Interview with Nik Caswell (DJ Nasty Nik) – Bronx, NY via Boston, MA

JJ: What is the major difference between spinning Salsa music and spinning other types of music (hip-hop, house, techno etc..)?

NC: Well, I can only say what I think the differences are because I’ve never DJ’d anything but Salsa. I think one of the main differences is that when DJing salsa, the crowd is most often made up of dancers who are looking to dance to different tempos, different moods of songs, and most importantly different partners.

When I go to a techno or hip-hop club…which is not very often but I think it is very important to check out what other DJs outside one’s genre are doing – I love hearing good hip-hop DJs on the turntables – especially if they play Eric B and Rakim, but that’s another story…Anyway, when I go to hear DJs in these other genres, they aim to mix continuous beats over long periods of time.

There may be subtle shifts in tempo but they are very, very gradual. Basically the goal is to keep the energy up and the dance floor full. In salsa the goals are similar but achieving them has to be done in a different way. I think the same general principles apply (like avoiding sudden shifts in tempo, establishing a nice groove, keeping the energy building), but things like mixing, looping and chopping songs prematurely, and using longs stretches of the same tempo can often be inappropriate for salsa DJing.

I don’t want to get into the big salsa mixing controversy but I’ll say that I don’t do it and most dancers I talk to (including myself!) don’t really like mixing when dancing. They like to hear the whole song and its natural build-up and ending, and then switch parterns if they choose. And they also like to hear different tempos and types of salsa. Too much fast tires people out, too much slow stuff puts people to sleep.

Sometimes a mellow song can be good after a series of real jams to cleanse the palette and begin the build-up of energy all over again. Basically Salsa DJing is like sex (or a sin curve if you want to be technical). You need a good build-up, plateau and climax, and then you do it all over again. How long these individual parts are and how they are composed is up to the DJ and his/her particular style.

JJ: When listening to new music, how do you know when you’ve come across a song that will move a salsa crowd?

NC: There are a number of elements I look for. The most important is that the song have a nice groove or “swing”. The song can be slow or fast but must have this type of rhythmic feeling. I think having played drums for 6 years and being a decent amateur mambo dancer helps me recognize these good beats. This “swing” is hard to explain but an example would be almost any Willie Rosario song.

Willie is known for having the tightest band around with almost unstoppable swing. The percussion parts interlock so smoothly and just percolate with polyrhythmic momentum. Most older salsa has this swing because the music was most often recorded with all the musicians in one room playing together creating a more organic, live feel.

This is in sharp contrast to the more recent trend of recording almost all the parts separately and then mixing them together later. This tends to make the music sound mechanical to me.

The second major element I look for is good momentum and energy. I hate dancing to songs that feel like they are going to build up but never go anywhere. Now, every song doesn’t have to end with a wild timbale solo (in fact I think too much of this is bad), but it must have good forward momentum and energy. Even a slow song can have this energy. Example: Frankie Ruiz’s “La Cura”.

Some songs, though, have a tough steady groove throughout without building to a crazy climax and can still be great for dancing. Example: Mon Rivera’s “Lluvia con Nieve”. A third important element is the presence of good breaks. It’s not essential but good dancers love to link up with the song and hit those tasty breaks. I know I do.

For me a fourth thing I look for is a certain “toughness” and “rawness” in the sound. I don’t like sappy music. Romantica is ok but I much prefer the Frankie Ruiz or Gilberto Santa Rosa style (as opposed to Frankie Negron or Mark Anthony).

JJ: What makes a good salsa DJ? What makes a bad Salsa DJ?

NC: For me the single most important thing that makes a good salsa DJ (or any DJ for that matter) is play selection. This includes shaping the set like I described earlier with a good build-up of energy and selecting a mix of tunes that are unique to the DJ. Anyone can get up there and put on Salsa Greatest Hits Vols 1, 2, and 3.

But the hard-core DJs and the best DJs work hard for their music and spend hours learning about the bands, searching record stores and the internet, talking with and trading with other DJs, etc. A good collection takes a lot of time and effort to build.

A good salsa DJ pays attention to details: The volume level and the equalization (bass level, etc). Also the mood of the room, who’s there, what they might like or not like. You can still keep your DJing identity and cater to the crowd. Do these people like fast music, slow music? Will they all go home and complain to the manager if they hear too many songs recorded before 1994?

Many DJs tend to spin for themselves rather than the crowd (this is something I sometimes tend to do which is bad). Catering to the crowd has its limits though. One time I was DJing at a salsa new year’s party at club. The party was called “Solamente Salsa”. Seems pretty clear to me. All these people came in from the party on the upstairs floor of the club (because it was too expensive) and were asking me to play Merengue, Jennifer Lopez and all this latin pop stuff.

My response is “Sorry to ruin your new year’s but you came to the wrong party.” I played a few merengues but hey I don’t go to a Tango party and ask the DJ to play ‘Wu Banga 101’ by Ghostface Killah! A bad salsa DJ plays jagged sets (i.e. no sin curve) that establish no mood with songs seemingly selected at random.

A bad salsa DJ is lazy and plays the same songs all the time taken from some salsa hits CD. This is inexcusable when there are 30,000 or more great dance tunes out there. A bad DJ plays the music too loud, causing hearing damage. A bad salsa DJ also plays too many long songs in a row, killing the dancers. And the absolute worst thing I think a salsa DJ can do the dancers is to cut, or mix a great song right when it is getting to the good part.

JJ: What are some of your favorite salsa songs? What are some songs that always receive a great reaction fromn the crowd wherever you go?

NC: I’ve listed some songs below which I’ve recently been listening to a lot and playing for the dancers. I don’t have any real “all-time” favorite songs. There are so many good ones. My all-time favorite artists are Angel Canales, Hector Rivera, Javier Vasquez, Palmieri brothers, and the great timbalero Kako.

Of course again this is hard because there are so many great ones. Hector Rivera is a very important and under appreciated artist. Besides being a grooving piano player and leading great bands, he did arrangements and wrote songs for many of the bigger stars of salsa. Many of the arrangements of the tunes on the seminal 1960s Joe Cuba recordings with Cheo on vocals were done by Hector. Hector’s album “Lo Maximo” is one of my all-time favorites. As far as songs which people seem to love anywhere I go, I can think of a couple: “Lluvia con Nieve” by Mon Rivera.

Besides being a historically important song (many argue that Mon’s 1963 album Que Gente Averigua introduced the heavy duty trombone sound to NYC latin music) that features Eddie Palmieri on Piano and the great great Barry Rogers on Trombone, this song seems to kick people in the ass everywhere.

The odd thing is that it is an instrumental which many people don’t like. But the groove is so heavy-duty and the hypnotic chanting and bone riffs just kill the dance floor. Who needs pretty boy singers to rock the dance floor? “Sama Thiel” by Africando.

Africando’s version of Moliendo Café is a sure fire dance floor killer that everyone seems to love, even people who don’t like salsa or haven’t really heard it before. The groove is so crispy (New York’s finest in the rhythm section) and when the soprano solo kicks in, forget about it! Another one that I’ve played a lot and am pleased that people love is Hector Rivera’s “Tumba el Quinto”. This has a fantastic breaks and great energy. Again the unstoppable groove being held down by the great Cachao is the key.

JJ: Any additional comments you would like to share?

NC: Nope. Just a big thanks for interviewing me on your website and good luck. And thanks to all the dancers and music lovers out there.

Nik Caswell