Mackenzie Johnson's road to becoming a DJ and producer wasn't straightest forward. As a youngster, he lived abroad in China racing cars and was quite good at it as well. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, he got too tall to fit in the cars and was forced out of the drivers seat. This is where he had his "Aha" moment. He was at a club in Macao, seeing legendary San Francisco DJ, DJ Qbert spinning and he was totally blown away by what Qbert was doing. This was when MAKJ knew he had to be a DJ.
Upon his arrival back to the United States, he started to DJ small shows and eventually hooked up with DJ AM, who provided him with some valuable advise on how to manage the industry and how to be a DJ. MAKJ learned he had to produce his own records to achieve any level of success in the modern DJ market, so he enrolled at Icon Collective producing school, which kicked off his drive and passion for making music.
From there his music grew in popularity and has been supported by just about every big name DJ on the planet. He has played Ultra Music Festival, Tomorrowland, TomorrowWorld, Electric Zoo and many more massive events worldwide.
We had the chance to chat with MAKJ about the decision to release projects with a label or independently, details on his upcoming album, which is going to have a mix of rock and hip hop and is "not going down the realm of electronic, big heavy bangers," and why ghost-producing really sucks. He also reveals what he has in the works, in addition to the album. See what he had to say below, and grab his new song "Generic" on Beatport.
MUSIC TIMES: When you make a song do you go into it thinking there's going to be a free release or is this going to be a label release.
MAKJ: Not really. That O.G Genesis release of "Coco," I knew Atlantic wanted to have that record, but Atlantic wanted rights to that O.G "Coco" song, and they wanted my remix, but I was like "Man, I don't want to." I know how much bigger it's going to be if I release it on a remix package, but if I release it for free all my fans are going to be happy. Because I'm giving out a free remix, it's going to reach a lot more people because all the DJ's are going to pick it up and everyone is going to play it in the club. It's not going to take 4 months to finally come out when the song is done because that's when remixes usually do happen. They are releases two or three months after a peak of the song, so I didn't want to wait. I did the song last Tuesday and I released it on a Friday. So in an order of 4 days I released basically an original of that remix.
MUSIC TIMES: Is it really frustrating to wait for labels when you have so much music ready to go?
MAKJ: Yeah and no. I mean, you do want [buzz] around your record, so the label is constantly pushing it at least once or twice a week. For example, "Ah can't wait for this new MAKJ song" or whatever, you just want buzz, but the longer the song takes, the older it gets, the more the style is outdated. I try pushing stuff as fast as possible, but it goes back to when you start as a DJ, you want to reach people to release on a label, that's the fastest way you will be able to stand a fan base, that's the only way I did. That's the only way that's you'll be able to gain the fans that I did with "Countdown", Hysteria Records, the Bingo Players label with "Encore" and "Derp", Showtek's label with "Go" and "Revolution" with Doorn.
I gained fans from these labels, and that's the best way to go about it. You want to be able to, you know, basically slut yourself out with labels because each label has different fans and each of those fans are like, "Oh you release this, this." I gained fans from each label so that's the best way to go about it when you're starting, once you get to a certain point, I don't want to sound conceded, but I don't really need another top 10. It's not really doing anything for my career; if I get a top 10 it's cool. I've already had 6. It doesn't really do anything once you get to a certain point. You're already kind of a household name, people don't really care if it's a top 10 record or if you do it for free -- they're still going to play it and like your music. It's all about just being able to plan it the right way.
MUSIC TIMES: Would you start your own label to get around that?
MAKJ: I want to. I want to start like a really boutique label. Just like release once a twice a year. But honestly, it's going to take more time out of my schedule. I already have a lot of s--t going on right now, so a label maybe in the future, but not till I'm done with an album or an EP.
MUSIC TIMES: When would an album come out?
MAKJ: I'm trying to shoot for 2015 before June, so anytime in those months. June is like the deadline for me.
MUSIC TIMES: I guess do you have some of it done? Or is it kind of like coming together now?
MAKJ: I have about 3 songs done; I want to shoot for 8. I still got plenty of work, but I'm not going down the realm of electronic, big heavy bangers. There will be a lot of bands. I'm working with this band call placebo. You know, a real epic band; I use to listen to it as a kid. I'm kind of doing the generation of MAKJ. Like what I got started listen to and that's how my album's going to play. The first songs are going to be what inspired me to listen to music, what songa got me into music, and if I can work with a band I used to listen to, that would be awesome. The second song is going to be hip-hop; third song is going to be like rock. So it's going to be all over the map. It's just going to show my versatility as a producer.
MUSIC TIMES: You said that ghost-producing would be the death of the industry. What do you think the pinpoint would be to make this issue really explode?
MAKJ: I want to say, I want to retract that statement. It's not the death of the industry, but it's definitely hurting it. Kids don't actually know, I mean kids ask me all the time, "Do you produce your own music?" It's really disheartening because kids are actually asking that. It sucks because majority of these DJs you see playing at these massive festivals, they don't really produce their own music, and people think they actually do. If I was a DJ and I was getting paid a f--king shit ton of money to go play these massive festivals, and I got the positions to play at festivals because of the songs that I didn't even produce, and then I go out and play it and everyone is singing it and I'm standing there DJing it, I would f--king hate myself.
It's like you're a compulsive liar because when people ask you, you're like oh yea [that's mine], and then you get interviews about your song and now you're doing so well, they are basically lying about it. That's sh--ty. So they have to live with themselves because I haven't had ghost producers. I guess they're not going to be able to do what I am doing, saying, "Hey I'm going to produce and album and work with these bands." You will never have that feeling ever, producing your own records. You can't buy that feeling sitting in the studio and producing something magical in a sense that I am actually creating thi, and I can see myself playing this live. They will never have that feeling. That's the worst thing about it.
MUSIC TIMES: Your tour items include items like Crown Royal and baby wipes. What's the most vital thing on there?
MAKJ: I mean the baby wipes are up there; purell and baby wipes are necessity for sure.
MUSIC TIMES: Why did you name your song "Generic?"
MAKJ: Yea I mean it sounded generic, like everything else, so I just kind of went with it.
MUSIC TIMES: Is that a bad thing that it sounds like everybody else?
MAKJ: No, I mean it work. It works for me. I've been playing this song in my sets since March, so quite a long time, and it works almost every time in my set. Everyone knows me as the kid that screams into the mic "put your f---ing hands up" so A) I have a sample that says "put your f--king hands up" B) I have a same formula as all my other songs, like them, the arrangement of it is C) it has a big kickdrum in it. I don't know, to me it just sounded generic. Every DJ I sent it to would say this kind of sounds generic so I was like f--k it, I'm just going to go with it, I'm not going to waste anymore time on this record, so f--k it, I'll just call it generic. It's funny to me, I don't know why.
MUSIC TIMES: No, it is funny because you can just make a generic record and people will love it and a label will sign it.
MAKJ: Exactly! I don't know, I think it will be funny too; if hopefully the record will get on the top ten of Beatport. It's just going to be funny seeing a Beatport record called "generic" and it's on the top ten. To me that would be really funny.
Hopefully it does. It would just be funny. I've been learning. I just have to go with the punches nowadays. I never really wanted to call myself a giraffe, but after the 5,000th person calling me a f--king giraffe, I was like "Okay, I'll go with it." I'm just going to make it seem like I love giraffes. You got to go with the punches nowadays, because everyone can talk sh-t behind a keyboard, but when they're right in front of you in person they're never going to say sh-t. Just go with the punches, it's whatever.
MUSIC TIMES: Speaking of giraffe, when did that start? When did you become a giraffe?
MAKJ: It started when my mom gave birth to me, and I had a long neck. After the first comment that said, "Damn dog, you've got a long neck," it just started coming, like maybe a year ago. Everyone just started climbing in on my neck. I was like goddamnit, all right, time to just say I love giraffes and play with it. Carnage loves burritos because he's big; I look like a giraffe, so I love giraffes.
MUSIC TIMES: You just have to go with it.
MAKJ: DVBBS loves weed, so they're called the woozy gang. You just have to go with it.
MUSIC TIMES: There's nothing you can do. Nothing you can change about your neck.
MAKJ: Exactly. Kids actually think I can change shit about my neck, so that's 2014 social media right there.
MUSIC TIMES: So, serious question, what is your dream car?
MAKJ: My dream car. I have a really nice car now. I finally went and bought a really nice car. I used to drive a really sh-tty car, and then I never drove it because I'm always gone and I was like f--k it, I'm going to buy something for myself, so I went and bought a 2010 e60m5 BMW. I really love it, it's not too glamorous, and it's not like I'm a f--king rapper that just bought a lambo, it's a kind of old car, but it's nice, it has everything I need. It's efficient, but not really.
MUSIC TIMES: What is something people might not know about you?
MAKJ: I'm deathly allergic to watermelon.
MUSIC TIMES: When did that happen? Have you ever had a really close scare with that?
MAKJ: Oh yeah, I was in Europe this year, and I was on my European tour this year and some f--king s--t gave me smoothie in the hotel lobby, and I told her no melon. She's tells me there's no melon in the smoothie, and I'm like cool. She f--king used the same knife after I told her not to use the same knife to cut the fruit after she had cut cantaloupe with it, I'm allergic to all melon, like honeydew. So she cut it with the same knife, the same knife she cut the fruit she put in the smoothie, and all that took was a little bit of juice getting on the f--king fruit and I almost died. Super gnarly, I can't even breathe it, like I'm that asshole, if someone is eating on the plane, melons, I can't sit in the plane because it's just basically it gets in the air. It's like a gnarly peanut allergy.
MUSIC TIMES: Jesus Christ, that sounds awful.
MAKJ: It's f--king terrible, but whatever. It could be worse; I could have like a horrible disease, and I'm dying tomorrow. I'm just allergic to watermelon, it's all good.
MUSIC TIMES: What does the future look like? What do you have coming up? I have a list of songs or collaborations you've mentioned; remix for Diplo, collab with Nicky Romero, two with Deorro, one with Clockwork, one with Chuckie, a vocal track with Zach Waters.
MAKJ: God damn, about half of those that you just named off, like the Clockwork one is never going to get done. The Zach Waters one, we've been going back and forth with Zach Waters for about a year now, and it's not really ever looking like it's going to come out. The Chuckie one, nope. The two Deorro ones, yes, we're planning on something for 2015. Nicky Romero, nope. He changed his style, so he doesn't want to release our collab.
MUSIC TIMES: Wow.
MAKJ: So half those you just named off, not happening. It sucks because it's hard to work with people when we're touring. Henry [Clockwork] and I, we worked really quick, but at the same time, we never could really find time to get into the studio together, so I would work on something, he'd work on something and it would just like go on hold for two or three weeks, and it would just suck after that. It would just be like, "I can't do this anymore." So I just need to get into the studio with people, and that's the hard thing about doing collaborations with artists. You can go in the studio together and work on songs. Deorro and I are able to do that because he lives in LA as well, whenever he's there, we always let some sh-t out. He and I work really fast, we can have a song done in a day if we really, really pay attention to it.