DJ Mike Cruz
Written by JC Alvarez
We all know how much electronica has come to define the big-room club scene. But for those of us who still prefer the deepest of deep basslines literally shaking our shows, let’s give a shout-out to New York DJ Mike Cruz. Among those striving to keep it real amidst the whirring buzz of synthetic sounds, Cruz loves the deep, rich sounds of House, even while he has integrated percussion-driven, machine-made electronica into his gigs.
As a true believer, he senses a re-emergence of House on the horizon — or at least an integration into ever-evolving electronica. “It slowed down for a second” is how Cruz describes contemporary dance music. “Everything changes. It happened with the disco era, into the House era or the freestyle movement. There’s always a change in the music industry. It comes with the territory.”
Cruz should know. He’s been soaking in dance music since his earliest years. The native New Yorker comes with a pretty impressive musical pedigree. His father is Puerto Rican and his mother is Italian — two cultures in which the joy of music is paramount. Even so, “I grew up in the Latin world,” he notes. His uncle served as musical director under no less a composer-performer than Tito Puente. If you’re a fan of salsa, merengue or mambo, that name will resonate the way “Mozart” does for classical music fans. The “King of Latin Music,” Puente (along with Celia Cruz) popularized Caribbean genres in the United States and remains Puerto Rico’s most famous musician. “I had no clue these people were famous until I got older,” Cruz admits, “but I grew up with congas playing in the freakin’ backyard.” Like many Puerto Rican kids in New York, Cruz would riff with other bongo players for hours on end. He didn’t like salsa as a kid, but gained an appreciation for it through his affinity for percussion.
From Roller Rinks to Twilo
It was disco, however, that really captured young Cruz’s attention. “Stuff like that inspired me,” he says about Garage, House and freestyle, all musical genres that percolated on the streets of New York in the late ‘70s and 1980s. Cruz found a valuable mentor in Glen Fisher, a popular disc jockey on Hot 97, the New York City FM radio station that pioneered the dance-music format. “Back in the day, Glen introduced me to people at record companies,” Cruz recalls. Fisher also allowed Cruz to sit in on his on-air sets and mentioned the fledging DJ to his vast audience. “He let me play for about an hour,” Cruz recalls. “Two hours into his set, he got really sick and I played the rest of the gig.”
Cruz began his career spinning at roller rinks in Upstate New York. Thanks to Fisher’s exposure, Cruz managed to wrangle a gig at Excalibur in Hoboken, N.J., just across the Hudson River from New York City, and the gay nightspot in Northern New Jersey. Meanwhile, he was also angling his way into the much more competitive big city across the river. He hit pay dirt when he landed a set at one of the hottest clubs of the 1990s, Palladium. Cruz established residencies at two New York gay clubs as well, Krash and Sound Factory Bar, where Cruz became synonymous with Deep House. “Being gay and being part of the Latin market,” Cruz says, “I went towards the freestyle and tribal side of it.” Cruz says. “It’s because that sound is a part of my culture.”
Eventually, he would headline Twilo, the George Jetson-decorated club that came to dominate New York Saturday nights in the late 1990s. Twilo’s Phazon sound system was widely considered the best in the world at the time. But Twilo, like too many other clubs, fell under the hatchet of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s repressive policies. As club life in New York suffered, Cruz looked for work in booming markets like Miami and London.
Lately, most of Cruz’s biggest gigs have been outside of the United States. “I do more clubs in the U.S. instead of events,” he says, “But when I go overseas it’s for big events.” Whatever the venue or crowd, he tries to read the crowd while taking him on his own journey: “It depends where in the world you are. Some places still like the big tribal-Circuit sound, but once they’re grooving to what they like, I take them into my world. My world is a journey: It starts out smooth, it gets hard, gets happy and then explodes.”
Cruz may still be best known for his signature command of House sounds, but he sees surprising similarities between House and electronica. “I can listen to it and still feel the same,” he says. “It totally has emotion. It has soul. I can listen to something really deep and soulful that’s totally classic, and listen to a new electronic percussion record and feel the same way.”
Cruz’s ability to adapt to new tastes and styles has contributed to his longevity in a fickle business. Like other veteran DJs, he looks back fondly on vinyl — “I miss putting a needle on the record” — but doesn’t necessarily miss schlepping all those EPs: “I’ve carried a lot of crates through the airport,” he laughs.
Like most full-time DJs these days, Cruz spends a lot of his time remixing as well as creating original music. He has put his stamp on songs by disco legend Gloria Gaynor, British soul powerhouse Seal, dance diva Joi Cardwell (for whom he just completed “Jump for Joy”), and, in a nod to his roots, recently took on Little Miss Havana herself, Gloria Estefan.
Among upcoming gigs, he’s especially looking forward to Monster Brawl, a party in New Orleans during Halloween that brings in several thousand people. At that event, as with every other, he will march to his own drummer, while making sure that the crowd enjoys the trip. “As the DJ, you’re in control of the room,” he says. “You can change everybody’s mood, but as long as everyone leaves with a smile everything is good. Everyone finds joy in where they are at — right now.”