In hip-hop, before the rapper, there was the DJ.
Before hip-hop there was the DJ.
The often unsung musicians – and yes, DJs (true DJs) are musicians – there is no party without the DJ. More to the point, if the party is gonna pop, the DJ has got to be on point. Two of the best are Brother Jules and DJ Willie Shu. Jules, who has been celebrated with a Lifetime Achievement recognition from the Black Music Awards, has been rocking crowds since the 1980s. As the former DJ to Prince, Jules’ party-rocking abilities have allowed him move to crowds in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Los Angeles, Miami, London … even Tokyo. But it all started in Uptown.
“I started spinning at the age of 13,” said Jules. “I started at Bernadette’s teen club. Bernadette Anderson, who was Andre Cymone’s mother, had a teen club where the YWCA is now in Uptown. I started spinning for my peers there. I just jumped right in. She had all the latest equipment, so I started spinning on two Technics 1200s (the longtime gold standard turntables for DJs).”
When Jules wasn’t rockin’ his peers he was rockin’ the airwaves as a teenager manning the overnight shift at KMOJ, 89.9 FM.
“It was 1989 and I was a junior in high school. I’d go to school, do my homework then catch the last No. 9 bus to the station (then at 501 Bryant Ave., N., Minneapolis) and do my shift from 2 a.m. – 5 a.m.,” said the hardworking DJ. “Then I would catch the first bus home, over South (Minneapolis). It was dedication … early.”
That dedication paid off.
As they say, chance favors the prepared, so when Jules got the call to spin at the famed Glam Slam – Prince’s club – he was more than up to the task. Jules said when he got the call to spin he didn’t appreciate the importance of the moment.
“I didn’t really know who he (Prince) was. I got a call from Sharon Smith (who booked for Glam Slam) to fill in for the regular DJ. After I did my thing two guys, Joey and Dwayne – Prince’s bodyguards – came up to me and said, ‘the boss wants you out at Paisley Park,’” recalled Jules. “I made my way out there and the rest is history.”
Jules has a special adoration for Prince, and rightfully so.
“He took care of me. He sent me to college; bought me my first crib … he did all that for me,” said Jules.
Jules said he would later work at four of Prince’s clubs including ones in L.A. and Tokyo.
“I worked at his Glam Slam in Tokyo for two years,” said the well-traveled DJ, who when asked if he spoke Japanese responded in the affirmative with the greeting, “konnichi wa.”
That Japanese will come in handy as he has upcoming gigs booked in Tokyo, as well as London, Jamaica and Australia. Closer to home he’s spinning for the fourth annual 90s Throwback River Cruise, July 3 on the Mississippi River, cruising from Harriet Island in St. Paul.
Not only an acclaimed DJ, Jules plays 15 … 15 musical instruments.
“That would be my advice to anyone trying to DJ, learn an instrument. I helps when you are a student of music,” said Jules, who suggested aspiring DJs learn piano as an instrument of choice for DJs. “Jimmy Jam would DJ and play the keys at the same time when he was spinning at The Taste. He’d make remixes right there on the spot.”
It could be said that DJing is the family business for Willie Shu.
Shu said his father and godfather, who both attended the University of Minnesota, used to DJ and promote some of the most popular parties around town.
“That was during the days of Morris Day, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and The Time … I think they said Prince showed up a time or two,” said Shu. “My father used to work for a college radio station, so he had this huge collection of vinyl, so as a kid I had this amazing collection and at 11 I bought my first DJ set and I’d just practice, practice, practice.”
Shu, along with longtime collaborators and friends, Gabe Garcia and Franz Diego, recently celebrated their ninth anniversary of Turnt Up, a second Friday monthly at Honey in Northeast Minneapolis. More than just a party, Turnt Up is a chaotic mixture of sight and sound. That’s just how Shu likes it.
“I want my events to be an experience,” said Shu. “I want it to memorable each and every time.”
Like Jules, Shu has friends – and fans – in high places. He has earned praise from Grandmaster Flash, the iconic DJ who earlier this month became the first DJ to win the Nobel Prize in Music and Shu has performed a couple of times with the Black Eyed Peas. But in his eyes, his biggest honor came from space (so to speak).
“I met Pharrell and he told me I was dope,” said Shu, speaking of Neptunes producer and Grammy-winning artist. “That might be No. 1 (musical memory) for me.”
Not quite the same as gaining praise from Pharrell, Shu recently got a different nod of approval from a couple of partygoers excited by his musical selections.
“I was spinning and I looked up and people were naked, so I took it as a sign that things were going well and I was doing my job,” said Shu with a laugh.
Shu’s not promising nakedness for his upcoming shows, July 3 at Honey, July 12 at Honey with the Turnt Up crew and Aug. 17 at Palmer’s on West Bank for the Turnt Up Block Party; an event featuring 10 DJs, but he is promising a good time … and great music.