He’s the Suriname-born Dutch DJ who took house music to Vegas, brought hip hop attitude to house and who throws some of the most incredible, energy-filled parties on the planet. Meet DJ Chuckie, the new international superstar who’s making it all look easy
Words: Phil Dudman
Additional reporting: Digby
Photos: Power Images, Sean Mac Andrew
The quickest route from the suites of the Cosmopolitan Hotel to the Marquee Nightclub on the 17th floor is a complicated one. The first sight to emerge from the maze of staff-only short-cuts and service elevators is an MTV cameraman, walking haphazardly backwards, one arm stretched behind him in warning. Next come two burly security guards, muttering into their earpieces. In their wake, striding purposefully despite the fact that he’s just woken up, comes Chuckie.
Wearing T-shirt and jeans and standing about 5’5”, his name is emblazoned on a pair of custom red Adidas sneakers and spelled out on the side of his V-Moda headphones in the case in his hand: ‘ChuckieTM’. In bold white lettering on black, it’s a logo which, with the opening of a final door, becomes amplified like the volume around us – splashed across TV screens, pillars and huge LED displays which shine like the expensive diamond stud in his left ear and the sparkling lights seen through the plane window just three hours earlier as Mixmag flew into the madness of Las Vegas.
“DJ Chuckie’s in the building!” hollers one fan, clasping the DJ’s hand with brotherly bravado, before Chuckie takes to the stage and opens his set to an explosion of glitter cannons, dry ice, whooping calls from the crowd and raunchy dancing girls in suspenders and stockings, as a Dutch flag swoops left and right from the balcony above. ‘WHO IS READY TO JUMP’ reads the Chuckie’s T-shirt; he bellows the question into the microphone, leaving a sea of red glowsticks to bounce their answer.
Yet ‘What Happens In Vegas’, the title of Chuckie’s huge collaboration with fellow Dutchman Gregor Salto, sums up the euphoria around a DJ who has turned a boyhood dream into an incredible reality, injected-big room house music with hip hop attitude and built his brand, Dirty Dutch, into one of the biggest parties in the world.
Mixmag joined the 33-year-old DJ, real name Clyde Narain, for a tour of the US West Coast, taking in four bass-crunching sets in Las Vegas, San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles in just three nights. His ambition, drive, and knack of turning both questions and situations to his advantage resembled a game – one in which, true to his hip hop image, he’s one hell of a player…
“As I told you earlier, if you don’t demand things of these people, they will never do anything for you,” Chuckie tells us – having previously mentioned this motto to us in private. But this time he’s in the midst of a perfectly choreographed moment, verbally tearing a very sheepish looking promoter a new one at a live venue in small-town USA. The party, the third show in about 40 hours so far, has resembled an amateur night on the technical front, with some ‘recommended contractors’ rigging up a god-awful soundsystem, failing completely with one of the dry ice cannons and inexplicably being unable to find Chuckie a working microphone – a fundamental part of the Chuckie experience, and part of his tech rider – for the first hour of his set. Yet here, in the lift back up to the hotel room, as the poor man stares apologetically at his shoes, Chuckie fires over a cheeky wink to let Mixmag know he is just having a bit of fun. Just as he did with the staff on the phone at United Airlines when his privilege card wouldn’t let him queue jump, knowing full well there had just been an airport power cut. Or when he passed Mixmag a flash-looking bottle of water in the middle of his set at Ruby Skye in San Francisco, suggesting it was vodka, only to actually fill one with vodka later so that Mixmag got the shock he was hoping for, thus testing our gullibility for perhaps the fourth time in 24 hours.
Meanwhile, back in the lift, “You have to sort that shit sound out,” Chuckie tells the sheepish promoter. “You paid for me to come here, and now we all look shit.” Suddenly, though, he suggests that everything will be cool again if he can steal the guitar-embroidered pillow from his room, which then accompanies him to two image-perfect interviews en route to our ride to LA. “Oh, I’m going to be sooo comfortable,” he tells Mixmag, knowing full well who’ll get all the leg-room in the car to Hollywood…
It’s a window into Chuckie’s knack for generating amusement while getting exactly what he wants – understandable for a man whose schedule, in just the three days we spent with him, allowed for a maximum of 12 hours sleep. But when your house beats and DJ shows lie at the heart of the mainstream electronic dance music craze that is sweeping the US– a pulse only a select few others such as Skrillex, Deadmau5 and David Guetta can claim to be in touch with – it pays to play ahead of the game. Furthermore, Chuckie seems set on increasing his momentum. “I don’t have time to waste,” he says, describing a routine where a whole day to take in any particular city becomes a virtual vacation; “Plus I plan my tours wisely.” He picks his gigs by region – his London show for Mixmag Live on March 16, for instance, is set to coincide with recording his continuingly successful In New DJs We Trust show for BBC Radio 1.
As we leave San Diego and drive towards the final show of the weekend in LA – the Dirty Dutch Grammys afterparty at Supperclub – he tells us how he turned some of the pitfalls of this relentless schedule on their heads. Having once hated touring, Clyde now sees a long- haul flight as a chance to bash out another remix; and he’s learnt how to travel light, too, adding with mild mockery how he packs his bag “with military precision, so I know at a glance that everything is there.” Then he checks Twitter on his phone, plugs his in-ear headphones into a wristwatch iPod Nano with FM radio, and instantly nods off on his new pillow.
Chuckie’s eclectic style, business acumen and inherent versatility can be traced back through a huge number of circumstances and events. Born in the proud but thinly-populated former Dutch colony of Suriname in South America, Chuckie’s parents are of mixed Indonesian and Indian-Creole descent.
His mother impressed upon Clyde her love of 60s records, while Chuckie remembers his dad, a DJ for radio which, at the time, was highly influenced by music from America, playing him the electro-boogie dance of Shannon’s ‘Let The Music Play’ in their car when he was five.
Having moved to Holland when he was seven, by his early teens Chuckie had gone from messing around, recording music from the radio and making tapes, to discovering breakbeat and drum ’n’ bass on pirate radio at the age of 15. When his mate became a DJ, Clyde helped set up his turntables for a school party in the cafeteria and “accidentally mixed two records together that blended perfectly” during a soundcheck, a ‘wow’ moment that led to his mother laying down the 25 guilder (£10) deposit on his first mixer, thereby starting Clyde’s love affair with DJing.
From that moment on he remembers being “always on the grind to make money” so he could buy the freshest records, often expensive imports. He cut hair in his brother’s barber shop to earn cash while DJing at house parties with friends and carting his equipment around in a supermarket trolley. When his brother brokered a deal to let Clyde spin for 15 minutes at a promoter’s party if he handed out flyers, Clyde stepped up, smashed the place with another guy’s records and got asked to come back the next day to talk to the promoter about building his career.
Chuckie remembers it well. “So I went down with my brother Ryan, and the guy was sitting in his office, acting all big time, and he said, ‘I want to book him and he’ll get 25 guilders a night’. At that point I’m looking at my brother, and my brother is looking at me, and he’s like, ‘Yo Clyde, let’s get the fuck out of here. We’ve gotta do this for ourselves’.” Ryan now promotes the 30,000-capacity Dirty Dutch events.
On the trains back and forth from The Hague to Amsterdam, the pair’s interest in ID&T, the promoters of the massive Sensation nights, quickly turned to inspiration. “For the earlier raves the flyers always looked like Hellraiser or styles like that, so we thought the name Chuckie (Clyde’s youthful nickname for being ‘a little rascal, the evil one” in his group of friends) would fit right in there for a similar kind of party, and we came up with the name Child’s Play.” They quickly adapted it to their own, more urban market, “playing breakbeats, hip hop, dancehall, reggae and maybe one or two house records – more Detroit stuff.”
Around the year 2000 Chuckie briefly ran his own record store before starting a company with a friend, designing flyers. He sold it off in 2003 and achieved enough success with a record label project to go solo and sign, again briefly, for EMI – an episode that left Clyde in no doubt that his route to success would involve retaining complete creative control over both his music and his brand. He also began a more serious love affair with house music.
Initially succumbing to peer pressure, Chuckie recalls how “back in the day it was a no-go to switch to house music”, but his love for house, a genre that he felt incorporated just as many influences as hip hop, saw him playing sets of both by 2006. But he kept the same circle of friends, and often turned up to DJ house nights only for the door staff to say, “Sorry guys, r’n’b night is tomorrow”. “My own agent even suggested that I shouldn’t bring all my crew down and I should get rid of my cap”, recalls Clyde.
“In the early days, house music parties were almost entirely Caucasian,” he says. “With Dirty Dutch I had to bring those two crowds together.” He did it by creatively mixing between records of both genres. “It was a challenge for me – making it work – and when we started selling out venues I knew we were on to something really cool. Now the scene’s all mixed up again; it’s not about where you’re from, it’s about having a good time and listening to great music.”
And so, with his hat on and hip hop attitude intact, Dirty Dutch was born, growing quickly from a modest tour of parties in 2004 to sell-out 20,000 ticket shows by 2007, its hip hop meets house ethos injecting a new freshness into the Dutch scene.
Now, in 2012, Chuckie’s taken to the international dance circuit like a duck to water, despite admitting that his focus as recently as 2009 was on “building things in Holland – doing over 300 gigs a year.” It was a surprise for the man who took him global too. Sergio of Club Class, manager of a plethora of electronic acts, had heard Chuckie’s ‘I’m in Miami Bitch’ record at the Miami WMC 2009 with Mark Brown of CR2. Mark signed it, and later that year it hit No. 8 in the UK charts. Sergio, meanwhile, went straight to Amsterdam on his return from Miami – and was astonished to discover Chuckie’s Dirty Dutch brand running events for 30,000 people. A deal was struck, and the rest is history.
Back in the present, Chuckie is one of two headliners lined up to celebrate the 12th anniversary of San Francisco’s cool, theatre-styled club Ruby Skye. “He’s the next generation”, says old-school dance head and club owner, George Karpaty. “One of five superstars on their way up who can bring these crowds together” – before suggesting that there are two types of crowd in the US at the moment: people who get it, and people who just get in.
It poses a question about how Chuckie’s increasingly influential role might shape the future of the current trend for commercial, mainstream dance music in the States. That’s something Jason Strauss, managing partner of the Marquee Nightclub & Dayclub in Vegas (where Chuckie is not only resident but was a consultant in its design) seems to have identified. “What we’ve seen this year is evidence that dance music is about to be, if it’s not already there, a fully legitimate mainstream sound. It’s clearly going to continue to morph and breed with hip hop, pop and rock to become part of the standard cultural music landscape,” he says. As for Chuckie himself, Strauss is more than aware that other people can play the kind of music Chuckie plays, “but nobody can deliver his showmanship or his unique, inventive ability to engage the crowd and create some of our most energy-filled nights,” he says.
Chuckie’s manner behind the decks is without a doubt one of his strengths, ripping from bassline to bassline, poised for a shout-out at every drop, and bringing the crowd up to his own, relentless energy levels. “There was no house before in Vegas,” he says, when we ask what he has brought to the city’s evolving party scene. Put in context, after David Guetta arguably married US pop and chart hip hop to house production with The Black Eyed Peas (one of whom was sitting next to Chuckie in the green room after his Grammy night gig in LA), Chuckie’s DJ journey from hip hop to house put him in the perfect position to orchestrate the honeymoon.
Clyde, laughing, points out how some of his 157,000 Twitter fans call him ‘David Ghetto’. With his rapper-like clothing, marketing muscle and sheer presence of personality, Chuckie is someone both the mainstream of America and the club kids at Ministry of Sound can relate to. Ministry even had to turn over 600 people away from the debut Dirty Dutch show in the middle of January, a notoriously quiet month for British clubland. There, Chuckie’s seven-hour back-to-back sessions with Gregor Salto and Knife Party showcased a technical versatility in Chuckie’s DJing – toying with dubstep, electro and d’n’b – that matched the breadth of his ambitions.
Indeed, he’s met a few of his heroes already. Forget having Diddy on speed dial (which he does), when you get introduced to Jay-Z through ‘Blueprint’ producer Just Blaze, who tells Jay-Z that “you really need to meet this guy [Chuckie], because he’s the man!” it’s a measure of how relevant Chuckie has become to so many circles of music; recognised as someone whose true value is bringing them together.
And just like Jay-Z, Chuckie sees himself as an entrepreneur, developing a DJ and a cookery app for the iPad, a new clothing and merchandise line and branching his Dirty Dutch label into new territories. Asked if he sees himself less as a DJ and more as a brand, his business logic takes over.
“Yes, I do kind of see myself as a brand because you can do lots of different things with a brand. Positive things, like charity. Because I have the influence.”
Chuckie recognises exactly where he’s at – he knows he gets paid silly money and so do all his rich friends. More to the point, he knows it’s a privilege and says he balances living ‘the high life’ by staying grounded through his roots, his long-term girlfriend and two children, and a good deal of philanthropy. He puts much of his wealth and influence into projects to help development in Haiti, also working with Unicef and raising awareness of HIV in Kenya. Characteristically, his desire to have more control over his charity and the donations he can cajole from his many wealthy friends has inspired him to start the Dirty Dutch Foundation later this year, through which he can play a more direct part in giving something back. Not like Robin Hood – the man’s just bought a house on the white sands of Aruba, for goodness’ sake – but like any wealthy individual with a good degree of conscience.
Sure, there are sticky Champagne marks on his iPad when he starts showing Mixmag his apps, and he’s happy to pay the fine for smoking in his hotel room because, quite frankly, it’s peanuts to the man. But Chuckie’s work hard play hard ethos and trademark versatility have earned him his rewards and the authority to shout “Time, muthafuckers!”
at his entourage, ordering them out of the hip LA Supperclub so this relentless DJ can sneak the power nap he needs before two more gigs in Atlantic City and Boston, followed by a carnival tour of Brasil, as he surfs a huge wave of momentum from one continent to another.