Some would call them puppeteers. Amidst a nebula of strobes and lasers, Electronic Dance Music (EDM) DJs, with their Jim Henson-like ability to synchronize masses for hours at a time, are often accused by “real music lovers” of simply layering pirouetting melodies and sonic basslines over a pulsating 1-2-3-4 beat that undergirds most of their tracks. As the story goes, this foot-tapping foundation is then used to entrance a herd of ambiguously legal teens already strung out on chemical combinations glossed over in their university’s chemistry textbooks.
“I could literally, like, point to the sky, and you can see everyone’s face is just waiting for something big to happen,” said DJ/Producer Panic City – real name Nic Magbanua – after showcasing his set at San Francisco’s Wintersalt Music Festival in late December. “When you feel that energy in the room, it’s really a validation.”
For Panic City, a live set is less about brewing together the tracks he knows everyone wants to hear and more about creating something affective. “What would warrant an explosion right now?” is the question he ponders as the music churns and hundreds – even thousands – of hearts stop as one, waiting. But when that “drop” hits and that once anxious multitude becomes a bouncing unit, a DJ earns his right of passage. At least for DJs like Panic City, a memorable show isn’t created by one’s ruling over the crowd, but instead by dropping firebombs as a thank you for supercharging a genre that is essentially a granddaddy amongst music’s notable many.
But too often are (upcoming) DJs belittled to their Soundcloud accounts, inhibiting both a personality and a defense against those “real music lovers.” For this reason, I recently caught up with Panic City to discuss the San Francisco native’s take on the EDM scene, his seat within the global phenomenon, as well as to demystify a man who has been making quite the noise on the music market in recent months:
Thanks for taking out time in what I’m sure is a hectic scheudle to talk music for a second, it’s truly a pleasure. For starters, “Panic City” seems to invoke a sense of place. Talk a bit about this name, how it started, and how it resonates with where you’re from.
No problem, man. All this is really exciting. Well, it’s a producer name I came up with when I was in high school. But back then I was making hip-hop beats. I started DJing not too long after that and it stuck with everyone. I think it helped me in a sense that it made people curious to know who was behind that different DJ name.
Would you say it was music itself that inspired you to be a DJ? Let us in on your muses and how they inspired your craft.
I’ve been into music ever since I could watch MTV. It just spoke to me the loudest out of everything I was ever interested in. DJing went from practicing in my bedroom to playing in different cities and producing went from a hobby to doing an official remix for Chris Brown. It’s been a crazy ride so far.
While attending a small gala in Australia not too long ago, I was surprised to hear a DJ drop both your remix to Gym Class Heroes’ “Ass Back Home” as well as your spirited House rendition of The xx’s “Chained.” What does that mean to you as you stride towards situating yourself among some of dance music’s more notable names?
The funny thing is I get that comment a lot, especially certain countries, Australia being one of them. It trips me out the how music can end up anywhere with the power of the internet. It makes me feel like I’m heading in the right direction. I plan to make a big impact this year and hopefully be ready to start making some moves in other countries.
How has the music you play now changed from what you started out playing?
I started making my way into clubs playing a really open format. DJ AM was a huge inspiration back then. Being able to be versatile, scratch, and do routines was the difference maker back then. Now I think it’s getting noticed as a producer (for me at least), EDM is what I do best. So whether its electro, progressive house, or even dropping some hip-hop, I make sure the crowd is getting what they want out of the show.
I’ve heard some DJs refer to the job as very “political.” Would you agree? What can you make of this term as it relates to the difficulties with the job?
Definitely. There are clubs I’ve played at whether locally or spots in Las Vegas that are run super strict and they give you guidelines on what to play. “Keep it really familiar” and “Don’t play too much hip hop” are what I’ve heard the most, but as I’ve progressed, I hear that a lot less. I just do me now and it’s worked great. There’s no better feeling than playing an exact set you intended on playing and it setting the crowd off. But even superstar DJ’s gets kicked off the decks. I hear about it all the time at major nightclubs.That industry is filled with all sorts of people. All I can say to anyone trying to break into it, just be ready to bring something new to the table and put in work, lots of it going unnoticed. Being super skilled isn’t enough anymore. It’s your personality, your look, your internet presence and a lot more. But I’ve also met some of my best friends now through my gig as a DJ. In the end, the nightlife industry is really like any other industry, there’s always politics.
Many people, including myself, were introduced to you when your remix to Drake and Rihanna’s “Take Care” was featured on Hypetrak, one of popular culture’s leading music sites. Does this particular production hold a special position when putting your success into perspective?
It does, that was definitely a big chapter for me in coming into my own. It got posted on HypeTrak, blew up on Hypemachine, and it was my first legit solo project. That remix in particular had a big drop that I think made it so popular. It’s definitely a blueprint I plan on making part of my formula this year.
Describe your process when deciding you want to remix a certain track? You’ve established quite a genre ambiguous collection.
I realize I get drawn to music with catchy hooks or melodies. Usually indie or pop stuff. I really prefer stuff with vocalists because I’m big on melodies. I know exactly what you mean though. This year I think you’re going to see me narrow things down a lot more, especially when it comes to my own sound.
What do the terms “DJ” and “Producer” even mean to you when thinking about the shape EDM has taken over the past year and a half? Which do you consider yourself?
I think with EDM in particular, being a good producer is the most important. It’s what draws people to see you DJ. I’ve seen phenomenal producers be very boring DJ’s and I’ve seen great open format DJ’s produce some terrible EDM tracks. I think finding a good balance is key. I consider myself both now.
What’s your take on what many people are calling the “push a button” age of DJing?
I can’t blame DJs who put so much effort and money into learning how to become great at spinning records for being mad at how things are now. Unfortunately, complaining about it is useless. You have to adapt or you will get left behind. The art of DJing isn’t dead, it just evolved.
Your choice of subtlety when approaching certain tracks is a distinguishable trait. Your remix to Adele’s “Skyfall” theme starts with few edits, quietly builds into a dance track, and then empties itself back into the black and white ballroom essence of the original.
What’s your formula for never doing too much?
When putting out remixes, I make a point to keep the feeling of the original and add whatever I can to take it to the next level. If it doesn’t feel like the same track all the way through, it’s usually too much for me, and for the audience still trying to appreciate the original artist.
What’s your favorite subcategory of dance music these days that you most enjoy fusing into your tracks? The more bass heavy stuff or the festive, big room house sounds? Describe the process of knowing which style you want to produce on a given day or hold as dominant in a mix or set?
As a DJ first, I love it all because I feel the need to play it all. I pride myself in being able to take my audience on a musical ride. As far as producing, big melodies with big bass drops is this years goal to start honing in on a sound. My personal favorite though is big room progressive house. It almost sounds cinematic to me and I’ve always loved listening to movie soundtracks.
Talk about some other DJs/producers you rate and some of your favorite tracks of theirs that you like to spin.
I think DJ Chuckie is the best DJ out of all the producers I’ve seen. He almost mixes like a hip hop DJ. I know I mentioned my favorite genre of EDM is the big room progressive house, and no one is doing it better than Alesso right now. His set at Beyond Wonderland in Oakland was my favorite I’ve seen so far. I don’t think Calvin Harris has ever made a track I didn’t like. His cross over success is something I admire. I hope to work with pop artists just like him. I played right before Zedd at Wintersalt music festival. Down to earth and an amazing musician. I just remixed his song “Clarity” for my latest video.
Discuss one of your favorite gigs to date. Do you typically prefer the huge crowds or the smaller ones?
My favorite gig to date would be the First annual 2012 Wintersalt Music Festival. I played in my hometown, performing the way my music is intended to be played — in front of a huge crowd. There’s no crazier feeling than thousands of people going nuts to your own music.
If you could work with one person, producer or artist, who would it be and why?
I think working with a huge pop artist like Katy Perry or Rihanna would be right down my alley.
When you’re wrapping things up for the night, or perhaps you have the night off, how do you like to chill out?
I may watch some ESPN or go work out. I try to do something else besides music and ingesting alcohol. But after that’s over I can’t help but work on more music. I don’t like to take days off. Creating is all I think about.
What are some long-term goals you have and where do you see your craft unfolding in the near future?
I definitely see myself traveling a lot more, doing more “shows” and less “gigs” . I have a list of countries I’ve been meaning to play in and I’m looking to make things happen this year. People can expect lots of original music, more official remixes, and hopefully collaborating with some big artists soon.
Any big original material, remixes, collaborations, or upcoming events the public should loook out for a Panic City set ?
Eye Heart SF (same people behind the Wintersalt Music Festival) booked me to co-headline the SF Mardi Gras party at Mezzanine Feb 9. I have some dates coming up in Scottsdale, Las Vegas, Miami, Charlotte, and Seattle…check out my Facebook for those dates. Hope to meet some new faces!I have some official remixes for some superstar artists in the works at the moment as well. I hate not being able to say, but hopefully you’ll find out soon!
Just like the perfect set, leave us with something to remember.
Thanks to everyone who has ever booked me or supported my music. I appreciate all the fans and respond to everyone so follow me on twitter @djpaniccity and like me on Facebook.com/paniccitymusic to stay updated. This year is gonna be big!
Check out the exclusive video below and take a walk with Panic City as he preps for his 2012 Wintersalt Music Festival set.
Also, stay tuned at FN for more Panic City related news and updates in the future.