“If you want to hear me unfiltered, come to Natt Spil. If you want party rockin’, come to Merchant.”
Welcome to Residential, where Tone Madison meets the best acts holding down regular gigs on local stages and decks, from sturdy weeknight house bands to excellent and under-appreciated DJs.
We’re kicking this off properly with one of the sonic curators who keep us obnoxiously hovering over their turntables and thumbing through their crates in desperation to see what they’re playing and where we can find it for ourselves. New York City transplant
DJ Phil Money, who began spinning records at house parties in Long Island in the late ’80s, currently channels his worldly journeys in several different residencies throughout downtown Madison—he spins this Wednesday at Natt Spil, and also frequently works at Merchant, Maduro, and the Majestic. He sat down recently to discuss the different vibes of his various nights, the influence of New York City’s club scene in the early ’90s, and how not to approach him about a request.
Tone Madison: You’re currently balancing downtown DJ residencies at Natt Spil, Maduro, Merchant, and the Great Dane. Natt Spil and Maduro obviously carry a very different vibe from Merchant or Great Dane. Do you feel the need to change your approach or focus for each night?
DJ Phil Money: Definitely. Maduro is more of a lounge than the other places, so it’s kind of a chill-out vibe. I can explore more mellow types of music if I want. If the crowd wants it, I’ll turn it up a little bit and bring in higher energy, but for the most part I can play some jazz and play stuff that I wouldn’t normally be able to at some of the other places.
Tone Madison: What are some of your favorite jazz records to drop in?
DJ Phil Money: Oh man, we got John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Donald Byrd’s “Fuego,” and Bob James’ “Nautilus.” I also love a lot of Latin jazz quartets. There’s a lot of different places you can take the music at Maduro. I’m also big on world music. I love African and Latin-influenced music, as well as South Asian music. On the other side, Merchant is a place where people really come to party and dance. A lot of times, I’ll want to ease into the night before I go really high-energy. But usually at Merchant I’ll have to start right at the top and go high-energy all night. This works because, by trade, I’m a party DJ. I learned from the clubs in New York City and also from spinning at Long Island house parties where the music is rockin’ all night. Natt Spil is one of my favorites because it’s halfway between Maduro and Merchant, energy-wise. I can really experiment with what I play. I play how I feel. Like if you really want to get something out there or if you’re in a relationship and wanna get something off your chest and tell somebody, Natt Spil is the place. If you want to hear me unfiltered, come to Natt Spil. If you want party rockin’, come to Merchant. If you want cool eclectic vibes where you travel around the world a little, come to Maduro.
Tone Madison: You obviously have an intensely deep knowledge of dance music. How do you reconcile that with the pressure to please an audience?
DJ Phil Money: Well, you have to give and take. My whole thing is that I have to play music with some kind of soul to it. Something that actually grabs me. It has to have something that I can look deep into. You give the audience a little of what they want, but you’re also going to educate them and play things they might not know and can’t deny. For example, I could be playing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and then mix in with something they probably haven’t heard of, but you can’t deny the groove, like Fela Kuti’s “Shakara.” The beginning is undeniable once that groove and those horns come in—I don’t care if you don’t know it, you’re still gonna move to it. From there, I’m really a crowd reader, so I’m like, “are they still able to get it and maintain this energy? Sometimes I’ll end up playing lots of records the audience knows at certain spots to keep the energy high, but sometimes people lose interest after a little while, and you can kind of read that and then go back in. There are a lot of different ways to do that. Then there might be some instances where I might wanna bring it down and then start over again and rebuild through that night.
Tone Madison: So you don’t go in with a prepared set?
DJ Phil Money: No. To be honest, I usually only know the first three songs I’ll be playing. I’ll think of it earlier in the day. Because like I said, I play for the crowd. I’m not one of these guys that’s like, “These are my 15 songs I have lined up and I have to play them in this order.” I don’t know when people are going to come out. Let’s say there’s a Badger game going on and you aren’t gonna have a crowd until midnight or something, you can’t just pummel people. If there’s no one there, you’re just wasting all your best tracks. I play for the crowd. I’ll read the crowd and really try to go from there. That’s one of my strong points with DJing.
Tone Madison: When I last saw you spin, you went all over the map with your set tempo-wise and it was impressively seamless. Do you have to get pretty creative with the mixing component when you’re going all over the place?
DJ Phil Money: My main focus since I started DJing at 17 was always mixing. You have to challenge the music. Challenging the music is going from Michael Jackson to Fela Kuti and then maybe bringing in Punjabi MC or something South Asian, but it’s not about just doing it for the sake of doing it. It’s more like a journey. To be honest, not everyone will get it all the time, but sometimes you’ll get people that come up almost bowing, and they’ll be like, “Wow, you actually played that! I’ve never heard anyone play that in a club setting.” I’m not scared of experimenting.
Tone Madison: You got started in New York City. What pulled you into being a DJ?
DJ Phil Money: I lived in New York for 35 years. I came from Westbury, Long Island and we had a rich hip-hop culture. It’s about a half-hour outside of downtown NYC. In the 1980s there was a group called Original Concept, which was Dr. Dré and T-Money from Yo! MTV Raps with Easy G and Rapper G. Those guys lived in the neighborhood and my brothers were friends with them. It was amazing when Easy G won the new music seminar in 1988 for DJing and scratching and stuff. NMS was basically what the DMC competition is now. DJ Craze and A-Trak have also won it. But what really got me into DJing was when I went to Fresh Fest tour, which was Run DMC, Public Enemy, EPMD, Whodini, and a couple other artists. Being s a 15-year old kid and seeing Jam Master Jay come out of the sky, scratchin’ live with thunderbolts going off, I was like, “that’s what I got to do.” Shortly after that, I started DJing house parties in Long Island and eventually when I got to about 18, I made my graduation to the city. One of the early parties I started DJing was with DJ Rekha. She’s pretty popular in the Bhangra dance scene. I started doing Basement Bhangra, artists like Punjabi MC and Tigerstyle. The first time I ever played here was with Rekha. She’s from the same town that I’m from and I gave her first DJ lesson. Through this, my love for world music began. I was already embedded in hip-hop and soulful house from growing up seeing DJs like Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, and DJ Disciple.
Tone Madison: Oh man! You got to see Larry Levan? What were those parties like?
DJ Phil Money: Seeing Larry Levan in the East Village, we’d get to the club at like 3 a.m. and he’d play until 6 or 7. People would be in a musical trance, you know? This was before you needed certain drugs to enjoy the music [Laughs]. It was there. Also, Todd Terry at that time bridged the gap between hip hop and house. A lot of the times when you’d go to the clubs, the crowds would be combined. There was a club called Mars that we used to go to. There were 5 floors, so it would be like Moby on one floor and Funkmaster Flex on another floor. They had these crazy parties called Cool EST. I also saw Liz Torres with Master C and J. It was at a club called The Tunnel and one night they had all these Chicago househeads that came to New York. It was just like whoa! Man, there were just so many parties. It’s was endless, the amount of influence. I absorbed as much as I could, so I have a real respect for good music.
Tone Madison: How do you deal with requests?
DJ Phil Money: [Laughs] Requests are challenging. To anyone who reads this, never ask for a request from a DJ while he’s setting up. Never ask the cliche question of “what are you playing tonight?” It’s like, “Uh, I’m playing 60 to 80 songs tonight. Do you really need me to list them for you right now?” [Laughs] It’s just like anything else, it’s all in how you come up to me. For example, I was playing at Merchant, the dance floor was packed, and I was playing James Brown’s “Funky President,” and this woman comes up and asks, “can you play something I can dance to?” And I’m like “sweetheart, take a look at the dance floor.” It can be tough with requests, but I’ve tried to be more mellow about it. It just depends.The worst is when you get the “It’s my friends birthday,” which means—even if they don’t actually say it—”basically now that I’ve told you that, you work for me tonight.” The whole privilege thing, it’s like, “No, sweetheart.” It’s all in the approach.
Tone Madison: What’s next for you?
DJ Phil Money: I have a couple tracks coming out on a Brooklyn emcee called Yah Supreme‘s new album. He has a new project called Naked City that comes out Nov. 11. I’ve been doing production on and off since 1992. I haven’t done a whole lot in the past couple years, but I do it because I really love it. My style has a lot of hip-hop, jazz, house, and even some afro-beat influence. It’s sample based and I’ll use layers and change things up. One song I’ve got with Yah Supreme is called “2012 Overture” and we’ve been working on it since 2010, and that’s kind of a jazzy groove. A video was shot for it. I want to get back into doing more production, but the DJ life got more hectic and that’s where the paycheck has been.