Disco Donnie’s logo is plastered on posters of today’s hottest dance acts. He’s been backing artists like Krewella, Zed’s Dead, Dada Life and Forbes’ 2014 highest grossing DJ, Calvin Harris, since well before they were playing stadiums in the US.
He’s the man behind the magic. He’s the guy whose wife told him to find a real job when the rave scene lost its sparkle in the early 2000s. And he’s the dude who is back on top, bringing you a list of summer and fall music festivals with seriously stacked lineups.
This fall, Disco Donnie (born Donnie Estopinal) is executing a slew of upcoming festivals including Sun City Festival in El Paso, Something Wicked in Houston and Beach Blanket Bingo in Galveston. I had the opportunity to chat with Donnie over tacos last week, and here’s what he had to say about the return of EDM and the recent criticisms and challenges surrounding electronic music festivals.
Megan: So how did you get roped into the dance scene?
Disco Donnie: It was kinda on accident. I was working, waiting tables at night in my hometown of New Orleans, and someone invited me to a party. It was a small party, maybe 100 people. It was a diverse mix of people and I was just blown away! I fell in love with the scene right then.
M: Do you have a background in playing electronic music?
DD: I tried every instrument, but I was never good at any of them. I just wanted a trumpet. I just wanted a violin. I just wanted clarinet, but I didn’t really want to learn how to play them. I sang in a band in grade school, and I should probably tell you, I can’t sing.
My dad was a lawyer and decided he didn’t want his practice anymore so he quit and disappeared for a year. When I finally found him he was DJing at a bar under the name Disco Jim. I got to go hang out with him when he was working. He had a big vinyl collection. When I was young, I got to hang out in the bar environment while he DJ’ed. I would sleep in the floor in the office. It probably wasn’t the perfect situation for a child, but I just wanted to be with my dad. In a lot of ways, I looked up to him more as a DJ than as a lawyer.
M: Well, that does sound a bit cooler.
DD: Right? And the club was part of a golf course complex so he had the bar where he DJ’ed, and he lived in a motor home to the side of the swimming pool. For a kid, that was pretty cool.
M: So do you think that your love for music comes from family?
DD: Maybe, a bit. In the early 80s, I was really into U2 and REM. I saw Red Hot Chili Peppers when they played in New Orleans back in ’85 and I loved that whole REM sound. We went on, maybe you’d call them “Field Trips” to Athens, GA, and that’s where the whole music scene was going off. I was listening to Yaz and New Order so I was in an electronic universe, but I was more into the jangly guitar, REM stuff.
In the late 80s, I was going to the clubs in New Orleans. There was this whole Miami booty bass kinda sound going on – dance beats I guess. It was very simple. If you look back, it seemed a little cheesy, but when I listen now, it’s just perfect! We would go to this bar, where it was $5 all you can drink, and that was the dance night. They’d play stuff like Information Society, Noel, and Egyptian Lover.
I got out of college in the early 90s and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was feeling a little lost per se. I was like, ‘okay, I’m supposed to start my life here?’ I was going to get married. Everything was planned out; white picket fence kind of stuff. And then I found the Rave scene, and I was like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do!’
M: I feel that way sometimes too! The music industry is just so much more fun. And more authentic people, for sure.
DD: It started out as just a hobby. I would help out with promoting shows. People tried to hire me, but I offered to do it for free, passing out flyers. And then I was like, ‘Wait a second. I should probably get something for this.’ So people would ask me, and I’d [promote shows for them]. Some guy [asked me to become a partner], so I said, ‘Yeah I’ll do it!” But there might have been another reason I agreed…there was a girl that I met that was very beautiful and very nice. She had a boyfriend though.
M: As they do!
DD: Tricking me, that temptress! [laughs] She opened the doors, showed me the ropes. There was no Internet back then, so she kinda walked me through the whole thing. Introduced me to everyone. They thought I was from somewhere else. I was wearing my dad’s old clothes, so I kinda fit into the whole thing. Her name was Donna.
M: I have a rave dad, but he’s really just a steel salesman.
DD: Can your dad help me get this rust stain out of my BBQ pit? It’s brand new and I accidentally sprayed acid on it. I thought it was for dishes, but it was actually a cleaner for my pool. I guess I should just stick to dance music.
M: I think he just sells the stuff, but he may have some tricks. I’ll see if Party Marty can hook it up.
How do you feel about having your name attached to so many electronic festivals with the current media climate as it is? There are a lot of kids ODing and getting in trouble. Does that effect the way you feel about promoting these events?
DD: Fan safety is always our number one priority, so it’s hard to hear that, but we continue to actively work toward progress. And since we’re “EDM” we go up against a lot a negative stigmas that a lot of other genres don’t seem to have to. It’s a bit of a double-standard sometimes, but it makes us work harder . It’s something we have to work through together, and we’re adjusting every day. We want people to be safe but we can only go so far alone. We as a community need to keep educating ourselves and each other.
M: I wasn’t really old enough to experience the 90s rave scene. Do you feel like these are new problems, or is the media just sensationalizing?
DD: It’s not a new thing, it does get a lot of extra media attention compared to the other genres. It’s something that we all as a scene – the promoters, the attendees, the people working the festivals – everybody needs to work together to fix this because we don’t want this to go away. The worst consequence would be having this scene disappear.
M: Do you hand pick the artists that appear at your festivals?
DD: With so many music festivals out there we know its important to have those big industry/headlining names on our lineups. But we like to stagger those with up and comers, give new talent a shot to grow in the industry. There’ s no algorithm. Each slot is precious. If you put an artist in the right slot, it can make them huge. It’s a lot about building the relationships we have.
There are artists that we hit it off with, and people who play with us a lot. We are always looking for the new up and coming guy. We love giving the underdog a chance. We give them the stage, and that’s their opportunity. And hopefully as they grow, they remember that.
M: I’m a big Zomboy fan.
DD: We love Zomboy. We do a ton of shows with him.
M: Yeah, I saw that he’s playing Sun City. Listed right down at the bottom.
DD: [Laughs] Yeah, he says, ‘I’m always billed last!’
M: So, what’s next for you?
DD: I want to bring a festival to every city that needs one. Any place that wants one, and can support one, I’ll be there. We’re looking a lot at Latin America. We did Electric Zoo in Mexico and were bringing The Day After Festival (TDA) back to Panama City again this January. Talking to people down there. It’s huge. It’s different than here. It’s a big area for growth. There’s a language barrier, but I live in Puerto Rico so I have a good understanding of different types of culture.
And this is the part where people say goodbye to Donnie for 5-minutes and I drink a glass of sangria.
M: Why do you think dance music has become so popular again in the last 5-10 years?
DD: We’d already been through this in the 90s, but it was more of a subculture. It wasn’t an ingrained life-style like it’s always been in Europe. When people moved onto something else, hip-hop typically, the scene imploded on itself. Dance music was the lowest on the totem pole. I don’t think there’s one dominating factor, but I think it had a lot to do with when hip-hop artists starting writing more up-tempo music and collaborating with dance music artists. For example, artists like Lady Gaga were appearing on the radio with a more commercial dance-y sound. Afrojack & Pitbull were collaborating, David Guetta & Akron, Tiësto and Tegan & Sara. A lot of the songs in 90s/2000s had unintentional bleeps and blips, but now singers and artists on the radios are actively backing the whole Electronic music scene. It was a multitude of things. The people who are working and supporting the scene, the promoters who are pushing it, and people who still believe it. That’s where we’re at right now.
M: Do you feel validated by the current success [of the industry]?
DD: I don’t know if validated, is the right word. We weren’t crazy! This music was ALWAYS good. People are going to dance. It was embarrassing to be a rave promoter in 2004, ‘05, ‘06. People would say, ‘What do you do? Rave promoter? Oh don’t tell anyone that.’ I told my mom this was the new rock and roll. At one point, my wife told me to get a real job. [Laughs] I’m just glad now everyone gets to experience it, it’s for everyone.