtle way of being an activist. I hate being in the limelight--I get performance anxiety and I get nervous, so I don't speak. But I let my music speak and I feel like that speaks volumes," she explains. When I tell her she's kind of like a civil rights activist, I can tell the label makes her a bit uncomfortable. Perhaps because the term conjures the image of someone there on the front lines demanding change and as she just said, she doesn't like the limelight. But, honestly, I think she's just being modest.
"De La Soul--what they started doing in the late 80's and early 90's was incorporating jazz with hip hop, but their lyrics were really witty. They brought all these issues to the forefront that people were too scared to talk about and they made people aware and comfortable with it."
What to listen for during DJ Ezl's upcoming set for the Downetowne party? "A tribute to some of the [hip hop] pioneers and then newer stuff from the kids who were inspired by these same people and their messages," she says. "Kind of like a timeline of hip hop. I mean, it relates to our whole story as lesbians and, really, the rest of the LGBTQ community. It's about how we have to suppress things and how we learn how to be comfortable with the way we feel."
I ask if Kiaha she has a website for her music. "Nah, just facebook, really. It's funny, I don't even feel comfortable really promoting myself. I don't even see myself as a DJ--I think there are so many aspects to being a DJ and I totally respect their capability and skills, especially the ones I've been around. I still have a long way to go." You gotta admire someone as musically talented and driven as Kiaha, who's humble and eager to learn more.
Last big question: what do you want people to take away from your set on Saturday at Downetowne's Carnival? "I definitely want them to have fun, but also take in a message of acceptance," she says, "and that they're not alone. That's why I love music. Like I said, it really speaks volumes." Kiaha has this dreamy eyed look when she says this, the kind you might see in a child planning out their next big adventure.
Interview from Kristel Yoneda, Slowdancing with Strangers