MAKJ is an interesting up and coming DJ/producer within the EDM scene: he used to be a professional race car driver in China, was a grinding DJ before becoming a producer, and came from a small town in California. Mackenzie Johnson, or MAKJ, was able to take time from his busy schedule to talk to EDM Canada about a wide variety of topics and I promise that you'll learn a lot about this young talent once you've finished this interview, enjoy!
EDM Canada: Who is MAKJ and where are you from?
MAKJ: MAKJ is Mackenzie Johnson, I am a 23 year old California kid, I grew up in San Luis Obispo, California, which is about 3 hours north of Los Angeles. It's a small town, about 50,000 people there. There's not a lot of EDM there as it's an agricultural city. It has a lot of country and alternative music. EDM wasn't that big so I moved over to L.A, and here I am, a year and a half later.
At what age did you move to L.A?
Last year, so at 22.
How did you get the name MAKJ?
My name is Mackenzie Johnson and everyone at school told me that they weren't going to call me Mackenzie, so they called me Mak. And then once they knew my last name was Johnson, they just started calling me MAKJ. I was about 12-13 at the time.
Define MAKJ's style.
I come from a DJ background, so I like a lot of energy, no big breakdowns, no pauses. I like quick high energy stuff with a more hardstyle kind of background with progressive and uplifting sounds.
How did you get started in becoming a DJ/producer?
I was living in China, I used to race cars back in my teen years. My step Dad has a solid name in the racing industry and used to bring me to the races. Once I hit 12-13 years old, I started racing go-karts, after that I moved onto formula cars, won a couple of championships, and lived overseas in Asia, in Macao. I lived over there because it was a lot cheaper to race in China than it was in the United States. It's night and day prices when you compare the two. My parents put me in a boarding school for racing kids. I went to high school there but it was more of a charter school. While I was 15, I was invited to a race over a long weekend, and saw DJ Qbert spinning, and was immediately wondering “what is this?!”. He was mixing completely random songs together and I was thought it was awesome. I went up to the DJ booth that night to ask him a million questions, watching what he was doing, and asking him what equipment he was using. I went back home with all of these notes, later bought some stuff, went back to the States, went to my room for 2 weeks straight to try to learn. Next thing I know I DJ'ed my first wedding, and the rest was history.
"Yeah, I've been DJ'ing for about 8 years now so I have a heavy DJ background. My first gig was a wedding, I did bar mitzvah's, I did high school parties, I did proms, I've even DJ'ed at surf shops. You name it and I've probably brought my DJ gear there and played."
Were you a DJ first, then a producer?
Yeah, I've been DJ'ing for about 8 years now so I have a heavy DJ background. My first gig was a wedding, I did bar mitzvah's, I did high school parties, I did proms, I've even DJ'ed at surf shops. You name it and I've probably brought my DJ gear there and played. So now I can go anywhere and read the crowd and that's why I think my productions stand out because I know what people want. That's really important. It's not the point where you are making your songs sound really cheesy in a top 40 sense, but more about knowing what people want at the club. You don't want those big breakdowns that will clear the dancefloor, you want something that people will remember and get the equation where you can get that magic formula of what works, nothing is going to stop you.
How long did it take for you to become a producer?
When I moved out to L.A and while I was DJ'ing everyone was telling me that I needed to produce. So I was making these bootlegs and mashups for a long time and that was helping my name grow. Then everyone was telling me the need to step my production game up because it was the only way that I was going to gain recognition in the industry. So I went to a school called Icon Collective in L.A. They basically taught me from zero to hero in regards to production and that's what helped me in my career a lot. It was an awesome production school with a really good family there. Mark Knight, Deadmau5, Steve Duda, Dave Ramirez were all instructors there. If I didn't go to Icon, I wouldn't be where I am at today for sure.
"The producer guys take me a lot more seriously and I'm no longer known as just the “mash-up kid” anymore."
You recently released “Springen” that has had a major impact on the Beatport top 100 as well as on the festival circuit – how has your life changed since that track?
It's gotten me a lot of recognition from a production standpoint. Now I'm getting hit up by a lot of guys after it reached the Beatport Top 10, like Ummet Ozcan, who has been one of my idols for the longest time, who wants to do a collab. The producer guys take me a lot more seriously and I'm no longer known as just the “mash-up kid” anymore. My bootlegs and mash-ups have received a lot of support from guys like Tiesto and Hardwell, and now I'm turning it around with actual productions – so now I'm basically hitting all fields. It hasn't helped my career a whole lot, but it certainly has given me more recognition and support from the bigger guys.
You started your career as primarily releasing remixes/edits and now you've switched to more original productions – do you have any remixes in the works or are you more focused on originals at the moment?
Everyone loves free stuff with my remixes/bootlegs, and that's why my fan page is doing so well. If I release free stuff in between Beatport releases, people will more adamant in buying. I do a lot of edits and bootlegs every week for my own sets, and I can do 10 in a week, because it's from my DJ background because I love making stuff that works. So for sure I will be making more.
Judging from your discography, you've had a good working relationship with Robbie Rivera and his label Juicy Music – how important was Robbie in the development of your career?
Robbie was one of those guys that took a chance with me, it's funny because it seemed like such a long time ago, but it was only 6-7 months ago when I gave a few collab tracks with this kid from Portugal. He took a chance on me by releasing these tracks and it paid off for me. “Hold Up” was in the top 20 of the Beatport in the Progressive House music charts and it was one of the highest tracks on Juicy this year. Robbie was almost like a father figure to me because he took that chance with me and he has brought me on tour and did about 2-3 Juicy Music shows including Juicy Beats Miami. He's been a really big help to my career and I can't thank him enough.
You released your big hit “Springen” over at Hysteria Records, the label run by the Bingo Players – Do you plan on working with Paul and Hysteria Records for future releases?
For sure. I sent them a couple of tracks and they seemed really interested. I will be releasing more stuff, but it's more of a waiting game because I don't want to release every month on Hysteria due to wanting to diversify myself with other labels as every label caters to its own type of crowd. Hysteria is definitely on my high list but I also have stuff coming out on Revealed, and my next single will be coming out on Diffused Records which is Michael Woods label which is more of a “Prydz” style track. It's more of a “producer track”, completely different from my last track and I'm excited to see what people have to say about it. It's not that “big banger” but it's one of those tracks that you can listen to all day and it's a great opening house track. Michael has played it a couple of times with early support from Thomas Gold, Nervo, Hardwell, Nicky Romero. It's a different approach to my production.
"I did “Springen” a year and a half ago and finally it was released on a label. Labels take a long time to find a release date and get that Beatport exclusive."
I noticed that you released a tech-house track in 2013 called “Conchy”, do you like to experiment with other genres in the studio?
For sure, I have so many tech-house tracks that are just sitting, I'm just waiting for that right time and place to kind of put them out so I can show people that I can produce different genres instead of that one style of progressive, hard MAKJ style. That's what I feel is the most important thing about production because if you know how to hit all marks and release different tracks to different labels then the rest is history. I know so many producers that only produce one style of music and after that it's done. It's better for me and for up and coming guys to produce multiple genres and release them to different labels.
It's almost like what Hardwell did because he produces what he knows will sell on Revealed. He also does his tech-house like when “Three Triangles” came out a few years ago is similar to what I'm doing with my next track on Diffused. It's a break from the big banger stuff that people are making fun of right now. It's hard. I did “Springen” a year and a half ago and finally it was released on a label. Labels take a long time to find a release date and get that Beatport exclusive. Hysteria was sitting on that track for 5 months and people don't know that. People think I made that track last week and put it out. So it's better to have more genres in my resume.
You've been collaborating with Hardwell and Nicky Romero, do you have a timeline on when we'll get to hear the results of these collabs?
Everything is already done and like I said earlier, labels take forever to release. All of the tracks are done and me and Hardwell and Nicky Romero still talk on a daily basis. It's not us that is dealing with the contracts, it's our management. We don't want to ruin our relationship over a contract. I see these guys more as buddies, I don't see them like business partners. There's no timeline when they will be released yet as we're still working on dates, but it will be this year for sure.
Do you have any other collabs in the works?
I did a collab with Clockwork, and a couple of other collabs I can't mention. I am working with Zak Waters (Who worked with Madeon on “The City”), which will be my first vocal original track. It won't be “poppy”, but it will definitely have that L.A vibe to it, with an electro-indie-pop feel. I played the guitar and the live drums on it so it will be a live kind of track.
There has been a lot of talk lately about the Beatport top 10 sounding the same – how does someone like MAKJ stay ahead of the pack to stay fresh and relevant?
Do different stuff. Create different songs and release a lot of content so people don't think that you are just producing that one genre. If people see that you are a more well rounded producer, beyond a producer that only creates one style with that big kick drum, simple drop, epic breakdowns – then people will have a lot more respect for you and won't judge you so hard.
I read in a prior interview that you used to hip hop DJ, how do you view the whole trap movement and have you ever been tempted to dip your toes into that genre beyond your edits?
It's always fun to go to a gig and play a little hip hop to see the crowd reaction. Venturing into different styles is what I like to do as I DJ. I like to play a little hip hop, or a remix of a good classic rock song and have people really enjoy the set instead of just playing crazy electro tracks for 2 hours straight. I like digging in crates basically and that's where my style really comes from. When you go to a festival you don't want to be listening to that same music over and over again because the majority of the big festival guys are playing the same songs. So if you have something different to offer, people are going to remember your set over any of these big guys.
Now that your name is rising in the EDM world and the fact that you were a former professional race car driver - do you have any dream car in mind to purchase once you've completed a few world tours?
I'm pretty happy with my crappy little Acura (laughs). It gets me to point A to point B and I don't think I'll be buying myself a new car pretty soon. When you move to L.A, you buy a crappy car because it will get crappier by the time you're done driving it down the street. Dream car no, but dream house yes. I really want to purchase some real estate and maybe get a house back in my hometown, and spend vacations up there when I have time.
Do you have any advice for new producers and DJ's trying to make it?
Produce multiple genres, ask questions. You have to ask questions to gain knowledge. Read a lot of books. I read a lot of books on the art of music and on how it's formatted. Listen to different styles of music – listen to everything. Just don't listen to EDM because you'll just end up producing the same tracks as everyone else if you're listening to the top ten Beatport. Listen to classic rock, listen to drum N bass, listen to all different styles and genres and try to make music with all of those elements into your own stuff.
If you could name one relatively unknown producer who will have a massive 2014, who would it be?
Henry Fong – I'm actually doing a track with him right now. He's this small guy in L.A, he's got a cool look with his dreads, half Asian. He's a really talented producer, and one of those guys that's hitting all marks. He's a nice kid and started DJ'ing before he produced. He just hit the Beatport top 10 with his Hysteria release called “Jump”, so definitely keep your eyes out for that kid.
You've secured a residency at one of the most popular clubs in Las Vegas, XS – how important was it to land this gig?
It was good. It's always really good to have a solid family somewhere in the United States where I can always go back to and build a relationship with. That's how I feel about the XS family. I've gotten offers from Hakkasan, Mandalay Bay and all of these clubs that wanted me to play with them but I was already at Tryst and had already built that relationship with Jesse Waits who runs XS, Surrender, and Tryst. We built a relationship over the past 6 months when I DJ'ed at Tryst so after that it was a no brainer. I wouldn't leave these guys as they helped my career so far and took a risk on me when I first started at Tryst as I didn't have any releases out when they first booked me. Once my releases started coming out and my name was growing they told me to move to XS and let's build you from there. It's been nothing but good things.
What else can we expect from MAKJ for 2013?
A lot of gigs. You can see all of my tour dates on my Facebook. There will be a lot of low key festivals. I'm actually landing an Australian tour that will hopefully happen March of next year. I have probably 50-60 more gigs before the end of the year. I have a lot of releases coming up including “Hakaka” on Diffused, a remix pack for “Hold Up”. I have a Lil Jon track, my collabs with Hardwell and Nicky Romero are also coming up. A lot of good stuff.